Star Trek: Discovery – Complete Season One Assessment

Now that the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery has aired, I can finally compile my thoughts on the complete journey of the inaugural season.

Black Alert: there will be massive spoilers.  Turn back now if you don’t want to know.

Still with me?  Ok.  First things first.  Let me just point out that my previous Discovery posts can be found on the project page: These Are The Voyages.  Feel free to reference any of that.  Let’s move on.

After the trilogy of Kelvin-timeline films, I was more than prepared to hate this series on principle.  Alex Kurtzman is a name I’ve come to loathe because nearly everything he touches, not just Star Trek, turns to a bucket of stupid.  I say nearly because, for the most parts, and with some select issues, Star Trek: Discovery is a resounding — and surprising — success.  I don’t know how much Kurtzman’s input mattered.  I do know that he assembled a team that actually knew what they were doing.  Being fans of Trek isn’t enough.  They must also be able to stand back and separate fandom from writing and series progression.  It’s a balancing act because stories are perpetual; they cannot be trapped in amber.  To craft new tales in a classic setting is to risk undermining the foundations that matter and keep the story strong.

The series is a 2-episode prologue, a 7-episode first chapter, and a 6-episode second chapter.  The overall thrust of the series is the war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, which we’ve known was there all along, for those of us who’ve paid attention to the original canon.  The war is not the problem I had.  It’s a tale that needed to be told because how it was resolved would define the spirit of the Federation against all other odds.

I’ve sung my praises of most of the cast.  I love the actors they’ve signed for this.  In many cases, the problem I’ve had is how a given character is written.  Sonequa Martin-Green is an absolute treasure, a positive role model in the spirit of the best Star Trek can offer.  It’s her show.  She owns it, and she seems to do so effortlessly.  The actress is not the character.  Until the season one finale, I was side-eyeing her character.

Michael Burnham was written as a Breaking Bad version of a Mary Sue.  She could do no right, she made a lot of stupid decisions, and we were told this was the future of Starfleet that we were going to follow.  It was… uncomfortable.  And for the love of Spock… that telepathic connection with James Frain’s Sarek still doesn’t make any kind of sense to me as to how or why that should work.  That connection aside, the character arc for Burnham now makes complete sense.  Sarek’s cold logic gave us the “Vulcan hello” that led to the Battle of the Binary Stars and the war with the Klingons.  I still contend that would be more fitting from an Andorian, but even if the principles don’t line up, the logic is in place.  In the season finale, that same logic, backed by desperation in the Starfleet ranks at the highest levels, gives rise to the idea that Mirror Universe Georgiou — former Emperor of that galaxy — is the key to winning the war, using a bomb that will ignite the volcanoes of the Klingon homeworld, rendering it uninhabitable.

Basically a tit-for-tat response since Earth was likewise in the Klingon’s firing line.  Having learned from experience, and having relied on her human heart rather than her Vulcan logic, Burnham threatens mutiny again, this time backed by the crew of the Discovery saying, “No, we will not do this horrible thing.  We are Starfleet.”

Friends… this is what Star Trek is all about.  It was beautiful to see it.

But the bomb in question was still there, and Burnham gave it to the Klingon L’Rell as a means to take over her own world, unite the 24 houses of the Empire, and end the war.  L’Rell is indeed the only one in the Empire worthy enough to do this, and it’s in her character to pull it.  It’s a long shot.  It feels wrong on so many levels.  It feels like Burnham should somehow answer for this too, until we take in two factors.  First, the Klingons are now responsible for their own fates, and Starfleet is pulled back from the brink of genocide on a technicality.  And second… this is such a Kirk move when you think about it.  If it feels wrong, it’s because we got many seasons of Picard giving us the high ground, with Sisko and Janeway largely following in that pattern.  Archer was given a lot of fan grief because he was more Kirk than anything, and Starfleet had to learn from the things he encountered.  His exploits forged the playbook for Picard.  And so did Kirk.  Kirk would get into a no-win scenario, change the conditions in a most un-Starfleet like way, and then leverage that new high ground with peace talks.  It was unorthodox, but it was effective, and it made him a hero.  When he went too far, saving the world got him his rank and ship back even after court martial.  Burnham followed that character arc to the letter.  She’s a more sympathetic version of Kirk, and she had to learn to do what he did instinctively, but she got there in the end.

In fact, of the entire crew, I can honestly say the biggest issue from the beginning was that none of them were a team.  Not really.   That was by design.  Mirror Universe Lorca kept them on edge, forging a team in his own likeness that he could use to his own ends.  We didn’t see that as the series was winding up, but it’s so very easy to see in hindsight.

This adventure made them a team.  In standing together in their “I am Spartacus” moment, they stood for the highest ideals of Starfleet and became a fully-functioning team.  You could see it.  Everything about them changed in that moment.  And everything in the relationship between series producers and audience changed as well.  Trust, but verify.  We’ve now verified.  Trust is earned.  Not all is forgiven, but the vast majority of it certainly is.

So… it’s not a perfect ending, but emotionally it played all the right cards.

And then it played another one.

A big one.

Discovery is en route to Vulcan to drop off Sarek and to receive her new captain when they receive a garbled distress signal.  The U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, makes her debut on the series in the final moment of the season, coming nose to nose with Discovery.

Let’s talk about the double elephant in the room, shall we?

First, this isn’t about the Enterprise.  Whatever story they’re setting up for season two, the focus will still be on Discovery.  We know that the possibility is there that we’ll meet Pike, Number One, and very likely Spock.  We know we’ll get another recasting.  Say what you will about the recent films, casting wasn’t bad at all.  It’s hard to follow up Leonard Nimoy, but we know they’ll find someone who can be Spock if they decide to go this route.  If this season arc has proven anything to me, they won’t screw that up.

Second, the Enterprise herself has been redesigned and upgraded to reflect the updated look of the series.  Look carefully at her.  What do you see?  Do you see what I see?

What I see is both honoring the past and pushing into the future.

The biggest criticism ever since Enterprise first aired in 2001 was how Archer’s NX-01 looked far more advanced than Kirk’s original 1701, which in turn was presumably a far more advanced ship being 150 years in the future.  We’ve also seen in that series that the Defiant from the original TOS timeline still looked the same once it entered the Mirror Universe:

It also kicked ass and took names as a ship 150 years more advanced should rightfully do.  It was incredible to watch.  We saw from computer displays on Discovery that Defiant received some Mirror Universe upgrades since that point, extra weapons, that sort of thing.  But the basic design didn’t change.  This suggests that if we’re truly in the Prime Timeline as the showrunners claim, Enterprise should look just as she always did.

I’m going to once more point out that Enterprise is not the “Prime Timeline.”  It’s just really close.  Close enough to forgive small differences.  How do I know?  Klingons on Earth in the first episode and Borg on the moon.  Enterprise was a “repaired” timeline in the wake of the Borg time travelling in Star Trek: First Contact.  The redesign of Enterprise here is, in my humble opinion, a thing of beauty.  It not only confirms my hypothesis as outlined here, it’s also completely respectful of the original design, unlike that hideous, oversized monstrosity they pulled in the latest films.  Also, it brings her more in line to the refit version we see in the early Trek films, my personal favorite version of her.  The version I fell in love with as a kid.

Seeing the Enterprise, my fists raised in the air, and I nearly fell off my couch in celebration.  You can see the continuity unfold because it’s no longer a hand wave conceit that says “we have more money now, so this is what she looked like all along.”  And have I mentioned she’s beautiful?  Absolutely beautiful.  Every classic line is preserved, every upgrade perfectly reasoned in story based on previous designs.  My hat is off to the art department for this one.

What role does the Enterprise and her crew play next season?  Everything I’m reading online confirms that we’re not moving to the next big war.  This season was all about introducing Star Trek to Game of Thrones audiences and moving it ever closer to the core themes — and missions — that we’ve come to know from Star Trek.  The messages of the Mirror Universe, the Klingons, and the desperate and cornered Federation echo our own world politics right now in classic Trek fashion.  Now we’ve seen that peace can still reign if given a chance to stand on higher ground, for the right reasons.  This is the message going forward, according to writers and insiders on the series.  Unlike the blockbuster movies we’ve been given, this Star Trek has real teeth, less fluff, and actually means something positive in a world that really needs that.  And the timeline is slightly shifted as to give us both the promise of the original and just enough wiggle room to allow the story to move forward where it needs to.  The more the showrunners claim Prime Timeline, the more they’ll adhere to it.  Let them have that belief.  It keeps it closer to the spirit of Trek on all levels that way.

I’ll also be curious to see how many of the conceits from the first Discovery novel designed to smooth over the transition from original Trek to now are maintained.  Things like uniforms.  Maybe they’ll be upgraded looks on the original designs.  Will we see the inside of the Enterprise?  The updated bridge?

That I have to wait until 2019 for season two is already killing me.  Talk about your good problems to have.

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