‘Star Trek: Discovery’ S5 Review: Final Season Is Its Best

This season has a brisk pace and the sense of fun that in the past has been crushed under the weight of grave galactic stakes.

Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery. Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Star Trek: Discovery occupies an interesting place in the celebrated franchise. It was the first Trek series of the streaming era, the first to debut behind a paywall, the first produced after J.J. Abrams’ big screen reboot, and the first to put a woman of color in the captain’s chair. Discovery redefined the look and feel of the franchise on television, bringing Trek into the modern world of feature-level photography, effects, and pace of story. It blazed a trail for a new generation of Trek media, like direct spin-off Strange New Worlds and the upcoming Section 31 TV movie. It is also not terribly popular amidst the old guard of Trekkies, nor is it a mainstream hit or a critical darling. Discovery has struggled to find its footing from the very beginning and is still uneven after years of retooling. I do not consider its cancellation after five seasons to be a tragic loss for television. However, Discovery may still have one “first” left to achieve: It may be the first Star Trek series whose final season is its best. 

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(A quick personal note to the handful of Trekkies who just clutched their pearls: Season 4 of Enterprise is not better than Season 3, it merely has more familiar stuff for fans to point at with childlike glee. And you’ve likely already read my thoughts on Picard’s final season.)

Even as a critic of the show, I have to acknowledge that every season of Discovery has started with a bang. It’s the nature of a serialized, season-long story arc to kick off with something resembling the first act of a feature film, and Season 5 is no different. The opening chapter, “Red Directive,” is a fast-paced space adventure packed with flashy action set pieces. The illustrious Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her crew are on the trail of Moll (Eve Harlow) and L’ak (Elias Toufexis), a spacefaring Bonnie and Clyde who have stumbled across a secret with enormous implications for the future of the galaxy. Just like the previous three seasons, this sets Team Disco off on another cosmic scavenger hunt, jumping to a new world each week to find the next clue to the season’s grander mystery. 

David Ajala, Sonequa Martin-Green, and Wilson Cruz (from left) in Star Trek: Discovery. Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Historically, this is where Discovery has run into trouble. While each chapter tends to have its own contained adventure plot or even a classic Trek “message of the week,” they’re rarely that memorable and they advance the season’s overarching storyline without adding much depth. This season, though, has a brisk pace and a sense of fun that, previously, has been crushed under the weight of grave galactic stakes. Paramount has promoted this season as having an Indiana Jones energy to it, and that’s a fair comparison. The characters are enjoying themselves more, and for the first time since Season 2, the story isn’t built around some unfathomable tragedy. To my best recollection, none of the episodes provided in advance to critics feature any crying. That’s four consecutive episodes, possibly a new track record.

This is not the only way in which Discovery’s new season throttles back on the show’s occasionally cloying sentimentality. The season premiere introduces a new character, Captain Rayner (Callum Keith Rennie), a gruff pragmatist who serves as a contrast to Burnham’s soft-spoken, personable, firmly feminine command style. At first, Rayner appears to be a straw man representing aggro, entitled white male authority, a trope Discovery goes to often. As the season progresses, Rayner acquires some depth and even some likability. It’s fun to watch this grumpy old guy interact with a cast full of characters who are totally in touch with their feelings. Most importantly, Rayner provides something that the series has needed ever since Burnham took command of Discovery: a professional peer with whom to disagree and occasionally compromise. It’s an essential role that her first officer, Saru (Doug Jones), has become too adoring and loyal to play. Burnham has earned the devotion of her crew, but watching her gracefully manage dissent only enhances her aura of strength and leadership.

Sonequa Martin-Green and Callum Keith Rennie Star Trek: Discovery. Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Even though production was wrapped before Discovery was canceled (with additional shooting after that announcement to tie up loose ends), Season Five feels like a finale from the very beginning. A few characters are moving on with their lives, pursuing new interests and relationships. There are more fun, non-intrusive callbacks to Treks past than in the last two seasons, which makes it feel a bit like a victory lap for the streaming era’s flagship show. Above all, there is a sense of ease, as if the cast and crew have finally got their engine running smoothly and can cruise to the finish line. It’s the energy a series possesses at its peak, a point to which fans will often look back and say “They probably should have stopped there.” Barring a significant misstep in its final six episodes, Star Trek: Discovery will never be past its prime, and that’s a distinction its creators can wear with pride. 

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ S5 Review: Final Season Is Its Best