Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.
Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.
In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.
We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.
If there is one criticism many fans would struggle to level at Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, it would be the classic “this is not Star Trek”.
You can understand, to a point, why some fans shouted that from the rooftops about Season 1. Bryan Fuller’s initial vision for Star Trek’s long awaited return to television alongside Alex Kurtzman resolutely set out to buck the storytelling trend you had come to expect from a franchise last on television at the tail end of a very different age. Season 1 was heavily serialised, darker, had a protagonist who had mutinied by the end of the second episode, didn’t even introduce the main ship until episode three, and had the ships Captain end up being the villain.
With hindsight, however, we never knew we had it so good with Season 1. Yes, it was a season compromised by behind the scenes complications, which may have resulted in the fractured balance of the Federation-Klingon War and Mirror Universe stories, but Season 1 pushed the boundaries of what we expected Star Trek to be. As the 90’s era wasn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, then Discovery was proving the 90’s *was* now your Dad’s Star Trek. It dropped the F-bomb. It went hard to starboard on serialisation. And it wasn’t afraid to craft protagonists like Michael Burnham or Saru (or naturally Gabriel Lorca) who were hard to like and who had to grow on us.
Season 2 in the wake of this spends fourteen episodes systematically undoing everything that made, or could have made, Discovery something special and unique. If Season 1 wasn’t Star Trek enough, then by Kahless, Season 2 absolutely was much “too Star Trek” from start to finish.
While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.
Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.
It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.
Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.
There really is nothing like an ending.
We are obsessed, as audiences, with endings. At times we lose sight of how important the journey is of the stories we digest precisely because of how obsessed we are at what will happen in the grand denouement. Often it takes rediscovering a series long after it has all been said and done, taking in the breadth and scope of it, to truly understand and appreciate the piece as a complete entity. We judge so much on the destination. This is a fate about to happen with Game of Thrones, much as it did with the last true genre phenomenon of mainstream television: Lost.
Neither of these two shows are alike in any way except for one key aspect. Both of them saw their audiences become enraptured in the power of delayed anticipation like no other series before them. No other series outside of them have been so assiduously studied, examined, picked apart and theorised about, all of them, in many respects, to crack what has been most important to their audiences from day one: how they are going to end.
What many Star Trek fans considered an unlikely impossibility has finally, it seems, happened: the franchise is well and truly back on TV, and here to stay.
When Star Trek: Discovery launched at the tail end of 2017, after several delays, it ended the franchise’s 12 year exile from television screens following the slow demise of Star Trek: Enterprise, and the Rick Berman\Paramount TV dominance of the late 80’s and 1990’s – if not the most iconic in terms of popular culture, then without question the most successful era of Star Trek in its half a century of history. Discovery was a symbolic return for one of television’s most legendary series and, as every Star Trek sequel series has done over the decades, it divided opinion.
If you put aside Discovery’s quality, and the difficulties behind the scenes in bringing it to bear, one fact is indisputable: it has triggered a revival of Trek which is now heading in some very unexpected directions.
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?