In the history of Star Trek, no other series has faced as much pre-launch scrutiny as Star Trek: Discovery — other than, perhaps, The Next Generation. Speaking to Inverse in 2018, Jonathan Frakes likened the fan pushback against early Discovery in 2017 to the same kind of grief Trekkies gave his crew in 1987. But now, five years later, the triumph of Discovery is that it not only proved the haters wrong but built a new Star Trek empire in the process.
Trying to convince a certain kind of Star Trek fan to like everything about Discovery is impossible. Even staunch supporters of the series (like the person writing this sentence) have their gripes. But what many Disco-haters miss is that, if this show hadn’t been successful, none of the other new shows (which many Disco-haters claim to love) would exist at all. As Lower Decks star Tawny Newsome said recently, “[Discovery] is our modern mother.”
Despite the tinfoil-hat theories that Discovery is a secret failure, the fact that producer Alex Kurtzman has been able to greenlight tons of new Star Trek shows since 2017 is proof that Discovery was, and still is, successful. As the HBO Max kerfuffle proves, just because a studio has amazing IP (like Batgirl), doesn’t mean projects will get released. If Discovery was truly a mistake or a misstep for Star Trek, CBS/Paramount would have ejected the warp core a long time ago. And when you revisit the two-part pilot episode of Discovery, you’ll find two things: A show that was certainly unsure of its identity, but also a show with a much stronger and more creative series premiere than most other Star Trek shows.
Up until the release of Discovery, secrecy was high. Fans and journalists alike were confused as to whether Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) was the star, or if it was Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). Most journalists didn’t get press screenings of the premiere, which also probably biased several critics against the series. (Of course, Disney+ did pretty much the same thing with The Mandalorian two years later and nobody complained about that.) Had a CBS All-Access subscription come with endless rewatches of The Lion King, would critics have felt differently about Discovery? Maybe.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes chaos in the early days of Star Trek: Discovery. There certainly was. The release date was pushed back several times. Creator/showrunner Bryan Fuller pulled out of the project in a cloud of controversy. Even in Season 2, as Discovery dipped into classic Trek lore with the addition of Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Spock (Ethan Peck), and Number One (Rebecca Romijn), showrunners and writers were still coming and going. Aaron Harbets and Gretchen Berg were fired mid-Season 2, producer Alex Kurtzman briefly took over. By the end of Season 2, Michelle Paradise was in the showrunner seat. Since Paradise’s tenure began, the tone and direction of the series have become steadier. This doesn’t mean Discovery became a perfect show after 2019, but it certainly became a more consistent one.
And on that particular detail — the revolving door of producers and writers — early Discovery is very similar to the early days of The Next Generation. When TNG was in its second season in 1988, a reflexively dismissive tone from old-school fans (and some media) was still omnipresent. But Discovery endured all of that, and through its tenacity — and fan support — managed to create the bedrock of new Star Trek.
Discovery set the stage for all of the subsequent Trek shows to exist, but more directly was responsible for the re-introduction of the classic USS Enterprise, and Strange New Worlds. People like to pretend that Strange New Worlds is a prequel to The Original Series and a return to more classic storytelling. But anyone who has been following the new shows closely knows that Strange New Worlds is really just a slick Discovery spin-off.
This long-and-winding road may not have been exactly what Bryan Fuller had planned, but the debut of Discovery does hold up fairly well five years later. The seeds for Burnham’s journey to captaincy are planted firmly in the two-part premiere: “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars.” Viewed now, the episodes feel like a slightly alternate dimension of what the show would become, which is odd of course since so much of Season 1 actually takes place in an alternate (aka Mirror) universe.
At the time, each of Discovery’s Season 1 storylines challenged long-held Trekkie generalizations about the nature of Starfleet and what the franchise ought to feel like. In each of these micro-arcs, the notion of Starfleet and its purpose was deconstructed and, by the end of the series, hastily reassembled. When the USS Enterprise appears in the final moments of “Will You Take My Hand?,” Discovery basically becomes a new show.
With its controversial character demises and plot twists, Discovery needed to pivot away from the mixed tone and plotting of its first season. It needed to have the Captain Pike and Spock season. It needed to jump 930 years into the future for Season 3. But it also needed its first season. Everything that is great about what Discovery became is embedded in this first season. And everything that didn’t work was transformed into something better. Of all the Trek series, Discovery is easily the one that has changed the most. And considering it’s only been around for five years, that’s one hell of a run.
Star Trek: Discovery is streaming now on Paramount+.