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The best magic tricks happen in plain sight. I’ve levitated milk, produced whiskey from thin air, harpooned balloons and passed objects through solid steel in full view of audiences knowing full well that while they can see the pieces they can’t see how they fit. That exact structure is what the second season of Star Trek: Discovery used and I’ve rarely seen it used better. Pledge, Turn, Prestige. The classic magic trick narrative, just spread across 14 episodes and seven signals.
Pledge first. Nothing more, nothing less than that this is a Star Trek prequel show. A simple truth instantly complicated by the fact the show was never going to be made with the 1960s aesthetic of the original because, well, time’s linear. As a result, the show’s production values and it’s use of high tech devices you just couldn’t represent in the 1960s drove a lot of people absolutely wild. It’s the classic fandom Uncanny Valley: listen to the people who want the old stuff again and for every one you’ll please there’ll be two yelling about how you did it wrong. Probably in writing.
So, problem. Solution? Stop setting the show in the past of Star Trek. At all.
The Turn next where you assemble the solution from a fleet of components that in isolation don’t seem to be part of the larger picture. So we get the human colony on Terralysium, the Kelpien emancipation, the rescue of everyone’s favorite Gay Space Grandma, Engineer Jett Reno and so on. Best of all though, it’s here that the show throws a couple of red herrings in the way. The most obvious is the ridiculously compelling, instantly likable Enterprise command crew as played by Anson Mount,. Rebecca Romijn and Ethan Peck. We want these folks to stick around, they’re familiar in the best, newest way. Likewise characters like Admiral Cornwell and Ash Tyler, who get chunky roles in the finale. Then there’s the Short Treks produced between seasons, ‘Calypso’, ‘Stowaway’ and ‘The Brightest Star’ proved utterly vital while the Harry Mudd spotlighting ‘The Escape Artist’ was also present. Without that, you can see the shape of the solution. With it, everything is just obfuscated enough. You can’t help but feel Mudd would appreciate the deception too, After all, magicians are just grifters with better agents.
And finally, The Prestige. We hear a band but there is no band. The bird really does disappear. The willful deception of the trick, that we all buy into, is replaced with the stark cold water realization that this really is something different. Something new. Best of all, something new that we’ve been watching assemble itself in front of us. I love how the final episode contrasts the crew frantically building the time suit with Burnham’s fierce calm once she realizes what she has to do and in fact has already done. She’s always been the architect of her own salvation. She’s always been the one who reprograms the test so it’s possible to win. She’s always been heading for this exact point and the moment she realizes that, every terrible wound she’s suffered becomes a course correction, every tragedy a compass bearing. All of them leading to a new home, a new frontier, a clean getaway.
A series defined and imprisoned by five decades of expectation, finding a way out of that prison. An orphan discovering not only why she’s an orphan but that her mother has shown her how to save her friends. A Star Trek show, boldly going somewhere they truly never have before. Using the past not as armor, but as a launch pad to catapult itself into the Undiscovered Country. And doing so, led by a black woman with flaming wings, hurtling head first and eyes up, into a future that may not be better but is sure as Hell different to where she and her new family came from. You bet your ass I cried. You bet your ass I applauded too.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix now. They are wildly different, and both worth your time.