Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 Episode 1 and 2 Review – Burnham’s Red Directive

Star Trek: Discovery season 5 kicks off with a pair of episodes that set up one last high stakes adventure for Michael Burnham and her crew.

Star Trek Discovery Episode 2
Photo: Marni Grossman /Paramount+

This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 Episode 1 and 2

The final voyage of Star Trek: Discovery is upon us, and it’s officially the end of an era—albeit one that will likely be met with plenty of mixed emotions. After all, no matter how you feel about the show itself, Discovery brought Star Trek back to television after a decade-plus absence, and played a key role in launching the larger franchise universe we’re all enjoying today. For that alone, we owe it a debt, and a resounding thank you. But it also must be said that Discovery hasn’t always been the easiest Trek installment to watch—or love. 

The show struggled to find a coherent identity in its early seasons. A series that originally began as a fairly bleak Star Trek: The Original Series prequel about the Klingon War, Discovery drastically shifted its gears in season 2, morphing into something that felt like an overt nostalgia fest—though it did sow the seeds that would become Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. By the time its third season rolled around, the show had completely reinvented itself once again, launching its characters into the far future of the 32nd century where literally anything felt possible and narrative rules like “established canon” didn’t apply. Now, in its fifth and final season, it appears that Discovery has finally managed to reconcile (most) of its myriad identities with one another, and the end result is something that feels freer and more fun than it ever has before.

To be fair, if you’ve never been particularly fond of Discovery, the first two episodes of season 5 are unlikely to change your mind about the show’s storytelling or overall quality. But if you’ve ever enjoyed these characters or the old-fashioned space explorer vibes this show has embraced in the last few seasons, there’s plenty to enjoy about this return, from its more overtly adventure-style feel to the intriguing character dynamics at work between many of our faves. 

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Unlike season 4, which saw Captain Michael Burnham and her crew tasked with helping to rebuild the Federation and deal with the existential threat of a dark matter anomaly capable of ripping worlds apart, this final outing has a much lighter and more expansive vibe from its first moments. The Discovery fam seems to have finally settled into the 32nd century: Tilly’s teaching at Starfleet Academy, Saru and T’rina’s adorably weird interspecies romance seems solid and happy, Adira is more confident and settled than we’ve ever seen them, and though Stamets is clearly feeling a bit directionless thanks to the closure of the spore drive program, he’s also determined to find a new purpose. Burnham is equally determined not to mention Book, the light treason he committed last season, or the hole his absence has left in her life, but it turns out he’s doing solid good work helping refugees. Everything seems to be going well—so, naturally, that means it can’t possibly last. 

The Discovery crew is immediately assigned to a top-secret “Red Directive” mission, charged with finding a specific object aboard an abandoned 800-year-old Romulan science vessel recently discovered on the edge of space. But once they arrive, they discover a pair of scavengers has reached the ship already and is determined to snag this artifact the Federation wants so badly for themselves. What follows is a dramatic, very expensive-looking chase sequence involving a warp bubble, a tractor beam, and a second Starfleet ship, all of which the scavengers—a couple named L’ak and Moll—still manage to escape, which means that there’s a genuine reason for Book to get involved, given that he spent a lot of time fencing illegal items and has a pretty good idea of where they’ll have to head to unload their valuable cargo. The chase, as they say, is on. 

Paramount+ chose to launch Discovery’s final season with a pair of episodes—”Red Directive” and “Under the Twin Moons”—rather than a single premiere, and it’s a move that largely makes sense, given that these two installments are pretty much all about moving various characters into place and laying the narrative groundwork for the rest of the season. What starts as a trip to the desert world of Q’Mau to retrieve a stolen object becomes an Indiana Jonesstyle quest across multiple worlds, as Burnham and her team must locate a series of puzzle pieces that will somehow unlock an ancient technology. As space McGuffins go, this is all pretty standard, save for the fact that the likely season-long treasure hunt calls directly back to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Chase,” an origin story of sorts for why so many alien species seem to look so much like humans. The answer: a race of ancient aliens the Federation refers to as the Progenitors, who essentially created humanoid life as we know it. Somehow, a Romulan scientist found their technology, which can essentially create life, and now Captain Burnham and company must track it down before it falls into the wrong hands. 

This journey takes them to Lyrek, a lush jungle planet that serves as a necropolis for an extinct alien race, and presumably will carry them to many more far-flung locations over the episodes to come. (Including Trill, which we appear set to return to next week.) But, while the hunt for the Progenitors’ secrets is the plot engine meant to drive season 5, the most interesting developments in its first two episodes are character-driven ones. Saru resigns his Starfleet commission in favor of becoming a Federation ambassador to a small coterie of planets, choosing to stay and build a future with T’Rina. (They’re engaged! It’s very adorable!) Tilly returns as a science specialist because the mission is apparently important enough for the Academy to give her some time off. And Book officially rejoins the Discovery crew in an advisory capacity in the hopes his shady past will continue to come in handy during their search for L’ak and Moll, and he turns out to have a deeply personal connection to one of them. (Don’t worry, Grudge is back, too.) 

The premiere also introduces a key new character in Callum Keith Rennie’s Captain Rayner, a Kellerun who walks a fine line between belligerently antagonistic and determinedly, even admirably stoic. His outlook on everything from mission tactics to the likelihood of war runs almost completely counter to Michael’s, and he’s got a fairly successful history as captain in his own right. (Even if he also seems to be a bit of a jerk.) That Burnham chooses him to take over as her Number One after he’s forced into retirement due to his actions during their desert chase on Q’Mau is both wildly implausible—seriously, all it took was one pep talk from Saru about second chances?—and incredibly convenient. But, Rayner is an interesting enough character (not to mention a man who very much goes against the larger “talk it out” emotional ethos of this show) that I’m willing to see where it goes. 

Sure, most of Discovery season 5’s first two episodes are essentially table-setting and the overarching quest may be pointlessly convoluted, but this is still the most fun the show’s been to watch in ages, and, as final laps go, you can’t ask for a lot more than one big, sprawling adventure, one last time. Let’s fly. 

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4 out of 5