Let’s just dive in. Star Trek: Discovery has problems. In an episode that is ostensibly about a rescue mission, the show almost goes out of its way to portray its characters as unlikable as possible. Unfortunately, the show has problems beyond just its characters; although that would certainly be bad enough on its own. Spoilers ahead.
Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) is still finding her footing on a ship where almost no one wants her there. She has no rank, she stands alone in most of her points of view as a Starfleet officer, and has virtually no personality to speak of. This last aspect can be blamed on her Vulcan upbringing, but other characters like Data or Spock still found ways to be charming.
The crew of the Discovery is a crew only in name. There is no teamwork, officers talk back to their superiors without reproach, and otherwise friendly characters make a point of saying how little they trust one another. There are almost no shots in the episode of one character speaking to another. They have no connection.
A scene deftly illustrates how inexperienced they are in battle, which makes sense; it is a science vessel. However, rather than offering advice or even constructive criticism, Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) simply tells them to run the simulation again and leaves.
For the plot, we have a tactically important Dilithium Crystal processing station that is under Klingon attack. (I have a sinking feeling that every enemy this show features will be Klingon, which is just… boring as hell.) The Discovery has an impossibly advanced “spore drive” that can teleport the ship anywhere in the known galaxy. It just doesn’t work yet.
Not helping the situation is Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp. He brings arrogance and entitlement to the role, which do not fit a subordinate officer. He talks back to the captain, going so far as to offer a snarky “you’re welcome” to the captain’s back. If someone tried that on any of the Enterprises, Deep Space Nine, or even Voyager, they’d spend a week in the brig for insubordination. (It is deeply satisfying to watch him smack his face into a console, breaking his nose. I watched that five times.)
The writers make it almost impossible to care about these characters as people. Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma) is belligerent and unhelpful in her role of overseeing Michael’s experiments with the captive giant–sized Tardigrade.
They’ve been tasked with weaponizing the creature and its considerable physical attributes. However, Michael insists that “It can only be what it is, and not what you want it to be.” She turns out to be right, and Landry gets herself killed when she ignores this. (I might have watched that bit five times as well. I’m not above some guilty fun schadenfreude.)
The creature is good for something, however: When plugged into the engine room’s computer, it provides the missing component in getting the spore drive to work the way it’s supposed to. It strains even my industrial-strength suspension of disbelief, but whatever. While it solves one problem, it creates another: the creature is clearly in pain when the spore drive is used. Michael won’t stand for the creature to suffer, just so that they can save time in transit.
The Discovery makes the last minute ‘rescue’. They destroy the attacking Klingon vessels, and vanish without a trace. The station workers have no idea what just happened, and the Discovery disappears before it can provide any kind of rescue aid… an unsettling writing choice.
Michael’s day ends with a bittersweet tribute from her late friend and mentor, Captain Georgiou. She is left with the captain’s telescope— a family heirloom passed on to the captain’s spiritual successor, if not her actual child. It sticks out like a sore thumb. This is the first and last reminder of the ship’s actual purpose: to explore, to discover.
Even with a bunkmate (and no wall to divide them), Michael is entirely alone on the ship. She has no relationships at all. None of the crew have any relationships with each other. They talk at each other, not with each other. There is not one trace of camaraderie or friendship, which was a defining trait of the series’ previous incarnations.
For even a hint of connection, we must turn to the Klingons. Voq (Javid Iqbal) still follows in the footprints of the martyr T’Kuvma. I find it impossible to sympathize with a character whose beliefs are so fundamentally intolerant. Nevertheless, his unwavering faith is to his credit?
Beyond that, these Klingons don’t behave like any Klingons we’ve seen since TNG. They are slow to temper. They talk, even flirt, with subtext. They undermine you by bribing your subordinates, instead of stabbing you in the heart. They are underhanded, an approach that has no honor.
The show has problems. I admit that I want to like it. It’s Star Trek. But there is almost nothing here I recognize, and far less that I like.