Oh hey, y’all know the drill. SPOILERS:
I am late to STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Having been burned (and maybe burned out) by ENTERPRISE years ago (I quit sometime during Season Three), I was wary of a new series. I loved Abrams’ 2009 film, but INTO DARKNESS was recycled and derivative, and BEYOND was just a chaotic mess.
Oddly enough, it was INTO DARKNESS that eventually led to me giving in and watching DISCOVERY, despite my reservations. One of the most egregiously manipulative parts of that film was the death of Captain Pike. Pike’s death in INTO DARKNESS was meant to play on the emotions of viewers who remembered Kirk’s bond with Pike in “The Cage”/”The Menagerie.” Almost none of that pathos was earned by the actual film. The character was wasted, and he didn’t even get Susan Oliver weeping prettily over his coffin.
So when I found out Pike was in DISCOVERY–albeit in Season 2–and people were enjoying the portrayal, I let Spouse talk me into giving it a shot.
And wow, wasn’t that a ride.
The start of the season is, to put it mildly, a mess. The first two episodes were not only a waste of time (all of that information could have been told in flashbacks that would have taken far less than 90 minutes), the pacing was way, way off. More than once they’d build up the action, only to cut away to conversational exposition, leaving the urgent plot developments to happen off-screen. It was like someone had been given the pieces of a dozen jigsaw puzzles and told “Make something coherent out of it.”
(This is, as I understand it, kind of what actually happened.)
The sets were dark (this isn’t unique to Star Trek; there seems to be a school of thought that believes dim lighting = Serious Television), and the military discipline was absurdly lax. (I say this as a person who writes a pretty lax pseudo-military structure myself: Burnham should never have climbed the ranks, no matter how smart she was.) I was glad to see Burnham sentenced to life in prison; that, at least, was mildly realistic, given what she’d done.
But in the third episode, the narrative settled down, and the universe started to hook me. They didn’t give Burnham instant redemption–more than that, she didn’t seek it, and in fact shied away from anything that felt like forgiveness. Tilly, who I’d expected to be the annoying Everyperson character showrunners always think they need, turned out to be a realistically awkward, and actually appealing. Lorca was an ass, but an ass I believed as a commander: not brooking much argument, but quick with praise when warranted.
And the rest of the cast…the variety. Not just aliens, but actual diverse human actors. It’s not just Geordi and Harry Kim. I haven’t done the math, but it seems a relatively realistic cross-section of humanity, and I didn’t realize I’d never seen it on Star Trek before until it was before my eyes.
I’d had a few spoilers before watching. I had the vague notion that one of the Klingons would be going undercover, but I missed it for quite a while. Tyler was such a damaged human–I knew something was up with him, but I dismissed the idea that this quiet, broken individual could have been, at any time, a Klingon warrior. And when the character was positioned to be the love interest for our hero, I figured whatever he was hiding had to be something else.
I expected the usual narrative. I was wrong.
And can I just give a shout-out to an actual, realistic, adult relationship? Trek has traditionally done romantic relationships extremely badly. DS9 had an entire episode that could have taken place in a high school, and TNG had so much stalking and harassment it’s actually difficult to watch sometimes.
When Burnham finally confronts Tyler after he’s been exposed, he gives her a long speech about how sorry he is, how much he wants to be different, how he can’t do any of it without her. And she, with more kindness than he deserves, tells him she knows how hard it is to reconstruct yourself when your life has been shattered, but the work is solitary. She gives him empathy and forgiveness, but she doesn’t swoop in to rescue him. He’s not cured by the love of a good woman. She doesn’t sacrifice her psyche to mother him back to health. She recognizes that he has to do his own fixing, and she lets him go.
I may love the show forever for that.
This isn’t to say there weren’t missteps. I loved Emperor Georgiou, but Evil Lorca? Far too mustache-twirly. I figured Mirror Universe Lorca, if he’d been pursued by Burnham because he’d tried to topple the Empire, might be a rebel. His odd boundaries and love for weapons had been established, but he was also a solid, level-headed leader. I could have believed he was a Mirror Universe underdog, fighting a battle destined to be lost, defeated by Evil Burnham.
But no, they had to go with daddy issues, and (ugh) sexual exploitation. Because OF COURSE. Because even if he’d been Evil Lorca, he couldn’t be Evil enough without a dose of pedophilia and child abuse. Having to choose between her de facto parents would have been enough of a horror story for Mirror Burnham. This pushed Lorca’s character into “we no longer care that he spent three episodes in the Agonizer” territory.
No, kids. Don’t do that. Make me care he was in the Agonizer. Make me feel sorry for him, even though he’s evil. Let him retain some nuance, some humanity. Make his death feel ever so slightly unfortunate.
And I won’t get too much into Stamets/Culber, because I know some Season 2 spoilers about that. I understand why a lot of people were upset at Culber’s death; it’s hard not to see it as a “bury your gays” moment. At the same time…the death felt earned, proper. Tyler would have sought medical help for his symptoms; Voq would have murdered anyone who could have exposed him before his mission was finished. It made sense that the ship’s doctor would die. But…yeah. Not quite sure how to feel about that, even knowing what happens next.
There are also some convenient Deus Ex Fungus moments, but I forgive them, because Trek has always pulled absurd rabbits out of hats when the plot has needed them. And I like these characters now. They get some leeway here. Some. The final episode fell rather flat, and the resolution to the Klingon war was, frankly, unrealistic. But it tied things up in a nice bow, so they could start Season 2 with a brand-new story arc.
As for the cast: Michelle Yeoh needs to be in all the things; she’s really good at the bitter arrogance thing. I’ll miss Jason Isaacs a lot, and Shazad Latif walks a nice line between brash young officer and shattered human being. Anthony Rapp does maybe a little bit too much channeling of Alan Tudyk’s Wash, but he and Mary Wiseman are a realistic pair of coworkers. Wilson Cruz is somewhat underutilized, but he’s a quiet, confident foil, and a realistic partner for Rapp’s Stamets. And Sonequa Martin-Green carries the show pretty effortlessly, which isn’t surprising given her experience. Her character is not always likable, but we never lose our connection with her. We want her to succeed. We want her to do the right thing. We want her to find a way forward, even when she doesn’t believe she deserves it.
So…yeah, DISCOVERY surprised me. Best Trek ever? Certainly not. Best Trek I’ve seen in a long time? In a lot of ways, yes. Trek I’m going to keep watching, at least through Season 2? You bet.
Liz’s Utterly Meaningless Rating: 6.5/10 for unevenness and some overly convenient plot points, but enough 10/10 moments to make me watch through the lulls.
3 thoughts on “Review(ish): STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season One)”
Great review! I only made it through part of season 1 and it just didn’t grab me. But I’ve been thinking of giving the show another chance. There are a number of shows I want to watch on All Access (especially Picard) anyway so might be worth the subscription!
I don’t know if you’re a binge watcher, but CBS gives you a week for free. There are 4 episodes of Picard up so far, and all the other Star Trek you could want. 🙂
A Twitter friend told me Discovery was very uneven, but really hooked him in the last three episodes. I’d agree with that, although I thought the final episode was too quick a wrap-up of all the subplots, and curiously tension-free. And the first episode of S2 felt like it was trying to haul the show toward humor and flash, and didn’t really work for me. We’ll see if it catches me later.
Trek has always struggled with inconsistency. I notice that a lot as I re-watch with my kid. TNG has maybe 20 episodes that I actually enjoy watching, and I find a lot of the tropes of DS9 – which I loved – feel very dated. (TOS is too much part of my DNA for me to judge it objectively!) It’s always been more of a triumph of worldbuilding over plot. These days, with shows like The Expanse that is consistent even in its less compelling episodes, a show as uneven as Discovery stands out, and not in a good way.
I’ll keep watching. The cast is quite good, although I’m side-eyeing the guy who plays Pike. The fandom seems to like him, though, so I’ll give him the season.
I’m going to time my subscription so I can maximize the value of the trial period! Besides the Treks, I wanted to watch The Good Fight. The first few seasons are now available elsewhere but I’m tired of waiting for Trek.
I agree with you completely about inconsistency. This was even true with TOS. There were always a number of episodes each season that were very formulaic. Distress call, land on planet, random alien kills one of the redshirts, don’t know what to do, at the last minute Kirk has an idea and everyone (except the unfortunate first redshirt) is saved! With TNG wasn’t the whole first season kind of recycled TOS episodes? Often with Data in the parallel Spock role? Also they were all episodic. It definitely improved in season 2. The Borg plotlines in later seasons went to dark places TOS would never have done. That was a big step. And watching Picard spar with Q was always a treat! Later on I really had a hard time with the arc they gave to Wesley Crusher. I didn’t expect his path to be all rainbows but I didn’t quite get the overarching reason for the outcome they gave him. He was such a unique part of TNG.
I’ll have to check out the new Pike and see what I think! Can’t stop thinking of what he looked like in the long ago pilot!