I've mentioned that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has problems, and that it's not too late to take steps to fix those problems. Fixing those problems boils down to developing the characters and plot more beyond the standard "Monster of the Week" formula that many of the episodes so far have focused on. Conflicts with trying to match the scope of the movie franchise are inevitable as there's no way the show can match the budget of the movies, but that's not the biggest problem the show has. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I started to remember a certain show that also belonged to a huge franchise that was able to do big things on just a syndicated budget. I think there are a few lessons the AoS crew (Whedon exempt, of course) can learn from watching a few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation...and to be fair, maybe a few lessons for viewers as well.
It's possible for even a good show to start out slow
Whedon is certainly exempt from this lesson as Buffy and even Firefly haven't had the most dramatic, out-of-the-gate starts. Buffy still looks like a thoroughbred hopped up on methamphetamines compared to the Seasons 1 and 2 drone of TNG. Actually, TNG's problem was two-fold: it was slow and it was just plain-old awful. Justice, The Outrageous Okana and especially Code of Honor weren't just slow and awful, but where several steps backward compared to both the storytelling quality and social message the original Star Trek had become renowned for.
Obviously, things got better. It took a few behind-the-scenes shake-ups but TNG was able to meet and then exceed the storytelling quality of the original series. It's certainly possible for AoS to experience the same kind of growth - but keep in mind, when I said TNG underwent a few behind-the-scenes shake-ups, I mean Russ Mayberry (who directed the episode Code of Honor) was let go, Roddenberry himself had to surrender some power and two key individuals by the name of Brannon Braga and Rick Berman were brought in to help helm the show. Yes, the same two men who brought us Star Trek: Voyager and (Star Trek) Enterprise (and insisted that Enterprise be sans Star Trek in its first few seasons). My point is that it might take some dramatic crew changes - and given the dipping performance of AoS it might be inevitable. As controversial a move as it always is, the point of changing out the guard isn't to hurt the show but to help it, and if such a move is made it may hopefully be with people who are better able to make a product more closely matching the feel of the movie franchise within the show's budget. Who knows, maybe it will mean Whedon's greater involvement.
You don't need a big budget to have slick-looking sets
The interior of the "Bus" certainly isn't too cheap-looking, but goes overboard with the industrial and chromed-out metal look to arguably bland effect. Then again, it is on an airplane so it's to be expected. That said, I still think the sets on AoS tend to be generic.
TNG on the other hand was able to create an interior for the Enterprise-D that came to define it as much as the exterior. The bridge was marked by a dramatic, low-angle arch made of wood, with carpeted floors and fancy command chairs in a nice off-beige color. Really, the whole thing looks like it was designed by Lexus.
...which isn't really the point of a starship.
...or not exactly the antithesis of bland. Ok, I'll admit my argument is falling apart here.
But the interior of the Enterprise-D at least looked inviting, for what that's worth. The ship's engineering room, on the other hand, truly was a wonder of what the future could possibly bring, with just a right mix of an industrialized hard edge with computerized gee-whiz-bang (I'm hoping you're keeping up with my technical terms here).
Even the ship's hallways were clean and warm-looking, even if they did carry over the beige-ness of the ship's other areas:
Perhaps it's only because of the strength of the franchise or the fact that the ship was the most important setting of the show, but the Enterprise's interior, at least in my mind, has come to define the show as much as any other aspect.
You don't need anything fancy or special to tell great stories
The first five minutes of Best of Both Worlds begins with Riker, Data, Whorf and Commander Shelby (a Borg expert brought onto the mission) staring at a giant crater that used to be a Federation colony. It was a great opening and an effective way to introduce the kind of threat the Borg represent.
The vast majority of the rest of the two-part special takes place either on the standard Enterprise sets or (briefly) on the Borg ship, which wasn't all that fancy of a set either.
Best of Both Worlds didn't even have that much going in the special effects department either. Yes, there was a giant particle beam shot from the Enterprise's deflector dish. Yes, there was a pretty fancy if small-scale battle between the two sections of the Enterprise and the Borg cube. And the cube exploded. But that was pretty much the extent of the episode's special effects. The big battle that had severe ripple-effects not only in-universe for the Federation but throughout the Star Trek franchise, the Battle of Wolf 359, took place entirely off-screen (and would remain so until Deep Space 9's pilot). Despite the episode's limitations, it's one of the most memorable episodes of the entire franchise. Hell, you probably didn't even notice the limitations until I just pointed them out.
Think back to another highly praised TNG episode, Yesterday's Enterprise. Save for a few redressed sets for the interior of the Enterprise-C and a new ship model, once again the episode was played off entirely on the strength of the script and the characters. Once again, the big battle that the episode revolved around was rather limited in special effects shots. The storytelling of the episode was so strong that it not only rose above those limitations but became an oft-cited example of great science fiction in American television.
I'm going to revisit another show that I've compared to AoS, format: wise: House. Probably the most beloved episode of that whole series is "Three Stories." That episode worked because, as the title of the episode implies, it revolved around simple yet good storytelling. It used the traits and strengths of the characters (like House's sarcasm) to tell those stories. And then it whammed us at the very end by revealing that these stories have more to tell about House as a character than the characters the stories were ostensibly about. Fancy sets and location shooting probably don't hurt storytelling, but they certainly aren't necessary to tell great stories. Like the House example, the best stories are able to reveal the characters in surprising, unexpected and entertaining ways. Actually, speaking of which:
Feel free to plumb the depths of your imagination and go outside of the show's comfort zone
This is a bit risky because there are good and bad stories that lie outside of a show's comfort zone. But given the stale and bland storylines AoS is already stuck with, halfway through its first season, going outside of the comfort zone can't hurt it at this point.
Like "Three Stories," TNG's "The Inner Light" tells a lot about Picard (and humanity) in a surprising, unexpected way. The episode opens with the Enterprise encountering an unknown alien threat, and then suddenly the audience and Picard find themselves on an alien world, living quite an alien life. It's a very outside-the-box kind of story for what the audience is used to for TNG - and yet it fits the tone and even mission statement of the show exactly. Very little of it actually features the Enterprise or the familiar crew save for Picard. The vast majority of the episode takes place on a primitive yet familiar world bereft of any of the futuristic technology we tune in to TNG for. And yet it ends up being an extremely well-told, heartfelt story that's exactly about the type of humanity Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to be about.
Perhaps the only other episode that can match the power of "The Inner Light" is next season's "Tapestry." Once again, very little of it features the Enterprise or its crew, being almost entirely focused on Picard. Rather than introducing a storyline completely foreign, the focus becomes Picard's own untold personal past, and we even get a familiar character (Q) to act as a tour guide. This episode rises and falls based on not only the interaction between Q and Picard, but how Picard reacts to and validates his own nostalgia. It's certainly got interesting-looking aliens, but those aliens and their culture are besides the point, not the focus. Despite taking place on a Federation training outpost, it's lacking any real futuristic feel. In fact, thanks to the strength of Picard's nostalgia, it even feels like it's taking place somewhere in the past - and that's the point. Like "The Inner Light," "Tapestry" explores the same aspects Roddenberry pushed Star Trek on by means that don't strictly involve starships, vast battles or super-exotic worlds.
Note: Images from Memory-Alpha. Some of the background information also comes from there, but much of it (particularly the Seasons 1 and 2 BTS-skake-up of TNG) come from Chuck Sonnenberg's excellent Sci-Fi Debris series on Blip.