Starring Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman
Distributed by Paramount Global
Episodes: 65
Most episodes rated TV-14, season one rated TV-MA for violence and profanity

Author’s note: This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery.

When Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled in 2005, it brought an end to eighteen continuous years of Star Trek on TV. In the twelve-year hiatus that followed, three big-screen movies were released, but they swapped Star Trek’s thoughtful, philosophic science fiction for an action-centric approach more like Star Wars, alienating many fans.1

So, excitement mounted in 2016 when CBS announced a new Star Trek TV show, Discovery, which concluded in May 2024 after five seasons. Many hoped that this show, set a decade before the original Star Trek, would return to Trek’s traditional emphasis on scientific exploration, moral questions, and optimism about the future.

Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed. Discovery’s first season is a violent, graphic depiction of a war between the Federation and the militaristic Klingon Empire: The crew of the starship Discovery face, among other things, the death of their captain, the mutiny and imprisonment of their first officer (the show’s lead character, Michael Burnham), and the painful revelation that several main characters are enemy agents.2 “I think people felt it was too dark,” producer Alex Kurtzman later admitted.3 Dismayed, many fans of traditional Star Trek jumped ship to The Orville, which debuted at the same time as Discovery and offered a bright, optimistic sci-fi universe more akin to older Star Trek series.

Discovery’s first season is not all bad. The second half includes an exciting arc taking place in the “mirror universe,” a parallel world (established in the original Star Trek) populated by evil versions of the regular characters. This gives the first season’s two strongest actors, Michelle Yeoh and Jason Isaacs, the opportunity to flex their theatrical muscles by portraying both heroic and evil versions of their characters.

Acknowledging fan disappointment over the show’s pessimistic tone, the producers changed course for season two, bringing the USS Discovery into contact with the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Pike (Anson Mount), its captain before Kirk in the original Star Trek. The encounter illustrates the difference in tone between Discovery and older Star Trek series: The Enterprise is lit more brightly, its crew wear brighter colors, and they are more optimistic and lighthearted than the Discovery crew. Pike takes command of Discovery, bringing his science officer, Spock (Ethan Peck), with him—an obvious attempt by the producers to woo fans back with a popular, established character, although at the cost of sometimes sidelining the Discovery crew.

Season two contains some of the best material Discovery has to offer and by far its most intriguing story line. Pike and Spock bring the show a sense of purpose and a measure of charisma badly lacking in season one, but what makes the season so powerful is Pike’s backstory. The original Star Trek established that Pike would suffer a disfiguring and debilitating radiation accident ten years after the time frame of Discovery, so the writers cleverly decided to have Pike learn about this horrific future during the season. This sets up the fascinating scenario of a man trying to be the captain of a starship and a heroic defender of life, peace, science, and exploration, all while knowing that his future is one of immense suffering and loss. Through this storyline, the show explores Pike’s values, his belief in free will, and the philosophical implications of having what appears to be a predetermined future.

Many fans loved Pike and his crewmates and the actors playing them. People began demanding a more traditional Star Trek series focused on these characters without Discovery’s baggage. Within a few weeks, thirty thousand fans signed a petition calling for a Pike-led show set on the Enterprise, which actor Anson Mount said “brought tears to my eyes.”4 A little over a year later, CBS and Paramount gave them what they wanted and began producing Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, focusing on Pike and his crew aboard the Enterprise and returning to Star Trek’s signature topic of peaceful exploration with often-lighthearted adventures.

But the producers weren’t willing to give up on Discovery yet, and they wanted to address another fan criticism: Discovery’s incongruence with Star Trek canon. Unlike the 2009–2016 films, which sidestepped canon considerations by being set in a parallel universe, Discovery was officially part of the “prime timeline” established by earlier series. This raised a question of why certain elements of the show—especially the ship’s powerful “spore drive” that enables it to jump across space instantly—are absent from series set later.

Attempting to resolve this problem and to avoid story conflicts with Strange New Worlds, the writers changed Discovery’s setting, warping the ship and crew nine hundred years into the future, past all established Star Trek canon. As a result of this, and a switch to a lighter, more adventurous tone, season three effectively rebooted the show.

Seasons three through five are more consistent in tone. Each has an interesting arc: Season three follows the crew trying to determine the cause of the mysterious “Burn,” which cost billions of lives and left most former Federation territory in the hands of a crime syndicate. Season four deals with the difficulty of communicating with others. It does this both through a story about bringing a nationalistic Earth back into the Federation and a plot about making peace with aliens who communicate in a way utterly different than humans. Season five is a race against enemies to recover ancient alien technology capable of creating and destroying life on a galactic scale. It deals with the implications of possessing such power and the ethics of how to use it. These three seasons also show former mutineer Burnham’s gradual ascension to captain of Discovery as she undergoes a huge personal change, developing prudence and a strong sense of morality.

These are intriguing plotlines, and the latter seasons of Discovery are closer to the traditional Star Trek ethos in their treatment of such topics. However, the stories often reuse ideas from earlier Star Trek series, along with such movies as Arrival, Dune, and Guardians of the Galaxy, and the show’s handling of its themes sometimes lacks nuance and comes across as preachy. By far the most notable example is how it deals with gender. Both The Orville and Discovery broached this topic around the same time. But whereas The Orville delivered a fascinating plot of a child discovering that her sex was altered at birth and then deciding (after careful thought) to reverse the change, Discovery takes a ham-fisted approach: The character Adira simply says, mid-conversation, “I’ve never felt like a ‘she’ or—or a ‘her,’ so I would prefer ‘they’ or ‘them’ from now on.” The other character in the scene replies, “Okay!,” and all characters call Adira “they” and “them” without further discussion. Not only does the show not explore the questions of why Adira made this decision or whether it was right, but the writers gratuitously overuse the pronouns, making them sound forced.

This is one of Discovery’s major flaws: Characters are written unrealistically for the seeming purpose of conveying “politically correct” ideology. For example, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is far too nervous, unconfident, and physically unfit to meet the demands of being a Starfleet officer. The only characters who ever point this out are villains; the main crew treat her with a gentle acceptance and forgiveness that, although perhaps well-meaning, put her and others in danger on multiple occasions. She is not held responsible for her choices or shortcomings, implying that nothing is wrong with being out of shape or acting panicky in dangerous situations. Tilly’s arc is interesting at times, but her unlikely position as a bridge officer on a Federation starship detracts from the believability of the show and her story line.

Fortunately, the show also features some excellent characters with powerful stories. Outstanding among these is Saru (Doug Jones), whose species is raised as prey to a predator race on his home world. His story of overcoming the fear that members of his race are conditioned to experience and then inspiring an uprising against the predators is one of the show’s most interesting and satisfying arcs. Several other intriguing characters are introduced throughout the show, but unfortunately, many of the regular cast (including much of the bridge crew) are underdeveloped and forgettable.

Overall, Star Trek: Discovery is a frustrating case of great potential and interesting story concepts hampered by poor character development and ham-fisted treatment of moral questions. Its repeated changes of direction prevent it from forming a unique identity and delivering on its premise. Nonetheless, the show—its second season in particular—provides some quality sci-fi stories, and it deserves recognition for setting the stage for the successful, more benevolent Strange New Worlds. If you’re a die-hard Trekkie or a fan of darker sci-fi series (such as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica), you’ll probably find some value in all five seasons. If you prefer more adventurous sci-fi, check out season two, which is Discovery at its best and serves as an essential prequel to Strange New Worlds.

Star Trek: Discovery is a frustrating case of great potential and interesting story concepts hampered by poor character development and ham-fisted treatment of moral questions.
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1. In 2014, former Star Trek: Deep Space Nine producer Ronald D. Moore remarked that Star Trek’s “home and its heart is really in television.” He thinks the franchise struggles to translate to the big screen because “The kinds of stories that you’ll tell in the features space are not the kinds of stories that made that show so popular. The features all have to be action-oriented. . . . The TV shows were morality plays, they were more thematic, they were examining society in different ways.” See Matt Wright, “Star Trek’s Heart Is in Television, Says Ron D. Moore,” TrekMovie, February 5, 2014,

2. Despite her name, Michael Burnham is female.

3. Valerie Ettenhofer, “Star Trek Exec Thinks He Knows Why Discovery Didn’t Connect with Some Fans,” SlashFilm, June 2, 2024,

4. Anthony Pascale, “Anson Mount Responds to Fan Petition Calling for Star Trek Pike Series,” TrekMovie, April 15, 2019,

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