A mid-season review of Star Trek: Discovery
Discovery has jumped into the 32nd century to meet the moment in 2020
It’s no secret I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and I feel very lucky that the franchise has been experiencing a resurgence over the last few years.
While there are three new Star Trek shows currently airing or in production – Discovery, Picard and the animated Lower Decks – Discovery was the first of these to hit our screens, presenting a bold new vision of Star Trek for a contemporary audience.
In terms of setting, plot and character design, Discovery took a lot of gambles. They haven’t all paid off. Some of the most persistent criticisms of the show’s first two seasons were that it felt too much like “generic sci-fi,” and not enough like actual Star Trek. The show sometimes seemed more invested in its glossy sets and highly choreographed action sequences than making any sort of moral arguments about utopian futures, which has always been (however glorious or ham-fisted it was in execution) the beating heart of every Star Trek show.
There have also been times where Discovery felt a bit hemmed-in by the constraints of working within a larger franchise. Because it was billed as a prequel series, the writers had to play by the rules of events that had already happened, and couldn’t introduce characters or species who wouldn’t come along until much later.
Still, despite these stumbles, I’ve loved Discovery from the start. Every season has had a good number of knock-it-out-of-the-park excellent episodes, and the characters are all deeply compelling, well-acted and well-written. I knew the show had so much potential, and that everything would click into place once it found its feet, but it just wasn’t quite there yet – so I kept watching.
But midway through its third season I can confidently say – Discovery has arrived.
Star Trek: Discovery season three is not only everything I dreamed it would be and more. It is also the perfect show to watch and find comfort in during this year of collective global traumas.
*Major spoilers for seasons one and two of Star Trek: Discovery, as well as the first half of season three, continue below*
Say what you will about the Star Trek: Discovery showrunners, but they have never shied away from incredible narrative risks.
So at the end of season two, when Discovery’s crew decided that the only way to save the universe from an evil artificial intelligence was by jumping through a wormhole to the future, my main reaction from a narrative standpoint was… yeah, that tracks.
After all, this is a show that started off with its main character getting sentenced to life in prison (which didn’t last), completely redesigned one of the best-known species in the franchise and had a storyline that involved escaping a parallel universe through the power of gay love and alien opera on a highway made of mushrooms.
So shifting the show from a prequel series to one set 930 years in the future? For the Discovery writer’s room, that’s practically tame.
And then they completely stuck the landing.
The first few episodes were an absolute whirlwind of plot and emotion, as these characters found themselves in a place that was at once a home and totally unfamiliar to them, having left most of their lives, families and loved ones in a past they could never return to.
In a very smart move, the writers essentially split the first story arc over two episodes. The first one belongs entirely to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Discovery’s powerhouse lead character, and follows the events that happen to her immediately after she comes through the wormhole.
Michael had been flying a specially-designed suit to allow her to pilot Discovery through the wormhole, but there was no guarantee that any of them would make it, or that Discovery would come out of the wormhole at the same time and place (the show gives a satisfying explanation of the time-travel mechanics involved here, but doesn’t get too bogged down in technobabble).
And sure enough, when Michael crash-lands, she is alone – Discovery is nowhere to be found. She soon teams up with Book, a courier from the future she has landed in (as well as Grudge, his excellent cat) and learns that Starfleet itself, the very idea of the Federation and the principles for which it stands, is in shambles after a major disaster destroyed most of its ships in one fell swoop.
But Michael is undaunted – she resolves to find her ship, find the remnants of the Federation, and rebuild.
The second episode follows the Discovery crew after they come through the wormhole and experience this future universe for themselves for the first time.
Unlike episode one, which was Martin-Green’s time to shine, this episode is a showcase for the brilliant ensemble cast, with Captain Saru (Doug Jones), Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) in particular delivering scene-stealing performances as they repair the damaged ship and escape a planet with dangerous brigands and a surface of ice that becomes predatory in the dark.
And while there are no shortage of fascinating and wonderful plot threads being woven at this point in the season, the best part of Discovery’s third season so far is its emotional reckoning with a world that will never be the same again.
This was an incredibly prescient move for the show, which was renewed for a third season in February 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic was on anybody’s radar.
The writers would not have known that, by the time this show went to air, its viewers would be watching it isolated in their own homes having not seen family and loved ones for months on end, or facing mounting and uncertain danger in their daily lives, living in a world that has irrevocably changed.
But it is, somehow, the perfect show for this moment.
As the characters learn to recognize their traumas, to cope, to find solace in simple things – a familiar tree, an old comedy – we see a message of hope.
Yes, nothing is the same as it was, and in some ways will never be again.
But there is a future for us here.
And that’s the kind of Star Trek utopian vision I can get behind.