In my review of Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery, I discussed my ambivalence towards the series. Even after watching the first fifteen episodes of the show, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
I understand that first seasons can be problematic. Star Trek: DSC suffered from the same first-season woes as every Trek series since the original. (The first season of TOS was its best, in my opinion. So, it is the exception that proves the rule.) While there were familiar Federation and Starfleet trappings, the writers still had to introduce us to an entirely new cast, a new starship, and some unfamiliar technology. The show encountered some of the same problems that the Star Wars prequels had. Since the show was set in the timeline between Enterprise and TOS, the technology should appear less advanced. Because special effects have progressed since the 1960s, the series looks more advanced, more believably futuristic from the viewers’ standpoint.
I could forgive that inconsistency. This is a slick-looking science-fiction show. I would hate it if the sets looked like they were built of plywood and all of the viewscreens had static shots of the galaxy. TOS—even the remastered episodes—looks cheaper and less real than any of the subsequent Trek series.
It seemed that the show was trying to reimagine everything about the existing Trek universe. The Klingons looked wrong. Again, we’re taking advantage of advances in makeup effects, and there is an existing precedent for changing the appearance of Klingons, but the look of Klingons from the movies through Enterprise has remained relatively consistent. TNG gave Klingons a look and style of dress that became iconic. Discovery seemed to throw multiple design books out the window, and the results were Klingons who appeared to be an entirely new alien race.
The Starfleet uniforms were also different. A lot of communication seems to conducted via holograms (Star Wars-style), something we’ve never seen in any other Trek show. The USS Discovery also uses a revolutionary spore drive that is never mentioned on any of the shows set in the future (more on that in a bit).
But, the chief difference in this series, compared to all of the others, is that the main character, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), is not a captain or first officer. She was, in fact, a criminal, a mutineer who started the Klingon War, on her way to prison until she was saved by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), of the USS Discovery. One could argue that all of the other series were ensemble shows, without a central character. I can accept that assessment, to a degree, although I would argue back that central characters emerged in every Trek series, and that TOS was always centered around Kirk. Discovery has an ensemble cast as well, but the main story is always Michael’s.
Season 1 ended up in the Mirror Universe and ended explosively, and satisfyingly. And, at the very end of that season, our newfangled spore-driven ship is saucer-to-saucer with an old friend, the USS Enterprise, captained by Christopher Pike. We had to wait until Season 2 to meet this version of the Enterprise‘s crew.
I may have ended the inaugural season with mixed feelings about the show, but the way it ended gave me hope for better things to come.
I wasn’t disappointed. This season was much better than the first. Leaps and bounds above in quality, story, and tone. I’m not saying it was perfect. But, I’m not experiencing ambivalence towards it either. While continuing some of the story threads from the first season, the series still begins moving towards the familiar things that made us Trekkies to begin with.
Anson Mount’s Christopher Pike is a vigorous nod towards the idealistic Trek of the 1960s. Pike is sure of his mission, himself, and the Federation principles. Sure, we know he’s destined to end up in a box, horribly disfigured and able to communicate only through blinking lights (even though the Universal Translator can apparently translate the electrical arcs of an energy cloud being into perfect English: don’t get me started). But, this is the earlier Captain Pike, the one previously portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter. Discovery takes place at some point after Pike had his original Talos IV adventure, which is also referenced during this season.
After the debacle of The Inhumans, I mentioned that I could see Anson Mount in another heroic role, perhaps as Cyclops of the X-Men. That Jack-Kirby-esque heroic jawline translates well to the role of Federation starship captain as well. At the risk of sounding—-well, not sexist, I guess, since the Discovery had other male captains, including Lorca and Saru—maybe the risk of just sounding old, Captain Pike seems to be what this show needed, a strong central figure in command, a paragon of virtue and idealism. You know, the type of leader that’s so hard to find in real life. Captain Pike gave this series a moral center. I even appreciate the fact that Pike is portrayed as being a man of religious faith, which is refreshing in the Trek Universe, where the byword seems to be secular humanism (with apologies to all alien races).
If including Capt. Pike was throwing a bone to diehard OG Trekkies, having the young version of Spock, disheveled and bearded, in this season was at least a whole side of beef. Spock and Michael Burnham were raised as brother and sister, and that is their dynamic here. This is a less stoic version of Spock, still struggling with the Human half of his genetic makeup. Also, he is plagued by visions of a Red Angel, and the appearance of energy signals throughout the galaxy.
The Red Angel and the signals become the driving central arc of this season, beginning with, of course, locating the missing Spock. Throughout the season, the mysterious Red Angel leads the USS Discovery to different locations, for unknown reasons. It’s a puzzle that eventually leads to the identity of the Red Angel itself. Identities, I should say, without telling you everything about the season. And the reason the Red Angel exists at all is the emergence of an AI that threatens to destroy all life in the galaxy. The stakes are pretty big.
I like what happens with the story this season, and how it ends up makes me curious what’s in store for the next. It’s a whole new ballgame, it seems. Still Michael’s story at the core, I should add.
I can’t end this review without a shoutout to the supporting cast. Doug Jones as Saru is at his gangly best, especially after he loses his ganglia and stops being a scaredy-cat all of the time. Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly is, in many ways, a stand-in for most of the viewers: socially awkward even if brilliant and funny. Shazad Latif returns as Voq/Ash Tyler, this time as a member of Section 31, and he’s always good. James Frain makes a perfect Sarek. Michelle Yeoh returns as the Philippa Georgiou of the Mirror Universe, the former Empress; she’s also with Section 31, and the more bad she is, the more I like her. Anthony Rapp’s Dr. Paul Stamets is as unlikeable as ever, but that’s part of his charm.
Aside from Captain Pike, the other characters who are new (at least to this series) deserve to be spotlighted as well. Ethan Peck is great as this new version of Spock. Rebecca Romijn makes a couple of memorable appearances as Pike’s Number One from the Enterprise. And one other character, who I think is new to canon, is Tig Notaro’s Jet Reno, whose acerbic wit—especially as a counterpoint to Dr. Stamets—is quite refreshing to me. I enjoyed every minute Notaro was on-screen.
I know, I’m not telling you all the details about the season. I’m also not telling you how it ends. I’ve decided to go spoiler-free on this one, just to encourage more people to watch it.
I will answer a couple of questions that may be at the front of your mind. Do we get to go on the bridge of the Enterprise itself? Yes, and it is impressive while being true to the original vision. And, does Michael Burnham cry in every single episode? Yes, she does. Really, I wish they would stop that, but Sonequa Martin-Green is so good at it.
Firewater’s Season Two Report Card: A- (but going in the right direction)