Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Review

  • Series Title: Star Trek: Discovery
  • Season: 1
  • Episodes:  15
  • Discs:  4
  • Network:  CBS (CBS All-Access)
  • Cast:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh, Shazad Latif, Wilson Cruz, Mary Chieffo, Jayne Brook
  • DVD: Widescreen DVD (R1, NTSC)

This review includes some spoilers but seeks to not reveal major plot twists. Read with caution.

I really, really, really liked this newest version of Star Trek. First, it addresses two of the biggest issues I’ve ever had with Star Trek generally, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation – the non-alien appearance of aliens and the constant hitting of the reset button. First, ST always had “aliens” that didn’t look the least bit alien or different. Even Doctor Who, as low as it’s budget was, had aliens that looked more different – not like they had random lumps of plasticine stuck to an actor’s face for no reason. Saru looks alien – his face, his hands, and I don’t know if they digitally lengthened the actor’s legs, the actor is incredibly tall, or the actor wears stilts under his uniform – and I don’t care how they did it – Saru looks like a gazelle which is perfect for his character. They also really developed Saru’s background, while showing how who he is to his core can be an asset both to the rest of the crew and to him personally. And Saru, like the rest of cast, grows throughout the season, something I also really liked.

The second thing I liked about Star Trek: Discovery is that Season 1 is a continuous story. This is a Star Trek novel for television. Finally! It is also one addictive novel. I flew through the DVD set and not just because I had a lot of time on my hands. Most episodes end in a cliffhanger. The series continuously changes, even though it’s only a short fifteen episodes long. The characters also grow and change – this is not a flat character arc show, and it is so much better for it. Also, actions have consequences, and there is no reset button. Finally! This is a modern show in writing and execution and it shows how much better Star Trek can be with a continuing story and characters who change and develop and even die.

The two-part pilot (which is not marked as such on the DVD case, which is a problem) has our main character, a woman named Michael Birnham, serving on a ship called Shenzhou. She is the first officer and her captain is also a woman, Capt. Philippa Georgiou. The Shenzhou arrives at a binary star system – and most of the rest of the two-part pilot is actually irrelevant. What matters is the results. The Federation ends up at war with the Klingons. The Klingons actually have a good point – they believe that the Federation’s “we come in peace” is a lie and that if they join the Federation they will be forced to assimilate – that they will have to give up their own language, their own religion, their own culture. The Klingons believe that as part of the Federation they will be forced to assimilate completely. It is telling that the slogan of their leader is: “Remain Klingon”. They also are not a united empire but 24 Houses who more often than not are at war. The other thing the Klingon leader wants is to unite the warring Houses into a single Empire. Michael talks Capt. Georgiou into attempting to capture the Klingon leader. But instead, both Captain Georgiou and the Klingon leader are killed – making the leader a martyr – something Michael warned against. Since Michael had also attacked Georgiou and tried to get the Shenzhou to shoot first at the Klingons – she’s arrested for mutiny and other charges. Michael pleads guilty to all charges and prepares to spend the rest of her life in a military prison.

Enter Captain Lorca of the USS Discovery – he not only gets Michael out of her jail cell, but he also offers her a position on his ship. The Discovery was originally a science ship but now it’s one of a pair working on an experimental new drive system. Soon after Michael arrives on the Discovery, and while she’s still not sure about Lorca’s offer, the ship receives a distress call. It’s the Discovery‘s sister ship. Michael is on the team that goes to investigate. Everyone on the ship is dead, parts of the ship have been torn apart, and the ship itself wasn’t attacked from the outside but torn apart by a malfunction of the new drive. Michael and Paul Stamets, a scientist working on the new drive, investigate what went wrong. Paul thinks it was the length of the jump (the new drive allows instantaneous travel) but Michael believes it was the lack of an intelligent navigator. It turns out the “creature” they discovered, and that Lorca brought about the Discovery secretly, wasn’t a vicious attacking predator – it’s an over-grown microscopic organism that eats the mushroom spores that power the drive. Lorca and Stamets figure out some equipment they found on the other ship is a harness for it. They use it as a navigator. It works – but tortures the animal, finally nearly killing it. Stamets discovers he can be navigator instead.

In one episode Lorca is captured by the Klingons (remember there’s a war going on) and he shares a cell with Ash Tyler a captured Starfleet officer and Harry Mudd. Lorca and Ash escape. Over the course of the season, Ash and Michael become close. But Ash is also hiding a secret and it goes deeper than hiding his PTSD from being tortured by the Klingons.

The one stand-alone episode of the season is the obligatory time-loop episode featuring Harry Mudd. The episode isn’t bad, it’s actually pretty good for a stand-alone episode. But it seems much weaker than the rest of the season because the arc-plots are put on hold and you could skip it entirely without missing anything.

Returning to the main plot, the Discovery goes to an “uninhabited” planet that turns out to be the sentient planet Mogo from the Green Lantern Corps. OK, not really, but it turns out that there are glowing blue sentient tiny balls of light that flood the planet. Because the planet is inhabited, the crew can’t, per Federation rules, do what they were there to do. Also, these beings create a high frequency “noise” that humans can’t hear but that has a profound, and negative, affect on Saru. The situation is resolved, and it even looks like the Federation has made a great stride towards winning the war against the Klingons.

But in what should be a normal jump to a nearby starbase – the Discovery ends up in the Mirror Universe. This is not the obligatory Mirror Universe episode, though, most of the rest of the season has the Discovery in the Mirror Universe. And not only do characters have to deal with the Fascist Terran Empire or meeting doubles of people they know (including people who died in the first two episodes), but they now need to find a way home. The disastrous jump that caused the Discovery to land in the Mirror Universe has also physically harmed Paul Stamets and he’s in sickbay in a coma. Ash Tyler’s secret and his health become issues, though he starts out accompanying Michael on her missions inside the Terran Empire. And let’s just say this, episode 12 “Vaulting Ambition” has one of the most stunning and shocking plot twists I’ve ever seen in Star Trek. I’m not going to spoil it, because even watching this show about a year after it aired on a streaming service I can’t physically get, I had managed to remain unspoiled and my jaw dropped.

The Discovery does manage to figure out a way to return to the Federation Universe and cripples the Terran Federation in the process (no I won’t say more about that either). While they are figuring out how to do this, and discussing plans, and drawbacks to the various plans, Paul, finally recovered, mentions he can now get the Discovery home, but there might be a displacement in time. I don’t want to discount what happens in the Mirror Universe, it’s a lot, several episodes worth, and it is fantastic, plus we see a lot of character growth, but it is also extremely spoilry and I do not want to ruin it. The Discovery makes it back to the Federation Universe, nine months later. And the Federation is losing the war.

Once back in the Federation Universe, and up to speed, with Admiral Cornwall on board, a new plan is put together to defeat the Klingons – with input from a Klingon prisoner and a prisoner from the Mirror universe. These are not the best people to be asking for advice. In addition, the Federation has suffered great losses – ships, starbases, territory, civilians – Cornwall is desperate. Tilly figures out that the “plan” Cornwall and the Mirror Universe character came up with is different than what they agreed to with the Discovery‘s crew and other Starfleet military leaders – and it is truly horrifying. Michael and Tilly stop the Mirror Universe character and also manage to end the war for good, while their Klingon prisoner becomes the new Klingon leader. (The Klingon, L’Rell had been the second in command for all intents and purposes of the Klingon Empire. But with the leader dead, another Klingon took control who kicked L’Rell out of her place in the rather tenuous Klingon leadership. L’Rell implies this is a reason she wishes to “defect”, something considerably more complicated than it sounds.)

The series ends with Michael giving a very good speech about what it means to be Star Fleet and the importance of the ideals of the Federation, especially at times of war. All the main crew of Discovery is decorated by Starfleet (some posthumously) and it’s noted that Saru is the first Kelpian to receive such an honor. Michael’s record (the mutiny and other charges) is expunged and her dishonorable discharge is reversed and she’s accepted back into Star Fleet officially.

I loved Star Trek: Discovery. It’s more like a page-turning thriller than what one normally expects from Star Trek, but this is the Federation at war, and the Federation at war can be a scary thing. Captain Lorca was a character that as he was introduced I would normally hate, but I found that the way Jason Isaacs played him made him understandable and even likable. He also seems to be the typical maverick Star Trek captain and war covers a lot for some of his questionable actions. There is more to who Lorca is but’s it’s a spoiler. Yet, all the characters in Star Trek Discovery, even bubbly cadet Tilly are not simply well-rounded, but they are characters who grow, who change, they are not the same in the last episode as they were in the first episode we meet them. I really enjoyed seeing a Star Trek series that has a continuing plot and characters who actually change and grow. I loved the fact that Saru looks, acts and talks like he’s alien – but that he isn’t mocked for this. Star Trek: Discovery was already darker than most Star Trek series because: war, and then the show spends most of the back half of the season in the Mirror Universe, but, tellingly even in this situation we see the characters shine and more Star Trek optimism and decency of character. In a situation where the easy path was there and loud voices suggest taking it, the series itself goes the other way, and that is what creates the Federation we know as opposed to the Terran Empire we learn a lot more about. Also, when Paul Stamets mentioned “time displacement,” I thought the Discovery would end-up at the Battle of Binary Stars and the entire season would be re-written. I was extremely impressed the writing staff didn’t take this obvious easy way out and the Discovery turned-up nine months after it had disappeared from the Federation Universe.

I simply loved this series. It may be my favorite Star Trek series ever, and that includes Classic Trek. I liked Michael, she’s not the typical lead character, especially for Star Trek, and she grows just as much if not more than any other character. I highly recommend Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery and I have no idea what they will do for Season 2. I hope it’s just as good.

Advertisements