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.
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.
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.
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.