Pop culture entertainment has long reflected the mores and interests of the society that consumes it. “Holding a mirror up to society” is a phrase as old as… I dunno. What’s an old story? Beowulf? The point is, storytelling takes a cue from its times. The 1950s had worries about encroaching Communism, so of course movies of the time reflected that with alien invasion stories, atomic insects, and pod people from another world. It’s easy to see fear of The Other, nuclear power, and technology run amok in the entertainment of the day.
The Sixties brought horror and Night of the Living Dead flicks, showcasing a deep-seated concern for loss of control and breakdown of society; the Seventies, paranoid extrapolations fueled by Watergate and distrust. The Eighties and Nineties were showcasing the evils of computers with cyberpunk and other high-tech dystopias; the Aughts were as soulless in entertainment as the Western society it reflected.
The last fifteen years or so have been marked by time travel/road-not-taken parallel universe shows and films: the CW superhero efforts, Timeless, Time After Time, the rise in popularity of decades-long favorite Doctor Who. I’m sure you have your favorites: Lost, Seven Days, The Butterfly Effect, The Lake House. It is beyond the scope of my little fanboy confection here to pass judgment on what that means beyond the obvious: the escapist entertainment audience is reacting to society by wanting a do-over. There is a growing dissatisfaction with how things are so hard that travelling through time or exploring what-could-have-been is largely beating out fat-guy-with-a-cute-wife twenty-two minute three-camera sitcoms for the attentions of the folks who still watch TV.
Nowhere has this been more prevalent than on Star Trek: Discovery. Gone is the once bulletproof brand of exploring strange new life, and new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before; in a world of Watergate 2.0 and “alternative facts” and general idiocy everywhere, of course the latest iteration of what was once called Star Trek would not be the future where JFK got two terms written by noted science fiction authors of the day, but a crazy rumination on how much everything sucks now by soap opera writers using season one to foist a parallel universe on the audience and season two to weakly stretch out an old time travel saw.
There are brilliant bits here and there in this episode, but they are all grabbing ideas done better elsewhere and in service of jamming them into a framework that only distantly smells like Star Trek and as such ends up falling flat. Klingons, a savagely warrior race, somehow don’t address their issues head-on, but have a secret cabal of Gallifreyan Time Lords who look like a bunch of Minbari from Babylon 5 religiously protecting Time instead of wiping out all those who oppose them? Jet Reno shows up after a too-long absence to play drinking games and tut-tut Culber about feeling how he’s feeling? I’ve never seen a show so overtly not know what to do with an obvious fan favorite. Forty years ago, Tig Notaro’s character would have been spun off into a show called That’s My Engine Room! by now, and not largely ignored and then wasted when the actress is available.
It was great to see Pike become aware of his future and accept it anyway, despite the phone-it-in of his generic trainee captain future uniform and face full of delta rays. Although, really, this show relies so much on borrowed interest, I’m amazed CBS isn’t paying the estates of dead writers for how much they lift in the present day for this jumbled mess. Anson Mount is doing the Lord’s work, though, and this show is going to suffer when he’s gone at the end of the season. He routinely gets all the best lines (no matter who the credited writers are), is the motive-power through-line of every scene he’s in, and commands the camera like a boss. It helps that they write him like a Star Trek character, and he’s one of the only actors to sport the Academy points.
“I’m a Starfleet captain. You believe in service, sacrifice, compassion, and love.”
This kind of stuff is missing from every other character in the show. Michael’s always crying in her stateroom about something, Ash can’t pronounce “Kahless” correctly, they took the one character trait that made Saru badass away from him.
And the one Star Trek character they write as a Star Trek character is a glorified guest star who’s done at the end of this cheese-dick time travel season. Go figure.
I want to live in the parallel universe where CBSAA launched with Star Trek: Five Year Mission and we got Pike and Number One and Saru and Jet Reno rockin’ through the galaxy kicking space ass and taking space names and showing us all what escapist entertainment can really mean in 2019.