Star Trek: Discovery season 5 episode 10 review | The anodyne send off to a frustrating odyssey

Star Trek Discovery season 5
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Star Trek: Discovery’s journey comes to an end, and it leaves behind a sense of frustration. Spoilers lie ahead.

NB: The following contains spoilers

The end of Star Trek: Discovery arrives, then, not with a firework display of pop culture anticipation, but rather the whimper of a series that never translated beyond a highly protective core fanbase of viewers. You do or die with Discovery, it seems. Mine, in the end, has been a death by 60+ episodes.

The episode ‘Life, Itself’ by all accounts was never conceived as a series finale, rather Kyle Jarrow and Michelle Paradise’s episode, directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, was meant to wrap up a fifth season. It provided in theory the biggest Discovery plotline yet – the search for the Progenitors, a long extinct race who seeded the known universe of life. It doesn’t get much bigger than Space Gods.

Yet what was promoted in the season premiere, ‘Red Directive’, as an Indiana Jones-style race against time, and against a power hungry enemy, for ancient knowledge, quickly turned out to be a largely anodyne series of locations visited to uncover clues that amounted to… not that much. A big, strange room and an inevitable Progenitor conversation that boiled down to “eh, we don’t have answers either”

Part of me sighed with relief in the fact Discovery doesn’t attempt to either explain the Progenitors per se, or indeed back itself into a gigantic narrative corner Star Trek can’t get out of (which it’s already done once by moving the action into a very dull 32nd century). On the other hand, what Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds is a gigantic cop out, ultimately, and an enormous lame duck at the end of a ten part race for something you kind of hoped wouldn’t be a knock-off cut scene from an Assassins Creed game.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

If Discovery has taught me anything since 2017, it’s to expect diminishing returns. This is, let’s face it, a series that has been in decline since the end of its first season. The reasons for that are manifold – production issues, numerous changing showrunners partly out of creative differences and toxic work environments, broader shenanigans over the direction of CBS All Access and later Paramount+. Yet it’s also about the writing.

That’s been my chief issue with Discovery since the end of that first year, by some distance the best season of the show (mainly because it feels genuinely different from almost anything that followed it). The writing. I’m not convinced Jarrow or Paradise or Alex Kurtzman or almost any of the people involved in this show understand how to write Star Trek. I think they love it. I think they care for it deeply. But I don’t think they understand what it is, not really.

‘Life, Itself’ is a good example of a Star Trek finale that tries to be two things – firstly, meaningful and esoteric, exploring humanity’s quest for knowledge. Secondly, the bombastic end to a grand saga, filled with action and suspense. Problem is, it’s neither. The Progenitors stuff is ultimately empty and the titanic battle against the Breen is just visual effects, lots of moving cameras and barely sketched out bridge characters telling us how close we are to oblivion. 

For me, this is part of the reason why Star Trek being purely serialised, as Discovery has always been, just does not work. Strange New Worlds understands this and is a better show for it. Lower Decks did its own thing and has been a joy for it. Discovery has tried again and again and again to tell a movie-style narrative of grand universal threat over 10 or 13 episodes and every single time, it has underwhelmed. Why? Because Star Trek is not that show.

Star Trek Discovery season 5

Did Star Trek of old have great confrontations and galaxy ending stakes? Sure. Quite often at the end of a season. Yet it also took time to sail into steadier, thoughtful waters, using characters to reflect our own world back at us. When does Discovery do that in this final season? What is it really about? I have no clue. I’m not sure it even knows. There is no great thematic revelation here. No powerful transformative moment for Burnham. No real catharsis for audiences. It aims for epic and then just winds down.

The ending then pulls a well worn trick in finale terms – takes us forward to the future, with an aged Admiral Burnham heading back for one last ‘fly’ with her old ship (mainly so the series can link up canonically with ‘Calypso’, a weird Short Treks episode from a few years ago, which tells you everything about how these writers plot this show). Granted, we’ll probably see Tilly (Mary Wiseman) again in the coming Starfleet Academy show, but the rest barely even get a goodbye.

I still would struggle to tell you the names of half the characters on the bridge of the Discovery. That’s just astonishing after several seasons. The show leant so heavily into the overly earnest, rampant sentiment of Burnham, easily the most annoyingly overwrought protagonist in Star Trek history, that almost everyone else didn’t get a look in. Star Trek has been guilty since the beginning of focusing heavily on a core two or three characters in each series but not to this extent.

As a result, Discovery lives and dies largely on whether you can work with Burnham, and I never really could. I can’t fault the production values, which by and large are terrific (if lacking in visual imagination half the time). The direction is always solid. The performances do their job (although some of the actors aren’t exactly top drawer). It’s just so painfully average a watching experience, it’s almost throwaway. Discovery feels the least enticing Star Trek series for regular rewatching in 60 years.

The worst thing about ‘Life, Itself’ is how little anyone cares. Beyond core Star Trek circles, nobody is talking about the final episode of a series that saved Star Trek on the small screen, kickstarting the third era of the show. Even Star Trek: Picard had some echo on social media. This has none. It’s a spent force. And that’s a real shame because while Discovery is a deeply average TV series, and always has been, its legacy is long and important.

It should best be remembered as a series that opened the gateway for Star Trek to return, modernised and determined to make a mark. Discovery, however, as this lacklustre finale aptly demonstrates, could have been so much better. I’ll always lament that before I lament anything the show actually gave us.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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