Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 and the trailers and teasers for Season 4.
As we welcome the month of November, Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season is now only a couple of weeks away! With the season fast approaching I thought it would be a good idea to recap, as succinctly as possible, the story so far. Michael Burnham and the rest of the crew have been on a wild ride that’s seen them face off against militant Klingons, a Mirror Universe impostor, a rogue AI, Section 31, and a journey into a future that none of them expected to find.
If you haven’t re-watched Discovery since Season 3 ended just after New Year, I hope this recap of the story so far will be helpful going into Season 4. If for some reason you haven’t seen Discovery yet, well this recap might help you get acclimated with the show and some of the characters – but there’s still a couple of weeks to watch the show’s forty-two episodes… so you’d better get on with it!
As I’ve said previously, the show’s first season didn’t get off to a great start story-wise. As things settled down, though, Discovery told a creditable story over the course of the season, one which hit a lot of the right notes in terms of “feeling like Star Trek.” But Season 2 was leaps and bounds ahead of where Season 1 had been, with noteworthy improvements in writing and characterisation to tell a truly exciting and engaging story.
Season 3 was a risk in some respects, but in others it was clearly designed to answer criticisms from some quarters about the show’s place in Star Trek’s broader canon. Shooting the ship and crew almost a thousand years into the future meant abandoning the 23rd Century – and everything else familiar about Star Trek’s galaxy. However, this decision opened up Discovery to brand-new storytelling ideas, and gave the writers and producers far more creative freedom. The show was pioneering new ground instead of trying to walk an occasionally awkward line between the franchise’s established history and bringing new ideas to the table.
There were some great successes in Season 3. For the first time we got standalone episodes – or at least semi-standalone episodes in which the main story of the season took a back seat. We also got spotlight moments for more of the ship’s secondary characters, some of whom had barely had more than a line or two of dialogue despite being fixtures on the bridge. Though I have criticised the Burn storyline – which was the most significant aspect of the season’s story – for having a number of issues, overall Season 3 was a success.
Discovery has been “the Michael Burnham show” since its premiere episode – for better and for worse. The first three seasons can thus be viewed as Burnham’s ascent to the captain’s chair, and the rocky road she took to get there. Though there has been development of other characters – Saru, Tilly, and Mirror Georgiou stand out in particular – the show’s focus has often been on Burnham.
So let’s head back to the beginning and run through all three seasons as briefly as possible! I’ll try to hit all of the most important and relevant points as we go to get you ready for Season 4.
Season 1 began with Michael Burnham serving as first officer to Captain Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou. Saru was also a member of the crew, as was helm officer Detmer. After being called to a region of space near the Klingon border, the Shenzhou encountered a new Klingon leader who had a plan to unify all of the Klingon Great Houses by going to war with the Federation. In a moment we’ll charitably call “confusion” (as opposed to other, harsher terms we could use) Michael Burnham attempted to stage a mutiny against Captain Georgiou and fire the first shot at a large Klingon fleet.
After the arrival of Admiral Anderson and Starfleet reinforcements, a battle broke out between the Federation and Klingons – the opening engagement of a year-long war. Georgiou and Burnham led an away mission to attempt to capture the Klingon leader, T’Kuvma, but the mission ended with both Georgiou and T’Kuvma dead and war assured between the two sides.
The Klingon war led to Starfleet accelerating work on the Spore Drive – a new method of traversing the galaxy that relies on a kind of fungus. The Spore Drive was installed aboard two ships – Discovery and the USS Glenn. Engineer Paul Stamets was in charge of the Spore Drive aboard Discovery under the command of Captain Gabriel Lorca, but the technology wasn’t effective at first.
The crew of the USS Glenn discovered that a tardigrade – a space-dwelling lifeform – could be used to navigate the mycelial network and might be the key to making the Spore Drive operational. However, the crew were killed when the tardigrade got loose, and the ship was destroyed to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Initial experiments using the tardigrade were promising, despite the dangers it posed, but when it became clear how painful the process was for the creature, Stamets merged his DNA with the tardigrade’s so the creature could go free. Stamets thus became Discovery’s navigator and the Spore Drive became fully functional.
At the same time, Michael Burnham – now a prisoner following her mutiny – had been brought aboard the USS Discovery by Captain Lorca. She was assigned a cabin with Cadet Sylvia Tilly, and employed as a “mission specialist.” Lorca suggested to Burnham that this could be a way to atone for her role in the outbreak of the war, and she played a role in helping get the Spore Drive operational.
Captain Lorca was captured by the Klingons, but was able to escape thanks to the assistance of Ash Tyler – a fellow Starfleet prisoner. Tyler joined the crew of Discovery as Lorca’s new security officer – despite clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of his abuse and torture by the Klingons.
The USS Discovery was sent to the planet Pahvo, where a crystalline transmitter was located. The transmitter could be used, Starfleet believed, to detect cloaked Klingon ships. When the mission went wrong and the native energy-based Pahvans summoned the Klingons to their planet, Captain Lorca disobeyed orders to implement a new plan. Outwardly his plan was to use multiple Spore Drive jumps to unlock the secrets behind the Klingons’ cloaking device – but in reality his plan was to use the Spore Drive to return to the Mirror Universe.
Captain Lorca was later revealed to be a native of the Mirror Universe, having crossed over inadvertently to the Prime Universe. While in the Mirror Universe the crew of the USS Discovery had to try to fit in as soldiers of the Terran Empire. Burnham and Lorca travelled to the capital ship of Empress Georgiou, where Lorca attempted to rally his forces and stage a coup.
Lorca was killed during his coup attempt, but Empress Georgiou’s reign was over anyway; other plotters were already eyeing her throne. In a moment of unthinking impulse, Michael Burnham chose to save Georgiou’s life and transported her to Discovery. After investigating how Lorca was able to use the Spore Drive to jump between universes, the crew were able to reverse the process and return home – only to discover that the Klingons had reached the edge of victory in their absence.
A mad plan cooked up by Empress Georgiou and Admiral Cornwell saw a bomb transported to the Klingon homeworld, one which would have devastated the planet if it had been set off. Leading a second, pro-Starfleet values mutiny, Burnham rallied the crew of Discovery against the bomb plot and instead saw the super-weapon turned over to L’Rell – who went on to become the new Klingon Chancellor and ended the war.
After the war ended, Burnham and the crew received medals for their roles. Burnham was also reinstated at the rank of commander. Following a computer failure aboard the USS Enterprise, Captain Pike was assigned to the USS Discovery and given temporary command of the ship for his mission to chase down an ambiguous entity known as the Red Angel. The Red Angel had been generating anomalies known as Red Bursts at locations across the galaxy.
The Enterprise’s science officer – and Michael Burnham’s adoptive brother – Spock, had gone missing at the same time. The Red Angel was revealed to be a time traveller – someone with the ability to travel into the past and far into the future. A mysterious figure from Spock’s youth – and who had once intervened to save his life – was revealed as the Red Angel and thus connected to Spock’s disappearance.
Meanwhile on the Klingon homeworld, Ash Tyler – whose true identity as a Klingon had been discovered – was able to leave the planet with his “son” thanks to the help of Section 31. The son of Voq and Klingon Chancellor L’Rell was taken away to the Klingon monastery on Boreth to be raised with the monks, and Tyler rejoined Section 31 – which counted ex-Empress Georgiou among its new recruits. Captain Leland tried to maintain the peace aboard a state-of-the-art Section 31 vessel.
Section 31 had come to rely heavily on an artificial intelligence named Control during the Klingon war, and it had become routine for Starfleet admirals to run all of their mission data through Control. Unbeknownst to any of them, Control had aspirations of its own, seeking to become fully sentient and to wipe out its creators. Somehow it discovered the existence of an entity known as the Sphere – a planetoid-sized lifeform that had spent more than 100,000 years studying the galaxy and accumulating vast swathes of data on all of its inhabitants.
By merging its programming with the Sphere data, Control would be able to become fully sentient, and it set out to acquire the Sphere data. Thanks to the time-traveling involvement of the Red Angel, the USS Discovery came to possess the Sphere data, and thus became a target for Control.
After Michael Burnham was able to rescue Spock from Section 31, she took him to Talos IV where the Talosians were able to help “unscramble” his brain, leading to Spock explaining as much as he could about the Red Angel, its origins, and its connection to him. The Red Angel was revealed to be a human.
The USS Discovery became a fugitive after rescuing Burnham and Spock from Talos IV; hunted by Control, and thus by Section 31 and all of Starfleet. Control was able to kill off many Section 31 leaders and operatives, and used nanites to “assimilate” or possess the body of Captain Leland – but thankfully left Ash Tyler and Georgiou alone!
The crew of Discovery studied scans of the Red Angel following a mission to Saru’s home planet (in which they rescued his people from subservience to the Ba’ul, a second sentient race present on the planet). Saru underwent a transformation to his “evolved” form, losing much of his fearfulness in the process. Scans of the Red Angel revealed that the time traveller was, to everyone’s surprise, Michael Burnham.
After a side-story involving native beings in the mycelial network and Tilly, Dr Culber – who had been killed by Tyler/Voq – was able to be rescued from the mycelial network and brought back to life. Meanwhile a plan to lure the Red Angel and trap her ended up proving that Burnham wasn’t the Red Angel – her long-lost mother was.
Dr Gabrielle Burnham had been using the Red Angel suit to interfere in the timeline after getting trapped in the 32nd Century. She arrived there by accident only to find all sentient life in the galaxy gone thanks to Control, which had acquired the Sphere Data and evolved itself. She began taking action to thwart Control, including giving the Sphere data to Discovery to keep safe. She was later pulled back to the 32nd Century; her presence there ultimately determined the ship’s destination at the end of the season.
Control was hot on Discovery’s heels, and using Captain Leland attempted to gain access to the Sphere data. Pike and the crew realised the data couldn’t be destroyed – it was protecting itself – so they made a plan to send the data into the far future, securing a time crystal from the Klingon monastery on Boreth in order to build a new Red Angel suit. During the mission to Boreth, Captain Pike made a great sacrifice to acquire the crystal – cementing a future for himself of devastating disability.
While preparing for a last stand against Control and a fleet of Section 31 ships under its command, the crew of Discovery raced to build a second Red Angel suit. After Control arrived and a battle raged, Michael Burnham used the completed suit to travel back in time and set the Red Bursts – making the whole story somewhat circular – before leading the USS Discovery (now under Saru’s command) into the future. Captain Pike and Spock remained behind in the 23rd Century.
Arriving 930 years later, Michael Burnham was initially alone and crash-landed on the planet Hima. There she met Cleveland Booker who told her about the Burn: a galaxy-wide catastrophe in which many starships were destroyed. The Federation had also disappeared – at least from the local region of space – and though Book initially appeared antagonistic and out for himself, he eventually agreed to help Burnham and took her to a Federation outpost.
There was no sign of Discovery, however, and it was a full year later before the ship emerged from the time-wormhole. After a rough landing on a planet named the Colony, Acting Captain Saru and the crew came into conflict with Zareh, a courier working for a faction called the Emerald Chain. Thanks to the timely arrival of Book and Burnham, Discovery was rescued and proceeded to Earth using the Spore Drive.
In the 125 years since the Burn, however, many changes had taken place. Earth was just one of many planets to have quit the Federation, retreating to an armed isolationist stance that even saw the planet unwilling to communicate with human colonies inside the Sol system. Searching for a Starfleet Admiral named Senna Tal seemed fruitless at first, but Tal’s Trill symbiont had been transferred to a human named Adira.
After helping the people of Earth reconnect with their fellow humans on Titan, Discovery visited the Trill homeworld to help Adira – and to learn the location of Federation HQ, which was no longer on Earth. Burnham and the crew were able to help the Trill, who had been suffering from a shortage of suitable candidates for their symbionts, and also helped Adira in the process. Discovery was then able to travel to Federation HQ – a cloaked space station that housed the remnants of both the Federation government and Starfleet.
Having peaked at around 350 members, by the time of Discovery’s arrival the Federation was down to a mere 38 remaining worlds, some of which were out of contact due to the Burn’s lingering effects and damage to subspace communications. The ship undertook a short mission to recover some seeds from the USS Tikhov – a Starfleet seed vault – in order to provide medical care. Nhan, a Barzan officer, remained behind on the Tikhov.
The USS Discovery then underwent a retrofit, one which kept the familiar interior look of the ship but which upgraded many of its systems to 32nd Century standards, including detached nacelles and programmable matter. The crew were permitted to remain together under Captain Saru’s command, but Discovery was seconded to Federation HQ as a “rapid response vessel” thanks to its Spore Drive.
Michael Burnham and Georgiou undertook an off-the-books mission to rescue Book, who had been captured by the Emerald Chain. The upshot of Book’s rescue was the discovery of a Starfleet black box, and the data inside proved that the Burn did not happen everywhere simultaneously, as had been theorised. Instead it had a point of origin – but without more information it wasn’t possible to pinpoint it.
SB-19 was a project run by Ni’Var – the renamed planet Vulcan following reunification between Vulcans and Romulans – in the years before the Burn. Ni’Var had come to believe that SB-19 was responsible for the Burn and were unwilling to share any details about the project, even though Burnham asked them to share it to help pinpoint the Burn’s source. Eventually, however, the reappearance of Dr Gabrielle Burnham, who was now a member of the Qowat Milat, an order of armed Romulan nuns, showed Burnham the way to get the information and recommit herself to Starfleet following a year away from the ship.
After acquiring the SB-19 data, Discovery undertook a mission to Book’s home planet of Kwejian. Threatened by the Emerald Chain and its leader, Osyraa, Book’s brother attempted to turn him over to the faction in exchange for protecting the harvest and thus Kwejian’s food supply. Piloting Book’s ship, Lieutenant Detmer was able to damage the Emerald Chain flagship while the crew of Discovery found a way to protect Kwejian’s food supply without the need to rely on the Emerald Chain.
Mirror Georgiou had fallen ill, and a mysterious Federation figure named Kovich knew why – travelling through time and travelling across from a parallel universe leads to a painful and fatal condition which he believed to be incurable. The USS Discovery undertook a mission to a planet near the Gamma Quadrant to help Georgiou, and she was able to travel to a parallel universe very similar to the Mirror Universe.
While in the Mirror Universe, Georgiou attempted to make changes. Having spent time with Burnham and the Federation she had become more compassionate and less quick to violence than before, and though she ultimately failed to bring about major reforms to the Terran Empire, she was deemed “worthy” of a second chance by the entity which sent her there – an entity which subsequently revealed itself to be the Guardian of Forever.
Georgiou was able to use the Guardian’s portal to leave the 32nd Century and thus save her life – but she had to say goodbye to Saru, Burnham, and the rest of the crew. Her destination isn’t clear – but if the Section 31 series gets off the ground in future we may just find out! Don’t hold your breath for that, though… it’s feeling less and less likely as time goes by!
With the data from the black boxes and SB-19, Burnham and the crew were able to triangulate the source of the Burn: the Verubin Nebula. Inside the nebula was a crashed Kelpien starship, the KSF Khi’eth, and a life-form was detected on board despite the dangerous radiation from the nebula. Discovery made another jump to the nebula, and Captain Saru left Ensign Tilly in charge while he went to save the lost Kelpien.
The Emerald Chain took advantage of this situation to capture the USS Discovery, wanting to keep the Spore Drive technology for themselves. Leader Osyraa then set course for Federation HQ, keeping Discovery’s crew hostage while she tried to force the Federation into an alliance. Admiral Vance called her bluff, and Osyraa attempted to escape. In the meantime, though, Michael Burnham had jettisoned poor Stamets off the ship, and without him to control the Spore Drive Discovery was forced to rely on warp.
Following a battle with the Emerald Chain both in space and aboard Discovery, Book was able to kill Osyraa’s lieutenant Zareh and Burnham was able to kill Osyraa herself, while Tilly and other members of the bridge crew regained control of the ship. Book’s empathic abilities allowed him to use the Spore Drive, transporting Discovery back to the Verubin Nebula just in time to save Saru, Culber, Adira, Gray, and Su’Kal – the Kelpien who was accidentally responsible for the Burn all those years ago.
Su’Kal had developed a telepathic link with dilithium thanks to the Verubin Nebula’s radiation and because the Khi’eth had crashed on a planet composed largely of the valuable fuel. When Su’Kal’s mother died while he was still a child, a telepathic shockwave that Su’Kal accidentally unleashed led to the Burn. By taking him away from the Verubin Nebula, any prospect of a repeat of the Burn was nullified.
A short epilogue to the season showed us that Trill had rejoined the Federation and that the Federation was hoping to use the dilithium in the Verubin Nebula to bring hope back to the galaxy. Ni’Var was considering rejoining too, and Saru took a leave of absence to go to Kaminar with Su’Kal. In his absence, Burnham had been promoted and assumed command of Discovery.
And that’s the story so far!
We now know that Captain Burnham and the crew will have to contend with a gravitational anomaly in Season 4; an uncharted, never-before-seen phenomenon that appears to be threatening the Federation and all of known space. How that will play out isn’t clear at all right now, but we don’t have to wait too much longer to find out!
I hope that this recap of the story so far has been useful. I didn’t include everything – this article would have been far too long if I’d tried to include every character moment and side-story. But I think I hit the most important story beats from all three seasons. I’d encourage you to check out other story recaps from other places to make sure you’re getting a full picture, though! Or you could just go back and re-watch Discovery… two episodes per day will get you pretty close, and then binge-watch the final few!
Going back to the stories of earlier seasons was a bit of fun, and it’s helped get me back into a Star Trek mood in time for Season 4, which will be upon us before you know it! I’m currently not writing up reviews of Prodigy episodes, as you may have noticed – the series is unavailable here in the UK and I see no point in covering a show that ViacomCBS doesn’t see fit to make available to Trekkies internationally. However, I will cover Discovery’s fourth season in depth, including weekly episode reviews and theory posts, as well as other occasional articles on topics of interest while the season is ongoing. So I hope you’ll stay tuned for all of that here on the website in the weeks ahead.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix internationally. Season 4 will begin on the 18th of November in the United States and the 19th of November internationally. 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.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-2 and the trailers for Season 3. There are also spoilers for Star Trek: Picard Season 1 and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Unlike on other occasions where I’ve written about Discovery’s upcoming third season, none of the points I’ll be discussing today should be considered “theories.” I do have some theories for how the backstory and narrative of Season 3 will play out, but these are more general points that I hope are included. It’s a wishlist from a fan, nothing more.
I’m excited, truly interested, and a little nervous about what Discovery has in store. The post-apocalyptic setting, “the Burn,” and many other things all have the potential to tell an incredible story – or an incredibly divisive one. I’m putting together this list as a way to get my own thoughts in order ahead of the Season 3 premiere, which is coming in a little over two weeks’ time.
The usual disclaimer applies: I have no “insider information,” nor am I claiming that anything listed below will be part of Season 3.
Number 1: Some kind of tie-in with Star Trek: Picard.
If you read my Star Trek: Picard reviews and theories, you may recall that this was something I half-expected, half-hoped to see happen in that series too. Aside from a couple of throwaway lines, we didn’t get any kind of significant crossover or tie-in, and while Picard was a fantastic show on the whole, that was certainly a missed opportunity.
Discovery and Picard don’t exist as wholly separate entities. The Star Trek franchise ties them together, and realistically, if we’re going to see the brand survive into the second half of the 2020s and beyond, the various projects need to be doing something to drive engagement with the rest of the franchise. In the 1990s, when Star Trek was at its peak, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all occupied the same timeframe, and this allowed for crossovers of themes, starships, factions, and even characters. At the very least, what this did was remind fans of one series that others existed, and served as gentle encouragement for fans of one show to jump over and try out one of the others.
The fact that modern Star Trek’s projects occupy vastly different time periods makes this more tricky, but it’s not something that’s impossible to overcome. I have a theory, as you may know, that the race of super-synths from Picard’s finale may be connected to an event called “the Burn,” and that’s certainly one route the show could go. But there are others, even including the appearance of characters like Soji. As a synth, Soji could conceivably still be alive after hundreds of years. This would have ramifications for future seasons of Picard, so I’d understand if the show chose not to go down that route. But the point is there are options for significant crossovers of themes, factions, locations, and characters in a way that would be important to the story, done in a way that would encourage casual viewers to dive deeper into the Star Trek galaxy. That can only be a good thing – retaining fans is going to be massively important.
It seems all but certain that a fourth season of Discovery is in production; we’re just waiting on an official announcement. But when Discovery inevitably comes to an end, Star Trek needs its viewers to stay subscribed and to remain invested in the broader franchise. Some are already, but some aren’t, and may not even be aware of Picard and other projects. Having a major crossover or tie-in will encourage that, and if done right it will help Star Trek’s longer-term prospects immeasurably.
Number 2: A reference, callback, or hint to something from Star Trek: Lower Decks.
As above, tying the Star Trek franchise together is important – and will be even more so as the franchise moves forward. Unlike with Picard, where I feel there’s scope for some kind of significant crossover or tie-in, all Discovery really needs to do is acknowledge, in some way, the existence of Lower Decks.
We could, for example, have the ship pass by the planet Khwopa, which was briefly visited in Much Ado About Boimler, see a California-class starship, or even see the names of one or more of the main characters on some kind of Starfleet memorial, assuming the crew visit Earth or another Federation outpost.
There are lots of ways to name-check or reference some character or event in Lower Decks in a way that wouldn’t be intrusive, and I hope an attempt will be made to do so.
Number 3: A storyline that doesn’t make Michael Burnham the “chosen one.”
Burnham is Discovery’s protagonist and principal character, and that isn’t going to change in Season 3. But the show has struggled in the past when it confused putting Burnham at the centre of its narrative with making her an invincible superstar or the “chosen one.” Doing so robs the other characters of any real agency over the plot, and leaves the ship and crew blindly following in Burnham’s wake – a metaphor that, somewhat ironically, was made literal in the Season 2 finale.
Making Burnham the only character capable of performing an important task or filling an essential role amplifies some of her less-attractive character traits: her confidence veers into arrogance and self-importance, her dedication to her own interpretation of logic leads her to ignore or shoot down dissenting opinions, etc. Having her as the protagonist is fine; having her be the only character who actually does anything of consequence is not.
As I’ve written previously, this is not Star Trek: Burnham. The whole crew of the USS Discovery – some of whom we barely know even after two full seasons – have the potential to contribute a lot to whatever story Season 3 tells. But the show hasn’t been great at giving most of them a chance to shine, and while Burnham will of course have an important role to play, let’s not have it be the only consequential and important one.
Number 4: A proper explanation for “the Burn.”
I really think we’ll get this, especially after the two trailers carefully built up an air of mystery surrounding this as-yet-unknown event. However, some post-apocalyptic stories choose to cloud their apocalyptic event and leave its details unknown. In some cases that can work well, but in a franchise like Star Trek it won’t.
Star Trek has been running for over fifty years, and in that time its fanbase has come to care deeply and passionately about the Federation and the galaxy humanity inhabits. The optimistic future we’ve seen depicted in every Star Trek project to date has been torn down, and as much as I have reservations about that it’s something I’ve come to accept. However, fans deserve to know precisely how and why that came to be.
There’s a curiosity at the core of Star Trek. Seeking out strange, new worlds has been the franchise’s heart since The Original Series, and that spirit of exploration and thirst for knowledge extends to fans as well. We want to know what’s going on in the galaxy, and it wouldn’t be good enough to say “well something bad happened, but don’t worry about what it was or what caused it.” In some stories, an unknown, mysterious event could work. But not here.
The reason why I think it’s at least plausible to think Discovery might try to pull a trick like this is because it seems as though the Burn may be an event that took place decades or more before Burnham and the ship arrive in the future. It may be, as Michelle Paradise seemed to hint, something that happened before Booker (the new character native to this era) was even born. That timeframe would make it easier for the show to try to get away with saying “don’t worry about what happened, let’s just try to rebuild.” And I really feel that will create a deeply unsatisfying narrative.
Number 5: No main villain.
Control was the villain of Season 2, and came to possess the body of Captain Leland, giving us as the audience a human character to dislike. Season 1 offered up Lorca, Mirror Georgiou, and the Klingons as villains at different points, but one of the great things about Star Trek is that its stories don’t always need a nefarious evildoer for the crew to defeat.
The Burn’s origins are currently unknown, and we could learn that it was caused by an antagonistic faction with an evil leader. Alternatively, we could see the post-Burn galaxy and remnants of the Federation having been conquered by such a faction. In either case, Burnham and the crew have a villain to fight and the story of the season could simply be how they came to fight and defeat this faction and its leader.
However, many times in Star Trek, there have been stories about figuring out a puzzle and solving a problem that was natural in origin. The Burn could be the deliberate use of a weapon or the aftermath of a war, but equally it could be a natural event. If it were natural, the story of the season could be figuring that out, finding a way to fix it or prevent it happening again, and rebuilding the Federation. There would undoubtedly be small-scale baddies to fight along the way – we’ve seen two possible examples of that in the trailers – but the season doesn’t need an overarching enemy to fight in order to tell an exciting story.
Number 6: Proper development of some secondary characters.
Detmer at the helm and Owosekun at operations are permanent fixtures on the bridge of the USS Discovery. But we don’t know much about either of them, and the way they’ve been used in the show so far has been poor. They’re sometimes seen adding minor backstory to another character (like Ariam) or event, but that’s about it. Who are they? Why did they decide to follow Burnham instead of abandoning ship?
Likewise there are underdeveloped “main” characters. Tilly has often been used for little more than comic relief, and while she got a sub-plot in Season 2 regarding the mycelial network, she feels like a character with untapped potential. With Reno potentially stepping up to fill the comic character slot, perhaps Tilly could be given a greater role.
Then there are minor characters that may or may not have travelled with the ship into the future. I don’t expect Discovery to follow the trail blazed by Deep Space Nine and have a huge roster of secondary characters, but it would be great to see more done with the existing ones. With Pike and Spock out of the picture entirely, there’s room for Nhan, Detmer, and others to take on larger roles.
Number 7: Fix the Stamets-Culber relationship.
Representation of LGBT+ people on television is streets ahead of where it was even just a few years ago, and in a way, Stamets and Culber’s relationship is testament to that. Since their first appearance in Season 1, the fact that they were “the gay couple” was never treated as a huge deal. Their storyline has reflected that as it took twists and turns over the first two seasons.
When Dr Culber was rescued/brought back to life in Season 2, their relationship didn’t pick up where it left off. He’s clearly suffering greatly as a result of the trauma he endured while trapped in the mycelial network, and after such an experience that’s to be expected. People aren’t magically back to the way they were after a hugely traumatic event.
The tension between Stamets and Culber after the latter’s return did serve as a source of drama in Season 2, but in my opinion their cute relationship works better when it’s used as one of the emotional cores of Discovery, rather than as a way to inject further drama into an already-dramatic series. Finding a way for the two to properly reconcile and get back together would be great for Season 3, as it would restore that emotional counterbalance which has been notably absent since Dr Culber’s “death” in Season 1.
Number 8: A satisfying explanation for how the Burn surprised Starfleet.
This connects to point number 4 about explaining what the Burn is and how it happened. In past iterations of Star Trek, we caught glimpses of the Federation and Starfleet in the far future, and one thing we learned is that time travel was a regular occurrence. Starfleet explored the timeline in the way they had explored space in the 23rd/24th Centuries. If they patrol the timeline in order to keep the peace, this raises a question – how did the Burn manage to come from nowhere and surprise them?
Surely once the technology to communicate and travel through time has been created, the Federation would explore not only the past timeline, but the future as well. Failing to do so would leave a massive blind spot for enemies to exploit, and once time travel has been invented and is commonplace, as we’ve seen in other Star Trek stories it won’t remain the exclusive tech of the Federation. If other factions can use time travel, they can travel into the future, which means the Federation at the very least need to be aware of the future timeline so they can preserve it.
But if Starfleet vessels had visited the future, how did they not know about the Burn in time to warn everyone? Did they choose to let it happen to preserve the “true” timeline? If the Burn represents an attack by a time-travelling faction that shouldn’t have happened, arguably restoring the timeline to its “original” form should be Starfleet’s objective… but wouldn’t that mean large chunks of Season 3 would be wiped from existence?
Time travel stories are often complicated and hard to follow, which is why they’ve never been my favourites in Star Trek. However, given that we know time travel exists in Starfleet’s future, there needs to be a satisfying explanation for how the Burn was able to happen at all, and why no Starfleet vessel was able to warn the Federation ahead of time – or even prevent the Burn altogether.
So that’s it. A few things on my wishlist for the impending third season of Star Trek: Discovery. I’m not trying to say that Season 3 will be “bad” or unenjoyable if it ignores these points and goes in a different direction, because I like Star Trek’s ability to surprise me even after decades in the fandom. These are simply points that I feel would work to make the story of Season 3 better if they could be included.
I deliberately left off one pretty big point – optimism. We’ve heard numerous times from Alex Kurtzman, Michelle Paradise, and others involved in creating the story of the new season that there will be an optimistic tone, and I see no reason to doubt that. In fact, a post-apocalyptic setting can be a great way to tell stories of hope and optimism, contrasting a bleak setting with the efforts of protagonists to build something better. I have my reservations about that, as I’ve mentioned on several occasions, because it represents a fundamental change to Star Trek and the underlying premise that has propped up the franchise for more than half a century. I’m willing to give it a chance, though.
Whatever Season 3 delivers, I’ll be here to cover each episode as they’re broadcast, and perhaps engage in some theory-crafting to go along with it, so I hope you’ll check back when the season kicks off in less than three weeks!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 will debut on CBS All Access on the 15th of October 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.
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.
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.
Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, as well as for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Picard.
There aren’t many episodes of Star Trek that I’ve only seen once. As a big fan of the franchise, I love going back and watching my favourite stories over and over again. Even though there are many episodes and films I haven’t seen in years, I’ve almost certainly seen them all twice – or much more than twice, in many cases. But Star Trek: Discovery’s opening two-parter was poor, and as a result I haven’t been interested in revisiting it in the three years since it was first broadcast. Until now, that is!
Star Trek series have typically not started particularly strongly, or at least their premieres would go on to be surpassed by later stories. Deep Space Nine’s Emissary and Star Trek: Picard’s Remembrance buck that particular trend – as I noted when I reviewed the latter episode in January. While other premieres for Star Trek series – Where No Man Has Gone Before, Encounter at Farpoint, Caretaker, and Broken Bow – were all episodes I’d personally consider average compared to the rest of their respective shows, and are all stories that I’m content to revisit, Discovery’s premiere was out-and-out bad. I’d been absolutely thrilled to hear of Star Trek’s return to the small screen after a twelve-year hiatus, and while I wouldn’t say I was distraught by The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, I was certainly underwhelmed.
We’ll get into specifics later, but my main feeling after my first viewing was that Michael Burnham was just an incredibly unlikeable protagonist, and someone whose motivations I couldn’t understand. After finishing the first part and before hitting “play” on the second (the episodes were released simultaneously, at least here in the UK) I honestly thought that the producers might have been trying to pull off a genuinely unexpected twist by making Burnham – who had been the main focus of the show’s marketing in 2017 – an antagonist. It wasn’t the case, of course, and over the remainder of a somewhat rocky first season, she did grow on me.
Aside from wanting to spend some more time in the Star Trek universe, and revisit Discovery before its third season debuts later this year, I wanted to re-watch these two episodes to see if my opinion has changed now that we’ve had two full seasons to get to know Burnham and the crew. Will revisiting the story having seen Burnham’s character development across Seasons 1 and 2 make the experience better – or even any different?
The opening sequences of The Vulcan Hello look at the Klingons, who are rallying around a leadership figure, and Captain Georgiou and Burnham on the surface of a desert planet. It’s worth talking about the Klingon redesign, because a lot of fans weren’t happy with the aesthetic chosen for the Discovery-era Klingons. Out of all of the races in Star Trek, none have been so thoroughly explored over the franchise’s history as the Klingons. Worf was a main character for all of The Next Generation, four films, and the back half of Deep Space Nine, and B’Elanna Torres was a main character for all of Voyager’s run. These two characters in particular taught us a lot about Klingon culture in the 24th Century. Deep Space Nine brought the Klingons into the show in a huge way, exploring various aspects of their culture. Aside from Worf and B’Elanna, there was General Martok, who was a recurring character in Deep Space Nine, as well as General Chang, Chancellor Gowron, the Duras family, and many other secondary characters who all added to our understanding of the Klingons. Enterprise even told a three-part story to explain the reason why Klingons look different in different eras. While that story in particular was not my favourite, it’s fair to say that we’ve spent a lot of time with the Klingons before Discovery’s debut, and for many fans the changes were extreme to say the least.
The redesign is mostly an aesthetic thing, swapping the long hair and familiar prosthetics of 1990s Star Trek for an appearance closer to the Klingons of the Kelvin-timeline films. There was also a lot of what I considered to be an ancient Egyptian influence in the Klingons – particularly their costumes and architecture. Combined with speaking in the Klingon language as opposed to English, the Klingons of Discovery’s premiere have a much more “alien” feel than their earlier counterparts.
It’s an issue I’m split on, personally. While I liked the ancient Egyptian influence, and I can even excuse the baldness as hair styles and fashion varies wildly from era to era in our own history, the prosthetic makeup used for the Klingons’ heads and faces felt a long way removed from what had been established not only in the 24th Century but, thanks to Enterprise, the 22nd Century too. It is of course true that this isn’t the first Klingon redesign – that came in The Motion Picture when Klingons were changed from basically looking like dark-skinned humans to the familiar ridged-forehead appearance, but that was a change to overcome the limitations of The Original Series’ 1960s makeup – and lower budget. Messing too much with the established canon of any fictional world can be a problem, and while many elements of the new design were great, the faces were definitely a weak spot.
Burnham and Georgiou’s mission to the desert planet was jam-packed with exposition, and several of these lines felt rather clumsy. It can be difficult to establish to the audience who characters are and what their relationships are quickly, but Discovery took a sequence that lasted almost five full minutes, and there was scope in that time to set up the relationship between these two characters (one of whom isn’t going to survive the premiere anyway) in a way that felt more natural. Skipping the away mission – which was really only in the episode for the visual effect of the Starfleet emblem drawn in the sand – and having Burnham and co. on the bridge would have been my first choice for setting this up. However, I did like seeing the USS Shenzhou descending through the sandstorm – and the classic Star Trek music sting that accompanied it. Moments like that go a long way to making a story “feel like Star Trek”. I always put that expression in quotation marks because it’s a feeling that can be very hard to pin down and explain in words.
I don’t want to talk too much about Star Trek: Picard, but the character introductions in that series were conducted in a much better and more natural way. Each character who joins the mission to Freecloud and the Artifact feels like they’re there for a valid reason, and for us as the audience, meeting them felt like it happened at the right moment. There was little by way of ham-fisted exposition in Picard, and that’s partly thanks to the slower and more methodical approach it took to introducing its characters.
I liked Burnahm’s log, and the visual effect of the Shenzhou at warp. Log entries have been how Star Trek has always handled the framing of stories, and the setup for the episode is contained here.
Saru is the next character to be properly introduced, and he and Burnham apparently share a rivalry that I’d forgotten all about. Their bickering straddled a line between mildly humorous and mildly annoying, as they push each other out of the way of Saru’s bridge station trying to determine what, if anything, damaged a communications relay – which is the reason the Shenzhou had been called to that region of space. Establishing early on, as Burnham does, that there is a protocol in place which requires sending a ship to investigate a damaged relay felt similar to Kirk’s revelation in Star Trek Into Darkness that the attack on the Starfleet archive would lead to a meeting of senior officers. I like this kind of storyline, and in both cases it was done well, clearly setting up tension and the expectation that this seemingly-innocuous event – which in Discovery’s case the characters treat almost with whimsy – is actually the precursor to something far more serious.
As Burnham steps onto the hull, the star system she’s looking at is stunningly beautiful. Just as she is awed by it, so are we as the audience. Previous Star Trek shows often depicted planets and space sequences that were flat, or where only one object was in focus. The star system here is on full display, and it really is majestic. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I felt there may have been some influence from the film Interstellar – released about three years before Discovery premiered – in the depiction of this binary star system.
Burnham takes a thruster pack (a nice little callback to The Motion Picture) and travels to an object in the debris field that is implied to be responsible for damaging the subspace relay. The voyage through the asteroids was tense, but Burnham is able to steer around all the obstacles to arrive at the object. I liked that the story cut her off from communicating with the ship, as this ramped up the tension.
After a brief survey, she lands on the hull of the object – described as a sculpture but which must evidently be a spacecraft of some kind. A Klingon emerges onto the hull, armed with a batleth. I would have liked to see more of this fight, as well as the sequence as a whole pushing Burnham herself closer to her 19-minute time limit. As it is, the last time we see Burnham she’s got a clear ten minutes – more than half of her time remaining – and then after the brief fight the action cuts back to the bridge of the Shenzhou, where Burnham now has mere seconds to get back aboard.
The fight could have been so much more than it was. With Burnham and the Klingon making exactly one move each it’s hardly fair to even call it a fight. I did appreciate the use of the thruster pack on Burnham’s part; it makes more sense for her to use her technology to defeat the Klingon than for the story to have tried to match them in terms of physical strength. But the Klingon’s spacesuit was unnecessarily ornate. I mentioned earlier that some of the ancient Egyptian influence in the way the Klingons appear was something I liked. And generally that is true, but this particular costume overwhelmed the Klingon warrior, and as it was seen so briefly there wasn’t really time to appreciate it or take it in. Given that the episode had already established that the Klingons are in play, and given that Burnham’s computer easily identified the assailant as a Klingon, skipping the overly-ornate suit and having the Klingon in something simpler would have been my preference. There was no reason to cover him up, after all. I did like, however, that the Klingon’s blood was purple – a callback to The Undiscovered Country.
The next Klingon scene – in which the killed spacesuit warrior is laid to rest – was kind of a miss for me. And the Klingons’ motivation conflicts with what we already know about them. Klingons have always been presented as aggressive and expansionist. They’re warriors who fight and conquer because it’s in their nature – they don’t need to feel that Starfleet’s expansion is a threat in order to seek war. The two sequences we’ve had in the episode so far establish that this is the reason the Klingons have unified behind this new leader, but I just don’t feel that they needed this reason in order to be antagonists. While “evil for the sake of it” can be an unsatisfactory explanation, in the case of the Klingons it makes sense, and it could easily have been framed as a continuation of the Klingon Empire’s expansion instead of something altogether new.
This plotline wanted to say something like this: “you might think you’re just engaging in peaceful exploration, but other people don’t see it that way. They don’t want your culture exported to their world, they want to remain pure.” It’s a heavy-handed metaphorical critique of isolationism and nationalism as concepts – and that isn’t just me saying so; around the time Discovery premiered, co-producer and showrunner Aaron Harberts went on record saying that the Klingons were supposed to critique Donald Trump and his supporters, with their rallying cry to “Remain Klingon” mimicking Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.
Star Trek has never shied away from wading into politics, and I think if it had been left alone as a depiction that people could interpret however they chose, perhaps that would have been that. But in such a polarised political climate, the comments from Harberts and others were deeply unpopular with some fans – and at the end of the day, when Donald Trump won basically half of the vote in the previous year’s election, it’s not hard to see why such rhetoric would be divisive. Star Trek shows of the past tackled contentious social issues too, and although some of those episodes – like In the Hands of the Prophets from Deep Space Nine’s first season – hit very sensitive and polarising topics, I don’t think any Star Trek show before Discovery had been so open in their decision to attack a contemporary political figure, political party, and political movement. The key difference between what had come before and what Harberts was saying is this: previous Star Trek shows looked at and criticised issues: racism, nuclear proliferation, the spread of communism, terrorism as a political tool, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and many more besides; Discovery was singling out an individual politician – and by extension his supporters. However one may feel about Donald Trump, that is definitely a change and I can understand why, after hearing such comments, some fans who had supported or voted for Trump would have felt upset. As an aside, I’m not an American so I’m not interested in taking sides in an American political argument, but I don’t believe anyone should be a gatekeeper when it comes to Star Trek – the franchise has room for fans of different political leanings.
Burnham, having been saved by the crew of the Shenzhou off-screen, is recovering in a medical bay. She has a flashback to her time on Vulcan, and it’s here we’re reintroduced to Sarek. I was vaguely familiar with James Frain from his role in Gotham, but his character’s introduction seemed to mark an unrelated decline in that show’s quality and I honestly can’t remember what became of his character. He played a villain very well, though, and for that reason may not have been my first choice to play Sarek. However, I have to admit he put in creditable performances across Discovery’s first and second seasons, including in the flashback depicted here. Perhaps we will see him back for Strange New Worlds, as Spock is set to be a main character.
The flashback hints at the attack on Doctori Alpha – which of course we’ve now seen in full in Season 2. It also establishes that the Klingons were responsible. I liked Sarek’s line that it’s Burnham’s “human heart” that was a problem – this does set up early on in Discovery that she’s conflicted between her emotional human side and her logical Vulcan upbringing. Establishing this conflict is a key part of her character, but across both parts of the premiere this setup was rushed and badly done. I’ve never felt that the two aspects of Burnham’s background helped me understand her or sympathise with her as a character anyway, especially not in the premiere where she makes incomprehensible decisions.
Burnham flees the medical bay, despite the objections of the Dr Nambue (played by Maulik Pancholy, who starred in Phineas and Ferb, a favourite cartoon series of mine) and rushes to the bridge. Captain Georgiou and the others are seemingly unaware of any Klingons in the area, presumably having not recovered the data from Burnham’s suit. The editing of these two sequences was not great – the Klingons appear to have had enough time to recover their soldier, learn what happened to him, embalm him, write a speech around his death, and send him into space in the three hours Burnham was unconscious. Three hours should have been plenty of time for the Shenzhou’s crew to pull something from Burnham’s sensor data. Her suit wasn’t particularly badly damaged, yet they all seem to just be sitting around waiting for her to wake up – and I put this down to poor editing.
Having deliberately sent Burnham on a recon mission to the unidentified object – which is jamming their scans – there is no reason for Saru and especially Georgiou to disbelieve Burnham when she reports that she encountered a Klingon, yet the scene on the bridge shows them doing exactly that. She was sent out to gather information and came back wounded – yet for some reason they initially dismiss what she has to tell them. It felt like this was done purely to create an artificially-inflated sense of tension, particularly between Saru and Burnham, but also driving Burnham apart from Georgiou in anticipation of her mutiny later on. Those crucial moments of hesitation and doubt are meant to establish that Burnham feels she can’t fully trust her commanding officer – but this doesn’t work and is unearned. If Burnham, in her wounded state, had been blabbering incoherently, perhaps muttering the word “Klingon” in amongst calling Sarek’s name and other nonsense, perhaps the idea that Saru and Georgiou would treat her as delusional and concussed would have worked better. As it is, she arrives on the bridge wounded but determined to make her point, speaking clearly and explaining what she saw – albeit in a bit of a rush. It just didn’t work for me as a story point.
I loved the different visuals of the Shenzhou jumping to red alert; the panels switching immediately from blue to red, the Wrath of Khan-era “Alert” displayed on one character’s helmet, and the bridge being illuminated in red mood lighting all felt perfectly Star Trek-y. The crew jumping to battle stations had a very military feel; no more joking or slouching, everyone in an instant is fully focused on their jobs.
Saru improves a lot over Discovery’s first two seasons, and especially after the incredibly dramatic change to his character in Season 2 he becomes much bolder. But in the premiere his cowardice – it’s hard to find another word for it – feels out of place on the bridge of a starship. He isn’t urging caution when he wants to withdraw; his terror and fear seem to legitimately hamper his ability to think straight and do his job. While I did not like the way his transformation was handled in Season 2 – I felt it was clumsily done and purely a reaction to criticism – in The Vulcan Hello he’s way too cowardly to reasonably be a Starfleet bridge officer of such high rank.
The visual effect of the Sarcophagus ship decloaking was spectacular; one of the premiere’s single best CGI moments. Some fans have criticised Discovery for giving the Klingons a cloaking device more than a decade before Kirk’s first encounter with the technology in the episode Balance of Terror. However, I think this can be explained and I’ll briefly detail my thoughts on the subject. Technology evolves over time, and particularly in military technology, encryptions change rapidly. When one type of encryption is broken it becomes useless and obsolete, and I figure the same must be true of cloaking devices. When Starfleet learns how to penetrate one type of cloak, the Romulans and Klingons invent something new in an ever-evolving technological battle. We need only look at real-world history for parallels – in the Second World War, the Allies and Axis powers were constantly trying to stay one step ahead of each other with encrypting and cracking communications. The Romulans were seen to use cloaking devices in Enterprise, set a century earlier, so the technology has existed in some form for a long time. A cloaking device, despite how it’s usually shown on screen, doesn’t merely render a ship invisible. It also hides it from scans and actively presents the illusion that there’s empty space. To make a long story short, my personal head-canon explanation for Discovery-era cloaks compared to those seen later and regarded as “new” is simply that there are different kinds.
In the aftermath of the Klingons decloaking, I liked how the Shenzhou and the Klingon ship were not perfectly aligned on a flat plane. Something Star Trek hasn’t always represented well is the third dimension of space; ships had almost always been shown perfectly flat and parallel to each other, with tilted or sideways craft usually only shown when damaged or in distress. But there’s no real reason for this, and in that sense I would call this depiction more realistic of the way we might expect two different space vessels to encounter one another. I also liked Georgiou’s use of the phrase “we have engaged the Klingons”, as this definitely harkened back to past uses of “engaged” by Starfleet commanders to describe confrontations.
Voq’s introduction aboard the Klingon ship was interesting. His character is presented here as a zealot, someone who had been radicalised, for want of a better term, by the Klingon leader’s teachings. The Klingons treating Voq as a lower caste because of his lack of noble birth is one thing that’s definitely consistent with past iterations of the franchise; we saw General Martok talk about this in particular in Deep Space Nine.
The interaction between Burnham and Admiral Anderson was one of the premiere’s weakest moments. Clearly set up as a one-dimensional foil for Burnham, Anderson behaves with irrational hostility toward her, and his barbed comment about race was stupid and beneath what Star Trek should aim to be. While the defence of that line is that, in-universe, Anderson was referring to Burnham’s background with both the Klingons and Vulcans as well as her upbringing, to us as the audience it was a white man making a charged racial comment to a black woman. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a “white man bad” moment – that’s how it was written and clearly intended to come across.
We’ve all experienced, at some point in our lives, someone like Anderson – a manager, boss, teacher, etc. who would use their position of authority to be unkind or rude for the sake of it. If the scene had been written better, we could have empathised much more with Burnham. But Anderson’s characterisation here was just stupid and hollow, and the meaning behind his exchange with Burnham was incredibly transparent.
All three participants are right. Georgiou has to hold the line – the Shenzhou, as she says herself, is the only line of defence for other Federation outposts in the area. Burnham knows that the Klingons will attack, as Saru confirms. But Anderson is right too: Starfleet doesn’t go looking for a fight, and the Shenzhou’s job is to sit tight and wait for backup. Anderson believes he can defuse the situation, but even if he can’t he still needs to be there – an admiral has far more authority in these matters than the captain of an insignificant ship, and bringing backup is the only way the Shenzhou stands a chance of surviving a fight if one should break out. I don’t like defending him, because he is undeniably the kind of pushy, rude person that, in a better-written story, would have been an interesting, annoying antagonist and a character we could have recognised.
Withdrawing when threatened is not an option, especially in front of the Klingons. This shows weakness and would leave open this section of space to Klingon attacks or raids. But attacking is clearly the wrong move too – all the Shenzhou needs to do is await backup.
The visual effect of the Klingon beacon was interesting – even if all it really involved was turning the studio lights all the way up! But as something we hadn’t really seen before in Star Trek, I liked it. Klingons have often been shown as ritualistic, and the idea of lighting a beacon is something I find at least plausible. In-universe, I question whether a light-and-sound-based weapon should really effect the Shenzhou in the way it does – they should be able to close the shutters or something so that the entire bridge crew aren’t crippled by the light as if it were a flashbang grenade! And with shipboard computers, this should really happen automatically. Heck, we have comparable technology now for those purposes, let alone in the 23rd Century.
Burnham rushes off to talk to Sarek – and this seems like a great moment to talk about Discovery’s holo-communicators. Generally speaking, I’m okay with Star Trek (and other franchises) introducing new and different technologies and aesthetics with new iterations. But because of Discovery’s place in the timeline, holo-technology isn’t a good choice, and it makes tying the series to the wider canon more difficult than it already was. In the Deep Space Nine Season 5 episode For the Uniform, holo-communicators are presented as something brand-new, which they were in Star Trek at the time. With this episode taking place 120+ years after Discovery, the decision to have holo-communicators instead of, for example, expanding our understanding of how viewscreens work, added fuel to the arguments made by those who didn’t like the show. There was no real reason for it; none of the moments where characters use the holo-communicators would be substantially different if viewscreens had been used instead.
This prequel problem of having technology look better and more advanced than what supposedly comes later in the timeline inst’t unique to Discovery. Enterprise received similar criticism when it debuted, with many people noting that its technology and overall aesthetic looked way more advanced than anything seen in The Original Series.
To get back on track, the Sarek call was the second scene in the episode that I felt was especially weak. Heavy-handed exposition that felt unnatural, and especially the line that was clearly inserted to provide material for pre-release trailers (“what have you done out there on the edge of Federation space?”) contributed to a scene that didn’t work. Sarek essentially tells Burnham that killing the Klingon seems like fair revenge for the Klingons killing her parents, despite that being an absolutely stupid thing to say. No one, let alone a logical Vulcan and a diplomat like Sarek, should even suggest that an entire race be held responsible for the actions of certain individuals. “The Klingons” didn’t kill Burnham’s parents – specific individuals did. Even if the Klingon government as a whole can be deemed responsible for that act, how does killing one random Klingon who is almost certainly unrelated to that incident seem “only fair” to Sarek? I absolutely hated this characterisation when I first saw it – and I still dislike it today.
Sarek, in suitably vague terms, suggests to Burnham that the reason for the Klingons’ activity in this region of space could be indicative of the fact that they have a new, unifying leader. The Klingon Empire, despite being united when we last saw it in Enterprise and being united by the time of The Original Series, is depicted as being divided among bickering Great Houses in Discovery’s era. It did tie in well with the previous Klingon scenes, but given it is such a change in direction from where we might’ve expected the Klingons to be, I think this setup needed more explanation and to be seen overtly on screen. As it is, we had the Klingon leader (later revealed as T’Kuvma) telling us that the Great Houses are divided. And we have Sarek telling us that they’re divided too – I’d have preferred to have seen some examples of that division before we got to this moment.
This scene is where the episode turned from mediocre to bad. Sarek makes assumptions about the Klingons – a race he admits he has limited knowledge of – based on practically no information except the appearance of one ship and one dead warrior. Encountering the Klingons has been rare in the years before Discovery, yet Sarek pretends to know their motivations and makes the highly illogical leap – in light of the lack of information – that the Klingons must be preparing for war.
Burnham takes this talk with Sarek as gospel and runs with it, setting up what will come later in the premiere. But for a scene like this to have worked, we needed much more information. I mentioned we needed to see the Klingons bickering amongst themselves. We also needed far more from Sarek about how he was able to make these assumptions, how he claimed to know the Klingons’ motivations, what insider information he might’ve had, etc. And we needed this scene to be much longer, as it’s pivotal in the story of the premiere. There wasn’t enough time to communicate everything we needed to see, and as a result Burnham’s character turn from competent officer to mutineer does not work.
I’ve written on a number of occasions that I found Burnham’s motivations in the premiere impossible to understand, and this scene underpins why. This one conversation with Sarek is her entire motivation for the mutiny, yet it’s threadbare. Sarek talks in vague and caged terms for the most part, and while he is a father figure of sorts, and definitely fills the role of “mentor”, he’s cold, emotionless, and hard to relate to. As the audience, we’re looking in trying to understand what’s happening, and it just doesn’t make sense. What we’ve seen of Burnham so far tells us that, despite the trauma she went through in her childhood, she’s a capable officer. Even if she believed Sarek’s vague threat of war wholeheartedly, Starfleet has backup en route. Even if she’s upset that Captain Georgiou won’t take her stupid advice to fire the first shot, Admiral Anderson will be arriving in a matter of hours and she can try to give the advice to him.
Choosing to give Georgiou this advice based solely on her conversation with Sarek also makes no sense. The Vulcans’ method of firing first (the titular “Vulcan hello”) was used before Klingon-Vulcan contact had ever been established. Starfleet has already made first contact – and on several occasions have even worked with the Klingons, as depicted in Enterprise.
As things sit, the Shenzhou and Sarcophagus ship are in a stand-off. Firing the first shot is the worst possible thing to do. She should never have made the decision based on the conversation with Sarek. Sarek, knowing Burnham’s personality and limitations, should have been more careful what he said. And hanging the whole story off this one moment simply does not work.
Captain Georgiou is the voice of reason here, telling Burnham that firing first on a ship that plans to attack won’t dissuade them from attacking – all it will do is start the fight at that moment, instead of at an undetermined future moment, such as after the Shenzhou’s backup has arrived.
Burnham’s decision to mutiny, far from creating what the series’ producers hoped would be a satisfying season-long character arc, came very close to ruining her character and making her completely unlikeable and impossible to root for. Because, in a roundabout way, Burnham is right in that the Klingons did plan to go to war after unifying behind T’Kuvma, the story expects us to feel that she’s in the right and everyone else is being intransigent and failing to recognise her unique and individual brilliance. But because she has no basis for the course of action she wants to take other than a gut feeling, it does not work. The earlier Klingon scenes are meant to inform this decision, as is the Sarek conversation, but even taking the whole rest of the episode together, there is not enough background to what’s happening, nor enough information about the state of the Klingon Empire, Sarek’s knowledge of the topic, or anything else to make Burnham’s mutiny any more palatable.
We know that it isn’t fair to lay the blame for the war at her feet. The Klingons wanted war anyway. But she was still wrong to do what she did – and on top of that, firing first would have accomplished nothing anyway as the Klingons had already decided on war. If Burnham, along with the rest of the crew, had simply waited and the Klingons had instigated the war, the rest of Discovery’s first season could play out almost unaffected but with a much more likeable protagonist. There wouldn’t be the hurdle of the incomprehensible mutiny to overcome for Burnham in every subsequent episode because her character wouldn’t have been dragged down by this one stupid moment.
For the first time in Discovery, I liked Saru in the scene immediately after Burnham incapacitates Captain Georgiou. He sees through her ruse immediately, and despite his earlier cowardice when confronting an enemy, has no qualms whatsoever about confronting a friend when she’s about to make a colossal mistake.
As the first part of the finale ends, the Klingon fleet emerges from warp. And I know I said I wouldn’t reference Star Trek: Picard too often, but here’s a rare example of Discovery doing something better! The Klingon fleet is composed of a number of different starship designs, making for a fleet that’s both impressive and interesting to look at. Contrast that to the Romulan and Federation fleets seen in Picard’s finale, where both fleets were comprised exclusively of one style of ship each (that had clearly been copied-and-pasted by the CGI animators). There’s no question that Discovery achieved a more impactful and dramatic visual effect.
This marked the end of The Vulcan Hello, and honestly, by the halfway point the story of the premiere had already gone off the rails.
Battle at the Binary Stars begins with a flashback to Burnham’s first meeting with Captain Georgiou. We get to see Burnham being much more stilted, playing a wannabe-Vulcan role alongside Sarek. Georgiou drops some exposition about Burnham’s background; she’d been the first human to ever attend the Vulcan Learning Center – presumably the school we saw her at in The Vulcan Hello. Just as an interesting note, the hallways of the Shenzhou in this sequence have the familiar angled design that we’re familiar with from practically all main Starfleet ships post-The Original Series. I like it when Discovery goes out of its way to tie itself into the franchise, and the corridors aboard the Shenzhou may be subtle, but the design was great nevertheless.
This flashback scene could – and perhaps should – have been the first scene in the previous episode. Seeing Burnham in her Vulcan mode poses a nice contrast to how she is in the present day, and it would have shown us how far she’d come, as well as showing – rather than telling through exposition – her Vulcan background. By this point, after everything we saw with Sarek and her attempted mutiny, Burnham is already completely impossible to root for. This scene, had it been the first one we saw, would have at least informed her background with Sarek, and gone some way to humanising her as it explains a lot about where she came from. It was a missed opportunity, and while moving one scene would not fix the premiere’s fundamental story problems, it would have been a step in the right direction.
Back in the present, Burnham tries to use the arrival of 24 Klingon vessels – one for each of the Great Houses – as a reason to keep arguing for shooting first. This just does not make sense. To explain why, we need to look at the situation from an in-universe perspective. The arrival of 24 ships could indicate that someone plans to unify the Klingons. Why would that be a bad thing? As Sarek suggested, a unified Empire may want to wage war. But even if that’s the case, and Burnham’s earlier assertion is correct, how does firing first accomplish anything? The Vulcans fired first before they’d made first contact as a warning not to attack – over 200 years ago. The Federation and Klingons have long ago made first contact, and all firing first in this situation will do is lead to the Shenzhou being obliterated in a hail of disruptor fire from 25 ships. It wouldn’t stop the battle or the war – it would just change who fired the first shot.
This is what I mean when I say I found Burnham impossible to root for as a protagonist. And I don’t understand why, given that the show wants us to support her, the writers and producers sent her down this route. She comes across as arrogant, closed-minded, insubordinate, and basically illogical to the point of being a moron. She fundamentally misunderstood what Sarek said, and at every opportunity the show has failed to go into sufficient detail in the scenes relevant to the story. More background, explanation, and screen time could have made her decision work, but in the moment it fell completely flat.
As a narrative choice, telling a story with a clear protagonist is fine. Making that character flawed and needing to make mistakes, learn from them, and grow is fantastic – it provides a satisfying character arc. But this isn’t what happened with Burnham in Discovery’s premiere. She was such a selfish, bad person that I honestly thought she was going to be a villain, and for any narrative to so deliberately ruin its main character minutes after she’s been introduced is just bad storytelling, plain and simple. It’s very difficult to recover from something like this, and while Discovery tries over the course of Season 1, Burnham remained one of the show’s weakest elements well into the second half of the season. It should have been possible to construct the mutiny storyline in a way that was sympathetic, and in a way that got us as the audience to empathise with Burnham; to see her as unequivocally right, and Geogriou, Saru, and Anderson as unequivocally wrong. This is what The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars absolutely needed to do. Burnham needed to be right, and how she got to that moment needed to be understandable. The story failed at both of these points and couldn’t recover.
Perhaps, in retrospect, we needed more time with Burnham – an episode or two, at least – before we got to this moment. Seeing more of her, spending more time with her, getting to know her and know her heart and motivations would have helped inform the key moment in this story. The premiere tried to give us this, but with the need to include Klingon scenes as well as everything else, there wasn’t time before her mutiny for Burnham to have been established as a protagonist. As it is, in the premiere (and for the next few episodes too) Burnham is the “protagonist” of Discovery not because she feels like it, but because the series beats us over the head with her and tells us she is. Remember what I said before about “show don’t tell”? We needed to be shown why Burnham should be our protagonist, not merely told that she is.
After Burnham is (quite rightly) dragged off to the brig, we get another scene with the Klingons. They have holo-communicators too. T’Kuvma, the Klingon aboard the Sarcophagus ship, is refusing to speak to the leaders of the Great Houses, who are getting annoyed. This scene went on too long and didn’t really do much of anything; we already knew that T’Kuvma plans to unite the Klingons, that he wants to fight the Federation, and that he feels the Federation encroaching on Klingon territory is a bad thing. A five-minute sequence was just unnecessary fluff.
The Federation fleet dropping out of warp looked great, and again having a mix of different starship designs will always look better than a large fleet consisting of ships that look identical. T’Kuvma uses Captain Georgiou’s line “we come in peace” as a rallying cry for his followers to “remain Klingon”, and attacks the Federation fleet.
The battle itself was actually one of the best moments in the episode. It was edge-of-your-seat excitement, and with the Klingons having the upper hand, suitably tense. The damage to the Shenzhou’s bridge was impressive, and I really liked the Shenzhou coming in to assist the USS T’Plana-Hath during the battle. Moments like that feel great when done well, and the titular Battle at the Binary Stars is up there with other great battle sequences in Star Trek, such as the fight against the Borg in First Contact, and several of the Dominion War battles in Deep Space Nine. Credit to the show’s animators, because the ships looked amazing, they moved beautifully, and the battle was truly exciting in the way I always want action sequences to be.
One of the bridge officers – Connor – stumbles into the brig where Burnham had been taken. Clearly concussed, he’s supposed to be on his way to sickbay. The scene where he’s killed and ejected into space was shocking, so in that sense it accomplished what it meant to and gave a little more depth to the battle. It would have been more meaningful if he’d had more than one line before dying, but as a basic premise I can’t really fault the idea of killing off a named character in a battle like this.
The visual effect of Burnham isolated in the damaged brig – which had been reduced to a little box that was mostly forcefields – was incredibly dramatic and again, shows just how exceptional the CGI animation was in Discovery’s first season.
In the context of a massive battle, and having seen the ship suffer major damage, I don’t think Captain Georgiou and Saru would have been as worried about Burnham in the brig as they seemed to be when they learned how badly damaged the ship was. Along with Connor, many others must surely have died; there isn’t time now to worry about that, they have to focus on their jobs on the bridge.
Burnham and Sarek evidently have the power to mind-meld over long distances. As a concept I don’t feel that this has to be a problem; we know Vulcans are telepathic and just because it’s something we hadn’t seen before doesn’t mean it can’t be possible. It could also be interpreted, if you really hate the idea of Skype-mind melding, as Burnham drawing on a memory or something within her own head. But the content of the scene between them was, once again, fluff. Sarek just straight-up announces that Burnham is gifted, smart, brave, and that Starfleet needs her so she can’t just give up and die. For the fourth or fifth time – we need to see those things, not just be told them by another character. Seeing Burnham be told that she’s brave and gifted and desperately needed means absolutely nothing if we don’t have anything to back it up. Sarek’s words were hollow, and the scene accomplished nothing.
The Shenzhou suffers further damage, including a visually-impressive hull breach on the bridge, but before the Klingons can destroy the disabled ship it ends up drifting closer and closer to the system’s stars. I liked that this story beat gave the Klingons a sensible reason for breaking off their attack, while still keeping the tension up. In a better episode, this would have made for a fascinating story in and of itself!
Anderson’s arrival grants the Shenzhou temporary reprieve, before his ship is rammed by a cloaked Klingon vessel and self-destructs. By taking the action away from Burnham, Battle at the Binary Stars told a creditable battle story that had been exciting and engaging. If Anderson had been better-written we could have perhaps even felt his ship being destroyed was his comeuppance; as it is it just fet like another moment in the battle and Anderson remains a fairly one-dimensional character.
T’Kuvma declares to the Great Houses that the battle is won, and proposes they fight under his banner and leadership as a united force. And I come back to what I said earlier: the Klingons didn’t need this motivation. We could have seen them already united, and the battle break out in any one of a number of different ways and nothing would change from a story perspective for the rest of the season. As it is, the Klingon scenes in general ended up mostly being irrelevant.
When the battle is over, the story returns to Burnham who must escape the damaged brig. I liked this sequence overall, though arguing with the computer was a bit silly and did detract from it. Firing herself through the damaged and depressurised wreck was a similar visual effect to one seen in Star Trek Into Darkness, and as a whole, Discovery’s premiere borrows a few different points from the Kelvin-timeline films.
Captain Georgiou and Saru make a plan to attack the Sarcophagus ship with torpedoes when Burnham interrupts. Georgiou gives her a dressing-down for her earlier actions, even telling her that she thought she had undone some of Burnham’s Vulcan upbringing; her humanity failed her in that moment. If the story wanted us on Burnham’s side in this conversation, it failed. Everything Georgiou says is spot on, and actually underlines how I was already feeling about Burnham.
Georgiou’s plan – beaming a torpedo warhead onto a Klingon corpse which will then be taken in by the Sarcophagus ship – is genius. This is the kind of cunning plan we could’ve expected someone like Data to dream up in past iterations of Star Trek, and I loved how well it worked.
However, the next phase of the plan was poorly-executed; designed in such a way as to be artificially limited. Why send only two officers – Burnham and Georgiou? Are there no soldiers, tactical, or security personnel? Why send Burnham, the mutineer? Does Georgiou trust her again now? And why only send two of them? This whole sequence was rushed, and with a little more time taken to explain what was happening perhaps it could have worked better. As it was, it was designed to get the story to a specific climax – the deaths of Georgiou and T’Kuvma – but it just did not feel like these events unfolded naturally. Burnham’s anguish at Georgiou’s death was beautifully performed – but felt unearned and cheap as a story point. Georgiou has been a good captain, and we should be mourning her, but the whole story across both parts of the premiere hadn’t done enough to give this moment the emotional weight it was aiming for.
T’Kuvma’s death scene was also a bag of nothing, and we see the Shenzhou evacuated and Burnham plead guilty at a court-martial to mutiny and myriad other charges. At her court-martial, when speaking in her defence, Burnham says how she always wanted to serve and hoped to have her own command. How is that relevant here? How could that possibly help us as the audience feel better about her or think more kindly of her? She’s been an awful person across both parts of the premiere, and when she has a chance to justify herself and mourn her captain, she first speaks about herself and her ambitions. She seems equally sad that she won’t get to have her own ship as she does for Georgiou’s death. She’s sad just as much that the “only home” she had, the Shenzhou, is lost as she is for the crewmates who died. And at every point in this statement, she talks from her own selfish point of view – “my ship”, “my captain”, “my friend”, etc. That’s the icing on the cake of a poorly-written protagonist who comes across as arrogant and self-centred. This scene was also poorly-lit. Putting Burnham in a spotlight and the judges in darkness was clearly supposed to look dramatic, but it just came across as looking fake.
So. A re-watch of Discovery’s premiere clearly hasn’t altered my thoughts too much. The story was poor. The only times it picked up were during the battle, after Burnham had been taken out of the picture. No story should begin with the character we’re supposed to be following set up in such a wholly negative way. The first chapter of Discovery left us with a protagonist whose motivations made no sense, who was arrogant, selfish, and who seems to have relished being told she was special and gifted. Someone like that is not a nice person. There’s no “heart of gold” hiding beneath Burnham’s exterior in these episodes. She thinks she knows better than everyone else, refuses to accept her position as first officer when contradicted by her captain, and the way it was supposed to be explained to us as the audience that Burnham was right – the Sarek scene in particular, and the Klingon scenes too – did not work and did not succeed in communicating that message.
Burnham did grow on me over the rest of the season and over the course of a much better Season 2. But this moment, when Star Trek returned to television for the first time in over a decade, was poor. It has to be the worst premiere of all of the Star Trek shows to date, and it took a lot of hard work for the season to recover from an incomprehensible start and a truly bad protagonist.
With some changes, the mutiny storyline could have worked. Seeing Burnham earlier in her life at the beginning of the story, to give us a frame of reference, would have helped. As would more time spent on the conversation with Sarek. The Klingon scenes added very little; their motivation was silly in the context of an aggressive warrior culture, and could have been cut. But even assuming they had the same motivation – unifying to confront the Federation who they see as a threat to Klingon culture and unity – we knew that after one scene, and the others were just fluff. If the story was to be all about Burnham, we needed more time with her to make her turnaround from competent officer to arrogant mutineer work properly. Discovery had some leeway with how many episodes were going to be made, and I would absolutely make the case for making some changes and adding a third part to this premiere to allow Burnham some more screen time prior to the mutiny, and a better-constructed setup to that moment to have played out.
When I set out to re-watch these episodes, I wondered if having spent more time with Burnham and the crew, I’d have a more enjoyable experience. I did not. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars do some things very well – the visual effect of the two fleets, for example, and the battle scenes themselves – but the main story, that of protagonist Michael Burnham, does not work.
I cannot imagine that making Burnham so unlikeable was a deliberate choice on the part of the producers and writers. If that was the case, however, it was a stupid idea. Giving her an arc is one thing, but starting her off as someone we don’t like and can’t relate to damages the overall story they were trying to tell. Storytelling simply doesn’t work that way, so for that reason I have to assume it was not their intention to set up Burnham as someone the audience should hate going into episode 3.
So that’s it. The show did improve over the next few episodes, and despite a weak start I do enjoy Discovery and consider it a worthy part of the Star Trek franchise.
Discovery is coming back with Season 3 literally any day now – I’m crossing my fingers waiting for a release date. If you missed it, you can check out my thoughts on the Season 3 trailer by clicking or tapping here. When the show is on the air, I plan to review each episode as they’re released, so please check back for that. This won’t be the only Star Trek re-watch that I write up, either. If you missed it, I have a similar article for The Next Generation Season 2 episode The Measure of a Man already live – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. I have no idea which episode will get a write-up next, though!
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and 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.