Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Seasons 1-2 of Star Trek: Discovery as well as the trailers for Season 3.
It isn’t long now until eighteen months of waiting for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 will be finally over! With the new season imminent I thought it would be a good idea to briefly recap what came before, and explain how Michael Burnham and the USS Discovery came to leave the 23rd Century behind.
We can start by looking briefly at the production side of things, because Discovery’s story is an interesting one. As Trekkies we’re more interested in what goes on in-universe, but sometimes it’s worth knowing about how events in the real world have shaped the Star Trek shows we care about. In Discovery’s case, there are several factors to consider.
When Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005 it really did seem as though Star Trek was dead and wasn’t coming back. Enterprise had been losing viewers for a long time, and talk of cancellation was brewing from at least its second season. It was over a year later, in 2006, that rumours began to swirl of a reboot to the Star Trek franchise; this would ultimately take the form of 2009’s Star Trek and the two subsequent Kelvin timeline films.
During development of the third Kelvin timeline film, Star Trek Beyond, it was announced that the franchise was returning to television. This was tied up with the announcement of CBS All Access, and the as-yet-untitled show was to be one of the new platform’s headline attractions. Bryan Fuller, who had previously written a number of Star Trek episodes, had been selected as the show’s executive producer. Interestingly, Fuller’s pitch for a new Star Trek series was one of several floating around in the 2010s; others included a “Captain Worf” series that had been proposed by Michael Dorn.
Fuller would ultimately leave Discovery in order to helm American Gods, and day-to-day running of the series would fall to Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, with Akiva Goldsman joining the team too. Goldsman would go on to produce Star Trek: Picard. The series was delayed from its “early 2017” planned premiere first to May 2017 and then ultimately to September, and while there are rumours as to why nothing is really confirmed. The key thing, I think, to take away from this is that the show’s creator, Bryan Fuller, left the project while it was relatively early in production. It would almost certainly have been a different show had he stayed on board. That doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse, merely different.
Nevertheless, Season 1 of Discovery mostly followed Fuller’s original ideas – the Klingon War and the Mirror Universe storylines were part of the original pitch. Season 2 – despite Fuller’s credit as a “consultant” – was drawn up without much input from him, and as Berg and Harberts departed, Alex Kurtzman took over as the lead on the new season. Kurtzman is also in overall control of the Star Trek franchise.
The biggest decision made in Season 2 was of course the decision for Burnham and the USS Discovery to leave the 23rd Century. This is speculation on my part, so take it with a grain of salt, but I wonder whether this decision was made in part as a result of fan criticism of Discovery’s place in the timeline and treatment of canon. Ever since it was announced as a prequel, a vocal group of fans expressed their dislike of the setting. This was compounded by Discovery being, in some respects, different to past iterations of the Star Trek franchise. The show took flak for things like the redesign of the Klingons, visiting the Mirror Universe before Kirk, the militarised and not-hidden Section 31, and many other points besides. When considering Discovery’s massive leap forward in time, we need to be aware of that context – even if ViacomCBS and everyone involved denies that fan backlash had any bearing on the decision.
So that’s a very brief recap of the production side of things. Now let’s get into the story of Discovery’s first two seasons.
One of the odd things about the two-part premiere – The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars – is that it doesn’t take place aboard the USS Discovery, nor feature most of the series’ regular cast. Absent from the premiere are: Culber, Lorca, Stamets, Tilly, and Tyler. These characters wouldn’t be introduced until episode 3 or later, along with the ship itself. Instead we got the USS Shenzhou and Captain Georgiou – neither of which would survive! It was a potentially explosive start for the new series, pinning down the idea that anything could happen and that being a heroic Starfleet officer was no guarantee of safety. As I’ve written before, there’s a distinct influence of successful shows like Game of Thrones in the way Discovery was written and produced.
Unfortunately the premiere was awful almost across the board; the visual effects and a Federation-Klingon battle being the only saving graces. Michael Burnham was introduced as a deeply flawed and unlikeable character, and it took a lot of work for the show to recover going into the rest of the first season.
The basic story of the premiere was that a resurgent Klingon Empire was on the verge of unifying behind a new leader. Burnham, for reasons that are still difficult to understand three years later, decides that the best way to avoid a war with the Klingons is to shoot first and attack their ship. When Captain Georgiou orders her to stop being such an idiot she tries to stage a one-person mutiny, attacking the captain and attempting to shoot the Klingon flagship.
Burnham spends much of the rest of the premiere in the brig, and in the subsequent battle a number of Starfleet vessels are lost. A last-ditch plan by Burnham and Georgiou cripples the Klingon flagship, and while attempting to capture the new Klingon leader, Georgiou is killed. This battle kicks off the Federation-Klingon war which would rage for the rest of the season.
I have a detailed write-up of the premiere, and you can find it by clicking or tapping here.
In episode 3, Context is for Kings, we finally meet Captain Lorca and most of the rest of the USS Discovery’s crew. Several officers from the USS Shenzhou transferred to Discovery, including first officer Saru and helm officer Detmer. The USS Discovery has an experimental spore drive – a mushroom-based method of propulsion that, in theory, allows the ship to travel through the mycelial network. This technology allows Discovery, and its sister ship the USS Glenn, to theoretically travel any distance in a very short span of time, potentially meaning it can hop halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an eye. However, early in the season the spore drive isn’t functional, and the ship has only been able to move very short distances. The term “black alert” is used aboard the ship whenever the spore drive is engaged.
Captain Lorca intercepts Burnham’s prison transport, and when she arrives aboard the USS Discovery he offers her a chance at redemption by becoming a specialist under his command. Burnham has to overcome the (100% justified) judgement of her shipmates, including those who had been wounded or lost friends during the first few weeks of the war.
Burnham is assigned quarters with a cadet – Sylvia Tilly – and now holds no formal rank. However, the clandestine nature of Discovery’s mission gave Lorca broad powers over who to bring aboard, and despite Burnham’s conviction she’s allowed to serve.
The first half of Season 1 documented Lorca and Stamets’ work to get the spore drive operational. Discovery’s sister ship, the USS Glenn, made a breakthrough by discovering a space-dwelling lifeform that could navigate the mycelial network. However, the creature was dangerous and got loose, killing the Glenn’s crew. The creature – known as a tardigrade – is able to be used to fix issues with the spore drive, and despite the loss of the USS Glenn, Stamets and the engineering team are able to use it to “drive” the ship.
Lorca is taken prisoner by the Klingons, and meets Ash Tyler. Tyler had been taken prisoner some time previously, and the two were able to escape and return to Discovery. Tyler is given a role as security officer aboard the ship – despite clearly suffering PTSD. Tyler and Burnham would develop a relationship across the rest of the season.
When it becomes clear to Burnham and Stamets that they’re abusing the tardigrade by forcing it to work as part of the ship’s spore drive, Stamets augments his DNA with the tardigrade’s. This allowed him to take the tardigrade’s place as Discovery’s “navigator” in the mycelial network.
After a mission to the planet Pahvo, Discovery made numerous spore drive jumps. Outwardly, the plan was to use sensor data gained by making numerous jumps around a Klingon ship to crack the Klingons’ cloaking device, which had given them a massive advantage in the war. However, at the last moment Lorca overrode the jump sequence and forced Discovery into the Mirror Universe. The Mirror Universe was first seen in The Original Series’ second season episode Mirror, Mirror, and in the 23rd Century was dominated by the Terran Empire – a human-supremacist, authoritarian state.
Lorca managed to maintain his cover for a time, but it would later become apparent that he’s not from the prime universe. Lorca was in fact a native of the Mirror Universe, and had arrived in the prime universe via a transporter accident. He plotted to return in order to overthrow the Empress – who is the Mirror Universe version of Burnham’s former captain Philippa Georgiou.
Lorca was killed while attempting his coup, but other plotters had been made aware of the Empress’ weaknesses and were planning attacks of their own. In order to save her, at the last second Burnham beamed her aboard Discovery. From this point on, Mirror Georgiou would be a recurring character. But it’s important to remember she’s native to the Mirror Universe!
Thanks to Stamets, Discovery was able to return to the prime universe the same way it left: via the mycelial network. However, Dr Culber was killed by Tyler – who turned out to be a Klingon in disguise, not the real Tyler – and in Discovery’s absence the war had gone very badly for the Federation, leaving the Klingons on the brink of victory.
Admiral Cornwell hatched a plan to render the Klingon homeworld uninhabitable using a device to make all of its volcanoes erupt simultaneously. When Burnham and the others learn of this plan (which had been devised by Mirror Georgiou) they rebel. Burnham leads a second mutiny, and convinces everyone to go along with a different plan. “Tyler” had introduced the crew to L’Rell, and she took possession of the volcanic device, using it to become Klingon Chancellor, unite the Great Houses, and end the war.
The first season ended with Burnham and the crew given medals for their roles in bringing the war to an end.
Season 2 shook things up a lot. With Lorca gone, the big question was that of who would sit in the captain’s chair. It couldn’t be Mirror Georgiou, and with her mutiny conviction it could hardly be Burnham. Saru was next in line, but Star Trek had never had an alien captain before – not to mention Saru is kind of a coward! The surprise announcement came that the role of Christopher Pike – the captain of the USS Enterprise in The Original Series’ first pilot, The Cage – was to assume the role. I wasn’t impressed by this initially, as I felt we’d only recently spent time with the Kelvin timeline version of Pike, and recasting the character for a second time so soon might not work. I’m happy to hold my hands up and admit to being thoroughly wrong!
When the USS Enterprise suffered a catastrophic computer failure – perhaps attributed to its holo-communicators – Captain Pike transferred to the USS Discovery to continue his mission. Starfleet had detected temporal anomalies described as “red bursts,” and Pike was investigating at the time of the Enterprise’s problems.
At the same time, Pike’s science officer – and Burnham’s adoptive brother – Spock, has gone missing.
The crew discover that a figure from Spock’s youth, once dismissed as a dream or hallucination, that he termed the Red Angel is responsible for setting the red bursts. Who this person is, and what they hope to gain is not clear, and the investigation continues. The second episode of the season, New Eden, takes the ship 40,000 light-years away to a small colony of humans. The Red Angel saved these people during a conflict in Earth’s past and transported them halfway across the galaxy. The plot thickens!
On the Klingon homeworld, Section 31 arrange for “Tyler” and his son to be evacuated in order to maintain the current power structure. Their artificial intelligence, Control, came to be heavily relied on during the Klingon war, and Starfleet now uses Control regularly. Mirror Georgiou has joined Section 31, as has Ash Tyler, and both serve under the command of Captain Leland, a Section 31 officer.
In An Obol for Charon, a planetoid-sized lifeform referred to as the “Sphere” is encountered by Discovery. The lifeform is dying, and in its death throes gives Discovery a gift: all of the data it has accrued over the hundreds of thousands of years it had lived. Amongst the data was information on Saru’s species, the Kelpiens, and Pike and the crew are able to use that to aid the Kelpiens in their conflict against the Ba’ul, a race who dominate their homeworld.
The Sphere’s data would be coveted by Control, as gaining access to the data would allow it to evolve and become fully sentient. This would set up the main story of the remainder of Season 2, as well as laying the groundwork for Burnham and the USS Discovery to leave the 23rd Century behind – they did so in order to keep the Sphere data away from Control.
Control “assimilated” Captain Leland using nanites/nanobots in a scene reminiscent of how the Borg operate. This led many – including me – to speculate that Control would somehow be tied to the origins of the Borg. I maintain that storyline was at least a possibility; perhaps something included in the story pitch that never made it to screen.
Control also killed off many Section 31 leaders and operatives, and was able to gain control of Commander Ariam’s cybernetic implants, forcing her to try to transfer the Sphere data. Ariam was killed before she could complete the transfer, greatly upsetting Discovery’s crew.
Meanwhile, Burnham took off on a mission to rescue Spock. Section 31 was hunting for him too, but she was able to get to him first as he was being sheltered on Vulcan. Spock, now a fugitive, insists on being taken to Talos IV – a planet he had visited years prior that was home to the Talosians, a race whose telepathic powers could help him.
The mission to Talos leads to Spock being able to explain more about the Red Angel – the mysterious figure is human, and someone who is trying to change the current timeline; a time-traveler.
After analysing the Red Angel based on scans taken at one of its earlier appearances, the crew come to the shocking conclusion that Burnham is the Red Angel. They devise a plan to capture her – or rather, her in her future form – using the current-timeline version of Burnham as bait. For many, many reasons, The Red Angel was the worst episode of Season 2 and encapsulated why time travel stories are so difficult to get right! However, one upshot of the otherwise-abysmal episode is that the Red Angel is revealed not to be Burnham herself, but her mother.
Burnham’s parents had been killed years earlier, when Michael was a child. Unbeknownst to her, they were scientists working on a new method of time travel alongside Section 31. However, they were attacked by Klingons and the time travel suit – Project Daedalus – was shelved and considered not to be working. Unknown to Michael Burnham and Section 31, Dr Gabrielle Burnham survived the Klingon attack and used the time travel suit – aka the Red Angel suit. However, she became trapped in the 32nd Century. The Red Angel suit allowed her to make temporary visits to other time periods, but at the end she would always be pulled back to the same spot in the 32nd Century.
That sounds like torture enough for poor Dr Burnham, but it gets worse: the galaxy in the 32nd Century was entirely devoid of sentient life. After investigating, Dr Burnham came to the conclusion that Control – Section 31’s AI – was to blame. In a timeline in which Control successfully acquired the Sphere data it became sentient and murderous, wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy. Dr Burnham resolved to prevent it doing so, and made numerous interventions in the timeline, including moving the Sphere so that the USS Discovery could intercept it and saving the humans by moving them to Terralysium.
The crew decide that it may simply be best to destroy the Sphere data, but are unable to do so; the data is “protecting itself.” Dr Burnham’s connection to Spock is revealed; in childhood, Spock suffered the Vulcan equivalent of dyslexia. The difference in the way his brain worked allowed him – and only him – to interact with the Red Angel.
Using Captain Leland as its vessel, Control attempts to steal the data from Discovery’s computer, but is unsuccessful. Learning the truth of Leland’s assimilation, the crew try to get as far away from him and Section 31 as possible.
When a new red burst is detected on the Klingon world Boreth, the ship and crew travel there. Boreth is the only known world where time crystals are found – and time crystals are needed to make a working Red Angel suit. The crystal in the original Red Angel suit was destroyed – stranding Dr Burnham in the 32nd Century – but the crew have decided that the best way to keep the Sphere data away from Control may be to take it out of the 23rd Century, so they want to get another one. Captain Pike goes to the Klingon monastery on Boreth and acquires a time crystal – but doing so cements a future timeline in which he will become crippled by delta radiation (as seen in The Original Series).
As the crew race to build a second Red Angel suit using Dr Burnham’s original design, the stage is set for a showdown with Control. Captain Leland’s body remains alive, but it seems as though Control has killed off most of Section 31. However, it is able to use their extensive fleet of ships to pursue Discovery. Despite the spore drive being able to traverse huge distances, the crew join up with the USS Enterprise to make a stand. Initially the plan is to destroy Discovery, but the Sphere data won’t allow itself to be destroyed.
While Discovery and the Enterprise fight off the Section 31 ships, Burnham uses the new Red Angel suit to travel through time and set off the red bursts – meaning the whole season is a complicated time-loop-paradox thing. With the red bursts set, and with no other options to prevent Control gaining access to the data (despite Captain Leland being incapacitated seeming to pause the fighting) Burnham activates the Red Angel suit, sets the destination for the same point in the future where her mother was trapped, and opens a time-wormhole.
Saru and several other main and secondary characters volunteered to accompany Burnham and the Sphere data into the future, leaving the 23rd Century behind. Pike, Spock, and Tyler are not among them, however, and remain behind aboard the USS Enterprise. Later, Burnham sets off a final red burst, confirming to Spock and Pike that she successfully arrived in the future. Presumably, in the aftermath of the battle, Starfleet was able to shut down Control. Ash Tyler was appointed head of Section 31, and from what we know of the organisation based on its later appearances, began the process of taking the clandestine organisation underground.
So that’s a very broad outline of Discovery’s first two seasons! The plot of Season 2 got a little tied up at points, simply because of the nature of time travel stories, but overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. I hope this recap helps remind you of some of the key plot points that led up to the third season’s premiere – now only three weeks away.
Obviously I didn’t include every sub-plot and storyline; this article was already far too long. I tried to stick to the key ongoing story threads from both seasons, and if I missed something you enjoyed or considered important then I apologise for the oversight! This was really just an exercise in recapping, in a broad way, the overall story so far so that as we get started with Season 3 we haven’t completely forgotten what came before!
When Season 3 kicks off next month I’ll be reviewing each episode in turn and perhaps crafting some theories. I hope you’ll stop by for those posts.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 premieres on the 15th of October on CBS All Access in the United States, and on the 16th of October on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Discovery – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.