When Star Trek: Discovery premiered in 2017, it was to no small amount of fanfare. The first new Star Trek series to launch since Enterprise took its final bow in 2005, Discovery marked a bright new beginning not just for the long-lived science fiction franchise, but for the Star Trek Originals empire ViacomCBS had gone all in on when it made its flagship subscription service, CBS All Access (now Paramount+), the home for all things Federation. That it also found two women of color in starring roles—Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, the series’ bull-headed idealist lead, and Michelle Yeoh as Phillipa Georgiou, the Star Fleet Captain / Terran Emperor who mentors and terrorizes her in turn—well, that just made Discovery’s future feel all the brighter.
And yet, for all the admiration that Martin-Green, Yeoh, and the rest of the cast earned from critics and the wider audience, alike—not to mention the success Discovery had in landing CBS All Access an alleged windfall of new subscribers—the series’ first two seasons were, from a storytelling perspective, just… fine. I mean, they weren’t bad! But nor were they groundbreaking (or even consistently paced) enough to keep some of the franchise’s more fair weather fans engaged.
Cut to: The fall of 2020, and Discovery’s long-awaited Season 3 premiere. When I weighed in on it at the time, it was to rave about the wild swing the now Paramount+ series had taken when it flung Michael, Philippa, and the rest of the crew of the USS Discovery forward 930 years into the future at the end of its second season. All it took was one deus ex Michael wormhole, and bam! Gone was the confusion surrounding Discovery’s place in “classic” Star Trek chronology; gone was the tension arising from the Discovery’s wildly advanced spore drive technology; gone too was the increasingly difficult task of wedging Michael into Spock’s well-trod personal history. Gone, maybe most importantly to me, were all those overly prostheticized Klingons. After two years struggling to break free of the expectations set by all those Federation Captains who had so boldly gone before, Discovery had finally succeeded, with the start of its third season, in staking out a narrative territory all its own.
Or at least, at the time I wrote that review, I had every confidence that was where things were headed. Four episodes wasn’t much to go on, but what is being a fan of any iteration of Star Trek if you don’t spend your time half-bursting with hope?
Well, friends, I’m happy to report: Now a season and a half into its big flash-forward experiment, Star Trek: Discovery is flourishing. Not only has their new situation obliged every member of the crew to take new and deeper stock of their own hearts, but the fragile, nearly alien political landscape they’ve found themselves thrust in the middle of has obliged them each to recontextualize their understanding of—and commitment to—the Federation’s core principles at every scale. What does it mean to be a member planet in the Federation? What does it mean to be a commissioned Star Fleet officer? What do they owe each other, as sentient beings, if either institution either ceases to exist, or at least ceases to stand for what it did in a time now so long past?
Across the board, Discovery’s attempt to wrestle with these questions has borne fascinating fruit. In some cases, it’s led to the introduction of compelling new characters—David Ajala’s Booker, Blu del Barrio’s Adira, Ian Alexander’s Gray, Oded Fehr’s Admiral Vance and David Cronenberg’s (yes: that David Cronenberg) blandly stoic Kovich chief among them. In others, it’s led to some surprising, if occasionally sad, crew departures. In every case, though, it’s allowed for a renegotiation of both the series’ unique interpersonal dynamics and the franchise’s grander, universal themes that is as constructive as it is entertaining.
Have there been misses? Of course. The resolution to Season 3’s big dilithium “Burn” mystery, while gratifyingly personal, was challenging to understand at the Galactic scale. Conversely, the scale of Season 4’s ongoing extra-galactic threat is so mammoth, the series has struggled to effectively dramatize its emotional impact at any level beyond the personal—and yet, the dramatization of that ends up being so effective that, for some viewers, it may tip Discovery’s fourth season too deep into therapy territory to be consistently engaging. And of course, in all cases, there is never, ever, enough Grudge.
But in the rare areas that Discovery falters, the series remains enormously watchable thanks to the warm, sharply drawn work being put in not just by Martin-Green—whose Burnham is finally thriving this season in the Captain’s chair—but by the absolutely stacked cast supporting her all the way down the call sheet. Doug Jones, as Saru, is a balm to every scene he’s a part of. Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, stepping into their new role as found-family to teens Adira and Gray, are more in step than ever. Oyin Oladejo, Emily Coutts, Patrick Kwok-Choon, Ronnie Rowe, and Sarah Mitich, as Burnham’s dependable first-string officers, are being given more opportunities than ever to shine. And with the recent introduction of Annabelle Wallis as Zora, the newly vocal avatar of the Sphere data Discovery rescued in Season 2 (think Legends of Tomorrow’s Gideon, but with a shade more gravitas), Discovery has tapped into a whole new realm of intra-ship dynamics. And Mary Wiseman’s Tilly? Well, she may be (minor spoiler) off-ship for now, but her indefatigable spirit remains the soul of Discovery despite her absence. As for Ajala’s Booker, whose incomprehensible personal tragedy in Episode 1 set the stage for the rest of the season, he’s proving to be dependably good as both ballast for and counterweight to the impossible decisions that Burnham, as Discovery’s new captain, is finding herself having to make.
With Season 4 currently in the midst of a brief winter hiatus and the Captain Pike and Spock-led spinoff Star Trek: Strange New Worlds set to premiere later this year, now’s the perfect time for fans who left off watching years ago to catch back up, or for new fans to pick the show up entirely.
And who knows—if enough of us ask for it, in voices loud enough for the bigwigs at Paramount+ to hear, we may even end up getting the one thing we all want more than anything else: endless Grudge.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on Paramount+. Season 4 returns Thursday, February 10th
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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