It’s been a few months since the first season of Star Trek Discovery came to an end…or should that be the second season? First and a half season? There was a clear divide in these fifteen episodes, with the first nine telling somewhat of a single story and the final six telling a different story. When you have a serialized format, these big multi-episode arcs tend to play out either in chunks of three or four, or in season-long formats. Discovery seems to fall into the latter category—albeit with too many “rushed to conclusion” mini-arcs along the way—and yet CBS says the fifteen episodes we’ve seen so far constitute a single season of the show.
Call it what you will, but if you’re looking for our thoughts on the first half you can find it here:
As the second half began there were some lingering questions and complaints that needed to be addressed before the season as a whole could be considered a true success…
1. The show needed to find a story and stick with it.
Too much of the first half was filled with half-baked ideas that started slowly and then rushed to a conclusion, as though the writers lacked the patience to tell a story from beginning to end; every time some new idea came along they dropped what they were doing and moved onto it. Case in point: The Tardigrade creature. It’s an idea that could have been milked for a whole season, if the show wanted to play up the ethical drama of using (and abusing) a sentient creature for selfish purposes.
Instead, just as soon as the ethical quandary was introduced it was dropped and replaced with Stammets as the guy in the spore chamber doing the jumps. If they weren’t going to give the Tardigrade its storyline-due, why introduce it at all? Why not just start with Stammets as the guy doing the jumps? It would have given us more time to get to know him, after all.
It’s clear they had long-term plans (Stammets calling Tilly “captain” was an obvious foreshadow to the second half of the season), but at the same time they seemed to fly by the seat of their pants. That works sometimes; Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica were famously written on the fly, but the writers (specifically Vince Gilligan and Ronald D. Moore respectively) had the patience to see an idea through before moving on. Discovery struggled with that across the board.
2. The cast needed more of a spotlight.
More than any other Star Trek show—even the Kirk/Spock/McCoy-led Original Trilogy—Discovery put its first half focus on a select few characters: Michael, Ash, and Lorca. Saru, Tilly and Stammets rounded out the rest of the main cast, with Dr. Culber and the Klingon L’Rell serving mostly as bit players. But there were other characters—bridge characters—who might as well have been stand-ins the way TNG used to have a rotating cast of nobodies sitting in Wesley’s chair before Ro Laren popped in for a spell.
The difference is, TNG had a robust cast that was given ample screentime to develop as characters. By the end of TNG’s first season, every one of the large main cast had well-developed personalities (except maybe Dr. Crusher, but Pulaski—whom I loathe—was not for lack of personality). At the end of Discovery’s first half, I still wasn’t sure if that one lady was an android or just a straight-up robot (and yes, there is a difference), or even just an alien that looked like an android. She’s there, present in almost every episode, but she got maybe five lines in the whole season.
3. The payoffs would determine if the set-ups were worth it.
Ash and Lorca were the two big mysteries as we ended the first half. “Is Ash the Klingon Voq?” and “Is Lorca secretly a villain?” were the two questions fans debated. The success of the first season hinged on satisfying payoffs in the second half, especially since so much of the first half was devoted to setting up mysteries and riddles and planting seeds for fans to theorize. If the show didn’t have good answers and logical ones, the whole house of cards would have crumbled.
So, with the second half now finished…
were those three major complaints addressed?
1. Did the show find a story and stick with it?
Not really but it felt more cohesive than the first half. There were two big arcs in the second half: The mirror universe stuff and the end of the Klingon war stuff. The first offered fun moments but was ultimately hollow. The second failed to offer “resolution” and instead offered “conclusion.” There’s a difference: One brings a story to a satisfactory end, while the other just stops the story to make room for a new one. So the big problem with the first half—with storylines rushed to a clunky conclusion just to get to another tease for a new story—is just how this season ended: Discovery rushes through the end of the Klingon War using some really un-Star Trekian moralizing* just so it can get to that teaser at the end, with the Enterprise warping in. It’s all payoff without being earned.
*On the subject of ending the Klingon War, here is the way Discovery wrapped it up: Basically the evil, sadistic Lorca, while posing as a Starfleet captain, was winning the Klingon war, and the moment he left (first back to the mirror universe and then to death) Starfleet started losing the War. So what is Starfleet’s solution? They go out of their way to recruit another mirror universe character; they seek out another evil, sadistic person to help them win the war. Because winning, even if it means throwing away your principles, is all that matters.
And nothing rubbed me the wrong way worse than that: Ideals cast aside for self-preservation is supposed to be the literal-opposite of Starfleet’s mission in the show, and certainly used to be the literal-opposite of Star Trek’s idealism as a show!
2. Was the cast given more spotlight?
Tilly and Stammets had more to do, but Culber was killed which only shrinks the number of characters with speaking lines. Maybe I’m just being crotchety and old but Star Trek used to be an ensemble show, one of the goals of which was to show how a diverse body of people can peacefully coexist for a greater good (that’s why the Original Series’ cast was such an ethnic and racial rainbow). I still don’t know the name of that android(?), but maybe she’ll get a chance to do something next season.
3. Did the payoffs make the sometimes frustrating set-ups worthwhile?
Not really. Ash-is-Voq was pretty much figured out weeks before the show revealed it but it was still important for the “how” and “why” to make the plot twist worth it. The show failed to stick the landing on both fronts however…especially on the “how” of his transformation; the more I think about it the less sense it makes.
Lorca being a baddie was another twist that collapses when cross-examined. His actions throughout the first half do not add up when you look back with more knowledge of his history, meaning the writing was either bad or lazy, take your pick.
Storyline after storyline was nixed without any narrative justice being served. It was all about dropping another shocking twist or surprise reveal, setting the stage for another storyline that would meander for a few episodes before abruptly ending with another shocking twist or surprise reveal. It’s like a terrible clickbait article…but in Star Trek form.
And that’s just not what I want out of Star Trek.
I want a show that wants to discuss moral dilemmas and situational ethics. I want a Star Trek show with something to say, written by people who have questions they want me to consider. On rare occasions Discovery made me say “hmm, I wonder what’s the right choice here?” but more often than not I wasn’t given much time to consider right vs wrong before the show threw up something sparkly, dropped the philosophical debate entirely and moved on to the next whiz-bang light show.
Star Wars is good for that whiz-bang adventure stuff. I like Star Wars. I like Star Trek too.
I just miss it terribly.
6/10 – Discovery’s first season fails to inspire, but maybe season two will bring some actual exploration and…you know, Discovery for a change.