The lame Star Trek: Discovery finale took the franchise backward
Star Trek: Discovery ended its first season right back where the franchise started. I’m not talking about the U.S.S. Enterprise. I’m talking about the dancing green lady.
In the original Star Trek pilot, there’s a scene with the Starfleet captain admiring a green woman. She’s barely dressed, swirling sensually. The Captain is Christopher Pike, a proto-Kirk the way a butter knife is a proto-katana, played by noble fencepost Jeffrey Hunter. The green woman is played by Susan Oliver, later a pioneering female director and a transatlantic aviatrix. Pike, the character, is disturbed by what he’s seeing: The whole “dance” is an alien-telepath plot. But Star Trek, the show, would linger on the spaced-out kink. (“The Green Woman” became a regular freeze-frame in the closing credits.)
There was a similar sequence in Discovery‘s finale, with variations. The dancing green woman now had a male companion, less dressed but equally green. And in place of Captain Pike, there was Captain Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). To end the war, she went to a strip club. Not a first for this franchise: In a memorably dumbo scene from his ludicrous Final Frontier, William Shatner directed himself through a fight scene with a feline go-go dancer. But Georgiou comes from the bad universe. This was her kind of place. “How much for a little ME time?” she asked the green lady. She went back to a private room, bringing the man along too. She interrogated them, at gunpoint, but only after they’d all had a little fun.
Captain Emperor Georgiou was a shot in the arm for Discovery‘s limp finale. She playfully reminded poor Saru (Doug Jones) that his species was a cannibalistic delicacy in her universe: See Michelle Yeoh, licking the inside of her lips, asking the first officer whether he’s gotten tough. She had no time for Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and her endearing naivete: See Yeoh, grasping the cadet’s ginger locks, “These are hideous, of course.”
Georgiou had an important plot role in this finale, I know. She had to take an away team to the surface of the Klingon homeworld, nominally to “map” it, actually to blow it to smithereens. But it felt like she was trying her best to accomplish a more profound goal: Get these people to just loosen up a little. She walked into the brig with Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to interrogate L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). This whole half-season, L’Rell’s been in the brig, waiting for someone to interrogate her. “You both talk too much!” Georgiou said. This felt like an on-point critique: This show is too damn talky!
She also told Burnham: “You know your problem? No follow-through.” Harsh crit, evil PhilJo, but this show really was incapable of following through on its most fascinating instincts. And midway through an episode about saving the Federation with speeches, she told the crew: “I knew your whole universe couldn’t be boring.” It could be, Captain Emperor, it could be!
Georgiou was a good character, which is obviously different from being a good person. Actually, you could argue she is the closest Discovery comes to a Captain Kirk. She has Kirk’s brash sensibility, and his classics-quoting grandiosity. “We’re not here for bread and circuses,” she said, before concluding, “On second thought, the circus is where we’ll start.” Can’t you just see Shatner saying that, really hammering the part about the. Bread. And the. Circuses? Important to remember, plenty of nominally heroic things Kirk did in the original series ambiguous to modern eyes. So what a coup, to cast Michelle Yeoh as a new century’s randy, rule-breaking, bisexual swagger-y space captain! And what a misconception, to presume such a character should be The Problem, and not the star! Kirk needed Spock, of course, and you can almost spot a version of Discovery where Georgiou’s unleashed confidence plays off against Burnham’s tightly-wound well-intentioned confusion — where Discovery‘s version of morality is a conversation, and not a lecture.
Last week, I left off with a simple thought: I was excited for this finale, because I still honestly wanted to know what kind of Star Trek show Discovery wants to be. “Disappointing” is the simple answer. Not a capital crime: Trek‘s been disappointing before. But it feels like nothing that happened since the premiere really mattered. In the second-worst scene from the finale, Burnham explained how her parents were murdered, and Ash/Voq explained that he was born with a rare condition that made him a white-skinned Klingon misfit. These are the basic two character traits we learned about Burnham and Voq back in September. Because of unconvincing twists, these two characters somehow never really got to know each other — even though they fell in love! — until the finale.
This is the downside of serialized storytelling. When you reverse-engineer your finale too far in advance, you might find yourself concocting stopgap story arcs just to waste time. So L’Rell had to spend all of Chapter 2 in a cage: The writers knew she was important for the finale, but apparently couldn’t come up with anything better for her to do. So Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) merits barely a mention in this finale: His influence on the Discovery was profound, but apparently quite forgettable. Poor Stamets (Anthony Rapp) was officially demoted in this finale to space furniture, patiently injecting himself with the space fungi.
As entertainment, this was a failure. As a philosophical statement about, like, what the Federation stands for? Limp. I suppose you could argue Lorca’s influence manifested in Captain Emperor Georgiou, and in Starfleet’s willingness to make a deal with such a devilish person. But all the particulars of this finale felt anticlimactic, wishy-washy. The Klingons are thisclose to attacking Earth, but then some Starfleet officers convince L’Rell that the Klingons have lost their way, man, like a rock band selling their music to car commercials. So then L’Rell convinces all the disparate Klingon houses to return to their space: War over!
There’s an idea in this finale that the security of Starfleet is less important than the security of its principles. This was also some vague idea in Star Trek Into Darkness, which Discovery executive producer Alex Kurtzman co-wrote. These ideas withstand no scrutiny: Pretty easy to say “Our principles are important” when you’re onespeech and one magic bomb threat away from ending a yearlong galactic war. It’s a bummer, how vague and undefined the Klingons became over the course of this season? The premiere suggested a belief system, a splintered culture, misfits, zealots. In the finale, the Klingons were faceless, a whole race waiting for L’Rell to unite them by, errr, threatening to suicide-bomb the homeworld.
That left us with the worst scene of the episode: Burnham, giving a long speech about how bad things have been, refusing to “allow desperation to destroy moral authority.” This echoes the speech that Chris Pine’s Kirk gave at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness: “Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that’s not who we are.”
In both cases, you felt lip service being paid to a message undercut by the medium. Discovery and Darkness are both violent space odysseys with problematist-baiting sexuality. Not a bad thing to be violent or sexy — plenty of great Star Trek has been both! — and maybe there’s a moralizing strain in Star Trek (and most Hollywood entertainment) that always needs to overjustify, proclaiming pacifism after a season of neck-snapping and swordplay.
More damaging is how Discovery and Into Darkness both cycled through overfamiliar Trek tropes, Khan and Klingons, a Mirror Universe, and then some more Klingons. Given all that remixing, it’s outrageous that both Kirk and Burnham wind down their speeches by quoting that old line about “seeking out new life and new civilizations.” Right after giving her speech, Burnham set off for Vulcan but got sidetracked by the Enterprise, two of the oldest tricks in Trek‘s book. Old life, old civilizations, boldly going where we’ve already been. Easy to declare your originality; hard to actually be original.
I miss how, in the premiere, Burnham was an active character, a daredevil who would fly through space without a spacesuit. Her motto seemed to be: “Jump, and a parachute will appear; grab it off someone else, if you must.” From there, Discovery weighed her down with kilotons of grief: She regretted her mutiny, was sad for Georgiou, was almost killed by the man who loved her, something something Sarek, when in doubt her murdered parents. You had the feeling there was a fire at the tragic-backstory factory. Tasked with playing multiple onion layers of grief, Martin-Green could only default to a pained expression.
It’s still a sharp idea, to make a Star Trek show that isn’t about a Captain. But I wonder if that’s a long con. You suspect that the writers of Discovery perceive this as a Very Long Origin Story for the woman who will become Captain Burnham. (She walked away from this finale exonerated of her mutiny, and promoted to Commander.) There’s an odd distancing effect to this storytelling strategy. Burnham is simultaneously important and unimportant, crucial to the show yet often sidelined by a plot requiring Captains and Admirals to make grand decisions about warfare.
The season had its charms. Jones’ Saru was a cheering presence, a fussy bureaucrat on a hero’s journey to becoming a courageous bureaucrat. And I liked how Discovery maintained a steady bridge crew of familiar faces. They didn’t have much to do, but their constant presence grounded a show that kept throwing out its narrative foundation every few episodes. I so want there to be a scene (or an episode?) in season 2 where Owosekun and Airiam discuss all the recent occurrences — “So, wait, which of our senior officers was a secret Klingon and which was an alternate-universe doppelgänger?” (Actually, I just want a whole season 2 episode about Airiam and poor forgotten Ensign Robotface.)
I really enjoyed the trip to the Mirror Universe, a near-reboot that turned out to be a mere deviation. Those episodes were indulgent, silly, twisty. Anecdotally, the episode I’ve heard discussed the most is “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” — the one with the time loop, and the only single episode you could enjoy from this season without serialized context.
“Serialized” is by now such a loose term that I’m hesitant to use it as the basis for any grand statements. (The emotional climax of “Magic” focusing on the Burnham-Tyler romance is actually the one time they seemed to spark real chemistry.) But you felt how that episode got so wonderfully carried away — by a sci-fi concept, by recognizable characters acting in cheerfully unexpected ways. (Everyone got drunk at a party! Lorca died, over and over again!)
You wanted more glittery short stories like that. Instead, here at the end of a long season: The Enterprise! The original starship’s appearance feels like a surrender, an admission that Discovery has already run out of less obvious old ideas. We heard about, but didn’t see, Captain Pike — presumably, the Discovery showrunners are waiting to see if The Resident gets canceled soon enough to make Bruce Greenwood available. (Maybe if Gotham ends this season, Kid Batman can transfer over to play Kid Spock!) We also heard about, but didn’t see, a “new Captain” that Discovery will pick up at Vulcan; maybe a red herring, or maybe commanding the Discovery will be like teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts.
Will season 2 follow the characters who left Discovery? Tyler and L’Rell are still out there, embarking on what could be a long season spent unifying the Klingon houses. Let’s pre-delete those scenes, and focus more time on Former Captain Emperor Georgiou. At least with her around, the whole universe can’t be boring.
Finale Grade: C
Season Grade: C+
The Stuff In The Mirror Universe: B+
Star Trek: Discovery