Monday, 25 June 2018

That Difficult Second Season

We are done, finito, the end - of the first year of Discovery and amazingly production on season two is already well underway this month.
There was one monumental arc, lots of min-stories within it and some of the most dynamic character development the franchise has ever borne witness to in 52 years. Whether you have personally liked it or not there is no doubt that Discovery is a runaway success of galactic proportions and thoroughly deserving of the second season which is already in the process of being formulated.

Now Discovery has probably come up with the best first season of any of the Star Trek series since The Original Series if for no other reason than it knew where it was heading from the moment the cameras began to roll. It had its own identity, its own purpose and a vision to work to, not something that can be said for its predecessors in every case.

But we're past that point and into the high hopes and expectations for Year Two and the arrival of one USS Enterprise. Season one has certainly bucked the trend when it's come to those introductory episodes but what about that "difficult second season"? Those follow up years have all thrown up a lot of varied quality, even taking into account The Original Series However The Original Series second season is strong with such entries as The Doomsday Machine, The Trouble with Tribbles and Amok Time to just sprinkle in a trio of stone cold classics in there for the prosecution. Star Trek knew what it was and where it was going with a purpose. The stories were reflections on the era, the characters fully realised and packed with life from the now legendary cast. Mind, it does also include The Omega Glory...

It's really when we reach The Next Generation that you start to see a pattern with that second innings. In this case there is the additional fact that there was a writers' strike which cut the season from 26 to 22 episodes and meant there needed to be some rushed scripts and some recycling to make the show work - looking to you The Child and Shades of Gray.

But look at year two here and you can see that in comparison to where the show ended up it was a tricky time because they were still focusing on the "alien of the week" trope just as with The Original Series to some extent rather than, as Michael Piller preached from season three, to focus on the characters and make each show a story about one of the primary cast. 

The 1988/89 season of The Next Generation suffers mainly from bad timing as well as continual backstage issues that didn't allow it to really hit its potential for yet another year but paralleling it to Discovery there was no big plan from the start with only the late inclusion of the Borg and the idea to use them for the (originally planned) season finale that showed any kind of real forward planning. Season two of The Next Generation is horribly uneven, peaking with episodes such as The Measure of a Man tackling Data's rights as a sentient being and the Borg-introducing Q Who towards the back end of the year. But for every good one there's always something to counter that includes Up the Long Ladder and The Outrageous Okona.

Aside from a few snatched episodes there wasn't much in the way of character development and although there is a strong echo of The Original Series in its nature and style this is something that Discovery will, easily, avoid because of the depth of planning that has gone into its first run of stories. 

Discovery has direction and drive plus it has the benefit of all the other shows being its 700+ "pilots" if you will, meaning the mistakes of the past can be avoided - in the case of The Next Generation it didn't have the benefit of five previous series, only the original show and four movies with just the one crew to show it the way. 

Here's another thing - of all the shows that came after Kirk, The Next Generation even in its second season chose to push itself knowlingly at arm's length away from its predecessor. In the first year it nodded to the classic show with DeForest Kelley's retired admiral in Encounter at Farpoint, the return of the Psi 2000 virus in The Naked Now the Klingons in Heart of Glory and the Romulans from The Neutral Zone it stayed away from specific characters and moments. Season two went further with very little connecting it to the adventures of the NCC-1701 and you'll struggle to spot a direct link anywhere in the 22 stories told.

Discovery’s not had the easiest of evolutions what with the Fuller fiasco just after the first two episodes were completed and then this year with the sharp departure of Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg there are strong echoes back to the early years of The Next Generation. and the coming and going of producers such as Bob Justman and Maurice Hurley. Is this a portent that the third season - like so many Star Trek’s before it - will mark the show really getting into its stride - and if that’s the case just how is it going to top what has already been a mightily solid first season?
Discovery did a lot of nodding to its ancestry during that formative year - so much at one point I thought its head might fall off under the strain with references to Robert April, Chris Pike, the appearances of Sarek, Amanda and Mudd plus that jawdropping final scene of the final episode emphasised how strongly the show wanted to be accepted into the fold whether it needed to demonstrate it or not.

Over on Deep Space Nine the first two years carry on that worrying trend. There are a couple of significant changes that show there was some form of planning starting to be formulated with the Bajoran religious arc continuing from Emissary and In the Hands of the Prophets but also there were the first suggestions of the Dominion in the background. The choice to add that element of serialisation to the show in its second year is a big change to the Star Trek lore which for two series and one season had chosen to keep more aligned to a block of standalone stories that didn't rely on watching another story. Elements of this only crept into The Next Generation with The Best of Both Worlds and Family but here, fairly early on, Deep Space Nine was already prepared to make major shifts in its established format to be different and unique within the Star Trek bubble. 

For Deep Space Nine, that second season had to be different because it had come under fire due of its narrative standalone similarities to The Next Generation and at this time, the show was under pressure from another space station drama in the form of Babylon 5 (something coming up on this one later). The serialisation does feel like a bit of a knee jerk reaction to that show which had a much more established plan from conception rather than Deep Space Nine changing on the fly. It had stayed formulaic and not gone to the edge of the frontier as it boldly promised, choosing to retain the winning strategy from Picard of a story-of-the-week but it needed something different and the second season spearheaded that early on, titillating the audience almost unknowingly. 

It’s when we hit Rules of Acquisition and Sanctuary that we have the most throw away of hints that there might be something out there that’s more than we have expected or seen before - indeed, probably the most organised empire in the entire history of Star Trek; an anti-Federation if you will. In fact for Deep Space Nine that second season is a lot more inspiring and far reaching. The characters are set and more fleshed our and for year two there’s a big flag from the start that it dared to be different to The Next Generation not just in its setting but in its tone and its ideology. Kicking off with an unprecedented but soon to be beaten three part Circle arc was a huge statement of intent and at the other end of the season - which happened just around the time The Next Generation waved farewell - it closed without the ‘customary’ cliffhanger but with all the foreboding it could possibly muster to wave in a very bleak era in the franchise. They even managed a subtle hint to the end of its sister show by blowing up the Galaxy Class USS Odyssey

While Deep Space Nine’s first year brought in familiars such as Q, the Duras Sisters, Vash and Jean-Luc Picard, its second brought it closer to The Original Series in a way similar to Discovery. In the space of four episodes late in the year we met up with the three classic Klingons and then flipped over to the Mirror Universe - a place of which followers of Discovery will be more than aware.

While season one of Deep Space Nine played it safe and tagged along more with the Bajoran arcs and more local stories to the station, season two set out exploring and poking things with sticks. The Next Generation didn’t stray too far from its core as Roddenberry wanted but it’s bastard cousin raised the vees and charted a new course. Comparing to the possibilities of Discovery, the darker tones of Deep Space Nine appears more applicable but will the show choose to carry themes from year one to year two or will it contain each season as a separate story block? 

The continuity would work in it’s favour and ignoring the events of the first 15 episodes to start something new would seem to make very little sense at all. What we can see is that things will change with more regularity than any previous generation. Lorca and his security chief Landry plus Ash Tyler were all key figures but all have either been killed or chosen to wander new paths. Discovery is going to get a new captain and for several characters they have stepped up in rank as stated on screen. Now that in itself is significant because of you look back at both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine promotions happened more often than not off screen and between seasons almost unnoticed.

As for lauding back to its heritage, Deep Space Nine is perhaps the worst offender of the lot especially considering its first season steered away from The Original Series refererences. Mind, it did still grasp onto the training reins by dropping in Q, Vash, the Duras sisters and a lengthy appearance from Jean-Luc Picard in Emissary to signpost the connection. Season two played havoc with the family tree with the three original Klingons completing their Blood Oath with Dax and then Kira and Bashir crossing over to the Mirror Universe just three episodes later. Subtle and multiple connections no; glaringly obvious yes. Now fans love a good bit of crossing over but has it been the right choice? Deep Space Nine certainly avoided its furthest predecessor until safely into the latter part of year two but The Next Generation and perhaps Discovery fell into an easy trap to acknowledge the past a little too quickly.

What’s for season two though? Definitely more Enterprise-ing if you forgive the pun. That final scene is pure set up and marks a tonal decision that only Deep Space Nine really latched onto with its Mirror and Kor arcs. Perhaps we ought to nod to Trials and Tribbleations at the same time.

What all three of these Star Trek series do show though is no long term plan, no real forward thinking beyond completing the year with enough stories to fulfil the quota. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were rocky and uneven in their second years with the main characters still seeming to be fully formed. But both seasons do express some elements of change. The Next Generation offered some new cast, a bearded Riker, Geordi in Engineering and Troi restyled but visual changes could not hide those cracks. 

What Discovery faces instead is that its first season was incredibly confident, well planned and with a clear path from start to finish, even managing to use its first two stories as a prequel to the remainder of the year. It also has to tackle the arrival of the USS Enterprise which will throw up some interesting casting choices that will cause some major fissures in fandom when they are announced. Expect this to be the third casting of Pike after Jeffery Hunter and Bruce Green - four if you count the wheelchair bound and radiation scarred Sean Kenney from The Menagerie.

Then there’s Voyager. Both this second batch and that of Deep Space Nine show the same development opportunities taken. Season one was again, a rocky process with lots of standalone scene setting but nothing more than the ship starting its trip home. The crew was pretty sketchy with only Janeway and the Doctor really being gifted any serious time to flourish. Of all the shows, Voyager is the one where season two realised there was more cast than the captain and a holographic medical officer and ran with story arcs but shamefully forgot about character.

Season two has a couple of issues though. One) it has to shoehorn in four leftover eps from season one which immediately show their age and would have worked better in the first year (especially The 37’s which is not a season opener much more a closer) and it also realises that it has to move on in difference to all the other shows. Voyager had to be different every year and tie up loose ends swiftly and this wasn’t something season two was very comfortable with. The Maquis were neutered sharply and while the Kazon/Seska arc does complete in Basics (which was dragged over into season three as a cliffhanger even though it was made in season two) it’s not as strong a continuous story thread as Deep Space Nine broached. Why? Because the main protagonists were relatively short lived and bore no major weight on the series long term. Only the over-used Borg would provide that later but the treachery of Jonas is dispensed with off the cuff and far too quickly, ending halfway through the year. 

Voyager was trying to be both The Next Generation in terms of exploration and Deep Space Nine in terms of storytelling and forgot to find its own voice for the first couple of seasons which in itself is a tragedy that it may never have recovered from. If you think about it, only the Hirogen would offer any real long term threat to Voyager with a mini-arc in season four and in season seven’s Flesh and Blood. Memorable yes but they couldn’t be kept around and instead the series fell back on the Borg.

Talking of them curves nicely into probably the wobbliest of all second seasons with Enterprise. Now this really was unsure of its footing within the franchise the year is full of missteps once you get past the cliffhanging Shockwave and the intriguing Carbon Creek. In fact I'd probably go as far as to say this is the single most forgettable year in the history of Star Trek perhaps with the late appearing Regeneration and those annoying Borg plus The Expanse proving there was life in the prequel concept yet. It's a very difficult year where the show tried to stick with the story of the week line but then tries to weave in continuing stories - and for the most part failing. 

There's the ongoing Klingon arc surrounding Archer that kicked off back in Broken Bow and continues through Judgement and Bounty but there's no serious payoff. Precious Cargo is horrendously insulting to all involved and the viewer and the rest is pitifully mediocre. Luckily both seasons three and four would go someway towards realising the potential of the show only for it to be cancelled before hitting its zenith.

In actuality Enterprise displays something that Discovery can learn from - an overconfidence in its abilities and its heritage. Season two of the Archer-led prequel attempts to walk the walk after an impressive first year and falls flat because it thinks it deserves its place amongst the best of the franchise and then becomes lazy, misdirected and low on originality. Discovery has to be self-aware and not think that it has its heritage to fall back on. Just as each Star Trek show has had to prove itself before in its second year, so too will what now appears to be Kurtzman's first televisual step into the broad arms of the Star Trek franchise. 

Each story, each season, each series has to be strong enough to hold its own and gather its own fans through the strength of its storytelling and base in the foundations of Gene Roddenberry's ethos that comes right back from the 1960's. If nothing Discovery has a great deal to learn from to not make the mistakes of the past and strike out with its own distinct identity. I think that's already true from season one - and that's the lead it should take for year two. Be different, be Star Trek but continue to be Discovery...

What things do you think Discovery could learn from the shows of the franchise's past?

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