Thoughts on the Star Trek: Discovery season finale, and season one as a whole, coming up just as soon as I eat a space whale…
A few weeks ago, I tried to hum the Discovery theme and realized the only parts that stuck with me were the ones that quoted the original Alexander Courage theme to the ’60s show. And while watching “Will You Take My Hand?,” by far the most excited I got was when the scanner started spelling out the distressed Starfleet ship’s classification number as N-C-C-1-7, because I knew it meant that the Enterprise, and Christopher Pike, were surely soon to follow.
To a degree, every new Star Trek series suffers in the early days from memories of the previous ones. The Dr. McCoy cameo in the Next Generation pilot was one of the few highlights of that show’s mostly terrible first season. Chief O’Brien was the character I enjoyed watching most in Deep Space Nine‘s first year because I already knew him from TNG. When Voyager was foundering creatively, they added a heroic version of modern Trek‘s most popular villains (and put her in a sexy catsuit, just to play things safe). So the fact that the echoes of and allusions to vintage Kirk and Spock adventures sticks out more than anything else Discovery has done isn’t an indictment of the latest series. But the show, like that theme song, needs to start creating more reasons to care even when it’s not evoking memories of 1966.
Discovery didn’t turn out to be the Trek anthology series Bryan Fuller wanted(*), but “Will You Take My Hand?” felt at times like it was, as it cleared the decks of the Federation war with the Klingons, wrote out a few more characters, restored Michael’s old rank (though she’ll remain subordinate to Saru and take his old job as science officer) and started the ship and its remaining crew off on a whole new adventure involving Pike, that ship we know so well, and perhaps even (based on the reactions of Michael and Sarek at hearing what ship it was, and knowing that he served under Pike) Spock himself. (Our Dan Seitz wrote more about Pike – including some casting suggestions – right here.)
(*) With Fuller having now quit both American Gods and Amazing Stories in the time since he parted ways with Discovery, it’s fair to suggest the blame shouldn’t lie solely with the people on the other side of the disagreements he keeps having.
I’m glad to be done with the Klingons for a good long time, and can only hope that the post-hiatus’s emphasis on the Mirror Mirror universe was a sign that the creative team realized how badly all the Klingon material was working. The wrap-up to the war, and L’Rell’s ability to get the other houses to listen to her, felt very rushed and technobabble-y (one well-placed bomb by itself somehow swung the entire balance of power of an interstellar war?), but it’s an ending, and that’s frankly all that matters. Like Worf when he was asked about the human-looking Klingons in “Trials and Tribble-ations,” I would rather never again speak of this era of the Empire. Like many of the series’ other attempts to be a more “adult” version of Star Trek — the occasional curse words, the finale’s glimpse of an alien urinating with multiple streams, Mirror Georgiou having a three-way at an Orion brothel(*) while wearing a leather corset — the revamp of the Klingons felt superficially adult (naughty words and images, but not more mature storytelling), while also distracting from the parts of the show that were working (Michael’s interaction with the crew, developing the spore drive, the occasional standalone adventure).
(*) Hey, it’s Clint Howard appearing on his fourth different Trek series as the Orion guy getting his smoke on with Tilly! Howard still has a ways to go to catch up with the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, but it’s cool to have him still affiliated with the franchise over 50 years after he was a little kid in “The Corbomite Maneuver.”
The finale’s most effective moment, prior to Enterprise’s arrival and that old fanfare playing yet again (before the end titles featured the full Courage closing credits theme), went back full circle to the premiere: Michael Burnham again mutinying against Philippa Georgiou, only a different Georgiou, and now with the full support of her fellow crew. Never mind that many of the redshirts didn’t previously know this wasn’t our universe’s Georgiou — hopefully, like Tilly in an amusing earlier moment, they were able to figure it out quickly after the ship’s extended stay on the other side — the moment worked because it felt like Discovery, right along with Michael, was standing up for what Starfleet, the Federation, and Star Trek itself should be. War arcs and moral ambiguity can work spectacularly in this franchise (the later seasons of DS9 say hi), but they have a higher degree of difficulty, and one to which Discovery mostly felt unsuited. If it’s now to be a show emphasizing its ship’s name, so much the better.
The show’s not starting over entirely from scratch, but it feels pretty close. With Lorca dead, Georgiou in the wind, the Ash/Voq hybrid wandering the galaxy trying to create harmony between his two peoples, and Dr. Culber still embarrassingly fridged (other than his one-episode reprieve in the spore drive afterlife), we’re down to only Michael, Saru, Tilly, and Stamets among crew members who’ve been given any real characterization, and a new captain is apparently waiting for the ship on Vulcan. (I’d frankly just give Saru the job permanently, given that he’s both one of the show’s strongest characters and someone who feels wholly different from every past series captain, but this gives the show the opportunity to stunt cast again like with Jason Isaacs, maybe setting up a new high-profile captain each season?) It’s not an entirely clean slate, but close enough. The post-hiatus episodes were stronger and more consistent than what came before, in part because the Klingons were downplayed — even the finale’s time on the Klingon homeworld was largely spent hanging with people from Orion — but a new direction seems more promising at this point.
Can Discovery begin to come into its own, even as it’s introducing the most famous starship in franchise history? Or is it doomed to be a just good enough approximation of what’s come before, that’s inevitably most exciting when it directly intersects with the series’ past? Like I said when the show returned from hiatus, pretty much every Trek debut season was rough, and this was better than several of its respective predecessors. I just don’t know exactly what Discovery is yet, or if the creative team itself fully has it figured out. But I’m Trekkie enough to stick around for the continuing adventures of these characters, to see the show struggle to keep integrating itself with old continuity (the spore drive and the amount of damage done in the war to the Federation both seem in wild conflict with the original series), and, yes, for the occasional new versions of old favorites. But I’d like it to become more.
What did everybody else think?