Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery, including Seasons 1-2 and the trailers for Season 3. Further spoilers may be present for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
As the premiere episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season gets nearer I seem to be coming up with more and more theories! This time we’re going to consider one possible effect of the Burn in detail. I hinted at this when I considered what the Burn could be, but this time I’m going to expand on that, and in addition perhaps add a couple more potential causes for the galactic cataclysm.
Here’s how the theory goes: the Burn has made warp drive useless across the galaxy, meaning no one – including Starfleet – is currently able to travel faster-than-light.
In order to understand this theory, we need a basic refresher course in how warp drive works in Star Trek! In short, warp drive uses dilithium crystals to create and modulate a matter-antimatter reaction. The combination of matter and antimatter yields massive amounts of energy, allowing starships to generate a subspace field and travel faster-than-light. Subspace is part of the makeup of the universe, but its exact nature has never been fully explained. However, subspace is essential not only for warp drive but for communications – subspace radio being one way the Federation is able to communicate over large distances without delays.
Subspace, warp drive, and associated concepts have no real-world analogue and thus are subject to change depending on what an individual writer needs for an episode. The fundamentals are suitably vague, but for our purposes all we need to know is that without access to subspace there’s no warp drive and no FTL communications.
Any disruption to subspace would have massive ramifications for the Federation and the wider galaxy. While we have seen other races using different methods of propulsion and communication, the specifics have never been explained and thus may well involve subspace. The Borg’s transwarp, the Romulans’ singularity engines, and even Voyager’s slipstream technology could all be susceptible to the same limitations, even if they appear to be different on the surface.
If the Burn is relatively recent, perhaps occurring a few years before Burnham and Discovery arrive, it makes sense to say that the Federation could still be fractured. But if, as has been hinted, the Burn is an event decades or more in the past, the expectation has to be that they’d have been back on their feet. Even if it took years or decades, the Federation – and the galaxy’s other races – should have been able to rebuild, or at least begin that process. Perhaps they have, and we’ve seen what look to be Starfleet officers and maybe a Starfleet ship or facility in the trailers which could hint at that. But if Booker is right, and the Federation has mostly collapsed, aside from wondering how it happened, the big question is why nobody has been able to put it back together.
The answer could be twofold: a lack of transportation and a lack of communication. Disconnected from Earth, Starfleet, and the rest of the Federation in a galaxy where subspace has been destroyed, disappeared, or where it cannot be accessed, the individual worlds and colonies may have no choice but to stand alone. Some of these worlds may not even be aware of what transpired – they may have simply woken up one morning without faster-than-light spacecraft and communications. However, we have seen hints that the Burn may have been a violent event, and the name itself conjures up evocative images of catastrophic fires and explosions.
Without warp drive and subspace communications, it would be impossible to rebuild the Federation. Planets that weren’t damaged or affected by whatever caused the Burn may have found other technologies they had still worked, but without supplies from other areas – such as replacement parts – there’s a question-mark over how long any one world could last on its own. The Federation may have been spread widely even in the 24th Century, but it was also an interconnected bloc where resources were shared between member worlds. At least some of those worlds would struggle on their own, and this could lead to the kind of hand-to-mouth, impoverished existence we saw hints at in the trailers.
The lack of warp drive, communications, and any way to travel faster-than-light would, from an in-universe standpoint, explain why the USS Discovery is relevant in the 32nd Century. Even a crippled Federation should have technology that far outpaces the centuries-old USS Discovery, and the show has to find a way to make the ship and crew useful. It could simply be the case that a lack of starships means the Federation needs every vessel it can find, but I don’t consider that a great explanation, not if 32nd Century craft could outrun, outmanoeuvre, and outgun the USS Discovery.
In a galaxy without warp drive and subspace, the mycelial network and the USS Discovery may be the only way to travel and communicate with the Federation’s spread out worlds and colonies. It was interesting that in the two trailers we saw the spore drive engaged several times – but we never saw any starship go to warp – neither the USS Discovery nor vessels native to this time period.
The loss of warp drive, if that is something that has happened, is surely related to the Burn. That may simply be the name that the Federation and its now-separated parts use to describe some event that rendered subspace and warp drive unusable. However, there are possible explanations for what could have caused this based on past Star Trek stories. Some of these are rather obscure, and thus perhaps less likely, but as we’ve seen in Lower Decks over the last few weeks, the creative team behind Star Trek hasn’t been shy about bringing back aliens we only saw once!
Possibility #1: The subspace-dwelling aliens from The Next Generation Season 6 episode Schisms.
In Schisms, the crew of the Enterprise-D are abducted by aliens. These aliens were supposedly native to subspace, and performed experiments on the Starfleet crew. La Forge would confirm, towards the end of the episode, that these unnamed aliens were unable to survive in normal space – but were attempting to create a “pocket” of their native environment in one of the Enterprise-D’s cargo bays.
Though Riker (and a redshirt) were able to escape the aliens’ domain at the climax of the story, they sent a probe of some kind through the rift between realms before it closed, and even if Starfleet managed to avoid attracting their attention again, perhaps they now know of the “normal” universe and planned to attack or invade.
Possibility #2: A weapon of last resort.
This is something I considered in my closer look at the Burn, but if the Federation were under attack by a faction like the Borg or Species 8472, they may have been backed into a corner where the only option was to use some kind of weapon of mass destruction. If the Federation were to use such a weapon, one side-effect could be the destruction of subspace and/or the loss of warp drive.
We’ll look in just a moment at the omega particle (from the Voyager episode The Omega Directive) but a weapon based on this technology could be one culprit. There aren’t many factions we know of within Star Trek capable of launching an all-out assault on the Federation that might’ve made this kind of weapon necessary. The Borg are one, and perhaps the super-synths from Star Trek: Picard are one too.
This could be an interesting storyline, as though the Burn wouldn’t directly be the Federation’s fault, and may have even saved millions of lives, they would still bear a degree of responsibility.
Possibility #3: The omega particle from the Voyager Season 4 episode The Omega Directive.
As mentioned above, the omega molecule or omega particle could be a culprit. Omega was a molecule that could, in theory, generate vast amounts of power, but a single omega explosion could render subspace – and warp drive – totally unusable across a vast area. In Voyager, Janeway and Seven of Nine were able to destroy the omega particles they found. But those events took place centuries before Discovery’s third season.
In the intervening centuries, there’s nothing to suggest that the Federation wouldn’t have wanted to try again. Perhaps a scientist felt that they could control omega better, but an accident led to disaster. Or perhaps the Federation was successful in using omega particle-based technology on a widespread scale… only for some unpredictable event to occur.
Possibility #4: Warp drive itself ruined subspace, as seen in The Next Generation Season 7 episode Force of Nature.
Toward the end of The Next Generation’s run, Star Trek was still an episodic franchise. We hadn’t yet gotten to the longer story arcs of Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War, which makes Force of Nature somewhat of an outlier. It attempted to use warp drive as an analogy for issues in the real world – specifically the use of fossil fuels causing global warming. Two scientists make a claim that warp drive is damaging subspace, and one ends up dying to prove their case. The episode ends with Starfleet agreeing to a speed limit to reduce the damage while they looked for a longer-term solution.
Aside from a couple of later referenced to a speed limit, however, this story was never resolved on-screen. Fans have speculated that later warp engines, such as the design used aboard the USS Voyager, had found a way around this problem. But that is unconfirmed at best, and even if it were true, there could still be problems.
Of all the four possibilities, this feels the least-likely, but there’s potential for Discovery to pick up Force of Nature’s climate change analogy.
So that’s it. A theory and a few possible causes that would reference past iterations of Star Trek.
Until now, Discovery has only had the lore established in Enterprise and The Cage to draw upon due to its place in the timeline. The show largely ignored Enterprise, but Season 2 obviously referenced The Cage in many ways. However, now the show has jumped forward in time there’s the possibility for all sorts of references and callbacks to events of past Star Trek shows.
I’m sure that we’ll get some references spread throughout Season 3. Whether I’m right or not about warp drive, though… that remains to be seen! If you’re in the United States you’ll get to find out literally tomorrow!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 premieres on the 15th of October 2020 on CBS All Access in the United States, and on the 16th of October on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other titles referenced above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.