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.

Ted Cruz Thinks Captain Kirk Would Be A Republican – He’s Wrong and Here’s Why

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Captain James T. Kirk

According to a recent New York Times interview, Ted Cruz thinks Captain James T. Kirk would have been a Republican. He’s wrong – and here’s why. (Naturally, we’ll file this is one of the more important topics I’ve written about.)

I’ll skip the pedantry of pointing out that Republicans and Democrats no longer exist in the future depicted in Star Trek. Instead, let’s get right to the heart of the matter – James T. Kirk is the captain of a starship on a mission of exploration for a socialist government, and Star Trek itself is a rosy-eyed depiction of a socialist utopia, crafted by and populated with humanists. The very essence of Star Trek should be anathema to the modern Republican.

For the woefully uninitiated, here’s bit of a primer. Star Trek takes place in the 23rd – 24th centuries, following the adventures of men, women, various aliens, and even a few androids, operating on behalf of Starfleet, the exploratory/defensive wing of a massive, centralized bureaucracy called the United Federation of Planets. Member planets in the UFP are in many ways autonomous, but are nonetheless bound by the dictates of the central authority of the Federation. Society is classless, and the economy operates without the exchange of money.

Star Trek depicts a world in which values closely aligned with progressive humanism have triumphed. The Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is celebrated, and collectivist phrases like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” carry the weight of moral compunction. The motivating force behind the mission(s) of the starship(s) Enterprise is a search for knowledge simply for sake of knowledge – and at great personal risk and material cost.

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The Vulcan symbol for diversity. Spock describes it as follows: “The triangle and the circle – different shapes, materials, and textures – represent any two diverse things which come together to create truth or beauty – represented by the jewel.”

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, put the spirit of diversity that drives Star Trek quite forcefully:

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms… If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

One can be forgiven for thinking these are values individuals inclined toward conservatism – at least as expressed by the modern GOP – don’t really appreciate. People who think members of the LGBT community do not deserve to share the same rights as everyone else are miles away from delighting in “those small differences”. They are expressing the sort of regressive attitude that will forever keep the most plausible, most reachable aspects of the future depicted in Star Trek forever grounded in the world of science-fiction.

Likewise, Republican rhetoric is often firmly rooted in a celebration of individual self-interest and anti-establishment sentiments that are contrary to the submission of individual needs to the collective good. Nor can it be said that people who cut funding to organizations like NASA and the National Science Foundation come off as particularly big fans of the quest for knowledge.

Hell, even free market capitalism, approached with near religious reverence by the modern GOP, is portrayed as an artifact of humanity’s childish past in the universe of Star Trek. Its primary practitioners are the Ferengi, hideous aliens who are variously treated as predatory, lascivious villains and greedy, bumbling clowns. The Koch brothers, Donald Trumps, Mitt Romneys and Herman Cains of the Star Trek universe are greeted with scorn and distrust. Their motivations are viewed as sordid and puerile. But for the modern Republican, capitalism and the quest for profit is the glue holding the moral architecture of the universe together.

So why does Ted Cruz think James T. Kirk, the equivalent of a NASA mission commander working for the government of the Netherlands, is a Republican? To begin with, there seems to be a natural human tendency to paint our heroes and role-models in the subjective palette of our individual values. Cruz is projecting his ideals on the charming space-rogue that is Captain Kirk. According to Cruz, Kirk is “working class” and “a passionate fighter for justice”. What exactly “working class” means in a classless society is, and shall remain, mysterious. But Cruz is dead-on when he describes Kirk as a passionate fighter for justice. He’s just wrong in thinking that characteristic makes him a Republican. There are passionate crusaders for justice on both sides of the aisle – they just have a few differences of opinion concerning what qualifies as “justice”. I have a strong suspicion that Kirk might be a little more sympathetic to the liberal/progressive perspective on justice than the conservative one.

In the interview Cruz says that “readers of science fiction are interested and attracted to the future. And politics is a battle for framing that future.” The future depicted in Star Trek is one in which the pillars of modern Republican ideology – Christian theology, free market capitalism, nationalism, traditionalism – have been cast aside in favor of the ideals espoused by progressive humanists. Christianity is properly viewed as a collection of myths – a comfort blanket for humanity’s infancy. Economic and monetary interests have been entirely subordinated to the will of the state and the society it serves. Multiculturalism is the rule of the day and the shackles of tradition have been broken away and replaced by context-sensitive humanistic ethics.

Let me reiterate: there’s no reason the conservatively inclined shouldn’t like Star Trek. The world depicted in Mad Max is a morose and violent hellscape. But those movies – the latest entry in particular – are great entertainment. I just wouldn’t want to live in that world. Based purely on observations of their behavior and stated political beliefs, I suspect something along those lines captures a person like Ted Cruz’s appreciation of Star Trek. It’s fine from a distance, but he sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, his political record is that of a man who works diligently to prevent it from ever happening.

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Wise words from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Leonard Nimoy Passes Away at 83

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I grew up with Star Trek. I have vague memories of my father taking my brother and I to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at a theater. It must have been part of some kind of commemorative re-release, since the film came out in 1982 – three years before I was born. Later, he took us to see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which remains my favorite Star Trek film to date (for which Nimoy helped develop the story). Throughout elementary school and into middle-school, my brother and I watched early afternoon reruns of the Star Trek: Original Series. Despite its many flaws and more misguided moves (the entirety of Star Trek: Voyager, for instance) Star Trek is my favorite science fiction franchise, period. It is absolutely brimming with a refreshing eagerness to explore new frontiers, to transgress the boundaries of the unknown. Especially in its earliest iterations, Star Trek was often a source of insightful and thought provoking social commentary and small but invaluable lessons about humanist values.

At the very center of all this was Star Trek’s Holy Trinity: James T. Kirk, Leornard McCoy, and – of course – Mr. Spock. The relationship between these characters evolved as the series progressed, especially as the franchise expanded into cinemas in the late ’70s, throughout the 1980s, and into a fantastic denouement with 1991’s The Undiscovered Country. These were fictional characters, but their influence on my personal worldview was entirely real. In particular, they informed my ideas about the value of friendship and the importance of loyalty. Leonard Nimoy’s iconic portrayal of Spock was central to that. So, though Leonard Nimoy was – to me – a complete stranger, I do feel a sense of loss at the news of his passing. His portrayal of Spock helped shape the early development of some of my most strongly held values: curiosity, skepticism, critical thought, friendship, and loyalty. He will be missed.

The closing scene from The Undiscovered Country. Nimoy’s line as Spock really makes the scene.