Star Trek Discovery S5E10: Life, Itself

Last week, Burnham followed Moll (and a few nameless Breen) into the glowing green portal at the heart of the ancient artifact they’ve spent the season searching for. Now she finds herself in a liminal space that looks a lot like a video game level — a series of platforms and pathways floating high above a mountainous landscape below. She has no contact with the ship, no sign of Moll or the Breen, no helpful tricorder readings, just a glowing bright light in the distance, and a series of what seem to be gigantic windows. 

When Burnham touches one, she’s thrown in a completely different landscape, a rocky plain battered by a thunderstorm, with the window far overheard, well out of reach. Her repeated calls to Discovery go unanswered, so she has to figure out her way out alone. One frequent fan criticism is that Disco is too often The Michael Show, with the rest of the crew sidelined, and the finale is leaning in.

Eventually, she does find Moll (and the nameless Breen, who are quickly dispatched). Moll’s as lost as Burnham is, but reasons — correctly — that Michael must have gained some insight while following a season’s worth of clues. So they have no choice but to work together (Moll holding Michael at gunpoint is a contributing factor.)

Of course, we do still have the rest of a cast, so Rayner and the rest of the crew frantically try to get Discovery close enough to the portal (which is back to being stuck between two black holes) to possibly beam Michael back, while still under fire from the Breen. And Tahal, the as-yet-unseen Breen warlord, is due to arrive within the hour with a fleet of warships. Realizing he’s trying to do two things at once and is failing at both, Rayner breaks off from the portal to fight the Breen, while Book takes a shuttle to try and get close to the portal. Culver insists on coming with him because of his incredibly vague crisis of faith from a few episodes ago, and honestly, just saying “Michael might need a doctor” would have been enough and less silly.

Speaking of defenseless shuttles, Saru also goes ahead with the plan he outlined last week, to approach Tahal in a shuttle to try and negotiate, with former Discovery security chief Lhan in the pilot’s chair.

So we get a Return of the Jedi style sequence, cutting between all three teams navigating tense situations. Burnham and Saru are both perfectly in character, as she deals with Moll by making a personal, emotional connection, and once again uses her intellect to get herself out of a maze, while Saru remains perfectly calm and reasonable in the face of an angry, powerful adversary. Rayner has a nice moment where he learns a lesson from Michael, but his solution is too clearly telegraphed to feel clever or exciting when it happens.

And that’s Discovery. Tons of good ideas, not all of them work, and the final episode is exactly what the show has always been, for good or ill. Fast-past action scenes, eye-popping visuals, logic and emotion, scientific wonder and relationship drama, some clever solutions involving made-up science, and writing that skips over the necessary groundwork to make all of the character beats land. Was Discovery a bad show? Far from it. It was tremendously entertaining, it brought Star Trek back to the small screen after the longest absence in the franchise’s history, and the supporting characters it did take the time to develop — mostly Saru, Stamets, and Adira — are terrific additions to the Trek pantheon. But Discovery also spent five seasons chasing the Prestige TV-worthy show it could have been, and never quite got there. 

Stray tachyons:

• We still don’t know why Saru was written out of most of this series, but Doug Jones makes the most of his last appearance here. He was always the strongest actor on the show, and his handful of scenes here serve as a terrific reminder of that.

• Burnham’s solution to the final puzzle is a lap of logic that’s presented as incredibly profound but is pretty simplistic, but in fairness, you could say the same about Next Generation’s finale. It’s tough to write a show about smart people that doesn’t end up seeming dumb occasionally.

• The show’s haters complain that every season winds up with Burnham personally saving the galaxy. So that she briefly becomes the most important person in creation feels like a well-deserved thumbed nose in their direction.

• At one point Burnham and Moll have a zero-gravity fight in the liminal space, and while it looks pretty fake — and a time will surely come when the all-CGI landscapes look as dated as the original Trek’s styrofoam rocks — it’s still pretty damn cool. At the end of the day, Discovery understands something the original series did. You can have all the technology in the world, but there’s still something satisfying about the good guy and the bad guy punching each other.

• Sadly, we don’t get one last moment with Tig Notaro, but we do see David Cronenberg again, long enough to deliver an easter egg for Star Trek: Enterprise fans.

• There’s a lot of big speechifying at the end about What It All Means, and the Meaning of Life and what not. But a quick parent-child exchange between Stamets and Adira is more affecting than any of it. It’s the characters, their lives, and their relationships, that make a TV show work more than any amount of universe-saving shenanigans.

• Along similar lines, like every season finale, we get a big schmaltzy ending that talks about the meaning of connection (in this case, Saru and T’rina’s wedding). But that isn’t the end. We get one final coda, and a genuine, warm moment between Burnham and Book that the show hadn’t managed to pull off all season, and one final thought from Burnham on the meaning of life that’s more satisfying than any of the speechifying and philosophizing that came before. It was far from a perfect episode, it was far from a perfect series, but it finds a satisfying note to end on.

• Except that isn’t the final note either. We get a prolonged farewell montage to the ship and the crew, and after more endings than Return of the King, we’re honestly a little relieved to finally be at the end. Subject’s coverage of all things Trek will return, with the final season of Lower Decks and the second season of Prodigy due later this year, the Section 31 TV movie at some point in the near future, and the third season of Strange New Worlds and the premiere of Starfleet Academy in 2025.