The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.
On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic.
If not a second pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery certainly delivers a brand new mission statement with Season 2 premiere, ‘Brother’.
Looking back on the first season of Discovery, it was not only the strongest first season of a Star Trek show since 1966, it was also the most radical. Trek’s return to television under the original auspices of Bryan Fuller, later with significant support from Alex Kurtzman after a difficult road has now emerged as show runner and steward of Trek’s modern TV revolution on CBS All Access, was designed as a refreshed update from the era that spanned the late 1980’s through to the mid-2000’s. Gone were the stand-alone episodes, the 24/25 episode seasons, even the traditional structure of network television with one eye on syndication. Discovery was living in the now.
Season 1 threw a great deal at the wall. A ship and Captain we didn’t even see or meet until the third episode, allowing the first two episodes to serve as more of a prequel epilogue than a traditional Star Trek two-part pilot of old; pure, serialised storytelling which contained character development and story tropes such as the time loop episode within a broader season-long arc; and in particular, the Captain of the ship—the inviolate hero of all Trek series of old—turned out to be the villain of the piece, not to mention the fact our main character turned out not only to be of lower rank, but a mutineer to boot! Not all of it stuck, but Discovery from day one broke the Star Trek rules with a casual, F-bomb dropping swagger of its own.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ‘Brother’, therefore, is just how hard it works to feel like the Star Trek that long came before Discovery.
Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.
Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
When did we become the bad guys?
When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective *we* referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.
We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.
Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more. Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are *not* the heroes of this story.
Star Trek: Discovery has enjoyed a fascinating first season, both in the context of its place in the television landscape and the historic Trek franchise as a whole.
For a start, it was a season of two halves, both shaped by different creatives with different aesthetics. Bryan Fuller’s original influence you can feel in the opening arc regarding the revered Klingon extremist T’Kuvma and how his death makes him a religious martyr, triggers civil infighting and launches a ‘crusade’ against the Federation who killed him. The parallels to modern religious fundamentalist terrorism are as potent an allegory as we’ve ever seen in Star Trek, with old series hand Fuller aware for any new show to work (especially one designed to relaunch the franchise on television), it would need to hold true to the precepts of what people loved about Star Trek: the fact it always reflected where we are as a modern 20th or 21st century society.