This was a long time coming. Not just the year long wait for the DVD/BluRay release of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, but for the show itself. Though the JJ Abrams-fronted big-screen blockbuster reboot of the 1960’s Star Trek ship and crew scratched the itch, ask any Trekkie and they will tell you Star Trek’s true home is on TV. That’s where it started. That’s where most of its highlights across five previous series have been. That’s why when CBS announced they were developing a brand new series, excitement went off the chart for what became Discovery.
Discovery befits a new era of television for several reasons. Where 1960’s and 1990’s Star Trek, when the franchise was at its prime on TV, cleaved to the long held, traditional network television models of stand-alone stories which made the show attractive for syndication, Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman’s show eschews that approach in favour of a serialised narrative. There are no true stand-alone episodes in Season 1 of Discovery, not even the Sarek-focused ‘Lethe’ or Harry Mudd time-loop tale ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’. Everything serves the broader arc in play. Not since Deep Space Nine’s heyday have we seen Star Trek plotting such as this.
The other distinguishing modern factor to Discovery is that, while financed by a network, its place on the CBS streaming service All Access (or Netflix for us Brits) means they don’t have to play by the rules. Sure, Mary Wiseman’s Tilley can drop the F-bomb. Is it ok to not introduce the actual USS Discovery until episode three? Why not? No, not every episode needs to be the same length (second episode ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ is just 36 minutes long). And while the show was released weekly and had a mid-season break point with a cliffhanger to boot, Discovery is not afraid to course correct and change direction whenever it needs to. This is not a standard Star Trek ‘ship explores the galaxy’ concept. Not yet.
In many ways, Season 1 of Discovery feels like a prequel. Given the name of the USS Discovery, there is precious little actual ‘discovering’ done by the crew under Jason Isaacs’ taciturn Captain Gabriel Lorca. Fuller (who left the show midway through production to, so the story goes, focus on his other show American Gods) & Kurtzman, and eventual replacement show runners Aaron Harberts & Gretchen Berg, establish two key narratives through which the story of mutineer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) runs – a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, fuelled by a fanatical group of quasi-religious, radicalised insurgents, and the shenanigans of the sinister Mirror Universe.
As a result, Discovery’s plotting feels fractured. Half the season is concerned with the Klingon conflict before, in a sharp right turn, the second half transforms into a tale set in and all about the Mirror Universe. It plays better when binge watching as opposed to weekly, particularly knowing the secrets one character in particular is keeping (not to mention the true identity of another) because you see that the storytelling isn’t quite as diffuse as it may first appear. Nevertheless, you still occasionally feel the behind the scenes difficulties impinging on the structure of the season. It never quite connects perfectly.
That being said, there is no doubt Discovery’s debut year is the strongest since Gene Roddenberry’s original show fifty years ago. Every single subsequent series, without fail, had a ropey first year with only one or two bright spots before they found their feet and rhythm. Discovery is consistently good across all 16 episodes of this season, even if it hasn’t quite made the episode yet where you sit up and say “now *that* is one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made”. It is very likely that will happen, if the series can find a little more consistency going forward into a second season we can only hope will move away from war and totalitarianism (as reflective of our current climate as they are) and get back to Trek’s boldly going mission statement.
Season 2 is almost on the horizon and this BluRay release is sure to keep fans happy, packed as it is with interviews with the stars, writers and producers on everything from casting through to scoring the show, not to mention looks behind the scenes at how the ship was designed, the props department, and Star Trek’s ever present make-up effects and prosthetics are applied. One of the best is an extra called ‘A Female Touch’, exploring how Discovery is leading the way on gender inclusion in front of and behind the camera. These extras will more than tide you over until the new season.
A more than solid start for Star Trek: Discovery, now the flagship of several projects from the universe coming over the next year or two. Let’s hope it warps on from strength to strength.
Star Trek: Discovery: Season 1 is now available from CBS Home Entertainment.