This season of Star Trek: Discovery has been wobbling between awesomeness and toxic muck, and last night’s finale didn’t tip the balance. The show has been under a cloud of controversy since before its launch, when fans raged about having to buy CBS’ All Access streaming service to watch the show. But then, despite the exit of acclaimed showrunner Bryan Fuller, ST:DISCO debuted to mostly positive critical responses. Now it’s time to assess where last night’s season finale left us.
Over the season, we’ve had standout, brilliant episodes mixed in with 60-minute clunkers. Burnham’s character arc has been consistently fascinating, but characters like Lorca and Voq/Tyler have slowly eroded from multi-dimensional people into mere plot devices. Most of the show’s worst problems cropped up in the second half of the season, when we took a long detour into the Mirror Universe. Though finale “Will You Take My Hand” tied up any number of loose threads, often in ways that were rich and satisfying, the episode also doubled down on some of the series’ biggest mistakes.
Spoilers ahead. If you continue to read and then complain about spoilers, you will be forced to eat Saru’s magical neuro-tentacles.
The L’Rell maneuver
Perhaps the most unexpected and quite frankly cool move in the season finale was Burnham’s decision to install L’Rell as the new Klingon leader. The L’Rell maneuver came after Burnham realized that she was basically in the same position she’d been in a year before, when she mutinied and started the war. Thanks to Admiral Cornwell scheming with Mirror Georgiou, Starfleet was in a position to devistate the Klingon homeworld with its volcano bomb. Basically, she could punch the button and give the “Vulcan hello.” Except this time—thanks to everything she’s survived this season—she mutinies to stop the war.
I think we can all agree that was a pretty great scene when Burnham refused to genocide the Klingons, and all the weirdly unnamed, unexplored bridge crew members stood up to support her. It was a very Star Trek moment, and actress Sonequa Martin-Green lent moral gravitas to Burnham’s speech about how we can’t throw away our ideals just because we’re desperate. This scene felt like it was earned over the whole course of the season, as we watched Burnham pay for her crimes and try to make more prosocial decisions.
Also, I liked the fact that Voq/Tyler wound up with L’Rell. I was sick of the whole “he’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster” approach to his character, which made him basically a MacGuffin instead of a person. Suddenly, when he told L’Rell that it was her turn to lead, I was struck with the emotional weight of the fact that Burnham and L’Rell had both been his lovers. At last Voq/Tyler was a person again and he was struggling to resolve a wartime love triangle. Plus, he changes the equation so that we aren’t simply left exactly where the season began, with a nationalist Klingon state unifying under the banner of “racial purity.” He’s the Klingon who loves his people and has loved humanity, too. Maybe he’ll be a bridge between the two societies and make it easier to keep the peace.
Sure, there were problems this season. Burnham let Mirror Georgiou beat the crap out of L’Rell, even though she knew they could just go to Voq/Tyler for intel. And there’s a lot of nitpicking we could do about whether the Klingon Houses would actually bow to L’Rell instead of just killing her and eating her boyfriend (which is apparently something they do to humans?). But overall, the L’Rell Maneuver was a smart way to set the table for events later in the Star Trek timeline.
All you need is love and prequelitis
As I said earlier, however, lots of things didn’t work in this episode. Let’s start with the love. One of the most intriguing parts of Burnham’s character during the first half of the season was her ambivalent relationship with her adoptive father Sarek.
Let’s take a look at Sarek. He’s openly racist against humans. He chooses not to let Burnham join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group so that his son Spock can go later (though, thankfully, Spock is like “screw you Dad I’m joining Starfleet”). Sarek refuses to actually call her his daughter, and he is the very definition of an emotionally abusive parent. Giving Burnham this backstory not only made her one of the most psychologically complex characters ever on Star Trek, but it also illuminated one of the biggest social problems the young Federation faces: xenophobia.
But somewhere around the Mirror Universe, the show decided to drop all that. Suddenly Sarek is admonishing Burnham not to be ashamed of who she loves, and is calling her his daughter. I guess maybe we’re supposed to believe that he’s changed, but we never know why that might be. Plus, all his talk about Burnham’s love life—echoed later by Voq/Tyler, who praises her amazing capacity for love—is a painfully false note.
Is a loving nature really Burnham’s best attribute? She’s a brilliant tactician, a scientist, a fighter, and seeks justice even when it means risking her life. But just because she humps a snacky, semi-Klingon dude does not make her into Wonder Woman. This whole “Burnham is love” idea feels like an effort to erase some of the darkness and complexity of her journey.
And speaking of erasing complexity, the series cliffhanger was an atrocious doubling-down on one of ST:DISCO’s worst impulses. Sometimes known as “prequelitis,” this is a condition where a franchise revisits events, themes, or characters from previous shows or movies, mostly in an effort to whip up excitement among fans (because after all, new viewers won’t know or care about things like Harry Mudd or the Mirror Universe). Bringing Pike’s Enterprise into the picture just as we faded to black was a symptom of advanced prequelitis.
The whole point of this series, and this franchise, is to explore strange new worlds. That’s what I want to do. Let’s turn Discovery back into a science vessel, go on black alert, and explore! I don’t need to see the Enterprise again. I’ve seen it before a million times, both in the TOS and reboot versions. Seeing it as show ends makes my heart sink. It feels like we’re headed straight into another Mirror Universe situation, where all we’re going to do is re-explore all the things that the franchise has already explored. And what’s the payoff? Filling in little historical gaps that only matter to certain kinds of fans?
Coda: Formalism vs. Realism in fandom
I was careful to say “certain kinds of fans” because I think at this point that Star Trek fandom has divided into two groups. Really, this could apply to many highly elaborated fandoms, but we’re talking about Trek here. To borrow from terms usually used in legal analysis , these two groups are formalist fans and realist fans.
Formalists view all of Star Trek as arising out of one, originary text: Star Trek: The Original Series . A few of the movies might be allowed to serve as originary texts too, depending on how orthodox the fan is. All other Star Trek properties, from books and movies to TV series and games, are judged based on whether they adhere to the rules laid out in ST: TOS. Formalists want to see characters, ideas, and places from the originary text. They often appeal to an idea of “real Star Trek” in their analyses, by which they mean “any Trek narrative which stays true to the originary text of ST:TOS.”
Obviously the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies are formalist: they return to the originary text. That’s why the debates over them were so intense, and full of people yelling about what “real” Star Trek is. You can also see a lot of formalist flourishes in Discovery , especially in the finale. Why was so much of the episode set in the Orion sex club? To give formalists a dose of Orions, which are a staple of ST:TOS. Why did we get the Enterprise at the end? Formalism.
Realist fans, on the other hand, like to reinvent and reinterpret the originary text. They want to apply the Trek rules to novel situations, with new kinds of characters and situations we’ve never seen before. Certainly a lot of TNG represents realist fandom, as do Deep Space Nine and Voyager. All three series took the show into the future, and reinvented a lot of the fundamental rules for the franchise. Replicators made the Federation a post-scarcity culture, and the Prime Directive became much more robust. We met radically different civilizations, our point-of-view characters became much more diverse. There were androids and shape-shifters, but also a black captain, a female captain, and a number of mixed-race or mixed-species characters.
Star Trek realist fandom strives to bring the series forward in time. But it also wants to integrate new ideas and themes into the already-existing template provided by the original ST:TOS text. The goal for a realist isn’t to recreate the thrill of original Star Trek, but to imagine new aspects of the Star Trek universe. Realists still debate whether a show or movie is “real” Trek. But for a realist, that means adhering to an expansive principle of “infinite diversity in infinite combination,” as well as sticking with the general injunction to “explore strange new worlds and civilizations.”
Discovery had a lot to excite realists. There was a brand-new ship (with spore drive powers!), a new narrative structure that relies on ongoing storylines, and a point-of-view character with a troubled past. But instead of using all the new furniture to explore genuinely new ideas, the show returned to a preoccupation with the Klingon war, the Mirror Universe, and Orion slave girls. This was “real” Trek in the sense that it showed us a bunch of things we loved in the original text. And yet, despite its efforts to pander to formalists, the show wound up pissing them off. The Klingons were too weird, and events of the war didn’t seem to fit with what ST:TOS told us.
Realists, meanwhile, groused about prequelitis (guilty as charged) and the show’s obsession with rehashing old plots that hadn’t really worked the first time around. Too much effort was expended on paying homage to the originary text, and not enough thought went into taking us where no one has gone before. Somehow, by trying to please all the fans, Discovery pleased none of them. Maybe it’s time for this series to strike out on its own, chuck all its fandom baggage, and figure out what it wants to be.