If you’d told me, back in September, that Star Trek: Discovery would not just improve dramatically upon its woeful pilot, but stick its landing in a manner that felt true to Star Trek, I’d have laughed in your stupid face. The show started out with characters who were hard to like and a story that seemed to betray of Star Trek's ideals. But - as I pondered back then - it turns out that was all part of the point. Star Trek: Discovery’s first season was a journey - a trek, if you will - not of interstellar discovery, but of rediscovering the core of the franchise.
After a “Previously On” segment announced, for the first time, in Klingon, Discovery’s season finale opens with a stunning pair of matched effects shots, revealing the Klingon fleet advancing upon Earth as Discovery advances upon Qo’noS (thankfully spelled correctly, unlike in Star Trek Into Darkness). Though the previous episode's stakes-raising had been largely covered via exposition, it’s a pretty clear statement of where the war’s at going into the finale.
Inside the USS Discovery, however, things are less clear. Terran Emperor Georgiou, placed in command by Admiral Cornwell, has seized control of the ship in all but name, despite pointed protestation from Saru and Burnham. Their mission is to infiltrate Qo’noS and map it for strategic purposes, but it’s clear Georgiou has other plans. This first act of the episode is its shakiest, demonstrating somewhat clunkily the difference between Georgiou’s style (beating information out of the imprisoned L’Rell) and Burnham’s (asking Tyler nicely to supply the same information). It’s not the last time that'll happen.
Once Discovery jumps inside Qo’noS and a landing party beams into their drop zone (introduced via an incredibly lavish effects shot), things start heating up. The away team finds themselves in the show's first proper alien bazaar, and the production finds a myriad ways to play with that. Tilly accidentally eats space whale and gets high with Clint Howard (making him the only actor so far to appear in both The Original Series and Discovery). Tyler gets into a Klingon gambling game - too into-it for Burnham, who shares the story of her parents’ deaths at Klingon hands as if by way of rebuke. And most delightfully, Georgiou has a hot alien threesome, revealing her status as some kind of extradimensional sex wizard. It’s a fun series of events, though an odd diversion for a season finale, and it all leads to a big reveal of Georgiou’s true plan.
Straight-up: Starfleet made a really stupid decision in allowing Mirror Georgiou to detonate a bomb inside Qo’noS’ volcanic system, and not just because that sounds like the hokiest disaster plot outside of a SyFy Original Movie. Narratively speaking, it’s a decision that was made to be unmade, if you will - but “being A-OK with genocide” doesn’t really depict Admiral Cornwell in a particularly good light. The moral debate here is so clear-cut there aren’t even stumps left. Which, in Star Trek terms, makes it about on par for admiral-level decision making.
Naturally, that revelation leads to Burnham kicking back with a plan of her own: offering the Klingons peace, with L’Rell uniting the houses (admittedly, under threat of extinction). Tyler serves as something of a symbol in this scenario, an embodiment of understanding between the two warring sides. Naturally, the Klingons’ goal - unity - was achievable without war; that they went to war to do it is a testament to how tempting it is to demonstrate unity through force. Ultimately, pride and honour don’t necessitate the destruction of others; they can only truly come from within. Good on you, Klingons.
Just as L’Rell ends the season stating the core principles of the Klingon Empire, so too does Michael Burnham state the principles of Starfleet - and this is where the whole season finally coalesces into a shiny, flawed little diamond. Everything in the season - the Mirror Universe, Burnham’s mutiny, Tyler’s duality, the entire Federation-Klingon war - served as a medium through which to come to a grand statement of what Star Trek is all about. Burnham doesn’t talk about “shortcuts on the path to righteousness” out of adherence to tradition or policy or directives; she’s learned her lessons first-hand. We’ve rarely gotten to see that in Star Trek - at least, not on this scale - and for all its ups and downs, it makes this whole season worth it.
What would we all like in Season 2? Personally, I think it’s time to start exploring those fascinating-looking bridge crewmembers a little; give them more than one line or closeup per episode, perhaps. And the episode certainly contains talk of exploration (and a new captain), which would be nice after a season entirely devoted to war. But first, Season 2 will have to deal with a somewhat jawdropping reveal (accompanied by a trollish choice of credits music): Captain Christopher Pike’s USS Enterprise in distress.
This will be the third (fourth, if you count “The Menagerie”) incarnation of Pike, and the third incarnation of the NCC-1701 ("no bloody A, B, C, or D") Enterprise. What will they look like? What kind of story is this setting up? Is it all a big tease for a single-episode event? What even is continuity anymore?
We’ll have to wait the better part of a year to find out. But congratulations, Star Trek: Discovery: you started poorly, and you were kinda dumb in places, but you got there in the end. I’m in with a grin for Season Two.