Ah, Discovery. I can’t recall a Star Trek series so maligned by people who subsequently reveal they haven’t seen a single episode. I do recall a Star Trek series being maligned by people who have seen many an episode, thinking of, well, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.
So, in other words, Discovery is in good company for those who have seen it and don’t like it. (I’ve written way more about Discovery in the current environment of online fandom if you want to go down that rabbit hole/into that Briar Patch).
Season one worked through some bumpy spots and interminably slow-speaking Klingons to have an ending all about living up to Federation ideals (oh, and they had perhaps the one of the best Trek time travel episodes along the way). Season two took everything up a notch in terms of characters while connecting past Trek and forging a path to a (far) future. And what Anson Mount and the writers were able to do with the character of Captain Pike was nothing less than a revelation.
In any case, if you’re a longtime Trek viewer, just know that the visual discontinuity of this prequel series looking way more modern may be jarring. Also, for those of you who were not fans of Deep Space Nine, this series clearly goes down some of those same shades-of-grey paths. They also are fully embracing modern “prestige TV” notions of having season-long story arcs and some serious continuity (another aspect heavily favored by DS9, especially in later seasons).
As with all Trek series, it takes some time to find its rhythm — though I would contend it has the strongest first season of any Trek outside the original series. And also as with all Trek series, they touch on some tried and true Trek themes of what it means to be human (or a sentient) in the face of life, death, and human folly (or sentient folly). While there’s no guarantee the series will reach seven seasons like the 80/90s series did, as of September 2020, its third season should debut next month and it may already have been renewed for season four.
Note: Everything below may contain spoilers and definitely contains some snark.
Combining some overachiever aspects we see in many a member of Starfleet along with Vulcan ideals of perfection (thanks Sarek and fam!), I have no doubt that there are many viewers who will identify with Burnham. I’m hoping for a Bashir-level character arc over the course of the series.
Trek series have had great success with their non-human characters, giving writers great freedom to comment on humanity and generally play with assumptions about “normal” behavior. Saru is no exception: a capable, thoughtful, yet often passionate non-human character who quietly underscores what we want the Federation and Starfleet to be all about. It’s great to see ‘creature actor’ Doug Jones in the forefront (albeit under many prosthesis).
Speaking of great to see, it’s usually great to see Michelle Yeoh in anything. Yeah, I’m biased, but I’m not alone. I would have liked to see more of ‘regular’ Georgiou, but the emperor is a lot of fun too.
A stoic, melancholy security chief not sure what his destiny is. On one level he’s like Worf. WAIT A MINUTE!
Okay, I kid. I mean, “stoic, melancholy security chief” could also mean Odo. WAIT ANOTHER MINUTE!
Just as annoying, but probably more capable than Leland T. Lynch (how’s that for a deep cut?), Stamets clearly trained at the same Obnoxious Whiz-Kid Academy that Dr. Rodney McKay attended. The character’s ability to wax and wane between great empathy and total irritation –and be genuine in both– is a tribute to Anthony Rapp’s performance.
The best cadet-now-ensign since Nog, Tilly is delightfully id and now holds the distinction of being the first Trek character to drop an F bomb. I understand some people don’t like her, but for me, that’s like taking a hard stance against sunshine and science. Also, Tilly as Captain Killy is comedy gold-pressed latinum.
Thanks to plenty of idiosyncratic details from the writers and Jason Isaacs’ usual detailed approach to characters, we get a Starfleet captain who seems like he’d be butting heads with Kirk in some original series episode. And then, by Spock’s beard, we find out he definitely would because of Team Evil.
The surprise literal twist in the first season (sorry, couldn’t resist) has given way to something of uncharted territory for his character in the second season. Wilson Cruz’ performance makes it all very real and like many of the characters, I look forward to see how the character evolves over the series.
Mark me as the 10,347th person to go on record for wanting to see a Captain Pike series. It does not diminish any other Star Trek captain to deem him one of the best.
28) “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”
Season 1, Episode 8
That time on Star Trek where you’re reminded that even though predator species are dangerous, prey species continue to survive because they themselves can be dangerous (shh, season two watchers). Great character moments for Saru that have echoes to Odo’s first experience of the Great Link, but overall, the episode feels incomplete.
27) “The Vulcan Hello”
Season 1, Episode 1
Visually stunning and with a very promising set-up, the first TV Trek in ages suffers from some surprisingly clunky exposition and Klingons who apparently belong to the Intergalactic
26) “Battle at the Binary Stars”
Season 1, Episode 2
Originally shown together with the season opener, this serves as the second act of the series premiere very well. We do still have T’Kuvma proving he’s not going to be a Klingon auctioneer anytime soon, but we do get some serious, if occasionally incoherent space battles, Terry Serpico being a wonderfully red-shirted admiral, Burnham showing she took notes during Starfleet Academy’s “Outtalk a Computer 201” just like Kirk, and best of all: a well thought-out plan to stop the war and give our hero a shot at redemption which fails so spectacularly, you can picture the DS9 Writers’ Room smiling somewhere.
25) “Into the Forest I Go”
Season 1, Episode 9
The mid-season cliffhanger delivers a good set of stakes as well as sets up the second part of the season in a manner that gives us both satisfying action scenes and character moments. Ya should have just let ’em warp, Stamets.
24) “Despite Yourself”
Season 1, Episode 10
Deep Space Nine wisely decided to explore the Mirror Universe in several episodes over its run. Enterprise decided to raise the stakes by connecting their foray with the fate of the Constitution-class Defiant.
Discovery proudly proclaims, “Hold my blood wine.”
This first episode in Discovery‘s Mirror Universe sequence provides fun connections to the Trek that has gone before, provides ample opportunities for the crew to question what their mirror selves are (with Captain Killy being especially delightful) and sets up much of the moral quandaries of the rest of the season.
23) “Vaulting Ambition”
Season 1, Episode 12
What with raising stakes in the form of freshly cooked ganglia, betrayal, and group head trauma (I’m sure Phantasm fans approved) this episode moves fast and appropriately Mirror Universe-y. However, the best part might be the poignant reunion between Stamets and Culber.
22) “Project Daedalus”
Season 2, Episode 9
Good news, LCdr. Airiam! You get more backstory. Bad news: it’s to help make your demise more emotionally resonant. That being said, the cold equations employed by the writers’ room do not entirely take away from a contemplative episode that expands the crew dynamics and moves the season two story arc along ably. Bonus points for referencing Kadis-kot and the creepy reveal of a long-dead admiral.
21) “The Red Angel”
Season 2, Episode 10
It definitely feels like the interim-episode-in-an-ongoing-arc that it is, but there’s plenty of fun character moments and two outright surprises, one of which being Captain Leland making you completely anxious about your next eye exam.
20) “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”
Season 1, Episode 4
We’re solidly in the land of tough Trek choices as Burnham starts to wrestle with what truth her own self should be true to. Landry also manages to fulfill her destiny as the reddest of redshirts in a demise that any creature feature fan would understand, which is both a plus and a minus. The season-long storyline feels like it’s filling out and gaining speed here.
19) “The Wolf Inside”
Season 1, Episode 11
Of all the ways to try and find redemption and a way to uphold the ideals of Starfleet, impersonating a bloodthirsty captain of the Terran Empire has to be one of the worst… which is why it’s so fascinating to see Burnham attempt it. Tilly also has a great turn trying to help Stamets and we get a truly killer queen, er, emperor.
18) “The War Without, The War Within”
Season 1, Episode 14
With the previous episode leaving the crew home, but a bit too late to save the day, the quickly-hatched plan win the war is both fast-paced and entertaining.
17) “Context is for Kings”
Season 1, Episode 3
The two-episode opener is shown to be clearly a prologue as we jump into quite the packed episode that introduces us not only to the mysterious Captain Lorca, but the delightfully uptight Lt. Stamets and also Cadet Tilly, who fully understands the importance of a Trek character being earnest. There’s still a little on-the-nose dialogue, and the Event Horizon-level gory fate of the Glenn makes one wonder just how dark the rabbit hole gets, but the pace is surprisingly brisk and sets up so much mystery and possibility you have to go to the next episode.
16) “Point of Light”
Season 2, Episode 3
A decidedly darker episode compared to the first two episodes –severed baby heads will do that– this nonetheless deepens the “Red Angel” storyline quite well, gives Tilly’s ghost a truly disturbing twist, and makes you wonder if Sarek and his family make Victorian ideals look freewheeling and unrestrained by comparison. Bonus points for going old-school with the Klingons bleeding lavender.
15) “Choose Your Pain”
Season 1, Episode 5
Saru’s storyline is a standout in this episode that has torture and tardigrades. Also, kudos to Rainn Wilson for making Harcourt Fenton Mudd the man most in need of an airlock vacation in ages.
14) “Will You Take My Hand?”
Season 1, Episode 15
Knowing that the season very much had the arc of Burnham’s quest for redemption, this finale lands pretty well, with action, intrigue, and a surprise return of the space whales. I’m kind of split on the writers clearly taking the “Klingons have redundant everything” to its TV-MA extreme.
13) “New Eden”
Season 2, Episode 2
While not quite as packed as the season premiere, this second chapter of season two still gives us some beautiful cinematic moments and, more importantly some character moments. The producers and writers clearly decided we should both know more about the rest of the crew and we should have a bit more fun this season… and it shows. Finally, we get a bit deeper into some of the season plotlines and arcs including Tilly’s ghost and the Red Angel — all while giving us a little Trek look at religion and the Prime Directive.
12) “Light and Shadows”
Season 2, Episode 7
We finally meet Spock and he’s decided Mirror Spock didn’t go far enough with his beard. While seeing the full Vulcan family drama come into focus –Amanda’s character and motivation is great to see– the overall episode feels very much like a middle entry.
11) “Through the Valley of Shadows”
Season 2, Episode 12
The penultimate episode prior to the two-part season finale, this Valley of Shadows includes a cargo hold of creepiness, a D7 (yay!), a failed Vulcan nerve pinch (ooh!), and what may be Christopher Pike’s defining moment (OMG!).
10) “What’s Past is Prologue”
Season 1, Episode 13
This end to Discovery’s Mirror Universe storyline may not be the most surprising thing ever, but it winds up being immensely satisfying. We get not one, but two engaging fight sequences, wrap-ups for several characters, and a great speech by Saru: all with some cinematic packaging. Bonus points for numerous nice touches in the sound design including some pleasant callbacks to the original series.
Season 2, Episode 1
Leaving us with a fannish cliffhanger at the end of last season by meeting the Enterprise, we quickly get introduced to an engaging Captain Pike and colorful uniforms, with plenty of callbacks to the first season and general Trek along the way. The overall tone feels brighter even as they set up the season-long story arc with something that threatens the galaxy (naturally). Well deployed quips abound, Stamets is actually relatable, and Tilly is 100% Tilly. Demerits for the rather forced action setpiece of the landing pods, though it’s mitigated by us then meeting Tig Notaro as a wearily heroic Starfleet engineer.
8) “Saints of Imperfection”
Season 2, Episode 5
Coming off the gangbusters episode that was “An Obol for Charon,” this doesn’t quite have the same punch, but we do get a lot of touchpoints on continuing relationships between the characters, a lot of heart, and Section 31. Basically, DS9 fans should feel right at home. Just stop teasing and show us Spock, people.
7) “Perpetual Infinity”
Season 2, Episode 11
Michael’s mom deals with her own scenario of being unstuck in time as past, present, and future weave in and out — and all the while Michael is trying to understand the struggle of a mother she thought long dead amid the noble and ulterior motives of other characters. Delightfully dizzying.
6) “The Sound of Thunder”
Season 2, Episode 6
Squashed butterflies are nowhere to be found in this sequel to the Short Trek episode “The Brightest Star” that served as Saru’s “origin story.” It’s an involving and exciting look at oppressor and oppressed that’s very Trek.
Season 1, Episode 6
Character development and motivation abounds in this episode that gives us some solid justification for having Michael Burnham be Sarek’s ward, we learn more about Admiral Cornwell and Captain Lorca’s friendship, and we are reminded that the Klingon concept of “honor” is hella elastic.
4) “If Memory Serves”
Season 2, Episode 8
Not only does this entry win the “Previously on” award by going to “The Cage,” it clears up the stakes for the Red Angel storyline while performing impressive double duty. On the one hand, we have a sequel to “The Cage” and set-up for “The Menagerie” as we understand Pike, Vina, and Spock’s motivations to a deeper degree. On the other hand, we also see all the season-long reaping being sown for the rest of the characters: Doctor Culber’s miraculous return doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory, Saru may need to re-assess his moral compass sans ganglia if he’s going to continue as the executive officer, and did anyone really think that having an evil empress be a Section 31 operative was not going to bite ya? Oh, and we get further insight into why Spock has issues with his human half for a good chunk of the rest of his life. Very satisfying on multiple levels.
3) “Such Sweet Sorrow” (Parts I & II)
Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14
Originally shown over two weeks versus together, the very calm-before-the-storm, say-our-goodbyes first half is better viewed together with the absolutely gonzo action second half. The sum total is payoff you want in a season finale, whether it’s seeing the Enterprise’s lovely phaser fire or the Inception-inspired fight scene.
2) “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”
Season 1, Episode 7
Excellent as a standalone episode that’s clearly going boldly after watching many a time travel tale before, both from Trek and elsewhere. It’s all the more enjoyable at this point in the season because you see both the character development and motivation in their decisions. Bonus points for the space whales and Mudd’s murder montage.
1) “An Obol for Charon”
Season 2, Episode 4
Packed almost to bursting with plot lines and spiced up with more raising of stakes than Kelpian ganglia can bear, this episode delivers a Trek tale of friendship and death that echoes back to the original series. Exceptional. Bonus points for the improvised trepanation.