Star Trek: Discovery theories – week 1

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, as well as for Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

That Hope Is You, the third season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, was pretty good. On the whole it did a good job establishing the main mystery of the season – the Burn – and set up some ground rules for how society operates in the 32nd Century. A solid foundation for the rest of the season to build upon!

If you’ve been a reader all year, you may remember my Star Trek: Picard theories. This series of articles will follow a similar format, as I take a look at some points within the show and postulate theories about what may or may not be going on. As I always say: these are just theories! No fan theory is worth getting too attached to or upset about, and unfortunately, as we’ve seen on a number of occasions recently, that can happen.

The season premiere offered up several points for theory-crafting – and also managed to debunk a couple of pre-season theories that I had!

Debunked theory #1: Warp drive is non-functional in the 32nd Century.

Book’s ship at warp.

Having initially come up with this theory when looking at some possibilities for the Burn, I spun it out into a full-blown theory all its own only a couple of days before the season premiere. Oops.

The basic idea behind it was that it would offer an explanation for why, decades after the Burn, the Federation had been unable to rebuild. A lack of faster-than-light transportation and communications would have made that task impossible. Not only that, but the lack of warp drive would have potentially left the USS Discovery (with its spore drive) as the only FTL-capable ship in Starfleet, perhaps even in the galaxy, providing a pathway for a ship from the 23rd Century to still be relevant in this era.

However, as we saw with Book’s ship, warp drive is still very much possible in the 32nd Century, and while dilithium – the power source behind warp drive – is now comparatively rare, many other vessels are capable of warp too. Mr Sahil’s relay station detected two Federation starships “in flight,” so even the rump Federation still has access to the technology.

Debunked theory #2: The Burn was a war or an invasion.

The super-synths from Star Trek: Picard.

When I looked in detail at what the Burn could be, based on the two trailers, one possibility was a war or an invasion. There were many ways this could have unfolded, and some covert or clandestine ones remain plausible. However, the Burn was categorically not a large-scale war or an invasion by the Borg or the super-synths from Star Trek: Picard. Both of those factions could still make an appearance and could still be connected to the Burn in some other way, but not this way.

Though we’re still completely unclear on what caused the Burn – which was the near-simultaneous explosion/disintegration of most of the galaxy’s dilithium – we can say with confidence that it was not a war, nor the opening salvo of one.

So those theories were debunked in That Hope Is You. Now let’s look at several new theories that I’ve come up with after watching the episode.

Number 1: Booker is a Coppelius synth.

Book’s prayer. Are the orange lights some kind of cybernetics?

Star Trek: Picard introduced us to Soji’s people – the Coppelius synths – in the two-part season finale. These androids had been originally built by Dr Maddox and Dr Soong, but there were a decent number of them by the time Picard and the crew of La Sirena arrived. Enough to form a self-sustaining civilisation in the decades and centuries between Picard and Discovery? Almost certainly.

Book appears to be human on the surface – but so did Soji and Dahj, and they were programmed to be unaware of their true natures. Book clearly has some kind of cybernetics or augmentations, as he demonstrated not only with his prayer/incantation, but also by having a holo-interface seemingly attached to his person. That could be an example of future technology, and as we get further along the timeline and humans (like Lower Decks’ Ensign Rutherford or Discovery’s own Lieutenant Detmer) become cybernetically-enhanced, the line between human and synth arguably becomes blurred. However, it is at least on the edge of possibility that Book is a synth rather than an enhanced human.

On the production side, this would tie together Picard and Discovery in a way that has yet to be attempted by either series. That would be a positive thing, and indeed is one of the things I hope to see this season. Whether this is the way to do it or not is certainly up for debate, but as of the end of the first episode, there’s no explanation for Book’s abilities or the glowing lights we saw on his face. Thus the possibility of him being synthetic remains.

Number 2: Hima is Terralysium.

The planet Book identified as “Hima.”

After Burnham met Book, she questioned him about what planet she was on. Because Dr Gabrielle Burnham – Michael’s mother – was “anchored” to the planet of Terralysium, Michael had set Terralysium as her destination when she created the time-wormhole in the Season 2 finale. Thus it was a surprise to her when Book told her than the name of the planet she had arrived at was Hima.

However, there are several points to consider. The first is that Terralysium was the name given to the planet by a very small group of pre-warp humans in the 23rd Century. If this civilisation didn’t survive for some reason, their name for the world would no longer be used. Secondly, 930 years have passed, and in that time the name of the planet could have changed organically. Languages evolve over time, and place names change too. Even in just the last century, the name of my home town has changed. Third, and perhaps most depressingly, it’s possible that without the protection of the Federation, the humans on Terralysium were killed, evicted, or conquered, and the name of the planet was changed by whoever currently controls it.

This is a minor point in some ways, and now that Burnham and Book have teamed up they may not revisit Hima – especially since they’re no longer welcome.

Number 3: The operators of the trading post on Hima are the Orion Syndicate.

One of the guards at the trading post was (I assume, anyway) an Orion.

I mentioned this during my review, but I wonder if the faction who operate the trading post on Hima are the 32nd Century Orion Syndicate. This criminal organisation was first hinted at in The Original Series and made several appearances in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, and was depicted as a shadowy, underground criminal organisation comparable to organised crime groups of today.

In the absence of the Federation – or any other government – the Orion Syndicate may have felt no need to conceal itself, and could openly run settlements or even govern whole planets. It would explain the presence of Orions among the trading post’s staff, though there could be other reasons for that and Orions were by no means the only race we saw.

When I think about organised crime in Star Trek, the first group that comes to mind is the Orion Syndicate, and this kind of power vacuum is exactly what they would be able to take advantage of.

Number 4: Dr Gabrielle Burnham will appear during the season.

Dr Gabrielle Burnham, as seen in Season 2.

This is a pretty simple theory by my standards! The reason Michael Burnham selected the 32nd Century and the planet Terralysium for her destination in the Season 2 finale was because that time period and location were where her mother – Dr Gabrielle Burnham – is. “Anchored” there by a malfunctioning time travel suit of her own, Dr Burnham has been able to make short visits to the past, but is always pulled back to the 32nd Century afterwards. When choosing where to take Discovery, Burnham chose this time period and place on purpose specifically to reunite with her mother.

I didn’t necessarily expect Dr Burnham to appear right off the bat in the season premiere. But – along with finding her ship and crew – locating her mother could be an interesting storyline for Burnham to go through. Her reunion with her mother in Season 2 gave Burnham a much-needed emotional storyline, and I like the idea of bringing back this character. Not only that, as a scientist Dr Burnham could be very helpful when it comes to investigating the Burn – especially if the Burn is time travel-related!

Number 5: The Federation was already in serious decline before the Burn.

Book, Burnham, and Mr Sahil stand by the Federation flag.

Mr Sahil has a Federation flag aboard his relay station, which is implied to have been handed down to him from his father and grandfather – the latter of whom may have been a Starfleet officer before or during the Burn. But this flag has a different version of the Federation emblem to the one we’ve been familiar with in The Next Generation era and even in Enterprise. Specifically there are fewer stars on the flag.

That could simply be an aesthetic choice on the part of the future Federation, but it could also depict the secession or departure of member worlds and/or colonies, if the stars on the original flag represented them.

The familiar crest.

So this raises an interesting question: if the stars did represent Federation members, and many stars have been removed, does that mean the Federation has fewer members? If so, the obvious explanation is the collapse the Federation experienced after the Burn… but then why would Mr Sahil have this version of the flag? Surely his grandfather, if he were alive during the Federation’s pre-Burn heyday, would have a flag with more stars?

One possible answer for this is that the Federation was already in decline and had suffered withdrawals and secessions long before the Burn struck. The Burn may have been the final straw, but it may well not have been the only reason for the Federation’s collapse. It’s at least possible right now, based on what we know, that the Federation was in a weakened state prior to the Burn. This could be a result of the temporal wars mentioned by Book (that seem to be a reference to Enterprise’s temporal cold war storyline). That’s one explanation – but there could be others!

Number 6: The Federation’s response to the Burn, not the event itself, is what caused its collapse.

What could have driven the members of the Federation apart?

One thing Book said about the Burn stuck with me: the Federation couldn’t explain why the Burn happened, and couldn’t reassure the survivors that it wouldn’t happen again. As far as we know, there hasn’t yet been a reoccurrence of the Burn, but the lack of confidence in the Federation’s response may have proved more devastating to the alliance than the Burn itself.

As we know from what’s happening in the world today, people need information. They want to know what’s happening, and if there’s a problem, they want to know that their leaders and those in charge know enough about what’s going on to keep it in check. A lack of confidence can doom a government or political leader to quite rapid defeat, and perhaps this is what happened to the Federation.

It may be the case that, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, some Federation members had lost confidence in the organisation and withdrew. That may have snowballed, leaving the Federation even more weakened. It can be a difficult task for any leader to bring people together in the aftermath of a disaster – especially if an “everyone for themselves” kind of mentality sets in.

Number 7: Book, the other couriers, and the space-worm salvation society all operate in a small area – that’s why they’ve never seen the Federation.

Book seems unsure about the current state of the Federation.

It struck me as odd that Book seems to not know the Federation’s current status – he assumes it has collapsed but is unsure – when Mr Sahil could detect two Starfleet vessels in the relatively small patch of galaxy he is able to scan. It’s possible that the Federation does exist – perhaps even in a bigger way than we currently believe – but because Book, the other couriers, and his friends who help him save space-worms all live and travel within a relatively small area, they never encounter them.

The Federation’s influence is restricted, limited to a smaller area than it had been a century or so previously. But all that really tells us is that the Federation has no presence in Book’s star system.

Number 8: The Burn is the result of a superweapon – perhaps even one detonated by the Federation itself.

Does this scene from the second trailer show the Burn?

After what we saw in That Hope Is You, I’m increasingly confident that Discovery will give us a proper explanation for the Burn. We now have an approximate idea of what it is, but we still have no clue on the bigger question: why did it happen?

The Burn could be a natural event. As I mentioned when I looked at the second trailer, there was some reference to stars and coronal mass ejections, though how exactly this would relate to dilithium “going boom” (still hate that line) is anyone’s guess. However, it could also be an event that’s artificial in origin, and if that’s the case there are really only two options: a horrible accident, or a superweapon.

If the Federation felt the galaxy was threatened and that defeat was imminent, it’s possible that this weapon was one of their own making. The Burn could be a Pyrrhic victory; the Federation “won,” but only at a massive cost to itself.

As we learn more about the Burn, we’ll get to know whether this theory has any merit.

Number 9: The Burn was caused by one of the Red Angel suits.

Burnham with the Red Angel suit.

The nature of the Red Angel suit is unclear. It is capable of time travel, as well as the creation of a powerful time-wormhole capable of transporting a starship. It’s also capable of sending “red bursts,” which Starfleet could detect from thousands of light-years away. Could the suit be weaponised? Or if it malfunctioned – as Dr Gabrielle Burnham’s suit already has – could it accidentally cause a disaster?

I think the likelihood of Burnham or her mother deliberately causing the Burn is infinitesimally low. But the Burn shares the first half of their name, and while that could be a coincidence… maybe it isn’t. Maybe, somehow, Dr Burnham and/or Michael are responsible for the Burn through the misuse, malfunction, or even theft of one or both of their suits.

Dr Gabrielle Burnham in her Red Angel suit in Season 2.

With time travel banned in the 32nd Century, the suits would have phenomenal value at a place like the trading post Book and Burnham visited. The suits could be the only extant examples of time travel technology, and thus would be sought after by criminals, warlords, and anyone else who might want to misuse the technology.

Finally, in That Hope Is You, Burnham set her suit to self-destruct. It’s possible that self-destructing in or near a time-wormhole caused the Burn. As we didn’t see the suit destroyed on screen, however, the possibility remains that it wasn’t destroyed at all, and may have been captured by someone either in the 32nd Century… or 100 years earlier.

Number 10: Burnham’s Red Angel suit was intercepted by someone.

Burnham in the Red Angel suit in Season 2.

As above, the Red Angel suit vanished into space near the beginning of That Hope Is You. Burnham told it to self-destruct, but we never saw that happen. So what became of the suit?

The Season 2 finale of Discovery saw Spock and Pike receive the final “red burst” aboard the USS Enterprise, so we have to assume that part of the suit’s journey was a success. But beyond that we simply do not know. The suit’s value as perhaps one of the only surviving pieces of time travel kit cannot be overstated, and anyone with an agenda may have wanted to use it to attack the Federation – say, by destroying all of its dilithium. While there’s no indication the suit could do that, it could be repurposed, or it could simply be the vehicle through which a weapon was delivered. Unless we see confirmation of the suit’s destruction, this theory remains in play.

Number 11: The ban on time travel is being flouted – perhaps by the Federation.

Crewman Daniels was a temporal agent seen in Enterprise.

As we know from our own history, when a particular technology has been invented, even if it is massively dangerous and destructive and everybody agrees it was a bad idea, you can’t un-invent it. And when dealing with factions and nation-states that are inherently untrustworthy, you rid yourself of a potentially useful technology at your own peril.

This is where the galaxy is at with time travel. In the aftermath of the temporal wars, Book tells us the technology was outlawed. But did every faction in the entire known galaxy abide by that? What about the Romulans? The Cardassians? Perhaps those two were Federation members by this point in time. But are the Borg? The Dominion? Book mentioned the Gorn had destroyed part of subspace in the area near Hima – if they’re an antagonist faction, are they abiding by the ban on time travel?

Would the Cardassians abide by a ban on time travel?

Once a very useful, potentially weaponisable technology has been invented, the temptation to use it will always exist. And if it’s known that the technology is not in widespread use, that’s all the more incentive for some shady faction to keep using it for their own purposes. And speaking of shady factions… hello, Section 31. Even if the Federation government banned time travel, and even in the exceedingly unlikely scenario that everyone in the galaxy is abiding by the ban, would Section 31? Based on what we know of them from their appearances in past iterations of Star Trek, the answer is a resounding “no.”

On the production side, the ban on time travel may be to try to avoid story complications, such as why the Discovery crew can’t return to their own time after defeating Control, or to explain how the Burn was able to sneak up on the Federation and surprise them. So from that perspective, this theory may be less likely. In-universe, however, I can think of myriad reasons why it makes sense.

Number 12: The USS Discovery arrived before Burnham.

The USS Discovery in the second Season 3 trailer.

Time travel is complicated, and writing it can be difficult. One issue that crops up is the broken link between cause and effect – an event that, logically, should only be able to happen after a preceding event can, in some cases, happen before.

Burnham took the lead on opening the time-wormhole and bringing the USS Discovery into the 32nd Century. We thus assume that Burnham arrived first, and the absence of the ship seems to hint at that. But as Burnham and Mr Sahil briefly discussed, temporal mechanics can be complicated! It’s at least conceivable in a storyline all about time travel that the USS Discovery arrived first – perhaps even by a matter of months or years – and is already in the 32nd Century.

The USS Discovery seen in Season 1.

We did see, in the trailers, Saru and Tilly dressed up in hooded garments that could be native to this era. While none of the characters appear to have aged in a major way – thus ruling out Discovery arriving decades before Burnham – the nature of time travel means we could very well find out that the ship arrived first and Burnham arrived after. Mr Sahil was unaware of Discovery’s registry number when Burnham asked about it, but as his scanning range was limited, if the ship arrived at a different location for some reason perhaps he would never have seen it. And in addition, it was never established how far Sahil’s base was from the planet Hima.

Would this be a good revelation? If the crew of Discovery had managed to blend in by the time they reunite with Burnham it could be. And it could make that reunion different and exciting – instead of Burnham racing off to catch up with the ship the moment it arrives, they could run into each other by accident, with both unaware the other had survived. Any of these stories could be interesting to see, and as much as I dislike time travel stories in general, here this kind of narrative could work well.

So that’s it. Some theories as we begin the season! Let’s see how many I get wrong this time… if you read my Picard theory roundup a few weeks ago, you’ll know I scored fewer hits than misses last time around. Some of these are either far-fetched or based on less-well-known parts of Star Trek canon, and those theories in particular may not come to pass. Regardless, this is a lot of fun and I enjoy spending time putting together theories for what may be going on in Star Trek.

The second episode of the season, Far From Home, arrives in the UK on Friday, so be sure to check back sometime over the weekend for my review. After each episode airs I’ll adjust my theories based on the events depicted, and will continue to do so throughout the season.

Star Trek: Discovery is available to watch on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including 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.