It’s ironic that, after over a decade without a Star Trek TV show, two debut in the same year, though one of them is not official. Star Trek: Discovery, being the “real” Star Trek TV show, somehow feels less like one than The Orville. Instead it does the same thing to the franchise as The Last Jedi did to Star Wars, which is take the focus and tone into a new direction. Or, at least, it did for the first half of its season.
Discovery is set 10 years before The Original Series and features appearances by several familiar characters, the most notable of which is Spock’s father Sarek. The main character is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) who, instead of being the Captain, is a prisoner serving out her term for attempted mutiny and starting a war with the Klingons. She’s sentenced to use her skills as a scientist on the experimental starship USS Discovery, captained by Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), which is developing an engine that can let a ship travel between distant places in a matter of seconds. Other crew members include First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), Chief Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Security Chief/sleeper agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), and Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman).
Martin-Green brings a weight to her character that I felt was missing from Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther, immediately making the audience sympathize with her despite her actions being objectively wrong. Whereas on other Star Trek shows it would take me over a season to feel a significant emotional connection to the characters, she somehow manages it in the first episode. Strangely enough, I found the fact that she’s Spock’s foster-sister to be the least interesting thing about her, as her tragic past and adopted Vulcan mindset (despite being human) makes her interactions with the other characters fascinating to watch.
As a general rule I enjoy seeing Jason Isaacs and Doug Jones in any role that they play, and neither of them disappoint here with their performances. Anthony Rapp plays the first “good guy” character I’ve ever seen in Star Trek where I thought to myself “this guy’s a real jerk”, but he adds enough depth in his relationship with his husband and development throughout the season to still make the audience like him. I found Wiseman a little annoying as Tilly for the first half of the season, but she became a better character when more pressure was placed on her and she had to learn to adapt. The only one I didn’t care for as much was Latif as Tyler; he does a good job but I never really sympathized with his struggles, and the writing for his character threw so much at the viewer that I felt off-balance watching him. The romance between him and Burnham felt unnecessary, the reveal that he’d been implanted with the mind of a Klingon didn’t help define his character, and I found myself questioning the logistics of his split personality more than worrying about what would happen to him.
Even though I really liked Isaac’s portrayal of Lorca, I feel that his character was a huge missed opportunity. He betrays his allies and ignores a lot of the ethics adhered to in other Star Trek shows in order to win the war against the Klingons, or rather that’s what we’re led to believe for the first half of the season. It turns out that these more sinister characteristics are due to him being an evil doppleganger from the Mirror Universe instead of just being an unethically motivated Captain. Deep Space Nine briefly looked at a moral character (Ben Sisko) who betrayed all of his ideals to win a war, but only for one episode, and there was never any doubt that he would do the right thing whenever he could. The reveal that Lorca was basically an evil twin felt like a cop-out instead of what could have been an interesting, even sympathetic look at a character without ethical boundaries. However, I am interested to see if Mirror Universe Philippa Geogriou (Michelle Yeoh) becomes a recurring character in this series.
Though I have problems with the Mirror Universe reveal of Captain Lorca, I did greatly enjoy the Mirror Universe arc itself and how a lot of the characters had relationships that were dark reflections (pun somewhat intended) of their interactions in the main universe. Stamets’ own journey while in a coma is particularly interesting. The Klingon War arc also serves as a good vehicle for the plot throughout the season, showing how the Federation is especially unprepared for their first full-scale war from a military standpoint and that they could only win through innovation instead of brute force. As a side note, I have trouble believing that they haven’t figured out how to safely use the Spore Drive 100 years later, but the reasons for shelving it at the time made enough sense to justify it. I’m not the first one to make this observation, but the ending of the war could have been handled better, maybe with the Federation holding onto the means to destroy the Klingons instead of blindly trusting them to keep their end of the bargain.
I am NOT a fan of the new look for the Klingons. The makeup is impressive, and the actors throw everything into serving the aesthetic and culture, but that’s about it. The appearance of the Klingons has been addressed repeatedly over the last 50 years of Star Trek, with an essentially human design in The Original Series (TOS), to the famous ridged foreheads introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that has remained the standard depiction ever since. In fact, Enterprise devoted an entire story arc to explaining the difference between the appearance of the Klingons in TOS and their (in-universe) original appearance with the ridged foreheads. If this redesign didn’t directly contradict exhaustively established canon and the presentation of some of my favorite Star Trek characters (Worf and Martok in particular), I wouldn’t mind as much. I half-expect for the writers to introduce some reason in Season 2 to reconcile this with the more well-known design.
As for the last reveal of the season, with the Discovery encountering the original Enterprise (presumably with Spock on board), I was disappointed. As I pointed out in my post about why I prefer A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back, I see Star Trek as a better franchise for exploring new and complex ideas and stories. The apparent reliance on nostalgia and inevitable retcon of how the Discovery somehow influenced the events of TOS is unnecessary. Between this and evil twin Lorca, Discovery seemed determined to draw from the status quo instead of being radically different from previous Star Trek series.
That aside, Discovery boasts the best series premiere of any Star Trek TV show, the most immediately sympathetic main character in the franchise, a talented cast with (mostly) well-written characters, (mostly) beautiful designs, and an overall well-constructed story. If I were writing this review at the half-season mark I would give a higher rating, but those missed opportunities did bring it down half a star.
Rating: 4/5 ★★★★