Friend of Geek Out Huntsville Shannon Hagarty is a huge Trekkie, and wrote this review of the entirety of Season One of Star Trek Discovery. Be warned, he goes into details of every episode, so there be whale sized spoilers within!
Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air in 2005, bringing an end to nearly 18 consecutive years of Star Trek on television. In the years since then, Star Trek had made appearances on the silver screen in the form of blockbuster movies from J.J. Abrams, but had not returned to TV. In Trek’s absence, the television landscape had changed dramatically.
Serialized TV shows, in which each episode is essentially a chapter in an overarching storyline, had exploded in popularity. Shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica were heavily serialized contemporaries of Enterprise, and as the years went on almost every dramatic TV series had adopted this structure. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Enterprise had at times dabbled in serialized storytelling, Star Trek had usually been an episodic series, with each episode largely standing alone and telling a complete story. In today’s era of binge watching, serialized shows are more popular than ever. Could Trek adapt to this style of television, while still maintaining what makes people love it in the first place?
*Red Alert* Major spoilers from here on out
The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars together serve as a feature length intro for the series and an extended prologue, setting up the Klingon War and Michael Burnham’s character arc for the season. Burham (Sonequa Martin-Green) begins the show as the First Officer of the USS Shenzou, serving under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeow). Burnham is human, but after the murder of her parents by Klingons as a child she was taken in by Sarek (James Frain). For the Trek fans out there, yes, that means that she was essentially raised on Vulcan as Spock’s adopted sister. In the premiere episodes, the USS Shenzou comes face to face with Klingons lead by T’Kuvma (Chris Obi). He believes that he’s the Klingon messiah reborn, and states his goal to unite the 24 Klingon houses against the Federation. This enemy, he believes, will ultimately destroy Klingon culture if not defeated.
These episodes were reviewed by Geekout Huntsville back in September, so to sum things up briefly, Burham stages a short-lived mutiny against her Captain because she thinks that attacking the Klingons is the best course of action. A battle erupts between a fleet of Federation and Klingon ships, ending in a Klingon victory. The CGI battle scenes and impressive sets for the USS Shenzou and Klingon Sarcophagus ship show off the reportedly large budget for the series.
The elephant in the room for some fans of the franchise may be that the show is set in 2256, about a decade before The Original Series, yet it doesn’t look like it. The show is unapologetically a visual reimagining of 23rd century Star Trek in many ways, with only some visual tie ins to what has come before. You can either buy into this type of visual change or you can’t, but for casual viewers such a change was likely necessary.
Battle at the Binary Stars ends with the Federation and the Klingon Empire at war, and Burham given a life sentence in prison for her mutiny against her Captain. However, in Context is for Kings, her prison transport shuttle is intercepted by the USS Discovery, the titular vessel of the series. It turns out that the mysterious Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Issacs) had arranged for her pick-up, and offers her a spot serving aboard his ship. The Discovery is revealed to be a test bed for an experimental propulsion system dubbed the “Spore Drive”. Using the “mycelial network”, the Discovery can “jump” to any location in the galaxy. At the very least, Star Trek Discovery is upholding the tradition of technobabble in Trek. Lorca sees the Spore Drive, the life’s work of Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), as the way to beat the Klingons. And he sees Burnham as an almost equally important asset.
Lorca is a standout character in the first season of Discovery. Star Trek is known for presenting an optimistic view of the future with moral characters, but many of the most popular TV dramas of recent years rely on morally ambiguous anti-heroes and flawed characters. People like Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood, Walter White, and Don Draper would be decidedly out of place in Star Trek’s utopian United Federation of Planets. Enter Gabriel Lorca, a militant Starfleet captain who is willing to bend the rules as long as the ends justify the means. Lorca spends most of the season as an incredibly interesting and layered character, a case study on how the Federation deals with brutal realities of war. That is, at least until the show makes a pit stop in the Mirror Universe.
Yes, that mirror universe. First introduced in the Original Series episode Mirror, Mirror, the Mirror Universe is the home of the Terran Empire and evil twins who wear goatees. It had been revisited in both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, but Discovery chose to devote several episodes to a storyline where the USS Discovery is displaced into this alternate reality. While such a storyline at first seemed like an odd detour from the season’s main Klingon War arc, it wound up providing some of the series’ best episodes to date. Where the Klingon War arc at times felt under written and only passably executed, the Mirror Universe arc shined with well written stories and better character development. The Terran Empire served as an excellent foil for the Federation, providing a dark look at what humanity could be if Federation ideals and morality were compromised or abandoned.
It turns out that Captain Lorca had been from this Mirror Universe all along, secretly using the Spore Drive to make his way back home and steal the throne from Emperor Phillipa Georgiou. This was quite a twist, but it compromised some of Lorca’s prior character development and made him out to be a two-dimensional villain, seeking to Make the Empire Glorious Again (which was a tad on the nose).
While I found Lorca’s reveal to be a bit disappointing, it was a really clever way to provide Discovery with an anti-hero type of main character while not compromising Starfleet’s values and principles. It also helped the show drive home the Federation’s ideals, by painting Lorca as the antithesis of them. His death means that he (likely) will not return, although in a show like this anything is possible. Next season the show may struggle to fill the void left by Jason Issacs’ departure.
Discovery eventually returns to the Prime Universe to find the Klingons winning the war. In the end Burnham and the Discovery crew talk Starfleet’s top brass, including the reoccurring Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) and Sarek, out of a desperate genocidal attack on the Klingon homeworld of Qo’noS. I like that the resolution of the season’s Klingon War arc mostly lived up to Starfleet’s ideals, by finding a solution that wasn’t just blowing the enemy to pieces with torpedoes. However, the ending feels very rushed and sloppy, and some mechanics of the plotting don’t really add up in my opinion.
The season concludes with Burnham’s record being cleared and her officially being welcomed back into Starfleet. En route to picking up the USS Discovery’s new captain, the crew runs into the most famous spaceship in the history of science fiction: The USS Enterprise. This teaser for Season 2 is sure to make many Trek fans geek out and begin counting down the days until the show returns.
Taken as a whole, the first season of Discovery was solid, but not fantastic. While it was entertaining, it did not achieve the heights of some of the best TV shows out there today. The show nailed the characters for the most part, but the storytelling and pacing of the main storyline was very inconsistent. I can’t help but think that the Klingon War could have been better portrayed, as often times in Season 1 the stakes and scale of the conflict weren’t adequately established.
Characters like Saru, Stamets, and Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) were some of the best parts of Season 1. They all grew over the course of the season and were wonderfully portrayed by their actors. Rainn Wilson’s appearances as Original Series character Harry Mudd were a lot of fun, and I think they’ll go down as fan favorites. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) had a convoluted storyline, but was one of the better characters on the show. The reveal that he was actually T’Kuvma’s loyalist Voq did not add as much as I thought it would to the plot, but his story may not be over yet. The romance between Stamets and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), the first gay couple in televised Trek history, was perhaps the best portrayed relationship in all of Star Trek. It is a shame that Culber was a casualty of Season 1, but showrunners insist that we’ve not seen the last of him.
If Discovery can correct some of the storytelling shortcomings from the Klingon War arc in Season 1, it has a great cast of characters to build off of as it boldly goes into Season 2. Discovery proves that Star Trek can work as a modern serialized show, while still maintaining much of what makes Star Trek special to many fans. While at times the show felt more like the dark and gritty Battlestar Galactica than Trek, in the end the ideals that Starfleet and the franchise as a whole are based on manage to shine through. It may not work for every fan, but I respect the changes the show makes to the Trek formula in an attempt to bring something new to the franchise. Development of the show’s first season was famously turbulent behind the scenes, so a more stable creative team going forward may be able to turn Discovery into something truly special. The potential is there.