So, we’ve watched all four seasons of Enterprise. We’ve watched five Short Treks predating the next series, along with the pilot that started it all, “The Cage.” Now we get to Discovery, the show that brought back Trek after a long absence from television. If you’ve followed along this far and haven’t bailed, let’s get to the good stuff. Season 1 is a different kind of storytelling.
The pilot episodes, “A Vulcan Hello” and “The Battle of the Binary Stars” don’t even feature the titular starship. They take place on the starship Shenzhou under command of Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh.) The central character, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), starts out as Georgiou’s first officer. Revealed as Sarek’s foster daughter, she commits mutiny to fire on a Klingon ship in an attempt to prevent them from opening hostilities. It goes badly, but you know it will when the cold open features Klingon warlord T’Kuvma declares the Federation will conquer them with the words, “We come in peace.” A devastating war begins, Georgiou is killed, and Burnham is convicted of mutiny. Starfleet is not happy.
A funny thing happens on the way to prison. Burnham is retrieved from her transport by a science vessel, Discovery, commanded by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs.) On board are former Shenzhou crew members Saru (Doug Jones) and Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts). Detmer is angry Burnham has been made part of the crew, though without a commission. Saru doesn’t trust her. But there’s a war on. Lorca aims to win it. Saru is more interested in overcoming his species’ reliance on fear. Burnham gets a roommate, Cadet Sylvia Tilley(Mary Wiseman), who is nervous. Tilly may or may not have crossed paths at the Academy with Kirk, La’an Noonian Singh, or Erica Ortegas, given the timeframe. Burnham is paired off with Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who is working on some sort of super-secret FTL drive. Stamets is Trek’s first openly gay character, his partner being Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz.) Eventually, it’s revealed there is a subspace network allowing instantaneous travel across light-years through the use of spores. The crew finds a giant tardigrade which can navigate it, but it almost kills the creature. So, Stamets violates the ban on genetic engineering and alters his own body to navigate instead.
This makes the Klingons’ war plans go badly. They kidnap Lorca in an attempt to learn its secrets. Lorca is locked up with Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif.) Lorca and Tyler escape, leaving Mudd behind. The Discovery proceeds to wreck the Klingons’ ability to cloak. But before they can share the secret with the rest of Starfleet, they end up in the Mirror Universe. Surprise! Lorca is not the Prime Universe Lorca (or even the Kelvin Timeline Lorca), Tyler is really former Klingon warlord Voq (but he doesn’t want to be), and Mirror Georgiou is alive. In fact, she’s the emperor of the Terran Empire. Lorca somehow ended up in the Prime universe, got himself assigned to Discovery, and now sees a chance to overthrow Georgiou. He fails, but Georgiou escapes to the Prime universe aboard Discovery, where she then assists the Federation in installing L’Rell (Mary Chiefo) as Klingon chancellor. The Klingon War ends just as the Klingon fleet approaches Earth.
That’s a lot to unpack. For starters, Michael Burnham. As a character on her own, she’s fine. But they made her Sarak and Amanda’s foster daughter. Personally, I find this the least canon-bending aspect of Discovery. Spock is notorious for simply not mentioning his family. No one in Kirk’s crew knew Sarek was his father. They seemed surprised he had married T’Pring or was related to Vulcan stalwart T’Pau. And of course, twenty years later, he has to have an awkward conversation with Kirk about Sybok. Frankly, that there wasn’t a house full of kids and a franchise-killing Cousin Oliver is the bigger surprise here. Why didn’t we hear about Burnham? It would break canon if Spock mentioned her, even if she were in the series bible for “The Cage.”
But that was the beginning of what put some long-time fans off. If the spore drive was available five minutes after “The Cage” ended, why does every subsequent Trek use warp drive? Discovery and the rest of Starfleet uses holograms constantly. Outside holodecks or some experimental tech in Enterprise, Trek has not really used holograms much beyond a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments or an aborted attempt to give Kirk’s Enterprise a holodeck in The Animated Series. And then there are the Klingons. The radical change in their looks smacks of network interference. We have grown used to our black-and-tan Klingons with distinctive ridges. We even had a couple of explanations as to why they looked like humans in grease paint during the TOS era. Instead we get these pale-skinned, onion-headed beings whose thlingan Hol, while canonically correct, sounds odd compared to Mark Lenard’s original scripted grunts in The Motion Picture. And yet the Vulcans look like the Vulcans we’ve always known, and the only updates to Andorians or Tellarites are general improvements to the antennae or facial makeup. Someone (*cough cough* CBS! *cough cough*) didn’t read the room on the Klingons. Even JJ Abrams’s updated Klingons are identifiably Klingons. For almost two years, we were forced to watch The Orville for Mochlans and Krill, who looked more Klingon than these new versions.
Plus, while Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise embraced story arc, they either limited the run or intercut with episodic shows. Discovery, designed to be binged, went full arc. While season 1 aired in two parts with two separate storylines, miss one, you miss a lot. On the other hand, Rainn Wilson directed and starred in the (chronologically) first Short Trek, “The Escape Artist.” Mudd has two appearances, one where he’s handed off to Stella (from “I, Mudd.”) “The Escape Artist” not only gives Wilson’s Mudd a proper send-off, but it sets up “I, Mudd” in TOS. Yes, Norman’s somewhere in that episode, unseen and biding his time.
The tight story arc, the altered Klingons, and the technology seeming to be way ahead of Shatner’s Enterprise had to be addressed. Discovery brought back Trek, but it alienated fans of the original and the so-called Legacy Treks. How to bring them back?
Well, end season 1 with the Enterprise limping into view. Then hand the keys to one of Star Trek‘s most neglected characters: Captain Christopher Pike. And suddenly, everything changes. Anson Mount’s Pike resurrects a character we’ve seen and learned little about, Kelvin movies notwithstanding. The Klingons would not have their looks restored until Strange New Worlds and Picard season 3, but the arc becomes more episodic. Pike centers the cast after the mysterious Lorca turns out to be the real villain. Mirror Georgiou and Ash Tyler return as Section 31 agents, tying Discovery to the Legacy Treks in a subplot that red herrings the Borg. Pike’s introduction on the bridge changes this from a show about Michael Burnham to classic Star Trek. He makes all the bridge officers introduce themselves. And a Short Trek, “Runaway,” let’s Tilly play a larger role later in the season.
Season 2 is well done, but let’s not kid ourselves. Spock, who is an unseen presence for the first half of the season, proceeds to flesh out the events of “The Cage” with his reappearance, and, with Number One’s cameos, makes it abundantly clear this season is not a reboot of Discovery. That’s setup in the finale. No, this is a season-long pilot for Strange New Worlds. One thing becomes abundantly clear, both after watching “The Cage” in this chronological binge and later seeing TOS. The original Enterprise bridge set, even when seamlessly integrated into TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise (as the time-displaced Defiant), might have worked on analog television. But today’s streaming, digital formats would make that bridge seem claustrophobic. So the Enterprise bridge gets an update, containing the look and feel of the original, but with updated panels and displays. to do away with the static displays, and even give a nod to the Kelvin movies. (Note the lens flares.)
Discovery season 2 ends with the titular ship – and Spock’s problematic sister – fleeing 900 years into the future. And so we leave Discovery for a while. Until next summer, actually. Season 3 picks up centuries after the end of Picard. Instead, we turn to Strange New Worlds.