We break down the hits and misses of the first year of Disco.
The first season of Star Trek: Discovery ended on Sunday, and audiences, as with many Star Trek shows before it, find themselves facing a mixed bag. We should recall that this was also true of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation: While it introduced a cast of indelible characters that would eventually prove to be more than worthy successors to Kirk and company, the storytelling was slow, and the tone was shaky. This also goes for Deep Space Nine, a show that struggled to find stories for its first season but hit a pretty powerful stride a little later. Voyager and Enterprise also started shaky, and eventually found their feet. Arguably.
Discovery has had 15 episodes to prove itself, and like its forebears got a lot of stuff right and a lot of stuff wrong. The highs were high and the lows were low, and it’s time to consider whether or not the season was, overall, a net gain. Spoilers, of course, follow for the season.
Hit: The Characters
In all the previous Star Trek shows, the characters were firmly established at the outset, and would only slowly evolve past their original programming as it were. As such, one could tell episodic stories more efficiently; you always knew how a character was going to approach a crisis situation, and what sort of decisions they were going to make. By contrast, the characters in Discovery, as is the current trend in long-running TV shows, are less definitively hewn; we are meant to, well, discover who they are as the series progresses, especially in the case of Michael Burnham.
This approach has frustrated many old school Trekkies who are still adjusting – even after a season – to modern TV character building applied to the Star Trek morality-play-of-the-week format. But the fact remains: All the characters are great, or are, at the very least, ripe for growth and possibility. The morally conflicted Burnham, Saru the Kelpien, the brain-“transitioned” Klingon Voq (now living as Ash Tyler), the nervous Cadet Tilly, the snippy-yet-hopeful Paul Stamets, the sensitive Dr. Culber, the mysterious Captain Lorca, and the two versions of Philippa Georgiou – they all have (or had, if they didn’t survive) the possibility to further enrich the show and give it more texture as time passes. And while Starfleet personnel have traditionally been more resolute than what we’ve seen in Discovery, it’s still fascinating to see these people interact, and they have the potential to grow into something as indelible as anything in Star Trek. Some of the dialogue-light supporting characters have even piqued audiences’ interest, and many are eager to see what, say, Airiam will do.
Miss: The Tone
Star Trek has always gone to great lengths to reflect the politics of its era, often using sci-fi avatars to more directly comment on hot button issues in the real world. Despite the conflicts, wars, revenge, and violence seen in Star Trek over the years, however, it has always come from a place of general optimism. Gene Roddenberry wanted to depict a future where petty conflicts were largely at an end, and we had the luxury to focus on the larger philosophies of humankind. What makes us human, now that technology has enhanced us, money is no more, and war is no longer our driving force? Starfleet is, essentially, humanity at its best, cleaving to its morality, no matter how hard the struggle. We may slip, but we ultimately learn and grow. This optimism has been the underlying principle in all Star Trek.
Cynicism is not a good match for Star Trek, and Discovery seems to be founded on a generally more bitter principle: That diplomacy is destined to fail, at least every once in a while, and that war is more or less inevitable. This is a show with more violence than ever seen in Star Trek, and it’s predicated on war. Characters are now allowed to have interpersonal conflicts (in defiance of the now-famous Roddenberry’s Rule), and Starfleet officers regularly act in defiance of the rules. To be fair, the Discovery was, for most of the first season, captained by a character who was born in the famous evil Mirror Universe, but the tone of the show seemed to share his morally dubious viewpoint. This darkness is now just a baked-in element of the show. I refuse to see this darkened embrace of a Federation at war as something novel or daring. Indeed, it feels backward and retro for the generally forward-looking Star Trek. Perhaps this is something the show will eventually be able to shed, and indeed, the last episode of the season did seem to be a step in the right direction.
Hit: The Tech and Visuals
Special effects technology has advanced quite a lot since the end of Enterprise in 2005, and it was high time for Star Trek to move past its aesthetic of “rooms on a ship” to something more dynamic. And while the redesigns of Starfleet ships and uniforms may not sit well with sticklers for Star Trek continuity (and remember, Trekkies practically invented that sort of nerdy nitpicking), they do look pretty darn fantastic. Space looks more textured and dynamic – it’s no longer small mirrors glued to a black velvet curtain. The ships pulsate with light and energy, and seem capable of great speed and power. What’s more, the CGI allows ships to move more quickly and more sprightly through the void. We may not be getting the same sort of tactile sense of the tech – there’s a lot less button-pushing and engine manipulation – but those eager for a show that is less visually stodgy than some of the previous shows got what they wanted.
Another break with continuity has been the Trek technology. But the update kind of needed to happen. In 1966, it was a distant, futuristic conceit that characters could communicate via viewscreen. In the present, we can do that through a common, battery powered consumer-available widget we keep in our pockets. As such, the show needed to become futuristic again, so to speak. And so there were a lot more holograms, a lot of floating viewscreens, a weirder way to travel (interdimensional space spores?), and at least one character that seems to have been augmented to the point of being an android. All these designs are cool, and they keep Star Trek comfortably in the future.
Miss: The Storytelling
While I personally feel that Star Trek is strongest when it’s writing mini hour-long morality plays, there is a lot to be said for the longer forms of storytelling that modern TV has adopted. Indeed, Enterprise had season-long arcs, and multi-episode epics that struck a good (and, in my eye, underappreciated) transition between the case-of-the-week format and the story-never-concludes format. I’m not going to complain that Discovery abandoned its serialized tradition; that’s simply not where TV is right now. I am, however, going to complain that she show didn’t iron out the wrinkles in its arcs very well.
The main problem with Discovery’s storytelling? In short, there was too damn much going on. There was a war, a teleportation drive, a betrayal, a sleeper agent, a split personality, a parallel universe, resurrected characters, and massive reveals with almost every episode. The plot twists piled on so quickly and so haphazardly that Discovery was at great pains to wrap everything up in a solid or cogent fashion. An event that would have been a season finale in another Star Trek show tended to be how weekly episodes were wrapped up on Discovery. By the season finale, the showrunners seemed to be rushing to the end of a war and panicking about what to do with all these characters. They stumbled over the finish line, but even then, there were far too many loose ends to be wrapped up cleanly. With events moving so quickly, we never got a sense of their drama or importance. It was just climax after climax. And that’s exhausting. And sloppy.
These are the major hits and misses of Star Trek: Discovery, but there’s plenty more to talk about. What do you think? Was the season a net gain? Let us know!