In the initial pitch for Star Trek, way back in 1964, the series was described as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” This was mostly in reference to its sense of exploration and discovery, but it also hints at something else that would become a hallmark of the series: the travel. Lots and lots of travel. It may take days, weeks or, in the case of shows like Voyager, years, for the crew to get to their destination and as such, it allows plenty of time for adventure and character growth. However, new technologies introduced in shows like Discovery and Prodigy have eliminated that travel time, fundamentally changing the nature of their plots.
That’s keenly on display in this week’s episode of Discovery, where the ship must continue their pursuit of Cleveland Booker and Ruon Tarka. Last week we discovered that the planet-killing Dark Matter Anomaly was basically a piece of mining equipment from an unknown species, and Book and Tarka’s desire to destroy it would make for a very unpleasant first contact, one that could potentially start a war. The pair had already stolen a prototype spore drive and fitted it into Book’s ship, meaning they now had access to the ability to leap across the galaxy in seconds. As the only other vessel in the fleet with a working spore drive, this meant the USS Discovery was now in the uncomfortable position of hunting down one of its own.
Some of the episode is focused on the crew’s feelings about this; Admiral Vance can’t trust Michael to hunt down her boyfriend so he even assigns Commander Nhan to the mission to step in if things get messy. There’s even some dialogue between minor crew members like Nielsen and Rhys and how they feel about the whole thing. It’s nice to see them get some screen time, but it also shows how little we get to hear from them in a typical Discovery season.
Consider how many classic episodes of the franchise took place during, or were about a long trip between planets. It’s in the title of the original series’ “Journey to Babel,” where we meet Sarek for the first time and get to see the relationship between him and his son Spock. “Data’s Day” is a Next Generation episode about a typical day in the life of Commander Data, which also involves transporting a diplomat while there’s also a wedding on board the ship. This was the first appearance of Keiko O’Brien, a character who would later go on to play a large role in Deep Space Nine when her husband was part of the main cast.
Meanwhile, the chances for our recurring characters to shine have been few and far between. Last week’s installment did have Owosekun kicking ass, but not in any way that really gave us deeper insight into her character, with her best development remaining “New Eden” back in season two. We haven’t even seen Jett Reno much this year, though that’s due to actress Tig Notaro avoiding travel during the pandemic. The background character that’s gotten the most development thus far is Airiam, who had an entire episode dedicated to her — because she was about to die.
The immediate travel time also makes itself felt with the main cast, who get to return to familiar locations on a regular basis. Starfleet Headquarters, Earth or any of the various planets the ship has visited before — nothing is off the table for a drop-in, which means that past storylines and characters like Admiral Vance can be readily revisited. That leaves even less time for the audience to get to know the rest of the crew.
It’s an interesting contrast with Prodigy, which also features super-fast engine tech, the protostar engine. It’s not instantaneous like the spore drive, but it does cut a journey that would have taken Voyager 70 years down to mere days. It’s a natural outgrowth of all the technological development we saw during Voyager’s seven seasons, as opposed to the quantum leap that the spore drive represented to Discovery’s 23rd-century setting.
But even with faster travel times, Prodigy can still focus on character development due to simply having a smaller recurring cast to deal with. On the Protostar it’s just the six kids and their holographic Janeway, and a lot of their time is spent in transit by virtue of the plot — they were on the run from the Diviner and thus couldn’t stay in one place very long, and when the show returns from its hiatus they’ll be running from the flesh-and-blood Janeway. In my interview earlier this month with showrunners Dan and Kevin Hageman, they also said they didn’t want the vessel to just be zipping around, either; there will be limits to what the ship can do, which leaves plenty of time for even more character development. (Even Murf is due for a character arc.)
After the cursory hand-wringing Discovery jumps straight into the action, with a game of cat-and-mouse as Book and Tarka pursue the DMA and the USS Discovery pursues both the DMA and Book’s ship. It’s a bit exciting, though loaded with technobabble: They can’t outrun each other so the show needs to find sci-fi tricks to keep the chase interesting. But the bulk of the action is still focused solidly on Michael, Book and Tarka, pushing a lot of the usual teamwork and ensuring character interaction usually found in Star Trek shows to the background. It’s still an interesting story, to be sure — it’s just not one that serves its recurring characters very well.