tv review

Star Trek: Discovery Season Two Is More Typical and Less Interesting

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

The season-two premiere of Star Trek: Discovery puts me in the unexpected position of rooting against changes that the streaming network CBS All Access made because it thought it knew what the audience really wanted. Co-created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman (and worked over by half of Hollywood, if rumors are to be believed), this a heavily serialized story, like season one. It picks up where the cliffhanger finale left off, with the crew of the Discovery — including science specialist and onetime mutineer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and first mate turned acting captain Saru (Doug Jones) — meeting the pre-Kirk skipper of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Christopher Pike (former Hell on Wheels star Anson Mount). Pike asks permission to beam aboard the ship, promptly commandeers it to go off and face a tantalizingly under-described threat, and we’re off to the races.

While a “previously on” montage promises that we’ll learn more details of the mirror universe revealed to the characters at the end of season one (and first featured in the original series’ “Mirror, Mirror”), the hour-long season-two premiere concentrates on Pike, a handsome and charismatic fellow who often plays dumber than he is, and whose movie-star smile has hints of mockery and treachery. Like Rainn Wilson, who played a younger version of the intergalactic trickster Harry Mudd last season, Mount is physically a dead-on choice to play a character first introduced in the 1960s; he has the angular yet lined face, complete with greying temples, that you would’ve seen on former 1950s movie stars who’d started slumming on network TV in middle age. The design touches and music are consistent with the first season as well, splitting the difference between the rough-hewn physicality and steampunk accents of Enterprise and the J.J. Abrams films, with shallow depth of field, tilted angles, busy compositions, and a brassy yet introspective score by Jeff Russo.

But at some point during the premiere — perhaps during a dazzling but long-winded flight through an asteroid field in tiny, buzzing ships — you might feel, as I did, that the series is running away from something, and ultimately conclude that it’s the Star Trek series that Discovery painstakingly developed in season one. Like every Trek since The Next Generation, it was first met with a mix of generosity and skepticism. The latter predominated as audiences got deeper into the first season, and realized that it was much more of a melodrama, practically a nighttime soap crossed with a workplace show, though with the characteristic Trek mix of heavy-metal space-Navy warfare, and earnest discussion of sentient spores, alternate dimensions, faster-than-light travel, and how the nexus of different cultures and species illustrates the relativity of moral codes.

But in the season-two premiere, much of the latter takes a backseat to the kind of pew-pew-pew space warfare that often made Abrams’s Star Trek prequels play either like dry runs for Star Wars (a property that he eventually took over) or Tom Clancy–style military conspiracy thrillers, gussied up with warp drives and phasers. They’ve added a strained veneer of hip, deadpan goofiness that feels more CW teen drama than Trek. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course — a big part of the reason why I loved Discovery right out of the gate was its willingness to try something different, whether it executed its ideas to their fullest potential or fell into a morass of tangled plot threads and conflicting tones (which sometimes happened). What’s onscreen in season two feels more consistent, smooth even, but also more distressingly typical. Do we really need another one-damned-thing-after-another space adventure, with the earnestness and emphasis on clashing personalities dialed back, and soon-to-be-dated social-media-humor stylings ladled over everything? There’s a warm yet self-satisfied “You’re welcome” from one of the characters (of the type that one might affix to the top of a tweet containing a picture of a tiny kitten), and during an action sequence when the empath Saru’s feelers come out, he sees another crew member staring at him and almost shouts, “Really? Are you surprised?”

I don’t want to slam the door on this series on the basis of a between-seasons aesthetic pivot, especially after griping about how Trek fans have a decades-long history of rebelling against changes in formula, even small ones, then coming around and embracing those very same changes. (I’m old enough to remember complaints that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was glacially dull and tried to turn the original Trek into 2001: A Space Odyssey, qualities that were hailed a few decades later as evidence of the franchise’s willingness to take risks.) But I can say — speaking for no one but myself — that this particular revamp is not something I want, or that strikes me as terribly special. I like the solemn cornball intensity of season one, and the long-form manipulation of story elements that sometimes made Discovery feel more like an early classic of TV anime (like the original ’70s Space Battleship Yamato, a grandiose epic of desperation, deafening explosions, and gritted teeth) but with splashes of everything from an Akira Kurosawa adaptation of Shakespeare (all the palace intrigue involving the Klingons) to Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (via Michael’s backstory).

I loved what this series was, warts and all, and I sincerely hope it gets back to some version of that sooner rather than later. I know full well that a lot of people out there aren’t going to miss the original incarnation of Discovery. But at the same time, I’m sure that turning it into the Trek version of Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t the solution.

Star Trek: Discovery Season Two Is a Step Backward