Star Trek Discovery season 5 spoiler-free review: "As if Strange New Worlds and Picard season 3 never happened"

Star Trek Discovery
(Image: © Paramount)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

The last leg of Discovery’s five-year mission gets off to an unremarkable start. Season 5 has some spectacular moments and no shortage of potential, but the ponderous storytelling will make you feel like Strange New Worlds and the brilliant Picard season 3 never happened.

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This spoiler-free review is based on Star Trek: Discovery season 5 episodes 1-4.

A lot of water has flowed under the (starship) bridge since the Disco crew fixed the Federation’s Dark Matter Anomaly problem in the season 4 finale. Two years later, multiple seasons of Strange New Worlds, Picard and Lower Decks have shown us a more exciting vision of the final frontier, but the top brass on Discovery’s fifth and final season don’t appear to have received the subspace memo. As a result, the four episodes we’ve been given for review feel like they were created in a mirror universe – a place where phasers are set to earnest and everyone is (dare we say it) a little bit dull.

That’s not the opening paragraph we thought we’d be writing after an all-action start to the season, in which a spacesuited Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds herself clinging to the back of a warping starship. The story quickly flashes back four hours, to show how David Cronenberg’s enigmatic Dr Kovich – still, inexplicably, wearing a suit and tie in the distant future – interrupted a Federation shindig to dispatch the USS Discovery on a topper-than-top secret mission. (Just to emphasize how off-the-books this "Red Directive" assignment is, Kovich can only talk about it in a futuristic, sci-fi version of Get Smart’s Cone of Silence.)

At the risk of incurring the wrath of Kovich (or even Paramount Plus), we won’t go into story specifics here, but we can say the arc plot involves an 800-year-old Romulan spacecraft, an artifact of cosmic importance, and an Indiana Jones-esque race to stay ahead of the bad guys in an interplanetary treasure hunt. There’s also some old-school Trek problem-solving, ethical dilemmas, and some truly cinematic action sequences. Thought speeder bike chases on alien worlds were a Star Wars thing? Now Trek’s getting in on the act in spectacular style.

There’s no question these are highly promising building blocks, yet this opening quartet of episodes doesn’t come close to fulfilling their potential. Discovery’s quest is only a big deal because pivotal characters repeatedly remind us it is, while the nominal villains – a pair of resourceful thieves – never feel like a credible threat to the technological might of Starfleet.

And just as season 4’s DMA story arc strained to fill an entire season, there’s barely enough plot here to sustain a single episode of The Next Generation – something that doesn’t bode well for a 10-episode run. It’s only in the comparatively standalone fourth episode – a welcome throwback to the big sci-fi ideas of TNG and Voyager – that the storytelling switches off the autopilot to try something different.

Disco discontent

Star Trek Discovery

(Image credit: Paramount)

The USS Discovery remains a wonderfully supportive and inclusive working environment, but it’s also a little bland. Yes, a harmonious, efficient Starfleet crew is totally in tune with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the future but – as many writers complained during the TNG era – it’s hard to write good drama without conflict. 

Nobody’s expecting a return to the war footing of the show’s first season – where evil Captain Lorca ruled Discovery by fear – but now we’ve seen best buds Jean-Luc Picard and Will Riker have a barney on the bridge in Picard, there's surely room for a little more Disco discontent. A new cynical, mission-obsessed officer (played by Battlestar Galactica’s Callum Keith Rennie) does his best to shake things up, but it’s all a little too cuddly.

That wouldn’t matter so much if the characters were fun to be around, but these co-workers lack the easy chemistry of Trek’s finest. There’s been a humor deficit on board ever since Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou departed for her Section 31 spin-off movie in season 3, but even Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) – characters who could traditionally be relied on for a tension-breaking one-liner – have lost their edge.

That said, there’s no shortage of romantic subplots, as Saru (Doug Jones) contemplates settling down with Ni’Var ambassador T’Rina (Tara Rosling), and Book (David Ajala) – who’s still in the Federation’s bad books after his treasonous acts in season 4 – is brought back into the fold, nominally to help Discovery’s mission but mostly to engineer a bit of tension with his ex, Michael.

Star Trek Discovery

(Image credit: Paramount)

Beyond the walls of Discovery, the show still struggles to make the most of its 32nd century setting. When the crew waved goodbye to the pre-Original Series era in the season 2 finale, it felt like an opportunity to broaden Trek’s horizons beyond its traditional 23rd/24th century stomping ground. It hasn’t really played out like that, as the Federation is still populated by the same old alien races, inhabiting worlds that rarely qualify as strange or new. 

Iconic, genre-defining new races like the Borg or the shapeshifting Dominion aren’t created every day, but Discovery could at least try to give us a glimpse of the unknown. Indeed, aside from its fan-friendly McGuffin, season 5’s obsession with the past is holding Discovery back – when it comes to delivering precision-engineered nostalgia, it simply can’t compete with Strange New Worlds and Picard.

Genuine peril also remains elusive in a far-future where technology is so advanced that – to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke – it’s effectively magic. Does it matter if you lose a phaser if programmable matter can conjure a new one out of thin air? Are you ever in actual danger if you’re wearing a spacesuit loaded with enough gadgets to make Tony Stark jealous?

Don’t give up hope just yet, however. Star Trek has always been a franchise of optimism, and season 5 offers enough hints of something bigger – more exciting – on the horizon to suggest the series could still end on a high. But, seeing as the writers simply had to tune into Strange New Worlds, Picard and even Lower Decks for tips on crafting a more entertaining iteration of Trek, you have to wonder how Discovery’s final season has left Spacedock like this.

Star Trek: Discovery season 5 debuts with a two-episode premiere on Thursday, April 4. New episodes will stream on Paramount Plus every Thursday.

For more, check out our guides to the Star Trek timeline and the best Star Trek episodes that every Trekkie should watch right now.

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Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.