Now that Star Trek Discovery has reached its midseason finale, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit the show and take a look at its strengths and weaknesses. We last looked at Discovery after its first two episodes, and now several months later, much of what we wrote back in September, good and bad, remains true seven episodes later.
Discovery’s greatest strength is its compelling characters. Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is a compelling protagonist. Rescued from the stockade after six months, Burnham finds herself Shanghaied on the Discovery. Given the chance to try to end the war that she started, Burnham finds herself surrounded by a group of scientists led by chief engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), the battle-scarred captain with questionable motives, and Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham’s roommate and overeager Starfleet cadet. Later, Burnham has a growing relationship with former POW and new security chief Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). The two bond over their shared traumas as a result of the war. Discovery’s strongest material stems from playing these clearly defined characters off of one another in interesting ways. Tilly’s enthusiasm against Michael’s world-weariness. Tyler’s trauma against Michael’s. Lorca’s need to defeat the Klingons against Stamets’ love of science. These different pairings lead to interesting character conflicts about respecting life, scientific advancement, and the difficulties of living up to one's principles--the heart of any Star Trek show.
Back in September we wrote that Discovery suffered from “clunky writing and exposition dumping.” Unfortunately, these problems remain in spades. Episodes telegraph obvious plot points in heavy-handed ways. In one episode, Michael’s surrogate father, Sarek, boards a shuttlecraft with an aide cast right out of the inept traitor’s handbook. Sure enough two scenes later, the young man gives a speech about Vulcan racial superiority before blowing himself up (and failing to kill Sarek). In that same episode, a Starfleet admiral falls right into a clearly obvious trap during a meeting with the Klingons. In the mid-season finale, Lorca asks Stamets to make one final jump with the ship’s magical spore drive so the crew can make it home safe. The show spends multiple scenes emphasizing how this will be the last jump. Stamets may as well be talking about how he’s two days from retirement and showing people pictures of his beloved boat.
Additionally, the show suffers from a broader structural problem, its placement within the Star Trek timeline. There’s simply no way that Discovery is a prequel to the Original Series. Visually and technologically Discovery is lightyears ahead of the original Enterprise. The show’s spore drive is more advanced than any technology found in Next Generation or Voyager. There’s a robotic crewman wandering the bridge decades before Commander Data became the first android in Starfleet. The show’s guttural and growling Klingons look nothing like those seen ten years later on TOS. It would have been better to set the show in the future and avoid these problems entirely.
Discovery also leans too much on prior knowledge of Star Trek than standing on its own. The emotional crux of one episode reveals that Sarek had to choose between Michael or Spock joining the Vulcan Expeditionary Force. That choice has no emotional impact if you don’t have the prior knowledge that Spock turned down that opportunity to join Starfleet.
When Discovery returns in January, we’ll see if the rest of the show can catch up to the show’s strong characters. Until then, Discovery will struggle to match the highs of previous Star Trek.