Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Recap
Star Trek: Discovery just wrapped up a wild ride of a first season. I’m still sifting through all my impressions of the fifteen episodes we have in the books, but in short, I think the creative team behind Discovery has given us some terrific, game-changing television.
As I wrote when Season 1 had just started, I was super excited to welcome Star Trek back to the air, having missed it for so long and dearly wanting a show to root for during the dark times we find ourselves in. For the most part, I feel like my investment in Discovery was worth it. And where it can improve, I have reason to believe it will.
Here’s the recap. If you haven’t yet seen the first season of Star Trek: Discovery in its entirety, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.
What I loved about Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery
The Discovery writers clearly went all-in on their vision for Season 1. Reportedly, they began with that fateful encounter involving the legendary NCC-1701 and worked their way back from there. It’s obvious the writers decided to go for the jugular instead of plotting out a safe, timid, predictable rehash. Given the passionate and often fractious Star Trek fan base, that makes sense. It’s not possible to please all fans, so the writers committed to the story that they felt was important to tell and gave it their best. As a longtime fan, I appreciated the writers’ careful attention to detail and the many Easter eggs they left for us along the way. Discovery was different than anything we had seen before, from the re-imagined Klingons to the ubiquitous holograms to the serialized story line. And in general, it worked very well.
The actors’ performances were a strong suit of Season 1. In some cases, they even compensated admirably for vastly accelerated plot developments. Although I was only familiar with Michelle Yeoh’s work going into Discovery, I’ve come to respect the talents of the show’s lead, Sonequa Martin-Green, as well as each and every other member of the cast (Wilson Cruz is a standout later in the season). We have brilliant actors on Discovery and I’m hopeful that, should they have more opportunities to delve into character development, we’ll be treated to even more nuanced, multi-faceted portrayals.
It’s a kick to see the actors, writers, and producers geek out about Discovery in the endearingly goofy After Trek recap show that airs after each episode (that’s a bonus I would have loved when watching prior Trek series) and get a sense of them as artists and individuals through their social media presences. The Discovery novel Desperate Hours also strengthened my understanding of the show and its characters, possibly teeing up some interesting plot lines for Season 2. All of these factors enhanced my enjoyment of Discovery.
I loved the journey into the Mirror Universe. I’d suspected Lorca was a Mirror Universe character for some time before he diverted the Discovery crew there, and I found it intriguing to have the usual convention—Prime Universe crew member gets lost and has to survive a Lord of the Flies environment in the Mirror Universe until eking out a way home—flipped on its head when Specialist Burnham brought Emperor Georgiou back with her to the Prime Universe. Usually we see Prime Universe characters in the fish-out-of-water scenario, not Mirror Universe characters. And, with Mirror Georgiou having escaped to a life of freedom and probable criminality in the Prime Universe (side note: Michelle Yeoh kicks all the ass), we may yet get a closer look at how this could play out.
Discovery works well as a bite-sized show that you watch episode by episode, and it also shines in bingeable format. After Lorca dropped the Discovery crew into the Mirror Universe, I went back and binged all the preceding episodes to look for the clues I hadn’t already noticed indicating he wasn’t the captain he claimed to be (same with Tyler, who I hadn’t picked up on as quickly, having first heard about the Tyler-Voq theory on a podcast). It was smooth, seamless, and very satisfying to watch. As I noted in my review of the season premiere, Discovery has drop-dead gorgeous production values: sets, graphics, costumes, props, music, everything. It’s unlike any Trek I have ever seen, and that’s probably why we only have fifteen episodes instead of the usual twenty some odd episodes we’ve come to expect. Related to that, I would be 100% on board with this project:
RT if you want to see #StarTrek #DeepSpaceNine in high definition. This proof-of-concept shows what an HD battle scene could look like if entirely new CG effects were created to match the original SD footage. pic.twitter.com/LJ5LCdvSAH
— Adam Rackoff (@AdamRackoff) February 4, 2018
I also deeply appreciated Discovery‘s inclusive perspective. It came across in a variety of ways, from the first representation of a loving gay couple in a Star Trek series to the diverse team both in front of and behind the camera. It even showed up in details as subtle as no longer having to watch women strut around in revealing catsuits and heels but instead simply rock out at work in professional attire that doesn’t cater to the male gaze. It was overt in the season finale, when women were at the center of nearly every consequential decision (acing the Bechdel Test and doing pretty well on the Kent Test from what I can tell, too), assuming leadership positions and basically determining the fate of the Prime Universe. Michelle Yeoh spoke candidly about the significance of retaining her Malaysian accent, while Shazad Latif ventured some thoughtful observations on the importance of male vulnerability. The future we now see on Star Trek looks more like the real world in a quietly revolutionary way.
As the season advanced, the plot twists had me on the edge of my seat. I was yelling at the television, pumping my fist, and thrilling to the exciting moments that unfolded on screen (including that final moment when the distress call from “NCC-17..” slowly appeared on the display). I don’t remember feeling that level of excitement about a Star Trek show since late Deep Space Nine, and to have that happen during the first season of Discovery was a pleasant surprise. I think it bodes well for the upcoming seasons we have yet to see. That being said…
What I didn’t love about Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery
My chief complaint about Season 1 is that the writers sacrificed both plot and character development in service of a greater over-arching story. In some cases, it really hurt the show. I frankly didn’t find it believable that an officer as keenly intelligent and well trained as Michael Burnham wouldn’t realize something was severely off the rails with Tyler but, instead, would bring him with her on an away mission long after he’d shown troubling signs of PTSD or worse. As a former First Officer, Burnham knew full well that her first duty was to the mission and to the ship. I just don’t buy the notion that she’d conveniently gloss over that mandate in favor of giving a fellow crew member, even a love interest, undue benefit of the doubt under those circumstances.
Likewise, it strained credulity when Starfleet decided to give the hydro bomb to L’Rell and have her assume the reins of what we assume will become the Klingon Empire at the end of Season 1. While I recognize the larger point they were making about women being passed over for leadership positions and even hesitating to see their own potential for greatness, I thought the execution here was ham-fisted and did not serve the valid feminist argument they were making. It set up L’Rell’s rule in a way that could easily be construed as illegitimate and undeserved. Had the writers had more time to develop this plot twist, I believe they would have done a better job with it. I will say, though, that this is a minor quibble as far as I’m concerned. The fact that a Star Trek writer’s room is even setting out to tell feminist stories in the first place means very much to me, and I support what they were trying to achieve here.
There are plenty of other examples besides these two, all of which have been noted and are no doubt being picked apart by fans everywhere as we speak. Although I too had my moments of friction with the turbocharged speed of the storytelling, I’m ultimately able to make peace with it because Discovery delivered some incredibly exciting moments and contributed valuable new canon for us to savor. I’m also aware that, due to the stunning production values we enjoy, we can’t have the full complement of episodes we would like and that’s why it feels weird. It’s a trade-off I’m okay with in the end.
As others have noted, we still don’t know who the Chief Medical Officer is on Discovery (I’m guessing it’s Dr. Pollard?), nor do we have a clear sense of who the Chief Engineer is either (it can’t be Stamets, who oversees the spore drive and all things mycelial). Who are those interesting bridge crew members that we only see speak up and really bond as a team towards the end of the season? What happened to Lorca’s Tribble? And what is up with those black badges? I’m still thinking Section 31. After all, Section 31 crops up along a nearby point in the Kelvin timeline in the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness. I could see Mirror Lorca quickly developing an affinity for Section 31’s dark mission. Then again, why would Section 31 even have identifiable insignia? By their very nature, they’re a covert, black budget unit.
I have so many questions. It’s fun to toss them around and enjoy the frisson of not knowing what we will encounter next on this terrific show. From what I’ve seen on social media and heard on podcasts, some Star Trek fans are craving certainty about plot points that they’re just not getting yet. One example is what will happen to the love story of Culmets (Culber and Stamets). While the writers, producers, and actors have repeatedly stated in no uncertain terms that they have no intention of replicating the harmful “bury your gays” trope that understandably concerns some members of the LGBTQ community, those reassurances are not enough for some folks. At the end of the day, though I too am feeling the loss of Culber, I have faith that the writers will deliver something beautiful, complex, and entirely unexpected in Season 2.
Another problem is that CBS All Access is not on par with Netflix, Hulu, or any of the other major streaming services. While I’ve generally been able to get it to serve up episodes of Star Trek: Discovery when I wanted to watch them, I had one pretty awful experience early on in which I could not get an episode to play no matter what device I tried and I just had to wait until the next day. That was back in September if memory serves. That launch time meltdown could be forgiven, but I had another night like that just a couple of weeks ago when preparing to write this post. The CBS All Access app interface is also very clunky and user-unfriendly, doggedly displaying the first episode of the season whenever you log in and making you scroll through to the end to find the latest one. I’m ok being a guinea pig for a new streaming service, but CBS needs to get its act together.
A few words about the Discovery fan debate
Star Trek: Discovery is the first Trek show to air in the social media era, with all the positives and negatives that entails. I quickly found out, to my disappointment, that there were a lot of people out there who didn’t even want to give the show a fair hearing and were intent on seeing it fail even before its debut. And, as I soon found out by listening to Discovery podcasts, it’s nearly impossible to get all Star Trek fans to agree on anything. In one respect, this isn’t necessarily a problem for the average fan—you can just go forum shopping until you find the conversation that resonates with you. That said, I don’t understand the level of hate that has been directed at this show. I’ll chalk it up to a general level of social media cynicism (and, in some cases, outright bigotry) that is tired, passé, and unhelpful.
I was able to find plenty of thoughtful discussion about Star Trek: Discovery, though, once I went looking for it. By that, I don’t mean stanning or shilling—I mean good faith, informed commentary that seeks to engage with the show and provide candid perspectives both pro and con. My favorite two Discovery podcasts right now are The Lower Decks and DiscoTrek, but there are plenty of others out there with various styles and points of view that are just as entertaining and thought-provoking. Collectively, these podcasts have really enhanced my appreciation of the show by pointing out details I never would have noticed on my own. They’re also just plain fun, making you laugh with terms like “Badmiral,” which is lingo I wish I’d had at the ready when watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Star Trek: Discovery is not a perfect show, but that is not the standard I was seeking in the first place—particularly in the first season, when many a Star Trek show has been bumpy, corny, campy, and inconsistent. Discovery has its strengths and weaknesses, like any Star Trek series, but it shows enormous promise for an opening season. It’s going to be hard not to have new episodes to look forward to until 2019 at the earliest (!?!). I hear they’re going to start shooting Season 2 in April, so perhaps some fascinating morsels or nuggets will show up on social media then. And in the meantime, there’s that new novel, Drastic Measures, to check out. I guess that will have to tide us over until the USS Discovery takes flight once more!