Star Trek: Discovery Just Pulled Off an Incredibly Good First Season

Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery. Photo: CBS Interactive

I’ll be curious to see how consensus shakes out on Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Trek TV series since Enterprise. In the hours since the season-one finale ended with the hasty brokering of Klingon-Federation peace and the partial redemption of mutineer and heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), I’ve seen mostly expressions of disappointment or outright hostility, mingled with affection for certain characters, moments, and episodes.

This baffles me. To paraphrase what people tell me every time they disagree with one of my reviews, I feel like we saw two different shows. I thought Star Trek: Discovery delivered the strongest first season overall since the original series, which premiered on NBC almost 52 years ago, and that, on evidence of this first run of episodes, it could be one of the all-time greats if it plays its cards right. At its best, Discovery surprised and moved me in ways that very few freshman series manage to do. This show has brains, soul, and a big heart. There were missteps here and there, to be sure. But there always are in first seasons, and the ones seen here were minor compared to, say, those of The Next Generation, which became a classic eventually, but was tedious and hesitant until pretty deep into season two. Frankly, I’m having a hard time taking seriously any complaints about plausibility or too-easy resolutions — especially with regard to the finale — when nearly every episode of every Trek series that isn’t a cliff-hanger ends with things being wrapped up neatly with a surprise tactical maneuver or an impromptu peace treaty hammered out in a scene or two, usually by charismatic rule breakers who just improvise on the spot. (Remember when Kirk brought peace to the planet of faux-1930s Chicago gangsters by describing the Federation as the ultimate syndicate?)

More importantly, a lot of touches that some fans are perceiving as missteps instead strike me as honorable attempts to make this Star Trek as different as possible from other Trek incarnations, and bring it in line with 21st-century modes of TV and film storytelling, while still keeping the whole thing recognizably Trek. Created by Bryan Fuller (who left the series early during season one) and Alex Kurtzman, Discovery isn’t an example of stand-alone storytelling, nor of long-form, serialized storytelling: It’s something in the middle, alternating short-form arcs (there were at least three groupings of episodes that seemed like self-contained mini-seasons) with borderline stand-alones like “Choose Your Pain” and “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” Within that neither fish-nor-fowl structure, which was also exemplified by The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and other notable edge-of-the-millennium dramas, Discovery modernized the show’s visual storytelling with elaborate CGI transitions and slightly grungier sets while preserving classic design touches (particularly the spaceships, logos, and phasers), and added elements drawn from influential recent sci-fi and fantasy hits like Game of Thrones (the house versus house rivalry of the Klingons), Dune (the spores are spice, and the transformed Stamets becomes Trek’s answer to a Guild Navigator), and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Some of the filmmaking choices brought an almost R-rated edge to sex and violence, while only occasionally seeming gratuitous or un-Trek-like (as in the finale, when the evil universe version of Michelle Yeoh’s Georgiou cavorts with two sex workers before gleaning information from them). Along the way, Discovery created many strong original characters that could immediately hold their own against pantheon greats, allowed skilled actors to attempt new interpretations of established characters (such as James Frain’s Sarek and Rainn Wilson’s Falstaffian Harry Mudd), and recaptured the mix of pragmatism and earnestness that has marked every iteration of Trek.

Most, um, fascinating of all — if you’re into the whole pulp philosophizing thing, dude — was the way that Discovery wove an ongoing argument about Star Trek itself into the fabric of the season as it unfolded. Was this story about science or war? Destruction or discovery? We wondered that, and sometimes we argued and complained as we scrutinized what the writers, filmmakers, and actors were doing. But in truth, Trek has always been a bit of both. The tension is built right in, just as it’s built into the country that created Star Trek, a civilization of laws and ideals and myths of reinvention and exploration, sustained by virtually nonstop imperialism, genocide, and war. The original show gave us a two-fisted horndog of a captain partly modeled on President John F. Kennedy, who simultaneously challenged Americans to embrace a spirit of public service and land a man on the moon while womanizing compulsively and rattling sabers at the former Soviet Union. Every iteration of Trek has been built around the conflict between the diplomatic and scientific aspects of the United Federation of Planets and the awesome military power that protected it, and in many cases distorted or used it for its own ends. Arguably the J.J. Abrams films, in which Kurtzman was intimately involved, pushed too far in the direction of war, delivering Trek-flavored military-action flicks with a smattering of recognizable Gene Roddenberry–approved themes.

This new series rights the ship, as it were, by rooting many of the story lines in disagreements between science officer Burnham, Anthony Rapp’s astromycologist Paul Stamets (who researches “the veins and muscles that hold our galaxies together”), and the ship’s new commander, the Kelpien Saru (Doug Jones), who took over following the death of Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). Despite some honorable and even noble impulses, Lorca represented the most militaristic impulses of the Federation and of Star Trek generally, always viewing both scientific research and human relationships as leverage in current and future battles, to the point of causing the near-death of two sentient beings in his care in order to gain advantage over the Klingons. Far from being contradictory or confused, the season’s end note reconciled those competing interests in an uneasy way that felt true to life, and also true to Star Trek: The Klingon leader L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) demanded cessation of Klingon hostilities by threatening to blow up their homeworld with a bomb that could only have been planted with the spore technology developed and incarnated by Stamets in the Discovery’s lab. Science was used to threaten apocalypse, which in turn led to (temporary) peace that could allow for more science. As the late Leonard Nimoy memorably intoned on The Simpsons, the cosmic ballet continues.

The season’s final run of episodes was also very affecting for the way that it brought Michael’s story full circle. The symmetry and sense of balance were evident while still emotionally messy. Where previously Michael had been guilty of letting her childhood trauma — the murder of her parents by Klingons — overwhelm her military judgment, and of listening too hard to her own pathology and not hard enough to others who could see through it, here she prevented other people from making the same mistake, repeatedly cautioning them against allowing fear and rage to guide their judgments. If Michael sunk herself in the first episode by letting her most chaotically human impulses come to the fore, in the last few episodes it seemed as if the Vulcan in her managed to apply the brakes not just to her own life but to the Federation itself.

This was no small feat, given the pathologies that she and many of the other characters had to deal with. Michael’s position as the adopted child of Sarek made her journey rougher than it might’ve been for somebody raised more comfortably within human or Vulcan culture: She was robbed of her biological parents in a hideous home invasion, stigmatized and rejected by Vulcan society, then sold out by her own dad in a Sophie’s Choice scenario, and the revelation that her best friend and lover Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) was a kind of genetically reconstituted Klingon-human hybrid and spy only made the ordeal more traumatic. She was literally sleeping with the enemy, and the fact that she was able to come out of that without thinking of Ash as her enemy — despite his murdering Stamets’s love, Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) — was a remarkable leap of empathy characteristic of Trek at its most idealistic. I can’t think of another Trek series, TV or theatrical, that went as deep into trauma and irresolvable despair, or as often.

Meanwhile, the hints of Vulcan stoicism in Martin-Green’s unfussy but emotionally transparent performance kept her character from becoming too much of a whiner or downer. She suffered in the way that a Paul Newman character might’ve suffered, notwithstanding beguiling rom-com moments like her decision to dance with Ash in the time-loop episode; many of the scenes between Michael and Ash took place right on the edge of tears, and there were many other moments throughout the season that were equally wrenching, such as the flashback to the day that Michael’s adoptive father sold her out. The portrayal of Saru’s discomfort at being the only one of his kind on the bridge and feeling temperamentally out of step with his colleagues (a common Trek predicament) was nicely done, too, as was Ash’s post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being tortured and sexually abused in Klingon captivity — a story line we’ve rarely seen enacted through such a traditionally macho, capable male lead.

Most of the aspects of season one that landed with a thud were more a matter of scene-to-scene misjudgment or capitulation to easy tropes than any large scale failure of vision. These could be easy to avoid in the future, if the show is inclined to keep an eye out. If Tyler had to kill anyone, I’d rather it hadn’t been one of the only two openly gay characters in the main cast (although Cruz has already promised that his character will be back). And there were other decisions that felt like stopgap measures that never quite gave way to something more permanent, like keeping L’Rell in the brig for most of the back half of the season. But Discovery strikes me as having a very firm grip on what kind of show it is and what it wants to say. That it presents everything in terms of unresolvable dialectics instead of settling on a single correct answer to every problem feels, again, true to spirit of Trek, or at least truer than much of what we got from the movies that Abrams oversaw.

I also appreciated how the writers managed to wed the old adventuresome spirit (Roddenberry sold the original series to NBC as Wagon Train to the Stars, while Star Trek II and VI director Nicholas Meyer knowingly evoked Horatio Hornblower) to a more layered, deliberately contradictory, psychology-driven Trek. This series was not afraid to drag the franchise into the premium-cable space wherein the characters’ emotional journeys are externalized and represented by the adventures they have. There was a loose through line about seeing and being seen, or feeling unseen, and it manifested itself in large and small ways, in visuals and in narrative: the obsession with cloaking and uncloaking starships, the discovery and utilization of a previously invisible space-between-spaces, the voyage into a mirror universe (foretold by the copy of Through the Looking-Glass that Michael held during graduation), and the emphasis on cultural purity versus diversity (evoked on both sides of the mirror). It’s also there in small but eerily right touches, such as Stamets’s spore-mutated eyes going milky, and Georgiou willing Michael her old-fashioned telescope.

The climatic appearance of the Pike-commanded Enterprise, followed by a closing credits replay of the original Alexander Courage main theme, struck some as a capitulation to nostalgia and formula. But to me, it felt like a triumphant acknowledgement of what Discovery did in season one. The show’s strategy was announced in the opening title graphics of blueprints of familiar starships, objects, and iconic symbols being drawn and redrawn, taken apart and X-rayed, and reexamined from new angles, so that what was old became new again while remaining undeniably that thing we always loved.  There’s a lot going on in this series, much of it very promising. I can’t want to see what discoveries Discovery makes next.

*This review has been corrected to show that Nicholas Meyer directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Star Trek: Discovery Pulled Off a Great First Season