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“Everything ends someday” — Star Trek: Discovery Fifth Season Overview

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“Everything ends someday” — <i>Star Trek: Discovery</i> Fifth Season Overview

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“Everything ends someday” — Star Trek: Discovery Fifth Season Overview

Discovery has been so many different things in its seven years on the air...

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Published on June 20, 2024

Credit: CBS / Paramount+

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Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in a scene from the finale episode of Star Trek: Discovery

Credit: CBS / Paramount+

Some of the most iconic words in science fiction television are those uttered by William Shatner at the top of every episode of the original Star Trek: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise—its five-year mission…” The intention was that Kirk’s ship would be out in space for five years exploring the unknown. Alas, the show was cancelled after three years.

In fact, none of the shows that spun off of Trek hit the five-year mark exactly—until now. The animated series was only two seasons, TNG, DS9, and Voyager all lasted seven years, while Enterprise and Picard fell short at four and three, respectively, the latter by design, the former not so much.

However, thanks to the surprising decision by CBS/Paramount to cancel Discovery after five seasons, we finally have a show that lives up to that nearly-six-decades-old voiceover.

And what a long strange trip it’s been.

It’s not entirely clear why the show was cancelled. By all accounts, Discovery was doing fine by streaming standards. Of course, it’s also possible that’s why it was cancelled. The resolution to the actors and writers going on strike last year included the studios being more forthcoming with two things regarding the success of streaming shows: data and money. This is also why Prodigy is no longer on Paramount+, because the corporation getting a tax break was considered more important than the branding of Paramount+ as the exclusive home of Star Trek—which is supposed to be a major reason for shelling out for the service in the first place.

What’s especially frustrating is that, as just the next season of Discovery, the fifth season wasn’t bad. It had many many problems, mind you, but it asked some interesting questions, had some good stuff, and ended very nicely. It was fun to have most of a season given over to a quest narrative. It had all the usual tropes of such a narrative, but it was enjoyable, especially since so much of it involved thinking through problems and solving them, and Discovery is absolutely at its best when its collection of nerds science the shit out of something.

On top of that, the storyline made interesting use of Trek’s history: galactic history, as outlined in TNG’s “The Chase,” as well as the specific history of the Dominion War era as portrayed on DS9’s latter seasons, a time of great fear and paranoia as fostered by the Changelings who ran the Dominion. Plus we finally got to learn more about the Breen, and while the execution of that particular part of the story left a lot to be desired—did they really have to be just another set of Forehead Aliens?—at least they made an effort to give texture to the universe. Still, they managed to make the Breen—who were never all that interesting in the first place—significantly less interesting on two different levels. One was that they were pretty simple humanoid aliens like any other, except they hide their faces from outsiders and avoid the universal translator, which manages to be less interesting than the many speculations that had been floating around since the Breen were introduced in the 1990s, even the dumb ones. And the other is that they’re less interesting because the world-building doesn’t really make any sense. They suppress individuality—but they’re aggressively hierarchical?

Still, I really like Discovery’s tendency to use Trek’s extensive catalogue of existing aliens, whether for simple guest appearances or to be fleshed out a bit, rather than constantly churn our new species. Probably the best example is the newest cast member, Rayner, played by Callum Keith Rennie. He’s a Kellerun, a species seen only in one second-season DS9 episode, and who are best remembered as having one of the worst sets of hairdos ever seen on Trek (which is against some fairly stiff competition, even if you ignore Shatner’s toupee and Anson Mount’s entries in the Johnny Bravo lookalike competition…).

Had it just been the fifth season, we would have enjoyed what we could and looked forward to the next season, especially seeing more of the Breen in the fond hope that they might actually become more interesting (unlikely, but one can hope).

Instead, they had the rug pulled out from under them. Worse, unlike Enterprise, they had already filmed their final episode by the time the cancellation order came down, so they turned the 70-minute season finale into a 90-minute series finale that had a lovely coda at the end.

But you really wonder what these writers would’ve done had they known they were ending it. I mean, this is the same writing staff that gave us season four of this show, which was the most purely Star Trek series of episodes in the franchise’s five-plus decades.

And so Discovery has come to an end. The show that started the ball rolling on the current renaissance of Trek on TV will no longer be with us.

Discovery has been so many different things in its seven years on the air. It arrived with so many expectations. Some of those were on the back of the show’s co-creator and initial show-runner Bryan Fuller. Fuller got his start on the writing staff of Voyager, and was later responsible for a mess of shows that were at once well received and underperforming (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies). Many fans had been clamoring for Fuller to be responsible for a new Trek series.

Unfortunately, what he did with this opportunity didn’t always work as well as one might have hoped. To start with, Fuller mistook backstory for frontstory, starting off the TV show Star Trek: Discovery by giving us two hours of Star Trek: Shenzhou, and the fantastic dynamic among Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Commander Michael Burnham, and Doug Jones’ Lt. Commander Saru.

It’s been seven years, and I still resent that the show I was promised in the first two episodes didn’t come to pass. And I wouldn’t have that resentment if the show had started with its actual first episode, “Context is for Kings,” which is where the story of Discovery truly begins.

For reasons passing understanding, Fuller continued the wrong direction the franchise had been stuck in since 2001 in looking backward, making the show a prequel that took place prior to the original series.

What’s especially maddening is that the general storyline of season one of Discovery could’ve been done in, say, the late 25th century, following the lead of the first wave of feature films and of TNG and its immediate spinoffs by advancing the timeline. Yes, it would’ve meant no Sarek, no Harry Mudd, and possibly no Mirror Universe, but that wouldn’t be much of a loss.

From that incredibly weak foundation, Fuller then abandoned Gene Roddenberry in favor of Neil Gaiman, going off to show-run American Gods, turning Discovery over to Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. Berg and Harberts made it to midway through season two and then Michelle Paradise took over, and you can very much see the seams, as the opening episodes of the sophomore season promised a much different show than the second half gave us.

Yet the second season also provides the great paradox, as everything I said about how season one shouldn’t have been a prequel is shitcanned by the second season, which wound up becoming a fourteen-episode backdoor pilot for Strange New Worlds. Besides being fabulous, SNW is also an example of how a prequel can work. And without season two of Discovery, we never in a million years would’ve had (or even really wanted) SNW.

Meanwhile, Discovery got vaulted into the 32nd century for reasons of plot, and it was by far the best thing to happen to the show, as it got a billion times more interesting in the fictional future history’s future than in its past. And Trek has always been more successful when it moves forward than backward. It took a couple of seasons, but Discovery finally went in the right direction.

Discovery has also done something no other Trek show had done: show the journey of a character to the role of captain. Every other lead in a Trek show started out as a person in command with their place at the top of the ensemble a fait accompli as the show began. But unlike Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer before her (and Pike and Freeman after her), we saw Michael Burnham work her way to it, from her lowest point as a rank-less prisoner to a bridge officer to first officer and finally to captain of the U.S.S. Discovery. She did it with brains, she did it with fearlessness, she did it with a certain arrogance (she was raised by Vulcans, who have raised arrogance to an artform), and she did it—like all Trek commanders—with compassion and love. More to the point, she built a community. And she’s the first woman of color to lead a Trek ensemble, which matters for the same reason why Sisko and Janeway mattered.

In fact, Discovery truly did that journey twice, as we also saw Saru go on a similar odyssey. The Kelpien officer is Discovery’s greatest contribution to the Trek oeuvre, a magnificent character who embodies so much of what’s important to Trek: scientific curiosity, become greater than oneself, questioning assumptions, evolving. We met Saru as a prey animal, and he evolved into a predator (Action Saru indeed).

One of the most important aspects of any Trek show is that it’s about smart people solving problems, ideally with as little violence as possible. Prior shows always had a pair who Did The Science: Spock and Scotty on the original series, Data and La Forge on TNG, Dax and O’Brien on DS9, Torres and Kim on Voyager, and T’Pol and Tucker on Enterprise. But on Discovery, the whole crew is like that! Indeed, it’s from the top down, as Burnham and Saru are both brilliant (and we get one final example of the two of them being the science pair in “Under the Twin Moons”), but there’s also Stamets and Tilly and Reno and Adira. For that matter, we often see the bridge crew get in on it…

I’m grateful that Starfleet Academy is going to take place in the 32nd century as well, because we haven’t seen nearly enough of it. We’ve seen the unification of the Vulcans and Romulans on the world now called Ni’Var, we’ve seen a Federation president who has both Bajoran and Cardassian blood, we’ve seen the Ferengi as part of the Federation, we’ve seen the Andorians and Orions allying, we’ve seen the Trill. But what about the Klingons? The Betazoids? The Tholians? The Xindi? The Dominion?

Plus there’s all the things we were hoping for in future seasons that we’ll never see, like possibly fleshing out the bridge crew (I’ve been dying for more of Owosekun and Detmer (they were absent for much of the season due to scheduling conflicts (which wouldn’t have been an issue had this just been the fifth season instead of the final season (although I should mention that I’ve got a story coming up in an issue of Star Trek Explorer called “The Sirius Snarl” that focuses on the two of them (why am I doing so many nested parentheticals????)))))

Whatever one thinks of Discovery—and opinions have flown fast and furious over the past seven years and will likely continue to do so—one cannot deny that it ushered in the current era of Trek. Without Discovery paving the way, we wouldn’t have SNW or Picard or Lower Decks or Prodigy or Starfleet Academy or whatever else comes next.

Meantime, we’ve got more SNW, more LD, more Prodigy, and both SA and (sigh) the Section 31 movie to look forward to… icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Author

Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing about popular culture for this site since 2011, primarily but not exclusively writing about Star Trek and screen adaptations of superhero comics. He is also the author of more than 60 novels, more than 100 short stories, and around 50 comic books, both in a variety of licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as in worlds of his own creation. Read his blog, follow him on Facebook, The Site Formerly Known As Twitter, Instagram, Threads, and Blue Sky, and follow him on YouTube and Patreon.
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