Much of the discussion after Star Trek: Discovery began airing late last year was about expectations. The first new Star Trek show since 2005, early previews were met with scepticism because Discovery was changing things from the previous series. If it’s a prequel, why do the Klingons look different? Why are the colours not as bright? If it’s set just before the original show, why doesn’t the tech look like it did in the sixties? Not helping matters was the abrupt departure of producer Bryan Fuller during development, and the fact US audiences would have to buy into CBS’ online streaming service if they wanted to actually watch the show (luckily for Aussie audiences, we can just watch it on Netflix).
It’s 2018 now though, and Discovery has just finished its first season. With the benefit of hindsight, was all this often vitriolic trepidation buzzing on the Internet warranted? Well, not really. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery is indeed a bit of a mess but, if nothing else, it’s at least an ambitious and interesting mess.
Set ten years before the original sixties Star Trek (the one with Kirk and Spock), Discovery‘s first season is the story of the first war between the Klingon Empire and the human and Vulcan-led United Federation of Planets. We see this war from the perspective of Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green), who is recruited to become the head Science Officer on Star Fleet’s experimental flagship Discovery after she’s personally involved in a disaster that sparks this inter-species conflict. There she has to help the Discovery’s crew prevent the destruction of the Federation and redeem herself for past sins.
This is an ambitious premise and, unfortunately, it’s one that Discovery doesn’t quite prove that it can handle. This is the first Star Trek to be made in our era of modern serialised television, and that’s a challenge the show has trouble grappling with. It’s moving from storytelling that has long been rooted in self-contained storytelling to a point sometimes comparable to sitcoms, like that time in Voyager we found out that going at warp speed too fast causes the crew of a ship to evolve into amphibians (and then have amphibian babies together before abandoning them on a planet and turning back into humans). This will happen, then never be mentioned again.
Especially early in the season, Discovery falters in its attempts to dedicate an episode to a specific subject but tie it in somehow to the Klingon war. By the time we reach the second half of the season, however, the plot is more or less entirely serialised. Discovery knows that modern serialised shows have twists and shock deaths, but it doesn’t quite seem to understand that these should grow organically from the narrative. Some of the show’s storytelling is effective, but events like the !!murder of main character Stamet’s partner Culber!! serve no purpose but to shock, since the act’s consequences are ultimately meaningless (apart from pointlessly removing one of the show’s two queer characters).
Discovery‘s strengths are in its ideas and characters. By the end of the season, the show has a strong central cast going into next season. Martin-Green’s Michael has to carry most of the narrative and emotional load of the season, and she acquits herself admirably, although the idea that she was raised by Vulcans and thus acts like one doesn’t feel textually apparent, to the point where Michael is one of the most emotional characters in the cast. Discovery has positioned Michael as the linchpin of its serialised storytelling, but I wonder if an ensemble approach next season might be more appropriate. If you aren’t invested in Michael as a character, Discovery becomes a lot harder to enjoy.
A shift to an ensemble cast would be easy enough given the show’s current cast. Anthony Rapp’s engineer Paul Stamets and Mary Wiseman’s genius cadet Tilly are both strong science-focused characters in the Star Trek mould, and Jason Isaac gives a good performance as Gabriel Lorca, the morally ambiguous captain of the USS Discovery. The show’s break out character has to be Saru, an alien played by The Shape of Water’s Doug Jones, who has the strongest character arc across the season. These characters are worthwhile additions to the Star Trek mythos, and the show has some interesting ideas regarding mushroom-powered warp drives and its faltering attempts to give depth to TOS era Klingons. If nothing else, the new Klingon costumes are impressive, even if having them speak in Klingon was probably a mistake given the stilted acting that comes from doing so.
So is Star Trek: Discovery worth watching? I would give my answer as a tentative yes. It’s not a perfect show, but given the production problems surrounding its first season, I can’t say I’m surprised. What will make or break Discovery will be whether these are just teething pains, or if its second season will have the same problems. I’ll at least be tuning in to find out in the far-off future of 2019.
You can currently stream Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix.