Star Trek: Discovery—A Case Study in Shoddy Writing

Star Trek: Discovery is an odd show. A common refrain is that it’s good—it’s just not Star Trek. There’s an interesting debate to be had there. One could mount a compelling case that the show both fails to honor the thematic legacy of Trek and honors the thematic legacy of Trek in new and interesting ways. Discovery’s real problem is not how well it fits into established canon. It is how indifferent—if not openly disdainful—its writers are toward the audience.

Consider an example. This, of course, means diving into spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, stop right here. For those who have: onward.

Discovery’s finale takes place in the following context: Burnham and the rest of the crew have just returned from the Mirror Universe. They’ve brought with them Philippa Georgiou, the evil version of the late captain of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. This character is a ruthless despot. They have no reason to trust her. For some reason, Starfleet command decides to claim she is the former captain of the Shenzhou, recently rescued from the Klingons, and make her captain of the U.S.S. Discovery.

This is a development that could have played out believably if the writers had been willing to put in the requisite work. Instead, it is flopped onto the table like a bad hand of cards—all bluff and impulse. It doesn’t leave the audience thinking, “wow, what a shocking and unexpected development—I can’t wait to see what’s next.” Mostly, it just leaves us with questions.

In structuring Georgiou’s inexplicable ascent to the captaincy as a sudden reveal, the writers are essentially forcing all their otherwise competent characters to behave very stupidly. Starfleet’s best minds have decided to put an unreliable maniac in command of a starship, then send that starship on mission critical to the survival of the Federation. The Admiral in charge on the scene doesn’t consult with or brief any of Discovery’s crew on the decision, including Specialist Burnham and Commander Saru, both of whom know this Georgiou is not the former captain of the Shenzhou. This is done as a matter of contrivance—like the “I am KHAAAAN” reveal in Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s a hat trick for getting the audience to feel something the story hasn’t earned. It only works if you assume your audience is just as stupid as all your characters have suddenly become. The charade—that the original Georgiou survived in a Klingon prison and was recently rescued—is more plausible than the reality.

Things worsen from there. Georgiou’s plan—signed off by Starfleet brass and Federation elites like Sarek—is to blow the Klingon home-world to smithereens just as the Klingon armada is about to reach earth. The thinking here seems to be this: a brutal, bloodthirsty foe is on our doorstep. They are obsessed with things like honor and revenge. So, let’s murder every single one of their friends and family and leave them with no home to return to after the war is over. Surely these bloodthirsty, honor-obsessed fanatics will just throw in the towel. They won’t fly into a blind rage and butcher everyone and anything in their path until either they or their enemies are annihilated.

Again, this is a matter of taking characters otherwise depicted as intelligent—including Sarek, a Vulcan both driven and guided by logic—and forcing them to behave very stupidly. Never mind allegiance to previously established canon, what this shows is a complete disregard for internal consistency within their own story and a complete disdain for their audience. The writers of Discovery think Trek fans are imbeciles who will watch anything with the right production design and buzzwords.

Other examples come to mind. The Voq/Ash Tyler subplot is a weird dead end. Toward the end of the Battle of the Binary Stars, the surviving Starfleet ships inexplicably abandon the U.S.S. Shenzhou and her crew, adrift and disabled, with no offer of assistance. These are choices that are hard to understand within the internal logic of the series, leaving us to ponder why the writers readily take glaring shortcuts for cheap, ephemeral payoffs.

Stepping back a bit, Discovery’s failures can prove immensely illuminating. Consider it in contrast to shows like Deadwood, the Wire, or Breaking Bad. These shows feature impeccable storytelling and, if not universally beloved, are at least widely respected. The why and how of that it is difficult to boil down completely, but there is one critical ingredient that cannot be ignored: the writers of those shows assume their audience is filled with people at least as smart as they are and proceed accordingly. Plot developments flow organically from character and context. There’s no sudden reveal that Al Swearengen is really working for the Pinkertons. Walter White doesn’t turn out to be secretly working for the DEA. No one in the Wire tries to make Avon Barksdale the head of an investigation.

Not so, in Discovery. If those writer’s think they’ve got a shocking twist or nice bit of eye candy in store, they’ll make it happen—character and story be damned. This is precisely where shows like Game of Thrones have recently derailed. While mostly good, Game of Thrones has increasingly played fast and loose with its respect for the audience. Consequently, its writers will disregard all notion of space and time or make otherwise shrewd characters into convenient buffoons, hoping all the while that the audience will just smile and swallow nonsense for a good look at a dragon fighting ice zombies (spoiler: they will).

Of course, this kind of insulting writing is commonplace. See it on full display in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film built on implausible coincidences and cheap appeals to nostalgia (which I like anyway). Watch Prometheus or Alien: Covenant, where interstellar travel and scientific exploration are the province of morons and rubes. Revisit the baffling swirl of pointless fan-service that is Star Trek Into Darkness, where all the stakes and all the emotion are dependent on the work done by the folks who wrote the Original Series and first 6 Trek films. In targeting Discovery, I’m simply talking about a specific instance of a wider phenomenon—lazy, ham-fisted storytelling in popular, well-regarded franchises.

The frustrating thing here is that these flaws aren’t inevitable. Discovery’s inexplicable plot developments would evaporate if its writers decided to respect the audience and think carefully about how the emerging pieces of their stories fit together. And this is precisely where we get to Discovery’s purported “canon” issue.

Much has been made of the show’s fidelity (or, more precisely, lack thereof) to established Trek lore. A lot of this is just pedantic nitpicking—no story is going to break on the details of Vulcan Katras or the nature of the mycelial network and its glaring absence from preceding iterations of Trek. But problems emerge when a scattershot devotion to Star Trek’s thematic core—secular humanism—swings from convenience.

Consider, for instance, Michael Burnham’s fate after the Battle of the Binary Stars. For mutiny, she is sentenced to life in prison. This is a striking inconsistency. It either shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the humanist values that form the thematic core of Star Trek or a shocking willingness to ignore them in order to cram some more twists down our throats. Punitive punishment is anathema to the humanist—it serves no purpose, beyond satisfying a primitive lust for revenge. Punishment, in the optimistic future of Star Trek, is purely instrumental. It flows from the following calculus: what is required to (a) prevent the culprit from harming others in the future and (b) discourage the culprit (and others) from repeating the offense.

Thing is, this is a colossal missed opportunity. A writing staff that respected the intelligence and attention of their audience might have taken the opportunity to turn Burnham’s trial and sentencing into an entire episode built around compelling questions. What balance should be struck between individual rights and preserving social order? Is it fair to punish Burnham so harshly—unambiguously violating her rights as a sentient being—if it discourages other potential mutineers in a time of war? These are the sorts of questions that have always made for the juiciest episodes of Star Trek. Sadly, the writers of Discovery don’t seem to be interested in that sort of thing. Instead, they aim simply to bounce from one contrivance to the next, hoping enough fan service will disguise the artifice.

Bad writing is frustrating. Particularly when bad writing can be turned into good writing with a nice balance of respect for the audience and attention to detail. Watching Discovery, there’s a lot of shoddy writing that is best explained by one of two possibilities—its writers think the audience is dumb or the writers themselves are dumb. I doubt the latter is the case. Notable exceptions aside (*cough* Donald Trump *cough, cough*), success tends to correlate with a certain degree of intelligence. Those folks wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t have at least some smarts. That leaves us with a sad, insulting conclusion: those smart folks think we are dumb.

The real shame here is that Star Trek: Discovery exudes potential. First, it looks stunning. Most of the production design is damn-near impeccable. Second, in terms of pure casting, it is probably the best representation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a secular, humanist utopia Trek has ever managed to put on the screen. Star Trek: Discovery looks like it actually takes place in a universe where sex, gender, sexual orientation, and race have finally become irrelevant to a person’s capacity to achieve their potential. Those are the core ideals Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets are meant to represent. Third, the performances are mostly excellent. A few wooden moments aside—themselves mostly down to execrable expositional dialogue (i.e. bad writing)—this is a wonderfully talented crop of performers.

To see all this potential so sharply undermined by inexplicable contrivance is disappointing. And to be absolutely fair, it’s not as if previous Trek series have been free of weak writing. Revisit the Original Series and you might be shocked by the number of episodes that are outright just plain bad. Voyager and Enterprise were mostly terrible. Thing is, bad writing in the past is hardly a good excuse for bad writing in the present. Asking writers to put something together that at least makes sense—where competent characters consistently behave competently, for instance—seems a pretty modest standard.

Fortunately, there is a good Trek series on the air right now. For some reason, they just happen to be calling it The Orville.