We’re five episodes into the first Star Trek show in over a decade. For those who watched them all, that’s close to five hours handed over in the hopes of being entertained by a new iteration of a familiar and beloved franchise. Pretty much all Star Trek shows start off a bit rocky (I say pretty much only because I haven’t tried to watch Voyager yet), but by their fifth episodes, audiences tend to have a good idea what they’re in for. The premise is stated and character archetypes have been identified.
Not Star Trek: Discovery. Five episodes in, I still have only a vague sense of who the characters are, what the overall arc of the show will be and where to put my alliances as a viewer. But most importantly, I honestly don’t know if I like the show or not.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike other Trek shows, Discovery utilizes a serialized narrative defined by mystery, so some ambiguities are obviously by design. We’re not simply watching a ship as it travels through the cosmos, exploring distant planets and civilizations. We’re watching something unknown unfold, and we get new info as the writers see fit. Each new episode offers both answers and new questions. And under all the smaller mysteries lay the show’s core question implied by its prequel nature: if Discovery developed a new form of instantaneous space travel 10 years before TOS, why have we never heard of it in Star Trek lore? What eventually happens to the Discovery that wipes it and its scientific achievements from future history?
That’s not a bad mystery premise, and this storytelling tactic is one of the better modern updates Discovery brings to Trek. It helps justify the fact that this is a prequel and offers a hook to keep interest up whenever spending time with these characters begins to feel like a drag.
Which is good because these characters feel like drags almost constantly. Lead Michael Burnham alternates between being a bummed out sad sack and a cocky savior who can’t help but overstep her bounds the second she feels smarter than anyone else in the room. Gabriel Lorca, the captain, might also be the show’s primary villain, a warrior stuck on a science vessel who we just learned blew up his own damn starship to keep his crew from falling into the hands of Klingon torturers, a guy so dark he can’t even be in fully lit rooms because it hurts his eyes. Saru is all stiff nerves and performative resolve. Tilly offers something of a comic relief character, except she’s not at all funny. The prickly aspect of Stamets’ character are exaggerated enough to make him seem unnecessarily mean.
These are complex characters, particularly Burnham, Saru, and Lorca, and on paper, their complexity offers a refreshing change for Star Trek. In execution, however, not a single one of them feels likable or complete. Saru comes closest as far as pure empathy goes. Burnham’s warring arrogance and forced humility is interesting and frustrating in equal measure, while the danger surrounding Lorca gives his scenes a little extra shine. But I would not watch a show based on the strength of these characters alone. They are all weirdly stars of their own show, never an ensemble. Their interesting features sound good but do not add up to full characters. I don’t feel like I “know” any of them yet.
The show is not a complete disaster, though. Far from it. While the first two episodes disappointed, episode three, which finally brings us to the show’s main ship, felt much better, so much so that I experienced guilt for my impatience with the prologue. Episode four finally brought some clarity to the show’s premise (at least for the time being) - The Discovery is a science vessel working on some weird shit in service of winning this war with the Klingons. Episode five evolved that shit into new, possibly terrifying places, particularly when it comes to that grump Stamets. Where it goes from there, no one knows.
The show is interesting enough to keep me watching, but only out of curiosity. I want to satisfy the questions inherent to the plot, but even more than that I need to satisfy a question of my own: “Do I like this show?” Five episodes in, I should probably know, but I have no idea. Much of it depends on where things go, what the show chooses to acknowledge regarding its breaks with Star Trek aesthetic and lore, and what it chooses to ignore. To choose one random example, Lorca’s Gorn skeleton: is that there for a telling reason or is it just a cutesy Easter egg? With this show, it’s still very hard to tell. Almost everything about it rides this dichotomy of “could be cool”/“could be lame” that we do not yet have enough information to suss out. Five episodes in, I think there’s a large element of this approach that feels like bullshit, but I’m still here, watching every Sunday night.
I’m not smart enough to offer specific predictions, but I do feel the show is headed toward some kind of bombshell twist that explains so much of its strangeness, not just the visual/technological choices that challenge TOS, but also these characters who in no way act in continuity with Star Trek personalities we’ve met before (Sunday’s F-bomb nonsense was the show’s biggest switchblade comb attempt at edginess so far). There was a kind of “wait for it” cockiness from the creators leading up to this show that more and more looks either like we’ve got a huge explanation coming or they simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Just for funsies, my vote is that we’re in the Mirror Universe or something along those lines and this isn’t “our” Trek at all. Maybe not the Mirror Universe. Maybe it's just the Prestige TV Universe where Harry Mudd is now a tortured soul instead of a rascally party animal.
In the meantime, I’m likely to keep watching until the season break. Hopefully by then, I’ll have some idea if I enjoy this damn show or not. I know a lot of you do, and I would very much like to join you out there in the stars.