This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Star Trek Discovery — but also points out why you may not want to bother watching it.
From the moment its name was unveiled to a packed Comic-Con crowd at a panel of Starfleet alumni, I was personally rooting for Star Trek: Discovery to succeed.
What we had here, CBS told us, was a true 21st century Trek, fit for the new Golden Age of streaming television. A Trek that could proudly stand alongside Game of Thrones and Black Mirror. Not to mention a Trek that would justify the cost of subscribing to CBS All Access, a channel that otherwise had nothing you couldn’t see on terrestrial TV.
Indeed, Discovery seemed to have the right stuff. It was not the trying-too-hard-to-be-Star-Wars J.J. Abrams reboot movies; not Trek’s last TV outing, the safe, dull, mostly forgotten Enterprise; not the too-familiar monster-of-the-week format. For the first time, a season of Trek would tell a single story — “like a novel,” said showrunner Bryan Fuller before his still-unexplained ouster — and it would do so with the most diverse cast in the franchise’s history.
As the first season wore on, I gave Discovery every chance. I defended the somewhat lackluster first two episodes, in which Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) commits mutiny, as setup for the excellent third episode in which she is snapped up for service aboard the top-secret Discovery by the even more mysterious Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). On board Discovery, Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) leads research into a “spore drive” that could jump our characters travel to anywhere in the universe, instantaneously. Promising!
The bizarre mid-season finale, with its scenes of Klingon rape and a twist that saw Discovery jumping into an entirely different universe altogether, left me cautious but hopeful: okay, let’s see where this thing is going.
But by the time Season 1 ended on Sunday, however, I had no defenses left. My shields were down as the show fired photon torpedoes of poor choices at any desire to care about the characters or keep watching.
A vast season-long interstellar war between Klingons and the Federation wrapped up so fast, it was as if nothing ever happened. One moment a Starfleet admiral is revealed to be plotting planetary genocide; in the next, she’s handing out medals to the crew, who have apparently forgotten her war crime.
Then in the final moments, the Discovery answers a distress beacon. Surprise! It’s the USS Enterprise!
A show that had spent a season refusing to hit the reset button had just hit the biggest reset button of all. After promising to take Trek to risky and interesting new places, Discovery left us on the oldest, safest, most recognizable piece of Trek fan service ever.
In many other circumstances, I’d be thrilled to see the Enterprise appear. Like many of us, I grew up watching that ship in reruns. But the show had simply not earned this moment. After the season that was, it so clearly seemed a bit of handwaving to distract us from the dog’s dinner of a drama we’d just witnessed.
What had gone wrong? With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify a number of poor storytelling choices, some of them seen into the narrative from the beginning, that boxed Discovery into a place where a disappointing end was practically inevitable.
Aspiring sci-fi writers, please take note.
1. Too many Klingons (too many Klingons)
The first scene of the first episode foreshadowed one of Discovery‘s biggest ongoing problems. A long, subtitled debate between various Klingons tried its damnedest to make viewers invest in some internecine struggle between Klingon families that I, a representative of the nerdy target audience, have now completely forgotten about.
It was as if Game of Thrones had opened with lots of Dothraki talking in Dothraki about things that were really only of interest to Dothraki. At least in that instance the actors would be easier to tell apart.
Not so the Klingons in this production, who were both more elaborate and less interesting than in past Stark Treks. Their immovable masks made it impossible for us to read any nuance of emotion on their faces. Distinguishing between them was hard work. Caring, more so.
That’s more a production problem than a plot problem, but still — surely those interminable Klingon scenes could have been edited way the hell down in post-production.
Thrones viewers mostly cared about the Dothraki in relation to a character they already cared about, Daenerys Targaryen. Likewise, the only time I had any strong emotion towards a Klingon character was when Ash Tyler was apparently raped and tortured by one. (Or was he? We’ll get to that.)
Speaking of …
2. Lt. Ash Tyler. Or is it?
Dammit Jim, I really wanted to like Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Discovery‘s erstwhile security chief developed into an important character with whom our hero, Michael Burnham, had a tender romance. Given how much of her emotional time she expends on him, he’s arguably the number one dude in the whole narrative.
But here’s the thing: the manner in which Tyler joined the crew was so damn shady: in episode 5, he was found in a Klingon cell with notorious con man Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson, a bright spot in a season that was at least well cast).
You don’t just find major characters in Klingon cells in chapter 5 without the viewer knowing something’s up. Was he a Klingon spy, a plant, a sleeper agent? Frequently lazy on the character front, the show did almost no work to alleviate our suspicions. Starting a fling with the hero, story-wise, just mades him even more suspect. He was a gender-swapped femme fatale.
So it wasn’t that big a surprise when Tyler turns out to be a Klingon sleeper agent. Except in that he actually had a Klingon inside him, somehow, implanted in some way that had fooled Discovery’s medical scanners! And his female Klingon Dr. Moreau had to rape him too, because reasons! Surely not just to give Star Trek fans their first official canon sight of Klingon boobs.
It was hard to understand when Tyler was going to be himself or Voq, the murderous Klingon inside him, and Burnham had (like us) pretty much just stopped trying to figure it out. He goes off to reunite the Klingon Empire with … the woman who raped and tortured him, who now leads the entire species? And is sort of a Klingon hero now?
Was the show now trying to tell us that Tyler was Voq during that sex scene, not himself, and so everything’s cool now? A writer who cared about story might have taken a moment to all address this.
All in all, Tyler was the season’s greatest waste of character development. Kidding! He was the second greatest waste, behind only …
3. Captain Lorca, RIP?
Here was one of the best twists in a season that loved its twists. Gabriel Lorca — the bend-the-rules captain of the black ops science ship Discovery — turned out to have been the version of himself from an evil Mirror Universe all along. He deliberately drove Stamets to the brink of madness by getting him to jump Discovery to his home universe. A long con if ever there was one.
That, of course, made Lorca an instantly fascinating villain. We’d just gone through several varieties of hell alongside him. He was our pal. Becoming evil didn’t stop him being ridiculously watchable. Especially when the evil dude in question is Jason Isaacs, who could invest the eating of a ham sandwich with dark charisma.
The show was in desperate need of such a complex character amidst its rubber-masked villains. So what did the showrunners do for an encore after this reveal? They killed Lorca off in the next episode and pretty much never mentioned him (or his supposedly-dead non-Mirror version) again.
That’s not a shocking twist a la Game of Thrones, it’s story self-sabotage. Mystifyingly, Isaacs’ name hung around on the opening credits until the end, as if to say: look what you could have had.
4. The Emperor of the Goddamn Universe
The reason Star Trek Discovery thought it could get away with killing off its most magnificently evil bastard starship captain is that it was in the middle of attempting to create another one: Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
Georgiou, who had a complex maternal love-hate relationship with Burnham at the start of the season before her death, showed up again in the Mirror universe as the Emperor of the whole damn Terran Empire, but one who had the same maternal love-hate relationship with Mirror-Burnham.
Then, before we really had a chance to settle in with this idea, the ADD script deposed the Emperor and yanked her back into our universe, where Starfleet seemed perfectly happy to stick her in a captain’s uniform. Again, none of this felt earned. Mirror-Georgiou’s motivation was all over the place.
Science fiction is an inherently unbelievable genre. That’s why its best writers have to work so hard to suspend our disbelief by investing in characters. I don’t think the Discovery writers cared about nurturing believable characters at this point. I think they were on sugar and caffeine highs, playing mad libs with the script. “What if … Georgiou! Turned out to be the … Emperor of the Universe! And then became … a Starfleet captain!”
Everyone has an “I’m out” moment, where some piece of sub-par science fiction or fantasy fails to meet their minimum believability standards. Captain-Emperor-Captain Georgiou was mine, and I should have listened to my gut.
From this point on, she was a chess piece to be moved around. Nothing she did or said in the final episode made a lick of sense — and neither did Starfleet’s decision to just let the most dangerous person from another universe roam free in ours.
5. Everyone else (except Tilly)
In previous Treks, we’ve known enough to care about pretty much everyone on the bridge of the Starship or space station. Not so in Discovery. Instead we got officers who were repeatedly seen and almost never heard, much less fleshed out as characters.
Given that most of them were women or people of color, this is particularly problematic. I had to look up the names of the characters in the GIF above, Joann Owosekun and Keyla Detmer. Here’s hoping we learn literally anything about them in Season 2.
The minimal time in the script that might be left over for these characters was given to Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) in engineering. Tilly consistently brought something the show was otherwise lacking — a sense of humor.
She was also bumbling, babbling, proudly ambitious, occasionally quite mean, mostly loving. That’s how you do it, Star Trek Discovery. That’s how you make a character seem real.
Ironic, then, that everywoman Tilly — the character who made you feel you too could be a Starship Captain someday — effectively pushed a bunch of other women out of the script.
Who’s left? Paul Stamets, despite the best efforts of Anthony Rapp and the best boyfriend in the late Doctor Hugh Culber, never quite gelled as a character. He began as a brilliant if bitchy scientist, took a left turn at mad prophet and martyr, met himself in the Mirror universe, and finally … decided to give up on his beloved spore drive?
Again, the show conveyed this last change with a throwaway line at the end that destroyed the character’s last shred of apparent ambition, making Stamets little more than a blank slate.
Likewise, Saru (Doug Jones) had been doing yeoman’s work as a sit-in captain throughout the entire Mirror Universe arc — and then it is casually announced that Discovery would hire a new (still unknown) captain from outside. The viewer is naturally going to want to check in on how Saru feels about that. Too late! The show is already warping to its next plot point.
Maybe this is a result of trying to jam too many characters into a single show. Then again, plenty of writers of ensemble TV drama handle this sort of problem weekly. Discovery‘s problem thus far is that it never wanted to focus on character; it wanted to zip between cool twists at ludicrous speed. Even Michael Burnham only feels real because of Martin-Green’s incredible acting chops, not her straight-as-an-arrow dialogue.
I hope this can change in Season 2. I hope Discovery can boldly go into meaningful motivation and complex characters with clearly drawn personalities and long-running arcs.
Given that its cliffhanger focused entirely on a spaceship, however, we probably shouldn’t hold our collective breaths.