discovery has boldly gone where no Trek series has gone before. (Photo: Paramount+)
When Star Trek: Discovery Premiered five years ago this week, it carried some heavy cargo. For one, the show was meant to announce new streaming service CBS All Access (which has since become Paramount+) and pull Tiffany Network viewers into the digital age. At the same time, it had to overtake the heritage of company (the low-rated, critically scorned UPN series that ended in 2005) and somehow struggled with the sleek, sexy, and action-oriented aesthetic of the JJ Abrams-directed Trek films.
Flash forward five years, and discovery is the flagship of an armada that includes both live-action series (Picard and Brave New Worlds) and animated quotes (Lower decks and Wonder). With a fifth season expected in early 2023, the show has not only exceeded enormous expectations. It’s now ushering in a new golden age of Trek on TV. So how did we get here?
This helps discovery Creators Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman were given the freedom to explore strange corners of the galaxy. While the show is basically a prequel to 1966 star trek, it introduces concepts like the “spore drive,” a mycelial network that can be ridden anywhere in space. This conceit is fancy, but it works because it looks and sounds cool.
Between seasons 2 and 3, the show also jumped 930 years into the future. The radical change, which required entirely new production design and technological innovations, also introduced new characters with ongoing storylines.
It was a risk, but instead of suffocating outside the comfort zone it had built over the first two seasons, the show skyrocketed. Adhering to an anything-goes-possible ethos gave the authors permission to commit to increasingly ridiculous experiments and then watch them flourish. This is really something discovery It’s about not surpassing yourself for the sake of it, but taking risks because the creators see stories going in all directions.
Some of the ideas don’t stick, but there’s a steady tone of sophistication. And while flashy production values and flying cameras owe almost ridiculous credit to Abrams, the show’s many huggable moments are steeped in the language of therapy and mental well-being. No Trek show has ever married such intricately planned science with such overt drama.
None of this would work without compelling characters, and that’s another area where it goes discovery shines. Michael Burnham, our protagonist, initially strays dangerously close to cliché territory, having grown up as Spock’s half-sister (and carrying that curse of being half human and half Vulcan with him everywhere). And yet, as she has evolved from a brilliant, Vulcan-looking logician into something of a messianic figure, she has remained fundamentally relatable. Played by Sonequa Martin-Green, Burnham is less diplomatic and more of a nervous problem solver, driving each episode with calm, glowing ferocity and sometimes questionable decisions. You’re not supposed to like them all the time, but you do.
That’s important too discovery is not only the most diverse Trek series to date, but also the most casual in terms of variety. Marine engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Calber (Wilson Cruz) are played as high-ranking officers and lovers who just happen to be gay, not as uppercase G gay characters defined by their sexuality. The same goes for the excellently named Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), best known for her bone-dry wit, and non-binary siblings Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tal (Ian Alexander, first). Transgender Trek character played by a transgender actor). Tal’s vulnerability and youthful spark jump right off the screen, forcing us to contemplate who gets to sit on a spaceship’s bridge.
discovery is finally merciful. It throws a lot at us but requires nothing game of Thrones fidelity to enjoy it. Striking a balance often missed by other Trek series, the show moves nimbly between standalone episodes and ongoing explorations by the crew of the USS Discovery. This creates multiple ways to appreciate the show, whether you’re an avid viewer or a casual fan, and has helped it thrive as a great TV.
Star Trek: Discovery Stream on Paramount+.
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John Wenzel is an art reporter and critic for The Denver Post who has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic and Vulture. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, he adored Guided by Voices and The Breeders and has a hobbit garden in his front yard.