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'Star Trek Discovery' failed to do what good sci-fi does

'Star Trek Discovery' failed to do what good sci-fi does
From Engadget - February 13, 2018

Sci-fi is everywhere right now, and the small screen has become a welcoming home for so many great sci-fi shows about so many things. Altered Carbon, which debuted last week, comes with the structural question about if it's right to use science to achieve immortality. Black Mirror continually asks questions -- and preys upon our anxieties -- about humanity's relationship with technology and information.

And there is plenty for a sci-fi series to play around with right now, including the role of truth in a world where information is a weapon, how automation threatens to render huge numbers of us obsolete and how we will cope in a post-work world. Or if humanity can indeed survive given the looming threat that climate changes poses to us all. What about the fact that most of us have the sum total of human knowledge, and yet have become less capable of engaging with the outside world?

Instead, Discovery gave me 15 episodes of serialized storytelling that, as Alex Kurtzman admitted to TrekMovie, was worked out backwards. Now, lots of TV shows are plotted in this manner, but with this series it led to incidents and character development that took place because the storyline demanded it. I doubt even he could explain, in a single sentence, what Discovery's overarching theme was, or if it had one at all.

If it was about remaining true to your principles in a time of violence, then that did not really work, since the Federation only survived in the end by threatening an act of genocide. If it was about respecting other people's viewpoints, then why did not we see any of them play out in the show? There's a hint of a redemptive arc with Burnham regretting her decision to mutiny, but the show already said that she was, in hindsight, probably right. If it was a warning about meddling with technology you do not understand, how come the spore drive worked so successfully for much of the war?

For the better half of a century, the Star Trek franchise was the daddy of wrestling with Big Ideas, even if they are often tackled melodramatically. In the '60s, the show examined how the US -- because the Federation is always an idealized version of America, no matter the decade -- behaves on the world stage. First airing just two years after the Civil Rights Act, it imagined a world where people were not judged on their race or religion.

From Next Generation through to Voyager, the theme was this idea that groups of people, no matter how diverse, can put aside their differences and work together. The team would find a problem, and look for an inventive way to solve it that actually sought to make things better, rather than worse. Hell, they were even prepared to put their own comfort at risk to do the right thing for other people.

By comparison, Discovery seemed so enamored with its underwhelming Mystery Box-type surprises that it lost all sense of its soul. One problem with Mystery Box shows -- which hinge on hints and twists developing over years -- is that they often ca not work in an age of hyperconnectivity. Back in 2015, Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon said that "Payoff-based TV" was dead because "the audience is essentially a render farm."

It's one of the reasons that Discovery, like Westworld before it, was a little underwhelming, because its big gosh-reveal twists were no match for Reddit. We were just four episodes in before someone started poking around cast lists to work out that Ash Tyler was secretly Voq. Similarly, the Mirror Universe-Lorca plot was being kicked around as early as November, but Discovery banked on these big twists as the basis for its season.

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