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'Star Trek: Discovery' ends as an underappreciated TV pioneer

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham.
Michael Gibson
Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham.

First, an admission: Though this column will offer a lot of discussion and defense of Star Trek: Discovery as a pivotal show, it won’t spend much time talking up the series’ current, final season or its finale episode, “Life, Itself,” dropping Thursday on Paramount+.

That’s because, for this critic, the last few seasons of Discovery have been a bit bogged down by the stuff that has always made it a tough sell as a Trek series: overly ambitious, serialized storylines that aren’t compelling; new characters and environments that don’t impress; plot twists which can be maddening in their lack of logic; big storytelling swings which can be confusing and predictable at once.

The show’s finale features the culmination of a sprawling scavenger hunt which found the crew of the starship Discovery bounding all over the place, searching for clues leading to a powerful technology pioneered by an alien race which created humanoid life throughout the galaxy. Their goal was to grab the technology before another race, ruthless and aggressive, could beat them to it, laying waste to everything.

It's no spoiler to reveal that Discovery’s heroes avoid that nightmarish scenario, wrapping its fifth and final season with a conclusion centered on Sonequa Martin-Green’s ever-resourceful Capt. Michael Burnham and fond resolutions for a multitude of supporting characters (there’s even a space wedding!)

Still, this good-enough ending belies Discovery’s status as a pioneering show which helped Paramount+ build a new vision for Star Trek in modern television – breaking ground that more creatively successful series like Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds would follow years later.

And it all began with a singular character: Michael Burnham.

A take on Star Trek for modern TV

Discovery debuted in 2017 on CBS All Access — the streaming service which would become Paramount+ — facing a serious challenge.

As the first new Trek series in a dozen years, it had to chart a path which offered a new vision of the franchise without going too far — carving out a new corner in the universe of Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock not long after the release of Star Trek Beyond, the third feature film produced by J. J. Abrams featuring rebooted versions of those classic characters.

Producers set Discovery’s story 10 years before the days of Kirk and Spock (originally depicted on NBC for three seasons starting way back in 1966). The new series wouldn’t be centered on a starship captain, but its second in command: Burnham, a Black woman who also happened to be the hitherto unknown adopted daughter of Vulcan ambassador Sarek, Spock’s father (she would get promoted to captain of Discovery much later).

A Black human woman who was raised among the emotionally controlling, super-intellectual Vulcans? Who Trek fans had never heard of over nearly 60 years? Before I actually saw any episodes, my own feelings ranged from cautiously intrigued to cynically pessimistic.

But then I saw the first episode, which had an amazing early scene: Martin-Green as Burnham and Michelle Yeoh as Discovery Capt. Philippa Georgiou walking across an alien planet – two women of color marking the first step forward for Star Trek on a new platform.

People once sidelined in typical science fiction stories were now centerstage — a thrilling, historic moment.

 Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham in the very first episode of <em>Star Trek: Discovery. </em>
Jan Thijs / CBS
Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham in the very first episode of Star Trek: Discovery.

And it got better from there. Back in the day, Trek writers often felt hamstrung by creator Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that, in the future depicted by the show, humans were beyond social ills like greed, prejudice, sexism, war, money and personal friction. The writers chafed, wondering: How in the world do you build compelling stories on a starship where interpersonal human conflict doesn’t exist?

But Discovery found a workaround, putting Burnham in a position where logic led her to mutiny against her captain, attempting a strategy which ultimately failed — leaving humans in open combat with the legendarily warlike Klingons. Discovery also featured a long storyline which played out over an entire season, unlike many earlier Trek shows which tried to offer a new adventure every week.

The show’s first season had plenty of action, with Harry Potter alum Jason Isaacs emerging as a compelling and unique starship captain (saying more would be a spoiler; log onto Paramount+ and check out the first season). Fans saw a new vision for Trek technology, leveraging sleek, visceral special effects and action sequences worthy of a big budget movie, with design elements cribbed from several of the franchise’s films.

Later in its run, Discovery would debut Ethan Peck as Spock and Anson Mount as Christopher Pike, classic Trek characters who eventually got their own acclaimed series in Strange New Worlds. So far, five other Trek series have emerged on Paramount+ from ideas initially incubated on Discovery – including a critically acclaimed season of Picard which reunited the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Not bad for a series one TV critic eventually called among “the worst in the [Trek] franchise’s history.”

Discovery’s unappreciated legacy

Unfortunately, Discovery has taken some turns which didn’t work out quite so well. At the end of Discovery’s second season, the starship jumped ahead in time nine centuries – perhaps to remove it from Strange New World’s timeline? – placing it in an environment only distantly connected to classic Trek.

And while Discovery initially seemed cautious about referencing classic Trek in its stories, later series like Strange New Worlds and Picard learned the value of diving into the near-60-year-old franchise’s legacy – regularly tapping the show’s longtime appeal, rather than twisting into knots to avoid it.

There are likely fans of Discovery who would disagree with this analysis. But I think it helps explain why the series has never quite gotten its due in the world of Star Trek, initially shaded by skeptical fans and later overshadowed by more beloved products.

Now is the perfect time to pay tribute to a show which actually accomplished quite a lot – helping prove that Roddenberry’s brainchild still has a lot of narrative juice left in the 21st Century.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.