A couple of weeks ago I started my rewatch of Star Trek Discovery’s first season in preparation for the rapidly approaching second season and now it’s time to finish the job. It has been a fascinating experience, going back to revisit the season at my own pace and without the humdrum of the entire fanbase watching along at the same time. I had hoped to cement my opinions on the show, which can often vary from positive to negative, and the rewatch has allowed me to do just that. It’s a mixed bag of a season with successes and failures and this is my retrospective review of the second half of the season which, for better or worse, brings everything to a head and concludes the first instalment of the new era of the sci-fi franchise.
If Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is the best Star Trek episode of the season, Despite Yourself – the first episode in the season’s ‘second chapter’ – is the best Discovery episode of the season. It succeeds at everything a Discovery episode is trying to accomplish, from the frantic pacing to the darker tone. A big reason as to why it works so well is because the action has moved over to the Mirror Universe with the crew trapped in the dangerous alternate dimension for a four-episode arc. The Mirror Universe allows Discovery to have the dark tone it’s trying to inhabit while also adding a sense of fun that’s missing from the Prime Universe episodes. The show has found a way to both have its cake and eat it. Against the bright optimism of TOS, the Mirror Universe was drastically different and a total opposite but Discovery’s universe, despite being set a mere decade before TOS, is already dark and violent. I wish it was lighter to show that difference but I still think it works. Visually they can do little differently but I’m fine with it just as a separate universe that’s more dangerous, rather than making it a mirror opposite of their own. Deep Space Nine already did that (6 times!) and just turned it into a place that’s twice as grimy and three times as camp as the Prime Universe.
Just content-wise Despite Yourself is a step above its neighbouring episodes. I love seeing Lorca having to feign ignorance as to what’s going on and he’s doing things that will have a negative outcome, even for him, just to maintain his cover until the time is right. Tilly having to pretend to be her vicious Terran counterpart is by far the best comedy moment of the season and the elevator scene might be the best fight scene in maybe all of Star Trek, at least on television. Although that’s a feat not too difficult to accomplish. Although there is one big moment in the episode I strongly dislike…
Hugh Culber, along with Saru, instantly feels like a Star Trek character. He’s my favourite character from the first half of the season but we didn’t spend enough time with him, and it’s a little weird that they decided not to make him the Chief Medical Officer. The storytelling can be so aggressive that you have to try to catch the character beats between the heavy plot. His scene with Stamets, when they are both brushing their teeth, is one of the best of the season and there should have been many more like it. He’s the character who feels the most optimistic and happy, encapsulating Starfleet ideals… and then he’s brutally killed for shock value which might just be the perfect epitome of Discovery’s first season. The scene certainly did shock me – its one and only intention – but it just made me annoyed at the show for trying such cheap tricks at its own detriment.
Throughout the arc, Burnham talks about how she’s struggling to fit into the Mirror Universe, that “every moment is a test”, and she questions whether pretending to be a member of the Terran Empire – which she has to do to try and search for a way home – is killing her humanity. It’s interesting stuff but the problem is that we’re told this but don’t see the struggle. At least not to the degree I would like. And again, that comes down to the pacing. The Mirror Universe arc feels like a mini-season and I wish it was longer. Just one more episode exploring how the crew struggle to fit in rather than just a montage of them changing their uniforms would have done wonders. The Mirror Universe resistance cell and how Burnham deals with them comes close to doing this but it’s packed in so tight with twists, revelations and subplots that it just can’t breathe.
I guess it is time to talk about Tyler and Voq, something I’ve been putting off for as long as possible. I saw the theory that Ash Tyler was secretly Voq soon after the character’s first appearance so I was aware of it before I had a chance to work it out myself and I don’t know how long that would have taken but I’m sure that ultimately, I would have. The issue with the whole situation is that there is no misdirect. No other possible explanation. Voq disappears and the next episode Tyler appears. The twist was brought down by bad plotting but once the reveal happens there’s little more to the story. What was Voq’s endgame? Was everything going to plan before Burnham found out? Did the programming go wrong? Would he have become Voq again? I guess the Mirror Universe messed up the Klingons’ plans but it still amounted to nothing. They should have revealed that he was Voq in the mid-season premiere when we discover his Klingon programming. It’s bizarre that the writers thought that they could keep his true identity a secret for another episode and try and play it as a twist.
Away from the twist, Tyler himself is a bit bland. He’s instantly likable but that’s purely down to Clem Fandango himself, Shazad Latif. The writers give him the stereotypical dreams of wanting a place by the beach, to retire and catch fish and other sickeningly generic things. On this rewatch I picked up on more subtleties in Latif’s acting now that I knew for definite that he was Klingon. Just the way he eats in early episodes and casually bangs his fists on the table. In episode 6 Lorca even says to him “you fight like a Klingon”.
The Tyler ‘reveal’ would probably have worked better if the writers, let alone the audience, knew exactly what had happened to him. It seems like every writer has their own explanation and every time they try and explain it, it gets more confusing. I think it’s pretty clear that the writers just don’t know the specifics, with the details getting lost in the troubled and manic production. So, has Tyler got a human body implanted with Voq’s brain, bones and organs? Why not just transfer the brain? Or is it Voq’s body redesigned to look like Tyler? It’s baffling how convoluted it became when we’ve already encountered a Klingon that was changed to look human in a TOS episode. There they simply explain the whole thing in just a couple of lines. I know they want to portray Tyler as a complete mix of human and Klingon to show his struggle but we still needed a clear answer.
The best thing to come out of the Voq twist is Burnham’s immediate response to it. We are meant to think that this has pushed her past her breaking point and that she embraces her darker side with the help of the Mirror Universe when she beams Tyler into space to die. But then it’s revealed that this was just a way for her to get the information she has to Saru who picks up Tyler, beaming him aboard the Discovery, with the information hidden on his person. It’s probably the most clever and unexpected twist in the season, thinking she’d been corrupted by the Terrans, only to reveal the opposite and that her humanity has survived. Tyler is Burnham’s only solace in the Mirror Universe and then realising that her closest enemy is disguised as her only friend makes the reveal in that moment impactful and thematically resonant, but stretching the twist out so long for one good moment wasn’t worth it overall.
When it comes to Star Trek, I’m like a Vulcan. I want everything to be logical. At a push I’m like Spock in The Motion Picture who starts off cold and calculating and ends up… well, still cold and calculating but with a wider perspective on the scientific wonders of the universe. I abhor spirituality in Star Trek unless it’s like the Bajoran stuff in Deep Space Nine which also has a scientific answer. This all leads to the ‘mushroom heaven’ being my least favourite part of the season. So Stamets, who is in a coma from a Spore Drive overload, can visit some sort of afterlife and speak to his dead lover? Bullshit. What’s the explanation? Earlier in the season there’s a line which states that fungi can“link life with death”. I flat out hate it. Could the whole thing be a dream? No, because Stamets finds out information inside the mushroom afterlife that he didn’t know before, not just from Mirror Stamets (which makes sense) but also from Culber (which doesn’t). The network could be a dimension that ties together all other dimensions like The Dark Tower but that doesn’t explain how Culber can be there after his death. It makes me worried for season 2 because Culber is supposed to return and I don’t know what kind of spiritual hocus pocus they are going to use to justify it. I like the character but the writers now have to stand by their stupid mistake of killing him off.
The twists just keep coming in the Mirror Universe with Lorca finally being revealed to have been from the Mirror Universe all along (and evil, but that goes with the territory). The reveal is a pretty good moment even though, once again, we’d all seen it coming for weeks. Jason Issacs is one of my favourite actors in the show and with the truth out there he can finally be unrestrained, giving a great performance. He’s a fun villain and after the turn happens you can still buy that he’s the same character as before. Lorca was a constant bright spot during this past rewatch and, while I’m not sure if it’d make sense, I’d be up for Prime Lorca turning up alive and commanding the Discovery in season 3.
In a way the Lorca reveal is similar to the Voq reveal in that it seems like the writers did the whole story simply for the moment of the twist and weren’t sure what to do with the characters afterwards. Lorca’s year-long plan finally comes to a head with him gathering his supporters in the Imperial Flagship and the final part of his master-plan is… just standing at one end of a corridor while the Emperor stands at the other end and just shoot at each other for a bit. And if that doesn’t work then how about a big swordfight?! The final Mirror Universe episode is big and loud, full of action and while lacking any intelligence is pretty entertaining, I admit. Because of Burnham’s intervention, Lorca loses and dies with a sword to the chest and a big ball of mycelium to everywhere else. He does succeed however in destabilising Emperor Georgiou’s reign and Burnham makes the call to save her former captain’s evil counterpart by bringing her to the Prime Universe. I didn’t buy this first time round but on rewatch I’ve grown to like it. Burnham having to stop a coup against Georgiou is a nice counterpoint to her attempting one in the opening episode.
Across the Mirror Universe arc, the Discovery crew is trying to get a hold of data from the Defiant, a ship known to have made the dimensional crossing before, as seen in TOS and Enterprise. It’s a nice piece of continuity for fans but if you’re not familiar with it then I don’t think they give enough information for it to make sense. It’s clear from this lack of information that that subplot wasn’t going to go anywhere. In fact, Discovery goes back to the Prime Universe in the most Discovery way possible: a giant explosion. A giant explosion caused from a huge ball of mycelium that was destroying not just our universe but every possible universe due to being over-mined by Mirror Stamets. That escalation is everywhere in modern sci-fi and fantasy fiction and I hate it. The stakes are so large that you can’t comprehend it or empathise with anyone. And according to Spock in the Discovery season 2 trailer, those large stakes are set to continue with all sentient life in the galaxy at risk. Sigh.
After the Mirror Universe arc, we get a breather episode; not only for the audience who have been pelted with revelations and a ridiculously fast pace over the last 4 episodes, but also for the writers who have to figure out how they are possibly going to wrap everything up with just one more episode. Part of me enjoys the episode – which see the Discovery return to its universe but 9 months in the future – because it’s nice to have a Star Trek episode without explosions and action. It’s just 50 minutes of people sitting around talking and an enjoyable change of pace. I think that the Klingon war is pushed too far with the Federation almost destroyed and therefore characters are forced to make excessively bold decisions, some of which just come across as stupid. It’d all work so much better if the character stakes were higher than the galactic stakes. The show is just trying too hard. The time jump means that the success the crew had in the mid-season finale is now meaningless and is done just to try and make this finale even more dramatic. The show has already had two finale-worthy climaxes and the writers had to rack their brains to come up with a third. And what they came up with was very disappointing.
But before we get there let’s talk about Mirror Georgiou. I can’t believe that Admiral Cornwell tries to persuade the Discovery crew that she’s the real Prime Universe Georgiou who was found alive and rescued. How dumb are these people?! They all just came from the Mirror Universe! They know that Burnham was working with Emperor Georgiou there! And they really believe that this is their Georgiou back from the dead?! It’s so stupid. I like the idea of a rogue operative from the Mirror Universe wreaking havoc in the Prime Universe but I’m not sure if Michelle Yeoh was the right choice. I like her as an actress and I think she’s great at the cold and steely Emperor stuff but I want her to be more passionate and energetic when she’s plotting her nefarious misdeeds. I guess I’ll have to see what she’s like in season 2. I also like the idea of her concocting purely selfish plans. Having her join Section 31 seems like a misstep but, again, I’ll see how it’s pulled off in the upcoming season.
All season I was thinking why I remembered not liking the show too much when I was actually quite enjoying rewatching it. And then the finale happened. It leaves such a bitter taste in your mouth. It’s bad. Really bad. The writers had 45 minutes to try and wrap everything up, including the Klingon war which is at its most perilous hour. Starfleet’s plan: put a bomb in a volcano on Qo’nos – the Klingon homeworld – and destroy the whole planet. It’s so dumb. And what’s worse is that there’s no set up to it; nothing from the previous 14 episodes comes into play. The Spore Drive barely plays a part and characters like Saru and Stamets are given nothing to do. In the end Burnham goes against Starfleet by merely threatening the Klingons with Armageddon rather than going through with it while Georgiou flees and L’Rell rules. It’s all too easy and out of the blue.
I find it very strange that most of the episode is set within an Orion embassy base on Qo’nos. Sure, our human characters have to, you know, not get murdered but we should have seen more of the Klingons in their territory and see why destroying the planet would be a bad idea. As it stands it looks like a pretty good idea because we spend the episode with sex slaves and arms merchants. The episode does give us some of the best humour of the season, once again with Tilly. Her finding out the truth about Georgiou and later almost having a foursome with her are enjoyable scenes. However, the stuff with her almost getting space roofied by green Clint Howard isn’t so good.
A big problem is that the happy ending and heavy focus on Federation ideals doesn’t feel earned. There just isn’t an arc. At the end of the season they realise they need to do things the right way but why now? It feels tacked on and the darkness of the season is quickly altered with a speech full of cheesy generalised hokum. I guess the crew learned that they had to take a different path after seeing their dark reflections in the Mirror Universe but you never really got a sense of that because of how fast and plot-heavy those episodes were. The change in tone and mindset feels fully retrospective. And does the end really show off the Federation as a morally good society? Sure, they’re no longer going to destroy Qo’nos but they are still holding it hostage; its fate determined by their bomb with the trigger held by their agent.
The arc is much clearer for Burnham however. She is looking for redemption, having to deal with the darkness of her actions and with Lorca and the Mirror Universe pushing her towards the light, she seizes the opportunity to change her ways and do the right thing in the right way. The Starfleet way. It’s not exactly smooth with the series jumping around and arriving at the conclusion quite suddenly without much comment. But it just about works.
And there we are: the end. The Enterprise comes into view with Pike seeking aid from the Discovery, the war is over with L’Rell as chancellor and Tyler staying behind to advise her, having embraced his Klingon side. He is a Klingon after all. I think. Or is he human with Klingon bits? Or Klingon with human parts? Or… oh, forget it.
To finish everything off here’re a few mini-discoveries. Also known as random thoughts I couldn’t fit into the bulk of the text.
- I’ve not mentioned them so far but I guess I should at some point so how about now! I like the opening credits. They’re different and I suspect they may alter with every season of the show, going from drawn designs and schematics to the real thing with it turning into a more conventional Star Trek opening by the show’s end.
- Why isn’t this show set after everything else? It’s an old argument but come on. For 10 years BEFORE The Original Series it looks far too technologically advanced. How will the Picard show – which is set 150 years later – possibly differentiate itself as being even more futuristic?
- So, they have Holodecks at this time? Sure. Why not?
- I picked up on the bridge crew more on this rewatch. They are there from the start but they get so little to do it takes the whole season to remember their faces. Maybe we’ll get their names in season 2. Joking! We get their names. They’re just not memorable enough characters to remember.
- I like that Tilly and Burnham jog around the ship’s corridors. They could be doing it in a Holodeck but I’m glad they’re not.
- “We lost 426 souls today”. They keep using the word “souls” rather than “lives” in the show and I don’t like it. Nit-picky I know but I just don’t care for it, especially when Vulcans say it.
- I think Admiral Cornwell should have gone to the Mirror Universe. She could have witnessed Lorca’s reveal and getting her off Discovery before they make the jump like they do doesn’t make much sense.
- Everything resonating with a different quantum signature is a very easy way of determining that they are in another universe. But I’ll allow it! It came at a time where the show needed to move fast.
- Stamets gets super strength for one scene. One moment, really. It’s very strange and completely unexplained. Is it supposed to be the same process that happened to Gary Mitchel in TOS? The eyes look similar.
- The new Andorian make-up looks amazing. The artificially-deepened voice however is less so. Why won’t they give us an Andorian main cast member already?! I miss Shran.
- It’s such a mistake that Mirror Discovery is destroyed as soon as it enters the Prime Universe. Every Mirror story so far has been about our characters going over to their universe. Why not do an episode where it’s the opposite, focusing purely on the Mirror Crew? The ship would still get destroyed in the end but it’d be fascinating to watch.
- Stop moving the fucking camera!
Well I think that’s everything. As the Enterprise theme song tells us – sing it with me now – “it’s been a long road. Getting from there to here”. But now we’re almost at Discovery’s second season which debuts in a few short weeks. Are my opinions about season 1 completely wrong and what do you hope to see from the second season? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.