Discovery? A New Viewer’s Guide

Discovery? A New Viewer's Guide

Star Trek: Discovery might be the most divisive series in the storied science fiction franchise. Premiering in 2017 after a 12-year drought for Trek television, Discovery was the first Star Trek series to debut behind a streaming paywall, a controversial enough move on its own, but it also marked a significant overhaul of the franchise’s visual and narrative style. Now, Star Trek television would look and feel more like the movies, with more action-adventure and high drama and less intellectual debate and technobabble. Even four seasons in, it would be a big stretch to say that Discovery measures up against the best Trek shows (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine remain untouchable), but it’s also such a different show that it’s hard to make a direct comparison. And even if I could, that’s not much help to anyone who’s curious about the show but doesn’t know an Andorian from an Antedian.

With that in mind, I’ve created this questionnaire that should help you to determine whether or not Star Trek: Discovery is a show you’d enjoy watching. And in case you’re going in totally blind and don’t even know what the series is about, here’s as succinct a logline as I could come up with:

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is a scientist serving aboard the USS Discovery, an experimental starship that can cross the entire galaxy in mere seconds. Together with a crew of geniuses and weirdos, Burnham takes on massive interstellar challenges, first fighting a war against the xenophobic Klingons and then investigating a string of strange space phenomena that threaten all sentient life.

Star Trek: Discovery

What is your relationship with Star Trek?

I have no preexisting Star Trek experience, but I like space sci-fi.

You might actually have an easier time getting into Discovery than some lifelong Trekkies. If you’re looking for a fun space drama to invest in but don’t have any specific expectations as to what Star Trek should feel like, you’re probably going to get sucked in pretty quickly. It’s not as deep or intricate as Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse, but you’re likely to pick up some Mass Effect vibes, especially from the first two seasons.

I prefer (or have only seen) the recent J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin movies.

Discovery has been made with you in mind. It’s co-created and produced by Alex Kurtzman, one of the writers of the 2009 Star Trek (and its lesser sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness). Aesthetically, Discovery looks like it belongs in the universe of the film trilogy, and it has a similar sense of excitement and scale. Discovery also shares the films’ heightened emotional intensity. If you really dig the reboot trilogy, Discovery might be your most natural on-ramp into Star Trek television. Be aware, however, that those movies take place in their own universe, so some of the history you know will be contradicted.

I’m a regular, casual viewer of the franchise but I haven’t checked out the new stuff yet.

The first thing you should know about the new wave of Star Trek shows, especially Discovery, is that they’re very different from what you’re used to. Most of what we’re now calling “legacy Star Trek” (meaning the shows and movies released between 1966 and 2005) was episodic and sort of procedural. The Next Generation and Voyager in particular make for good “comfort viewing,” since their stories usually have limited stakes and resolve happily at the end of their hour. Discovery isn’t like that, especially in its darker first season. It’s a serialized drama that’s often very visually and emotionally intense. Apart from the new movie trilogy, its closest kin in the franchise would be later Deep Space Nine. If you were put off by the gritty Xindi War arc from the third season of Enterprise, you should probably skip the first season of Discovery altogether and start from Season Two.

I’ve been a die-hard Trekkie my whole life and Discovery doesn’t look like Star Trek to me.

Look, I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise. If you are the kind of fan for whom canon is sacrosanct, Discovery’s attempts to woo you with returning characters or concepts from The Original Series will only put you off it more. Discovery treats the 23rd century as a period in the viewer’s future, rather than in the franchise’s past. Some of the technology employed by Starfleet on the show, set 10 years before The Original Series, is more advanced than was even seen in the late TNG era. The Klingons have been redesigned (again) and not for the better. The main character is introduced as Spock’s never-before-mentioned foster sister, a roundly silly idea that takes the better part of two seasons to pay off (though, in my opinion, it does pay off). The series starts out much darker and bloodier than previous Trek series, but it gets considerably more sunny beginning in Season Two. I’d still recommend giving it a try, but if you’re married to the idea of Star Trek being exactly the thing you grew up with, then Discovery is probably not for you. The upcoming spin-off Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is likely to be closer to what you’re looking for, as is the Fox/Hulu series The Orville, which is basically Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s TNG fan fiction.

Star Trek: Discovery

How do you like your science fiction?

I like “hard sci-fi” that’s grounded in the latest theories and research.

Star Trek may have begun with the intention of projecting a plausible future in which humanity travels the galaxy, but after half a century of establishing its own mythology, the Star Trek universe is way too wrapped up in its own bullshit to care about the real laws of physics. Discovery’s titular vessel travels instantaneously across space through an invisible network of cosmic fungus. However you feel about the sentence you just read, that’s probably how you’re going to react to the science of the show.

I like when sci-fi is used to reframe contemporary social issues, challenge preconceptions, and push the boundaries of discourse.

Star Trek in general is definitely in your wheelhouse, but Discovery doesn’t do “issues of the week” as often as other Trek series. There are a few episodes here and there that tackle environmentalism, social justice, faith vs. science and the like, but not with the kind of precision as The Original Series or The Next Generation. That’s not to say that Discovery has abandoned Trek’s mandate to push for a more progressive future, it just takes a different route to it, favoring representation over allegory. The franchise fumbled through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s attempting to somehow address “the gay issue” without featuring any textually gay characters. Discovery answers this failure by immediately introducing a cohabitating gay couple, Lt. Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). Future seasons add Trek’s first gender non-binary human character, Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and their boyfriend, Gray, a textually trans character played by trans actor Ian Alexander. The four become a found family through which the series can explore queer identity from a place of normalcy rather than novelty. That’s more or less how Discovery’s storytellers like to approach whatever it is they want to talk about, not by “tackling issues,” but by being an approachable, idealistic model of the future. However, there are still occasional moments of loud liberal grandstanding that can seem smug or self-aggrandizing even for viewers whose politics align with the show’s. (I suppose it wouldn’t be Star Trek without some of that.)

I don’t want politics in my science fiction!

Don’t watch Star Trek.

As long as there are spaceships and explosions, I’m good.

Star Trek: Discovery will not let you down. There are space battles, dazzling cosmic phenomena, and pretty spaceships galore. It’s still Star Trek, meaning violence is not the default solution to conflict, but even when no one’s firing phasers there’s usually something cool to look at. Discovery is a flagship series for streaming platform Paramount+ and its new generation of Star Trek content, so they’ve spared no expense, even investing in an AR wall for virtual sets to rival those seen on Disney’s The Mandalorian. Each season is like a massive feature film with cosmic-level stakes, serialized across thirteen to fifteen episodes. If you like the Abrams & Lin movies but generally find Trek TV to be slow, sterile, and talky, Discovery may be more to your liking. It’s got more action and more intense drama than The Next Generation or Voyager, but retains Star Trek’s heart and compassion, particularly in later seasons.

Star Trek: Discovery

What do you look for in a lead character?

I want a hero who I can really connect with and look up to.

You should meet Discovery’s lead character, Michael Burnham. Here’s one way in which Discovery differs from its predecessors: Michael Burnham is the first top-billed Star Trek hero with whom you’ll be on a first-name basis. You wouldn’t argue with your friends over which Captain is best, “Jim” or “Jean-Luc” and you wouldn’t describe the plot of a Voyager episode in terms of what happens to “Kathryn,” but when you talk about Discovery, you talk about “Michael.” No Star Trek series before or since has been so specifically focused on the journey of one individual, beginning with her fall from grace in the series premiere and following her long climb towards the captaincy. The narrative is very closely attached to her experience and the audience is encouraged to feel close to her and invest in her feelings, not just her actions.

Give me someone complex, flawed, and conflicted.

Since Discovery is tightly focused on its main protagonist, Michael Burnham has become one of the most developed characters in the Star Trek universe in a relatively short amount of time. But while she often wrestles with what she wants out of life, “flawed” is not a word I would use to describe her. Burnham is a brilliant, hypercompetent scientist/action hero who, after passing through the painful crucible of the first season, is basically never wrong. She’s the person who shows up to a job interview and says that their greatest weakness is caring too much and trying too hard, except that’s actually true. The message of most stories becomes not that Michael has to learn something, but that others need to stop doubting her. While this might come from a well-intentioned desire to depict her, Star Trek’s first Black female lead, as an incorruptible symbol of heroism and righteousness, it also makes her less interesting over time. This is a structural problem more than anything — Jean-Luc Picard was also on the right side of nearly every argument on The Next Generation, but he was only the focus of about one in every three or four episodes, rather than the A-plot of almost every chapter.

It’s all about the performance.

Sonequa Martin-Green is one of the strongest lead actors that the Star Trek franchise has ever seen (second only to Sir Patrick Stewart) and is given a lot to chew on, week after week. No Star Trek series has ever asked so much of its lead actor, and Martin-Green delivers. During the early seasons, Michael’s role on the show is to suffer one crushing emotional trial after another, and Martin-Green is spectacular at playing pain and perseverance. As Michael’s life gets less awful and she becomes more confident, Martin-Green adds new layers of warmth and strength in her character. She finds a great balance between authenticity of emotion and the level of staginess necessary to play scenes with people wearing foam rubber masks over their entire face.

What about the rest of the ensemble?

To begin with, Discovery is really about Michael, first and foremost. She’s at the center of each season’s ongoing story arc as well as the A-plots of most individual episodes. But, there are a number of interesting characters in her orbit. There’s Saru (Doug Jones, the guy who’s under the makeup in all those Guillermo del Toro movies), an interesting new alien who’s like a surrogate brother to Michael, with all the baggage that implies. Michael’s closest friend is Silvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), an awkward younger officer who Michael takes under her wing. We get to see these characters grow along with their relationships to Michael over the course of years, and it’s pretty rewarding. The less a chatacter has to do with Michael, however, the less development they get. For example, Paul Stamets has been around since the beginning, but hasn’t seen much development in the last two seasons because his drama is mostly attached to his own family. The characters who get the most focus tend to be the ones who don’t stick around, like Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) or Emperor Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Meanwhile, there still are a number of bridge officers who have appeared in nearly every episode about whom we know next to nothing.

Star Trek: Discovery

How do you feel about hugging and crying?

I like having and experiencing feelings, and I want my space heroes to do the same.

You’re going to love this show. Star Trek: Discovery has more hugging and crying than the previous 700 hours of Star Trek combined. Michael Burnham may have been raised in the emotionally repressed culture of planet Vulcan, but she’s a human being who goes through stressful emotional trials on an almost weekly basis and perseveres with the help of her beloved shipmates. There’s triumph and tragedy and high emotional stakes throughout, but over the course of its first four seasons the objective of the show gradually transforms from punishing the characters as much as possible to rewarding their solidarity and self-actualization with hugs and hot cocoa.

I’m not much for mushy stuff.

Bad news for you: Discovery is an achingly sincere show, and it gets softer with each passing year. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery is a bloody and grim war story that’s obviously chasing after that Game of Thrones heat. Characters suffer and die senselessly, there are too many “gotcha” twists, and there’s an overall sense of the storytellers trying too hard to prove that “this ain’t your daddy’s Star Trek.” Seasons Two and Three balance a more optimistic tone with thrilling action and adventure, but by Season Four, Discovery has had its edges totally sanded off. The solution to nearly every conflict is to get everyone together in group therapy and so all parties can say “I see you and you’re valid.” Your tolerance for cringe will be tested, and you may find that you miss when there were more nasty characters with ill intent wandering the ship.

I guess I feel normal about it?

You’ll probably be fine.

Star Trek: Discovery

What about romance?

Sexual tension is the lifeblood of ongoing television.

Wow, that’s… a very specific answer. If you want sex and spice, Discovery might be a disappointment for you. Following its pivot away from “adult drama” at the end of the first season, Discovery has become the least steamy series in the Star Trek franchise by far (excluding Prodigy, which is a show for and about children). No one’s advocating for a return to the embarrassing teenage boy sexuality of late Voyager or Enterprise, but Discovery is positively chaste. There’s nary a ripped Starfleet tunic to be found, and that’s criminal considering the amount of work Wilson Cruz has put into his abs. Romance plots are few and far between, and even established, committed partners are rarely seen kissing. The default expression of romantic love on the show is gently pressing foreheads together, to the point that it becomes conspicuous that they’re not kissing. And, since two of the show’s long term couples are queer, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the series has been drained of all sexuality in order to make the show’s queerness as nonthreatening as possible to straight people.

I’m interested in love, not sex.

Okay, no need to get high and mighty about it. Anyway, you’re in luck, as Discovery loves love, both romantic and platonic. Michael Burnham has a few sweet, handsome fellas in her life, and her relationships get less fraught and more cozy as the series progresses. Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber are a lovely couple, and then there’s the cutesy teen romance between Adira and Gray Tal. Discovery has an annoying habit of skipping the “will they/won’t they” (arguably the most fun part for a viewer) and cutting right to characters already enjoying stable romantic relationships, but you do get to see a number of beautiful friendships develop over the course of the series, be they between peers, surrogate siblings, or mentors and mentees.

Just give me some good looking people and I’ll decide who’s kissing.

Godspeed, and enjoy the knowing looks between Lieutenants Keyla Detmer and Joann Owosekun.