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.
Talking about the second season of Star Trek: Discovery this year has been a difficult experience in places.
Not just because the recently concluded fourteen-episode run wasn’t a particularly good season of television—more on that here—but also thanks to the way some of the online Star Trek fandom have responded to criticism. It hasn’t been pretty for those who have suggested Season 2 might not be, at the very least, enjoyable. This I can say from experience. Before my wrap up piece, which itself has been greeted with some vitriol in certain Facebook quarters where it has been shared, I wrote the occasional episode review of Season 2 for my former website Set The Tape – specifically for the episodes Brother, An Obol for Charon and Project: Daedalus. All of these episodes I found problematic.
In sharing that opinion, I felt the full force of how troubling fandom can be.
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.
If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.
Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.
By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction *and* she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly *could* any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.
Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.
Masquerade operates in a tricky position within the scope of Alias’ debut season and, arguably, marks the beginning of what in any other series would be a clear, delineated two-part episode.
Alias may appear ostensibly to be a highly serialised, propulsive rocket of a series, but it has flirted with trying to tell smaller, condensed arcs within that broader structure, often connecting episodes with specific themes or characters. Color-Blind and Reckoning, for instance, which focused on Sydney Bristow coming face to face with her fiancee Danny’s assassin; Mea Culpa and Spirit, which dealt primarily with a mole hunt in SD-6, and of course The Box which actually *was* a two-part episode and condensed Alias’ format down in a way the show would never as tightly repeat again, despite directly playing off a major narrative beat in the previous episode.
Masquerade is the beginning of such a double episode and the epilogue to, essentially, a three-part story.
Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.
As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.
There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director JJ Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.
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.