Season 3 of Discovery – when is it set?

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Star Trek Discovery and Short Treks.

At the end of Season 2 of Discovery, Burnham led the ship and crew into a time-wormhole. For better or worse, they’re leaving the 23rd Century behind and heading into the future – but when, exactly? And how will it affect the rest of the Star Trek franchise now that there are other series joining Discovery on the roster?

Let’s start off by looking at the currently-announced Star Trek series and their supposed timeframes in the Star Trek universe.

Firstly we have Star Trek Picard, taking place in approximately 2399, as the 25th Century dawns. Then there’s Lower Decks, set in the 2380s. Next we have the Section 31 series, which is supposed to be set in the mid-23rd Century, possibly overlapping with TOS. Already that’s two very different time periods, and three concurrent timelines running within the Star Trek franchise. And in addition to these prime timeline settings there’s the alternate reality, where a fourth film is currently in pre-production, further complicating matters.

If we’re to believe the ending of the second season of Discovery, the ship and crew have travelled into the far future – the late 32nd or early 33rd Century, depending on how literally one takes “950 years” when it’s spoken in Discovery Season 2. So that would a third distinct time period, and one which would potentially undermine every other Star Trek series currently in production, as well as making the franchise overly complicated for newcomers.

CBS All Access, if it’s going to survive as a platform as the “streaming wars” ramp up, needs to bring in as wide an audience as possible. Realistically, most people who tuned in for Discovery are not hard-core Star Trek fans. They’re not the kind of people who argue about the length of time for subspace messages to travel from Earth to the Borg Collective in the 2060s, or who wonder why Tom Paris’ dad had a picture of him with him combadge on the wrong side framed on his desk. Most folks are casual viewers, tuning in to see an episode then moving on and doing other things. Having three entirely different time periods for one franchise risks being confusing and putting off those casual viewers who make up the bulk of any television audience.

In addition, setting Discovery in the far-future will adversely affect all the other Star Trek series currently in production – by essentially turning them into prequels. As a concept, some prequels can work. Rogue One, for example, is a great film and a direct prequel to the first Star Wars. But many prequels are robbed of a significant amount of tension and drama because we already know the outcome. In Enterprise‘s third season, the crew were facing down an existential threat to the Earth in the form of the Xindi’s planet-destroying superweapon. But having seen Earth in the 23rd and 24th Centuries, it was already known to most of the audience that there was no real danger. Thus, the storyline – while still arguably one of Enterprise‘s best – wasn’t as dramatic or edge-of-your-seat exhilarating as it could’ve been if an identical story had been made as a sequel set after Star Trek Nemesis.

By moving Discovery to a far-future setting, in which some form of galactic government and humanity still exist, any significant, galaxy-ending threat in Picard, Lower Decks, or the Section 31 series immediately loses much of its drama in the same way as the Xindi story. It constrains the direction of any future series, because we already know what direction the galaxy is headed. How we get there might be interesting – though Discovery will be under immense pressure to explain much of that backstory itself – but when the destination is known there are only so many options for the journey to take.

Unless the plan is for all of Star Trek to quickly shift to a 33rd Century setting as well, leaving behind almost everything we’ve known thus far, it seems like a bad storytelling decision – one which is sadly motivated by the vocal minority of fans who disliked Discovery‘s place in canon. And trying to run a franchise with three different timelines all running simultaneously will be a daunting task for Alex Kurtzman and others, not to mention that it precludes the possibility of cameos and crossovers.

As Deep Space Nine was getting established early on in its run, there were several crossovers with The Next Generation, which was also on the air at the same time. And Voyager also brought in settings, concepts, and characters from TNG and DS9. Those three shows all overlapped and all shared a single timeline, making it easy for fans to jump between series without getting confused, and with the ability to bring across even major characters like Worf. Aside from a dwindling number of fans who love only TOS, I think most people agree that the TNG era – including DS9 and Voyager – was the “golden age” of Star Trek. Current and upcoming series are trying to reach and surpass those heights, but may find themselves hampered by the decision to split up the timelines.

One of the biggest things getting people excited for Star Trek Picard are the cameos from returning main characters. And this isn’t something exclusive to Star Trek, either. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, crossovers and character cameos are a big deal, and that franchise is arguably the most successful in recent history. By having practically all of its titles in one timeline and one setting, Marvel’s superheroes can cross over from film to film, and fans can skip an entry and still be able to largely follow what’s going on without having to be brought up to speed. I hadn’t watched most of the films preceding Avengers Infinity War and Endgame, but I could still follow what was going on because it was familiar. A casual Star Trek fan who enjoyed Discovery trying to jump into Lower Decks might find themselves confused by the change in timelines, and that might be sufficiently offputting to stop watching. Having to have a chart or graphic to explain where each new series fits in the timeline means that the whole thing is convoluted – and that absolutely will put people off.

So those are the two biggest issues which stem from Discovery heading into the far future: the overly-complicated timeline situation, and the fact that any prequel series potentially loses a portion of its dramatic effect.

The solution is complicated, and would require a either a retcon of parts of the ending of Season 2, or yet another time travel story. So then, either the USS Discovery travels into the far future, then somehow comes back to the 25th Century, or it never travels into the far future at all. The latter is by far the more preferable outcome, as it would allow the series to tie in with Picard, and any future series and films set in that era. Star Trek should be aiming to bring its series together into one single timeline, and the ending of Discovery‘s second season actually gives them a great way to do so.

Instead of travelling 950 years into the future, the USS Discovery would emerge in the Picard era, perhaps in an area of space far away from the Federation or where Federation jurisdiction is in question. Nothing from the Season 3 trailer that premiered a few months ago is contradicted by a setting like that, and in my opinion it would allow for future Star Trek shows to work better as one single franchise, with related – if separate – stories. As things stand, the franchise is fractured by the huge gaps in its timeline between series, and aside from the briefest of references it won’t be possible to have any crossings over.

It would be easy to explain, as well. The Red Angel suit and/or Discovery herself malfunctioned, causing the time-wormhole to collapse before they had exited, thrusting both Burnham and the ship into the early 25th Century. That whole situation could be cleared up inside of the first ten minutes, and whatever we saw in the trailer could just as easily be taking place around the same time as Picard.

Part of Discovery‘s problem has always been its place in canon. I mentioned before the vocal minority of fans who’ve taken it on themselves to be hate mongers of the series and everything about it, but the show itself has provided them the ammunition. The silly thing is that there was no reason to make it that way – nothing about the first two seasons of Discovery would have changed if it were a sequel series, aside from a handful of TOS-era characters. The Mirror Universe plot would have been fine, either by saying the Terran Empire had reformed after the events of DS9 or by setting it in a different parallel reality. And the time travel/Red Angel plot would’ve worked too, and there’d have been no reason to end it by sending the ship away.

In a similar way to how Disney and Lucasfilm have approached the Star Wars sequels, it seems from the way Discovery and the other new Star Trek shows have been rolled out that ViacomCBS hasn’t had a consistent approach, nor really had any idea of what direction to take the rejuvenated franchise. The result in the case of the Star Wars films has been a failed prequel, a complete mess of a trilogy lacking a cohesive story, and one standalone film that was brilliant almost by accident. I hope the same fate isn’t in store for Star Trek, or the franchise could disappear just as quickly as it was renewed. At the end of the day, ViacomCBS brought Star Trek back for basically one reason – it was the biggest property they owned with the best name recognition, and they wanted to launch their own version of Netflix to try to get a piece of the streaming action. But if CBS All Access continues to struggle (at this point it’s not clear whether it’s actually been profitable or has a pathway to becoming profitable) there’s no reason for ViacomCBS to keep making new Star Trek. After all, what would be the point?

The Short Treks episode from its first season, Calypso, comes into play when talking about the direction Discovery could and should go.

Calypso is set after the USS Discovery has been abandoned for almost a millennium, and a human character – or at least, someone we assume to be human – comes aboard. Discovery’s computer has evolved into a full artificial intelligence, complete with emotions, but we don’t learn the stardate or exactly when it’s supposed to take place. If Discovery sets its third season in the 33rd Century, 1,000 years later would be the 43rd Century, which would set Calypso far beyond anything we’ve ever seen in Star Trek. And that still could be its setting, there’s nothing to say that doesn’t work in the context of Discovery setting itself in the far future. But it was interesting that this episode premiered just prior to the season where the USS Discovery and her crew also end up further ahead in the timeline from anything else we’ve seen before. Some people have suggested a connection, or that the galaxy we glimpsed in Calypso is the one Discovery will enter in Season 3.

There are some superficial similarities based on the trailer – both settings exclude Starfleet and suggest that the Federation isn’t present, both feature humans who are at war or in conflict, and both suggest that the level of technology present aboard Discovery is either roughly equal to that which exists in the future or is perhaps even something future people would covet. So is Discovery‘s third season perhaps in the Calypso timeline, and if it is, how would Calypso itself be explained given that the USS Discovery was abandoned? There are a lot of loose ends to tie up there.

It seems to me that at the time Calypso was being made, Discovery‘s future was in jeopardy, or at least in doubt. This would explain why Calypso exists as an epilogue – almost certainly one to an alternate ending for Season 2 where the ship is abandoned. If that had been one option the writers were considering, Calypso makes perfect sense. As things stand now, it’s a bit of an outlier.

I really feel that bringing together Discovery and Picard somehow is a great option for Star Trek, and because of the nature of time travel stories it would be possible to do so in a convincing way that doesn’t feel too forced. Discovery has been a great reboot for Star Trek on television and it deserves more success than it’s arguably had thus far. But the time has come for Star Trek to stop looking back at its own past and do what it’s always done best – press ahead into the future. And if the future is the Picard era – which makes the most sense – then finding a way to tie Discovery to that is what needs to happen.

Whether I can call it a “theory” or not is questionable, because at the end of the day the most likely outcome is that Discovery does what everyone has said it will do and head into that far future setting. But my hope and/or my preference would be that it doesn’t. I don’t think it necessarily needed to leave the 23rd Century, and keeping it in that same setting would have allowed for some crossover with the Section 31 series. But if it has to leave and go into the future, ending up around the time of Picard just makes so much more sense.

If we think about technological progress in the Star Trek galaxy, in roughly 200 years we’ve gone from the tech available on the NX-01 Enterprise, with limited warp speeds and basic weapons, through Kirk’s time and greater exploration of the Alpha Quadrant, into the 24th Century with holodecks, slipstream drives, and the rollout of time travel. The level of technological change in 200-odd years is massive. Representing on-screen the level of change between the 24th and 33rd Centuries will be a huge challenge, and if the tech available to future Federation citizens in the 33rd Century looks oddly identical to that of the Picard era – and thanks to visual effects it will at least look similar – then that will have to be explained somehow. And from the trailer, it looks like Discovery is launching into an almost post-apocalyptic setting… that’s one way to explain it. But is it a good way to explain it? I don’t know. I’m not convinced post-apocalyptic Star Trek is what I want to see, and at the end of the day all of this speculation and hope is down to that fact. If Discovery couldn’t continue in its 23rd Century setting, then at the very least I’d much rather see it connect with Picard than try to explain why the future is so grim and technology has stagnated.

Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. I doubt it, but I still think that putting Discovery in that era gives the show and the franchise more options and better options than going such a long way into the future, beyond everything we’ve seen.

I had more to say on the potential for a post-apocalyptic setting, but I’ll save that for next time.

Live Long and Prosper!

As a final note, I just want to say that more Star Trek is always better than less or none, and whatever Discovery does and wherever it goes, I will always tune in to see what’s happening. As a fan, I’ll always want to see more and spend more time in that world.

The Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and Short Treks, are the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.