Ah, to be a fly on the wall in the writers' room of Star Trek: Discovery. What really happened there? How much of this show grew from Bryan Fuller's original ideas, and how much of it was scrapped or retooled? Did the writers change the fundamental course of the season midway through, and were they justified in doing so? Did they have to fix things on the fly and figure out ways to fit a patchwork narrative together into something supposedly coherent? Or was this the plan all along? I'm somehow guessing not the latter, at least for some of it.
I ask these questions after having watched "Will You Take My Hand?" take a season-long arc about Starfleet's war with the Klingons and solve it in five minutes with a plot device that brings new definitions to the word "contrived." I had hoped this finale would be more resolution than cliffhanger. It was. That's a blessing, albeit a very mixed one.
On the one hand, we've got a season-long arc about the Klingon war that was clearly not working for numerous reasons, and now the season mercifully wraps that up so we can deal with something else next year. Great. On the other hand, the way they resolve this is so simplistic and asinine it really makes you wonder what the writers were thinking, and how we got to this point in a series that otherwise went to pains to plan ahead enough to drop hints about MU Lorca and Voq/Tyler from their very first episodes. For resolving the war storyline, this was the best they could do? Did this part of the story just get away from the writing staff and so they decided to be done with it so they could start over next year?
To step back for a moment and frame it another way: What was this season of Discovery about?
This finale tries really, really hard to answer that question with an abundance of earnest speechifying. Discovery season one is about one woman's journey to realize what The Starfleet Way means to her and in turn she helps teach that lesson back to the people who have apparently forgotten it themselves in the course of this war. In short, this episode is an attempt to return Discovery's take on Trek back to regular order after a season of playing fast and loose. They should've titled this episode "We Are Starfleet"; that way the subtlety of the title would've matched the subtlety of the message (which is to say, brick-to-face).
The problem is that the narrative is full of gaps and the season was reverse engineered to arrive at a conclusion but without the necessary connective scenes needed to make us feel invested, and so you can see the gears grinding away. It's not elegant storytelling. It's almost like they had to keep escalating this war to keep the plot moving but had no idea how to get out of it (just that we would get out of it), so they pushed the Eject button at the last possible moment.
Really, the biggest issue is this is a case where the writers painted themselves into a corner by elevating the stakes too high and too soon. Ridiculously, needlessly high. You can tell a story about Michael Burnham's fateful mutiny and the journey to her redemption, but framing it against the very survival of the Federation is an ill-advised mismatch of scale. It looks silly to have the entire war center around Burnham and the Discovery's role in it, because it takes something impossibly large and strains to make us believe that Our Heroes, and mostly the all-important spore drive, determine every significant thing that happens. After "Battle at the Binary Stars," there's barely another ship in Starfleet that seems to matter to anything.
Meanwhile, pretending the Federation might collapse is just false suspense. We never thought it would happen — and indeed, it's not possible in a series that alleges it's taking place just 10 years before TOS — so the whole thing becomes a puzzle to solve to see how they are going to resolve a continuity mess of their own making in a way that fits in with the established timeline. This led to a lot of theorizing that maybe this whole show was taking place in a parallel universe. Well, it turns out it's not even that clever. The war is ended and swept under the rug because the writers are apparently just done with it. (Again, this is a good move on balance because it just wasn't working and they need to reset the show.) The damage done to the Federation in the past year-plus appears now to all be a piece of canon that was previously invisible and now fits in only because the writers have hand-waved it away as never to be spoken of later. That's disappointing — and not credible given the supposed existential threat to the Federation — but at the end of the day, it's perhaps for the best.
So to get there, the plot has to take shortcuts that are really hard to swallow. The Starfleet brass — represented here solely by Admiral Cornwell — have decided in their desperation that Emperor Georgiou's mission is to destroy Kronos with a WMD that can conveniently be dropped into a hole in a cavern that will set off a chain reaction of volcanic explosions. It's yet another over-the-top stake among all the other artificially inflated stakes we've had this year. Now Starfleet is planning genocide contrary to their own moral code, and barely a minute of screen time is devoted to it (as seen through Cornwell's desperate hemming and hawing). Reminiscent of Admiral Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness (albeit less cartoonishly evil), Starfleet is represented by one leader who drives everything for the societies of trillions, and all the meaty stuff where she might talk to other leaders about these decisions of galactic import happens off-screen. The audience's scope is so microscopic on such a small group of people that it just doesn't feel real or earned. It's a plot device lacking weight and dimension. These sorts of high-stake issues can certainly be dealt with on Trek; see the latter seasons of DS9, where it was done far better, with ironclad plotting compared to this (even if we complained about the holes at the time). But the writers here failed to put in the time and effort to develop the scenario to make us believe it, and instead simply told us it was so.
In retrospect, this season plays like a series of bright-idea miscalculations that seemed to promise more beforehand, and less after the fact. Lorca's moral grayness is rendered pointless in retrospect when we learn he's actually an impostor from the MU. The spore drive seems to be able to jump to any and all alternate universes, but we just end up using it to go to the MU and back rather than considering the grander possibilities hinted at in "Into the Forest I Go." Tyler turns out to be Voq in league with L'Rell in a plan that, from their own point of view, doesn't make any goddamn sense.
And then here, the whole war comes down to Burnham convincing MU Georgiou not to go through with the plan, which hinges on a gambit that Georgiou won't kill Michael, because their relationship transcends parallel universes. Okay, fine; I can accept that Georgiou has no skin in the game here and just wants her freedom. But then we give the bomb to L'Rell in an equally bizarre gambit L'Rell uses to unite the Klingon houses and call off the war. It's really convenient that this scenario works. I can think of a bunch of reasons why it shouldn't. But the luck of the draw and the needs of the plot make this unlikely scenario just happen, and the Klingons decide to stop attacking and recall their ships, end of story. It's a U-turn that isn't earned and feels completely rushed and manufactured. An entire season of (mostly background) warfare is solved with one conversation.
If it sounds like I'm retroactively blaming the faults of the season, which I found fairly acceptable as it was airing, on the events in this finale — well, yeah. The destination reveals much less than was promised, and all the weekly action and cliffhangers up to that point, while entertaining and well-executed, dissolve away into a disappointingly substance-free experience. This season was often fun to watch — let me be very clear on that — but it doesn't build lasting significance and the resolution is far too easy. In many regards it is the Star Trek: Vaporware I've been fearing, albeit an enjoyable one.
It's really a shame. Burnham's arc is actually not bad at all. She made a reckless decision to mutiny in the pilot that she thought would save the Federation (although I was never sold on the logic of that move), was humbled and stripped of rank, got a second chance, and found in her dealings with Lorca that his amoral actions touting the ends justifying the means were unacceptable. Given the POV of this season, it makes a certain amount of thematic sense to bookend the whole thing with her big speech at the end about what she learned and how that applies to Starfleet's moral code, as overly earnest as it plays. I just wish we'd spent more time actually seeing Starfleet and their compromised ideals instead of distilling the essence of it into one or two rushed scenes of dialogue.
Do I think Discovery is an unsalvageable failure? Not at all. With the exception of TOS, Trek series have a long history of taking a season (or two or three) to find their footing, and the behind-the-scenes turmoil of Discovery's launch implies a series that was more troubled in the early going than most. Yeah, they blew the finale — which given the highly serialized nature of the show means they kind of blew away a significant portion of the season with it — but they have great-looking production design and visuals (which count for something in a modern sci-fi show), the cast is solid (if somewhat underutilized in spots), and they've got the pieces here to make a good modern Trek for a modern audience. The writers just need to step up their game and tighten up the storytelling and try to explore ideas rather than just burning through miles of plot. The more recent episodes allowed us to see more of the recurring bridge characters and more examples of the characters working together as a crew. There's actually a good thread running through the season in that this was a ship of disparate people with different viewpoints and priorities and they slowly came together to become a functioning team.
This episode is also one of few this season that gets off the ship and visits a Strange New World through the reconnaissance mission in a seedy Orion-populated city on Kronos, which sets the stage for more of these types of planet-bound adventures next season. (Granted, I was confused why humans were allowed to roam so freely considering the status of the war, but never mind.) These scenes open up the canvas to do some world-building that this series could use more of. There's even a nod to past series with the amusing easter-egg casting of Clint Howard, whose walk-on roles in various Trek series over the years go all the way back to TOS's "The Corbomite Maneuver."
If the writers can figure out the balance between serialization and episodic world-building, and not put all their eggs in so few baskets (the spore drive, the war, cliffhanger shocks, Burnham's arc providing the center of all plot points), they can build a better show here. This season was rarely boring, even if the plot kind of fell apart at the end.
Some parting thoughts on this episode and season:
- In her speech to and of Starfleet, Burnham says, "We will not take shortcuts." My meta-commentary irony detector instantly shot to 11.
- The spore drive continues to exist. The writers must intend to keep using it throughout this series, but at some point one presumes this piece of technology will have to go away. It's too powerful and solves too many problems too easily.
- Having Tyler stay on Kronos with L'Rell to serve as her adviser has a certain melancholy appropriateness to it. He is of neither and both worlds, so maybe he can use that to play a contributing role. (Although I suspect he'd be more accepted in the Federation than among Klingons.)
- Emperor Georgiou turns out to be a nasty person, which shouldn't be a surprise but shows Burnham's emotional snap-decision to bring her from the MU backfiring, which goes right along with the idea of Georgiou as her Achilles heel. Fittingly, Burnham has to confront this truth in the big moment to end the war. Thematically, this would be solid if the plot weren't such a clunky gearbox.
- Tilly works well as the resident comic-relief character without looking ridiculous. This is always a fine line, and I think the writers and Mary Wiseman have found a way to walk it.
- Sarek apparently signed off on the destruction of Kronos (off-screen, of course). This strikes me as wrong on so many levels.
- The loss of so many starring characters (Lorca, Tyler, Georgiou) indicates we will likely get some new characters next year, including a new captain (though Saru still has my vote). That could be interesting and help refresh the series.
- The final-scene reveal of the Discovery answering a distress call put out by the Enterprise under Captain Pike didn't exactly make me stand up and cheer. It was fine, but there's peril in going down this route (as we've already seen with messing with the TOS-era continuity), and I'd rather this series find its own way than double down on the TOS tie-ins. That being said, there are some opportunities here if the writers are smart about it. (Note to writers: Please be smart about it.)
- During the Discovery and Orville hiatuses, I may take a crack at another limited reviewing project. No promises yet, and I need to figure out how it will work and what the timeline will be, but stay tuned.
- It's been great reading your commentary this season in the comments. You are a thoughtful bunch, and I appreciate your contributions to the discussion.
Previous episode: The War Without, The War Within