Review of the Week–Star Trek: Discovery

Well, I’ve been dying to talk about this show for a really, really long time now, and since the first season of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access has finally wrapped up this past weekend, you’d better believe I’m taking my chance. For viewers out there, you’d better buckle up, because the latest incarnation of Star Trek to hit the small screen is a twisty-turny mind bender and one hell of a ride.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, Discovery explores an until-now uncharted time period in the Trek universe: the mid 2250s, or about ten years before Jim Kirk’s adventures in The Original Series. After warring with each other for years, the Klingon race becomes united once again by a single goal: the destruction of the expanding Federation, which they fear will take away their identity. Tensions are running high, and into this powder keg steps Michael Burnham, first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou, who also becomes the first Starfleet officer to commit mutiny by disobeying her captain and launching a preemptive strike on the Klingons, triggering all-out war. Some time later, Burnham is released from her lengthy imprisonment by Captain Gabriel Lorca, the hard-nosed commander of the black-ops starship Discovery, on the belief that she will be a useful means to accomplish his goal: ending the war with the Klingons by any means necessary. The key to all of this is Discovery‘s signature technology: a new engine powered by fungal spores that allows the ship to teleport anywhere in the known universe and back in the blink of an eye, rendering traditional warp drive obsolete. What comes next is an adventure that bends space and time and crosses universes as the characters look for a means to end the conflict, and at the same time rediscover who they are as people.

For starters, let’s just give credit where credit is due: Discovery had a lot riding on its shoulders, and for the most part I think it really lived up to, and in some cases surpassed, expectations. The last time Star Trek was on TV was with the four-year-long saga of Enterprise, featuring Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer and the formation of the Federation (a show which gets copious references in Discovery, actually–clearly someone on the writing staff is an Enterprise fan). Trek has such a long and storied history that continuing the franchise in a meaningful way is quite the burden, and while it tried very hard Enterprise never quite lived up to the hype. People demand a lot from Star Trek these days, and in these especially troubled and uncertain times in our world today, people looked to Trek to hold up a mirror to all of us and give us some bold, inspiring, optimistic advice on what to do next.

Needless to say, this made the introduction to Discovery as a series quite bumpy and a shock for many viewers, leading many to complain that it’s not a real Star Trek show. If that criticism were just based on the first two episodes, I could understand, but after seeing the first season in its totality, I couldn’t disagree more. I think Discovery accomplished things and hit a stride that hasn’t been seen since The Next Generation, and maybe even since The Original Series itself in terms of echoing and addressing our modern-day concerns in a futuristic setting. I’ve jokingly said that Discovery is Star Trek’s answer to Game of Thrones: it’s the Star Trek where there’s blood, guts, and violence, exceedingly dark overtones, and where everyone makes the wrong choices all the time. As a fan of dark sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica, I can really appreciate and get behind a show like that, especially with characters as compelling as BSG and Discovery have to offer: admirable, yet deeply flawed and imperfect, just like all of us. And yeah, I get that all-out war is a thing Trek hasn’t covered since Deep Space Nine and is something that might put longtime fans off. Star Trek is about exploration, they argue, not battle. But where’s the harm in trying out something new every now and then?

Anyway, about those characters. The core Discovery gang is really incredibly solid. I don’t think I could point out a weak link among them. From Burnham to Saru, Lorca to Tilly, and Stamets to Tyler/Voq/whoever the hell he is now, every one of them is compelling and yet accessible. A special shout-out goes to Doug Jones, whose portrayal of the Kelpian Saru (a new alien to the Trek universe) is just out of this world. Can he please, please, PLEASE be the captain now? They can be serious or funny, and as dark as this show gets, the humor never really leaves it entirely (see the Harry Mudd episode for a case in point). I only have a few issues on the character point, one of which is that outside the main group, really none of the other people in the show aside from a few random guest stars have much to add. James Frain as a young Sarek (Spock’s dad!) is fantastic and brings a lot more depth to this sometimes enigmatic character, and Michelle Yeoh nails it as both Phillipa Georgeau and her bloodthirsty Mirror Universe counterpart, the Terran Emperor. But what about the rest of the Discovery crew? While TOS featured a fully-fleshed-out crew with the likes of Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura on the bridge, none of the bit players every really have lines at all, much less contribute anything. When are people like Detmer, Rhys, or that weird robot lady going to get some screen time? It was unfortunate that they were treated like unimportant bit players in the overall drama, and it made the Discovery crew feel less like a team than an insiders’ club sometimes.

Also, as cool as it was that the show threw the Mirror Lorca twist at us, I’m not sure where I stand on that move in the end. Call me crazy, but I really liked Lorca–well, at least until the whole sex-predator, racist Terran thing. I’m holding out hope that Jason Isaacs will return to the series at some point and bring Lorca Prime back into the fold somehow–or better yet, how cool would it be to have a parade of other-universe Lorcas kind of like The Flash‘s multiple Harrison Wells duplicates? A guy can dream. I thought Lorca was a fascinating character who definitely deserved to be explored more. He represented the dark side of the Federation and a no mercy, no line is too far attitude that has been absent from Trek maybe since Benjamin Sisko. I almost think the show took the easy way out of explaining his character by saying, “Oh, it’s okay, conflicted viewer. He was just evil all along. Let’s move on.” There’s definitely a little Lorca in all of us, and the primary message of Discovery seemed to be a denial of that bit of ourselves. That’s very uplifting and all, but maybe not as insightful as it could have been. I think a Lorca redemption arc would have been even better in some ways, to let him prove that despite his flaws, he’s a captain worthy of the Star Trek pantheon. Given Discovery‘s ambiguous chain of command, who really is the “captain” of this show anyway? Is it Saru? Lorca? Burnham? Who’s going to be the icon for this series going forward?

In terms of story, I’ll admit I wasn’t really sure where Discovery was going at first with its meandering Klingon war plot, until the side trip to the Mirror Universe snapped everything into place. More on that in a minute. But seriously, how cool was it that we got to see the Mirror Universe again? It’s one of my long-time favorite Star Trek plot devices, and it’s always both a treat and a reality check to see an alternative route things could have gone in comparison to the rosy portrait Trek usually paints of the future. Is it weird that the mirror versions of some of those side characters, especially Detmer, had more personality than their prime counterparts? This was the Terran Empire at the height of its power, and honestly it was pretty creepy, but I feel like we learned more about the Mirror Universe in this show than really any other: about their mindset, ambitions, and the depth of their amorality. They ate Saru for dinner, for crying out loud! That’s horrifying! And yet sometimes, like in the cases of Lorca, Burnham, and Georgeau, the road down the path to being Terran isn’t so far away after all, and its something we all have to recognize.

On the other side of things, I know some people may have been put off by the focus on the Klingons in Discovery, but as for myself, I was very pleased. I’ve never been all that happy with how Star Trek has treated the Klingons as a people: sure, we had Worf as an exemplary representative, but who else really? They’ve largely been portrayed as little more than space cavemen, with barbaric customs, sub-par technology, and prone to impulsive violence and anger. Discovery took leaps and bounds toward making Klingons alien again, and also setting them apart as a distinct and unique culture. Everything from the insides of their ships, their space stations, and even their bodies were redesigned to make the point that these are aliens, and highly advanced ones at that. The sarcophagus ship, for example, said so much about them just by existing. And it was beautiful, too. At times I even wondered how the Federation stood a chance with all the cool toys the Klingons had to use.

I guess I should spend at least a little time addressing the continuity issues that Discovery raises because, while I think they’re pretty piddling concerns by comparison, I’m sure people would be angry if I didn’t. Yes, this Trek features updated special effects that look far more advanced than anything William Shatner had access to in the 60s. Yes, there are holodecks and specialized transporter targeting and apparently cloak-breaking scanners. But you have to keep in mind that if we used the same effects as they did in TOS, nobody would watch. And no one has ever said that holodecks, for example, didn’t exist in Kirk’s era: it’s just that we never saw one because the writers hadn’t thought of it yet. Give me a break, people. If that’s the biggest concern you have about this show, you’ve got too much time on your hands. The same goes for Discovery‘s use of language, or more accurately cursing, that rubbed some fans the wrong way. Look, did I think dropping the F-bomb in Star Trek was necessary? Probably not. Was it funny? Um, yeah, it kind of was. Sure, I think maybe the writers went a little too far sometimes trying to use those kinds of cliche gimmicks to make Discovery younger and hipper and more contemporary, and just because it’s online and they can do that. But like I said before, if that’s the biggest problem you have with the series, move on.

The mushroom engine (spore drive) on the other hand, though–as cool as the concept is, I dare any scientist out there to explain how it even remotely makes sense in any sort of logical context. It’s complete BS. That said, it’s awesome. The idea that Discovery could be like the TARDIS and travel through all of time and space, and even to other universes, opens up an enormous range of storytelling possibilities that Star Trek has never had access to, along with the genetic manipulation and ethics issues raised by Stamets’ direct interface with the engine. It’s fascinating, which makes me sad that the spore drive seems to have been sidelined going forward. What’s the point of Stamets being there if he can’t fly the ship anymore? But who knows? Maybe they’ll break it out in case of emergency at some point. Or the whole sidelining could just be a ploy. Anything’s possible.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t discuss the real-world parallels between Discovery and what’s going on in our reality these days. At its best, I think everyone agrees that Star Trek is supposed to serve as a mirror for the times that it’s made in, allowing us to examine our triumphs and mistakes and maybe chart a better course for ourselves. Sometimes the metaphor is great (DS9, TOS). Other times it’s not so great (Enterprise?). But Discovery may be the best of the lot in my view. The whole central question of the series is how far would you be willing to go to get what you wanted or do what you thought was necessary for the greater good. This can be seen in the Mirror Universe arc, in Lorca, Georgeau, and Burnham’s characters. Furthermore, the question of identity and racial and ideological purity is front and center with the Klingons, the Tyler/Voq debacle, and even that random Vulcan extremists episode. The consequences of your actions are examined as well through Burnham and Harry Mudd.

We live in uncertain times, where identity is up for grabs, truth appears to be subjective, and everything is all about winning, regardless of what price people around you or you yourself might pay for it. I thought the Mirror Universe detour really solidified this idea, and when Admiral Cornell and Sarek basically handed the keys to the Federation over to a ruthless Terran and asked her to lead them into battle and do what they didn’t have the stomach to do themselves, ignoring all their principles, Discovery brought the hammer down on its central message: no amount of winning is worth compromising who we are and our essential humanity. “Our ideals and our principles,” Burnham states at the climax of the series, “are all we have.” We see this kind of trend toward authoritarianism all over the world these days, in so many different countries, because powerful people exploit the fear of those they work for to make a case for extreme measures. But doing so is never right, and we should never compromise freedom for security or our moral high ground for the sake of a victory of the moment. I think this is something a lot of people could use to learn from, and Star Trek as a whole should aspire to do again going forward.

My Rating: 8/10

All in all, I think the first season of Star Trek: Discovery was pretty amazing. There were some stumbles, some imperfections, and the finale was just a tiny bit disappointing. As Trek-like as it felt to talk your way out of problems rather than fighting, did anyone else feel a little let down by Emperor Georgeau’s sudden change of heart and disappearance or the ease by which L’Rell conquered the Klingons? Plus, I wish Lorca’s character could have been handled in a better way. All that said, this is an incredible show that in spite of all the whiners and naysayers out there is about as true to the core of Star Trek as you can get, and even brings a whole new tone of storytelling and universes worth of possibility to the table. You really can’t ask for more than that.

Side note–how about that cliffhanger, huh? I can’t wait to see more of the Enterprise next season and learn more about Christopher Pike and her missions and crew before Kirk. And maybe a certain Vulcan member of her crew, too. What an awesome way to wrap up Year One and bring everything together.

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