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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Discovery ends its first season with a promise to do better

Sonequa Martin-Green (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)
Sonequa Martin-Green (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)
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It almost works. If you squint and you’re kind (or if you’ve been enjoying the ride thus far and see no reason to get off the train just yet), “Will You Take My Hand?” is an acceptable, even inspiring, season finale. The loose plot threads are all tied off; the Klingon War is ended; Burnham gets a chance to be a hero and redeem herself for her actions in the pilot; and the show even manages to get back to the themes of hope and optimism that are the cornerstones of the franchise. The episode is well-directed and fun to watch, and it tries very hard to feel like a legitimate conclusion to a number of questions raised over the course of the season. At various points throughout the hour, characters (usually Burnham) say things that sound like the writers leaning in and whispering, “This, this is what we were getting at. Eh? Eh?”

Of course, if you’re a skeptical bastard like myself, it’s hard to forget all the weird meanderings and poorly defined character behavior that got us to this point. I noticed Jason Isaacs name was still in the opening credits. I’m assuming this is a contractual thing, given that no version of Lorca appears in the hour. Hell, as far as I can remember, no one even mentions his name—or if they do, there’s no attempt to stop and take stock of the fact that the captain the crew spent over half the season following turned out to be a fraud. If “Will You Take My Hand?” works, it works because it does a confident job of convincing the audience it’s seeing something meaningful. It hits the notes it assumes we want it to hit. I can respect that to an extent—it’s certainly entertaining—but I still can’t forget this is all built on a hollow foundation.


The more you pick at this, the worse it gets. Apparently the Klingon War has gotten so bad that the Federation is willing to endorse near genocide to save itself, and only Michael Burnham stands in its way. It’s not hard to see how good this must have looked on paper. We started the season with Burnham attempting mutiny in order to bring the fight to the Klingons, and now we see her disobeying orders again, only this time, it’s to save Klingon lives. This is textbook character building, right? It’s so damn appropriate from a structural perspective that it briefly feels like the whole season really was organized to get us to this point. Sure, the plotting often felt like an inorganic mess, but the writers were going somewhere, and here we are.

Only… well, in terms of character apotheoses, this is a bit thin, isn’t it? I can sort of see how Burnham changed (the trip to the Mirror Universe taught her the consequences of brutal thinking), but the show has done such a terrible job at establishing the character and motivations of Starfleet and the Federation that the sudden decision to commit murder on such a massive, unprecedented scale is at once shocking and utterly weightless. Nearly everything we’ve heard about the war has been secondhand; we’ve seen a battle or two, but the season spent so much time in the Mirror Universe that it squandered its opportunity to build the conflict as anything more than a puzzle in ethics. Things are bad. Are they so bad you will nearly wipe out an entire race to save yourself? Please show your work.

It’s a form of storytelling that goes directly against the show’s ultimate moral point. Burnham argues, first to Admiral Cornwall and then to the Federation at large, that the ends can’t justify the means—that how you get to a conclusion matters as much as the conclusion itself. And yet again and again, we see the writers taking shortcuts and making assumptions solely for the purpose of manipulating us toward familiar points. Hell, there’s even a big awards ceremony at the end, as though the entire universe were just hanging around waiting for a small handful of well-intentioned nerds to get it together and save the day. There’s something so immensely frustrating about seeing a franchise that, at its best, was about being part of a thing larger than yourself, and having it reduced to just a series of repercussions for a handful of people.

And that’s not even getting into the show’s shoddy vision of Qo’Nos, the latest iteration of the “sleazy sci-fi world with sleaze” that has slimed its way through half-assed genre fiction for decades. Shadowy deals done in back alleys? Made up drugs? Half-naked people who, despite some moderate cosmetic alterations, are still attractive to human eyes? You betcha. I’ll give the episode points for embracing its own absurdity and having Georgiou blow the minds of a couple of local concubines, but this is pure hackwork. It’s fun in its way (there’s a real “cheesy SyFy movie I stumbled over one weekend that isn’t actually as awful as I thought it would be” vibe), but it also represents a basic failure of imagination.


Given how much time the show spent with the Klingons, and that the whole moral crux of the season rests on the survival of the species, it’s telling how little we still know about them. Their supposed homeworld is just a generic amalgamation of cliché, one weirdly unrelated to the Klingons themselves; there’s lip service paid to local shrines, and Tyler has some fun gambling (which is honestly the only time in the whole damn season when the Klingons really seemed to be acting like Klingons), but the city that Burnham and the others wander through could’ve been a city anywhere. The show is legitimately terrible at world-building, and this may be the ultimate proof of its failure: With dozens of hours to draw on over multiple series, it still can’t be bothered to get the Klingons right.

And yet, I found myself thinking this could still work. That it chooses to end on an inspirational note is important. Sure, it could just be a low-cost attempt to trick people into coming back, and given that the episode ends with the Discovery getting a distress signal from the goddamn Enterprise, it’s hard not to presume mercenary intent. But the pieces of a good season were here. It’s possible to imagine this as something better than it turned out, and while I believe the creative forces behind the series desperately want you to do just that, I can’t completely help myself. I miss watching good Star Trek every week, and as suspicious as I am of franchises and tired as I am of reboots, I still want this to be good. Given how thoroughly the season finale works to wipe the slate clean, I’ll keep my fingers crossed, with reservations.


Stray observations

  • In the end, the evil version of Georgiou is left to wander the universe, which makes no sense but is also probably the only way the show could’ve ended a storyline it probably shouldn’t’ve started to begin with. A reality with Michelle Yeoh in it is substantially better than one without.
  • Tyler decides to leave with L’Rell, presumably because the writers realized they had no idea what do with his character or with the supposed groundbreaking technology they’d invented to justify his existence. I wondered briefly if the whole “we can make Klingons look like humans” would turn into a way to justify why Klingons on the original series are so physically different from “modern” Klingons, but maybe they’re saving that for next year.
  • Seriously, I swore at my computer when the Enterprise showed up. Such a terrible, terrible choice.
  • I’m not convinced that a single bomb would be enough to end the entire war, but you do you, show.
  • Tilly gets to have some fun, so that’s nice.
  • We’re supposed to be moved that Burnham was able to sway the Federation from a horrible course, but all I can think is that they really just make decisions based on who’s in the room with them. (And the whole thing makes Sarek look terrible.)
  • Dr. Culber: still dead.

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