The most frequent complaint levied against Star Trek: Discovery during its first two seasons was: “This doesn’t feel like the Star Trek I remember.” The critics did indeed have a point—from the outset, Discovery tried to lean into the modern streaming prestige-drama mold, while also retaining its Starfleet soul. Those two goals don’t necessarily align, and as a result Discovery sometimes seemed like a show that simply couldn’t make up its mind.
In its third season, however, Discovery has finally picked a side. The show is now all-in on venerating the optimistic, wide-eyed Federation fans want to remember from the ’80s and ’90s, and it’s bringing back the old planet-of-the-week format to do so. Now, the show’s inner conflict has taken a whole new direction: for a story all about leaping a millennium into the future to explore the strangest possible new world, Discovery for the most part plays it startlingly safe.
(Spoilers below for the first two seasons of Discovery.)
Back to the Future
When we last left our heroes at the end of season 2, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) had just strapped herself into a winged time-travel suit and yeeted herself into a wormhole. This particular space-time disruption carried her straight out of her normal time and into the far-flung future, with the USS Discovery hot on her heels.
Her shipmates agreed to this perilous one-way journey to stop a rogue AI, called Control, from ending all life in the galaxy. They had a rough plan for what to do on arrival: settle on Terralysium and take up the Luddite life. But wormholes are notoriously unreliable (with one major exception), and the crew had no way to guarantee specifically when or where they might end up. After surviving her disorienting crash into the future, then, Burnham has two main questions. First—when am I? And second—is there life here? Any life?
We learn the answers to both questions almost immediately. The year is 3188: 930 years after Discovery‘s second season, and about 790 years into the future from the farthest along we’ve been in Star Trek timeline in any previous outing (Star Trek: Picard). Happily for everyone involved, the answer to her question about life is a resounding “Yes!” And so off we go with Michael to explore this brave new world.
The first life Burnham collides with is Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala), a traveling rogue with a speedy ship and an enormous cat. Book is our guide to the future, a charismatic font of exposition who explains to us that Burnham & Co. have arrived to find themselves a hundred years on the wrong side of “The Burn.”
The Burn—you can hear the capital letters every time someone says it—was a mysterious, theoretically impossible, apocalyptically destructive event that not only took out the vast majority of the galaxy’s dilithium, but also any unfortunate ship or facility that happened to be powered by dilithium at the time. In short, the galaxy is suffering a fuel crisis you could think of as a network-safe Mad Max: Starfleet Edition, and any organization—like, for example, the Federation—that relied on ubiquitous warp drive to maintain itself has basically fallen apart.
The people aboard the Discovery, however, did not give up everyone and everything they knew to save the future only for that future to suck, and they say as much on-screen. And so our heroes, badly in need of something to do with themselves now that they are cut adrift, blunder into doing what plucky Starfleet officers have always done best: staring down a massive problem and deciding to fix it, against overwhelming odds.
The one-hour conflict
Discovery has new blood at the off-screen helm as well as at the on-screen helm, and it shows. In short: season 3 is absolutely Star Trek in the classic mold, where problems can be solved, where diplomacy can reign, where clever Starfleet officers can think their way out of any trap, and where the Federation and its ideals are Good, Actually, for this fallen world.
While the main storyline of the second season became extremely timey-wimey, recursive, and downright perplexing at times, the new season appears to be reverting to a straightforward, linear approach to storytelling. CBS provided reviewers with advance screeners of the first four episodes, and each of those episodes follows a startlingly familiar format for Next Generation fans of old: there is an A plot, on the planet of the week, and a B plot, usually among the crew. These conflicts arise, are explored, and are largely completed by the end of the hour, freeing the Discovery to visit a new world and start all over again next week.
The first two episodes of season 3 are a little rough—and not necessarily the way they’re meant to be. Yes, Michael’s drop into the far future means she’s a stranger in a strange land, but that fish-out-of-water storytelling is quickly subverted when you realize the land isn’t actually all that strange. The Federation may not be a dominant force in this new pan-galactic political scene, but the story of the galaxy in the Federation’s absence is still being told with the same tropes you could describe in your sleep. At one point, for example, we visit an Old West saloon in everything but name, complete with the swinging half-height doors. The story told inside plays almost note for note as you’d expect, straight to the (admittedly fantastic) barfight at the end, and the piling-on of heavy-handed cues feels a bit insulting.
It feels like a hundred years
A galaxy that has gone more than a century without the hand of the Federation guiding it is packed with cynics, and rightfully so. Somehow, though, every time the Discovery finishes its mission of the week, the hard-edged doubters it met along the way have been converted into wide-eyed dreamers who think maybe, just maybe, the Federation is worth finding again.
The Federation as a collection of ideals always has been greater than the sum of its parts—but admiring something from afar is always easier when you don’t have to deal with the reality of it. The last 25 years of Star Trek content has migrated away from venerating the Federation—instead, it has poked the hornets’ nest of contradictions underlying a theoretically peaceful empire that nonetheless clogs its “exploratory” vessels with guns and partakes in rampant colonization. When the Federation is absent from the galactic stage, though, you can easily paper over those cracks and instead point to it as a shining beacon of hope.
A sense of humor and a sense of hope
Despite these quibbles, though, Discovery absolutely sells its story and its starry-eyed outlook on the strength of its cast, old and new alike. Burnham and Book have more chemistry in their first 30 seconds on screen together than Michael and Ash Tyler had through two solid seasons of their alleged romance. Ensign Tilly’s (Mary Wiseman) brilliant, bumbling optimism remains the beating heart of the crew. Newcomer Adira (Blu del Barrio) manages to be both young and a genius without falling into the “shut up, Wesley” space. And the work Doug Jones does through layers of alien makeup to bring Saru to life, to leadership, and to true captaincy is simply astonishing.
What Discovery does blessedly leave behind from the ’90s is the styrofoam sterility that filled Next Generation. Discovery and its crew are wonderfully messy: they hug, they cry, they bicker, they love. They have palpable, plausible feelings, and the more you get to know them, the more in-character all those emotions feel. Historically, when Star Trek isn’t careful, it can fall too easily into treating its characters not as people but as roles: The Captain, The First Officer, The Science Officer, The Non-Human One, The Wunderkind, and so on. Discovery not only avoids that pitfall—it joyously expanded its vision of who and what a Starfleet officer can be.
Discovery‘s crew members are alone, and they are lonely, and they and their ship carry battle scars both metaphorical and literal. Those cracks show, and they frame every decision the characters make. The show is rife with ghosts—everyone left something behind—but even though Discovery allows characters to feel and experience their traumas, it doesn’t dwell. It deals with grief, but most importantly, it deals with what comes after: the work of living, and finding hope.
Rebirth and rebuilding
When you get right down to it, Discovery has always been a show about rebirth—sometimes quite literally. Nearly every major character has gone through a transformation since the show began. Michael had to learn to shed her Vulcan upbringing (and both her daddy and mommy issues) to find her humanity and her capacity for leadership. Saru had to learn to shed his species’ innate fear to evolve. Dr. Hugh Culber went through a literal cycle of death and resurrection. The list goes on and on.
It seems fitting, then, that this season should concern itself with rebirth on a grand scale. The last 25 years of Star Trek—more or less starting with Deep Space Nine—have increasingly delved into the problematic aspects of the Federation. In recent years, that view has straight-up pivoted to cynicism, which left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. Discovery‘s rebirth is the rebirth of the Federation’s optimism… which we need more than ever right now.
Art and entertainment are always part of a larger conversation. When we look at Discovery and ask, “Why this, why now,” the answer feels almost too pat. The people aboard Discovery are learning to be a family and to have each other’s backs after an unfathomable series of traumas. They are having to learn how to ask for help, to say, “I’m not okay,” and to mend when the world they thought they knew had collapsed around them.
Production on the season wrapped in February, back when we still had public gatherings and went outside without masks. The season could not intentionally have been about the post-pandemic world in which we now live. Nor could its makers have foreseen that this would be a year of massive civil rights protests and deep political unrest.
But for all that its timing is accidental, Discovery could not be more perfect. We, too, are a people living through a troubled time, in need of rebirth and a golden beacon to head to. For 54 years, Star Trek has called on us to be our best selves, to heed the better angels of our nature, and to become more than the sum of our parts. Perhaps, this year, we can listen.
All seasons of Star Trek: Discovery are available to stream on CBS All Access. The first episode of season 3 is available to watch today, and future episodes will become available to view every Thursday for the remainder of the 13-episode season.