Did Star Trek: Discovery Live Up To Its Potential?

Image: Netflix

Back in October last year, I suggested that Star Trek: Discovery has the potential to be the best Star Trek series of them all. Now, at the end of the first season's 15 episode run, I think we can take a look and make a more complete assessment. Discovery is a great series that adds to the Star Trek universe. But I wonder if it hasn't pushed the envelope too early.

Firstly, there are lots of spoilers in this review. So, if you haven't caught the final episode or, indeed, are still catching up you might want to file this away for later reading.

Star Trek: Discovery predates the events of The Original Series (TOS) by about ten years and is set during a time of a massive war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The war is ignited through the actions of Commander Michael Burnham who is subsequently court martialled for mutiny - an action that led to the death of her captain and mother figure Philippa Georgiou, stripped of her rank and banished to prison. But, as fate would have it, while en route to a new prison she he seconded by another ship's captain, Gabriel Lorca.

The Discovery is powered by a new type of propulsion system that uses Mycelium spores that enable the ship to be piloted to any point in space and time. The travel through space, and as it turns out, different dimensions is the key plot device that lets the Discovery go on all its adventures.

Once the war with the Klingons is in full flight, we are transported to the Mirror Universe.

The Mirror Universe

We don't know when, exactly, the prime and mirror universes split but we do know the Terran Empire, the Mirror Universe's "evil twin" version of The Federation, probably had it roots on 5 April 2063. That's the day Zefrem Cochrane embarked on his first warp flight and attracted the attention of a nearby Vulcan vessel. In the movie, Start Trek: First Contact, the crew of Picard's enterprise ensure that meeting takes place and Cochrane greets the Vulcans with a handshake, kicking off a beautiful friendship.

In Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT), we learn that the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrials went a little differently with Cochrane shooting the Vulcan in the chest and the humans storming the Vulcan vessel, stealing their technology and kickstarting the Terran Empire.

That explains some of the other differences we see such as the Mirror Universe's Kirk having a weapon that allowed him to disintegrate any enemy wherever they are in space. And we also see the Enterprise NX-01's crew develop the Agony Booth technology used in later series. The two universes, while similar in some ways, have technological differences.

If you're keen to see a little more about the development of the Terran Empire, watch the opening credits of episode 18 from Star Trek: Enterprise. The opening vignette is Cochrane's first contact and then the credits provide a history of the Mirror Universe, suggesting it goes back to the earliest days of the universe.

Only Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) didn't visit the Mirror Universe. Every other series did, with the events depicted in Deep Space 9 (DS9) showing the aftermath of Prime Universe Kirk convincing Mirror Universe Spock (who was distinguished by having a brilliant fake goatee that the Mirror Universe Sarek we see in Discovery wearing in something of a homage) to lead a rebellion.

Lorca and Georgiou

In my previous look at Discovery, I mentioned that Lorca seemed to be a "very un-Star Trek captain". As it happens - I was right.

Image: Netflix

The Lorca we meet is actually from the Mirror Universe. And the Georgiou in the Mirror Universe is nothing like the measured and thoughtful captain we met during the first episodes of Discovery. Instead, she is the Emperor of the Terran Empire who rules with an iron fist and is not above carrying out her own executions.

All of Lorca's actions, starting with recruiting Burnham, are about getting him back to the Mirror Universe so he can extract vengeance on the Terran Empire's Emperor.

The Mirror Universe's Georgiou's survival in the Prime Universe beyond Series 1 is sure to provide us with some highlights in Series 2.

Production challenges

The producers of Discovery faced a significant problem. How do you create a series made in the 21st century, that predates events in a series made 50 years ago, that appeals to modern audiences without adding technology that didn't exist 10 years later? As a long-time fan of Star Trek I simply had to let go of my nostalgia for TOS. I watched a couple of episodes of TOS over the weekend (I wanted to rewatch Mirror, Mirror in particular) and you simply have to accept that Discovery is a contemporaneous vessel with the Enterprise NCC-1701.

Image: Netflix

We also live in a different era where short skirts, same sex relationships and other social norms are very different to the time of Kirk's Enterprise. So, we see a very different Star Fleet crew. It is far more diverse with many more non-human species.

But I never watched any previous Star trek - won't I be lost?

Because Discovery predates TOS and only fleetingly references ENT, you don't really need to be a Star trek aficionado to enjoy Discovery.

For fans of previous series, there are some nice throwbacks such as references to the Defiant which time and space travelled to the Mirror Universe (from DS9), meeting Harry Mudd (a recurring TOS character) and learning some of his origin story, Sarek's beard in reference to Spock's from TOS and the Mirror Universe Georgiou mentioning "Bread and Circuses" - the name of a TOS episode.

Those references are minor, blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments thrown in for the fans and don't materially affect the plot.

Sarek does make mention of Spock, particularly a choice he had to make between sending either Spock or Burnham to the Vulcan Science Academy but that's a nice piece of character background rather than a story essential.

The Series 2 Problem

Many series struggle to follow up a strong opening season with a great second run. When you look at the various Star Trek series and movies over the last 50 years, there have been some "go to" devices that have been able to drive great narratives.

There's war and conflict. This is what drove a large part of TNG - particularly the second half of the series' run with the Borg and various elements of the Klingon Empire with the first Klingon Starfleet Officer, Worf, adding a personal touch to that conflict.

Time travel was first explored in TOS when Kirk and his crew landed on earth at various times including the late 1960s, 1930 and 2700BC as well as the best movie with Kirk and his TOS crew, The Voyage Home. And let's not forget the final episode of TNG included looks into the future for many of the Enterprise NCC-1701D's crew.

The Mirror Universe was first seen in TOS, in the episode Mirror, Mirror but ENT went there a couple of times and DS9's crew visited in five separate episodes.

In short, the Discovery writers have already gone to the Star Trek lore well and taken a mighty big swig.

On the upside, we've not heard from the Romulans yet and the Discovery's crew time jumped eight months in their return from the Mirror Universe because their control system for the Mycelium network (which relies on a human connection in Lt Stamets) "overshot" the landing. One wonders what that jump will mean in the lives of the crew.

One thing that Discovery has been able to do is create stories that break some of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's big rules. When he was in charge and strongly influential in the production of previous series, there was a strict "no conflict between crew members" rule. That rule has been set aside so we can now see crew members disagree.

And Roddenberry always wanted each episode to stand alone so, until we got to DS9 and episodic Star Trek evolved, each episode, bar a few multi-part stories, was a standalone story. But this first season of Discovery was more like a 15-part mini-series. Each episode linked to the one before. And even the final moments of season one, when the Discovery encounters the Enterprise NCC-1701 in distress, indicate an ongoing plot.

While that helps make the entire universe more believable, the risk is we end up with a space soap opera.

Is it any good?

In my original article last October, I suggested Star Trek: Discovery had the potential to be the best Star Trek series made so far. And I think that potential is still there.

I've rewatched every episode of every series over the last couple of years and one thing that you notice when rewatching things is that there were plenty of pretty crappy episodes. Season one of Discovery is far more even in my view. By engaging in a longer story, the writers have been able to build a more immersive universe. We learn about the Klingons and see parts of their homeworld. We learn that the Federation is run by people who have fear and don't always act ethically - planning to blow up the Klingon homeward is testament to that.

Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, is a brilliant central character who, I think, many people can easily relate to. She has fears, shows courage, makes bad decisions, learns and keeps trying to do what's right, even when it's hard or unpopular. If Burnham's character had been written poorly, the series would fall apart. Martin-Green's performance is the glue that holds it together.

All the other characters are played wonderfully. Even Sylvia Tilly, who starts as being kind of annoying, develops into a great character.

Is it the best Star Trek series of them all? Not yet. But I'd say its the best opening season of any Star Trek. The production is visually stunning, the story is solid, the writing is great and the acting is excellent.

Putting the fact it's a Star Trek series aside, it's great TV.


Comments

    Just a heads-up; it's Mudd. Harcourt Fenton Mudd. Harry Judd is a particularly non-fictional drummer for McFly.

      Fixed - I'm going to blame autocorrect for that one! Thanks for heads-up.

    "Is it the best Star Trek series of them all? Not yet. But I'd say its the best opening season of any Star Trek."

    I think this sums it up perfectly. Season 2 can't come fast enough.

    "nice throwbacks such as references to the Defiant which time and space travelled to the Mirror Universe (from DS9)"

    Just FYI: The defiant from DS9 never went to the mirror universe (As far as i can remember, but its been over 2 years since ive seen any ds9), but the Defiant they talk about there was the original enterprise 1701's sister ship defiant from the TOS episode mirror, mirror, and was also in the final episodes of ST:Enterprise.

    If one can excuse the technology anachronisms and Klingon appearance (i can easily forgive the tech, as it makes it more realistic/futuristic from our POV, but i cant forgive the Klingon appearance) . I find it is probably the most exciting ST series and my wife agrees (she prefered TOS, DS9, VOY, ENT, TNG) was more into the action less diplomacy.

      You're right - it's the Defiant mentioned in TOS episode, The Tholian Web.

      As for the Klingon appearance - they have changed several times. My favourite reference to that change is in the DS9 episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" where Worf is asked why he looks so different to the Klingons encountered on the Enterprise NCC-1701. His deadpan "We do not discuss it with outsiders" is gold!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xka6IYCpj4E

        Sorry yes your right there too, it was tholian web.

        Yeah i loved that and the enterprise real reason they changed, works in perfectly with the DS9 episode and everything.

    You probably won't see much from the Romulans. According to canon:
    "In 2160, the Romulans and the Humans signed a treaty ending the war and establishing a neutral zone one light year wide between their territories. The treaty was negotiated via subspace radio, again with no visual contact." which pre-dates Discovery. TOS "The Balance of Terror" was reportedly the first time humans even saw Romulans.

    If I have never watched a Star Trek TV series, will I potentially enjoy this? Are people enjoying it because they like Star Trek or is it genuinely good TV as stated in the article? Can a non-trekkie provide a review?

      I'm not a full blown Trekkie, and I enjoyed it.

      There was an old Trekkie parody song, with the line: "we come in peace - shoot to kill".
      Much of Discovery (this season) was questioning their ethics and morals , while battling an enemy hell-bent on destroying them.

      I'm not exactly a non-trekkie, but I'm not as fanatical as many seem to be. I think if you've never really watched trek before, you probably have a better chance of enjoying this series over any others. There are a couple of reasons for this:
      1. It's modern long-form storytelling which we're all used to now with shows like Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones. As stated in the article, that makes for more immersive storytelling. It's also the most visually stunning series by a long shot.
      2. One of the most loved/hated things in previous series was the overbearing (to non-fans) optimism. It was there in almost every episode and fans love it and feel it's integral to Star Trek. Non-fans felt it was a bit much and not realistic. In this series, being long-form, it wasn't necessarily there in every episode, in fact some were quite bleak. Some "fans" said it wasn't star trek without the constant pervasive sense of hope. Personally, I think it was just a type of storytelling they aren't used to in star trek. It didn't lose that entirely but it did add more realism.
      If you give it a shot, bear in mind the first 2 episodes are basically the prologue and also probably the weakest episodes. Give it at least 3 or 4 before deciding whether or not to continue with it.

        Thanks for taking the time for a detailed response! I'll give it a go this weekend.

    I tuned out from this show as soon as I realised the Mirror Universe was going to be so heavily featured. it's what makes Star Trek more fantasy than science fiction and was the worst thing about the otherwise enjoyable DS9.
    and for the record, Voyager never had a Mirror Universe episode

    Star Trek Discovery or as I prefer to call it STD lost me after episode 3.
    Bad actors & bad scripts... 3 eps was my limit and this is coming from someone who endured the entire Enterprise series.
    In the meantime I discovered a new Star Trek series that has great wrting, great actors and genuine passion for the Trek Universe....
    Star Trek Continues ...(essentially a 4th season of The Original Series), an 11 episode fan-made series on The Tube. Made for a fraction of the cost of the CBS debacle but 2000 times more enjoyable.
    STD can suck it.

    Only Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) didn't visit the Mirror Universe.

    I'm pretty sure Voyager didn't visit the mirror universe unless you count the DS9 Mirror episode which featured Mirror Tuvok.

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