Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.
Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.
This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.
The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd.
To the season’s credit, it was the very final scene of the finale when my mind was finally made up on it.
Conventional wisdom, and traditional analysis, dictates that Star Trek series always find their mojo after three years – since Michael Piller rejuvenated The Next Generation after a shambling first two seasons. The maxim held true through Deep Space Nine, to a degree Voyager, and certainly Enterprise. On first blush, Discovery bucks the trend with probably the strongest debut year since The Original Series, only to stumble toward the finish. The second season then falls completely on its face, pandering to the kind of self-serving fan-service and meandering, ultimately soulless serialisation that felt more of a back door pilot for a spin-off series than a strong year for Discovery itself. The show suffered from an identity problem across these first two years. Season 3, for many, felt like the answer.
It’s worth remembering that Discovery has carried an enormous weight on its shoulders since 2017. The first Star Trek series on television since 2005, the expectation on Discovery as a new lease of life for a franchise born on TV, which has done much of its best work on TV, was immense. Putting aside the initial production difficulties, with writers and showrunners coming and going, Discovery was tasked as the flagship revival series. The next gen’s Next Gen, if you will, and backed with a gigantic amount of beloved storytelling and characterisation over half a century it was tasked to live up to. There would never be a perfect Discovery series in the eyes of Star Trek fandom given such history. To find such consensus would be impossible. Yet hope existed that Discovery’s third season might be talked about in the hallowed terms reserved for TNG or DS9 S3, even ENT’s S3 critical revival.
By the final scene of That Hope Is You part two, it became clear that my wish would not be granted. Discovery’s transformation into a new show is mere smoke and mirrors disguising formula, unoriginality and a powerful, cloying sense of sentimentality.
One question that I have been grappling with across this third season is a tried and tested one: is Discovery really and truly Star Trek?
Now, on a factual basis, the answer is of course yes. Discovery is just as much Star Trek as any of the other shows mentioned above. It is canon. It is set in the Prime timeline (despite some hilarious nerds trying to prove otherwise in places online) and it certainly aspires to the core principles of Gene Roddenberry’s series. It is progressive. It is human. It believes in aspiration and equality. It believes in representation. All of these factors are evident, particularly in Season 3 which front-loads POC, LGBTQ and non-binary characters as clearly defined heroes. Discovery considers itself a true heir to the legacy of TOS, perhaps even more so than any Star Trek series since TNG. It carries that belief with passion.
There are two reasons that, for me, Discovery does not, however, feel like Star Trek.
Firstly, it is the only Star Trek show to date which has almost a meta-awareness of the universe it lives in. One might argue Lower Decks has this but the rules are different with that series, one expressly designed as an animated parody of Star Trek’s core tropes. Discovery considers itself a straight-up ‘legacy’ show in the vein of the well-known series of yore, and the carrier of the flame even more than Picard (a project baked in nostalgia designed more as a personal vehicle for Patrick Stewart). Yet Discovery’s characters regularly exist in awe of their surroundings, buoyant with a sense of their own adventure, and almost cult-like about their existence as a crew. Consider how they canonise Michael Burnham, for one thing (more on this later) and how vehemently they resist being parted once they arrive in the 32nd century. They might declare “we are Starfleet” but they don’t often act like it. They act like characters who know they’re in a Star Trek show.
Secondly, the show frequently seems to avoid anything close to the layered interpretation or measured storytelling we saw in previous eras. The standard defence of this is to suggest Discovery cannot be measured in these terms because television has changed, and audiences digest media at lightning, breakneck speed, but it’s a lazy excuse. TV drama has never been stronger, all told, with the cable glory days of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad et al… priming audiences for television which can balance serialisation and nuanced, detailed narrative and character development over fifty minutes. It can be done with science-fiction or fantasy. Just look at Watchmen, a nine-episode masterpiece of storytelling. Game of Thrones, at its height, Westworld when firing on all cylinders.
These are just a few examples of shows Discovery, even at its best, isn’t even in the same league with. The writing covers a lack of depth with forced emotion and sentimentality from characters who rarely earn the connection us, as an audience, are meant to invest.
There are so many examples of this.
Take, for one thing, the lamentable, repeated sidelining of the Discovery crew who have been around since the very beginning. It was almost embarrassing to hear Oyin Oladejo on the internet’s best independent Discovery podcast, We Are Starfleet, discussing her character Joann Owosekun with such grace, clarity and charm when she barely gets any lines or scenes in most episodes (indeed the finale toys with suggesting a tragic sacrifice of her character which thankfully didn’t play out, as it would barely have resonated given how little we know the woman). That Hope Is You part 1 suggested helm officer Kayla Detmer, consistently an interesting screen presence in Emily Coutts, might get a plotline based on the trauma of crashing the ship on arrival in the far future, but this is almost immediately ignored.
Two or three of the other bridge crew characters names I still don’t even know, and they’ve been around for at least two seasons. Die Trying expends the kind of energy on Nhan’s departure that you might expect from a major cast member leaving, when she’s barely even been sketched out (see Airiam for another example of this in S2’s dreadful Project Daedalus). These are egregious examples of writing that takes every opportunity to cut corners or push the audience into investment which is almost never earned.
Take the character of Adira Tal (played by Blu del Barrio), a human non-binary person who in Forget Me Not becomes one with a Trill symbiont and goes on to become a semi-regular crew member. Everything about them screams of an idea that exists before the need for a character, specifically Discovery’s intent to include a non-binary representation on the show. This is no bad thing, in the same way that normalising the LGBTQ relationship of Stamets & Culber has been one of Discovery’s strengths, but Adira after Die Trying has served literally no purpose whatsoever. All of their lines could have gone to Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno or even someone like Tilly. And the suggestion that we should buy a parental bond between they and Stamets despite the fact they’ve had about three scenes together over the entire season of any emotional import is ludicrous. Adira’s focus comes at the expense of Joann or Detmer or any of the long-standing characters Discovery could have used this season to bring forward. But the show consistently chooses to focus on marquee names and ideas. Last year it was TOS nostalgia with Pike, Spock etc…. This year it is progressive representation.
This makes me sound like a big old conservative boor, and again I am not suggesting this representation is a bad thing, it just never feels earned, necessary or dynamic. Del Barrio is a dull actor who brings nothing out of Adira beyond their existence as a they. David Ajala at least holds a charisma around his future mercenary Cleveland ‘Book’ Booker, but he’s just a black Han Solo quite frankly, with Burnham repurposed as a kickass Princess (or should that be Queen?) Leia who the writers attempt to indulge in the same kind of sparky repartee with before giving in to the romantic intentions. It works, in fairness, and they have good chemistry together, but any developments barely have chance to settle before Discovery is racing off toward another plot that needs resolving. These kind of representative characters, elevated at the expense of established creations, often make the plot work for them as opposed to the other way around.
They also allow for some horrendous short cuts in narrative expediency – there is one in the denouement of People of Earth with Burnham & Book that is so outrageously insulting to the audience it left me genuinely quite stunned.
This takes me back to my concern that Discovery only sporadically tells stories that feel like Star Trek tales as opposed to science-fiction yarns you could spin on half a dozen shows or films outside of Star Wars.
I valued the Spaghetti Western inflections and tensions of Far From Home, for instance (even if the villain of that piece is later dragged back to be a boring henchman for the main villain in the finale, which retroactively ruins the menace of his first appearance), or the time the season took with Unification III, perhaps the most anticipated episode of the run given the tantalising title; an episode which eschewed shoot outs and histrionics for plain, old-fashioned dialogue and debate, framing Vulcan-Romulan reunification through an analytical lens. Su’Kal, easily the season’s strongest hour, might admittedly feel more like Doctor Who than Trek at points but it felt like Discovery’s Darmok; a strange, alien exploration of a mystery and culture packed with inventive sci-fi concepts that stood out in a series which just recycles and repackages ideas and storylines half the time that we’ve seen done a thousand times before. Take Scavengers, for example, an hour as pointless as it is empty and brainless. If it is technically Star Trek, it does the depth and thought this franchise has a disservice. It’s just action fodder that means nothing.
The same can be said for the villains of the piece across this season, the Emerald Chain. They really are quite baffling. One part crime syndicate, another part coalition of alien species under some kind of government structure, they never truly feel like they actually exist beyond an assortment of disappointing, hackneyed bad guys. Think of how much texture the Dominion had, or the Obsidian Order, or even the Xindi. It takes until penultimate episode There Is a Tide for us to even learn the Chain operates as a government at all, and by then it’s such a left turn as to leave you reeling, especially when their sole avatar is Osyraa, a bad girl so hammy she’d be twirling a moustache if she had one. For all Janet Kidder has fun in the role, and does inject some level of menace at points, what possessed Kurtzman & co to have two successive Star Trek seasons, in this and Picard S1, both have their two primarily villain characters be pantomime evil black haired women in leather? Osyraa is the better of the two, given how painfully awful to watch Peyton List’s Narissa ended up being, but she remains the kind of walking cliche villain who doesn’t hold a candle to the nuance of Kai Winn or Gul Dukat or, heck, even Enterprise’s Dolim.
I wouldn’t even say the Chain were a wasted opportunity when Discovery could have chosen, literally, a thousand other more interesting ideas for the future Federation to contend with.
Speaking of which, the future of Star Trek’s underpinning foundation needs considering, given how preoccupied Season 3 is about the victory of hope against the odds.
Ever since 2017, Star Trek has been struggling with the validity of a shining beacon of futuristic hope in the Federation given the dystopian horror of the Trump era, exacerbated this year by Covid-19. Discovery first tried to repackage it as a battle worn organisation fighting a revolutionary Klingon tide, and later the vestige of ‘60s nostalgic kitsch by reviving the Enterprise… but then Picard went for broke in turning them into fearful isolationists, pushed through cult conspiracy and rhetoric into rejecting their role as American-style galactic peacekeepers (as they were in the TNG era). Discovery’s latest season put the cherry on the cake by, almost a thousand years hence, fracturing them entirely as the result of the Burn, a mysterious future disaster, analogous of climate change, which left them on the back foot as a galactic minnow. That’s how That Hope Is You part 1 presented them, however, yet we never entirely got the sense of that beyond them penned back inside their own secret, inter-dimensional hiding space. They still operated under noble figurehead Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) as Starfleet. They never entirely felt decoupled from what we knew before in the manner the Burn originally suggested.
One aspect of the new Star Trek era that feels sorely missing is a sense of place and scope. Everything feels smaller. There seems less of an effort in the storytelling to define the boundaries of this universe. In one sense that evokes TOS but in another, and perhaps more appropriately, it evokes Star Wars – a looser assortment of planets & systems than Star Trek ever was. Discovery might throw a passing reference to the Gamma Quadrant in there but it doesn’t mean much or anything in the way it did in DS9. The spore drive’s inherent magic doesn’t help with this as it makes limits and borders meaningless, but those limits are partly what made Star Trek unique. That’s gone now. And even though the Federation is said to be scattered and disconnected, we barely get a sense of where they exist before the show throws particularly Burnham into another action-based conflict with the Chain, as an example. If Season 3 is about rescuing the Federation from stagnation, then what are they saving? What is the future Federation?
We get little of substance beyond tie-ins to ENT by mentioning Temporal Accords or David Cronenberg as a sinister ‘Cigarette-Smoking Officer’ lurking around providing exposition about the Star Trek multiverse, or something. What is the Discovery supposed to be saving?
Another problem with this lack of definition is the concurrent lack of innovation.
Discovery travelled 930 years into the future. To put that into context, from our perspective, 930 years ago from now was the year 1090. You know, the year a third Almoravid expedition is launched in Al-Andalus, designed to finally subdue the Taifa’s Kingdoms. I’m sure you remember it well! Point being, why does the far future of the 32nd century have little more than some swanky new uniforms, a 3D view screen, a few magical matter-defying bits of furniture, and a bunch of alien gangsters running markets and slave mines?
Considering how different the 23rd century was originally in Star Trek, why exactly does the 32nd feel like it could just as easily be the 26th or 27th, given how far Picard’s technology had taken us? Why is there nothing truly strange or revolutionary about this future? My suspicion is that the writers are juggling the expectations of an audience who expect certain conventions from this franchise and science-fiction, but also a general dearth of concepts that could truly have invigorated the series. They had a blank slate, remember, which they could have filled with anything. What did we get? A scared Kelpien, some Trill, the Guardian of Forever (which I admittedly did love) and space gangsters. Was that all they could come up with?
There lacked, truthfully, any sense of world-building that we saw in previous series. Even VOY worked to establish some kind of Delta Quadrant picture, as much as it paled to how TNG & especially DS9 fleshed out a vibrant galaxy of races, powers and principalities. Discovery just zips in the spore drive to Kwaijan or Ni’Var or any number of the planets in the known galaxy. Discovery never has the space or makes the time to root the crew in any real, tangible sense of the Star Trek universe, even when visiting a hostile, isolationist, non-Federation future Earth presents them with a perfect opportunity.
It presents the spore drive, further, as a magical construction which bends the laws of Star Trek physics to benefit the narrative, and allow for supreme wastes of time such as the Terra Firma two-parter, which in one stroke manages to definitively kill off any interest or imagination in the previously fun and pulpy evil Mirror Universe (by taking it all too seriously) and work solely to set up the back door pilot for the Michelle Yeoh fronted Phillipa Georgiou spin-off series. Magic and Star Trek science have always been close bedfellows, in fairness – many of the technologies ever series since the ‘60s has displayed are likely never to actually exist, but Discovery straddles the line at points between fantasy and science-fiction to a degree many of the other shows avoided.
Spiralling back to character, Burnham is also now a fantasy herself. The transformation of Sonequa Martin-Green from complicated, intriguing lead in Season 1 to wish fulfilment Mary Sue is now complete by the end of this year.
When Burnham was first devised, it did seem as though the original idea of Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman, in founding the show, was to take Burnham from the restrained Vulcan-raised woman who lacks the foresight and awareness to be a Captain, a leader, in the Star Trek mould, and track her development toward the Captain’s chair.
This did make sense in The Vulcan Hello, as it presented the original Georgiou as a template, Jean-Luc Picard-esque Star Trek Captain and killed her off at the first opportunity. We then saw Burnham have to fight her way back to respect within Starfleet, face down a warped, dark hearted version of the Captain template in Lorca, learn from a genuinely inspirational Captain in Pike, and later logically step away from the chair in favour of Saru, who himself grew from fearful, irritable and stubborn first officer into a measured, evolved, wise leader ready for the chair. All of this made sense. When you look at it broadly, even though it probably wasn’t perfectly arced out for these characters, it works.
Season 3, however, chooses to cap itself off with Burnham becoming Discovery’s Captain after a season in which, rather than learn from her forebears and ready herself for a role of responsibility, she instead becomes the Jack Bauer of the Star Trek universe – a loose cannon who after a year on the fringes falling in love with Book as a sexy rebel, refuses to listen to Saru, or Vance, or anyone else who tells her not to rush off against orders and potentially get the crew killed. She does this again and again and again and ultimately becomes John McClane as Discovery stages Die Hard on a starship in There Is a Tide (or maybe Starship Mine II), and literally detonates the warp core on a whim as part of her escape plan.
And what is her reward for behaviour which is, at best, insanely reckless? Vance suggests she has taught him that all of his sensible, clear-headed leadership skills are secondary to Burnham’s single-minded greatness, and he christens her the leader she was always apparently meant to be, having shaken off her emotional shackles over the years, earning the respect of her crew, and saving the Federation from Osiraa after beating her ‘Kobayashi Maru’. The writers want her to be Kirk. In fact, she feels more like Michael Eddington. It is beyond ridiculous. It is a choice that caps off just how little any of these characters act like Starfleet officers much of the time. They are incredibly emotional and sentimental to a degree that often strays into melodrama and a cloying, blurred line between reality and fiction.
When the crew have a sad goodbye to the *checks notes* mass murdering, Kelpien-eating former space Hitler, Mirror Georgiou, in Terra Firma part 2, you really feel this is a bunch of actors sad that Yeoh is no longer on set as opposed to a crew eulogising a fallen comrade. It only makes sense in the former context. The show is filled with these kind of blurs. Wilson Cruz half the time feels like he’s just playing himself, as an example. The cast are clearly good friends, have a bond equivalent to that of the TNG cast, and that’s lovely, but where’s the drama? TNG was often accused of a lack of interpersonal dramatic by-play between the utopian future characters but Discovery too has this problem. This crew love each other so much, too much, that the drama ends up having to be externalised and we end up with hammy villains and guest characters who mean nothing given screen time.
Think about how well DS9 worked to grow a bond between the crew which often still ended up dramatically tested when situations caused tension. There is nothing like this in Discovery. Where is the professional restraint or formality? They are friends before officers and spouting technobabble every so often, figuring out a scientific reason behind an issue, doesn’t solve that problem. The writers like these characters too much, especially Burnham. As a friend said to me on Twitter, this is Michael Burnham’s world now, and we’re all living in it.
Season 3 of Discovery, then, is a disappointment. It improves over the vacuous fan-baiting viscissitudes of Season 2, which ended up lost so far up it’s own TOS spattering rectum it couldn’t see daylight by the end, but it has nothing of the drama or intrigue of the early Season 1 episodes which remain the show with the greatest potential. Season 3 looks good, all the money is on screen, the set and production design is great, and there are decent episodes in the mix. Equally, the explanation of the Burn—a mystery that would have been impossible to please everyone over—worked for me, as a clever, character-rooted explanation which feels very much like a Star Trek narrative, as opposed to the Romulan supernova shenanigans in Picard. On the whole, however, Discovery’s leap into the future is no leap into new possibilities. It is no great leap forward.
The show remains hampered by average writing, a dearth of innovation, characters who are rarely true to the narrative, plotting that takes short cuts and holds little logical consistency, and a gaping hole of world building which is making the Star Trek universe feel smaller as opposed to building it out. It might have the nerve to conclude the finale with the 1960s music, a traditional flying off into the galaxy ending, and a quote from Roddenberry, but it speaks to how hard Discovery tries to pretend it’s Star Trek while half the time wanting to be something else entirely.
“Let’s fly”, Captain Michael Burnham suggests as the season concludes, and we can hope Season 4 is the year Discovery finally does. For now, Discovery, that hope for a better live-action, modern Star Trek was you. And somewhere, you lost it.