How ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ won me back

Intense pressure greeted CBS All Access's “ Trek: ” when it premiered in fall 2017. Beyond relaunching “Star Trek” into the TV space (the last “Trek” series, the ill-fated “Star Trek: Enterprise,” ended in 2005), it also had to help launch All Access, CBS's paid subscription service. And it tried to do all this while taking a completely unconventional approach to the “Trek” universe.

Trying something new with a property as beloved as “Trek” would be hard no matter what. But the people behind “Discovery” chose a particularly difficult path for the United Federation of Planets: solemnity and darkness.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in “Star Trek: Discovery.” (Photo: Jan Thijs/CBS)

When the series premiered with a single airing on CBS, longtime “Trek” fans decried the dour tone and violence. And “Discovery” was almost too unique for “Trek.” A prequel to the original 1966 series, “Discovery” focused on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human Starfleet first officer raised on Vulcan who, after inadvertently starting a conflict with the Klingons, commits mutiny against her captain, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and helps launch the conflict into a full-blown war.

Of course, Burnham was trying to do what she thought was best, but her actions made her a hard protagonist to root for. The series wasn't worth cheering for, either. The first half of the season focused on the depressing state of the war, which the Federation was desperately losing. Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) took Burnham out of jail to help defeat the Klingons through the use of “spor technology,” which allows the entire starship to teleport.

Seeing the normally aggressively peaceful Starfleet at war was interesting at first, but after a few episodes the formula became repetitive and boring. How many times could Burnham make a call she believed was right, only to see it hurt her comrades? How many times could the Klingons be ruthless? How many times could the Discovery use pretty lights to “jump” to a new location?

The best episode from the first half of the season was a complete departure from that story: A stand-alone adventure, more like the old “Trek” formula, in which con artist Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) trapped the Discovery in a time loop. By the time the series signed off at the end of 2017, there seemed little reason to return.

But the second half, which arrived last January, felt like a different show – more energized, creative and engaging, thanks to a handy plot trick as the Discovery slipped into an alternate universe.

In that “Mirror Universe,” our characters' doppelgangers were ruthless, greedy versions of themselves. That setting allowed the writers to more fully explore themes about morality in war and about people being their own worst enemies, and to do it all while putting the actors in shiny gold costumes. The series also revived “Crazy Rich Asians” star Yeoh, who had been killed off in the two-part premiere, as a gleefully evil tyrant, a more compelling villain than the Klingons ever were.

A few twists, a betrayal and several action sequences later, “Discovery” ended its first season with a clever and well-written finale that came closer to embracing the tone fans are so familiar with. Instead of a grand climactic battle sequence, the finale saw Michael and the rest of the “Discovery” crew prevent the Federation from committing genocide and led them to a peaceful resolution to the Klingon war. And then came the distress call from the USS Enterprise.

In the second season (streaming Thursday, 8:30 EST/5:30 PST) the series dips further into the “Star Trek” vault, returning familiar characters like Spock (Ethan Peck), Commander Pike (Anson Mount) and even the old-style colored uniforms. The new villain is a mysterious and destructive force, the Red Angel, and Pike takes command of the “Discovery” to investigate.

It's all more familiar than early episodes. And it's fun to see the “Discovery” characters, who improved greatly over the course of Season 1, play in the same space as the classic guys. This is a setup the series has proven it can work with: interpersonal relationships (Spock is Burnham's brother, of course) and a multi-episode adventure. And in the season premiere, the new “Discovery” continues to shine, with a more confident atmosphere and even some humor mixed in.

So if you fell off the “Discovery” starship, don't be discouraged. “Trek” always manages to find the right path, even after some stumbles (cough, “Into Darkness”). We can only hope that we get to discover more greatness this year.

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