TV Review: Star Trek Discovery – Season One

I am very late to this game–a full year, in fact–but I finally watched Star Trek: Discovery.  Lack of access and doubtful reports kept me from exploring the newest installment of the Star Trek franchise for a long time.  I finally realized the library had it on DVD, which seemed like the perfect level of investment.  Watching it was, frankly, a bit rocky…but I’m ultimately glad I did.

As the series opens, it’s frankly hard to tell (or feel) that we’re in the Star Trek franchise.  I use the word “franchise” deliberately, because the universe is discernible, but the things that make Star Trek what it is seemed notably lacking.  We’re following the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Starfleet officer who is involved in the start of a war with the Klingon empire.  She blames herself for the war; I frankly never figured out how it was her fault.  Discovery, the ship, doesn’t show up until Episode Three, where we meet her captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).  Stamets is the inventor of a new propulsion system that runs on mushrooms.  Sort of.  It may be the key to winning the war with the Klingons.

I’m just going to be upfront here and say that I struggled with a LOT of things in this show.  Most of it was resolved or at least moved past by the end of the season but…yeah, if this didn’t have Star Trek as part of its title, I probably wouldn’t have watched past the third episode (which I still think was the low point).  In the interest of giving a full picture…I’m going to go ahead and include spoilers.  You have been warned!

This show is darker, metaphorically and sometimes literally, than any previous Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine included.  It’s gorier, which I did not appreciate and never reconciled to; it’s hardly a slasher, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to avert my eyes from blood in a Star Trek episode before, and it happened here repeatedly.  And a big arc of the season is asking whether Starfleet is going to be noble and honorable and uphold ideals of justice.  The ultimate answer, I am happy to report, was YES.  But there were stretches in here where it didn’t look like it would be.  And when you start with that, I had no confidence that the showrunners hadn’t decided to go a very different direction with Star Trek, and not one I would support.  Fortunately, it seems, they did not…and I hear we get more back to “business as usual” for Star Trek in Season Two.

Let’s talk about Lorca, who was right at the heart of things–but whose plotline was ultimately redeemed.  Captain Lorca is, from the outset, a much more militant, far less noble captain than we’ve seen before–and I say this as someone’s whose favorite captain is quick-on-the-trigger Captain Kirk.  I struggled with putting Lorca in line with Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Archer.  He just didn’t belong there, I didn’t want him helming a Star Trek series, and I was frankly hoping he’d get killed and replaced (because it was already apparent it was that kind of a show).

Spoilerific good news!  We eventually learn that Lorca was never supposed to be the new Star Trek captain, and he was never supposed to be the moral center of the show.  Quite the contrary–he’s the secret villain, which explains a LOT and proves to be a pretty brilliant twist.  If the show had somehow told me in Episode 3 that the writers knew this guy was not okay as a Star Trek captain, I probably would have been a lot calmer about the whole thing.  So, if you haven’t seen it, now I’m telling you.  You’re welcome!

Michael grew on me somewhat, and I ultimately found her an interesting character, but I still don’t quite love her.  Maybe it’s because I tend not to love characters unless they make me laugh at least once.  By contrast, I did grow very fond of Saru (Doug Jones), Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and, to my own surprise, Stamets.  Saru and Tilly in particular are interesting characters for the Star Trek world because they’re not as sure of themselves as Starfleet officers usually are.  Saru comes from a race with a highly tuned fear instinct and Tilly is a too-talkative, frequently-apologizing cadet.  They both bring something different into the Star Trek world that I enjoyed.

We also meet Lt. Tyler (Shazad Latif) partway through the episode, and he…followed the opposite trajectory to Lorca.  He started strong, then a twist in the story just muddled everything up.  Tyler was held captive by the Klingons for months, and stayed alive because his female Klingon captor “took a liking to him.”  He appears to have PTSD and is struggling with the memories and his choices.  And for a little while, I thought they were doing something really impressive.  I didn’t love a rape plotline in Star Trek, but if they were going to do it, for a brief five minutes they appeared to be doing it really well.  There was an intense emotional conversation which was, if not quite delicate, was at least careful and nuanced, and I was impressed they went there with their male chief of security.  And then.  First we start getting super in your face, not at all delicate flashbacks so…never mind about handling it with care.  And then there’s a twist that just makes it all weird where Tyler isn’t exactly Tyler, and I’m not even going to try to explain this because they kept talking about it and still never explained it in a way I fully understood.  So.  Yeah.  That happened.

Other things I liked…  I appreciated the representation.  We have a black woman as the clear lead with a significant Asian woman character as well, multiple other women including an admiral, a gay man, and various people of color scattered throughout.  Harry Mudd showed up in here, and though he was darker than I liked, he was a cool call-back to the original series.  The spore drive turned out to be able to do some really interesting things, even if I kind of wish it wasn’t based on mushrooms.  The plot turns in the second half of the season were very engaging, and even when I wasn’t sure I’d like what happened, I wanted to see what came next.

Mostly, I’m encouraged by where the season ended.  With hints at new characters arriving and some big plots resolved, I’m hopeful about next events.  Also, I hear the Klingons have hair again in Season Two, which feels like a small but crucial step in the right direction!

6 thoughts on “TV Review: Star Trek Discovery – Season One

  1. I recently just watched it, too, via the same means: DVD from the library.

    I liked Michael and really liked Tilly and that’s it. I agree with most of your analysis. It didn’t feel like Star Trek, and if it didn’t have a Star Trek name on it, I wouldn’t have finished it.

    I’m confused about when this fits in the Star Trek timeline. I think it’s supposed to be contemporary to TOS, but if so, why does it look so different? Uniforms are totally different. Klingons look completely different. Aliens were not so prevalent on Starfleet ships in these days. Michael was raised by Sarek? Spock is her brother? Why wouldn’t she ever have been mentioned at all, then? You can’t just give surprise siblings to major established characters. (Star Trek V proved that, didn’t it?)

    Traveling on mushrooms? I’m not one to be a huge stickler for science in science fiction, but this was too much. Mushrooms. Mushrooms?? Ridiculous. I also never understood the thing with Tyler. Again, that’s really bad science. You’re right; it was never explained.

    To top it off they put the series exclusively on their streaming service, which to me is a huge insult. They have this huge fan base that they know is very loyal, so they figure the fans will subscribe just to see it. I hate being taken advantage of like that, and I’m not going to let them. Especially for something that doesn’t even feel like Star Trek. I’m super interested in this new Picard series, but again, what gives with only putting it on their streaming service? I’ll just be waiting for DVDs at the library again.

    1. Oh! I should add that if you want something much more in the spirit of Star Trek, check out The Orville. The humor can be crass and not to my tastes sometimes, but if you can get past that, there are some great, thoughtful stories and good characters. It feels much more like Trek than Discovery. Plus, a Star Trek alum is a main character and several Trek actors make appearances as guest stars, which is always fun to see.

      1. I believe Discovery is ten years prior to TOS…but I think I read that online somewhere. It was never very clear in the show. I cannot begin to explain the Klingons (seriously, I don’t even know), and as for a surprise sibling–I’ve mentally blocked out Spock’s brother. Although would I buy that Spock would never mention a family member? Yeah, probably…

        I actually liked how the spore drive ended up working, but I don’t know why it had to be mushrooms. And I never understood how the mushrooms worked anyway, just what they did.

        I deeply, deeply resent CBS’ paywall, although I have to admit I might crack if word gets back that Picard is really good. We’ll see.

        I watched Season One of Orville just before Discovery, and agree on pretty much every point. I could do without the crass humor sometimes, but overall a very enjoyable show, giving me far less complicated feelings than Discovery!

  2. Dennis

    Good review. My biggest complaint about Discovery is that CBS put it on its streaming channel instead of its regular network. The ploy, I’m sure, was to get Trek fans to subscribe for the sake of this one show, in hopes that many would stay subscribed out of inertia. I refused to play CBS’s game so still haven’t seen it, but maybe that will change with the release to DVD.

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