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What’s Wrong with Star Trek These Days?

I apologize right up front for the click-baity title. I normally don’t do that sort of thing on principle, but I feel like it kind of fits in this case. Because the truth is that, on a large scale, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Star Trek these days. But on a level that took me the better part of two years to realize, something is missing…

Star Trek in 2020

I don’t want to take it for granted that you’re up-to-date on what’s happening with Star Trek in 2020. When CBS announced their “All-Access” streaming service, I was skeptical; when they announced that all new Star Trek series would be available exclusively on their paid service, I was furious. I still firmly believe that Gene Roddenberry, creator of the optimistic future where humanity has solved world hunger, disease, and the need for currency, is spinning in his grave at people being forced to shell out $5.99/month to watch his creation continue. But I get it, and once a little bit of space cleared up in our entertainment budget, I bought in.

In 2020 there are three Star Trek shows available – the flagship Star Trek: Discovery, the nostalgia-meets-new-story Star Trek: Picard, and the delightful yet unsung animated Star Trek: Lower Decks. Full disclosure: I am just starting Lower Decks, so it could turn out to be a complete turd, but so far I love it.

Discovery follows Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of the USS Discovery, a science vessel from the pre-Kirk days of the Federation. The show starts off nestled in between Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: The Original Series in terms of the overall timeline. At the end of season 2, however, the show (along with the ship and its crew) jump forward to the 32nd Century, almost 800 years further into the future than any other Star Trek show. It’s bonkers, and in all the best and most authentically Star Trek of ways.

The second most future-distant series is the other current tentpole one, Star Trek: Picard. It follows an aged Jean-Luc Picard almost 15 years after he resigns from Starfleet over their decisions to turn back on a commitment to help evacuate Romulans from their planet’s destruction, and to ban all synthetic life forms in the wake of a synthetic rebellion on the Mars colonies. With his emotional connection to his great friend Data, and especially in his continued mourning for the loss of his friend, Picard embarks on a desperate journey to help a synthetic he runs across who could actually be Data’s offspring. It’s all the things you love about the character Picard, combined with a genuine mystery and all the heart you’d expect from a Star Trek show dealing with deep issues surrounding life and liberty.

Lower Decks follows a group of Ensigns who barely (so far, at least) ever even sniff the bridge, except to clean up more senior officers’ messes. I’ve only seen a few episodes so far, but it sort of looks like something in between Family Guy and Archer, but set in the Star Trek universe. It’s got a great cast of voices, including Jerry O’Connell, Paul Scheer, and Noel Wells, and so far it’s been delightful. For the purposes of the rest of this article, though, I’m going to leave it out of the conversation.

What’s Wrong, Then, If All These Shows Are Great?

This is the question, the one that took me the better part of two years to figure out. If Discovery is the action-oriented, exciting, boundary-pushing Trek (and it is), and if Picard is the cerebral, humane, emotionally-driven Trek (and it is), then what’s the problem? What could possibly be missing from these well-written, fully-funded, beautifully-acted and -shot sci-fi masterpieces?

In short – the monster of the week. Or, to be more precise, the lack of a monster of the week. Hear me out…

There’s no meaningful distinction anymore between TV and movies when you have A-list actors popping back and forth between huge tentpole movies and an 8-episode season of a streaming service exclusive. I mean, Hulu put James Franco in a Stephen King adaptation on their service. Amazon put Al Pacino in a series last year. Netflix has had, at one point or another, six separate Marvel series, plus tons of other series anchored by big time Hollywood actors and actresses. When you’re throwing down the kind of money it takes to land Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carrell for a 10-episode season on Apple TV+, you’re not going to waste any of those episodes.

But those “wasted episodes” are some of the most beloved, and occasionally most important, from the era of longer TV seasons. Writers simply couldn’t fill 26 episodes with vital story arc content. They needed filler to take up space in between the episodes that really move the story forward. Hence the monster of the week, or villain of the week, or disaster of the week, etc.

The monster of the week trope is actually pretty ancient. There are many examples of ancient mythologies featuring story after story of a hero fighting a monster or villain, saving a town, etc., only to then simply move on to the next one. Think Norse mythology, or Knights of the Round Table. These stories can feel like simple episodic offerings, but they often serve to flesh out the main characters’ personalities and motivations, and can sometimes lead into larger, more meaningful story arcs.

In TV, sometimes they’re just the most fun little entries in a long stretch of episodes in a season. The X-Files was the greatest ever at this, in my opinion. My favorite season of that show is season 6, which features 22 episodes. Episodes 1, arguably 9, 11, 12, and 22 serve the larger government conspiracy plot lines that run throughout the entire show. All the rest are monster of the week episodes, and season 6 is absolutely riddled with my favorite X-Files episodes of all time – episodes 2-8, 13, 15, and 19-21.

It’s these types of episodes that allow a TV season to breathe a little bit, to have a sense of pressing or letting off of the gas pedal at strategic moments. And that’s what I think I’m missing with Discovery and Picard. Because they are both between 10-15 episodes per season, and because of all the previously mentioned factors (huge budgets, massive stars, competing with tons of other properties with huge budgets and massive stars…) there just aren’t really monster of the week episodes.

Everything feels more frenetic, even the slowly paced first season of Picard, because it’s just an entirely different way of making television. The emphasis is on telling the best story with the best production value, and not on filling an order for so many episodes. Again, on the whole I think this is a win for quality television. But it is also a loss for those wonderful little episodes tucked away in between story arc episodes, those standalone stories that are so memorable, quirky, fun, risky, and tend to be the ones that evoke the most nostalgia in us.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is, get off my lawn you whippersnappers! For real, though, I really do get it. Things have changed, and I’m largely in favor of this era of TV we all get to experience right now. But I will still miss the random episodes where a crew member gets stuck inside a holodeck program, or Picard lives 40 years of virtual life after being struck by an energy beam, or anything at all to do with tribbles or baseball.