Discovery is Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it.
I was late arriving to the party but I’ve been catching up with seasons one and two of Star Trek: Discovery over the past three months. After an uneven start, I’ve enjoyed this sixth incarnation of Trek. It’s flawed but when it hits the high notes it really soars.
A new premise
Discovery is the first Trek show that focuses on a character other than its commanding officer. We’ve had Captains Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Archer and Deep Space Nine‘s Commander Sisko. But Discovery centres on Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green). Initially First Officer of the USS Shenzhou, she is stripped of her rank for committing mutiny but is then reinstated as a science specialist aboard Discovery.
Set ten years before the original Star Trek, season one focusses on the Klingon/Federation war. Added to this, we have the mystery behind Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Hello, old friends
En route, there were plenty of nods to established canon. Front and centre is the revelation that Michael is the adopted daughter of Vulcan ambassador Sarek – and therefore Spock’s sister. We also saw a younger (and more sinister) Harcourt Fenton Mudd. And the season concluded with a multi-episode arc in the Mirror Universe, with the return of the Terran equivalent of Burnham’s former captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
Season two upped the ante in terms of fan service. The introduction of Christopher Pike (a charismatic turn by Anson Mount) as Discovery’s temporary captain was a welcome addition. We got to see a 21st century take – thankfully, a faithful one – on the Enterprise. Most of all, though, the show reintroduced Spock (Ethan Peck). This was risky but ultimately paid off. However, Spock’s development came at the cost of other characters. There were times when it felt like the showrunners were more interested in producing a Star Trek tribute show than fleshing out Discovery.
There were also plenty of jarring breaks with continuity. Spock had never previously spoken of a sibling, requiring a major suspension of disbelief. Holographic communications felt out of place in the context of the other Trek shows. Most of all, Discovery’s revolutionary spore drive should have rendered warp drive obsolete. A huge continuity reset in the season two finale conveniently explained these away, but it should never have needed that.
In addition, the move towards serialised rather than standalone stories was a big change. Instead of visiting ‘strange new worlds’ with exotic aliens every week, each season centres on a single story arc. This gave the show a very different feel to its predecessors. It took some getting used to.
Who are these characters?
Discovery‘s biggest flaws, however, are to do with its (lack of) character development.
The show can do character focus well. Throughout season two, Pike cut a noble, compassionate, dignified figure. However, too often character development took a back-seat to high-stakes action and helter-skelter plotting.
Burnham herself is intriguing but too much of her character development has revolved around her relationships with both Spock and her real and adoptive parents, rather than her crewmates. She’s a fiercely driven individual with a martyr complex who the writers repeatedly put through the emotional wringer. When she has the chance to show her subtle side, Martin-Green is fantastic. However, it doesn’t happen often enough.
Lorca was mysterious and ruthless but ultimately a one-note villain. Each of the other main characters has had their moment in the spotlight: Saru (Doug Jones), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). However, too often their presence was minimal and lacking in nuance.
The second half of season two noticeably threw character development out of the window in a rush to progress the season arc. We knew nothing about Commander Airiam until the episode in which she died, so the emotional reaction to her death was unearned. We have seen only glimpses of Stamets’ relationship with Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), even after the latter’s return from the dead. And we still know little about the other bridge officers: Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys and Bryce.
There’s potential for so much more here. It’s a missed opportunity – but it remains an opportunity nonetheless.
The best and the worst of Discovery
Season two’s two-part finale, Such Sweet Sorrow, sums up everything that is both flawed and brilliant about Discovery.
For starters, there is some seriously dodgy science. Light signals that travel 50,000 light years with no time lag. Non-ferrous nanoparticles that can be magentised.
The pacing is off, particularly in part one. Too much time is spent on emotional farewells and the galaxy’s slowest evacuation ever. (We’re going to blow up the ship but by all means pause to record personal messages and gather belongings first.) And there is way too much portentous speech-making. It drags – a lot.
But once the action starts, oh my. Discovery always excels in its effects work and the CGI team worked overtime to bring us the mother of all space battles. It looks amazing. And the quieter character moments – Burnham and Spock, Pike and Admiral Cornwell, Stamets and Culber – work because they are sparing and advance the plot effectively.
If part one is one of Trek history’s dullest hours, part two is one of its finest.
Better still, the final reveal performs a promising reset for the show as Discovery is flung into the unexplored Beta Quadrant. This hints at a third season of genuine (pardon the pun) discovery and new story-telling opportunities.
So is Star Trek: Discovery actually any good? Actually, yes, it is.
It’s easy to look back on the previous shows with rose-tinted glasses. But the original Trek had its share of clunkers. For every City on the Edge of Forever there was a Spock’s Brain. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine didn’t hit their stride until their third seasons. And Voyager and Enterprise were both patchy.
Where the latter two shows soon became tired and derivative, Discovery still feels fresh and different. With a more settled production team and a good setup for season three, there’s every reason to believe the show can boldly go where no Trek series has gone before.