REVIEW: Star Trek Discovery, season one (first half)

It’s been about a month since Discovery ended its first half season. Reviews were mixed, but the show was not the trainwreck many feared. It wasn’t the second coming of The Next Generation either, however. It took almost the entire fall run of the show, but Discovery seems now to have a foundation laid for what could be a very promising second half (and beyond). The show’s already been renewed for a second season, so clearly CBS is satisfied. It helps that Netflix is footing the bill, too.

It came, however, not without drama, as initial showrunner Bryan Fuller was fired/walked away (pick one) and replaced by Gretchen Berg. Fuller had a big picture idea he wanted to explore with the show but all indications are that idea was toned down considerably (if not outright nixed) after his exit. The show was also delayed more than once, launched on a streaming network no one wants, and now airs weekly with commercials despite it being a paid-service. It was not the cleanest launching pad for the new show, but launch it did and here we are anticipating the second half of the first season.

Looking back over the nine episodes we’ve had so far, let’s consider what’s holding it back from reaching its full potential.

It seems sort of silly to do such a review when the season isn’t technically over yet, but the half-season ended with a very deliberate cliffhanger and the tease of a brand new “universe” (metaphorically-speaking…or is it?!) to explore; clearly CBS wants us to view the two parts as separate entities. Of course, taking a winter break is not unheard of—the Berman-era shows rarely ever aired a new episode in the month of December—but Discovery is different because it is the most “serialized” show of the franchise. There is a big, connective story being told across multiple episodes, at different levels: Presumably there is a show-spanning arc that began with the premiere (Michael’s mutiny, arrest, parole, and the drama that has followed) and will conclude with the finale (maybe a full pardon if they want to go with a pat ending). There seems to be a season-spanning arc that is only just now coming into focus, it revolves around Lorca and his desire to use the Spore drive…either to win the war with the Klingons (which is what he says publicly), or to do something more personal (which is hinted at throughout the first half of the season). And there was also a half-season arc, which focused on Michael assimilating into Discovery while the Klingons struggled amongst themselves to seize power in the wake of T’kuvma’s death.

All that being said, we come to the two biggest problems Discovery faced this half-season: Weak individual-episode plots and an inconsistent feeling to the larger, multi-episode arc(s) of the show.

Take the Klingon storyline, which is widely regarded as the show’s weakest part so far. That’s especially frustrating becuase there was such great potential after the first episode ended (on CBS). That potential was flushed out of an airlock, however, by the time the second episode concluded (on All Access).

The problem boils down to a lack of clear and consistent motivation. In the show’s premiere we met T’kuvma, a zealous, nativist Klingon with a lot of charisma and potential for character development. But they killed him off on the show’s first night on the air. Then the focus shifted to Voq, an insecure, feeble and unsure of himself disciple of T’kuvma, who possesses all of his master’s desires but little of his political skills. It was an interesting dynamic for an antagonist and again, could have been a great character over the course of the season. Instead they quasi-wrote him out of the show. Then the focus shifted to Kol, a Klingon with much more leadership skill than Voq and more reminiscent of T’kuvma in demeanor. The trouble was Kol possessed none of T’kuvma’s depth and character-nuance; he was just a one-dimensional warmonger. But don’t worry, because he too has bitten the dust.  So all we’re left with is L’Rell, the Klingon lover of Voq who may or may not have surgically altered Voq and turned him into Lt. Ash. There’s been too much jumping around for the central conflict of the show to have any stability. It’s contributed to all but the two most-standalone episodes (which also featured the least amount of Klingon drama) being such letdowns.

Speaking of Ash: The show has yet to outright confirm it, but the teasers during the mid-season finale have basically spelled out his “mysterious” backstory: Ash is Voq, altered to look human, and either by design or by accident, has lost his memory and now thinks he really is Ash. I assume most of the second half of the season will focus on L’Rell trying to awaken Voq, and that will create some inner conflict between Ash’s identity and the Voq identity buried in there somewhere. I will also assume—here’s my big prediction for the second half of season one—that Ash will snap and the “Voq part” of his consciousness will take over, leading to Lorca getting shot like Adama in Kobol’s Last Gleaming, and that’ll be how the first season ends. On the other hand, considering how botched the Klingon stuff was throughout the first half, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to discover that L’Rell was killed off screen over the holidays and the whole Voq/Ash thing just quietly goes away. Either way, the big mystery of Ash’s identity seems to have been unearthed by all the fans, which is probably not what the creators intended. Now we have a big reveal coming that will go over like a lead balloon. Unless there is some super reverse double twist up their sleeve that also preserves the continuity they established in the first half of the season, the fans are going to watch the “big reveal” with a collective “duh.”

Remember how eye-rolling this “spoiler” (that everyone saw coming a mile away) was:

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Get ready for that next season, DISCO fans!

Set aside the Klingon subplot and you’re left with a show set on a starship, whose crew we barely know, whose captain might actually be a villain, whose first officer sabotaged an away mission in the second to last episode and suffered no repercussions in the last episode, and whose interstellar travel essentially renders warp drive meaningless (in the era of Kirk and the original Enterprise). Depending on your perspective there’s either a lot of material left to explore or there’s a lot of material that should have already been explored, halfway through the first season.

Halfway through every other Star Trek show’s first season, audiences had a solid grasp of every character on the bridge. We knew their names, their quirks, their particular personality traits that defined them (Data searches for humanity, Kira wrestles with a post-war world, etc). The Discovery bridge is littered with characters who have names you don’t remember, personalities you’ve never seen, quirks you don’t know. There was an obvious desire to focus on Michael foremost, followed by Lorca, then Tilly, then equal parts Stamets and Saru. The older shows certainly had their tiers of important-to-least important characters, but there was still attention paid to everyone. Discovery has a functioning android on its bridge and have yet to see it play a single game of poker!

As a result of the handicapped cast, the individual plots in each episode are handicapped. Most episodes lack a strong central plot and instead just pick up where the previous one left off and end where the next one will pick up. There’s no beginning-middle-and-end to them because there’s not enough focus on the variety of characters available to buoy those plots with interesting subplots or even just fun little individual scenes peppered here and there.  Each episode (with two exceptions) becomes a vehicle to service the greater season-spanning plot, giving the episodes the feel of a show doing a lot but accomplishing little.

For comparison, Battlestar Galactica balanced its big picture plot needs with stories within each individual episode; its cast was big and diverse and we got to know them early on so we could bounce back to them periodically, if only for a change of pace. It made the episodes seem bigger and when those subplots reached conclusions, it didn’t matter that the main-plot rarely ever did, because something was concluded at the end of each hour. Discovery lacks that; as a result the episodes seem shallow.

Going forward, I hope the writers remember to build their stories from the bottom up. Remember the cast. Remember the needs of the audience who are watching weekly and thus need some measure of conclusion each week. There are elements in place for a great show going forward, but the half-season we’ve had so far has only served to show “a good show that could be” instead of “a good show that is.” I’m not off the bandwagon but I wish the ride had not been so bumpy at the outset.

7/10 – I want to believe the show’s creators stumbled through its first half, knowing it would be clunky as they moved out of the Bryan Fuller concept and into the new one devised by Berg. Now that the groundwork has been laid, I want to believe the show will soar to success the way past Trek shows did when they got past their rough beginnings.

We’ll see.

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