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Can Star Trek Discovery Carry CBS All Access?

by February 23, 2019
Michael Burnham of Star Trek Discovery

Michael Burnham of Star Trek Discovery

Is Star Trek: Discovery the solid performer that CBS needs it to be? Some believe that the controversial new Star Trek show may have seen its final season. Although a third season has yet to be announced, other Star Trek news from CBS would make it seem that Discovery has been a smashing success. CBS has announced that it's planning two new Star Trek series, including one with Patrick Stewart revising his legendary role as Jean Luc Picard. But to some, the announcement of a new Picard series is further evidence that the producers are looking for a new direction, possibly because Discovery has been a misfire for CBS and its streaming service All Access. Let’s examine the latest pop-culture conspiracy theory that has Star Trek: Discovery facing cancellation.

Star Trek: Discovery launched as an exclusive to CBS’s new streaming service All Access on September 24, 2017. The network is leaning heavily on the Star Trek brand to give CBS All Access a competitive edge in the crowded online streaming video market. Established brands like HBO, Netflix and Amazon already dominate the space with heavy competition on the way from Disney and Apple.
Star Trek has a reliable fan base that CBS wants to exercise under its somewhat complicated stewardship of Star Trek on TV, while at the same growing a more mainstream audience with an edgy new look and feel. But growing Star Trek in this way is proving to be a difficult feat and risks alienating its core audience. Star Trek: Discovery is critically acclaimed, with 82% and 83% respectively for seasons one and two on Rotten Tomatoes. But fan reaction has been poor, with an Audience Score of 52% for season one, and only 29% so far for seasons two.

Gene and I are long-time Star Trek fans and we both agree that Discovery has been a disappointment. The overall sentiment I’ve heard among the Star Trek faithful is that the new show misses the tone set by the many Star Treks of the past. It would seem that in an effort to appeal to a wider audience, Discovery has taken a dark and violent turn, with more emphasis on style and brutal action scenes than the intellectual social commentary the franchise has been known for.

How Is Star Trek Discovery Season 3 a Thing?  - the Dave Cullen Show

A Star Trek Fan’s Perspective - Wayde Robson

iPad Kirk and BonesI expect more from Starfleet. The United Federation of Planets has dealt with dark subject matter in the past, forcing its notable officers to make difficult ethical choices. But it’s always been within the context of a sound moral foundation, a future, better humanity. But Discovery takes the Federation on a turn toward nihilism by committing what today we’d call war crimes with seemingly no regret. Don’t get me wrong. I’m always in favor of giving the writers leeway to come up with new ideas, and I don’t mind departure from Star Trek canon in service of a good story. I won’t nitpick the crew’s use of sophisticated 3D-graphical interfaces in what is supposed to be the same timeline that Kirk often referred to an oversized iPad. The show mostly looks fabulous. 

But it’s obvious that Discovery has departed tonally from past Star Trek in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. It’s been said that Discovery is made for people who don’t like Star Trek, and I can’t disagree. CBS needs Star Trek to be that flagship brand that lures subscribers onto its streaming service. It needs both Trek’s built-in audience and additional mainstream appeal. The result is a violent, dark show with unflinching lethality in the style of Game of Thrones. We’re left the question: What happened to the positive, inclusive vision of the future set by Gene Roddenberry? Of course, Discovery includes social commentary, but its message is conveyed through a darkly punitive tone.

Change, in a Kiss

The original series confronted the 1960s civil rights-era with commentary about racism in some of its most memorable episodes. Later Star Trek series through the 90s would offer similar social commentary around culture, sexuality, and gender. But it always did so with its trademark optimism. One of the most controversial scenes on television in the 1960s occurred when Star Trek showed viewers what is widely considered the first interracial kiss on American television. A kiss, standing in for one of the most heated, often hate-fueled issues of its day, it was a stroke of brilliance from the mind of Gene Roddenberry.

Kirk Uhura KissContrast the controversial kiss of the Original Series, with Discovery’s social commentary in the season two premiere. In the episode Brother, we meet a science officer acting in Spock’s absence. We were expecting the blue shirt who beams aboard Discovery to be a big reveal of Spock. But instead, we got a Lt. Connolly, a character written into the episode for one purpose, to epitomize the toxic male characteristics of the douchebag.

When Burnham, Connolly, Pike and a red shirted female officer named Nhan, jumped into single-person pods for a dangerous away mission, perhaps the writers thought they were going to subvert audiences expectations of classic “red shirt” Star Trek trope. But after a full season of modern, progressive ideals planted a little too squarely “on the nose”, expectations were in fact, followed to the letter, nothing was subverted. This time, the red shirt female officer would be safe from harm. But the shallow blue shirt character met a sudden end to a collision with a meteor while mansplaining at Burnham. That’ll teach ‘em!

The scene is a microcosm of Discovery’s dark, mean-spiritedness that contrasts with the franchise’s past way of dealing with the social issues of its day. It’s a missed opportunity to explore the motivations of a character that represents a negative social stereotype. In this case, a male officer who obviously has difficulty with Burnham’s authority in matters of her expertise. We could have seen the Connolly character evolve and grow as the series progressed. But instead, Discovery goes for a quick fatality.

Since Next Generation, Star Trek has been about long-form character study, each with their own arc and evolution. But that’s not the brand of character development the new Star Trek is concerned with, Discovery seems to speak to a more punitive form of social justice.

Despite some of its fundamental flaws, I’ll hold out hope that the show can turn around and find a more consistent, confident tone. It took me years to warm up to Next Generation, I hated it after seeing the premiere, Encounter at Farpoint. I disliked it so much it was years after its first season that I grew to love it.

We’d love to see a Star Trek that explores topics faced in our present day through the lens of hope that the franchise is known for. In the midst of our ever-increasing division and political tribalism, now would seem the perfect time for Trek wisdom. We could use the kind of whimsical banter we may have seen in past Star Trek, between developed characters we know and care about. Today, with our growing national and family debt, the opioid crisis, income inequality, and new global communications platforms that seems to be tearing us apart rather than bringing us together as promised. There are so many weighty, contemporary themes that could be explored in the space opera format of Star Trek. We need a Star Trek that thinks big, by presenting Roddenberry’s inclusive vision for what the future could hold. Never has that message been so poignant.

A Star Trek Fan’s Perspective - Gene DellaSala

Spock & BurnhamI echo Wayde's concerns voiced herein and perhaps have a few more gripes that go deeper as I'm a stickler for holding the show producers to their promise that Star Trek Discovery (aka. STD) would be in the 50+ year established canon universe and not the 2-dimensional shallow JJ Verse found in the 3 most recent movies. Instead what we actually got was somewhere in the middle but with the worst elements of both. STD is bringing familiar characters from TOS era into the fold but not as we've known them. Vulcans can now communicate telepathically across the galaxy like Jedi masters and Spock has a human sister in Michael Burnham who incidentally is the main focus of STD. Why bring back such an iconic and well-established character only to invent siblings that never existed in canon while also portraying him as a madman with childhood anger issues and possible past traumatic romantic entanglements in his newfound sibling?

KlingonsSTD completely butchered not only the look of the Klingons, but also the costume and ship design and most importantly the cultural aspects of the race we've grown to love. Instead of the Klingons being a proud honorable race, we see a race of xenophobic savage male simpletons flying around in a cloaked sarcophagus ship that don't keep their word during a cease-fire with their enemy. Within one season of the show, they are transformed into a matriarchal society under the "wise" leadership of L'Rell who held the planet hostage with a magic bomb planted in its core by a rogue branch of Starfleet called Section 31. Warp drive just isn't fast enough for the show producers so they again spit in the face of canon and come up with a ridiculous mushroom drive navigated by a macro tardigrade allegedly stolen from a plot of a videogame currently under litigation. It makes it all more interesting that the writers of STD quickly moved away from the tardigrade spore drive navigator to bestow engineer Stamets that ability though with little consideration from his commanding officers that repeatedly asked him to subject himself to the health risks involved in doing so. Between the butchered Klingon race, invented sister to Spock, and mushroom drive, we are in a universe that has little in common with canon or JJ Trek movies but the producers again assure us all will converge if we are just patient. I'm not buying it especially while being subjected to the Klingon orcs whose face prosthetics are so rigid that they could barely mumble their native tongue which we had to endure reading subtitles at a snail's pace for almost the entire first season of the show.


But these aren't even the most offending aspects of the show to me. I literally can't stand the character, Michael Burnham. Not only is she an arrogant, and self-righteous mutineer but the writers have put so much bank into her character that they've literally written her in such a way that no problem in the show would be resolved without her divine intervention. Much of the acting is subpar and the storylines are a convoluted mess making the show feel more like fan fiction to me than a genuine Star Trek series. A quick re-watch of episodes like "In A Pale Moonlight" and "Far Beyond the Stars" from DS9 or The Inner Light from TNG remind me of what Star Trek should be but never will be again under the "expert" tutelage of Alex Kurtzman. Star Trek was never about one messianic character but instead a complex tapestry of interpersonal relationships between crew and aliens all looking for common ground towards mutual cooperation with the end results of the sum of the parts being greater than the individuals themselves.

To pour further salt on the wound, CBS thought it would be a brilliant idea to alienate the core fanbase that made Star Trek the success it was not only by butchering canon, but also putting the show behind a lousy paywall app in the USA that isn't up to the quality standards of its competitors both in broadcasting or in content diversity. Meanwhile, international viewers get to see the show with their Netflix subscription.

Kirk and SpockThere are some elements of the show that are redeemable, however. I feel the shorts are far more interesting and better written than the full-length episodes and bringing Anson Mount onboard as Captain Pike alongside of Doug Jones as Saru makes the show watchable when Tilly or her parasitic friend isn't on screen. The Section 31 story arc is entertaining though it's over flamboyance liquidates the genuineness of secrecy originally portrayed in Deep Space 9.

I honestly don't see how placing a dumbed-down Star Trek show that alienates its core fan base behind a lousy 2CH stereo paywall App that still forces you to watch commercials will drive up subscription numbers to make CBS a viable competitor to the well-established ranks of Netflix or Amazon. Star Trek Discovery carries enormous production expenses and doesn't appear to have the reverence of prior shows that were broadcasted on-air for free. Ship is not out of danger and CBS has yet to pull off a Kobayashi Maru with this very polarizing series.

The Future of Star Trek Discovery in Doubt

Anson Mount Hiring TweetStarting in early January, a number of smaller news outlets and YouTube channels began reporting that CBS may be considering canceling Discovery. Bounding Into Comics author John F. Trent and a popular YouTube personality, Nerdrotic, used cryptic Twitter posts by one of the show’s stars, Anson Mount, as evidence for the claim. Mount, who plays Christopher Pike on the show, has indeed posted some confusing Twitter messages. In one, he poses with co-star Ethan Peck in front of a Pollo Loco: “Now Hiring” sign above the message “#WillActForFood ... with @ethangpeck”.

Posted in late January, the tweet was taken by some fans to mean that Mount’s Star Trek gig was coming to an end, leaving him in search of work. When one fan asked if this meant Discovery would be axed prior to season 3, Mount responded with a message just as confusing as his first: “Yes, we have been found out,” Mount wrote. “The trolls have successfully used their mail-order decoder pins to decipher the TRUTH behind my devious, hint-laden tweets.”

About a week later, Mount made another mysterious post, this time about co-star Sonequa Martin-Green:

“Our @SonequaMG is a great leader who enjoyed a special relationship with EVERYONE in the cast & crew, but my dog Mac got special treatment. This was taken during a break from shooting episode 2.2 “New Eden”. @startrekcbs @StarTrekNetflix @StarTrek”

Anson Mount Enjoyed Tweet

As with the first post, the tweet didn’t come out and clearly state that Discovery was canceled. In fact, it could just as easily have meant that Mount appreciated Green-Martin’s work on the first two seasons of Discovery and was looking forward to working with her on season 3. In the end, it was simply that Mount used past tense – “enjoyed” – and taken as an additional inference that the show has been canceled.

As for Nerdrotic, the YouTuber, he says a source told him the show is in trouble because of its skyrocketing production costs. It seems that some Discovery scenes from season 2 needed to be reshot, reportedly at a cost of $150 million. Given these issues, Nerdrotic’s first source said Discovery was, for all intents and purposes, “dead”. But Nerdrotic also acknowledges that a second source had said CBS was simply evaluating Discovery’s future, with no decision made just yet.

Star Trek: Discovery - Streaming Pile of Episodes

How successful has Discovery been for CBS? It’s difficult to obtain reliable ratings information for streaming shows. Services, like Netflix and CBS All Access are reluctant to pass along specific metrics for its shows. But according to the industry analysts at Parrot Analytics, Discovery season one was a smashing success.

Parrot Analytics studies “demand expression” of shows on streaming services by looking at various metrics including ratings, fan reactions, social media data and peer streaming content data. If Parrot’s results are correct, Star Trek Discovery season one was the most popular show streaming in the United States every week from January through March. If the numbers reported by ComicBook.com are to be believed, CBS has a huge hit on its hands!

How Reliable is Parrot Analytics?

Of course, ComicBook.com reviews and insights about Star Trek Discovery and CBS All Access should be taken with a grain of salt. The nerd-culture news and information website is owned by CBS. As for Parrot Analytics, its measurements of CBS properties is not exactly an unbiased source either. It turns out that CBS is a client of Parrot Analytics. Such a business arrangement means data that CBS and Parrot chooses to publicize shouldn’t be taken as that of an impartial third party. So, the glowing success of All Access and the new Star Trek Discovery series could very well be a coordinated PR campaign.

Star Trek Discovery Season 3: To Be or Not To Be?

PicardThus far, no major news sources have reported Star Trek Discovery is doomed. Meanwhile, CBS has announced its intention to run two new shows, making it appear that Discovery has been a great success. Michelle Yeoh, one of Discovery’s stars, has a spinoff show being planned to allegedly focus on Section 31 - a rogue organization loosely affiliated with Starfleet. Then there’s the development of a Patrick Stewart-helmed show about Next Generation character Jean Luc Picard. Given all this activity, it seems unlikely that Discovery is about to meet the axe. But, it’s also possible that that timing of the new show’s announcements were intended to bolster interest in Discovery season two. So far, there is no word that Discovery season three has received the green light from CBS. It’s likely the network is waiting to see how Discovery’s second season fares on All Access before committing to an additional season. In the high stakes ratings game of a big budget sci-fi show with a limited number of episodes per-season, it’s going to be a challenge for CBS to recapture the warp-drive magic of Star Trek’s past.

Will Star Trek: Discovery save the CBS All Access App or will it be lost in subspace along with the prospects of getting a 3rd season? Share your thoughts in the related forum thread below.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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