Star Trek: Discovery series 1 review: “a terrific central idea, even if the execution fell short”

The first mission for the USS Discovery was a mixed bag but truly compelling TV, says Huw Fullerton

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham and James Frain as Sarek in Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix, HF)

Many people had a lot of problems with Star Trek: Discovery when it started late last year. It was too dark and violent, the crew not properly meshed as a family, the Captain too immoral enough to embody the values of Starfleet. People even SWORE in it. No, this was not what Star Trek was about.

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Turns out, the series agreed with us. Well, except about the swearing.

The season one finale, which was released on Netflix UK this morning after airing on CBS All Access last night, took us right back to where we started in the series – protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) being mutinously opposed to a Starfleet mission – but in the reverse, with her disgraced former officer refusing to let her beloved Federation commit genocide against the Klingons.

As Burnham made clear in a triumphant final speech, THIS had been what the series was all about – allowing temptation and human frailty to erode the idealistic values of Star Trek we’d become used to, before offering the chance for our heroes to take the difficult choice and do the right thing all over again.

It was basically the structure of a usual Star Trek episode – Federation encounters difficult problem, has the option of an easy but unethical way to solve it, but eventually finds a better way that saves everyone – writ large over an entire season.

Pictured: Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca (Netflix, TL)
Pictured: Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca 

It was a terrific central idea, even if the execution fell short in a wildly mixed series. Throughout its first run Discovery made massive changes to a tried-and-tested formula by getting rid of standalone episodes in favour of a more serialised style of storytelling, and alienated some fans with its reliance on showy plot twists and the aforementioned darker tone.

After a decent two-part opener, which saw Michael rebel against her captain (Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou) and start a deadly war with the Klingons, the series tread water for a while as we met the Discovery and Jason Isaacs’ shady captain Gabriel Lorca (though he was actually even shadier than we realised) while embarking on a slightly tedious ongoing storyline about battling the Klingons.

Highlights when they came were when the series hearkened back to more classic Star Trek, in great standalone episodes like Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad (when the crew are trapped in a time loop by an old foe) and Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (when Doug Jones’ Saru has his mind overtaken by benevolent aliens), suggesting that the series’ new tack wasn’t quite coming off.

(Netflix, TL)

But when the series returned after its midseason break with the Discovery crew trapped in the parallel Mirror Universe (often featured in previous Star Trek series), things kicked into another gear. All of a sudden the series seemed vital, exciting, imaginative, and I found myself eagerly awaiting new episodes with a fervour I haven’t experienced for a TV series in a long time.

Friends told me the same thing – while they had their doubts about it as a series, somehow Discovery had become the thing they most looked forward to watching every week. If that’s not the mark of good programming, what is?

Of course, even this improved second half of the series hasn’t been perfect. The twist that Jason Isaacs’ Lorca was a Terran from the Mirror Universe was both faintly ridiculous and revealed in a perfunctory fashion, while the OTHER big surprise – that appealing security officer Ash Tyler was actually a surgically changed Klingon spy – fizzled out after some magic brain lightning cured him of his burden.

And frankly, once the series departed the Mirror Universe the energy dropped right down again, with this week’s series finale (despite its engaging and idealistic message, and the now-canonical revelation that Klingons have two penises) feeling a little underwhelming and rushed, especially when it came to the improbable truce reached with the Klingons.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix, TL)
Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery

Still, I’m excited to see where the series goes from here. It took The Next Generation a year or two to find its feet in far more episodes than Discovery has had, and look at it now – remembered by many as the best of all Trek series.

And Discovery’s future looks similarly exciting. In next year’s season two it seems we’re getting a new captain (Saru was robbed! What does he have to do to earn this??), new adventures and some sort of crossover with the original series, with this week’s finale concluding as the Discovery crew encounter Christopher Pike and the USS Enterprise (Pike was in charge of the ship before William Shatner’s Kirk, and appeared in the series a couple of times – he also had a younger Spock on his crew).

And hopefully, after exploring the darker side of human (and alien) nature within the Federation in season one, season two will continue to build on the positive outcome of this year’s story, introducing us to more of the crew (some of whom remain very underexplored) and allowing them to go on more intriguing standalone missions.

To quote Burnham herself in the closing scenes of the episode, “THIS is Starfleet.” And what a journey it was to find it again.

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Star Trek: Discovery will return in early 2019 – the entire first series is now available to watch on Netflix