Star Trek, as a franchise, typically starts veeeeery slowly. The first seasons of the series are generally a slog to get through, even when they contain a few terrific episodes. This even holds true with the movies as well where The Motion Picture and Generations are easily the two dullest movies in their respective timelines. 2009’s reboot was by no means slow but more discussion about the reboot movies will have to come another time. Suffice to say I view them differently from the rest of the franchise.
Yes, before you all start picking at me I said dullest not worst. I maintain, however, that The Final Frontier gave us one of the best lines of all time:
If Star Trek: Discovery‘s first season is it’s worst or slowest then we’re either going to end up with the best Star Trek, yet or everything just might fly entirely out of control. Discovery already easily holds the record for the quickest a Star Trek series has ever made me fall in love. That being said I want to dig into some specifics as to what made this season good and what they’ll need to work on, next year. We’ll start with the bad because I want to end on a positive note. Of course, there will be spoilers for the entire season.
I already went on, at length, in the season finale recap earlier this week about how they really screwed up when they decided to reinforce decades-old stereotypes about people who like sex being evil especially bisexuals who also just always want to have sex with as many people as possible. I also noted that they had already abused the “Bury Your Gays” trope earlier this season. I had promised I was going to expand on that and I promise I was going to. But the fact of the matter is nothing I write could compare to what was already written by Andi over at Women at Warp (Warning, possible future spoilers from creator interviews). So just read what they had to say on the subject and know that I agree with them 100%.
Representation of Women and Minorities
The show proudly features a black woman, Sonequa Martin-Green, as it’s first-among-ensemble. And yet the show hasn’t exactly treated women or minorities with a lot of kindness so far. The show started off well by putting an Asian woman in command of a ship and making a black woman her first officer but by the end of the fourth episode the commander was a convicted felon, the captain had died, and the female security chief of the Discovery who was only introduced in the third episode had been killed. The only black male in the ensemble was also killed before the season ended. Compare this to only one white dude getting stabbed.
The finale wants to be a redemption of women where it has Michael Burnham (played by Martin-Green), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) all being the primary drivers of the action and the final resolution. Which is great except for the part where Georgiou gets undercut by the aforementioned Depraved Bisexual trope and Cornwell looks indecisive as she goes along with whichever plan is handed to her last with very little debate or apparent thought on her part. We do at least see Tilly get her well-deserved place on the command track and Burnham gets her commission back but it isn’t the total victory it should have been.
When I wrote before the show came back from its winter hiatus I also talked about the history of Star Trek as a predictor of social equality and a platform for social justice advocacy throughout the decades. The people behind Discovery have made it very clear that they aren’t just here to steal the franchise name for their own profit; they actually want to continue that proud heritage. I believe them and it isn’t like Star Trek has always been absolutely perfect in this score, either. But the show must continue to try to improve on these scores as it continues into next season.
In the context of the entire season, the entire mirror universe tangent now feels incredibly pointless. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how it’s supposed to play into Michael’s growing understanding about the need for principles in Starfleet and the Federation but it’s kind of overkill to spend 4 episodes in an alternate dimension for only that. And that’s pretty much all that’s accomplished, there.
Yes, the Lorca reveal was really cool when it first happened. But in retrospect, it fails to continue to impact the show. His coup attempt was short lived and everyone on the Discovery was wary of him to begin with, so the betrayal doesn’t really have any continuing effect on the crew once he was dealt with. Taken in the context of the whole season it also feels incredibly out-of-place to so completely forget about the Klingon War for a little bit more than a quarter of the season when that is the only thing anyone can talk about or act upon for the entire rest of the time.
Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad
If the four episodes of the Mirror Universe end up being unsatisfactory filler, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a terrific example of how filler can be done even in a high-tension, serialized show like this. Unlike the Mirror Universe episodes, it doesn’t completely ignore the primary matter of the season. It tells us more about more characters than the Mirror Universe does in a fraction of the time. Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Burnham, and Lieutenant Tyler (Shazad Latif) all show the audience more of who they are. I anticipate Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd, who we learned much more about as well, will be a recurring character in the future. Finally, it includes probably the best call-back to the Original Series in a season of television where such references were liberally sprinkled throughout.
The characters and acting
There is not a bad actor in the entire cast of this show. The writers gave them quality material, for the most part, and they all absolutely made the most of it. Sonequa Martin-Green nailed down the idea of Michael Burnham as a human who wished at times to be Vulcan as perfectly as Leonard Nimoy portrayed the first Vulcan and threw in some terrific sass and internal conflict at other points. Jason Isaacs gave us an anti-hero-turned-villain Captain Lorca that had us all fooled as to how good or evil he was until the very last moment without ever lying to us. Jayne Brook’s Admiral Cornwell was the rare fictional female character who was tough as nails without ever being masculine or cruel. Michelle Yeoh delivered two very different, very distinct interpretations of Phillipa Georgiou with terrific gravitas. In very limited screen time Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber made many fans fall in love with the caring, capable doctor. Mary Chieffo did a terrific job delivering a L’Rell who was a true believer but not a mindless zealot.
I want to pay special attention to four others of the cast, though. Shazad Latif was simply amazing as Ash Tyler and Voq but particularly when Tyler was at his most emotionally vulnerable. It takes near perfect balance to find the place where you’ve gone far enough but not so far that it slips into farce and Latif walked that line beautifully. Anthony Rapp’s interpretation of Paul Stamets had so much depth. There was a living energy to his performances that can be lacking from lesser actors. He also stayed away from being a one-note character. It could have been really easy for Stamets to be a gentle, forgetful scientist for the entire series. But at the beginning when he’s the most frustrated with his work and with the circumstances he is in he is very cantankerous. When Tyler apologizes to him for the death of Culber he could have played it much more gently if he wanted. Instead, there was a cold rage behind his eyes that cause me to lean back a bit, even viewing it on my computer screen.
Mary Wiseman showed a tremendous knack for comedic timing without ever letting Tilly devolve into simply being the comedic relief. She grew the character from an annoying chatterbox at the beginning into an insightful, decisive crew member by the end of the season without sacrificing her youthful exuberance. And finally, Doug Jones did a terrific job with Saru. I have many complaints about the way the writers choose to use his “threat ganglia” but there can be no questioning the care Mr. Jones takes in his craft. Saru starts the series in a bit over his head and it only gets worse for a bit. He starts as an exceptionally competent bureaucrat who wants to be a leader; he backs down from every confrontation and when he’s forced into command he allows his fears to pressure him into making poor choices. But gradually as the series continues without ever foisting an “Aha!” moment on him Saru learns to face his fears and to truly lead his crew. By the end of the season, he is a true leader. That lack of the “Aha!” moment is so key for how great this ends up being. Those things rarely happen in real life; eventually, you just look back and realize you are different than you were. Sometimes you can see some of the steps that happened along the way but it’s rarely about just a single moment. Because no such moment was written into the script it was up to Jones to gradually portray the character as becoming more and more comfortable with his leadership responsibilities and he does it masterfully.
To paraphrase one of my favorite YouTube channels, “No show is without sin” and that definitely holds true for Star Trek: Discovery but they’ve done some really good work, too. If the Star Trek franchise is a forest then Discovery is a new, healthy sapling that has just been planted. It has healthy, fertile soil in the form of solid writers and a terrific cast that want to work together to make a terrific show that follows in footsteps of those that came before. It is being fertilized with plenty of money to fulfill the things the cast and writers come up with. The hard stop to the first season’s plot line also means it won’t be forced to grow into any particular direction that might make it weaker. Star Trek: Discovery has room to grow into the best version of itself and I, for one, can’t way to see what comes next.