Ultimately, the communicators were what did us in.
But first, context: Just before the mid-season point of its inaugural season, we wrote a review of Star Trek: Discovery to that point and a bit of a rebuke to the many nay-sayers, who’d been quite vocal about its flaws, entitled “All Y’all Nerds Need to Calm Down About Star Trek: Discovery.” You should read the whole thing to get our argument, which hasn’t changed and which will be carried forward into this review of the back half of the season, as well as a look at how the season as whole hangs together.
In short: Star Trek is a messy franchise by its very nature, as evidenced by the fact that every single iteration of the franchise started out roughly. Despite the flaws in this first season, we’ve always been fairly confident, based on the people involved in this version, that ST:D will, as many different versions of the franchise did, eventually find its footing, primarily by understanding what its strong points are and leaning hard into them.
In addition, we see Star Trek Discovery as situated on a cultural continuum at this particular moment; with the Ghostbusters reboot at one end and Black Panther at the other, with the the most recent Star Wars sequel films and Wonder Woman in the mix as well. It is a concerted effort by its creative team to take an iconic entertainment franchise or model and re imagine or move it forward by placing characters other than straight white men at the center of the story. And we would argue that it was easily as successful in its goals as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, or Black Panther was, if not necessarily seen as revolutionary as those projects were. How could it be? The Star Trek franchise committed to diversity from the start, fifty years ago. Michael Burnham isn’t the first female or person of color at the center of a Star Trek show. Nichelle Nichols broke way more barriers simply by being a black woman on the bridge crew of the Enterprise 50 years ago. But Wonder Woman wasn’t the first superheroine movie and Black Panther isn’t the first movie about a black superhero. It’s not about doing it for the first time, but doing it for a modern audience, with all the expectations that entails. For us, looking at the series that way imbues it with some importance and tends to forgive it of a lot of its sins. That doesn’t mean we’re blind to its flaws, but for the moment, let’s talk about what Star Trek: Discovery got right in the second half of the season.
First, there was a clear headlong rush away from the darkness that tended to permeate the first half. While said darkness tended to be way overstated by the show’s critics (the darkest episode of ST:D would be considered a laugh-riot if it was an episode of Game of Thrones), it was nonetheless rather clumsily rendered at times earlier in the show’s run, whether it was gratuitous Klingon nudity or a ship full of twisted corpses. Sure, there was still way more cannibalism and genocide in the second half of the season that we tend to prefer in our Star Trek, but there was also much more of a sense of fun and adventure in the old-school style. Whatever problems the mirror universe storyline had in its implementation, we couldn’t deny the sheer pleasure of watching Michelle Yeoh chew the scenery as the evil Emperor Giorgiou or the spectacle of the cast all decked out in the disco-evil pleather and gold Terran uniforms. The “twist” of Lorca’s reveal wasn’t really all that surprising, since his tactics were clearly not Starfleet regulation from the start and the show had set up a motif in the first episodes that it needed to pay off by the end: Burnham’s second mutiny. We didn’t see it quite playing out the way it did, since she led a mutiny against Starfleet itself rather than Captain Lorca, but the groundwork had already been laid for his inevitable turn and it was fun to watch Jason Isaacs shed the character’s paternalistic tones for something a bit more mustache-twirling in nature. If it suffered from anything, it was the similarity to Tyler’s story of a sleeper agent on the Discovery hiding the true evil of their nature.
Despite whatever shakiness the show demonstrated throughout the season (far more evident in the first half than the second, which strode forward much more confidently), it pulled off what it was trying to do from the start; something that no iteration of the show ever managed. It took one character through a season-long arc where she started off by hitting her lowest point ever and ended in great personal and professional triumph for her, even as she tended to the wounds she suffered. Michael Burnham’s arc may not have been as smoothly rendered as it could have been, but by the time she gave her speech to the Federation, her happy ending felt earned.
Burnham’s arc as a human being trying to learn to be human – not truly summed up until it was over (much in the manner of the entire rushed second half) – was a great spin on the Trek storyline that played out with Spock, Data and Seven of Nine. Instead of an alien hybrid, android, or cybernetic organism attempting to understand and embrace humanity, we have an actual human doing so; not hampered by programming or racial essentialism, but by a series of events and relationships that shaped her into someone who doesn’t know how to love or have friends. It’s the most relatable take on this story trope by far, since all humans are essentially trying to learn what it means to be human as they go along. And to be honest, it may have been wrapped up a bit too quickly and neatly.
Similarly, Ash’s story was a clumsy and badly rendered “fix” of a character that had been written into a corner and that the show seemed unwilling to commit to. Plus, it had a whiff of retcon to it. He went from a Klingon altered to look like a human to a human-Klingon hybrid whose origins were somewhat murky at best. And whatever power the storyline might have had was offset by the audience figuring out the twist weeks before it was revealed. Somewhat frustratingly, that element could have easily been avoided if we’d never seen L’Rell tell Voq he had to give up everything and go through something painful to him in order to achieve victory. That was a scene that was needed as a flashback after the reveal, not months before it. Still, a bad setup doesn’t excuse a poor wrap-up either. Like the “Burnham learns to be human” storyline, the “It’s ironic that Burnham fell in love with a Klingon, given her history” storyline was articulated too late to make a difference and was ended too soon to really explore the ramifications. Ash’s setup may have been bad, but there was real value in exploring the relationship between a Klingon altered to be human and a human raised by a Vulcan. Or there would have been, if they hadn’t made that pseudo-Klingon kill another cast member.
The death of Dr. Culber was an unfortunate creative choice, not only because it was a stale iteration of the “Kill Your Gays” trope, but because he made for the third person of color killed in the main cast since the season premiere. It was just … sloppy and messy. Worse, it added nothing to the storyline. There were a few passing references made to him after he died, but aside from that, everyone moved on so quickly from his death that it bordered on being just a bit offensive.
BUT! We still maintain that the season was tremendously entertaining if not great fun all the way through. We have never cared one whit about the continuity issues plaguing the show from its very inception, because we were happy enough to have a whole season of television devoted to playing around in that Trek sandbox. The ship always looked great, the cast took their time coming together as a unit, but by the end, we wound up loving several of the characters.
There’s a persistent and not entirely unfair criticism that the rest of the crew of the Discovery remains almost entirely undeveloped. But the show this season had a specific story to tell about Burnham’s journey from shame to heroism, from outcast to daughter. In doing so, it positioned non-crew members around her – Cornwell, Sarek, L’Rell. Emperor Giorgiou – allowing them to push the story and drive the action, and it gave her companions and friends that differed from the usual Trek approach of focusing on senior officers and focused more or less on Starfleet misfits. It’s a very different way of doing a Star Trek story – in fact, its galaxy spanning cast with mostly anonymous but identifiable crew members behind them is much closer to the Star Wars model of storytelling than classic Trek, which may have something to do with why hard core Trek fans have been slow to embrace it.
But really, it’s the continuity issue that makes this show so hard for the average Trek fan to take. From the start, the idea of positioning a 2018 show set ten years before the 1966 series that launched the franchise was a poor one. Like we said, we’re happy just to play in this sandbox and let the show make occasional slight nods to the aesthetic of the OG series, since there was simply no way they could make that art direction seriously work from a modern perspective.
Then Tilly flipped open her communicator.
There we were, bopping in our seats to the season one finale, enjoying the sheer camp and silliness of the Discovery away team dressed in leather pants and navigating an Orion outpost, when Tilly figured out Evil Giorgiou’s plan by discovering the drone bomb and flipped open her old-school OG Star Trek flip communicator .It was then that we realized just how hard the show was working to overcome the basic flaw in its conception. You can’t set a 2018 science fiction series ten years before its 1966 predecessor and have it make sense in any way.
It’s fun to see them using old-style flip-phone communicators as a callback to the original series, but if you spend more than a second thinking about it, it starts looking ludicrous. In 2018, we’ve already moved past flip-phone designs (which were inspired by Trek in the first place) for our own communicators. Any communicator depicted 200 years in the future from 2018 that isn’t, say… integrated directly into the wearer’s ear simply doesn’t make sense. A hand-held flip-phone is laughable when placed alongside the drones and holographic displays that make up the modern-day aesthetic of the show. We say this not as a way of decrying the show’s modern aesthetic, but as a way to argue that if it wants to move forward from this season, it needs to shed as much baggage from the original series as possible, rather than trying to pay clumsy homages to it. Unfortunately, this season ended on what we would consider exactly the wrong note: by introducing the OG Enterprise to the story, which means the show has forced itself once again to confront the giant Spock-shaped hole in the center of its concept.
James Frain gave a lovely nuanced performance as a gentle Vulcan diplomat with an unstated but clear affection for his adopted daughter. A great addition to the Vulcan canon of characters, but absolutely unrecognizable as the imperious Sarek of Mark Lenard and even Ben Cross. This entire storyline would have landed perfectly had he simply been a new character. But the show made the mistake of tying its main character directly to one of the core characters of the original series and with the final scene of the finale, it looks set to test that mistake even further.
Still, despite our complaints, we have enjoyed this season as much or more than many other rather lackluster to downright bad seasons of the Star Trek franchise. Sonequa Martin-Green remains everything you’d want in a Star Trek lead. Doug Jones as Saru can stand alongside some of the greatest alien species characters in the history of the franchise, from Spock to Worf to Quark. Mary Wiseman’s Cadet Tilly is a revelation; able to imbue comedy into heavy scenes without coming off like mere comic relief. She’s a true new take on what a member of Starfleet is supposed to be like. In addition, we absolutely love the design and look of the ship. We’re looking forward to learning more about the various members of the bridge crew aside from their names. There’s much to be excited about going forward, if you’re a fan of Star Trek.
We just pray the show’s creators get over their need to keep looking backwards.
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