Discovery Thoughts

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So...is it good?

When it premiered in September, I wondered if Star Trek: Discovery would end up being good Star Trek, or just good science-fiction? Due to the serialized nature of the new show, it wasn't obvious from the pilot, or even the first half of the season, if we were seeing something that fit within the overall Trek concept or something that was taking way too many liberties in the interest of being "fresh" or "appealing to the masses." Now that we've completed the first season, I can say, yeah, this is Star Trek. Even pretty decent Star Trek.

It's not without flaws, and I don't mean the sort of things I complained about in September. Mostly, anyway. It's a much less egregious form of the problem with the recent JJ Abrams movies, which is simply lazy writing. (There's a common element between those with executive producer Alex Kurtzman, who is also listed as "co-creator"; not saying it's necessarily his fault—especially since screenwriter Bob Orci was the prime screwup on those films—just noting the connection.) There are plot points that either don't make a lot of sense or are just way too convenient, plus fairly obvious alternatives that would have made for stronger storytelling. TV constraints might factor into this—not budgetary, as Discovery seems to have everything it wants there, but available time, as in, "there are only so many screen-minutes we have available to us." But the streaming model might take most of those away, so perhaps allowing for time constraints is too generous.

Take the season finale episode, for instance. (SPOILERS AHEAD, proceed at your own risk.)

The season-long story arc centers on a war between the Federation and the Klingon empire. The ultimate resolution is actually pretty inspired and worthy, allowing for a great deal of character growth and nicely reinforcing those Star Trek ideals I referred to earlier, but getting there was pretty rushed. The episode really needed more time to play out, and there's no reason it couldn't have been 60 or 65 minutes long instead of 45 if they'd wanted to (ahem) make it so. What's required for the plot to work is to give our Klingon prisoner, L'Rell, leverage to become the new leader of the Klingons, and for L'Rell to call off the war in favor of uniting the internal factions of the Empire. Getting L'Rell on board with this plan needs more buildup. As it is, she's just presented with her leverage--rather extreme leverage at that--and told "use this to heal your people." We did know from the get-go that her ideal was to unite the Klingons, and that to her the war was merely to be a means to that end until it was hijacked by otherwise-inclined Klingons, so the foundation is there, but there is no real intermediate stage. There are inklings in prior episodes that we might get such a stage, but it never materializes. Up to and including the season-ending episode, there are opportunities for this if things are restructured a bit.

Another possible move would have been to add an episode to the run in between the last two. We're expected to believe that, off-screen during the penultimate episode, Starfleet Command and the Federation Council agreed to run with the plan offered by Mirror-Georgiou, the ruthless former emperor and exile form the mirror universe, that would ostensibly end the war by wiping out the Klingon home planet of Q'on'os; and that Georgiou would carry it out clandestinely by lying to the Discovery crew about what they were doing. That's OK, I can go with that given the desperate-times-calling-for-desperate-measures circumstance, but again, they got there mighty fast, and an episode devoted to getting there might have helped with the believability of both the sanctioning of the plan and given opportunity for building up the eventual solution with L'Rell. I get why there wasn't one, though--one thing about this show is that it revels in its twists and reveals, and if the audience knew the plan before Burnham, Saru, and company did that reveal would go out the window. (Also, one huge flaw in that plan--the already-en-route Klingon attack force would still undoubtedly decimate Earth upon hearing the news from home.)

I'm not sure how I feel about the role the mirror universe played in the season, either; on the one hand, it was necessary to give us the Terran Empire's ruthless Georgiou to plan the destroy-Q'on'os scheme as well as explain the mystery of Captain Lorca. On the other, had Lorca actually been a "regular" Starfleet captain suffering from PTSD and behaving badly for reasons related to his history, that might have made for a more interesting character. Once we get the reveal that Lorca is from the Terran Empire he becomes a rather cardboard black hat, and all of his creepy manipulations and occasional meanness, though neatly explained, become psychologically irrelevant. I kind of wish he'd been a screwed up good guy behaving badly instead of a bad guy impersonating a good guy to achieve his own nefarious ends. The mirror universe did provide a great way of examining contemporary society, though. Having a blatant, in-your-face depiction of the logical extreme of authoritative jingoistic bigotry as governing principle, and our characters suffering through life in that society wondering if they would become like their counterparts given the right conditioning was welcome. Lorca's declaration of his intent to "make the Empire glorious again" may have been a bit on the nose, but I loved it.

Occasional writing deficiencies and missed opportunities aside, though, there's a lot to like in these 15 episodes. The cast is top-notch, top to bottom, and though we still don't know much about the greater bridge crew—I still can never recall Lt. Bryce's name without looking it up and simply think of him as Harry Mudd did, as "random communications officer man"—they all show promise. Early on I didn't care much for Sonequa Martin-Green's portrayal of Burnham, but after a few episodes and understanding her backstory as an emotionally-stunted and traumatized kid raised in a culture that would do nothing to nurture her emotionally, I found it working for me. Doug Jones' Saru remains a standout—I especially like the way he walks with his swinging arms, accentuating his alienness—and Shazad Latif carries off his dual role with aplomb. The surprise character for me was Mary Wiseman's Sylvia Tilly. She was fine when first introduced, quirky and comic, maybe a bit autistic, but over the season grew into one of the most complicated and, well, Trekkian characters in any of the series. Still not jazzed with James Frain's Sarek, though. In each of his appearances, I can't help but imagine Mark Lenard playing the scenes, and Frain never looks good in comparison. Which is unfair, I know, but Frain doesn't quite have the nuance down for Sarek. (Mia Kirshner, on the other hand, is an inspired choice for Amanda; you can really see Jane Wyatt in the eyes).

So bring on Season Two! I heard today that shooting begins in the spring, so hopefully we won't have to wait terribly long until new episodes come along. And they've done their job whetting our appetite with the sort-of-cliffhanger, a distress call from--wait for it--Captain Pike. Ahead full!

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