Star Trek Discovery finished up premiering the first half of its first season this Sunday; the second half will come in January. But now that we’ve received a complete narrative arc, it’s a convenient time to look back on the half-season and reflect on what we’ve seen so far. I ended up opting not to do weekly recaps of this show; for one, I was busy, and for two, it’s such a season-narrative type show that it felt like I was attempting to review an unfinished project. I wasn’t decided on how exactly I felt about the show, which is a little contrary to, well, reviewing something.
I’m not sure I have a definitive opinion on the show, but I do have some thoughts. (No spoilers, unless you count vague plot references as spoilers.)
The best way I can sum up this half-season is…that a lot has happened. It’s been a quick-paced, action-packed season, more adult and much, much quicker than the Star Trek we’re used to. I’ve said before that placing the show on a streaming platform, having an after show, the Sunday premieres, etc. seems to be a sign that CBS is treating this as a Game of Thrones, Walking Dead-esque piece of prestige television, designed to be talked about and gasped over by fans on the Monday following each episode. One of the primary goals seems to be to have something substantive, something noteworthy, in each episode. If it doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, then it involves an old canon character in a new way; if not those, then someone dies violently.
They’ve pretty well tipped their hand to the idea that this TV show is meant to be exciting, edge-of-your-seat TV. Which Star Trek as a whole, sometimes…is famously not. It makes me think of this video, which makes fun of fans who were outraged that one of the 2009 film’s trailer taglines was “not your father’s Srtar Trek.” And…I feel conflicted about this. On the one hand, I don’t feel like Star Trek needs to constantly stay the same in order to be good Star Trek. Television as a medium has changed a lot since even the early 2000s, when the last series was made, so this one ought to be different. And yet the pace doesn’t totally sit right with me. I can acknowledge that, having 15 episodes instead of 26, a lot more ground is going to be covered with a lot less filler, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that, on other series, we get literal hundreds of episodes to get to know our characters. On Voyager, Tom Paris’ love of vintage Americana, from cars to black-and-white scifi to 3D movies, is the focus of several episodes. Discovery in its nature can’t be the sort of show where entire episodes are donated to a character’s hobby, so divorcing myself from my expectations makes it hard to navigate what I dislike about the show and what is simply different.
I do think I dislike the pace, ultimately. It doesn’t necessarily make the show bad, but overall I do prefer a more leisurely pace to these sorts of things–this first half arc feels like more than enough to fill an entire first season, which makes me wonder what’s in store in the second half that was so important to include as part of the first season. I also wonder, now that the second season has been ordered by CBS, if the breathing room of having a successful show, not one that still needs to impress, might make this pace slow in the second season. It could also be that my other quibbles will also be solved by the second, or third, season–Every Trek show aside from the original has taken several seasons to hit its stride, which is another reason why it feels so premature to pass judgment.
But, I do have other quibbles, which are mostly symptomatic of the prestige TV format–which is, really, why I just addressed it for several paragraphs. The character development isn’t as meaty as I like–because there’s a fast pace. Giant stakes are introduced and only semi-resolved each episode–again, fast-paced, prestige TV. I can’t tell which characters are liars and manipulators–prestige TV requires you never quite be sure of your footing with certain characters. The Klingon parts seem rushed and I don’t feel like I get enough of them to start empathizing with the Klingons (admittedly, that may not be the point.) Some plot elements have bad cases of rushed, fridge logic–there’s a tendency to make things overly obvious simply to save time on the audience catching up to the plot, which makes certain scenes feel slightly out of character.
There are many things I do enjoy about Discovery. Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd, and his appearances, have been delightful; “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is easily my favorite episode in the show so far. The time travel hijinks were excellent, the props and creatures goofy, and the resolution was a really strong TOS callback. The parts involving Sarek, too, are excellent; I personally enjoy the S’chn T’gai family drama, which has always been as messy and drama-fueled at it is portrayed here. In “Lethe,” Burnham and Sarek’s contentious relationship feels perfectly explicated by the events we see unfold in their reexamined past–their alternating coldness and passion feels very real. Lieutenant Stamets, Doctor Culber Ash Tyler, Cadet Tilly–all are unequivocally good characters, and most of the others are interesting, despite my misgivings (Saru’s threat ganglia seem to only come up when it’s convenient to the plot, despite danger being present in about 90% of the situations in any given episode). The show looks very good, undeniably much, much better than Trek has ever gotten to look on TV.
The show isn’t bad–I simply don’t know what it’s going to resolve into. So far, I find it to be…alright. I enjoy certain parts, and others annoy me, and I try to compartmentalize it away from my preconceptions of what it should be. It’s kind of useless to ask me if I’ll keep watching, because, short of it outright pissing me off, I’ll probably watch the show into its grave. Star Trek is like that for me. While The Orville is doing a shockingly good job of aping Trek, only one of them is the real deal. (And they’re both more thematically mature than previous shows, so you’re choosing between a crew that eats pot brownies on duty or a crew that drops the f-bomb.) I’ll be keeping up with the show no matter what shape it takes, simply because it’s Star Trek, which is as vital to my being as my own blood.
I don’t know if I especially recommend it to people considering forking out the money for CBS All Access; if you’re not a dedicated Trek fan, it seems like a smarter idea to come back later, for the binge experience, and with the benefit of reviews of a whole season to inform you on whether your investment is worth it. It may even behoove you to hold out for two seasons; if Discovery is anything like other Trek shows, the first season will be very unlike what the show becomes, and the second and third seasons will be much closer to the mark.
I guess, ultimately, I recommend playing the long game, and being ready to binge if the reviews you come across start to intrigue you. And for those already watching, I recommend keeping the long game in mind. As much as what’s happened, I don’t think Discovery has given us a good reason to stop watching yet–and it sure doesn’t lack in excitement. So it seems like the best course for us is to go, at full warp, along for whatever journey may come.
Let’s talk about Discovery in the comments or on Twitter! Unless you’re just going to complain about paying for CBS All Access–everyone else has said it at least three kajillion times, so do we really need to repeat it?
I had similar problems with emotional investment in the Klingon plot, I hope once they start to develop the species evolution into a species with, well, less prosthetics and less armor the actors will have more range for body language. Maybe they’ll get to even frown and smile.
What do you think of the new engineering jargon introduced with the spore drive? Does it feel as tight as voyager conversations between the two main characters who just so happen to also be engineers?
Yeah, I was wondering with the Klingons if it was just the armor/prosthetics or maybe also a symptom of how they’re shot. The scenes they have as written are mostly of them standing around talking to each other, so I’m not surprised that they…stand around talking to each other. I think the writers and the directors of the episodes could improve things by like, giving them shit to do. The Klingon going “ssshhhh” and booking it in “Context is for Kings” was actually very fun, I could do with more subversions of what I expect out of Klingons. I am also wondering if they’re planning on acknowledging the shifting look of the Klingons; I personally think it would be really neat if they did.
I wasn’t sold on the jargon at first–when they first introduced the spore drive they didn’t really explain the “there’s a secret mushroom magic superhighway in space” element enough for me, so I was just rolling my eyes at it. I think they’ve done better at making it feel more real as time goes on. For me the thing about technobabble is that it doesn’t need to make real-life sense as long as it builds a sense of reality within the show. Especially in Star Trek, they’ve done a phenomenal job of making the made-up rules for the made-up technology consistent, and the jargon that goes with it consistent. I think it also helps that it’s since been made clear that the spore drive isn’t going to magically solve every problem they have. Technology that solves too many issues conveniently is just…boring, in Trek, or ends up magically disappearing so that it doesn’t break the universe (looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness and your magic bring-back-the-dead juice). I don’t know that I feel the spore drive has added anything to the show, though, aside from Stamets’ cosmic-brain subplot. (I do actually enjoy Stamets going cosmic-brain. I think it’s been a fun and creepy subplot to have.)
I appreciate that Stamet’s personality has chilled the hell out considerably as this spore brain
developed. It was hard to root for him when he was first introduced; he presented his work as this society shift for the good of shared knowledge but it was clear that he could not or would not play well with others and was ultimately invested in his own satisfaction. He was played as like a sympathetic misfit and it came off as recalcitrant.
I like him now that he’s more focused on the world around him and his spore brain’s made his role way more interesting because it reintroduces star trek spooky-space-surprises.