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The first half of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery concluded with an episode that is a microcosm of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the series as a whole. For those who are reading these reviews in the hopes of my advocating that every Trek fan give the series a look, I really can’t do so, even nine episodes into the show. For the traditional Trek fan, there are absolutely flashes of the Trek you know and love, but Discovery is not going to follow the Trek mold (something that is very clear at this point in its short life). If you are a Trek fan who was looking for a serialized story in line with the best of DS9‘s war arc, well, you won’t get that either.
The best I can say about the series at this point is that it has crafted distinct characters who, when put into strong stories, are engaging to watch. The problem is the series has been unwilling to give them those strong arcs, instead going all-in on a disappointing and uninteresting Klingon-Starfleet war arc. I’m intrigued to see where Burnham’s path will take her, but I remain disappointed that the show seems content to push Lorca to the front of the show, rather than allow Burnham to be the show’s central character. Discovery remains a show with a ton of potential, but one that has failed to take advantage of all the strengths it has. Hopefully the series will reboot things a bit this spring. Otherwise, this might be a journey to the stars that isn’t worth taking. Now, onto some thoughts on how the series can improve moving into its back half (warning, there will be spoilers).
The one thing that would make the second half of Discovery worth the price of admission is if we actually get to dive into some of the interesting concepts discussed on the surface but not explored. One such possibility is that of alternate realities (which was name dropped a few times in the mid-season finale, so I have a suspicion that’s where we’re headed). As I’ve said before, we know that the Spore Drive doesn’t exist in the later incarnations of the television show, so it has to have a major failing that creates a need for it to be decommissioned. Sending a ship careening into an alternate reality would certainly be a reason to do so. But honestly, I’d be happy with any storyline that doesn’t involve the Klingons.
I didn’t expect the biggest misstep of Discovery to be its incarnation of the Klingons, but man, what a major mistake. I could handle the series occasionally trotting them out as reminders that they are the Big Bad this season, but the series didn’t do nearly enough with their characterization to warrant the amount time the show spent on having them around. The goal in having the Klingons appear so often was to humanize them and give us a reason to care about them (show both sides in war and all that), but all it did was make the audience resent them and want to see them destroyed. I was thrilled to see Kol’s ship blow up in the finale (although I’m still worried about Voq coming back into play in the back half of the season, since he was left as a dangling plotline in his final episode). T’Rell has the most characterization of all the Klingons, and the show did its level best to take away all shades of grey from the character in the finale and turn her into a complete villain (not that she was ever good, but I was intrigued that she might have some uses as a traitor to the Klingon cause).
Speaking of T’Rell, I’m really bummed with how the series handled Tyler’s PTSD. Yes, his instance of shock on the Ship of the Dead was well-done, but Lorca sending a man who was tortured by Klingons for seven months to infiltrate a Klingon vessel? Good god, if there was ever a need for evidence of his inability to command, there it is (I think we dropped the “Lorca needs to be relieved of duty” story with Cornwell leaving the ship?). And yes, having him confess to flashbacks of his assault was good storytelling (stories of male sexual assault are important and should be told). But that scene with him and T’Rell? Making it appear that he’s still drawn to her? That’s troubling for a number of reasons. Tyler is desperately in need of time off or a counselor, neither of which he’s going to get. And that makes me think this PTSD arc is merely lip service. Discovery can’t be afraid of really compromising their characters. Lorca needs to be stripped of rank or relieved of command at the end of the season, if the series is serious about showing consequences for actions. Tyler needs to be relieved of duty and put into intensive counseling. Considering how Lorca was positioned as the risky, but heroic, captain throughout the season, I have my doubts that these things will come to pass.
My hope for the back half of the season is that we get to understand Burnham more. And I don’t mean via flashbacks to her time on Vulcan. I want to understand why she makes the choices she makes. I want her to be given the chance to grow and change, and, of course, be more human. Burnham is a great character on paper, and when the show has let her let loose, she’s been fun to watch. But the writers need to trust that she can carry the story on her own. They need to trust Sonequa Martin-Green with the reins and pull back a bit on Jason Isaacs (who is wonderful, but who isn’t being given a chance to really push Lorca where he needs to go). Stop holding these characters back and forcing them to spin their wheels for episodes at a time. We want to see who they really are and who they can become. That can’t happen unless the writing is willing to burn the heroes and compromise their ethics. I’m not sure Star Trek can get that dirty, but it has to at least try.