The problem isn’t that Star Trek: Discovery is terrible. It’s not. It’s not great; it’s not even consistently good. But it’s not the worst, and if this wasn’t a Star Trek show, I think I’d be more inclined to be favorable toward it. “Lethe” has some decent emotional beats, particularly in Burnham’s storyline. And while Lorca really is just another of TV’s endless “conflicted white male anti-hero who get results,” Jason Isaacs is a great actor, and I enjoy watching him go through these particular motions.
The thing is, though, DSC is a Star Trek show. It’s right there in the title, and if you missed that, the opening theme music explicitly quotes some classic Trek orchestration. If you somehow missed that, the show’s main character is a ward of Spock’s father, Sarek. Sarek is a key part of “Lethe,” and while his son never shows up, Spock still gets namechecked as a plotpoint. The show is explicitly drawing on Trek lore to achieve its goals, and yet every nod to the original series (Burnham even mentioned the Enterprise tonight) just underlines how un-Star Trek this show really is.
That’s a tricky criticism to make, admittedly. And it’s not even the show’s biggest problem. But the constant awareness of where these stories fit in the franchise timeline makes it impossible to judge DSC on its own terms. I can’t appreciate what it does right because I’m routinely distracted by the weird, pointless, or outright bad choices the writers have made. We’re six episodes in, and I’m still getting annoyed at how advanced the technology is for a series that’s ostensibly set ten years before the original Trek. Hell, we even see what’s basically a holodeck tonight. What’s the point of setting it in the past if you aren’t going to actually use that period to your advantage?
The reveal in the pilot that Burnham had a connection to Sarek was defensible. I mean, it seems like the kind of forced connection to Trek lore that ultimately just serves to make a show about exploring the galaxy seem that much smaller, but it’s a pilot, things happen, you hope they stop happening down the road. “Lethe” doubles down on the Sarek connection; when the Ambassador’s ship is damaged by a Vulcan “logic extremist,” Sarek’s wounded katra calls out to Burnham, who convinces Lorca to go on a rescue mission to save him.
On the plus side, saving Sarek is a standalone plot, one that helps give the episode a closed story to tell and prevents it from falling into the sort of forgettable “here’s a collection of scenes” structure that plagues so much modern serialization. While it’s obvious fairly quickly that the memory Burnham keeps revisiting is going to reveal something unexpected before the end, when the twist does come, it’s a legitimate pay-off, one that changes Burnham’s relationship with her adopted father and also helps strengthen her own resolve.
But was it really necessary to bring Sarek into the show if he was going to serve as the focal point for yet another narrative about daddy issues? It’s clever to use the very thing that set Sarek and Spock at odds in the original series (Spock’s choosing Starfleet over the Vulcan Expeditionary Force) as part of the reason that Sarek and Burnham have become estranged, but there’s also that frustrating reduction, of repeating the same beats with the same small group of people over and over again. Giving Burnham a Vulcan father? Sure. But making him the most iconic Vulcan father in the franchise smacks of fan service or, worse, a lack of imagination.
Really, that’s the major concern here. The not-quite-Trek issues would be easier to overlook if this show didn’t feel so damn small. We’re almost halfway through the first season, and there’s still no clear sense of the Discovery’s crew as a whole. The ship is just a series of rooms, not a place, and with change happening so rapidly, there’s never any time to build a connection to these people beyond what’s occurring in the moment.
Seeing Burnham and Tilly jogging near the beginning of the hour, and learning it was part of Burnham’s “help Tilly be a captain” project, was an actual relief. For once, serialization worked as more than just an excuse for a constant series of shocking events; it’s not the most thrilling moment in the hour, but it serves to make the two women more than just plot-delivery devices, and it has a nice little pay-off later on. Stuff like this is rarely exciting, but it’s part of the critical work a show needs to do to create an environment that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The other major storyline this week has Lorca yet again acting on the edge. They even find time to include a “You don’t play by the rules!” “But I get results!” scene. Admiral Cornwell shows up long enough for them to squabble, sleep together, and then for her to fall into the Klingon trap that was meant for Sarek. Given how little we know about the state of the Klingon war at this point, this makes Sarek look like an idiot, and also shows the Klingons being even more cartoonishly evil than they were on the original series. Mostly I was just surprised that Cornwell wasn’t killed outright, given her promise to see Lorca removed from the captain’s chair.
So yeah, this wouldn’t be great even if it didn’t have the Star Trek name. As it stands, all the Starfleet trimmings mostly just serve to continually underline the show’s failings without adding much in return. There are good performances here, and some potentially good ideas. But there’s no foundation yet. It’s hard to look to the stars when you don’t have any place to stand.
- “Personality doesn’t count.” “That’s just something that people with no personality say.” This is an old, old joke, but I’ll appreciate they were trying to be funny. (See also: Stamets saying “Groovy.”)
- Vulcan terrorists are, I think, a new idea? We learn later that Burnham’s intended career path was thwarted by a Vulcan government that didn’t want non-Vulcans rising in Vulcan society, which connects back to the Klingon obsession with purity.
- The “DISCO” ship shirts that Burnham and Tilly wear were cute.
- Ash Tyler is now a regular member of the crew (and the cast), and Lorca, because he lives on the edge, promotes the lieutenant to be the new head of security, thus adding to the impression that there are maybe a dozen people aboard the Discovery, if that. (Everyone else is a hologram. Calling it now.)