Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3.
The Section 31 series is currently stuck in that nebulous zone that industry insiders refer to as “development hell.” Despite having been officially announced almost three years ago and supposedly having scripts written, at time of writing it’s been a very long time indeed since we heard anything close to official about the series.
I last took a look at the Section 31 show’s prospects back at the end of April, and since it’s been a while I think we should briefly recap why I feel increasingly sure that the project isn’t going ahead.
After a deeply underwhelming reaction to the Section 31 show’s announcement in 2019, Discovery’s second season premiered – and fans immediately fell in love with Captain Pike, Spock, and Number One. Calls for Pike to be granted his own spin-off eventually led to the development of Strange New Worlds. After Strange New Worlds was officially announced, we began to hear rumblings about the Section 31 series potentially being reworked. For a show that had supposedly been ready to go and on the verge of beginning official production for more than a year, news in 2020 that scripts were being re-written did not sound good.
Alex Kurtzman – the head of Star Trek for ViacomCBS – later dropped a significant bombshell: that there were no plans for any new Star Trek series to enter production until one of the current shows has concluded. With Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds all being worked on at that point, Kurtzman said that no other shows would enter production until at least one of those had finished its run. We later heard from the Section 31 show’s co-creators that they were “still having conversations” about the Section 31 series – which sounds an awful lot like industry speak for a project on life-support.
Back in April we heard from Michelle Yeoh – Empress Georgiou herself – on The Pod Directive, Star Trek’s official podcast. It’s important to keep in mind that The Pod Directive is an official production, not a fan-made one, because if Yeoh had been interviewed by literally any Trekkie in such a format, the question of the Section 31 show’s future would certainly have come up. It didn’t – and Yeoh could only speak in very vague terms about hoping to “one day” return to the role of Georgiou.
Months later and we still haven’t heard anything about Section 31. Shazad Latif, who played Tyler in Discovery’s first two seasons, suggested that there had been unofficial chats about the show earlier this year – but again, that hardly sounds positive. At Star Trek Day back in September, Alex Kurtzman teased that a Starfleet Academy series may be in the very early stages of being worked on, which could mean that it’ll be the next project for the Star Trek franchise. In contrast, the Section 31 series wasn’t mentioned at Star Trek Day at all.
Let’s assume for now that the combination of no official announcements and a slow trickle of bad news does in fact mean that the Section 31 show isn’t going to happen. The question is why? What might’ve caused a rethink over at ViacomCBS and convinced the corporation to invest its time and money elsewhere?
It isn’t as simple as saying “Captain Pike.” It’s true that the fan response to Pike (as well as to Spock and Number One) absolutely stole the Section 31 show’s thunder in 2019, but that can’t be the full story. It is very interesting to note, though, that the support for Captain Pike from Discovery fans and viewers seemed to catch ViacomCBS completely off-guard. Did they not realise, during production on Discovery Season 2, that they had something special on their hands with Anson Mount and Ethan Peck? If not, why not?
Perhaps it’s true that ViacomCBS was only willing to greenlight one Discovery spin-off in 2019, and if that’s the case it was patently obvious within a couple of episodes which character fans were clamouring to spend more time with – and which they weren’t. But in 2019 ViacomCBS was practically throwing its money around, working on Star Trek projects left, right, and centre. It doesn’t make sense to say that there was only enough money in the kitty for one spin-off – and if fans liked both Georgiou and Pike, why not go ahead with both projects?
The build-up to Discovery Season 2 came in the wake of the surprise announcement of Star Trek: Picard. Many Trekkies were incredibly excited to revisit the 24th Century and see the next chapter of Picard’s life, and there was a great deal of buzz and excitement surrounding Picard Season 1. As I argued at the time, a Discovery spin-off in the 23rd Century almost felt like a regressive step in comparison; many fans were excited to see the Star Trek franchise’s overall timeline move forward again for the first time in eighteen years – Section 31, being set in the 23rd Century, felt like a backwards step.
The intention behind announcing the Section 31 series prior to Discovery Season 2 was twofold: partly to drive subscribers to what was then still called CBS All Access, reminding folks that a new season of Star Trek was coming, but also to reaffirm the corporation’s commitment to Star Trek as a brand and Discovery as a series in the wake of a somewhat controversial first season. As Season 1 was rolling on, there were an increasing number of anti-Star Trek social media groups popping up, and one commonly-heard refrain in 2017, 2018, and into 2019 was that Discovery was about to be cancelled. This story, by the way, still does the rounds in those same groups in 2021, despite the show now being into its fourth season!
There was a need for ViacomCBS to try to bring in more subscribers, and there was also a need to do something to demonstrate that the corporation still had faith in Discovery and the broader Star Trek franchise. Shutting down some of the anti-Trek hate wasn’t the main reason, but it may well have been a factor in the decision-making.
So in January 2019, as Discovery’s second season drew near, we got the announcement of the Section 31 series. But rather than the positive response ViacomCBS was hoping for, reaction to the news was muted at best – and disagreeable at worst.
I was one of many Trekkies left underwhelmed by the concept of the Section 31 series at that time. Michelle Yeoh is an outstanding performer, don’t misunderstand me for a moment. But her character of Empress Georgiou was someone who was fundamentally uninteresting – at least she was as of the end of Discovery Season 1. Remember that the Section 31 show was announced before a single Season 2 episode had aired, and long before Georgiou got some much-needed character development in Season 3.
Imagine, for a moment, that the Section 31 show had been announced last December – in the days following the broadcast of Terra Firma, Part 2. How much more excited and interested might fans have been then than they were in January 2019? I think we all know the answer to that question.
The Mirror Universe and its Terran inhabitants can be fun, and even though I freely admit that the Mirror Universe is far from my favourite Star Trek setting, I can appreciate what it brings to the table. But the Mirror Universe has only ever been the kind of over-the-top pantomime fun that I can enjoy for a single episode at a time. Terrans are basically all the same: violence-loving sociopaths. They make Prime Timeline Klingons look positively tame thanks to their gratuitous use of violence and torture, and there’s never been any demonstrable room for character depth or nuance.
The best Mirror Universe character, aside from Georgiou herself, was probably Mirror Spock way back in The Original Series. Deep Space Nine tried, to its credit, to tell some different Mirror Universe stories about enslaved Terrans and a Klingon-Cardassian Alliance – but the Alliance fell into many of the same thematic and storytelling traps as the Terran Empire had.
In short, Mirror Universe characters are uninteresting at best. At worst, as we see far too often across different Star Trek shows (including Discovery) they’re pathetically ridiculous. A combination of poor scriptwriting and a one-dimensional setting encourages even great actors like Sonequa Martin-Green to ham it up and put in performances that wouldn’t be out of place in a primary school play. At the end of Discovery Season 1, there was nothing at all to indicate that Empress Georgiou wasn’t the same kind of bland, uninteresting Mirror Universe villain as characters like Intendant Kira or Mirror Kirk.
Unlike many other Terran characters, I never felt that the acting performance put in by Michelle Yeoh was over-the-top. Some Mirror Universe performances – such as Mirror Kirk in The Original Series and Mirror Burnham in Discovery – are so truly awful that I find them borderline unwatchable, as the Mirror Universe setting seems to trick even competent performers into forgetting how to act. Badly-written scripts and a setting that doesn’t lend itself to anything but pantomime don’t help, of course. But I felt, to Michelle Yeoh’s credit, that Georgiou managed to avoid falling victim to the worst tropes of the setting. Even so, that didn’t make the way the character was presented at the end of Discovery’s first season a net positive going into the announcement of the Section 31 series.
In Discovery’s first season, we saw first-hand how Georgiou ruled the Terran Empire with an iron fist. She subjugated aliens – including Saru’s people, the Kelpiens – and ensured they were second-class citizens at best, slaves at worst. She killed indiscriminately and had no qualms whatsoever about destroying entire planets or exterminating entire sentient races. Some fans (and non-fans) derisively termed Georgiou “Space Hitler” as a result. And this was the point at which ViacomCBS announced a new series with this character as its lead.
I never liked the term “Space Hitler” to attack Georgiou… but I confess that I understand why some fans felt it was an appropriate descriptor in Season 1. It encapsulates Georgiou as a dictator, as a violent sociopath, as someone willing to inflict some truly evil actions upon the galaxy, and as someone who governs a state with a pro-human, anti-alien philosophy. It’s not an expression I would use; it’s offensive, crass, and deliberately provocative. It’s also a pretty crude analogy, but I get where it came from.
Think for a moment about Georgiou’s actions in Season 1. In her first appearance, she insists that Burnham and the crew “bow to their emperor,” then proceeds to feed Kelpien meat to Burnham a couple of episodes later. After being dethroned as Emperor and brought to the Prime Universe by the crew of the USS Discovery, she teams up with Admiral Cornwell to destroy the entire Klingon homeworld. Why? Does she suddenly care about the Federation and want to see it preserved? No: she likes killing, she likes violence, and she saw an opportunity to commit genocide and just went for it.
We began to see indications in Season 2 that Georgiou had a softer side, particularly when it came to Michael Burnham. At one point in the episode The Red Angel (unfortunately the season’s worst) she wanted to cut short a dangerous assignment when Burnham’s life appeared to be in danger. But it wouldn’t be until Season 3 – and really not until midway through the season – that any significant softening of Georgiou’s hard Terran exterior would be readily apparent.
Terra Firma went a long way to changing how I felt about Georgiou – as I’m sure it did for many other fans as well. We saw nuance in her characterisation for the first time – a sense that there was more to her than just violence and psychopathy for their own sakes. She expressed empathy for the first time, being unwilling or unable to carry out some of the violent actions that her role as Empress would have required of her. The changes she attempted to make to the way that the Terran Empire was governed ultimately led to her “death” within the Guardian of Forever’s portal – and proved to the Guardian that she was deserving of a second chance. I would argue that it was this episode that also demonstrated to us as the audience that Georgiou was deserving of a second look, too.
Georgiou needed Terra Firma to really come into her own as a character – especially a character that a new series was going to focus on. It wasn’t until we saw her returned to the Terran Empire – or the Guardian’s approximation of it, at any rate – that we could appreciate how living with the Federation had changed some of her opinions and attitudes. For example, Season 1 Georgiou would happily eat Kelpien. But by the time Terra Firma rolled around she’d come to value, in her own way, Saru as a person and even as a leader.
As the audience, we needed to see all of that before we could conceivably commit to a series starring this character. In hindsight it’s easy to say that the Section 31 series was a good idea, because I have to assume that the writers and producers already had some kind of an outline in mind for this story. At the very least they’d have known Georgiou’s destination; the culmination of her arc across Discovery’s first three seasons. But none of that was apparent to us as the audience at the end of Season 1.
Had Section 31 been announced not in January 2019 but December 2020, I think we’d have seen a far more positive and excited reaction to the new show. But ViacomCBS jumped the gun, trying to boost Discovery and CBS All Access without, perhaps, fully thinking through what the show’s actual prospects were or what the reaction from Trekkies might be. It wouldn’t be the last time that the corporation would mangle its handling of the Star Trek franchise, unfortunately.
ViacomCBS’ biggest failing when it came to Discovery’s second season is, I would argue, not realising how strongly fans would feel about Pike, and how much excitement there would be within the fandom for a Pike spin-off. If they’d realised that – and with hindsight it should’ve been obvious, especially considering these shows are almost always shown to audiences at test-screenings before they premiere – then perhaps the Section 31 announcement would’ve been held back, and Strange New Worlds could’ve been announced either during or shortly after Discovery’s second season.
Because of issues with Georgiou’s characterisation, prior to Season 2 was a bad time to announce the Section 31 series. The fact that the series is based around Section 31 – an organisation that fans have often indicated that we’d like to see more of – got completely buried by the announcement that Michelle Yeoh was going to headline it. Arguments over the character of Empress Georgiou and her suitability as the star of a new show drowned out any interest in the Section 31 organisation itself. And the otherwise muted, uninterested response from Trekkies and a wider television audience compounded that, driving the first nail into what appears to be the series’ coffin.
Speaking personally, it wasn’t until we got to Terra Firma that I saw the merits of a Section 31 show with Georgiou at the helm. One of the first articles I wrote here on the website almost two years ago was about the Section 31 series – and how I was truly not interested in it at all. It took seeing Georgiou’s character arc play out, and the strong two-part episode Terra Firma in particular, before I was sold on the concept. But by then, it seems, it may well have been too late to revive the show’s declining prospects.
Star Trek’s past is littered with unresolved story elements – though most don’t involve major characters. It’s possible that Georgiou’s story will simply be left incomplete, her destination after entering the Guardian of Forever’s portal never to be shown nor explained on screen. That would be unfortunate, especially because the character we finally got to see by the latter part of Discovery’s third season is so much more nuanced and interesting to follow. Seeing Georgiou run Section 31 had finally begun to sound like a show that Trekkies were interested in… but it feels like it’s too late now. The franchise has simply moved on to other projects.
The Star Trek franchise – including all 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.