‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Series Finale Marked a Flawed but Ambitious End to a Successful Franchise Reboot | Commentary

If you’ve been part of the “Star Trek” journey, you’ll understand the significance of measuring your life in the series finales you’ve witnessed: “The Next Generation.” “Deep Space Nine.” “Voyager.” “Enterprise.” Each one a milestone.

And now, with the final episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” streaming on Paramount+, we add one more to the mix, like the rings of a tree trunk — or rather, Saturn. This series, now complete, is sure to spark intense conversations and debates among fans as it finds its place in the vast Trek universe.

Debuting in 2017, “Discovery” represented the franchise’s return to television after an extended hiatus of over a decade following the 2005 cancellation of “Star Trek: Enterprise.” With an impressive budget and an aesthetic approach wholly distinct from the 1960s original and the various sequels and spin-offs that aired during the ’80s and ’90s, the series garnered new loyal fans for the franchise even as it ruffled the feathers of some longtime devotees.

“Discovery,” a creation of Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, was not without its challenges. Starring Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander-turned-Captain Michael Burnham, the series had to navigate the changing tides of television sensibilities and the demands of a vocal fanbase. It wasn’t always a smooth journey, but it aimed to give audiences something both familiar and fresh.

And just as the show was often more ambitious than its execution allowed, one can say the same about the finale, “Life, Itself.” Spanning a staggering 88 minutes, it’s the longest single episode of TV Trek ever. Initially filmed as a regular season-ender, it was later tasked with concluding the entire series, leading to a hasty epilogue that attempts to tie up loose ends. The result is a final episode that feels both too rushed and too languid, with a feeling of checking off boxes as it cycles through plot points.

"Star Trek: Discovery" Season 5, Episode 10
“Star Trek: Discovery”

Certain characters get showcase moments (let’s hear it for Doug Jones’ Ambassador Saru!) while others are left wildly underserved (pity poor Anthony Rapp as Commander Paul Stamets). Meanwhile, the central storyline of the season involving an alien race who seeded intelligent life in the universe (itself an excavation of a bit of lore from a 1993 episode of “The Next Generation”) reaches a resolution that’s tidy enough, but calls into question why we went on this journey to begin with.

Then again, the finale also demonstrates the unique challenges “Discovery” has faced since its debut. As a prequel set nine years before “Star Trek: The Original Series,” it asked a lot from fans, both in terms of its storytelling approach (while long-form serialized stories aren’t new to “Trek,” “Discovery” leaned into the format hard) and its digressions from extant lore (a.k.a. the all-important canon, constantly unfurling like a tapestry ever since the ’60s).

By ostensibly situating the show within the original timeline (as opposed to the alternative universe of the 2009-2016 trilogy starring Chris Pine) and having to tiptoe around issues related to canon, the producers realized the prequel setting was creating more problems than it was solving. Thus, at the end of the second season, the good ship Discovery pulled up stakes and decamped to the far-flung 32nd century, wholly unexplored in prior Trek tales and free from any pesky continuity conundrums to worry about.

The trade-off, however, was that the new setting, bereft of the trappings fans knew and loved, made for an uphill climb as far as retaining audience investment. “Discovery” arrives in a future where “Star Trek’s” utopian future has fallen into disarray — Starfleet is disbanded; the Federation is a shadow of its former self. Thus, it fell to the time-displaced crew of the Discovery to reclaim the ideals of optimism they represent and restore Starfleet to its formerly preeminent perch.

Not a bad mission statement, but as was so often the case with “Discovery,” the loftiness of its ambitions had a tendency to run headlong into the dodginess of its execution, with characters behaving inconsistently from episode to episode and wordy technobabble serving as a substitute for problem-solving. Still, “Discovery” now has a complete beginning, middle and end, and the fans who came into the franchise through this show will no doubt continue to revisit and cherish it.

"Star Trek: Discovery" Season 5, Episode 10
“Star Trek: Discovery” Season 5, Episode 10

The “Discovery” finale arrives precisely 30 years and one week after the final episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” aired. That episode, 1994’s “All Good Things,” remains one of the most beloved finales of all time, Trek or otherwise. As such, perhaps it’s unfair to force comparisons, but on the other hand, it’s impossible not to, given the symmetry of their airdates.

When “The Next Generation” concluded, the franchise was at its absolute peak in terms of public awareness and acceptance, and its finale reflected that. By contrast, “Life, Itself” is an invite-only affair, reflecting its place as a streaming skein with a fraction of “The Next Generation’s” substantial audience.

As fans of the prequel series “Star Trek: Enterprise” (cut down in its prime after a mere four seasons … the wound still hurts), we remember well when that show first premiered (in the fall of 2001) and the subsequent sturm and drang amongst the fandom over whether it should be considered canon. Viewers eventually came around to, if not embracing, at least accepting that the show exists. We suspect something similar is in store for “Discovery” as years turn into decades.

But as we wait for history to weigh in on “Star Trek: Discovery,” let’s not overlook its most remarkable achievement. It’s not just a show; it’s a catalyst. In the seven years since “Discovery’s” debut, it opened the floodgates to a plethora of spin-offs — with more “Trek” in production at once than at any other time in history. This is a testament to the enduring power and appeal of the “Star Trek” universe and a cause for celebration among fans, regardless of which flavors of the franchise they prefer.

There’s the still-going “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” (now setting course for its third season). There’s the recently concluded “Star Trek: Picard.” There’s the soon-to-conclude “Star Trek: Lower Decks” and “Star Trek: Prodigy,” which was canceled by Paramount but rescued by Netflix. But that’s not all! A “Section 31” movie is on the way, depicting the seedier side of Starfleet and spinning off directly from “Discovery’s” second season. There’s also an upcoming “Starfleet Academy” show starring Holly Hunter and set during “Discovery’s” 32nd century timeframe.

Truly, it’s a bumper crop of TV Trekking for anyone inclined to delve into new and different corners of the final frontier. And none of it would exist if “Discovery” hadn’t shaken loose the cobwebs and made it safe to go boldly once again.

All five seasons of “Star Trek: Discovery” are available to stream on Paramount+.

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