Star Trek: Discovery ended its second season Thursday with a twist that could decisively alter the prequel’s troubled course. This was a full-fledged battle episode, directed with great gusto by Olatunde Osunsanmi, a Discovery executive producer with a gift for swoopy long takes and muscular cosmic action.
There was one flat-out stunning shot following Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) on a space jump through an active starship battlefield. There was a gravity-defining fight scene between the Control-ified Leland (Alan van Sprang) and Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the combatants tumble-tackling each other around the walls and ceiling of a corridor. Early in the episode, for no obvious reason beyond style overload, Osunsanmi filmed a ship-to-ship communication between the Enterprise and the Discovery in a split screen, two close-ups becoming three when Saru (Doug Jones) suddenly popped in the middle. And when Michael finally started skipping through the timeline, space folded outward like the universe itself was a bubble popping, and she sped through a void full of slicing infinite sparks.
Great fun! When the budget allows, Discovery has shown itself more than capable of delivering spacefight thrills. But the finale struggled against the long, dodgy season of science-fiction TV that preceded it. Disco’s sophomore year was overstuffed with limp plot points that took forever to go nowhere. Michael was looking for her half-brother Spock (Ethan Peck), and everything was about Spock for episodes before Spock showed up. Then he arrived, and everything became about the sphere. Control wanted the sphere, and the sphere couldn’t be destroyed, and Control was suddenly powerful enough to control a whole fleet, and also there was the Red Angel, and the Red Angel was Michael, except it was her mother, except it was Michael.
This was a vast failure of serialization, requiring an endless awkward clipshow-interlude right in the middle of the finale’s climax, where Michael time-traveled backward throughout the season goosechasing her own character arc. A couple episodes ago, Michael herself summed up my feeling about season 2’s fascination with big red things in the sky: “Waiting around for these signals to provide us answers has proven to be a colossal waste of time.”
The finale tried hard to justify that colossal waste of time, bringing back a couple disparate alien races for the grand battle finale. (Discovery talked a big game last year about the dangers of militarization, but it remains oddly dedicated to the idea that peaceful races need to cowboy up and start spacefighting. See: the Kelpians, formerly chill beach dwellers, now a fleet of A-wing fighter pilots, basically.) The show seemed to be at war with itself, suffering through a showrunner swap while remaining committed to its trail-of-breadcrumbs time-travel story. Resurrected from beyond, Hugh (Wilson Cruz) declared that he didn’t want to be with Paul (Anthony Rapp), and they were both sad and angry for awhile, and then in the finale Hugh declared that he did want to be with Paul.
“Thought we got past this,” mumbled Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), staring at the Paul-Hugh subplot with a disbelief I shared. Notaro was a breath of fresh air, and her occasional appearances caught some of the nonchalant good humor that defined another era of Star Trek. She was the kind of character who would mention, without fuss, that her wife died in the Klingon war. She seemed more excited, in fact, about getting her hands on some “raw time crystal.” She declared that using a supernova to supercharge a time crystal was “like using a waterfall to get a drink of water.”
The addition of Captain Pike (Anson Mount) was also a bright spot. Mount’s cheerful performance was unexpected, in light of the character’s history. Pike was boring when Jeffrey Hunter played him 50 years ago, and he existed in the rebooted (semi-defunct?) film series as a punching bag for bad guys. Credit Mount for bringing low-key good humor to a show that usually aims for rap-rock extremes of emotion. Captain Pike saw his sad future, and got back to work. In the middle of a crisis, Michael told him that the only course was destroying their own ship, and he didn’t even bat an eyelid. “The Klingon Empire will always fight to preserve our future!” Chancellor L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) told Pike in the finale. “Works for me!” he responded, always amicable. (The only downside to neo-Pike: His warp-speed catchphrase, “Hit it,” was divorced-dad-gets-an-earring lame.)
Meanwhile, Discovery entirely lost Michael Burnham. It turns out the only idea this show has for its hero is to drown her in parents. So after another season spent reminiscing about that time her mom and dad were killed, Michael found out her mom (Sonja Sohn) was the time traveling Red Angel, which led to another that-time-my-parents-died flashback. Then, in last week’s episode, Michael’s Vulcan step-parents swung by Discovery. Their katra told her she was in trouble, or something. Imagine if Sarek swung by the Enterprise every time Spock had problems in the original Star Trek show! It’s infantilizing, really, how Discovery keeps throwing parental figures at a grown-ass Starfleet officer.
There was the ghost of a good idea in the rise of Control, a Starfleet threat-contingency AI system that turned into the greatest threat for Starfleet’s continued existence. A cool twist that is also, like, the plot of WarGames — Leland was ultimately rather boring choice to personify this techno-viral bad guy. Imagine if Control took over someone anyone cared about — and no, poor Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) doesn’t count, since the show did the lame Walking Dead trick of only turning Airiam into a full-fledged character just in time to kill her.
The season briefly seemed to be nudging toward a paranoid story about the brighthearted Discovery versus Section 31’s espionage tactics. But I don’t think Discovery showrunner Alex Kurtzman has a particularly compelling read on Section 31, or on morally ambiguous characters like Georgiou, except maybe a deep abiding belief that they are pretty damned cool. Michelle Yeoh is cool, but season 2 awkwardly protagonized her Mirror Universe Emperor, even though she was still a totalitarian tyrant who bragged openly about murdering everyone all the time in her own reality.
I think Kurtzman wants his CBS All Access universe to have it both ways. With Discovery, he’s conjured up a brutal and action-heavy Star Trek show that wants to ultimately circle back to sentimental talk about love and family. Yeoh’s already in line for a Trek spin-off, so she can never be that bad, even though she was the Mirror Universe’s Space Stalin.
But all this is mere prologue to the hail-mary twist at the end of the finale. Michael flew her Red Angel outfit through a time-space wormhole, taking Discovery with her into an unknown future. After the disappearance, Starfleet interviewed the remaining characters. They promoted Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) to run Section 31, on the general principle of Why Not. And then Spock offered a suggestion to his superior officer:
“All officers remaining with knowledge of these events must be ordered never to speak of Discovery, its Spore Drive, or her crew again, under penalty of treason.”
Now, look. You always knew that Disco would have to conjure up some reason for Michael’s voided existence in Star Trek history. It’s the “Droids Knew Luke’s Father Decades Ago?” problem: Why does this famous character never talk about all the stuff that happened to him in the prequel?
Well, now we have our answer, and it is dumb beyond dumb. The creation of the Discovery, the ship’s key role in ending the Klingon war, the ship’s key role in saving the universe, all the individual officers who jumped to the future — they were just never spoken of again, by anyone. Starfleet retconned itself.
Spock’s advice is a near-quote of a memorable line from The Simpsons. At the end of a famously goofball episode that revealed Seymour Skinner was not Seymour Skinner, a judge decreed that Seymour Skinner would always be Seymour Skinner henceforth. “And I further decree that everything will be just like it was before all this happened! And no one will ever mention it again, under penalty of torture!”
Was this the plan all along with Discovery? The show has now spent two long, bruising, emotionally kinetic seasons suggesting that Discovery was the most important ship in the history of the Federation, and now no one in the canon will ever mention it again. I do wonder if, on some level, the drama is reacting against some of its own decisions, backpedaling away from past showrunners’ mission statements. When Pike walked onto the Enterprise, Number One (Rebecca Romijn) made him a promise: “We’ll have no more holographic communications,” she promised, “Ever.” It sounded like a wink.
Look, canon is dumb, and people involved in franchises should just tell the stories they want to tell. But Disco season 2 was a failure in both directions. It shamelessly dove into Treks past for no good reason except look-I-remember-that fan service. In the process, it successfully reiterated some of the most shallow concepts underlying “The Cage,” the original Pike Star Trek pilot. (You can’t evolve if you’re always going backward, oh ye producers of prequel reboots!)
And then, having created this cheatcode starship that could go anywhere in the universe, that could beam holograms across space, that could take Mister Spock all around the universe on a journey to figure out why a time-traveling angel visited him throughout his childhood… it did a gigantic take-back, meticulously eradicating Michael and her colleagues from the timeline.
So Discovery has been a real weird Star Trek adventure so far, and this season was worse than the first one. Are there better days ahead? The show has set itself up for a full-scale reboot next season, leaping forward to a time seemingly beyond any obvious points of Trek lore. Between visits from various Burnham parents, it finally started doing the work of developing the bridge crew into recognizable characters — and now that bridge crew will be stranded together in a potentially Voyager-y situation, cut off from their recognizable world.
Jett Reno’s on board, so that’s a big plus. Young Spock’s not on board, so that’s another plus. One hundred and twenty-four days after the Discovery’s disappearance, Spock and the Enterprise crew see one final big red thing in the sky — a sign, apparently, that Michael made it to some kind of bright future. Whenever she is, it can’t be worse than the past.
FINALE GRADE: B-
SEASON GRADE: C-