The Star Trek franchise is currently in the throes of an aggressive expansion, with plans to juggle as many as six ongoing series at a time to keep fans subscribed to CBS All Access all year round. And while the new Star Trek: Picard has attracted a lot of attention, the flagship of the Star Trek Universe relaunch is Star Trek: Discovery, which began in 2017 and is now heading into its third season. Discovery has had a rocky start — its first season aimed at being a Game of Thrones-style twist-driven edgy adult drama, and its second, while much more fun, leaned heavily on returning characters from the beloved 1965 Star Trek pilot.
Heading into Season 3, Discovery is set for a soft relaunch of sorts, with a new setting and a cast shake-up designed to distance it from what’s come before and chart a new course for Star Trek’s future. Discovery may be leaving most of the past behind it, but here’s everything you’ll want to know if you’re planning on coming aboard this season.
Michael Burnham was Born to Suffer
Unlike most previous Star Trek series, Discovery is less of an ensemble drama and more of a character piece centered on its lead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, The Walking Dead). As a result, the lion’s share of the show’s drama and peril falls upon this one poor woman’s shoulders, to the point that her ability to endure suffering has become her defining characteristic. Fortunately, Martin-Green excels at portraying Michael as an individual of incredible resolve who takes hit after hit and keeps getting back up, a little wiser each time.
Michael’s trauma decathlon begins at childhood, surviving two violent episodes before her eleventh birthday. First, she witnesses the apparent death of her parents at the hands of a Klingon raiding party, an incident for which she spends the next twenty years blaming herself like a spacefaring Bruce Wayne. Seemingly orphaned, Michael is taken in by Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (James Frain, Gotham), his human wife Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner, The L Word), and their young son Spock (you may have heard of him). Living on Vulcan, she becomes the target of a terrorist bombing by an extremist group outraged by her presence. She’s clinically dead for three minutes, revived only after a mind meld from her foster father.
While there are no more attempts on her life, Michael’s years of hard work to achieve high honors at the Vulcan Science Academy are rewarded with more discrimination, when she’s denied a posting at the Vulcan Expeditionary Group for being non-Vulcan. Rather than admit his role in her rejection, Sarek allows Michael to believe that she’s failed to meet his expectations.
Just Picking Up a Couple Moms from the Mom Store
Realizing she has no place on Vulcan, Michael joins the more inclusive Federation Starfleet, where she’s welcomed and mentored by Captain Philippa Georgiou (legendary actress & stuntwoman Michelle Yeoh). After seven years of service, Michael advances to the rank of Commander and becomes Georgiou’s first officer, on the short track to her own command. Georgiou becomes the head of another surrogate family for Michael, with skittish but benign science officer Saru (Doug Jones, The Shape of Water) as her new brother figure. This is the longest period of sustained contentment in Michael’s life.
When an encounter with the Klingons goes south, the usually steely Burnham panics and mutinies against Georgiou in an attempt to save her from what she sees as a doomed peace effort. When the smoke clears, Georgiou has been killed, all-out war has broken loose with the Klingons, and Burnham has been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for her role in the debacle. Already conditioned to bear guilt and accept blame, Michael prepares for a life of infamy and despair.
But before long, Michael is bailed out of prison by Captain Gabriel Lorca of the USS Discovery (Jason Isaacs, The Death of Stalin), who offers her a chance to redeem herself by joining his crew and helping him to win the war against the Klingons. At first, Lorca appears to be a shrewd commander who has allowed a scarring defeat earlier in the war to corrupt him into a manipulative anti-hero. In actuality, Lorca is a literal supervillain from the Mirror Universe who seeks to use Michael as a pawn in a plot to overthrow his Emperor, a version of Philippa Georgiou as wicked as her Prime Universe counterpart was virtuous. Michael is a daughter to Georgiou in the Mirror Universe as well, but in this world it’s Michael who’s been killed, and when Lorca’s army threatens the crown, Michael and Mirror Georgiou escape together back to the Prime Universe.
Where No One Has Gone, a Spore
The USS Discovery, where Michael Burnham first serves under the evil Captain Lorca and later the charming and benevolent Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount, Hell on Wheels), carries at its core a top secret experimental propulsion system: the Displacement-Activated Spore Hub Drive. The spore drive connects Discovery to the mycelial network, a web of subspace fungus connecting the entire universe and beyond, allowing instantaneous travel to any point in space.
At first, using the spore drive required using a giant spaceborne tardigrade as a navigational beast of burden, but it’s set free when Burnham reminds the crew that war is no excuse for exploiting an unwilling lifeform. As a substitute, the drive’s co-inventor Lt. Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp, Rent) illegally augments himself with tardigrade DNA and becomes the living heart of his own engine. Each jump takes a toll on his body, and may have dangerous environmental consequences for the mycelial network and its inhabitants, so the drive is decommissioned after the war and eventually classified top secret (explaining why this game-changing technology is never mentioned in any other Star Trek media).
Stamets’s gene splicing grants him a few superpowers — he has an innate connection to the mycelial network, which places him just outside normal space and time. When his partner Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz, 13 Reasons Why) is murdered, Stamets inadvertently transmits Hugh’s consciousness into the mycelial network, where he is stranded for months. When Stamets and his protegée Ensign Silvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) recover Hugh and reconstitute him into a brand new body, Paul and Hugh find that they can’t just pick up their romance where it left off, and nearly go their separate ways before ultimately deciding to rebuild their life together.
Sort of a Reverse Sarah Connor
After being rescued by Michael Burnham, Mirror Philippa Georgiou now finds herself in a universe where human beings are no longer so cruel, cunning, or self-serving. There’s only one place where she could fit in: state intelligence! Now an agent of Section 31, the Federation’s amoral spy agency, Philippa ends up back in Michael Burnham’s life when they’re both put on the trail of a time-traveling entity called the Red Angel, who keeps intervening in calamitous events across the galaxy.
The Red Angel turns out to be none other than Michael’s birth mother, engineer and Section 31 agent Dr. Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn, The Wire). What Michael witnesses as a child is not actually her mother’s death, but her escape in her experimental time travel suit. Gabrielle intends to return to her family, but she and the suit become anchored in the 32nd Century, 950 years in her future. And the future is bleak: in the intervening centuries, all sentient life has been wiped out by a vengeful artificial intelligence called Control. As the Red Angel, Gabrielle makes short-lived jumps into the past, anonymously dropping clues and manipulating events in the hopes that her daughter Michael can solve the mystery of Control and prevent the apocalypse. Gabrielle and Michael are briefly reunited before Gabrielle is trapped permanently in the 32nd Century.
Thanks to Gabrielle, the crew of Discovery pieces together that Control is an evolved form of a Section 31 AI of the same name, which is destined to gain sentience after assimilating an alien database of unfathomable depth and complexity. Thanks to Gabrielle’s machinations, the sole copy of that database lives aboard Discovery, but the data has a sort of survival instinct and resists all attempts at deletion or destruction. In order to keep it out of the clutches of the increasingly malevolent Control program, Discovery’s crew decides to use their own facsimile of the Red Angel suit, piloted by Michael, to lead Discovery herself into Gabrielle’s time frame, so far into the future as to make the data unreachable to Control, Section 31, or anyone else.
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Shut the Plot Holes Behind Us
Sending Discovery off into the 32nd Century, far beyond the latest stable point in the Star Trek timeline, should help the series escape one of its most frustrating pitfalls — an inconsistent relationship with the established canon that many fans hold so precious. Star Trek: Discovery has suffered from acute prequelitis, leaning heavily on Trek history one minute and then flippantly disregarding it the next. One episode opens with a “Previously on…” featuring footage from the 1965 Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” then picks up with the new cast, costumes, and effects, asking the audience to acknowledge the artifice of television in a way Star Trek has rarely required before.
Star Trek: Discovery’s departure from the 2250s means letting fall its crutch of nostalgia and walking on its own. Characters inherited from The Original Series — Pike, Spock (Ethan Peck), Number One (Rebecca Romijn), Sarek and Amanda — are unlikely ever to appear again unless rumors of a spin-off bear fruit. Michael Burnham, a compelling enough character in her own right, can escape the shadow of her famous foster brother. The series’ slick aesthetic and technology can live on in a new era when it will no longer be criticized as anachronistic. And thanks to the need to preserve the secrecy of its spore drive and its alien database, the USS Discovery and her entire crew can be scrubbed from the history books, allowing the writers to explain, retroactively, why no other series has ever spoken of any of this.
Next to losing the charismatic Anson Mount as Captain Pike, the worst casualty of the relaunch is series regular Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif, Penny Dreadful), the Klingon sleeper-turned-Section 31 agent who, despite much drama, is still Burnham’s first and only love. Tyler stays behind from Discovery‘s time jump, in part to try and rebuild Section 31 but mostly because (say it with me) Michael Burnham Must Suffer.
…And The Rest!
While it’s unclear how much of the ship’s complement agrees to stay on board for the journey into the future, just about every named character is seen to have made the choice to sacrifice everything to stand with Burnham and see the mission through. There’s Commander Saru, who has gone through a sort of second adolescence that allows him to overcome fear and who stands a fair chance of becoming the next Captain of Discovery. The awkward but endearing motormouth Ensign Silvia Tilly has ambitions of making Captain herself one day, ambitions that are likely to be complicated by the time jump. Lt. Commander Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber’s love has already overcome death, and now they’re facing a fresh unknown together. And Philippa Georgiou, once a mighty Emperor, then a secret agent, has once again let Michael Burnham drag her into a new world where she has no place. (Presumably she’s going to find one, as this season is meant to set up a spin-off of her own.)
As for the rest of the supporting cast, Season 3 could offer an opportunity for long-overdue development. Despite appearing in nearly every episode, next to nothing is known about helmsman Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), ops officer Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), tactical officer Gen Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon), or communications officer R.A. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.). Later additions to the crew, like engineer Jett Reno (Tig Notaro, One Mississippi) and security chief Naan (Rachael Ancheril, Killjoys), have been a little better severed, but so far only one other member of the ancillary bridge crew has gotten to be the center of her own episode, and it ended with her death.
If the trailers for Discovery Season 3 are any indication, the future of the series is wide open, as the titular ship arrives in an era where Starfleet and the Federation have collapsed and the galaxy faces a whole new status quo. As of this writing, no release date for the season has been announced, and though filming completed before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the entertainment world to a halt, post-production is proceeding slowly as editors and effects artists work from home. Assuming our own society doesn’t suffer the fate of the Federation, we should hope to explore Star Trek: Discovery’s new frontier by Fall 2020.