Sunday, April 21, 2019

The delightful and deeply needed soft rebooting of Star Trek: Discovery

Sonequa Martin-Green in "Such Sweet Sorrow"

Sometimes a little time travel is all you need.

My sister and I have a saying, about TV: “When in doubt, do something.” When your story is stalled out, when your characters seem to be running in place, when you’re spinning your wheels and going nowhere, find the thing that you think that you can’t change, and change it. You’re rarely as limited as you think you are.

In its season two finale, by god, Star Trek: Discovery did something. It packed its entire core cast, plus a few of its favorite recurring guest characters, into a ship, and sent them through a wormhole a millennium into the future — there to stay, by all accounts, at the very least for the next season.

Discovery gets talked about a decent amount in a pop culture kind of way — compare/contrasted to previous Star Treks, articles about which TOS character is going to show up next, that kind of thing — but it rarely gets written about seriously as a piece of longform narrative. There might be weekly recaps or reviews, but there aren’t, you know, thinkpieces about it. The general attitude seems to be that it’s more notable as a Star Trek than as a TV show — and sometimes, not even as that.

But the choice at the end of Discovery’s finale is not just a “shocking twist,” or whatever the headline of the recap calls it. It’s genuinely interesting storytelling. Sending the cast into the future wasn’t a random choice, but one calculated to solve some narrative problems that have plagued both Discovery and the entire modern Trek franchise for a while. And making that choice took both ingenuity and nerve.

Discovery has always had an uneasy relationship with its pre-TOS era. It enjoys making references to — or in the case of season two, building entire plots around — established canon. Its first season told a story that was intrinsically tied to events that happened at exactly that time. And of course, its main character is the sister of Spock, making it very naturally emotionally tied into the time period. But at the same time, there are clearly things that Discovery wants to do that it finds hard to accomplish within the constraints of a prequel setting. It wants to explore weirder technology than TOS ever allowed for. It wants to tell a complete story that ends with reconciliation with the Klingons, and not have to get into part where, well, canonically the Federation is back at war with them in just a few years. It wants Section 31 to be a known quantity so badly that it just went ahead and contradicted canon to make that happen. It wants to do its own thing, basically, and the prequel era is very limiting in that regard.

Plus, on a more general level, there is an obvious hunger out there for Star Trek stories set in different time periods. We’ve seen the TOS period, and the pre-TOS period, and many different angles on the TNG period, and every spin-off that has so far been announced or even discussed has been set in one of those eras. The franchise as a whole seems to have been spinning its wheels since the 90s, running over the same ground again and again. And there’s no need for that, when anyone who’s seen a single time travel episode of TNG or Voyager or even Enterprise could tell you that a far future Star Trek could be so cool. And so interesting. And so potentially philosophically ripe.

And on a more specific level, removing Discovery from the 23rd century solves a couple of smaller, persistent issues. Ash Tyler, whose romance with Michael Burnham has never really gelled, stays in Section 31 in the present, possibly to be shunted to Michelle Yeoh’s spin-off. The Discovery’s spore drive, which causes all kinds of continuity issues with other series in the franchise, goes through a wormhole to the future, and is placed under super extra gag order.

Moving time periods does all these great things for Discovery and loses them almost nothing. Discovery has never been a show with a strong central premise; you could transport its main cast to almost any place or time, and it would still function, so long as the characters are still acting as a Starfleet crew. And of course, there’s no guarantee that the time-shift is permanent; there’s plenty of time travel to go around in the 32nd century, and the show could always move back to the prequel era for season four, or even have the best of both worlds and make visits.

And yet, even on a show as formless as Discovery sometimes is, such a major shift takes both creativity and a kind of courage. There’s little more fundamental to a Star Trek series than its era, and for Discovery, in particular, it was one of the few things that defined it in the public eye. What does Discovery look like without Admiral Cornwell stepping in every few episodes to supervise, without Sarek popping by to cause emotional turmoil, without a new captain at the helm every season? What does it look like without Klingon wars or Klingon allies? Tenuous as it might have been, Discovery’s setting did give it a kind of structure to rely on.

Giving that up takes the kind of boldness that it took for Lost to leave the island; for Parks and Rec to jump into our own future; for The Good Wife to split up its law firm. It takes the eye to look at your show and find the thing you think you can’t change, and the will to change it. And of course, it remains to be seen how well that decision will pay off for Discovery. But that’s part of the fun of starting over, isn’t it? After all, the future is an undiscovered country.

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