Alex Moreland reviews Star Trek: Discovery’s season finale…
There are no second chances.
It’s a simple, understated episode – more of a quiet epilogue than the climactic finale we might have expected. Certainly, it subverts expectations; there’s no explicit mutiny, no restaging of Burnham’s revolt. Indeed, time and time again Discovery opts for more subdued details; what it comes down to, and keeps coming down to, is a series of conversations and talking points. Granted, that doesn’t always work – some of the dialogue is very pointed, signposting themes and concepts very overtly – but when it does, it’s an effective indicator of just what the show has spent so long building up to.
The parallels to the first episode are there, of course; it’s quite emphatic in its embrace of the cyclical structure. Where ‘The Vulcan Hello’ saw Georgiou and Burnham saving a planet with a ‘water bomb’ to stop a drought, here they’re in conflict about using a steam device to destroy a planet; where Burnham once stood before a tribunal, she now stands before the Federation council. Over and over, there are echoes of the beginning, a reminder of the journey Discovery has been on. To borrow a phrase, it’s like poetry.
Taken together, it’s an effective piece of structural symmetry, particularly from a programme which has at times struggled with its form. But here it works, and it builds up to one central moment, something we can see that the show has been leading up to for some time: the definitive positioning of ideals over pragmatism, an embrace of Starfleet values and a rejection of the idea that they need to be compromised. Burnham’s speech to Admiral Cornwell – proving once more, if proof still were even needed, just how good Sonequa Martin-Green is in this role – is surely the defining moment of Star Trek: Discovery, the scene that makes it all work.
In that sense, then, Discovery does have a grand climax. It’s right there in the title, itself an allusion to the image we’ve seen each week as the show opens – a pair of hands, outstretched, reaching for one another. The connotations are clear, and the impact resounding; Star Trek: Discovery, despite the fumbles it made along the way, really does want to embrace the much vaunted spirit of optimism that’s so closely associated with the idea of Star Trek.
At the same time, Discovery also wrapped up the other plotline it began with: the internal struggles of the Klingons. Not every aspect of the Klingon plotline works, to put it bluntly – something that can be said of much of the series, in fact. Arguably, much of the problem here comes from the issues early in the season; as much as Discovery gestured at the idea of a dense and diverse Klingon culture, that never quite manifested. Certainly, it’s worth noting how much effort really did go into this; it’s reflected in the costume design, varying as it does from house to house, and the subtle details of the Klingon homeworld and background characters. There’s shopkeepers and gamblers and drunks, more than just a warrior caste; there’s a shrine for a minority religion, referring to the worship of Molor rather than Kahless.
It’s worth appreciating these little idiosyncrasies, but they don’t quite add up to the well-developed culture that Discovery was hoping to depict. Worse, arguably, is that it doesn’t quite add up to the culture that Discovery was reliant on depicting – with a series arc touching on themes of a culture under threat, and a resolution that pivoted around the idea that a people are not indistinguishable from the actions of their race as a whole. The sentiment is appropriate, and it’s still an effective one; it’s just that, on a wholly more mechanical plotting level, it wasn’t always reflected properly.
Presumably, when the series returns, we’ll see more of the Klingons – and, of course, of Ash Tyler. It’s a shame, almost, that he does leave; there’s a sense that it’s more about tying up loose ends than necessarily being a character driven choice, harking back to old science fiction where characters were always suddenly uprooting their lives to marry someone they just met or become an ambassador or help establish a colony. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to expect Ash’s return, particularly given how precarious a resolution the Klingon plotline actually had…
All of which leads up to the question, of course: in terms of the series as a whole, how was Star Trek: Discovery? The answer is complicated, to a point – it was an engaging and entertaining series, albeit a messy one that wasn’t always as thoughtful as it could have been. But in the end, facing the challenge of being both Discovery and Star Trek: Discovery, it’s fair to say the show was a success.
It’s because of this, incidentally, that Discovery is able to sell its final cliffhanger. Across the course of these reviews, the need for Discovery to stand on its own, separate from other iterations of Star Trek, has been something of a recurring theme – and the appearance of the Enterprise itself would, at least on the surface, appear to negate that. And yet it’s not actually the mythic weight of the original Enterprise that matters here, fun as it is; what gives this real meaning, and lets it stand apart from pure fanservice, is the shared look between Burnham and Sarek when they realise what it means.
Undeniably, that’s still very firmly expressed in terms of continuity – it’s playing upon characters from the 1960s, after all. But, crucially, it’s not just a matter of introducing Spock, but rather seeing him interact with Burnham; there’s something new being added, something a little bit transformative, rather than only being a recreation of the past.
And that, I think, is what Discovery was ultimately able to achieve. There were worries – well founded ones, in fairness – that Discovery was always going to be fundamentally limited by its position as a prequel, floundering in the shadow of what came before. Equally, of course, even if it hadn’t been a prequel, there would have been a need to reinvent Star Trek, to set it apart from what happened before.
Undoubtedly, it hasn’t had the smoothest evolution. Discovery did have a lot of flaws, and mistakes were made. But what it has done, broadly speaking, is keep stumbling on in a new direction, displaying a degree of creativity and willingness to experiment even as it faltered. There’s something admirable about that, and it sets the stage well for Discovery’s second season.
Rating – 8/10