Dramatic Dissonance

In my reviews of Star Trek Picard, I’ve started using the term ‘dramatic dissonance’ to describe something that we’re seeing on-screen. This particular phenomenon or quality may already have a term to describe it – if it does, I don’t know what it is, so for now I’m going to use ‘dramatic dissonance’ (to mimic the phrase ‘dramatic irony’). And while I’ve started using this term in my Star Trek Picard reviews, it’s something I’ve seen in lots of other shows too – like Star Trek Discovery and recent Doctor Who – so I thought I’d write a blog post about it in order to define it more clearly.

Dramatic dissonance is when the reactions of the characters to each other, or to the events of the story, are different to the audience’s reaction to the characters or to the events of the story.

Here’s an example of this: one character says something, and several other characters around them consider it a very awkward thing to say, or a faux pas, but the audience doesn’t think that it’s an awkward thing to say.

Here’s another: one character does something (it could be anything), and all of the characters around them think that this character is a genius for doing it, but the audience isn’t impressed by it at all.

This second example is one we’ve seen a lot in both Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery – in fact this second example is often a way of determining whether a character is a Mary Sue. (Other characters will just think that they’re brilliant no matter what they do.)

Dramatic dissonance is a bad quality for a show to have. It is, by its very definition, unrealistic, and if a show has it, the audience will sense something is amiss, even if they can’t quite put it into words. The audience can sense it because things in the show don’t seem to make sense.

I’m not sure I could exactly say what the origins of dramatic dissonance in a show actually are, but I don’t think it’s an acting problem – I think it comes from the writing. It may come from writers thinking too much about ‘How do I want this character to react?’ rather than ‘How would they react?’.

Star Trek Picard – Series 1 Episode 4 – I guess this is the level we’re working at

Hmmm. I liked this episode, but I have five pages of notes on it – that’s a lot more than usual. They’re all quite disconnected, and I think the only way of going through them is to go through them as they appeared in the episode.

Firstly, I liked the planet Vashti. This was actually the main reason why I liked the episode. I thought the look of the planet was very well designed – it was very distinctive. The whole opening sequence was set on the planet, and I think it was very immersive.

It was also nice to hear some Romulan. As much as I can’t stand Star Trek Discovery, one of the few things I did like about it was the inclusion of a lot of Klingon. Having characters speak in alien languages in a show adds to the realism. It creates more of a sense that these alien races are real and have real cultures.

The next point in my notes is that the dialogue in the show is still very, very unnatural. This is something that came up A LOT in the episode – I’ll return to it later with specific examples. So often the things that the characters say are not the things that any real person would say at that point in a real conversation. It’s jarring.

Another quick aside, Ian Nunney, who plays the young Elnor in this episode, is outstanding – he’s better than many of the older actors.

Now we get to some bigger points. The character of Dr. Jurati, who in previous episodes I quite liked, in this episode spontaneously becomes completely obnoxious. She has a conversation with Chris Rios, the captain of the ship they’re all on. She opens with ‘Space turns out to be super-boring.’ while something very interesting happens behind her. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me the idea of getting to look out of a ship as it’s travelling faster than the speed of fucking light sounds pretty fucking amazing.

After Chris Rios says something that’s full-on fucking edgelord, she says sarcastically ‘Well that’s not a conversation killer at all.’. But while what Chris Rios said was a bit weird and trying too hard, it wasn’t a fucking conversation killer – it had the potential to be quite interesting. What was a conversation killer, Dr. Jurati, was you listing off stats about the galaxy. See what I mean about this show having really weird dialogue? The show is trying to be banter-y, but the writers have no fucking idea how to write that.

It occurred to me while watching this episode that Dr. Jurati is basically just Tilly from Star Trek Discovery. They’re both nerdy; they’re both awkward; they’re both hyper-positive. They both just go up to people and start talking to them. They even have many of the same facial expressions. While I didn’t dislike Tilly in STD, is new Star Trek capable of writing any other kinds of character? This is just what non-nerds think nerds are like.

On the subject of obnoxious characters, Raffi is endlessly annoying. She can never let anyone else be right – she always has to correct them, often with patronising incredulity – particularly if anyone dares to infer what she might mean by something she’s said. It’s infuriating to watch, and I think it’s both a writing problem and an acting problem.

It’s become evident that this show is trying to assemble its ‘gang’. This is a concept that’s very familiar from shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender – your main characters form a group that goes around from place to place and adventure to adventure – each person in the group has distinctive personality traits and abilities (so that they all depend on each other), but they work well together as a group, even if some of them don’t get along sometimes.

The problem is that having a ‘gang’ like this depends on having likeable characters, and only Jean-luc is likeable out of this lot.

Anyway, we had some more stupid dialogue. Dr. Jurati says ‘Anyone else think the Way of Absolute Candor sounds potentially annoying.’ Oh ha ha very funny but no. That actually sounds pretty fucking convenient. What is annoying, however, is you.

Raffi says ‘Your basic impenetrable shield of orbital killer drones.’ – Who the fuck wrote this? A fucking five-year-old?

Elnor is just an elf from Middle Earth. Even the name ‘Elnor’ is pretty fucking elvish. Picard even asks him ‘Will you bind your sword to my quest?’ at one point – this is just Lord of the Fucking Rings!

While on the subject of Elnor, it’s annoying that when he and Picard meet for the first time after about fourteen years, we don’t get to see their initial reactions – it cuts away. This is something that seems to happen a lot in film and television nowadays, and it’s very annoying.

Not-quite-finally, another thing that I really didn’t like about this episode was the portrayal of many of the Romulans on Vashti. The Romulans weren’t very Romulan. In The Next Generation, the Romulans are of course militaristic, but they are also pensive, cunning, cautious, and sly. That makes them unique among the enemies of the Federation, and very ominous.

All of that is gone here. In this episode, they’re just space thugs. Why does every alien race in new Star Trek seem to become space thugs? It’s the same thing that happened with the Klingons in STD. It’s as though the writers of new Star Trek can’t conceive of any other form of evil than thuggishness.

On this same point, the actor who played the former Romulan senator clearly has never seen classic Star Trek. He has none of the presence that previous actors who’ve played Romulans of that kind of status had.

And then finally … Jeri Ryan’s still got it. The five seconds of her that we got at the end of the episode were better than the rest of the fucking episode. What is it about these actors from older shows that means that they’re just far better on screen? I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s probably that they can do performances with subtlety. The two or three facial expressions that we got from Jeri Ryan at the end of the episode were more engaging than any line said by any other character in the whole forty minutes.

So when I say I enjoyed this episode, I mean that it was engaging to watch, but it was also punctuated by lots of very annoying moments. In that regard it was similar to all of the episodes we’ve had so far – it looks like this whole series is going to be filled with these annoying moments.

Star Trek Picard – Series 1 Episode 3 – A bit annoying at times

I am still, mostly, enjoying Star Trek Picard. I’m still enjoying the mystery – I still want to know what the Zhat Vash are up to and why the androids went mad. But this series is far from perfect, and it remains not as good as its predecessor – The Next Generation (I am continuing a re-watch of all of TNG, and it’s amazing how well that show holds up compared to many more recently-made shows). I have two pages of notes in my notebook about this episode – most of them are quite disconnected from each other, so I think rather than just go through them all in this review, I’ll focus on the problems in this episode that were very apparent, and which are present in all of the episodes of this series so far.

Firstly, a lot of the characters in this series are played far too over-the-top. In this episode this was the case for both Raffi and Chris. This is an odd problem. The reason why it is a problem in the first place is that it makes the emotions of the characters seem wildly disproportionate to the problems that they have and the situation that they’re in. It undermines the realism and it’s very annoying to watch.

And I think this is both an acting problem and a writing problem. The dialogue of this show is, a lot of the time, not well written. It is cheap – the writers keep trying to tell things to the audience via the dialogue, rather than the dialogue just being what that character would say at that time and in that situation. It’s very difficult to perform bad dialogue well – bad dialogue can make a performance seem over-the-top. But this is also an acting problem. It’s as though the actors believe that more emotion is always better – the more you veer wildly from one mood to the next, the better your performance is. This is not true, and it’s why you don’t see Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner do it.

Secondly, and similarly, many times in this episode, and this series, characters just exposit their own backstory to each other. Raffi does this a lot in this episode – she just tells Picard, and the audience, everything about her life for the last fourteen years. Chris does it too – he just has a conversation with a hologram (who seems to appear just so that the audience can be exposited to), in which he explains the important parts of his backstory and what he thinks of his current situation. It’s very cheap. You are supposed to realise not to do this kind of exposition early on as a writer – you are sacrificing realistic dialogue for the sake of giving backstory that is not needed yet, and which would be better if left as a mystery for now.

Underlying both of these points is the fact that this show is trying very hard to be ‘gritty’ and ‘bad-ass’. Lots of the new characters are moody and sarcastic (though they’re quite bad at sarcasm), and clearly the writers of this show had the phrase ‘morally grey’ whizzing around their brains a bit too much. This seems to mimic a trend that we’ve seen in Hollywood films and television shows over the last twenty years or so – for grittier, grungier worlds. It works fine for things like the Dark Knight trilogy, but it’s somewhat antithetical to Star Trek. The world depicted in this show does not seem like the same world as in classic Star Trek. It makes this series seem more like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than The Next Generation.

I did like the fight scene in this episode. It was a complete surprise, and very tense – exactly how that situation would seem in real life, which was great. Dr. Jurati’s reaction to having just killed someone was portrayed excellently too.

So this series has flaws, but for now they are somewhat ignorable, and the show continues to be enjoyable. (Although if there’s one thing I really did hate about this episode it was Raffi calling Picard ‘JL’ – fuck off with that. This is desperately trying to show these two characters as being familiar, but that should be done through the actors’ performances. This doesn’t make Raffi and Jean-luc look like they’ve been friends for a long time – it just makes Raffi look like a twat.)