Setting Star Trek: Discovery in the franchise’s past always seemed a puzzling choice. It’s an idea held over from co-creator Bryan Fuller’s original pitch for bringing Star Trek back to television as an anthology show that would start before Kirk’s day and then jump ahead through Trek’s fictional history each season until reaching a never-before-seen future. Now, going into its third season, Discovery has wound up reclaiming part of that abandoned premise, launching into a new century and shedding much of its obligation to the rigid continuity of the universe. The season premiere offers us only a narrow glimpse at the new status quo, but it’s enough to stir up some curiosity, and just as importantly, it’s a solid, emotional hour of space adventure.
Some Preliminary Chin-Stroking
Going back as far as The Next Generation in 1987, every Star Trek spin-off has needed a few years to hit its stride. Fans invented a term for the point, usually around the third season, that a Trek series gets its shit together: We call it “growing the beard,” in reference to Commander Riker’s new look in Season Two of TNG, and we call it that despite the show still being mostly mediocre until Season Three.
Of course, facial hair’s got nothing to do with it — The Next Generation markedly improved when head writer Maurice Hurley was replaced by Michael Piller, Deep Space Nine picked up as Piller handed the torch to Ira Steven Behr, and so on. Discovery’s uneven first two years are owed in part to two mid-season regime changes in the writers’ room, but the dust has settled with Michelle Paradise and current franchise custodian Alex Kurtzman as co-showrunners, not just for this season but for a fourth already in production. Between this and the in-story time-jump, the issues that have most hampered Star Trek: Discovery are now behind it.
No more excuses. What’s past is prologue. Show us the beard.
I’ve had the privilege of watching the first four episodes of the season, and while I will only discuss the specifics of the first chapter below, I see this season as the show’s strongest yet, and a fairly clean jumping-on point for fans of the franchise who haven’t watched Discovery before (though I’d read this first, if I were you). If you’re hoping this season will be an ambitious overhaul of Star Trek as a whole, you should probably lower your expectations. If you’re coming aboard now due to Discovery’s long-awaited and much-publicized new queer representation, you should definitely lower your expectations. (I cannot go into further detail about this yet.)
Like the retooled third seasons of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise before it, the new Discovery is an evolution, not a revolution. It’s mostly the same show in terms of tone and structure, slowly unraveling a mystery across the span of distinct episodes and trading in high emotion and top-notch effects. The sense of fun that was promised at the start of season two has returned, and despite the grim details of the show’s new setting, there’s no trace of the brutality that defined its first year. The show’s greatest asset — its magnetic and memorable cast — is at its best, with the ensemble getting more of the love compared to previous seasons, which place disproportionate weight on the shoulders of star Sonequa Martin-Green. The season premiere, however, belongs to her alone.
The Undiscovered Country
As promised in last season’s finale, “That Hope is You” drops Commander Michael Burnham in the year 3188, 930 years in her future. This also deliberately places us a century beyond the furthest point ever glimpsed in Star Trek’s timeline, and nearly eight hundred years after the Next Generation era still being explored on Picard and Lower Decks. In addition to ending Discovery’s two-year wrestling match with existing canon, this affords Discovery an opportunity to totally reinvent Star Trek on a grander scale than has ever been attempted before, limited only by the imagination and courage of its creative team.
It’s interesting, then, that they’ve chosen to create a 32nd century setting that is in a state of regression and decay. Burnham arrives in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event called “The Burn,” in which most of the galaxy’s dilithium crystals (the primary power source for starships) spontaneously exploded, destroying entire fleets and bringing an end to Starfleet and the Federation as we know it. Interstellar travel is now costly and rare and, presumably due to the inability to maintain a vast communications network, the galaxy has fallen completely out of touch. This season promises a story about a society recovering from a massive collective trauma, a theme more timely than the writers could have imagined when production wrapped on the season just days before COVID-19 quarantine conditions officially began in the United States.
The show’s new setting also does the essential work of changing the rules and stakes of the story. For Discovery to arrive in a future that’s just The Next Generation with newer ships and cooler technology would be to waste the opportunity this time jump represents, particularly since the role of “Classic Trek, but shinier” will soon be filled by the upcoming spin-off Strange New Worlds. The status quo of the 32nd century calls for new kinds of stories to be told in the Star Trek universe, different both from previous seasons of Discovery and from the franchise at large. “That Hope is You” is the 789th Star Trek production — different is good.
While there’s great potential for catharsis in the crew of Discovery healing a society that seems broken beyond repair, it might have been nice to arrive in a drastically updated Star Trek utopia, one as radical to modern viewers as Star Trek was to audiences in 1966. Discovery is, after all, now as far separated from the franchise’s established setting as we are from the time of Genghis Khan. They could have done anything. And they still might. Discovery doesn’t have to put the Federation back just the way it was, and to do so would be a disappointment. In the meantime, making the Star Trek universe feel like the Wild West again is not a bad way to go.
The Many Moods of Michael
Michael Burnham has been through more pain and grief in two seasons than most Star Trek protagonists suffer throughout an entire series, and she’s not through yet. Burnham is permitted one, hard-earned moment of rapturous joy after learning she’s prevented the extinction of all organic life, and then immediately receives her next gut-punch when her gateway from the past closes with no sign of Discovery. As if the possibility of losing the last family she has left isn’t enough, Burnham takes the news of the Federation’s collapse very hard.
Sonequa Martin-Green gets to run Burnham through the full gamut of human emotion in the space of this one episode — panicked, joyful, enraged, and even extremely high. Reliably, she ends the episode having returned to her trademark blend of Vulcan poise and very human warmth as she readily accepts her mandate as the Federation’s new torchbearer. It’s a performance painted in extremes that sometimes makes the episode feel like it’s running in fast-forward, but if one imagines “That Hope is You” as a new viewer’s first episode, it does make for a thorough introduction to Burnham as a character. She is tough, brilliant, occasionally funny, but resolute above all.
The fate of the USS Discovery is saved for next week, leaving most of the cast out of this episode, but we are introduced to the newest addition to the Discovery cast, Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala, Nightflyers). Book is our guide to the galaxy’s new status quo, a handsome loner and space-courier who initially reads as a Han Solo type (the episode’s second act feels like a J.J. Abrams film) but softens up fast. He’s more of a Poe Dameron, really. Contrary to the roguish smuggler archetype, Book is motivated not by greed but by a mission to preserve endangered wildlife. He has an innate ability to commune with plants and animals, and refers to his cat Grudge as “a queen.” He is clearly set up to be Michael’s next space-boyfriend, and probably yours too.
- The Death and Life of Star Trek’s Utopian Fantasy
- I Pretended to Be a Star Trek Character Online
- Star Trek Lower Decks: The In-Joke T-Shirt of Trek Series
The Future of the Future is Now!
The first two seasons of Discovery already introduced a new look and new technology for Trek’s mid-23rd century that was intended to feel more futuristic to modern audiences than the established Original Series aesthetic from 1966. This included holographic communications, autonomous repair robots, and of course, Discovery’s signature Displacement-Activated Spore Hub Drive. Now, only three production years later, the series must convince us that whatever we see in these new seasons is nearly a millennium beyond that, while still within Star Trek’s standard for plausibility. As superficial an element as that may be, for Trek, this is a make-or-break proposition.
The distinguishing technology of the 32nd century so far is the near-instantaneous reconfiguration of matter outside the confines of a transporter or replicator. The episode’s bookends take place aboard a Starfleet base where pieces of furniture manifest from the floor with a gesture. Book’s starship has a transforming metal console that draws towards his hands like a reverse pin-impression toy, reminiscent of the moving map from the first X-Men film. Burnham and Book engage in a firefight with a security force armed with Mega Man arm cannons that seem to construct and deconstruct themselves at will. This new tech is all derivative, but at least, like the phasers and transporters of The Original Series, it can be immediately understood from context and requires no explanation.
One does hope, though, that this new millennium offers at least one totally wild new sci-fi concept based on cutting edge scientific research, or at least cribbed from hip new sci-fi novels. We might find this in Book’s strange connection with nature, which could be some combination of psionics and cybernetics, or something else suitably weird. Also on the wishlist is some alien setting more imaginative than the marketplace from this episode, which is no more futuristic than the planet Freecloud from Star Trek: Picard. Again, it has been almost a millennium, dream bigger, darlings.
This is always what I want from any new Star Trek — ambition and imagination to rival the series from which it was born. So far, Discovery has been the most daring Trek spin-off of its generation, and has the potential to be far more so now that it’s free from the confines of established continuity. “That Hope is You” demonstrates a willingness to shake things up. What I’m still waiting to see is an imagination to match, and allow Discovery to grow from being a satisfactory extension of a great television franchise into a great television series in its own right.