Star Trek: Discovery is rebooting itself. I'm cautiously optimistic.
EW's TV critic examines the surprising midseason premiere and what it means for the future of the CBS All-Access series.
Star Trek: Discovery was a bit of a diet beverage in its first nine-episode chapter. It chased two polar instincts, cutesy and militaristic, combining nonsensical fan service (hello, offscreen step-brother Spock!) and empty PG-14 subject matter (neck snaps and f-bombs!). But last night, while most of us were watching the Golden Globes, Discovery aired a midseason premiere that constituted a near-total premise reboot. The way ahead is still foggy — the show loves those snapped necks—but this was the most fun I’ve had watching Discovery since its launch. SPOILERS FROM HERE.
The ship found itself in a strange corner of space, where kindly Vulcans attack and heroic Starfleet ships kill without mercy. Yes, this was a parallel reality: The same goatee-verse introduced 50 years ago in the all-time classic “Mirror, Mirror” episode. The fascistic faux-Starfleet is engaged in all-out war with the united non-humans of the galaxy. It’s an “oppressive, racist, and xenophobic culture,” explained Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). “The Terran culture appears to be predicated upon an unconditional hatred and rejection of anything and everything Other.”
Any resemblance to present-day political demagoguery is intentional, I assume. Discovery‘s space philosophy has been a bit hazy — it still feels like the theme of the first chapter was that idealistic intellectuals need to get on board with the badass military already. I’m intrigued to see how the episodes ahead deepen our understanding of the Terran’s particular flavor of oppression. (The Terran Emperor, we learn, is a mysterious figure, very different from our own modern petty tyrants, who build their cult of personality like a media tycoon plotting a crossplatform rollout.)
But in this shifting foundation, the show found a new playful gear. We learned that the Captain of the Evil Discovery is Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a plucky neophyte in the old universe. “This is absurd,” said Captain Lorca upon first seeing alterna-Tilly in full space centurion garb, and credit to Jason Isaacs for making that line sound frustrated and amused. The reveal about Tilly inaugurated a shipwide game of dress-up. In a rapid-cut Ocean’s Eleven-style montage, the Discovery crew traded in their Starfleet insignias for Terran Empire medallions, and repainted the front of the ship.
We’re in a dark universe, but this episode had all the light fun of a heist movie, or of an episode where The Gang Puts On A Show. Mirror Tilly has nicknames that sound like the titles of pulp sci-fi paperbacks, “The Slayer of Sorna Prime,” “The Witch of Wurna Minor.” She also goes by “Captain Killy,” which is how I’ll sign my name in video-arcade rankings forever after.
In this Mirror Universe, Burnham is the Captain of her beloved Shenzhou, while Lorca is a renegade ambitious commander. Just by chance, our characters are in a universe where they’re all space captains: “The strongest argument I’ve ever seen for destiny,” said Lorca. I get bored when characters claim plot contrivances are destiny, but the fun of alternate-reality stories lies in contrivance, in the mind-melting possibility of meeting a you that isn’t you. So this Discovery reboot has less in common with “Mirror, Mirror” than with another science-fiction series, coincidentally co-created by Discovery producer Alex Kurtzman. Fox’s supernatural procedural Fringe was also a bit of a diet beverage in the early going, a well-acted reconsideration of The X-Files stapled together with the thinnest serialized mystery. At the tail end of its second season, it dove deep into its big idea: An alternate universe filled with different versions of the same main characters.
The ensuing third season was one of the best sequences of genre storytelling in this decade. Will Discovery achieve such heights? The midseason premiere ends with what feels like a broader mission statement for the half-season ahead. Burnham and Lorca are on the Mirror Shenzhou. This material lets Martin-Green shine: She’s playing our Burnham playing a much bleaker Burnham, a stolid good person pretending towards cosmic villainy. On an elevator, one of her junior officers attacks her, seeking glory; the fight that follows is brutal but funny, with a comedy beat of antigravity. There is a wonderful flourish at the end: The junior officer falls over dead right as the elevator opens on the Shenzhou‘s bridge, leading to a bout of slow-clapping from the Terran bridge crew. (Credit to episode director Jonathan Frakes, the once and future Riker, who reminded you here of the swagger-y action setpieces he directed in Star Trek: First Contact.)
Are there reasons to be skeptical? Boringly troubled Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is descending into plotpoint-ish space madness, suffering trauma flashbacks and blackouts at just-right times. Fair to say we all know what’s happening with him by now, but the execution of this “mystery” is stretching credulity. It doesn’t help matters that Tyler’s big moment of the episode was, sigh, a neck snap. Farewell to Wilson Cruz’ Dr. Hugh, a sensitive and calming presence that this hyped-up show badly needed.
Hugh’s murder was an empty shock, something Discovery has engaged in too often. (Recall dear departed Ellen Landry, Rekha Sharma’s security chief and still the single coolest character introduced on this new show, who decided to let a ravenous giant space monster out of its cage just because.) Cruz spoke to my colleague Patrick Gomez and claimed that this isn’t the end of his time on the show, which makes Hugh’s death feel even more pointless. Meanwhile, Anthony Rapp’s Dr. Stamets is falling into his own plot-helpful space madness, rambling about palaces and enemies with an omniscience nobody onscreen ever bothers to understand.
This show’s been a strange ride. This was sorta Discovery‘s third pilot, after the Shenzhou-centric opener and the episode-3 main-setting introduction. There’s an explicit promise of more fun ahead: the possibility of characters meeting “themselves” — hopefully id-unleashed versions of themselves — played by actors who’ve spent too long caged in those damn SeaQuest uniforms. I’m not ready to love Discovery, but I’ll give this episode a slow clap.