Review — Star Trek: Discovery Season One

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery just wrapped up a few minutes ago. I wrote a review of the two-part premiere episode, and you can read that here. While there have been some great moments in the Star Trek film series, the franchise has always been at its best on the small screen. So how did Discovery do? Eh… it’s complicated.

First off I need to revisit my number one complaint about this series. Star Trek fans are sticklers for canon and everything having an explanation. Heck, in the past Star Trek has gone so far as to establish an in-universe explanation for why the Klingons in the original series look completely different than those elsewhere in the franchise. I think most Star Trek fans, myself included, were delighted to learn that Discovery takes place in the “prime” Star Trek timeline, not the JJ Abrams “Kelvin” timeline. The problem is, the show itself made very little effort to convince us of that. The series is supposed to take place about ten years before the events of the original Star Trek series, but almost everything in the show looks way too advanced for that. In addition, the Klingons look nothing like the Klingons Star Trek fans are used to. Co-executive producer Ted Sullivan protested that it’s impossible to make a new Star Trek series match the look of the low-budget 1960’s series. While I understand that point of view, I don’t buy it. Rogue One and (based on the teasers) Solo have done a remarkable job of faithfully reproducing the 1970’s look of the original Star Wars film right down to the hairstyles. In fact the teaser for Solo begins with a montage of close-up shots of Han Solo flipping switches and dials on the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon, a UI that very much looks like that of the original Star Trek series. I’m sympathetic to the notion that you have to make some changes to accomodate a modern show with a big budget, but they could have done much better than they did. They also could have gone with one of two other options to make this not an issue: 1) They could have just said this show is a re-imaging of Star Trek rather than try to convince Star Trek fans that it’s all part of the main timeline. 2) They could have set it in the future after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. That wouldn’t solve the problem with the Klingons looking different, but it would have solved the problem with all of the tech looking more advanced. If you think I’m just picking nits, you clearly don’t know Star Trek fans.

All of that said, it must be said that the show looks amazing. It feels like the biggest budget TV Star Trek ever. The series premiere was downright cinematic. The costumes look daft to me, but the sets are amazing. Despite the fact that it doesn’t look like it should the bridge sets in particular are stunning. They also did make some weird half-gestures toward making the show fit in the established Star Trek timeline, so the phasers and communicators actually do look like the ones from The Cage and they do sprinkle in some of the delightful original series sound effects. Unfortunately, for the most part the phasers work like Star Wars blasters as they did in the JJ movies, not like real Star Trek phasers.

The cast is also quite good. Doug Jones in particular steals the show as Saru, a truly alien looking, well, alien. Not only does he do a fantastic job with the physical acting required by his character’s physiology, but he’s just so delightful in the way he portrayed and developed the character. Based on the trailers for the show I thought he would be the most annoying character, but he’s actually the best. Sonequa Martin-Green’s character Michael Burnham, though not the captain on this series, is actually the main character. It’s certainly an interesting choice to not have the show revolve around the captain. I think Martin-Green did a good job in the role, but it’s an odd role to be the focus of the show because Burnham is a human who was raised by Vulcans. Martin-Green does a good job embodying that dual nature, but I’m unconvinced the character is interesting enough to carry the show. Michelle Yeoh was great in her dual roles (more on that in the spoiler section), but she was particular great in that first two-parter playing Michael’s first captain and role model. I could have easily watched an entire series built around her character.

I guess now’s as good as any to get into spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

This was a season full of twists and turns. First we had the reveal that Ash Tyler was actually the Klingon Voq surgically altered to look like a human so as to infiltrate Discovery. That twist would have landed better if fans hadn’t sniffed it out weeks ahead of time. But of all the twists this season, it was at least the most believable. I’m a little surprised though that they didn’t do anything with a tribble as a way of revealing him. Lorca had a tribble on his desk and a tribble was used to sniff out the Klingon spy in the TOS episode The Trouble With Tribbles. Perhaps they thought we’d expect that.

The next big twist was that Captain Lorca was actually from the mirror universe. Jason Isaacs did a phenomenal job in the role. I’m a big fan of his work so it was nice to see him in Star Trek. The big problem though is that I don’t find it believable that someone from the mirror universe could actually pass for a Starfleet captain in the prime universe. The mirror universe was introduced in the original series episode Mirror, Mirror wherein an ion storm caused Kirk and his landing party to be switched with their mirror universe counterparts. Kirk and crew had to fake it in the mirror universe until they found a way back. When they do get back Kirk asks Spock how they were able to identify their counterparts so quickly. Spock replies, “It was far easier for you as civilised men to behave like barbarians, than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilised men.” Now I’ll give the writers of Discovery and Isaacs’s acting talent credit for planting lots of little hints that Lorca wasn’t really a Starfleet captain, but I think Spock’s right: it’s inconceivable that someone from the Terran Empire could pass himself as a Star Trek captain. Was it a good TV twist? Yes. Was it a convincing Star Trek twist? No.

Finally, the last twist was the most eye-rolling of all. The Federation putting the emperor of the Terran Empire in charge of Discovery and sanctioning her plan to commit genocide on the Klingon homeworld. The show used it to make eventually make a point about how the principles the Federation stand for are more important than pragmatism, but it was just a completely unrealistic twist that I just couldn’t go there with the writers.

Is Discovery a good Star Trek series? I’d have to say no. It’s not a bad sci-fi TV series though, so if you’re not a big Trek fan you might really enjoy it. I’m interested to see where they take things in season two. I don’t see Saru being “leading man” enough to remain captain. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Burnham take that role, but we’ll see. The season ended with Discovery answering a distress call from the Enterprise under the command of Christopher Pike. I’ll be curious to see if that becomes significant for season two and whether or not we’ll see Pike, Spock, and Number One recast for Discovery.