Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery season 4 follow.
Without futuristic technology, there would be no Star Trek. Sure, the innovative stories and famous Kirk/Spock/McCoy axis had something to do with the show’s early popularity. But, if the Enterprise didn’t have transporters, warp drive and subspace communication, its original five-year mission would have floundered before it had even left Spacedock.
Back then, boundary-stretching tech was a narrative-driven and practical necessity. 1960s network TV budgets wouldn't allow a spaceship to land on a new planet every week. Meanwhile, forcing viewers to watch the crew on decades-long voyages between worlds – waiting years for Starfleet to respond to their enquiries – would have been commercial suicide. But beaming up and hitting warp factor five soon became integral to the franchise’s DNA, and the ground-breaking tech would later be joined by the holodecks and LCARS displays seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
When Star Trek: Discovery travelled to the 32nd century at the start of season 3, however, the tech content went up to another level. Beyond exploring even stranger new worlds and seeking out newer life and civilizations, Michael Burnham, Saru and the rest of the crew suddenly found themselves in a universe where programmable matter, portable transporters, and phasers that materialize in the palm of your hand are taken for granted.
None of that’s a problem in itself, of course – the morphing starships and floating computer displays look amazing, while expecting nothing to have changed in the 900 years between Discovery’s original time zone and the 32nd century would be as ridiculous as suggesting that our present looks the same as Richard the Lionheart’s.
But, when technology can do anything, anytime you want it to, it has a tendency to suck the drama out of a story more quickly than a malfunctioning airlock.
A kind of magic
2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But this is the plane of existence on which Star Trek: Discovery now resides; its tech so sophisticated and ubiquitous that the crew’s gadgets are essentially spells, charms and incantations wrapped up in sci-fi clothing. When Commander Stamets casually uses his personal transporter to travel from Engineering to the Bridge in a blink of an eye, he might as well be apparating out of a fireplace with Harry Potter and the Weasleys – he doesn’t even need to say a magic word to do it.
Ironically, the show’s writers seemed to acknowledge the pitfalls of pushing the technological envelope too far when they first transported the show to the 32nd century. The future Federation that the Discovery crew first encountered was a shadow its former self, the so-called Burn having rendered all warp travel impossible. With that minor inconvenience now resolved, however, travel between worlds is back on the agenda and there are seemingly no limits to what Starfleet can do.
While many fantasy writers are wise enough to understand that sorcery has the potential to overpower a story without rules to restrict its use, there’s little evidence Star Trek: Discovery is applying similar restraint with the technological witchcraft at its fingertips.
The tech is also used in a frustratingly inconsistent manner. In season 4 episode ‘Anomaly’, for example, Stamets accompanies Cleveland Booker on a dangerous mission to gather information on a vast, mysterious entity – except he doesn’t, because he’s actually back on Discovery, neural-linked to a holographic version of himself.
This poses a huge question for the future of the show: if it’s possible for a member of the crew to work from home, projecting themselves into an avatar that responds to its surroundings in real-time, why would anybody ever leave the ship on a risky away mission?
And why did Captain Burnham, just a week earlier, abandon her place on the bridge to fly into a debris field when her virtual self could have done it instead? Okay, we wouldn’t have seen her undeniably cool spacesuit materialize from the ether with the elegant ease of Iron Man’s nanotech outfit, but you can’t help feeling the use (or non-use) of the tech is based on the whims of the writers’ room rather than the needs of the story.
In fact, they effectively have to contrive a situation to remove that technological safety net – when the only thing a crew has to worry about is a planet-gobbling mass of dark matter, Star Trek is entering perilous territory.
The show is now so futuristic that it’s in danger of losing any connection to the real world. While Star Trek has always stretched the laws of physics, often by necessity –curse you, Einstein, with your troublesome relativity and your E=mc2 – there’s traditionally been some effort to explain away the made-up science in almost-plausible terms
In Discovery, however, tech-magic is so integral to the fabric of the show that it seems to exist almost for its own sake. Indeed, when Burnham creates a forcefield around herself to make a private call in ‘Anomaly’ – a rip-off of Get Smart’s intentionally ridiculous Cone of Silence – you can’t help wonder why she didn’t just take it in the next room. Is walking no longer the done thing in the 32nd century?
Discovery forgets that technology that works shouldn’t be more than set-dressing; a tool to establish a sense of time and place, but never the story in itself. It’s worth remembering that most of sci-fi’s best tales about future tech delight in telling us what happens when it goes wrong – it’s pretty much the entire reason for Black Mirror’s existence.
The show’s expanding toolkit of programmable matter, morphing starships and holographic stand-ins is in danger of being to Trek what the Sonic Screwdriver too often is to Doctor Who – a magic wand that can do whatever the writer needs to resolve a tricky plotline.
There are countless examples of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager crews pulling some piece of technobabble from thin air to solve a problem – or inventing some miraculous piece of tech to save the day – but there’s usually at least a hint of scientific reasoning to help it make sense. If Discovery continues to use its tech-magic without restriction, the lines between sci-fi and fantasy will start to blur.
So maybe it’s time for the writers’ room to pin that famous Arthur C. Clarke quote to the office wall, because Star Trek is better off leaving the magic to Star Wars.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 stream on Paramount Plus in the US on Thursdays. The show airs on Pluto TV in the UK.
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Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.