Another Big Problem Only Michael Can Solve
Star Trek: Discovery: Season 4
When we talk about Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. it's easy to dismiss the current productions in the franchise. These shows and movies -- the films of the Kelvin timeline, and then the shows on Paramount+ -- don't have the same feel as the classic productions overseen by Gene Roddenberry and his successors. Maybe its fair to dismiss some of them, maybe it's not, but certainly one could say that the vibe of the current generation of Star Trek is different than that of the classic eras.
While it might be easy to dismiss these shows and movies I don't necessarily think that's fair. They aren't the same as the classic works, and they may not even hit the same buttons for fans as the old ones, in any capacity, but to simply throw the baby out with the bath water does mean you eliminate a lot of the good things these productions have done. Certainly I'll stump for Lower Decks (see: season one and season two), and I think there's some merit to be had in Discovery. Other works, such as Picard, are bad, but fans have always taken the good Trek with the bad (see: Enterprise).
Star Trek: Discovery is a show that gets a large share of derision. What started as a show with an interesting hook -- one Federation officer commits mutiny to try and prevent a war -- that it then squandered across one pretty bland season (and way too many Mirror Universe episodes) -- but at its core there was something interesting about the series. The cast was likable, the production design was solid, and it did seem like it could tell zippy stories that worked when the creators took their heads out of their asses. That didn't always happen, and that's how we got the bland season one and the only somewhat better season two).
A funny thing happened along the way, though and that funny thing was Short Treks. That series of webisodes proved just how Discovery could tell interesting stories, and over time that expanded to reveal how good Trek of this era could be. It felt like the show took many of those lessons into season three and now, with season four, we have a show that, while not always good, at least dashes madly into the breach with confidence.
This fourth season of Discovery picks up just a little while after the events of the third. There the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery came to a future that had been devastated by a massive apocalypse with all the dilithium-powered ships having exploded a hundred years before. Called "The Burn", this event dramatically altered the power dynamics of the galaxy, breaking up the Federation and creating a new reality for everyone. The crew, lead by Commander Michael Burnham, figured out what caused the Burn and, in essence, healed the galaxy. Now, a new danger threatens the galaxy: an alien device called the "DMA" that is going from star system to star system, blowing up planets and seemingly absorbing resources.
What is the DMA and how was it sent to our galaxy? That's the first question to crew has to answer, and then it leads to further questions about who could build it, how powerful was that species, and just where was that species located. Now promoted Captain Burnham leads her crew (of largely interchangeable members) into the breach once more to find these answers and not only figure out a way to stop the DMA but also save all of Federation (and beyond) space as these aliens threaten all life as wee know it once more. If any captain can do it, it's Michael Burnham.
The strength of Discovery is certainly in it's high quality production values. This is a show that manages to convey action and thrills on par with the Kelvin films while on a smaller screen (and presumably smaller budget, week to week). It's dynamic and flashy, but (especially in these later seasons) with a good sense of its own reality. It feels just lived-in enough that it dispenses with the super-plasticy reality of the Kelvin films. It works within the context of the show.
Moving the show into the far future (of the timelines already still far future) also helps because it can create new dangers, like the DMA, without having to worry about how this kind of discovery would alter the timeline. The first two seasons had to dance around continuity (or break it, in some cases), but being 900 years in the future helps to avoid all that. it also lets the show create these dangers and give us new marvels to explore and things to do. It doesn't have to conform to the idealism of the old Trek because it's nowhere near (or when) the old continuity.
And yet, one thing that does really help these later seasons is that the show tries to get back to that idealism, in its own way. Third season was about rebuilding the Federation after the Burn, and this fourth season is about aiding the whole galaxy and preventing a danger that could threaten us all, not because of what the federation could gain but simply because it was the right thing to do. The show doesn't necessarily always nail its idealism -- sometimes its too heavy handed, other times its villains go to far in the other direction that it feels like the show has lost the thread a little -- but by and large it manages to have a better sense of what Trek (and the Federation) mean than many other shows and movies in the franchise right now (save Lower Decks).
The down side of the show is that, even in this fourth season, it really doesn't have a full sense of its crew. It has members its worked to flesh out, yes -- the doctor, Hugh Culber; his partner, and chief engineer, Paul Stamets; secondary engineering command, Jett Reno; Ensign Tilly -- but when you compare the number of crew members you know and actually like to past shows, it feels like there's a void. The ship has a chief pilot but I don't really know her or care about her, not the way I knew Sulu. I couldn't tell you who the security chief is, or who was on weapons. Saru is the first officer, but if he hadn't been captain at one point would I know him, even despite him being played by Doug Jones? I'm not certain.
In essence, past Trek shows would have an iconic cast that filled all the roles. You'd know Miles O'Brien, the teleporter guy, on Next Generation so that when he moved to Deep Space Nine he was a welcome, familiar face. If any of these crew members left for a spin-off I doubt I'd recognize them at all. I knew, and liked (shut up) Wesley more than most of the cast on Discovery. The fourth season tries to remedy this, I think, by having Michael go off with a different crew member each week for part of the mission, but it doesn't stick the same way past away missions on other shows stuck.
Put another way: the only character we really know, and care about, is Michael and that's because she's always at the center of everything. She's always the one to come up with the ideas, or to suggest the person that can come up with the ideas. It suits better this season because she's the captain and, thus, the center of the ship, but this has always been the Michael Burnham show even when she was a class-less mutineer forced to work on Discovery as part of her sentence. The show could really be called Star Trek: Burnham and it would have the same effect.
As far as the main plot this season... eh, it's okay. It is supposed to have the same urgency as the mystery of the Burn, but it lacks the impact of that storyline. A nebulous threat that's kinda, sorta coming for the Federation doesn't have the same impact as seeing a greatly diminished Federation last season that didn't even have Earth or Vulcan (now Navarre) in it. "Oh now, the DMA is rushing towards Earth and Vulcan!" Well, if one of them doesn't get blown up that doesn't really feel like a threat, does it?
The DMA doesn't feel interesting this time around largely because it's too similar to threats we've already seen. The first Kelvin film, 2009's Star Trek, already blew up Vulcan. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home already put the Earth under an ecological disaster. The DMA is just those things again, without as much bite. It's fine, but nothing we haven't seen before, and that sucks much of the fun out of it.
This fourth season, mind you, is still way more fun that the first season of Picard. It's just not as good at being fun and impactful Star Trek as, say, the first Kelvin movie (for all its flaws), or any season of Lower Decks. It's imperfect and messy but, still, not unenjoyable. Discovery started off in a really flaws place all those seasons ago and it has managed to claw its way back. The scars, and flaws, are still there, though, weighing it down some and I think, at this point, we just have to accept the show thee way it is. It's fun, and it is Trek, but it's never going to be as good as the best works in the series.