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Sonequa Martin-Green Saved Star Trek: Discovery From Getting Lost in a Maze of Plot Twists

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham wears a blue Starfleet uniform with a medal pinned on her chest
Sonequa Martin-Green, Discovery’s guiding light.
Jan Thijs/CBS

This review contains spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery entered the world with a hyperawareness of how it would fit into the larger Star Trek canon. As a prequel to the original series, it had to contend both with what had come before it in the timeline—the relatively short-lived Enterprise—and with the many series and movies that would follow it chronologically. All that in a franchise whose fans are notorious for their attention to detail.

And yet each new Star Trek series says much more about the era it’s created in than it does about whatever futuristic time period it’s trying to imagine. The original series was a clear product of the 1960s, an idealist’s response to the Cold War, the space race, and the civil rights movement, while Deep Space Nine, arriving on the heels of the Gulf War, explored the aftermath of a brutal occupation. Enterprise’s entire third season hinges on a massive terrorist attack by religious zealots and follows a Starfleet crew as they venture into enemy territory in search of a weapon of mass destruction. (I trust I don’t have to spell out what exactly was happening in 2003 to inspire that kind of storyline.)

So what does Star Trek look like in 2018? Well, there’s certainly a lot that Discovery can tell us about the state of television right now. The first Star Trek of the streaming era leaned into that distinction by airing 14 out of the first season’s 15 episodes exclusively on CBS All Access, making the show a kind of guinea pig for the network’s subscription-only streaming service. Discovery was also the first Trek to be rated TV-MA, which gave the showrunners the freedom to show more graphic violence in a time of war, to reveal what Klingon breasts look like (a lot like regular breasts), and even to drop the franchise’s first F-bomb. The series went for a more serialized format than we’re used to seeing from Star Trek and tossed out the familiar aesthetics of its time period in favor of a darker palette and some technology that more plausibly lines up with our own.

Discovery is also one of the most diverse installments of the franchise to date, and the first led by a woman of color, Sonequa Martin-Green, as Michael Burnham, a Starfleet officer–turned-mutineer. It’s impossible to talk about Discovery without talking about Burnham, an anchor in a season that desperately needed one, thanks to all the time travel, alternate universes, doppelgangers, and fungi-fueled jumps through space, to say nothing of the larger plot line involving a war between Starfleet and the Klingons. As a human raised by Vulcans, it would have been easy to make Burnham yet another Spock or Data, her humanity buried under layers and layers of logic. Instead, Martin-Green plays her with a fierce charisma and warmth, making Burnham not only a compass in the wilderness but a light in the darkness, too.

Sunday night’s season finale brought Burnham’s frequently messy story full circle—maybe a little too neatly. Discovery began with Burnham accidentally starting a war and committing a mutiny against her beloved captain, putting her crew’s survival over Starfleet’s ideals. The first season ends with Burnham threatening another mutiny against that same captain, this time in defense of Starfleet’s principles and with the aim of ending the war that she started. In spite of all the distractions and misdirections along the way, Burnham’s arc has finally become clear, with another character even explicitly pointing out that she has learned to love her enemy after falling for Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who turned out to be a Klingon sleeper agent—a Jekyll-and-Hyde flourish that Discovery watchers saw coming a parsec away, just one of the perils of making Star Trek in an era of social media.

There turned out to be too many of those twists in Discovery’s first season, and it was frustrating to watch as the writers sidled up to new, risky frontiers for exploration, only to suddenly change course right when things were starting to get interesting. Tyler went from a troubled prisoner of war to a science experiment, both complicating and simplifying what was shaping up to be a far more nuanced exploration of PTSD. The relationship between Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), a landmark for gay visibility in Star Trek, was cut abruptly short with Culber’s shocking death. And don’t get me started on Jason Isaacs’ character, Capt. Gabriel Lorca, the series’ most shameless bait-and-switch of all. He was introduced to us as a Starfleet captain with an edge, obsessed with warfare and an end-justifies-the-means mentality, who promised to complicate our ideas about Starfleet morality—right up until he was revealed as “secretly” being from Star Trek’s evil Mirror Universe. (This concept was so clearly telegraphed in advance that the show sometimes took on the quality of a horror movie in which every character, including Burnham, is too oblivious to realize that the monster is in the room with them.)

That said, those Mirror Universe episodes were some of the most enjoyable in the entire season, particularly in bringing back Michelle Yeoh as a deliciously devious Mirror version of Philippa Georgiou, after her character was so rudely killed off in the show’s second episode. Not only did that plot line give Discovery’s other supporting players a chance to shine, particularly Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Saru (Doug Jones), it also exemplified what made Discovery great, when it was : questioning the role of science in warfare, establishing bonds between characters that could transcend entire universes, and a willingness to throw caution and self-seriousness to the wind once in a while and have a little bit of fun with the canon, as when the key to Lorca’s secret identity was his sensitivity to light, a wink at the Mirror Universe’s dark aesthetic in Trek’s other iterations. Best of all, it focused on Burnham and her relationships—with her crewmates, her enemies, and her surrogate parents—of which there are many.

That’s the kind of note that Discovery went out on in the last minutes of the finale, as the crew of the USS Discovery at last put the war behind them thanks to Burnham and charted a new course—only to be sidetracked by a distress signal from the ship that started it all, the USS Enterprise. Fan service, to be sure, but the kind of fan service that’s fun even when you see it coming because it raises new possibilities for the second season, including the possibility of Burnham running into her adopted brother, Spock. Discovery’s first season wasn’t perfect, but it did try to show us what Star Trek could look like in 2018, and the results were intriguing and boundary-pushing. Let’s see if it can break those boundaries altogether in Season 2.

Read more in Slate about Star Trek.

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Marissa Martinelli

Marissa Martinelli is a Slate editorial assistant.