I spent the last three months watching the entire run of Star Trek: Discovery on Paramount Plus, finishing up last night. I thought the first season was good but uneven and padded out, the second and third seasons were great, and the fourth one was very good but again dragged in a few places. Here are some thoughts on the show in general and the fourth season specifically.
Discovery is a very character-driven series. One of the benefits of watching all the episodes to date in a relatively short period of time was that it enabled me to see just how much the various characters grew & developed. I feel the writers did a good job developing most of the cast.
From what I gather Michael Burnham played by Sonequa Martin-Green has proved to be a divisive character with some viewers. Her arc has certainly been highly unusual, to say the least. It was interesting to see Burnham at last become Captain of the Starship Discovery in the fourth season. I feel Martin-Green has done a solid job with the material given her, although at times she does perform her dialogue in what I can only describe as “a loud whisper” which comes across as odd to me. Still, she effectively carries the show most of the time.
Something I’ve noticed is that the writers aren’t at all shy about calling into question Burnham’s motives & actions and positioning other characters as adversarial counterpoints to her to push her to engage in some necessary self-evaluation.
Admiral Vance (Ohed Fehr) and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) are the two latest figures to do so. At first glance, given the parade of rogue Admirals and corrupt, self-serving politicians that have appeared in previous Star Trek series, one could be forgiven for thinking that Vance and/or Rillak were up to some nefarious purpose. But with both of them it eventually becomes clear that they are decent people attempting to do very difficult jobs under incredibly trying circumstances.
That’s a characteristic I’ve noticed about Disco. The challenge is often not some diabolical mastermind bend on galactic domination (although there have been a few of those); rather it is that you have different individuals who all want to achieve a greater good, but each of them disagrees, often drastically, as to the steps necessary to achieve that outcome, and everyone needs to work to find some sort of common ground within which to work together.
That’s certainly the case with Burnham and Booker (David Ajala) in season four. Both of them want to stop the mysterious Dark Matter Anomaly that is devastating the galaxy, but Burnham wants to try diplomacy, to reach out to the mysterious Species Ten-C to convince them to withdraw their creation, while Booker wants to attack it directly before it can cause any more harm. I found myself agreeing with Burnham’s approach, her desire to avoid escalating the crisis any further. But at the same time I have to admit, if I found myself in Booker’s shoes, with my home planet, my entire family, destroyed by the DMA, it’s quite likely I’d be making the drastic choices he did.
As much as I liked the first two seasons of Disco, I really feel like the show came into its own with season three. Yes, Enterprise and Strange New Worlds are both great shows. But Star Trek has always been at its best when it has looked forward, not backwards. For the first two seasons Disco was a prequel to the original series, and as strong as it was it felt too beholden to past incarnations of Star Trek. Having Discovery and its crew jump forward 900 years to the 32nd Century has allowed Star Trek to go in completely different directions.
I think that’s very well illustrated with the long sought-after reunification of the Vulcan and Romulan civilizations, which has finally been achieved in the 32nd century. It’s also demonstrated with the character of the half-Cardassian, half-human Laira Rillak. In The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the Federation and the Cardassian Union were bitter foes; now a character who shares the dual heritages of those two once-implacable enemies is the President of the Federation itself.
I appreciated that Disco demonstrated that such change is possible, but also made it clear that it took a great deal of effort and a tremendous amount of time for those changes to be achieved, as well as showing that it is necessary to continually work to maintain that progress.
I also appreciated how Disco season four really leaned into the Star Trek mission statement “To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” It’s rare that Star Trek has presented genuinely ALIEN lifeforms. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked the original series: despite the limitations of the budget and the primitive special effects, it did attempt to present non-humanoid beings like the Horta, the brain parasites from “Operation – Annihilate,” Korob and Sylvia’s true forms in “Catspaw,” the Tribbles, the Melkotians from “Specter of the Gun” and so forth. Starting with The Next Generation the franchise became too dependent on bumpy-headed aliens.
It’s great to have Species Ten-C, a race that is so alien that we never even find out their real name. The Ten-C are totally non-humanoid, and the Universal Translators used by the Federation are completely useless in communicating with these extra-galactic beings. It takes concerted efforts by both sides to cross that seemingly insurmountable gap, and when it is bridged, it feels genuinely rewarding.
That’s also why I like Saru the Kelpien, played by Doug Jones. At last we have a regular character serving in Starfleet who looks genuinely alien. Jones gives Saru an “otherness” through his performance & movements, and the make-up is stunning.
Looking at some of the other regulars on Disco, I really want to discuss Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), the first same sex couple on a Star Trek series. That’s a development that was long overdue, one that both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were ultimately afraid to discuss. Stamets and Culber are both great characters. Like everyone else on the Starship Discovery, the two of them have some series issues (this has got to be the most dysfunctional Star Trek crew since DS9) and both characters are really performed well by Rapp and Cruz.
I appreciated how the two were introduced back in the first season. When we first meet Stamets he’s an arrogant, impatient egotist. We then meet Dr. Culber, who’s shown to be a caring, empathic individual. And then suddenly there’s a scene where Stamets and Culber are in their pajamas brushing their teeth side-by-side in their shared quarters. My reaction was basically “Oh, wait, they’re a couple? That’s cool.”
I like that it’s underplayed and just treated as an everyday occurrence that Stamets and Culber married. And the fact that they are in certain ways two very different people has enabled the writers to show all the work they’ve had to put into maintaining their relationship. Which, I suppose, goes back to that whole theme of working to find common ground that permeates Disco.
In any case, Stamets definitely went from being an annoying jerk to a warm, funny, nuanced character in fairly short time, and now he is one of my favorites.
Also great work in the writing and acting department with the character of Sylvia Tilly, played be Mary Wiseman. When we are first introduced to the babbling, insecure Tilly in season one it seems like she’s going to be the show’s comic relief. Instead she gradually grew to become one of the strongest characters on Disco, and by the end of season four she really had come into her own.
I’m looking forward to Disco season five next year because I really do enjoy the series. I’m glad to hear the episode count is reduced from 13 to 10. As I said before, season four had some pacing issues, so hopefully season five will have a leaner structure. I’m sure it’s possible to have a somewhat more streamlined season without sacrificing any of the excellent character work. I definitely want to see more development for the Discovery bridge crew, some of whom are still unfortunately underutilized.
By the way, as I alluded to before, I know there are some Star Trek fans who do not like Discovery. Some even seem to hate it with a red-hot passion! I understand; we all have different interests. I really don’t like Voyager, but I know there are Star Trek fans who do love it, and when they talk about that series, I hold my tongue because I don’t want to belittle anyone’s else’s entertainment choices. You can dislike something without attacking someone who disagrees with you. And I feel that right now there is so much Star Trek material out there that there’s something for everyone. It’s a great time to be a fan.