Star Trek Discovery returns for its second season, its 14 episodes streaming internationally on Netflix and on CBS All Access in the US. Unlike season one, there is no mid-season break, so it allows a single consistent arc to run throughout, avoiding the sectional feel of the debut series. With Discovery being a co-production with CBS in the US, new episodes drop weekly, which might seem old fashioned in this era of binge-watch TV, but it seems wholly appropriate for Discovery as it echoes the weekly episodic format of the iconic originals.
Before starting in on season two it is worth noting there are four short films that sit in between the two series. They work as nice stand-alone mini episodes, but also become relevant to the series overall.
The first episode, Runaway, features Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and an alien stowaway and serves as some significant backstory for the later episodes of the season. The second episode, Calypso, is of note because it is written by the brilliant Michael Chabon, author of such wonderful novels as The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Wonder Boys. He is a writer on the upcoming Picard series and this short film serves as a nice testing ground for his immersion in the Star Trek Universe. The third short, The Brightest Star, involves Saru’s backstory on his home world of Kaminar and ties in to the episode The Sound of Thunder. Finally there is Escape Artist, the best of the short films. It sees the return of Rainn Wilson in the role he was born to play: Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd. Wilson also directs the episode and at 15 minutes long, it is a short, light-hearted Star Trek episode that is played to absolute perfection.
The main season’s plot this time around has Discovery delving into our principal character’s backstories a bit more, with Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) family relationships and Saru’s (Doug Jones) exile from his home world coming to the fore. The overarching plot takes in time travel, sketchy Starfleet Black Ops Unit, Section 31, and a megalomaniacal Artificial Intelligence called Control, hell bent on universal dominion. We also see the integration of two classic Original Series Star Trek characters in Spock (Ethan Peck) and Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount).
To get it out of the way, season two of Discovery is very much a success. It is strong character-based science fiction with an underlying message of positivity that speaks very much to the ideals and ethics its iconic predecessors were founded on. Discovery’s intent is that of classic Trek and season two is on much more confident footing, using science fiction to address real issues in an enlightening and entertaining way, without being clunky or moralising. Discovery really starts to understand what Star Trek is about.
That’s not to say Discovery is perfect. It still has a few crinkles that need to be ironed out. Star Trek has somewhat followed the template of Star Wars and taken the route of writing new stories into the timeline of its originals, and while that lends a certain comforting continuity to proceedings, it actually feels unnecessary. This is a strong series, with interesting, complex new characters, and it would actually be a lot nicer to see them breathe on their own without the confines of a story and time period the fans already know too well.
The downside is that when original stories and characters are tweaked to serve the new, it is somewhat jarring. A prime example is Burnham’s relationship to Spock. Burnham is an excellent character with so much potential to explore, that to make her Spock’s adopted sister and daughter of Sarek (James Frain) feels a little bit forced. Spock’s involvement is made more curious because Discovery already has a more than capable equivalent character in Saru. His sage counsel to Captain Pike fills the same role as Spock aboard the Enterprise, making new Spock a little redundant. Make no mistake, Ethan Peck is very good in Discovery, he simply cannot escape the shadow cast by Leonard Nimoy in this ionic role – because nobody can. If his character was simply a different Vulcan he would not have to contend with the history that comes from filling the shoes of a legend.
However, on the other side of this, Anson Mount’s turn as Captain Christopher Pike is one of season two’s definitive highlights. He absolutely nails it. When we see him on the bridge of the Enterprise wearing the classic gold of command, surrounded by that familiar (yet slightly fancier) bridge, it’s exciting stuff indeed. The role of Pike doesn’t have the baggage that Spock does, having been portrayed by several actors over the years, and while this is a pretty big call, Anson Mount might well be the best Captain Pike of all.
The rest of the performances are, without exception, all excellent. Sonequa Martin-Green is just fantastic as Michael Burnham. A perfect pairing of character and actor, once again epitomising what a Star Trek officer should be. Doug Jones is brilliant, too, as the gangly, wise, pained Saru. His scenes with Burnham in fourth episode An Obol for Charon are heartbreaking.
Mary Wiseman brings more exuberance and joy to Ensign Sylvia Tilly, and Michelle Yeoh is an absolute riot as Georgiou – she gets all of season two’s best lines. Anthony Rapp is also fantastic as Paul Stamets. He gets put through the ringer in season two and it’s impossible not to feel for him as he suffers it all in quiet dignity.
In the minor complaints department, the Klingons are still not right, but they’re getting there. Their design in season two is much better. The overall story arc also becomes a little bit confusing and overcomplicated in the last few episodes with some temporal hopping about and time-travel machinations.
It would also be nice to have more standalone episodes. The ideas used in the short films that bridge the two series are perfect for expansion into full-length episodes. They would bring light relief to the series and free it up from obligation to the larger storyline. Alien-of-the-week encounters would allow the series to open up to being re-watched and fans could dip back in to their favourite episodes. Furthermore, it could return Star Trek to its classic mission of exploring the universe. While this is most definitely not a criticism, it would be nice if Discovery could explore this classic aspect of Star Trek more often.
The Sound of Thunder, the episode dealing with Saru’s home world, is worthy of special mention. It’s a great story with some top-notch effects work with the appearance of the sinister and creepy Ba’ul, the traditional oppressors of the Kelpien race. The episode also subtly highlights the plight of refugees as its central message, delivering an unexpected twist that challenges initial assumptions and highlights (along with the second episode, New Eden) the inherent complexities in the interpretation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive (aka General Order 1). The directive prohibits interference with other cultures and civilizations, a rule that seems so simple until you realise the basis of every Star Trek series is about interpreting it in a different way. Kirk, for example, would largely steamroller his way through it, while Picard would more than likely have a long existential conversation with Data first, before doing the exact same thing.
The excellent final episodes, Such Sweet Sorrow Parts 1 and 2, must also be mentioned as they draw the season to a close in exciting fashion. They really push the boat out in terms of effects and spectacle. They are also inventive, visually spectacular and very satisfying in the way they finally resolve the big questions of the series.
It’s strange that, culturally, Star Wars transcended the stereotype of science fiction nerdery, while Star Trek went the other way, remaining the benchmark for uncool geekiness, which even the action-orientated reboots couldn’t wipe away. But like anything with depth and meaning to it, this simply means that the people who love Star Trek, LOVE Star Trek. This is hardly surprising, because Star Trek’s inclusivity and determination to spread a message of respect and diversity means something to a lot of people. The stories and the characters and ingenuity are all wonderful, but Star Trek’s deeper meanings and underlying social messages gave audiences far more than just weekly thrills, they gave us something to think about as well.
Star Trek has always been about exploration and learning and appreciating our differences, and although Discovery is different, Gene Roddenberry’s vision is right there and plain to see. In the current political climate where hate and intolerance sometimes feels overwhelming, we need Discovery’s message of hope and togetherness. We need positive science fiction that tells us that it’s not foolish to believe things can get better, to tell us that we can live together compassionately. We need Star Trek right now more than ever.
With Discovery we have a series set squarely on the right track with its heart in the right place, and that, ultimately, is why it is so worthwhile.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ can be streamed on Netflix right HERE.