Star Trek: Discovery theories – week 5

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

I had a good time with Die Trying overall, and it feels as though Discovery is now moving into the second phase of Season 3’s storyline. The first phase has been about laying out the landscape of the 32nd Century and looking for the Federation, and having now found the Federation I imagine we’ll start seeing stories which begin to pull at the threads of the season’s biggest mystery: what is the Burn?

Die Trying gave us several new theories. It also debunked one of the possible causes for the Burn that I had posited before the season premiered. Let’s look at that first.

Debunked theory: The cause of the Burn is related to stars and coronal mass ejections.

A real-world CME detected by NASA in 2012.

In the second Season 3 trailer I spotted a brief clip of Stamets, Tilly, Reno, and the new character who we now know is Lieutenant Willa talking about coronal mass ejections. A screen that Tilly and Stamets were working on had the words “CME Detected” on it, and I theorised that perhaps this was somehow related to the Burn.

Because a coronal mass ejection involves a star shooting burning plasma into space, it certainly seemed like a possibility for an event known as “the Burn.” Michael Burnham’s explanation of the Burn being an event that destroyed dilithium and caused warp cores to explode certainly put a damper on this idea a couple of weeks ago, but I felt that there was still the possibility of a connection to CMEs and stars, and at the very least I wanted to see this scene in its entirety before calling the theory debunked.

The frame from the trailer that I picked out for this theory.

Die Trying contained this scene, and the CME that the crew were investigating had nothing to do with the Burn, but was instead connected to their investigation of the USS Tikhov – the seed vault ship.

This is our second major Burn theory to fall; the first was that it was the opening salvo of a war or invasion. As it’s been 120 years since the Burn (according to Admiral Vance in Die Trying) we can say for sure that no war or invasion took place in the immediate aftermath. So that’s two theories down!

So that theory was debunked in Die Trying. We have no confirmed theories this week, so now we’re going to jump into the main theory list, beginning with those that were new or advanced in this week’s episode.

Number 1: The music Burnham keeps encountering is indicative of being in a parallel universe, simulation… or even a dream.

Adira plays the strange melody in Forget Me Not.

As I said when I reviewed Die Trying, it isn’t much of a stretch to think that a piece of music could be well-known across the Federation. Even though the alliance is fractured in the 32nd Century, there were over a thousand years for its various members and cultures to exchange everything from information to lullabies. However, for story reasons I understand that this piece of music is sure to be important… somehow!

One way in which this could manifest would be if the piece of music were somehow indicative of Burnham and the crew being caught in some kind of parallel universe or alternate reality, one in which somehow this piece of music was prevalent. It could even suggest that the 32nd Century setting the crew have encountered is artificial – the music could be part of a simulation or even hinting at these events all taking place inside Burnham’s head.

The latter two points in particular would not be a route I’d like to see the show go down. The “it’s all a dream” or fake-out story tropes rarely end well, and while for a single episode or two-parter (like parts of Deep Space Nine’s third season episode The Search) this can be okay, on the whole it feels like a cheap way to end a story. I don’t expect to see Discovery go down this route, but the unexplained music could indicate that the story may be headed in this direction.

Number 2: Season 3 is taking place in an alternate timeline, or a timeline that will be overwritten.

Burnham in Die Trying.

As mentioned above, the inclusion of this unexplained piece of music that Burnham keeps encountering could be an indication that she and the crew have somehow crossed over to a parallel universe – one which, somehow, has a common piece of music.

But the music alone is not the only evidence we could argue points to a parallel universe. We got the first acknowledgement on screen from Burnham this week that the time-wormhole went wrong. She and Discovery planned to arrive at the planet of Terralysium, but they didn’t. This in itself had been evidence pointing potentially to a parallel universe, as the planets were not in the “right” place. However, Burnham says that she doesn’t know for certain what went wrong, but has a theory that gravitational waves may have disrupted their passage. Could these waves indicate a crossover to a different universe? Or could they be the cause of such a crossing?

The next part of this theory is Dr Gabrielle Burnham being missing. Dr Burnham was anchored in the 32nd Century – which is why Michael chose to travel to this time period. However, in the year she has spent since arriving, Michael has found no trace of her mother, even on Terralysium which is where Dr Burnham was supposed to be.

Dr Gabrielle Burnham.

It’s possible that, if Burnham and the crew have crossed over into a different universe, they’re in the Kelvin timeline. This would undoubtedly prove controversial with fans! However, one point in favour of the parallel universe theory is that it would mean – from the point of view of Star Trek’s prime timeline – that the Burn may not occur. We’ve talked at length about how Discovery Season 3 kind of puts a downer on the entire franchise; everything all of our heroes do across all the series and films ultimately comes to nothing because the Burn appears to have ruined everything. But if it turns out that Discovery is in a parallel universe, there’s hope that the prime timeline is safe from the Burn and its disastrous consequences.

The second half of this theory is that the Burn happened due to the interference of a time traveller or time travelling faction. From Starfleet’s point of view, the timeline in which the Burn occurred is not the “true” timeline, and thus part of the resolution to the Burn may be travelling through time to undo it.

I consider the first part of the theory – the parallel universe part – more likely. But both are possible at this juncture.

Number 3: Something bad has happened to Adira.

Adira with Admiral Vance in Die Trying.

After arriving at Starfleet HQ, Adira had a short and slightly awkward reunion with Admiral Vance. They were then sent elsewhere for a debrief and medical check-up, but we didn’t get to see any of that nor learn what happened to Adira after.

In shows like Discovery, any absence like this makes me start to worry! Has something happened to Adira? Are they alright? Have they been arrested or is someone threatening to harm the symbiont? It’s quite possible that the answer is “no” and that Adira is perfectly fine; we may not see much more of them if their character was simply present to allow Burnham and the crew to find Starfleet HQ. And that’s okay… as long as nothing bad has happened to them!

At this stage it’s less of a theory than a worry or a gut feeling… but I can’t help wonder where Adira went and if they’re okay.

Number 4: The ships at Federation HQ represent the majority of Starfleet’s remaining vessels. And they’re all 120+ years old.

Is this the whole of Starfleet?

How many ships were present as Discovery arrived at Federation HQ? Ten? Twelve? It wasn’t much more than that, that’s for sure. In a post-Burn environment, one where the Federation has shrunk considerably and where dilithium is in short supply, it’s possible that these ships are all that remain of the once-mighty Starfleet.

In That Hope Is You, Mr Sahil noted two Federation ships in flight, so perhaps we can say from his comment that there are at least two more! But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that we’ve seen the bulk of Starfleet. Certainly the Federation seems incapable of either building any more ships nor fielding a large armada right now, which is perhaps one of the reasons why they need to keep their base cloaked.

Because of the catastrophic nature of the Burn, it also seems highly likely that shipbuilding facilities would have been damaged, destroyed, or would be inaccessible. That may mean that the Federation’s fleet entirely consists of ageing vessels, each one over 120 years old and probably not designed for being in service this long. In addition, without fuel what would be the point of expending a lot of resources building a new ship?

Number 5: Someone commandeered Burnham’s Red Angel suit.

Burnham’s Red Angel suit blasts off from Hima.

This has been a theory I’ve been pushing since Burnham sent her Red Angel suit back into the wormhole in That Hope Is You right at the beginning of the season, and until now we’ve seen nothing whatsoever to indicate it might be right! However, I was struck by a line in Die Trying: Admiral Vance described the Red Angel suit as being “inaccessible.”

Burnham goes on to say she set the suit to self-destruct, but all this did for me is reinforce the fact that we didn’t see the suit’s destruction with our own eyes. The finale of Season 2 confirmed that Pike and Spock received the final red burst in the 23rd Century, but beyond that we simply do not know what became of the suit.

It’s at least possible that someone intercepted or stole the suit before it could self-destruct. It would have to be someone familiar with the suit and who had the ability to travel or at least scan through time, but neither of those things are impossible within Star Trek. This theory could connect to the Burn itself – as we’ll look at in a moment.

Number 6: The Spore Drive is going to become Starfleet’s new method of faster-than-light propulsion.

Burnham orders a Black Alert in Die Trying.

This week, Admiral Vance seemed at first to want to commandeer Discovery and her spore drive. Considering that Starfleet’s supply of dilithium must be quite low this makes a lot of sense! From the Admiral’s point of view, reinstalling the spore drive on one of his most powerful ships is a better option than leaving it aboard the 930-year-old Discovery, which is horribly outgunned in the 32nd Century. Discovery may be able to be refitted to be better equipped for dealing with 32nd Century ships and weapons, but right now the spore drive is incredibly valuable – and incredibly vulnerable.

If it’s possible to figure out a way to either create more mycelial network navigators, or better yet, a navigation system that doesn’t require a living person to have their DNA messed with, it would be possible for every Starfleet vessel to have its own spore drive. In such a scenario, whatever happened with the Burn and dilithium, Starfleet could begin the task of reuniting the fractured Federation, jumping back and forth between member worlds with ease.

In Forget Me Not, Tilly had an idea for creating a dark matter-based spore drive system, and whether this ultimately pans out or not, the idea of the spore drive expanding beyond Stamets’ control is now firmly on the table.

This theory would allow the resolution to the Burn to keep the current timeline intact – there would be no need to go back in time and undo anything, nor would there be a deus ex machina of a sudden discovery of a huge cache of dilithium. Instead, Starfleet could get back on its feet using the spore drive – finally finding a proper use for Discovery’s most controversial piece of technology!

Number 7: Dr Gabrielle Burnham will make an appearance.

Dr Burnham was the original Red Angel.

As mentioned above, Dr Burnham’s absence is peculiar. It certainly could be because Michael and the crew have somehow crossed over to a parallel universe, but equally Dr Burnham could be here… somewhere. This week, Michael mentioned that she was holding out hope for a reunion with her mother, but in all of her scenes with Admiral Vance she didn’t mention or ask about her.

I have to assume that, if Dr Burnham had found the Federation, she’d have met with Admiral Vance and that he’d have said something to Michael in this week’s episode. The fact that the Red Angel suit and Control all seemed to be new to him strongly suggests that this meeting never happened; wherever Dr Burnham is, she never made it to Starfleet HQ.

When Dr Burnham arrived in the 32nd Century for the first time, all life in the galaxy was gone. It was only after Discovery and the Sphere data left the 23rd Century that that changed; Control’s defeat meant life could continue. It’s possible that when that change occurred, Dr Burnham was killed or captured by whichever faction controls Terralysium. She may have sought out another Federation colony or vessel and worked with them to figure out the Burn. In short, there are many possibilities for where she could be and what could have happened to her in this timeline that make an appearance possible.

Whether she appears or not, though, I do think we’ll learn her fate. If Michael and the crew are indeed in a parallel universe, Dr Burnham may be in the prime timeline. Or it could be the other way around, with Dr Burnham being the one trapped in a parallel universe.

So those theories were new or saw movement this week. Now, as always, we’ll go through the remaining theories so they’re all in one place. These theories were neither debunked nor confirmed this week, and while some may have had a minor line or two in Die Trying, nothing really moved the needle. To look at them in a little more detail, you can check out previous weeks’ theory posts on my dedicated Star Trek: Discovery page.

Number 8: Michael Burnham will leave the series.

Burnham in People of Earth.

Although she’s been the series protagonist since Season 1, it’s possible Burnham may leave that role by the end of this season. In short, she has lived a whole year away from Discovery; a year in which, by her own admission, she began to enjoy living life in a different and less-restricted way. Tilly, Georgiou, and Saru all picked up on this, noting Burnham’s enjoyment and appreciation for life outside Starfleet. Even though the 32nd Century is very different from what she would have hoped to find, that difference has given her a shot at a different way of life – and perhaps a new romantic partner.

We don’t yet know what happened between Book and Burnham, but it’s clear that they spent a lot of time together and became close. Precisely how close isn’t clear. Book may end up tempting Burnham with a return to her non-Starfleet life of freedom, something she hasn’t really experienced before. Burnham went from a somewhat restrictive life with Sarek straight to Starfleet, and the past year with Book is the closest thing she’s ever had to true freedom.

Burnham has also missed out on the crew bonding. Most notably in Forget Me Not, but also in Far From Home and People of Earth. She may see them coming together without her and feel left out, further pushing her away. There are two ways her departure could manifest, assuming it were to happen. She could leave Discovery but remain a recurring character, or she could leave the series entirely. Whether either of these changes would improve the show are up for debate, but for my two cents I think Discovery could survive without her, moving to become more of an ensemble series centred around Captain Saru.

Number 9: The Dax symbiont is still alive.

The Tal symbiont’s former hosts.

This one is looking less likely, because the two locations where Dax could have appeared have both seemingly come and gone without them: most notably the Trill homeworld in Forget Me Not, but also Federation HQ in Die Trying. However, there are hints at a lifespan for Trill symbionts that may be exceptionally long, in which case Dax could very well still be alive in the 32nd Century.

Obviously we won’t see Ezri Dax (barring some bizarre time travel/stasis storyline) but the symbiont itself could have lived this long. When Adira “met” the Tal symbiont’s former hosts in Forget Me Not, one was wearing a Star Trek: Picard-era uniform, hinting that Tal may have lived 700+ years. There are production-side explanations for this Easter egg, and as stated the fact that two of the best opportunities so far to meet Dax have come and gone may mean it won’t happen this season. But I’m sticking to my guns on this one: Dax is alive!

Number 10: Lieutenant Detmer is going to die.

Detmer at the helm in Far From Home.

Detmer didn’t have as big of a role this week, but we did see her continue to struggle as Discovery’s helm officer. Her friend Owosekun has been a great help, and I’m so glad that this storyline didn’t just fizzle out after last week.

I maintain that we’ve seen hints at a possible premature end to Detmer, though – and that includes the fact that she’s been given a storyline of her own for the first time! In Far From Home she appeared injured, and despite being given a clean bill of health from the doctor, appeared to still be suffering some kind of implant-related injury. This week we got one line that may yet prove to be significant, as Admiral Vance noted that her “baselines are unsteady, to put it mildly.” Is that a reference to her mental health? Or a more oblique reference to her overall health being in terminal decline?

Number 11: A character from a past iteration of Star Trek – such as Voyager’s Doctor – will make an appearance.

The Doctor in Living Witness.

I’ve been kicking around this theory since well before Season 3 debuted last month! In short, there are a few characters with lifespans long enough to potentially set up a 32nd Century appearance, and it would be a fantastic way for Discovery to tie itself to the broader Star Trek franchise by including someone in that category. This concept worked well in Season 2 with Spock, Pike, and Number One, so why not here too?

Other than a backup copy of Voyager’s Doctor, other characters I suggested included Soji (or a synth who looks like her), Lore, Captain Sisko, and Enterprise’s Crewman Daniels – the latter of whom was a 30th/31st Century temporal agent. While these characters are among the few who could still be alive in this era, there’s no reason why literally any 23rd or 24th Century character couldn’t be included; perhaps they had been in stasis or travelled through time.

Number 12: Booker is a Coppelius synth.

Book has many abilities that some consider to be… unnatural.

The abilities Book had in That Hope Is You – including strange glowing spots which could be technological in origin – are still unexplained. Burnham may well know more about Book, having spent at least some time with him over the past year. But for us as the audience, Book is still a mystery. Thematically, his relationship with Grudge mirrors Data’s with Spot, which could be another hint. It’s possible Book is an enhanced human, or even an alien from a different race. But his abilities could be indicative of a synthetic origin, and if he is a synth, he could be part of a civilisation founded on Coppelius in the late 24th Century.

Number 13: The Federation’s response to the Burn – not the event itself – caused it to collapse.

Captain Ndoye of the UEDF.

Captain Ndoye hinted at this in People of Earth, as did Book and Zareh in earlier episodes. Book said that the Federation couldn’t answer questions people had about what the Burn was or what caused it, and Captain Ndoye said that the citizens of Earth, fearing attack or invasion, essentially kicked the Federation out in the aftermath of the Burn.

I had hoped to hear the Federation’s side of the story in Die Trying, but perhaps that will come in a future episode. Regardless, we’re at least halfway-confirmed with this one!

Number 14: The ban on time travel is being flouted – possibly by secretive elements within the Federation.

Kovich in Die Trying.

Unless Admiral Vance was straight-up lying to Saru and Burnham, he believes that the ban on time travel is still in effect. But while he’s the head of Starfleet, he may not be in total control. Section 31 was known to be rogue, and Kovich, who interviewed Georgiou this week, may well be a Section 31 agent.

It’s impossible to un-invent a powerful, useful, weaponisable technology, no matter how hard you try. Considering how crappy the 32nd Century seems to be, are we convinced that nobody at all is using time travel to try to give themselves an advantage? Not the Dominion? Not the Borg? Not Section 31? Seems unlikely to me, though for production-side reasons of wanting to keep the timeline intact and to avoid overcomplicating the plot we might be told this is true!

Number 15: The Burn was a superweapon – perhaps one the Federation or Section 31 built.

The Burn.

We learned in Die Trying that the Federation – at least, according to Admiral Vance and Kovich – doesn’t know what the Burn is or what caused it. One possibility that I considered when I looked at some possible causes for the Burn before the season kicked off was that it was the result of a superweapon.

Assuming Vance and Kovich are telling the truth, it wasn’t a Federation superweapon. However, it’s possible that the knowledge of such a crime was covered up, or that the secretive Section 31 was responsible but never told anyone else. It’s also possible that some other faction – perhaps the Borg, the Dominion, or the super-synths from Star Trek: Picard – are directly responsible. The latter point raises a strange question, though: if the Burn was a weapon, and it succeeded in its goal of decimating the Federation (which it clearly did), why did whomever is responsible not capitalise on that success? Where was the invasion that should surely have followed? The galaxy may be in disarray, but it clearly has not been conquered by any of these factions… so if the Burn is a weapon, what was the point?

It may have been a revenge attack; some kind of galactic-scale mutually-assured destruction. If the Federation, Section 31, or some other organisation launched an attack, the Burn may be that faction’s retaliation. That would explain the lack of an invader: they were already dead.

Number 16: The Burn was caused by one of the Red Angel suits.

Burnham with her suit on Hima.

There are two Red Angel suits known to exist – Michael Burnham’s and Dr Gabrielle Burnham’s. The suits are very powerful, and it isn’t a stretch to think they could be weaponised or cause some kind of accident. In an age where time travel has been prohibited, they could also be the only surviving examples of time-travel tech. If someone nefarious got their hands on a suit, they could’ve used it travel back in time and attack the Federation by destroying most of their dilithium. The name “Burn” may even be related to the name “Burnham” if this theory is correct.

As a second part of this theory, the Burn may have been caused by Dr Gabrielle Burnham or Michael herself. This might be something they indirectly did, something accidental, something they did under duress, or something they considered the least-bad option when confronted by something far worse. The idea that Michael would deliberately cause the worst disaster the Star Trek galaxy has ever seen is almost laughable… but Discovery loves to put her at the centre of every story, so there may yet be a connection.

Number 17: The Federation was in terminal decline long before the Burn.

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

Why are there so few stars on the Federation flag? Does this represent systems and races that have seceded or left the Federation? And if that’s the case, why does the decades-old, pre-Burn flag (that Mr Sahil owned) represent those secessions? Perhaps the answer is that the Federation was already in decline. The Burn may have been the final straw – but not the only straw. Admiral Vance said that the Federation consists of 38 worlds, down from a peak of over 350. When was that peak? Was it when the Burn hit… or decades prior?

Number 18: The Orion Syndicate is a major faction – and controls the trading post on Hima.

An Orion guard on Hima.

This week we got a couple of hints at an Orion-Andorian alliance, but this faction could still be related to the Orion Syndicate which has been part of Star Trek in some form going back to The Original Series. The trading post Book and Burnham visited on Hima had a number of Orions present, including working as traders and guards. In addition, in Far From Home the courier Zareh suggested to one of his goons that he would sell “to the Orions.”

One thing seems clear, though: this Orion-Andorian alliance appears to be a major power, one quite capable of taking on the rump Federation.

Number 19: Mirror Georgiou will travel back in time to the 23rd Century.

Mirror Georgiou in Die Trying.

Georgiou was not planning to travel to the 32nd Century, but was aboard Discovery when it left due to fighting Leland/Control. She has expressed her appreciation for the chaotic, “free” nature of the future, but there could be a reason for her to travel back in time. Not least because she’s supposed to be the main character in the upcoming Section 31 series which is meant to take place in the 23rd Century!

There could be a reason for Georgiou to travel back in time, but if she’s to work with Section 31, the main one I can think of would be to warn Starfleet about the Burn and give them time to prepare and/or prevent it. She may also want to try to return to her own universe – something Kovich told her is impossible in the 32nd Century due to the two universes “drifting further apart.”

Number 20: We haven’t seen the last of Zareh.

Zareh in Far From Home.

Despite being quite content to kill all of Zareh’s goons, Saru balked at the idea of killing the man himself in Far From Home. Instead, he and Georgiou let him go, sending him out into the wilds of the Colony – despite being told by the locals that that’s a death sentence. However, we didn’t see Zareh die. And in stories like these, characters like Zareh tend to pop back up looking for revenge.

So that’s it. Those are the twenty theories I currently have in play as we approach episode six.

Are all of them nonsense? Or am I missing a different theory that seems painfully obvious? It wouldn’t be the first time! One of the great things about Discovery that was also true of Picard earlier in the year is how unpredictable the series is right now. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way for the main story arc – the Burn – to come to a head. It may be a natural event. It may be a weapon. It might be connected to a faction we know of, or it might be the fault of someone entirely new. Discovery is keeping us guessing – and I love that!

One final note: no fan theory, no matter how plausible it may seem, is worth getting upset or disappointed over. I put these lists together for fun, and as an excuse to spend more time in the Star Trek galaxy, and that’s all. If something goes completely the opposite way I was expecting, far from being annoyed or upset I revel in that. That doesn’t mean writers should make arbitrary and silly decisions, but it means I like being surprised! If we could all remember to take fan theories with a healthy pinch of salt, there’d be less conflict in fan communities.

The promo for Scavengers looked very exciting. Here’s hoping for another fun outing with Burnham and the crew!

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