Star Trek: Discovery season 5 episodes 6-9 review | flashes of quality in a pedestrian voyage

Star Trek Discovery season 5
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With spoilers, as Star Trek: Discovery heads towards its finale, we run though some of the final episodes of season 5.

When I began writing about the fifth season of Star Trek: Discovery, I had every intention of doing weekly reviews of each episode in the final ten before the show heads second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. What quickly became apparent was how little there actually was to say.

Discovery in my experience has many more adherents than detractors. People don’t just like this show, they love it, and they brook no argument against it. On the flipside, outside of the nonsensical trolls raging against Discovery’s rampant level of diversity (arguably one of the two best things in its arsenal), critics seem to agree by and large on average storytelling and cloying character development often sinking the show.

I’ve always maintained that Discovery manages to produce at least one or two genuinely good episodes of TV in a given season. Unless the finale pulls it out of the bag, this season ‘Face the Strange’ fits that bracket, and I’d argue so does the sixth episode ‘Whistlespeak’.

Penned by Kenneth Lin and Brandon Schultz and directed by Christopher J. Byrne this gives us the kind of episode Discovery has just failed too often to pony up – a traditional Star Trek cultural exploration.

The Halem’nite’s are a classic pre-warp, agrarian society whose culture comes under threat from the broader narrative of uncovering Progenitor technology, long hidden inside one of their satellites. All allowing Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) an uncover mission of discovery (a-ha!) and exploration.

Now don’t get me wrong. Not every week of a Star Trek show can be like this. Not every week in the 1990s golden age was, indeed those seasons were speckled with variety in tone and style. ‘Whistlespeak’ however represents what Star Trek does best – delving into an alien culture to reflect the world around us, plus allowing our main characters some reflection themselves.

Though not perfect, it balances a serialised and fairly standalone story well, allowing for some lightness in Discovery’s oft-perpetual gloom (Wiseman delivers a reaction moment of shock to pitch perfection here).

Sadly, ‘Erigah’ throws us back into familiar, rather uninspired territory, as the engines of ongoing plot kick fully back into gear.

Written by M. Raven Metzner and directed by Jon Dudkowski, it throws us deeper into Breen culture as we discover that La’k (Elias Toufexis) is not just a swarthy alien Clyde to Moll’s (Eve Harlow) Bonnie, but rather – handily -the Scion or heir by dynasty to the entire Breen Imperium. Hence complications as a villainous power grabber, Primarch Ruhn (Tony Rappo), seeks to gain power in the vacuum. Oh, and there’s some stuff happening on Discovery as well.

Thing is, I’m not sure I want to know all that much about the Breen. When they first popped up in Deep Space Nine, they were guttural alien warriors with a thirst for conquest and very few ethics. We never had subtitles for what they said, everything translated through other characters, which by virtue made them a scarier proposition.

Star Trek was going further in presenting the Breen as an unknowable China-esque entity, allegorically, as even the 1960s had done with the shadowy Romulans (before The Next Generation gave them all shoulder pads and turned them into Russians as the Klingons became a bit cuddlier).

Point being, discovering the Breen are just another warlike set of competing houses vying for each other’s blood just takes the air out of their mystery. They become a less sketched it, rounded set of aggressive Klingons and, well, we’ve seen it all before. Discovery is investing a significant more time in the character of Moll than is either necessary or the quality of actor playing the role deserves,

‘Labyrinths’ is thankfully a step back in the right direction, written by Lauren Wilkinson and Eric J. Robbins, and directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour. We get a little bit more tension in Burnham having to access a space library containing the final Progenitor clue, unlocking with the help of a serene avatar version of Book (David Ajala), a mind maze that will lead her to what she needs. Meanwhile, Moll and Ruhn vie for power as the Breen head to intercept and threaten to destroy the library.

Firstly, nice to see the Badlands again, a stormy staple of Deep Space Nine often central to many of the plots in that show (and indeed the very beginning of Voyager).

Secondly, while I enjoyed the Galactic Archive, it’s as hoary an old sci-fi/fantasy idea as you can imagine. A bit Foundation, a bit Citadel from Game Of Thrones, all down to a quirky little librarian character who seems largely obvious to the galaxy ending stakes around her. It’s fun enough but nothing new, and the mechanism of how Burnham comes to the final clue again speaks to the show’s limitations.

Namely, the fact that every time we reach a Progenitor clue, we are hampered by a fairly uninspired approach to resolving it utilising the same sets and locations, and even characters, without much variety. This is admittedly in the spirit of older Star Trek but given the scope of what precisely the Discovery crew are racing to get – technology with the power of the universe it seems- there is a complete lack of that scale on screen. The race for these clues has been limited and pedestrian at best.

Nevertheless, ‘Labyrinths’ was more compelling than most of the ongoing narrative elements of the series. Freed from her sassy dynamic with La’k, Moll works better in her uneasy role as Breen power broker and Federation sympathiser, while Commander Rayner’s (Callum Keith Rennie) arc back to a leadership role continues to entertain and the show is better whenever he’s on screen. Thankfully the episode doesn’t linger too heavily on the insipid Burnham/Book romance either, where writers have gamely strived this season to confect drama where there really is none.

The penultimate episode of the season, and series, ‘LaGrange Point’, is all set up from writers Sean Cochran and Ari Friedman, and director Jonathan Frakes (who remains one of Star Trek’s most legendary figures behind as well as before the camera). That is in the grand tradition certainly of Deep Space Nine, which was fully in serialised territory for the final run of episodes, though other Star Trek series with a more standalone approach provided different kinds of outings as penultimate tales – even the serialised Enterprise, another show curtailed before the planned end.

Discovery, it is well known, was not written for this to be a final season, with cancellation coming late enough in the day to force reshoots to the forthcoming finale to provide a conclusive ending to the show. It means ‘LaGrange Point’ is less about overarching conclusion than reaching an end to the season arc. It feels strange that something as seismic as the Progenitors wouldn’t be your final story in a series, or even in the old days your overarching mythology, but we can assume Discovery had at least ideas for a sixth season beyond this.

Which means there is little in the way of racing toward a series end point here, our characters in full plan mode to take down the Breen and recover the doorway, essentially, to the technology before Moll can reach it. There is a lot happening but little in the way of a solid, memorable episode as a construct. It’s all about setting up the ending, though along the way Rayner gets his character beat of sitting in the big chair, Saru (Doug Jones) finally reappears after sitting half the season out (and doesn’t do a fat lot – it’s surprising how little the show has missed his presence), and we get an intriguing cliffhanger with Burnham vanishing somewhere and the Discovery beaten to within an inch of its life.

Do I have high hopes for the finale? Not really. I’m not even all that intrigued, when honestly given the scale of what the show is about to show us, I really should be. I’m not quite expecting a ‘These Are the Voyages’ from Enterprise (the most bizarre misstep ending to a show Star Trek will ever take), but we’re a long way from ‘All Good Things’ or ‘What We Leave Behind’ here, almost certainly. Let’s fly one more time, I guess.

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

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