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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Discovery looks to the future in an explosive finale

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: Discovery looks to the future in an explosive finale
Photo: John Medland (CBS)

Star Trek: Discovery’s second season has been stronger than its first. The storytelling has been more cohesive; it’s arguably less surprising than the first season’s whiplash transitions between the Klingon War and the Mirror Universe, but it’s easier to go back and trace the through-line that connects all of this. (Something the episode helpfully does for you, in case you’ve forgotten what happened last month.) The secondary characters are a bit more developed, Michael hasn’t been sidelined by an anti-hero male captain, and, just in general, it’s easier to see what the writers are trying to achieve even if they don’t always pull it off. The finale is a restatement of that purpose, an extra-long thrill ride that builds to what will presumably be an entirely new direction for season three, one which, at least on the surface, takes care of all those annoying prequel contradictions that plagued seasons one and two.


Of all the different ways to try and re-establish continuity, I never guessed that Discovery would go and pull an Armin Tamzarian. The Simpsons’ retcon of Principal Skinner’s backstory in the ninth season (“The Principal and the Pauper”) is a controversial episode, but even for detractors, the “Let us never speak of this again” ending is considered a self-aware joke, a bit of metatextual commentary thrown in by writers who have a clear understanding of just how ridiculous they’re being. You could argue that there’s a similar self-awareness in this episode, in the scene where Spock convinces the Federation that no one can talk about the Spore Drive, or Michael Burnham, or Control, or any of this ever again. But self-aware or not, it’s still an idea we’re supposed to take seriously. All of those concerns about how little effort anyone involved in the show seemed to put towards staying in continuity? You fool, you idiot, you naif. It was all building to this moment: time travel, followed by a gag rule.

It’s very silly, of course, and it doesn’t really resolve anything so much as it does shove it off to one side and shrug. But then, I honestly didn’t expect them to even try this much. After a certain point, you either accept that it’s not really going to hold together in a certain way, or you don’t. And while major continuity errors were always going to be a problem, I don’t think I really expected them to go to such extreme lengths to take the issue off the table. It doesn’t work, but I guess I can appreciate them trying at all.

The main action of the episode is resolving the fight with Control. Most of the running time is given over to a massive space fight that looks very cool—the show’s effects work remain high quality, and while the direction is over-the-top in quieter scenes (the decision to intercut the interrogations at the end with shots of the characters sitting quietly while their own dialogue plays is very goofy), it works well enough for the whiz bang zap pow light show. Every major character gets a chance to shine, and the Admiral gets to sacrifice herself for the good of the many. Her death is, so far as I can tell, the only major death in the entire hour, and one of the few times all that sound and fury has any actual weight.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of destruction here. We get a couple of short scenes in Discovery’s sick bay, and it looks more or less like hell. And it’s not as though multiple characters needed to die to make this meaningful, or that I even expected them to go out. I’m pleasantly surprised Jet Reno appears to still be with us and not at all shocked that Spock ends up not traveling to the future with the others. It’s just weird to have an extra long episode like this that offers nothing in exchange for the expanded running time but just… more or less exactly what we were told would happen last week.

Strip away all the style, and this is a fairly pedestrian bit of sci-fi actioning. Michael is more or less a MacGuffin throughout; her big revelation is that in order to make the jump to the future, she needs to go back in time to set the signals that started all of this in the first place. Which leads to a sequence of her—doing that. That’s it. Just Michael jumping back to places we’ve already seen earlier in the season with a few clips from those episodes. Nothing changes, she makes no difficult decisions, and there’s no real suspense once she figures out the problem. The most intense moment for her is when she realizes that Spock can’t go along for the journey, but it’s the sort of intensity that would’ve only really made sense if they thought he was going to die.


The other big reveal of about Michael’s signals is that she was actually putting together all the tools they would need to defeat Control in the final battle. Setting aside (I seem to be doing that a lot) that the only real tool they needed was Georgiou and a big attractive cage, this has all the hallmarks of a really excellent conclusion. Having the Klingons and Saru’s people show up in the nick of time to help fight off the drones is an obvious Big Moment, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work a little on me. Seeing disparate groups pull together in the face of a greater threat is always going to be a winner, but just because the trope is effective doesn’t mean this was a particularly well-earned use of it.

But really, the big problem is that after all that build, what we get in the end is a closed loop, a sort of narrative tautology in which every question is more or less answered by itself. That’s clever, but it’s not particularly satisfying. The fact that the signals gave the good guys the tools they needed to succeed isn’t so much a twist as an obvious fact confirmed. It doesn’t contradict itself, which is nice, but it also fails to provide much context for what came before. If I had to guess, I’d say the writers were trying to achieve a sense of a variety of disparate groups pulling together to defeat a greater threat. But while that’s technically what happens, in practice, the show has so utterly failed at building a convincing universe that there’s no weight of expectation here to help generate surprise. We should feel as though Discovery and the Enterprise stand alone against an impossible threat. Instead, we’re just told that oh hey, no one else can show up in time, until some people do.


Back on the Discovery, Stamets gets injured and he and Hugh reunite (yes, Dr. Culber is back on the Discovery); Tilly fixes a thing; and Saru quotes from The Art Of War, because that’s what everyone always does at some point on these damn shows. That quote impresses Georgiou, who has her own schemes—once Control Leland beams over to the Discovery for the sphere data, Georgiou tricks him into going into the spore drive chamber, which she uses to magnetically strip out all the nanomachines and, apparently, kill him.

This is, so far as I can tell, confirmed later in the episode when the Federation guy says they can find no remaining trace of Control. Putting aside the fact that I’m not sure any computer system that powerful would be quite so easy to wipe out, all of this happens before Discovery and Michael make the jump into the future. Given that the whole point of the jump was to get the sphere data out of Control’s hands… why is it still necessary to make the jump?


I mean, I know why—this is how the season ends and everyone involved thought it would be very cool to throw us 930 years into the future (which, to be fair, is pretty cool). And there are ways to justify it, ish. We don’t know for sure that Control is gone. And hell, maybe the sphere data is just so comprehensive and incredible that it’s too dangerous to keep around in the present. Which, in a franchise that’s mostly about exploration and scientific investigation is a weird message to pitch. Still, all of this could’ve worked, if it had a little more thought put into it, a few more script drafts, a little more time to breathe.

Look, I don’t really want to get bogged down by the weeds of plot here. The point isn’t that it’s impossible to have all of this make sense; the point is more that the episode, and the show as a whole, is still far too dependent on wowing us with shiny things than it is about the requirements of basic storytelling structure. Still, this is perfectly serviceable as a season finale—it more or less closes off all the major arcs while setting up an interesting course for the future. It’s also very neat to look at. And who knows, maybe having to work in a setting where it can’t offer up callbacks or fail to live up to previous shows will do Discovery good. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. The first season or two is often a rough ride for Trek shows. There’s still hope for this one to find its way.


Stray observations

  • Maybe a future version of the Enterprise could waste less money on drone repair bots and more money on blast doors that can be operated from both sides.
  • They actually do an “In English please” joke. Dear god.
  • The writers decided to give Nahn a personality this week, and for some reason, they decided to make her bizarrely bloodthirsty against Control. It’s weird; you can justify it by saying she wants revenge for having to kill a good person, earlier in the season, but it plays like forced action movie quips from someone desperately trying to sound badass.
  • I can’t get over how easy it was to beat Control. And about how that magic “knows everything” sphere was never explained or satisfactorily justified. This is a show that gets substantially worse the more you think about any of it, and that’s not a good look for a Trek series.
  • “You… have learned to pilot a fighter.” -Saru. Doug Jones delivery here is perfect.
  • Michelle Yeoh’s evil laugh is great. Georgiou’s character arc has been pretty goofy (she’s gone from “fantastically evil space queen who eats people” to “sarcastic horny badass”), but Yeoh is always fun. I’m curious how her spin-off with Section 31 is going to work now, given that she’s nominally jumping to the future with everyone else.
  • Control died without ever turning into the Borg, so I was wrong on that one.