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Star Trek: Discovery Series Finale Review: “Life, Itself” An embodiment of Roddenberry’s lofty ideals

Star Trek: Discovery Series Finale Review: "Life, Itself" An embodiment of Roddenberry's lofty ideals
Photo credit: Paramount+

Review: Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 Episode 10 “Life, Itself”

Star Trek: Discovery delivers an excellent series finale that surpassed our high expectations, as this show ends its five-season journey with one of the most Star Trek messages possible.

Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is trapped in the Progenitors’ portal, and it’s a locale that makes thorough use of this show’s famous AR wall. It’s a beautiful location, one that inspires mystery and familiarity, as Burnham views relatable environs throughout the galaxy, presumably created by the Progenitors. After falling into and then struggling to find her way out of a cyclonic environment, she encounters Moll (Eve Harlow), who is still hell-bent on finding a way to resurrect her lover, L’ak (Elias Toufexis).

After reaffirming she won’t let the Breen or the rogue Moll have the tech before the Federation can safely study it, Burnham finds herself engaged with the desperate ex-courier. This extended imaginative, gravity-defying fight scene ends with the pair calling a truce to find the Progenitors’ tech together. Moreover, Burnham gives Moll her personal assurance that she is looking out for Moll’s interests.

Eve Harlow as Moll in Star Trek: Discovery steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

On their path to the bright light they assume indicates the Progenitors’ tech, Burnham notes a major difference between the environment within the portal and the rules of physics enjoyed by those outside the portal. There are pockets of “negative space” in the portal, places that shouldn’t exist. Upon interacting with one of these spaces, Burnham opens the true path to the tech – a jaunt through a field of waist-high flowers amid a pastoral, sunset-kissed area.

The pair run across a rock monument that Burnham deduces was made by the tech’s 24th-century scientists for their fallen comrade, as referenced in “Jinaal.” Not surprisingly, as they are right on the cusp of interfacing with the tech, Moll cold-clocks Burnham and tries to take the tech for herself, which leads to her entrapment as the space outside the Progenitors’ portal starts to get all wonky, much to the detriment of Discovery and its crew.

What are Discovery’s crew up to while Burnham is on the doorstep of the Progenitors’ tech? The Breen dreadnaught that got its shuttle bay absolutely wrecked in the previous episode is more or less out of action, but our protagonists still have issues. Tahal (Patricia Summersett) is on her way, and the temporarily disabled dreadnaught near Discovery is harassing our heroes with fighters.

This situation just adds pressure to Commander Rayner’s (Callum Keith Rennie) rescue of his captain and the Progenitor tech. To rid themselves of those pesky fighters, Rayner and his bridge crew resurrect the Riker Maneuver from Star Trek: Insurrection (whether they realize it or not) and destroy their pursuers by igniting a plasma field near the black holes. Meanwhile, Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) and Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) take a shuttle to keep the portal from falling into the black hole.

“Ever since Jinaal, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means, this change inside of me or whatever it is. I’m not sure if this will give me the answers, but it might. And at the very least, I can help him. I know I can.” – Culber to Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), as the doctor goes with Book into the dangerous space surrounding the Progenitors’ portal.

L-R Doug Jones as Saru and Rachael Ancheril as Commander Nhan in Star Trek: Discovery steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

Why is the good doctor on such a dangerous away mission? Before Booker embarks to save Burnham, Culber insists on coming with him, as he instinctively feels he needs to do this. Surprisingly, Culber remembers the precise tractor beam frequency required to grab the Progenitors’ portal, something he has no reason to know; after all, he doesn’t keep any of Jinaal’s memories. Remember, the scientists who studied the Progenitors’ tech, including Jinaal, did indeed make it as far as Discovery’s crew has, and would thus know how to access the Progenitors’ portal. Why did that particular memory unlock itself when Book needed it? Culber is puzzled by this fortuitous event.

The end of Culber’s metaphysical journey this season is in the shuttle’s cockpit with Book, as the pair hold onto the portal while Burnham is within. Culber never gets an answer to the spiritual journey he experienced this season, but you know what? He’s okay with that. Whereas he thought he might be on the path to answers of life and death, he is content with the mystery of not knowing the answers to such powerful questions. Not knowing, after all, is part of the human condition.

With the Breen dreadnaught coming back online and posing a serious threat to his rescue mission, Rayner needs to eliminate the ship from the playing field. Tasking Paul Stamets to work miracles, the engineer and Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) devise a way to use Discovery’s Spore Drive to jump the dreadnaught to a different part of the galaxy: the Galactic Barrier. After all, the decades-long trip home for the Breen is more time than the Breen ever gave Rayner’s family during their occupation of his homeworld.

Let’s talk about this plan for a second. Using Discovery’s trademark Spore Drive technology – which the Pathway Drive recently made outdated, much to Paul’s chagrin – in a way we’ve never seen before is a smart and cool trick for the series finale, and we think Rayner found a clever, harmless way to avenge his family and world while still serving his mission. Seeing Discovery separate its saucer to encase the dreadnaught with a Spore Drive field is such a remarkable sight, and it comes as Burnham is coming face-to-face with a Progenitor.

Eve Harlow as Moll in Star Trek: Discovery steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

What to do with Ultimate Power?

Remember when we said Moll and Burnham were on the cusp of discovery? We were referring to them being faced with a puzzle. A grouping of nine triangles sits on a table at the center of the Progenitors’ space, and it’s here Burnham figures the hint she received from the mindscape – “Build the shape of the one between the many” – comes into play. As we alluded to earlier, Moll gets a try at the puzzle first, but ends up injuring herself and almost wrecking the space in and around the portal. When its Burnham’s time to try the puzzle, she correctly uses the lessons she learned along the clue path and places the triangles in the proper order – in a way that forms a larger triangle using negative space between the other triangles – which thus unlocks the key to the whole shebang.

Burnham comes face to face with a Progenitor (Somkele Iyamah), or at least the semblance of one; after all, Progenitors died out billions of years ago. The Progenitor asserts she is now responsible for showing Burnham how to use the Progenitors’ technology, and that the rate of its life-creating nature can be adjusted for speed and scale. Moreover, the Progenitor surprises Burnham with a weighty reveal: The Progenitors aren’t actually the ones who created life in the galaxy; they found it there and augmented it after arriving. Who are the Progenitors’ predecessors, the ones who the Progenitors assume created them? Who created the creators, and exactly how far back such a creation cycle goes, is a question that may never be answered, but one that’s mighty fascinating to ponder.

“I’m far from perfect. I’m afraid, lost sometimes.”

“Every sentient being, myself included, is all of those things. Yet some strive to be the best of themselves. I see that in you.”

– Burnham and the Progenitor.

The Progenitor recalls how the only other visitor to the Progenitors’ space, the Betazoid Dr. Derex, asserted the next visitor needed to be better prepared to handle the tech’s enormous responsibility. Having passed all those trials laid by the tech’s scientists, the Progenitor gives Burnham the powerful choice of choosing what should be done with such power.

The climax of Burnham and the Progenitor’s conversation is framed against the actions being taken by Burnham’s friends in pursuit of their shared goal. It’s a powerful, inspiring scene that is interposed with the actions others are taking – including Discovery spore-jumping the Breen ship – in pursuit of the ultimate treasure and Burnham’s rescue. Major kudos to director and Discovery production veteran Olatunde Osunsanmi for crafting such powerful storytelling.

To help Burnham decide what to do with the tech, the Progenitor also asks Burnham what’s most important to her. As the one who proved herself time and again as someone responsible and altruistic, the choice is hers. The Progenitor offers what was important to her and her people. In their time, they were the only sentients in the galaxy, and they wanted to populate the Milky Way with an endless array of diverse beings. Burnham can’t answer the question of what is most meaningful to her immediately – who could, really, without weighing a ton of factors and deep introspection? – so the Progenitor leaves Burnham with the tech and one final gift.

Burnham’s mind conjures a montage of all the things that had to happen to get her to this point in time. The propagation of life on Earth, evolution, discovery, humans reaching for the stars – it’s all there. Returned to the injured Moll with the bad news that she can’t revive L’ak with the Progenitors’ tech, Burnham and Moll are rescued from the Progenitors’ portal by Book and Culber. Thanks to Discovery’s ability to spore-jump the Breen dreadnaught away from the battle zone, and with Saru’s (Doug Jones) ability to force Tahal’s fleet to turn around, the day is saved.

Action Saru

Yep, Saru ended up playing a pivotal role in helping his former shipmates. Remember how in the last episode he was tasked with taking a shuttle to intercept Tahal’s fleet and get them to stand down? He embarks on that mission with Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), who we’re thankful makes one final appearance in this show besides her wasted role in “In the Shadow of War.” Nhan volunteers to assist Saru on this possible suicide mission, and they both agree the effort is worth it to save their found family on Discovery.

“Ambassador Saru, are you insane?”

“Not to the best of my knowledge.”

– Tahal and Saru, as Saru attempts to stop Tahal’s fleet in an unarmed shuttle.

Catching up to Tahal’s fleet as they barrel toward the black holes, Saru gets one of his best moments in recent seasons. First, the Kelpien hails Tahal to try a typical diplomatic overture, including offering her some trade concessions if she were to stand down. But when that approach predictably doesn’t work, Action Saru comes out in full force – but not by him shooting his ganglia. No, he’s more calculating than that.

Saru confidently asserts himself and confronts Tahal, without any hint of deceit in his expression. The Kelpien uses his diplomatic connections made during his absence from the show, and keen observation of Tahal’s behavior and motivations to all but force her to turn her fleet around, lest she encounters trouble from Starfleet’s allies and other Breen. This scene is a masterclass from Doug Jones, who constantly nails how to act while wearing a mountain of prosthetics and makeup. Expect this scene to show up in any future compilation video for Top Badass Star Trek Character Moments.

L-R Sonequa Martin Green as Burnham, Tara Rosling as President T’Rina and Doug Jones as Saru in Star Trek: Discovery steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

We Are Enough

“I saw the last four billion years… I realized we already have infinite diversity in infinite combinations. There’s no need for this technology anymore.”

– Burnham.

With the day saved, it’s time for Burnham to decide what to do with the Progenitors’ tech. Her answer offers the perfect Star Trek-ian message. She orders Discovery to shoot the tech into the event horizon of the nearby black hole, free from discovery of any Milky Way species. Her rationale is beautiful: the people of the 32nd century already have such a diverse and wonderful array of relationships – “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” as she says, borrowing a phrase from her Vulcan upbringing – that this renders the Progenitors’ tech unneeded in such an idyllic galaxy. Think about this: Burnham asserts the ultimate power in the galaxy already exists in our shared diversity. How much more Star Trek can you get? We loved this resolution to the season-long question of what Discovery should do with the Progenitors’ technology. It really is quite inspiring.

Stamets, who has been viewing the potential study and utilization of the Progenitors’ technology as a lasting part of his legacy in the wake of his spore drive being rendered obsolete, isn’t so thrilled by this plan. However, he ultimately accepts Burnham’s well-intentioned logic and concedes casting the technology into the black hole is the right thing to do. Offering some words of support to her faux-foster father, Adira reassures Stamets that the crew learned a lot in their pursuit of the Progenitors’ tech, and that gaining knowledge is a good enough outcome. We agree with Stamets when he calls the young Adira “wise” for such a mature observation. What are humans if not their quest for lifelong learning?

“I’ve lived many years, captain, and many lives. I’ve met few who have impressed me but also aggravated me as much as you.”

– Kovich to Burnham.

There’s one more surprise in store before the episode proper ends with Saru and T’Rina’s scenic marriage and Book and Burnham heartfully reigniting their relationship before venturing off on another mission. ­Discovery returns to Federation HQ after the ordeal at the black holes, and Burnham pays one last visit to Doctor Kovich (David Cronenberg), who recently requested Moll be transferred to his care for unknown reasons. Burnham’s Red Directive mission is over, and all records about the Progenitors’ tech will be erased.

It’s a sensible outcome for Burnham, who, let’s remember, had her 23rd-century activities erased from official records, but it’s clear she harbors questions about who or what Kovich really is. Every time Kovich was on screen since his introduction in season three, there’s been more to him than meets the eye. Luckily, Discovery wouldn’t let the show end without revealing a big surprise to Enterprise fans.

You might see where this is going if you watched Scott Bakula’s four-season early-2000s Star Trek show. Burnham gets Kovich to finally formally introduce himself to her: Agent Daniels of the USS Enterprise and “other places.” Kovich is a codename for the time-traveling agent seen in a handful of Enterprise episodes, and his extra-temporal nature explains why he not only has access to legitimate pen and paper, as seen earlier in the season, but a collection of memorabilia from across the timeline. On his office shelves, we see artifacts such as what’s presumably Geordi LaForge’s VISOR, Ben Sisko’s baseball, and a bottle of Chateau Picard. It’s Easter egg city for Star Trek fans in this scene, and it’s a relief knowing this show had a cool plan for Kovich all along.

L-R Sawandi Wilson as Captain Leto, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham and David Ajala as Book in Star Trek: Discovery episode 10, season 5 steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.


Such would be a great place to leave this season if we were expecting its return next year, but of course, this show’s cast and crew had to return for additional shooting after news of Discovery’s cancellation broke more than a year ago. For the last 15 minutes of “Life, Itself” director Jonathan Frakes closes out the story of our inspirational protagonist. In a sequence set decades after the events of the Progenitor search, Burnham, who seems to have retired on Sanctuary Four with Book, has one final mission: escorting her son, played by Sawandi Wilson, to Federation HQ for him to assume his own captaincy.

“A long time ago, someone asked me what was most meaningful to me… At the end of the day, every member of your crew has to find their own sense of meaning.”

“So, do you know how you answer that question now?”

“Yeah… just being here. You know. Sometimes life itself is meaning enough.”

– Admiral Burnham to her son.

Burnham and her son share a heartfelt conversation about the importance of captaincy and the even greater importance of finding meaning in one’s life. It’s a tender discussion, and neatly puts a bow on one of this series’ most prominent themes: finding family. Burnham asserts her time aboard Discovery and making the close connections she did was one of the most impactful aspects of her life.

Besides the prideful mission of bringing her son to his first command, Starfleet has one more mission for Admiral Burnham. She is to lead Discovery and its resident artificial intelligence, Zora (Annabelle Wallis), to coordinates quite a ways from home. Zora’s Red Directive mission? Await a “craft” – but Burnham doesn’t know if that refers to a ship or a person. We know, however, that Craft is a person, someone who is destined to visit Discovery in the far future as Zora lives a solidary existence as the sole resident of the ancient Starfleet ship. Finally, we get a direct link to the 2018 (yes, six years ago!) Short Trek episode “Calypso.”

Before sending Zora on her way, Burnham lives in the past a bit as she sits in her captain’s chair one last time. The aged Burnham disappears briefly, replaced by her younger 32nd-century self, as the admiral remembers her found family from Discovery. Thanks to Burnham’s vivid imagination, we see the entire cast on the bridge one last time. Luckily, both Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) make one final appearance, after basically being absent this season.

As far as nostalgic family gatherings go, this one, scored by a heartbreaking soundtrack that really pulls at your heartstrings, is a great one. The scene is imminently appropriate considering Burnham just told her son the most important thing to her was family, and we’re saying goodbye to this cast we’ve grown to love over the last seven years.

Discovery, getting its “last dance,” as Burnham wistfully says to herself,gets the Babylon 5-esque farewell treatment as the ship, newly de-graded to appear as it did before its jump to the future, is saluted by rows and rows of Starfleet vessels as Burnham and Zora lead the ship into its lonely future. Fin.

Of course, we think this show deserves more than just the relatively quick, albeit well-executed epilogue delivered due to the show’s surprise cancellation. Extended farewells to certain cast members would have been welcomed, but perhaps we haven’t seen the end of this crew’s adventures in the 32nd century. Who knows if books, comics, or other media can pick up stories left untold. The possibilities for continued storytelling using Discovery’s powerful ethos and 32nd century worldbuilding are endless, and it’d be a shame if the final minutes of “Life, Itself,” as good as they are, were indeed the end of the line for these characters.

L-R Doug Jones as Saru and Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery episode 10, season 5 steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

Sticking the Landing

“Life, Itself” serves as a fantastic finale for the season-long Progenitor mystery, tying together the scientists’ clue trail and associated tests of character with masterful storytelling and emotional depth. Burnham’s decision to cast the Progenitors’ tech into the black hole is a remarkable reflection of how strongly and powerfully Discovery upholds Star Trek‘s timeless ideals of galactic cooperation and the power of diversity. By choosing to trust in the strength of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” Burnham embodies the essence of Roddenberry’s vision, reminding us that true power lies in the unity and diversity of life across the galaxy. If only this lesson was followed in the present day.

Burnham’s resolution, combined with stunning visual spectacles throughout the episode, Culber’s acceptance of the mystery of life, the reveal of Kovich as Daniels, the touching glimpses of Burnham’s future, and a heartfelt sendoff for her crew, solidifies “Life, Itself” as one of Discovery’s best entries. This show has delivered a series finale that not only meets but exceeds expectations.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery episode 10, season 5 steaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Here’s a neat statistic from the fine folks over at TrekRanks: “Life, Itself” makes Discovery the longest-running Star Trek series ever. This show, from premiere date to today, is 11 days longer than the time between TNG‘s airdates for “Encounter at Farpoint” and “All Good Things.”

  • Why was Moll fighting Breen while in the portal? The Breen who were sucked in before her should have been deferential to their new commander, no?

  • Burnham really should have warned Moll she was going to programmable-matter a dermal regenerator into her hand, as Moll could and should have easily taken the surprise tool in Burnham’s hand as a weapon.

  • We see almost 20 Breen fighters pursuing Discovery. Why can’t such a large taskforce disable one ship?

  • Culber gets to utter a version of the increasingly rare classic Trek line by saying, “I know I’m a doctor, not a physicist, but…,” and we’ll be damned if that didn’t put a smile on our face.

  • Pay attention to Jörg Hillebrand on X, who will undoubtedly turn his eagle-eye toward identifying all the mementos in Kovich’s office.

  • After voicing her opinion earlier in the season that Starfleet Academy was missing a key element, Tilly realizes in this episode that a one-on-one mentorship program is what the Academy needs. So, expect to see such a program play a role in the upcoming Starfleet Academy show.

  • Book notes to Burnham that he planted the World Root, which was given to him by the Eternal Gallery and Archive in “Labyrinths,” on Sanctuary Four, the planet seen in “That Hope is You, Part 1.” In the epilogue for “Life, Itself,” we see a strong, mighty tree near Burnham and Book’s house that is likely the spawn of the World Root.

  • Burnham seems to have named the pretty sci-fi deer on Sanctuary Four “Alice,” perhaps a reflection of how Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland played a role in Burnham’s upbringing.

  • Did you notice how there’s a Starfleet insignia in Burnham’s backyard, which serves as an indicator of sorts of where the shuttle should pick up the admiral? Remember in the series pilot how Burnham and Georgiou traced a Starfleet insignia in the sand to indicate to Shenzhou where to pick them up. The symmetry is just *chef’s kiss*.

The complete Star Trek: Discovery series is now available to stream on Paramount+. Season 5 stars Sonequa Martin-Green (Captain Michael Burnham), Doug Jones (Saru), Anthony Rapp (Paul Stamets), Mary Wiseman (Sylvia Tilly), Wilson Cruz (Dr. Hugh Culber), David Ajala (Cleveland “Book” Booker), Blu del Barrio (Adira) and Callum Keith Rennie (Rayner). Season five also features recurring guest stars Elias Toufexis (L’ak) and Eve Harlow (Moll).

Stay tuned to for all the latest news on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Prodigy, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and more.

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Written By

Kyle Hadyniak has been a lifelong Star Trek fan, and isn't ashamed to admit that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis are his favorite Star Trek movies. You can follow Kyle on Twitter @khady93.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. George

    May 31, 2024 at 1:58 pm

    Great ending of Discovery!!! Hopefully a movie will come soon!

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