The first season of Star Trek: Discovery was met with mixed reviews, inciting both negative and positive reactions from fans and critics alike. However, there was one point on which everyone agreed: with its large budget, talented cast, and provoking premise, Discovery should have been better.
Watching Discovery feels like watching the last season of a television show when you haven't watched the three or four seasons that came before. The first two episodes, 'The Vulcan Hello' and 'Battle at the Binary Stars' are visually stunning, dramatic, and compelling. As the viewer, you feel like the episodes are also supposed to be emotional, that you should feel scandalized by Michael Burnham's (Sonequa Martin-Green) actions and saddened by Phillipa Georgiou's (Michelle Yeoh) death.
The truth is, I didn't know those characters well enough to feel much of anything. I followed the action and I was interested, but I was not invested in Burnham's relationship with Georgiou. The lack of emotional investment continued throughout the season. Burnham's relationship with Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) felt sudden and rushed, so I didn't really feel the pain around Tyler's betrayal and exit. I had a similar issue with Dr. Culber's (Wilson Cruz) death. It was unfortunate, but I didn't mourn it.
Star Trek: Discovery had a pacing that didn't give fans time to build relationships with the characters, to watch them grow, or to get to know them. Had we seen several seasons of Burnham faithfully serving under and learning from Georgiou, the first's betrayal and the second's death would have had more of an impact. If fans had been watching a relationship grow between Tyler and Burnham for an entire season, his being Voq, attacking her, and then leaving would have been more painful. Several seasons worth of loving and caring moments between Culber and Stamets would have made the former's loss palpable for the audience.
After the first season of Discovery ended, I reflected on my general enjoyment of the story but lack of investment in the characters. Knowing I was a long time Star Trek fan, many people asked me what I thought of the show and my answer was always the same, "Star Trek: Discovery is one of my favorite Star Trek movies." As a stand-alone story, it was good–but as a series? It was missing something…
It wasn't until I watched the first Star Trek: Short Treks 'Runaway' that I realized exactly what had been missing from the Discovery series. In the short episode, Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) meets a young female stowaway and must convince the alien to return to her home and shoulder some heavy responsibilities. There is slapstick, flying food, a conversation with Tilly's mother, and the covert use of a transporter. The stakes did not involve the fate of the Federation or the Klingon homeworld–just one young officer trying to convince a young female alien that change doesn't have to be bad. Fans learned a lot about Tilly, how she became who she is, and became invested in Po (Yadira Guevara-Prip), the young alien, as well.
'Runaway' was reminiscent of the hundreds of Star Trek episodes that came before, but with Discovery's own flavor. I came away from watching it thinking "That is what I wish Discovery had been!" The wistfulness only continued with the second short, 'Calypso.' Set 1000 years in Discovery's future after the ship had been abandoned for some reason, the show was new, interesting, and made us care about the characters (including the computer).
The Star Trek: Short Treks are the earlier episodes of Star Trek: Discovery that we wish we had seen first. The latest, 'The Brightest Star' is the history of Commander Saru and showed us that the seemingly straight-laced Kelpian was discovered by Starfleet because he has the heart of a dreamer.
These mundane alien-of-the-week shows teach us about the characters, what makes them tick, and how they work and fit together as a group. Missions where the universe does not hang in the balance are necessary to make us care about the universe when it actually is under threat.
The good news is we know that the team at Star Trek: Discovery can make episodes that build characters and stories that give us further insight into the larger world of the series. The question is, will they do it? Now that the war with the Klingons is over, will they use season 2 to universe-build? Will fans continue to have to look to featurettes and Short Treks to a find out more about the crew of the Discovery?
In the age of streaming–when people binge-watch entire seasons in one day–the lines between movies, mini-series, and series will continue to blur. Producers and directors will have to find a way to balance flashy effects and action-packed episodes that bring in viewers with compelling story arcs and world-building that keeps viewers around. Yes, ratings are important (especially to advertisers and investors) but the shows that last the longest…have the most dedicated fan bases…draw viewers long after the show has gone off the air…are the shows that make the viewer feel like they are a part of the fictional world they are watching on the screen.
For the five weeks until Star Trek:Discovery's second season premieres on January 17, 2019, fans and critics alike will wait for the fourth and final Short Trek 'The Escape Artist' (set for January 3, 2019) and hope that Discovery showrunners find a way to incorporate the magic of these character-centric shorts into the main series–making Discovery the show that we know it can and should be.