The Big Character Mistake ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Made That Even J.J. Abrams Got Right


Originally published on on September 27th, 2017

After years of waiting, wondering, production problems, Star Trek fans finally got treated to the first brand new Star Trek TV show in well over a decade in Star Trek: Discovery.

In some ways, the arrival of a Star Trek show should have come with more pomp and circumstance. Unfortunately, the show’s arrival has been met with much controversy. The show’s politics have come under fire from conservative circles(which is odd considering how political and progressive the franchise has always been) and Paramount/CBS’s decision to stream the series on their new streaming service CBS All Access has raised much anger and fury across the internet. It’s almost understandable how some fans of this new series may believe anyone who didn’t like the two-episode premiere went in wanting to hate it.

Star Trek: Discovery did have a lot going for it, a talented cast, an interesting setting, a darker tone, and some very impressive special effects. However, Discovery makes a key mistake that goes against every successful Star Trek movie and TV show. This mistake is something original creator Gene Roddenberry and future Star Trek writers knew all too well to avoid. Star Trek is many things, big ideas, philosophy, adventure, and exploration but at the heart of every Star Trek story are well-written characters. Discovery lacks this almost entirely.

(Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery and the first season of Game of Thrones)

How Previous Star Trek TV Shows And Movies Built Their Characters

Star Trek [Credit-Paramount]
Star Trek [Credit-Paramount]

One of the greatest aspects of Star Trek is its wide array of interesting and colorful characters. Trek has produced some of the most memorable of all time, primary and secondary characters alike. The crew of the starships (the secondary characters) were always given attention and at the very least given moments in the early episodes to make them stand out and develop them later down the road. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced us to not just Picard and Riker but also Deanna Troi, Warf, Data, and a whole host of others.

The 2009 J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot may not have had the big philosophy of other Star Trek films but at the heart of that movie was the characters. Abrams was reestablishing old characters in a new skin and building their relationships from the ground up. The relationship between Spock and Kirk get a lot of screen time. They were not friends, they were in constant conflict with one another. It made it rewarding for the audience to see them come together and work with one another and over their differences. This makes the dramatic tense more palpable and the movie more engaging. Uhura is given a lot of screen time and Dr. McCoy is established quickly in one brilliantly funny introduction seen. Abrams allowed all the side characters to have their moment to have them stand out as well. When the action occurs there was a weight to it even if we knew the characters were more than likely not going to die.

How Star Trek: Discovery Fails This With Their Characters

Star Trek: Discovery [Credit-Paramount]
Star Trek: Discovery [Credit-Paramount]

Star Trek: Discovery makes the mistake of focusing its attention on two characters, first officer Michael Burnham (played by The Walking Dead actress Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) instead of an ensemble piece. On paper, this isn’t a mistake. Star Trek: Discovery is forging a new direction so perhaps the writers are attempting to be more laser focused (pardon the pun) on select characters? However, if this is going to be attempted then the writers have to make sure the execution is there.

The execution was not there. Star Trek: Discovery makes some of the oldest cardinal sins of writing and not abiding by “show don’t tell.” In Discovery there is a lot of telling and not a lot of showing. We are told that Georgiou and Michael have a special type of relationship and have spent many years together but that fails to come across because most of it is done in wooden exposition. This makes it hard to connect with them as characters and by extension connect to their relationship.

Michael commits mutiny in the first episode, and while this should be a big moment it carries very little weight because we have barely spent any time with the characters. So that supposed dramatic turn for Michael isn’t very dramatic because there is no context for how Michael normally acts or behaves. The moment doesn’t feel earned. When Georgiou dies this is supposed to be another big moment because of the loss it is to Michael. This fails to come across to the audience there is very little context to their characters. Very little amount of time is spent building their relationship the audience feels remarkable distant from the event instead of having an emotional gut of an impact. Would Ned Stark’s death mean much if he was betrayed and killed in the first two episodes of Game Of Thrones? It would have barely been a footnote because we wouldn’t care about Ned that much (and oddly enough this series is supposed to take some inspiration from Game of Thrones).

This runs contrary even to Abrams films, which spent that spent a great deal of time with Spock and Kirk. The premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation runs only slightly longer than Discovery has and that episode does an incredible job of weaving in an out new characters.

There are moments where Discovery attempts to build up Michael’s character by incorporating flashback. These moments are quick and don’t leave a lasting impact because the scripts spend too much time building the plot and trying to ignite a war between Klingons and Star Fleet.

This is equally problematic, taking only two episodes to start a war instead of building to it. Had Discovery taken its time, let the first few episodes only start to build some tension, establishing new characters and letting us invest in them, it would have made and then started the war in futures episodes it would have made that moment so much more impactful and tense because we’re now invested in the story and the characters. As it stands, Discovery relied on very exposition and dialogue to quickly build characters which is a boring way to develop characters. There isn’t really anyone to latch onto which makes the prospects of people signing up for CBS All Access to watch the rest slimmer.

Should We Abandon Discovery?

There are only the first two episodes of a fifteen-episode season. It would be foolish to think all is lost at this point. It could take a few episodes for Discovery to find its footing. Star Trek: Discovery could still be an interesting commentary on the nature of war and Star Fleet maintaining their humanity throughout it. This could be an interesting direction for the series to go in.

Discovery as a series has impressive visuals, and a talented cast, now it needs characters for Star Trek fans to fall in love with. Even if it takes a season, the writers need to sit down and look long look at their characters. They would be wise to look towards other Star Trek shows and movies (including the J.J. Abrams films) to understand how to build character successfully in this vast universe. If they can’t-do that then Discovery will fall out of warp real soon. But, if they can then this Star Trek fan (and other fans alike) will be happy to take the voyage with them.

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