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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Is Learning How to Walk

Halfway through its first season, the show is still developing its characters and figuring out how to tell bite-sized and long-term stories at the same time

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ cast CBS/Ringer illustration

The audacious experiment that is Star Trek: Discovery wrapped up its first, short batch of nine episodes Sunday in suitably climactic fashion: villains were defeated; cliff-hangers established; coercive sex with a Klingon awkwardly and obliquely portrayed. CBS All Access viewers will have to wait until January to have their plot questions answered, of which the finale leaves plenty: Did the Discovery just jump to an alternate dimension? Would shady wild-card Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) sabotage his own ship? Is dashing ex-POW Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) a Klingon in disguise?

In the meantime, however, the hiatus provides a useful opportunity to consider the big picture. Discovery was a long-delayed gamble, a would-be flagship for CBS’s nascent streaming service that aimed to establish a more ambitious, highbrow brand than the main network. As is the case with most streaming services, we don’t know how well the bet paid off in terms of raw viewership. (Though, as Showtime did with Twin Peaks: The Return, the company didn’t mind letting slip that Discovery occasioned record numbers of All Access signups — sans specifics, of course.) But what about creatively? Now that Discovery has aired as many episodes as the abbreviated cable seasons it most closely resembles in budget and scope, how has it measured up?

For the sake of full and crucial disclosure, I’m approaching these questions as a non-Trekkie; I’m passingly familiar with the original series and films, but draw a blank on Klingon grammar and obscure Federation bylaws. My colleague Ben Lindbergh has written on Discovery from the perspective of a longtime fan, and I defer to him on the question of how Discovery fits into the mythology and spirit of the long-running franchise. But while devoted Star Trek fans are certainly the most likely candidates to shell out $6 a month — with ads! — for a streaming service that boasts only one other original scripted series (The Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight), Discovery also needs to win over a general audience for long-term success. With that in mind, it’s worth evaluating Discovery from an agnostic’s perspective as well as a die-hard’s.

I’m a longtime fan of Discovery cocreator Bryan Fuller and have followed the project with interest since his involvement was announced. As has been widely documented, Fuller exited the project mid-production, in part to focus on his Starz drama, American Gods, and in part due to conflicts with CBS over budget (which eventually totaled more than $6 million an episode), time frame (the series was originally supposed to launch in February 2017), and whether the series should be an anthology (Fuller was pro, CBS was con). Along with Alex Kurtzman, who also worked on the latest Star Trek film trilogy, Fuller is still billed as creator, and cocredited with the story for the first three episodes, but the writer-producer is no longer involved with Discovery’s day-to-day creative decision-making.

Yet the final product still maintains a distinctly Fullerian bent. There are the macabre episode names, like “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” and imagery, like a Klingon ship covered in sarcophagi. There’s also the pointed diversity, which fits seamlessly into Star Trek’s historic humanism — or rather, interspecies consortium-ism — while still being unprecedented even in this most liberal of properties. Protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a mutineer turned conscript, is a woman of color, as is her captain at the series’ onset, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). (Some observers grumbled at Discovery killing off Yeoh’s character and replacing her with a white, male captain, though Yeoh’s star power suggests that she was always a temporary presence.) Meanwhile, chief engineer Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and ship doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) are in a committed partnership, an initial piece of background information that becomes the emotional crux of the finale as Stamets’s experimental work puts his life in danger. When it comes to modernizing any piece of IP, making its characters more broadly representative of the world off-screen is an obvious first item on the to-do list, and it’s one Fuller has a history of doing well. Discovery is no exception.

Other aspects of Discovery are sprung from a seeming desire to position itself closer to the prestige fare of Game of Thrones or The Man in the High Castle in the canon of modern genre shows. Discovery took three full chapters, the only three provided to critics in advance, to set up its core story. The first two, Battlestar Galactica–style, were almost a self-contained movie, depicting the Klingon confrontation that would result in Michael’s mutiny, full-scale war, and the death of Captain Georgiou. The third established the premise, with Captain Lorca conscripting Michael, now a prisoner, to the crew of the Discovery, a vessel dedicated to developing a means to essentially teleport through space using a so-called “spore drive.” Science!

All that exposition means that Discovery got a full third of the way through its season before it started to explore — and when it did, there wasn’t much time to do it without feeling like a distraction. Self-contained episodes did make an appearance, with the crew spending one particularly fine episode trapped in a time loop and Burnham, Tyler, and First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) splitting off for an old-fashioned “let’s go to a trippy planet and interact with a new species” romp. But every adventure connects in some way with both the Discovery and Discovery’s overarching goal: defeat the Klingons. The effect is a season that’s torn in two directions without fully committing to either. Discovery’s attempt to have it both ways — an epic and an anthology of short stories — also shortchanges the season-long stories as often as the reverse; the most significant Klingon character, an albino zealot named Voq (Javid Iqbal), vanishes abruptly, taking a compellingly ambiguous villain off the board just as his character’s taking shape. A popular fan theory holds that he’s still around in disguise, but that doesn’t make his disappearance any less jarring to the casual viewer.

Discovery has the exact same structural problem as All Access’s other original series, suggesting that the conflicting impulses to tell bite-sized and elongated stories might be a feature, not a bug. When the most unrepentantly conventional network starts making an effort to ape Netflix while also staying true to itself, identity crises naturally follow. The Good Fight, too, quickly falls into procedural-like rhythms, only to quickly run out of room for them and its longer-term narratives. The issue isn’t unique to CBS: NBC was adventurous enough to invest in The Good Place, an almost purely serialized comedy with just 13 episodes a season, but then stuck the show with an awkward, months-long hiatus just as the story was starting to gain momentum — two years in a row. Discovery hitting pause after just nine hours feels similarly abrupt. Networks are branching out from their traditional way of doing things; they’re just not quite ready to go all the way.

Nevertheless, Discovery’s issues don’t shortchange what truly matters: the characters. The tie-ins are fairly direct; though Michael is a human, her Vulcan foster father, Sarek, is Spock’s biological father, making Discovery’s main character the adoptive sister of one of Star Trek’s most iconic protagonists. We need a crew that can fill the shoes of those that came before them, or at least promise to — the hardest task facing Discovery at its inception, and the one it’s excelled the most at. Michael is a remarkable heroine, carrying with her the almost unimaginable guilt that comes with causing the deaths of her mentor and so many colleagues. Throughout the season, Martin-Green manifests that guilt in a haunted intensity that hovers over every scene without overwhelming them and gives Michael an internal conflict that transcends a mere repetition of Spock’s Vulcan logic–human emotion divide. As a figure from her past intimately familiar with Michael’s mistakes and understandably reluctant to forgive her for them, Saru is a crucial presence; so is her cheerily awkward roommate Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), an initial comic relief who gradually develops into Michael’s sympathetic mentee.

Going into the second half of its season, Discovery has kinks to work out, but it’s laid the all-important groundwork for a rich and tight-knit ensemble. If my ultimate frustration with a season of television was that, between all the swashbuckling and strategizing, I didn’t get to spend enough time watching characters get to the root of their dysfunctions, then that’s less a complaint than a backhanded compliment. I’m excited to reboard with Discovery when it’s back this winter; I just want to see what kind of shape it will settle into.