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Star Trek: Discovery’s first half-season succeeded by breaking the rules

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CBS

Spoilers ahead for the first half of season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery.

"Context is for kings,” Jason Isaacs’ Captain Gabriel Lorca intones in the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery, arguing that sometimes, Federation rules need to be broken if the situation warrants it. His declaration stands as a statement about the series in general. In its first half-season, Discovery broke many of Star Trek’s past TV rules, abandoning the familiar syndication-friendly episodic style in favor of a more plot-heavy, long-arc storytelling approach, offering more mature content than the franchise ever has before, and seemingly setting aside the long-established series canon.

Discovery has focused more than past Trek series on how individual plot moments play out in the larger context of a developing story. "What if events in one episode had consequences in another?" seems like a trite question for a TV show to ask in 2017, but aside from occasional arcs in later seasons of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, past Star Trek shows have barely considered the question. But here, at the halfway point of the first season of Discovery, it’s becoming clear that Lorca — and by extension, the series — was correct: sometimes you need to disobey orders to win a war. And in the incredibly competitive world of television in 2017, it seems for a Star Trek show to be successful, it also has to break some rules.

Image: CBS

"Into the Forest I Go,” Discovery's mid-season finale, takes on the task of wrapping up the opening Klingon-war arc and sets the stage for the second half of the season. (The series is scheduled to return to CBS All Access on January 7th.) So far, Discovery has been focused on the ebb and flow of the war between the Klingons and the Federation, which comes to a head in the final two episodes, as even the power of the Federation’s teleporting "spore drive" seemingly can’t overcome the Klingons’ cloaking technology.

The finale splits the task of defeating the Klingon warship into two halves, with Specialist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) on an away mission to plant some technobabble devices that will transmit data back to the ship about the the Klingons’ invisibility shield, and the rest of the crew of the USS Discovery using the spore drive to teleport around the Klingon ship to gather that data and break through the cloaking field.

Both parts of the mission highlight the strengths of Discovery's storytelling. Burnham returns to the Klingon warship to try and make things right in the war she started, and her arc reaches a neat conclusion here, as she refuses to abandon any Starfleet officer this time around. The weight of her guilt over her previous failures, and her determination to get it right this time, are effective uses of Burnham as a character. They take advantage of the time the show has spent with her over the course of the season, and the fact that she's grown and changed since the war began.

Image: CBS

Meanwhile, the spore-drive plot comes together nicely, with the entire crew working together to counter Klingon violence with knowledge and science. (Okay, and also photon torpedoes. But the “science” and “teamwork” parts were nice and thematic, too.) Lt. Paul Stamets (the mycologist in charge of running the Discovery’s spore drive, played by Anthony Rapp) has been hiding side effects from augmenting his DNA to operate the drive from his partner Dr. Culver (Wilson Cruz), which comes back to haunt him as he tries to survive the massive number of jumps the Discovery is making. Meanwhile, while Lorca has been disrespectful of Starfleet orders when it suits his purposes to advance the spore drive or win the war, that makes his similarly rebellious decision-making in this episode work from a character perspective.

Discovery still isn't perfect. For a show that puts so much stock in meaningful, serialized storytelling, it's quick to leave things by the wayside, too. Take the entire plot about the Pahvo life-forms bringing the Federation and Klingons together for some kind of peace summit from the previous episode, which was quickly abandoned. (Apparently it was just a pretense to have those two factions face off.) There are just six episodes left in the second half of the season, so the break here, after what seems like a clean resolution of the major plotlines, feels like an odd decision. It feels like the show will have to start from scratch and tell a compelling story arc in far less time.

Image: CBS

That said, the mid-season finale did set up plenty of plot threads to pick up next year. Discovery is lost in space, surrounded by Klingon wreckage, with some hints implying that Lorca may have taken them there on purpose. Stamets' side effects from the spore drive have escalated dramatically, following the ill-advised “one last jump” that leaves the ship stranded in the first place. Tyler is struggling with his PTSD following torture and rape at the hands of his Klingon captor L'Rell — and he may be an unwilling Klingon spy. And then there are the various tantalizing teases about alternative and mirror universes that the show has thrown around over the course of the season. But none of the various ongoing plot threads seem to directly involve Burnham, the ostensible protagonist, whose arc seems to have resolved. And it’s hard to see any of the remaining plot threads having the same stakes as the war with the Klingon Empire.

Roughly two-thirds of the way through that story, we're starting to get a better picture of what Discovery is saying: it’s an optimistic tale about the clashes between science and war, addressing the society the Federation would like to be. (A society that we know, from Kirk and Picard’s eras, that it eventually becomes.) The mid-season finale highlights this point, when Burnham first faces off against the Klingon general Kol with a universal translator, instead of a phaser.

In a lot of ways, “Into the Forest I Go” feels like an example of the show in a microcosm. It's not entirely perfect, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But even if the show’s stories don’t always come together, there’s enough here between the characters we’ve gotten to know over the last few episodes and the story that’s left untold to keep viewers coming back for more adventures in January.