Learning To Be Starfleet: Discovery’s First Season

(Spoilers abound so if you haven’t seen Discovery yet, don’t scroll past the remarkably photogenic crew down there. Also, as ever, hello to Jason Isaacs.)

Star Trek: Discovery has wrapped its first season. It’s never been less than good, usually been excellent and has never, once failed to be the most interesting version of Star Trek we could have dared hope for.

Discovery opens with a mutiny. Michael Burnham, played with ever increasing aplomb by the amazing Sonequa Martin-Green, makes an entirely understandable mistake. In doing so, over eight thousand people die and a war begins that will change the galaxy forever.

That choice, that mutiny, is the bell that never stops ringing. Burnham, a human raised as Vulcan, is both coldly analytical and completely instinctive and is bent double under the guilt of inadvertently starting the war and of getting so many people, including one of her closest friends, killed. Her descent is mirrored by Starfleet’s own; humanity’s most scientific navy rendered down into its most warlike, endlessly pushed to new lows by the Klingons’ exuberant brutality. And, more insidiously, by Captain Gabriel Lorca’s laser-like focus on fighting the war with a pragmatic cruelty that’s worlds away from Starfleet as we’ve seen it in the past.

And, like a magician showing exactly how the trick is done in a way you can never see coming, that was entirely the point.

Discovery spent the entire second half of this season playing new music on old instruments. The reveal on Lorca being from the Mirror universe was effortlessly handled and felt thoroughly earned. The exploration of Burnham’s relationship with Captain Georgiou’s Mirror equivalent brought out the best in both characters and all of that was linked to the chain of reveals on the Klingons, Lt. Ash Tyler and Burnham’s future in Starfleet.

All of it bookended by mutiny. Burnham’s mutiny starts the war, and Saru’s is instrumental in finishing it. What’s crucial about this is the way the show stacks arcs on tops of one another; Burnham’s emotional redemption becomes her professional redemption, Saru is placed in the exact same position as her and makes the exact same choice with the exact opposite outcome. The Federation is saved not by going to war but by finding a way to make war undesirable to a culture who have been raised to use violence as punctuation.

And Starfleet’s long night of the soul is concluded by the very officers who were there when it began. The show’s most overt soldiers are either taken off the board or killed (OR WAS HE?), it’s scientists put front and center. Just in time for a distress call from a very familiar ship, and a piece of music whose emotional impact was near total.

Discovery made missteps. The fact that several bridge crew members can still only be named via IMDB for one and, arguably, the first stage of the Culber/Stamets relationship for another. But one of those can be easily fixed and the other is clearly an ongoing narrative. Or perhaps a continuing voyage…

Star Trek: Discovery is a show about Starfleet becoming itself. Watching it learn how to do that, and watching it succeed has been one of the highlights of the last twelve months. Season 2 cannot show up fast enough.

(This piece originally appeared in my newsletter, The Full Lid. Check out the archive over here, and subscribe for a weekly dose of pop culture, enthusiasm and my work)