Star Trek has always been at odds with its medium. What fans love about Star Trek, with its earnest view of the future and its love of complicated plotting involving spacetime anomalies and technobabble, often has little room for the flawed humans and character-driven plots that make for great TV. Star Trek Discovery, at its midseason finale, has taken on the monumental task of reconciling the two and, well, much like its own diplomats, it doesn’t quite get there. But, in some ways, that doesn’t really matter and the tension has been part of what made the first half of Discovery‘s first season compelling.
Discovery is Star Trek with Peak TV’s preferred swatches of moral gray. It’s told from the perspective of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), an orphaned human raised by Vulcans and saddled with the flaws of both races. Burnham, in the pilot, gets led astray by a mix of fear and arrogance and starts a war with the Klingons, alienates all the friends she hasn’t killed, gets convicted of mutiny with a life sentence, and winds up on the science vessel Discovery — captained by the shifty Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) — under suspicious circumstances. Burnham quickly finds that Discovery is a space-faring weapons skunkworks, and has to navigate its perils while learning to be a decent human being.
Discovery had just about everything going against it as a show.Enterprise limped off the airwaves in 2005 with a widely scorned series finale, and the franchise spent the next decade as a film series with mixed results. So it had a load of expectations, a famously persnickety fan base, a rough production cycle, and had to carry CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access, at least in America. (In the rest of the world, Discovery premieres on Netflix.)
Yet, somehow, it’s pulled it out, so far, largely thanks to shifting the focus to the characters. With the notable exception of Deep Space Nine, Star Trek has tended to let the plot drive the show and only gradually let the characters be filled in. Star Trek always means well, but Federation officers don’t usually have those pesky little flaws that make people fun to watch, which is why they have to get sucked into a black hole or fight robots on a weekly basis. Otherwise they’re, well boring. They’re the NPR tote-bag set, if you gave them a cool spaceship.
Discovery‘s writers’ room, by contrast, has consistently given every single cast member something to chew on. Shazad Latif’s Tyler struggles with PTSD; Anthony Rapp’s Stamets can’t quite balance his loving relationship and his yearning to explore. Doug Jones disappears into the role of Saru, an alien with a finely tuned sense of danger who consequently never experiences peace. Even Mary Wiseman’s dizzy Ensign Tilly gets to be more than just a walking gag. They get tanked, they drop f-bombs, they sleep with the wrong people, and it’s all very human.
At the same time, the show’s gone out of its way to tackle every familiar Star Trek plot, from spacetime anomalies to energy beings. That’s given the show a curious tension on an episode-by-episode basis between being “good Star Trek” and being “good TV” that it doesn’t always resolve. “Lethe,” the sixth episode, is themed around reinventing the original series’ sexist annoyance Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson, who relishes every minute of it) as a far more dangerous criminal, and then bafflingly ends the way all Mudd episodes end, with his wife showing up to drag him off by the ear.
Nowhere does this stand out more than the midseason finale. Discovery has spent eight episodes making it clear that if the ship wins this fight, almost everybody we care about is going to lose something. In the case of Lorca and Burnham, they will lose everything; Lorca, for reasons we won’t spoil, will lose his command and once the war’s over, Burnham goes back to jail. It builds incredible tension, pays it off brilliantly, offers up an emotionally satisfying ending…. and then we’ve got about 20 minutes to kill, where it loses almost all sense of urgency before everything goes wrong in a way any TV watcher, let alone any Trek fan, will see coming a mile away.