Star Trek Discovery’s first season was a big surprise for all of us. To pass review, here are three pieces by friends/acquaintances/cellmates of mine.
Daniel Young: Serialization and You – A Guide
I am of the personal opinion that an entire season of Ash Tyler gambling across Qo’nos would be both the most entertaining thing to come across in the franchise and the type of levity the world needs right now.
For the non-trek follower, let us get a few things straight. You do not need a lifetime of nerd baggage to approach this. You can follow this, and appreciate the story happening. To the Trekkies, if you care more about fitting this into a perfect concept of canon than simply letting the story unfold you will probably find fault here. To everyone, if Michael Burnham grates on you as a character from the get go, this series is not going to give up on her, and you may do best to wait for the Tarantino film to jump back on to the franchise.
That tangent aside this season finale did exactly what was set out to do from a narrative perspective. It was a bookend that required our dear Michael to perform a mutiny one more time for the sake of federation principles over survival showing the full breadth of her arc. As an entire season it sells it was sold as the full Klingon Federation war before the cold war that would develop during TOS era and ultimately end in Undiscovered Country, but as a war season it kept the POV incredibly tight. Among the 15 episodes, 4 focused on the Mirror Universe Arc and 2 were bottle episodes that avoided the Klingon plot almost entirely. If I were any other type of nerd, I would complain about this 40% distraction from the main plot, but Discovery is much less about the threat of the Klingons but the path of redemption one must find. Discovery is at its best a character study, and for the fandom that can become grating for when some come to watch excuses to see prop departments drop a few thousand dollars on cgi-explosions each episode. Science fiction at its core is a window dressing for fiction, and Discovery used its time to focus on broken people. Instead of a just a series of one hurt person rediscovering their destiny in life like DS9, we have a minimum of four named characters all battling personal trauma from introduction to various points across the timeline with Ash Tyler being the one who never reaches a natural conclusion for how he deals with it, but in all due fairness his is a complex conglomeration of identity, trans-speciesism, racism, torture, abuse, and general the-world-hates-Voqism.
I would title Season 1 of Discovery “Self.” This is the core focus of the show as it explores self-discovery for every character that gets more than two lines per episode. Season 2 is the promise of a different type of Discovery, and they made that abundantly clear with how they chose to cliff hang this season. And thus to Discovery, I challenge you: Go Boldly.
Christopher Fewell: The Adorkable Cadet
“Been my experience that what I lack in athletic ability, I more than make up for in intelligence, and personality. We may want to focus on those attributes.”
The standout element of Discovery for me was Cadet Sylvia Tilly by a country mile.
Played by Mary Wiseman, the redheaded Tilly immediately makes an impression on the viewer within mere moments, nervously but chirpily introducing herself to the sullen Michael Burnham, words falling out of her mouth very much at warp speed.
Her social awkwardness is well evident from the start, which if anything makes us love her even more. No matter what the scene or mood Tilly always makes me smile in some way. Most of her interactions are with her new roommate Burham, the two of them coming out of their shells and forming a very sisterly bond over the course of the season. Burnham takes Tilly under her wing, helping her train to hopefully get into the command program, while the cadet does her level best to keep up with the punishing training, and always fights Michael’s corner, never failing to show faith in her friend and giving her that little push whenever needed.
Working alongside Stamets on the revolutionary spore drive, Tilly’s skill at her job is very high indeed, having been fast-tracked through Starfleet Academy, and confidently rating herself as the best theoretical engineer there. She also has the most amusing honour of dropping the first onscreen F-bomb in Star Trek history when she says in regards to getting the spore drive working: “You guys this is so fucking cool!”
Despite her occasional shyness or lack of confidence, Tilly shows she can still party like the best of them, readily informing Burnham about her “Thing for soldiers” or “Guys in bands”, and being the one who initially steers Michael toward a possible relationship with Lieutenant Ash Tyler.
There are no shortage of serious moments for the young cadet though, in particular when she is placed under pressure to keep the secret of Stamets deteriorating condition from spore drive operation unknown to the rest of the crew. Upon entry into the mirror universe, she has to put herself front and centre to impersonate her counterpart, known throughout the empire as the brutal and sadistic conqueror ‘Captain Killy’. Tilly is terrified at the nature of her other self, describing her as “A twisted version of everything I aspire to be”, and struggles to embrace the cruelty and confidence required to masquerade as her to the Terrans.
Alas we do not get to see the real Captain Tilly in the show, as she and the I.S.S. Discovery are destroyed offscreen in a battle with the Klingons shortly after entering the prime universe. Somewhat of a shame as it would have been most rewarding indeed to see the two very different women confront each other.
Despite never thinking she would see all the death the Federation/Klingon war brings, Tilly always manages to step up to the plate and perform her duty to the very best of her abilities, showing the the key to beating her fears is being afraid, but doing what she has to do anyway.
As the first season comes to a close and the war ends, Tilly receives a well-earned promotion to Ensign thanks to her many impressive accomplishments during her tenure aboard Discovery, bringing Stamets out of his coma being a particular highlight for me.
Bright, brilliant, perky, and always doing her best to look on the bright side in any situation (Yes I do proudly have a crush on her), Sylvia Tilly is the very definition of adorkable, and a wonderful addition to the Star Trek franchise.
So fucking cool indeed.
Jessica Stone: Wishes for the Future
I went into Discovery expecting to not like it. There had been so much news about behind the scenes drama, and I wasn’t thrilled that CBS shoved it behind a paywall. The opening two-parter, on of which aired on television and one of which most people saw under a free trial on CBS All-Access, was a fine episode but didn’t make me feel like the show was worth paying a separate subscription service for. Thankfully, when the season premiered, I was visiting my mom and didn’t have great Internet access so I didn’t start my trial until a week later and got to see “Context is for Kings,” and I decided to keep the subscription for a month. I’m so glad I did.
I really enjoyed the season, even though I can’t help but feel it failed to stick the landing and lost steam I the last three episodes. But as I was reminded this weekend at a gymnastics tournament, sticking the landing is the hardest part. I have some nerdy reservations about things like the difficulties lining things up with TOS – probably my biggest issue being the fact that Michael is Spock’s heretofore unmentioned foster sister. But this, despite all the whining about Gene’s Vision™ being violated, this is Star Trek through and through. We meet Michael after she makes the worst mistake of her life, and she spends the rest of the season trying to atone for it. The characters, save Lorca who turns out to be from the Mirror Universe, are principled, ingenuitive, and courageous. The mycelial network is a fascinating if improbable sci-fi concept, the Mirror Universe is finally put to good use, and the war with the Klingons is ended in the Trekkiest way possible. It had a wonderful exploration of redemption, the importance of holding to ideals, and, of course, what it means to be human. It also had fun references to other series, especially TOS – but I’m still mad that Lorca’s tribble never paid off.
Many people don’t like the characters and … to each their own but this kind of baffles me. Yes they’re flawed, but all good characters are. Stamets is a lovable curmudgeon, Michael is amazing and Tilly … I will actually fight you if you say anything bad about Tilly. She started out as a character I was really worried would be annoying, but she grew on me so quickly. And yes, the fact that they are diverse is a plus for me. Star Trek has always been diverse, I have no idea what the haters are whining about, and I think that’s good. A little black girl has as much right to see someone who looks like herself be a hero as a young white boy does, and I can’t imagine how much a positive, non-stereotypical autistic character must mean to the autistic community who usually just sees the same tired, harmful stereotype over and over. And Star Trek was wildly, wildly overdue for its first major gay characters. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake as many claim – it’s characters who are diverse, but also great characters.
It’s not perfect, but this show has made me so happy. I made a routine of getting back from Choir practice, making hot chocolate, and sitting down to watch the show. It’s not lighthearted and doesn’t have simple morality, but that’s not what we need from every show. Sometimes we need more complexity, both emotionally and intellectually. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if our media isn’t either, and I reject the notion that only perfectly light-hearted goofy works can be escapist. Sometimes we need something grim but ultimately optimistic, as this show is, to remind us that things can get better, that we can overcome the darkness.
I’m looking forward to next season. I wonder who their new captain is – Prime Lorca? Who knows. What did that spore that landed on Tilly mean? I don’t know, and without more evidence I don’t really want to speculate. Anthony Rapp indicates that we may see Culber again – Stamets isn’t going to give up on finding Culber again if there’s any chance at all. And that cliffhanger … I don’t know how they’re going to handle the classic characters, but I’m excited to find out, and hearing the TOS theme was such a nostalgia rush.
My big hope is not only that season 2 will be as good, but that we’ll get more Trek series. If they’re smart, the creators will make shows that have a wide variety of tones, content, and texture – but still up to this level of quality. It would be nice to have a more family friendly show running alongside Discovery – I definitely don’t mind DSC being for mature audiences, but it would be nice if there was also something contemporary to introduce Trek to a new generation. I am still holding out hope for a sequel series while most of the actors are still alive to reprise roles or cameo, though I’m not sure what they’ll do to make it accessible to newcomers given the large amount of continuity built up by DS9 and Voyager to a lesser extent. But I have sincere hope for that, for the first time in a while. Even if I never get a sequel series though, I’m happy to just enjoy the ride with DSC.