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!