Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-4.
With Picard Season 2 ongoing, Strange New Worlds Season 1 hot on its heels, and Prodigy and Lower Decks still to come this year, it might seem premature to be thinking about Discovery Season 5 already! But as I was writing up the final part of my Season 4 theory list, it got me thinking. Season 4 wasn’t bad, all things considered. It had some storylines that disappointed or underwhelmed, but there are some genuinely outstanding episodes in the mix as well – and it ended on a very emotional and exciting high note.
It’s never too early to look ahead, and before production gets fully underway on Discovery’s next outing, I wanted to share my thoughts and opinions about where the show could go from here, and what I’d like to see next. That’s what this article will be about – but stay tuned for a more in-depth look at Season 4 and some of its story elements in the weeks and months ahead.
For me, the single biggest wish I have for Discovery Season 5 is that it steps away from the “apocalyptic, galaxy-ending threat” story archetype that has been used in different ways across all four seasons of the show so far. We’ve gone through the Klingon war in Season 1, Control and the Red Angel in Season 2, the Burn and the Emerald Chain in Season 3, and finally the DMA and Unknown Species 10-C in Season 4. It’s time to give Captain Burnham and the crew a break, and for the series to try using a genuinely different formula instead of slapping a new coat of paint on the old one.
Just because a story is smaller in scale doesn’t make it any less emotional, exciting, tense, or dramatic, and I think that’s a lesson some of Discovery’s writers and producers could do with taking to heart. How we as the audience respond to a work of fiction is guided not by how massive the monster is or how big the explosions are going to be, but by how the characters we’re rooting for react. Their emotions become our emotions, their investment in the world around them becomes our investment, and so on. A story about a group of people working in an office, friends going on a road trip, or star-crossed lovers from rival families aren’t smaller, less exciting, and worse because they don’t have the backdrop of a world-ending disaster spurring them on. And conversely, some of the worst and least-exciting films and TV shows I’ve ever seen went over-the-top with the size and scale of the disaster the characters were facing.
Past iterations of Star Trek used these kinds of apocalyptic stories pretty sparingly, when you look back on it. It’s only Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War arc, which lasted for three seasons, that comes close to being as long and drawn-out an affair, and even within the framework of the Dominion War, DS9 found ways to tell very different and fun one-off stories. Things like the Borg incursions that Captain Picard and his crew had to deal with were either two-parters or one-off films, and they work well in that format.
Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D still found other ways to be entertaining, and many of The Next Generation’s standalone episodes have gone on to be considered iconic, even those that had a far smaller focus than blockbuster outings like The Best of Both Worlds. This doesn’t mean ditching the season-long story arcs or returning to an episodic format, because I think Discovery has done some interesting and neat things with its serialised stories. But it does mean choosing season-long storylines and narrative arcs that are different in a fundamental way to what the show has tried already.
Practically any format can become bland and unexciting when overused, no matter how much fun it might’ve been in its original incarnation or at its best moments. It’s a challenge to keep any television series feeling fresh as it enters its fifth season and races toward its sixty-fifth episode, and there are many examples of shows that ran out of steam somewhere along the way. Heck, I have an entire list of television shows that either ran too long or wore out their concepts, and I can think of many more that I could’ve included.
Even Star Trek has hit the wall in the past, running out of energy and failing to keep audiences engaged. By the time Enterprise was willing to try new things in its third and fourth seasons, for example, the franchise was already in such a steep decline that cancellation was inevitable. To Paramount’s credit, lessons have been learned from what happened in 2005 in terms of the way the franchise as a whole operates. Different series are telling stories in their own ways, appealing to broader audiences, and Star Trek as a whole feels varied and diverse. But Discovery on its own doesn’t… and it’s right on the verge of becoming repetitive.
I was far from the only commentator to make the point prior to Season 4 that another “galactic threat” storyline felt samey, coming off the back of three similar narrative frameworks, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that re-using that format a fifth time will be a bridge too far. Making use of the newly-established 32nd Century in different ways, and telling a story that may be smaller in scale but that’s just as impactful, emotional, and entertaining, will be the key challenges that I’d like the writers to tackle in Season 5.
The theme of rebuilding in the aftermath of a disaster was something we only saw Season 4 tackle in the briefest and barest of ways right at the beginning of the season, but this could be a concept that the show puts to much better use next time around. Discovery could follow Captain Burnham as she and the crew jump to different worlds, delivering dilithium, solving problems, flying the flag for the Federation… and most importantly, bringing hope to a galaxy that’s been through a lot.
This is what I’d hoped Season 4 would do, to be honest. The idea of restoring the Federation from the incredibly weakened state it was in when we encountered it is far too important and interesting to be relegated to something that happens off-screen, and I felt even before Season 4 had aired a single episode that this concept offered so much scope for emotional, exciting, and varied storytelling. Discovery could hop to different planets, combining the inclusion of new and visually different alien races (like Season 4’s “butterfly” aliens) with the reintroduction of classic races.
Catching up with some of the factions we remember from past iterations of Star Trek is also something I’ve been wanting Discovery to do for two seasons now. We’ve caught glimpses of races like the Ferengi and Andorians, and heard others mentioned in dialogue and log recordings, but we haven’t actually spent a lot of time with practically any of them. Finding out what became of fan-favourites not only in the years after the Burn, but in the centuries before that event took place, is something that I think a lot of Trekkies would be interested in.
If the 32nd Century is going to be a major setting for the franchise going forward, this kind of world-building is important. Just like how The Next Generation laid the groundwork for Deep Space Nine through its introduction of the Cardassians and Bajorans, so too could Discovery introduce us to planets, races, and technologies that future spin-offs and Star Trek projects could expand upon.
Part of that world-building can be done in a serialised story that looks at how the Federation can be rebuilt in the aftermath of the disasters it has already faced; introducing another new disaster to avert or recover from is simply not needed at this point. From the point of view of the characters, throwing them into another extreme situation would also be problematic, and would take the storytelling close to soap-opera levels.
Discovery has, to its credit, attempted to show how some of the events that its characters have gone through have impacted their mental health. Some of these stories have been underdeveloped – Detmer’s in Season 3 and Dr Culber’s in Season 4 being the most egregious examples. But even with this kind of attempted mental health focus, there’s a limit on what we could expect characters to go through and still be alright when they come out the other end.
To be fair, that’s a line that the Star Trek franchise has crossed in the past with characters like Miles O’Brien, for example, who seemed to survive a lot of traumatic events only to be back to normal the next week! But as shows like Picard have demonstrated with characters like Seven of Nine and Jean-Luc Picard himself, it can be incredibly cathartic to revisit some of these characters and give them meaningful, lasting development. But we’re drifting off-topic!
Star Trek’s galaxy is vast, and as we saw in Season 4 with the inclusion of races like the Abronians and Unknown Species 10-C, even in the 32nd Century there’s still a heck of a lot that Starfleet doesn’t know about it. There’s scope for Captain Burnham and the crew to get back to exploring for its own sake, as well as using their Spore Drive to reach parts of the galaxy that it would be difficult for the Federation to do otherwise. There’s the potential for the crew to bring hope to far-flung Federation outposts after the Burn, the Emerald Chain, and the DMA have had such a devastating impact… and it’s worthwhile telling stories like that.
Even if Season 5 doesn’t do much of that rebuilding or exploring, I’m still hopeful that whatever stories it chooses to tell won’t feel repetitive and won’t recycle the same basic story framework that we’ve seen throughout the show’s entire run to date. Discovery could do so much to expand our understanding of the Star Trek galaxy; even more so in a 32nd Century setting that is wholly unconstrained by prior canon. Shooting this far forwards in time was a great way for the show’s writers and producers to give themselves new opportunities to play in the vast sandbox that we call the Star Trek galaxy – so now would be a great time to take advantage of that.
As I look ahead to Season 5, I feel hopeful and optimistic. Season 4 had some problems, but generally it was an improvement over Season 3 and it ended in truly spectacular fashion. There’s potential for what comes next to build on that, and if the series can avoid retreading too much old ground, Season 5 could be Discovery’s best outing yet.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-4 are available to stream now on Paramount+ where the platform is available and via a patchwork of video-on-demand and pay-to-view streaming platforms in the rest of the world. The series is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. 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 1-3.
The Section 31 series is currently stuck in that nebulous zone that industry insiders refer to as “development hell.” Despite having been officially announced almost three years ago and supposedly having scripts written, at time of writing it’s been a very long time indeed since we heard anything close to official about the series.
I last took a look at the Section 31 show’s prospects back at the end of April, and since it’s been a while I think we should briefly recap why I feel increasingly sure that the project isn’t going ahead.
After a deeply underwhelming reaction to the Section 31 show’s announcement in 2019, Discovery’s second season premiered – and fans immediately fell in love with Captain Pike, Spock, and Number One. Calls for Pike to be granted his own spin-off eventually led to the development of Strange New Worlds. After Strange New Worldswas officially announced, we began to hear rumblings about the Section 31 series potentially being reworked. For a show that had supposedly been ready to go and on the verge of beginning official production for more than a year, news in 2020 that scripts were being re-written did not sound good.
Alex Kurtzman – the head of Star Trek for ViacomCBS – later dropped a significant bombshell: that there were no plans for any new Star Trek series to enter production until one of the current shows has concluded. With Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds all being worked on at that point, Kurtzman said that no other shows would enter production until at least one of those had finished its run. We later heard from the Section 31 show’s co-creators that they were “still having conversations” about the Section 31 series – which sounds an awful lot like industry speak for a project on life-support.
Back in April we heard from Michelle Yeoh – Empress Georgiou herself – on The Pod Directive, Star Trek’s official podcast. It’s important to keep in mind that The Pod Directive is an official production, not a fan-made one, because if Yeoh had been interviewed by literally any Trekkie in such a format, the question of the Section 31 show’s future would certainly have come up. It didn’t – and Yeoh could only speak in very vague terms about hoping to “one day” return to the role of Georgiou.
Months later and we still haven’t heard anything about Section 31. Shazad Latif, who played Tyler in Discovery’s first two seasons, suggested that there had been unofficial chats about the show earlier this year – but again, that hardly sounds positive. At Star Trek Day back in September, Alex Kurtzman teased that a Starfleet Academy series may be in the very early stages of being worked on, which could mean that it’ll be the next project for the Star Trek franchise. In contrast, the Section 31 series wasn’t mentioned at Star Trek Day at all.
Let’s assume for now that the combination of no official announcements and a slow trickle of bad news does in fact mean that the Section 31 show isn’t going to happen. The question is why? What might’ve caused a rethink over at ViacomCBS and convinced the corporation to invest its time and money elsewhere?
It isn’t as simple as saying “Captain Pike.” It’s true that the fan response to Pike (as well as to Spock and Number One) absolutely stole the Section 31 show’s thunder in 2019, but that can’t be the full story. It is very interesting to note, though, that the support for Captain Pike from Discovery fans and viewers seemed to catch ViacomCBS completely off-guard. Did they not realise, during production on Discovery Season 2, that they had something special on their hands with Anson Mount and Ethan Peck? If not, why not?
Perhaps it’s true that ViacomCBS was only willing to greenlight one Discovery spin-off in 2019, and if that’s the case it was patently obvious within a couple of episodes which character fans were clamouring to spend more time with – and which they weren’t. But in 2019 ViacomCBS was practically throwing its money around, working on Star Trek projects left, right, and centre. It doesn’t make sense to say that there was only enough money in the kitty for one spin-off – and if fans liked both Georgiou and Pike, why not go ahead with both projects?
The build-up to Discovery Season 2 came in the wake of the surprise announcement of Star Trek: Picard. Many Trekkies were incredibly excited to revisit the 24th Century and see the next chapter of Picard’s life, and there was a great deal of buzz and excitement surrounding Picard Season 1. As I argued at the time, a Discovery spin-off in the 23rd Century almost felt like a regressive step in comparison; many fans were excited to see the Star Trek franchise’s overall timeline move forward again for the first time in eighteen years – Section 31, being set in the 23rd Century, felt like a backwards step.
The intention behind announcing the Section 31 series prior to Discovery Season 2 was twofold: partly to drive subscribers to what was then still called CBS All Access, reminding folks that a new season of Star Trek was coming, but also to reaffirm the corporation’s commitment to Star Trek as a brand and Discovery as a series in the wake of a somewhat controversial first season. As Season 1 was rolling on, there were an increasing number of anti-Star Trek social media groups popping up, and one commonly-heard refrain in 2017, 2018, and into 2019 was that Discovery was about to be cancelled. This story, by the way, still does the rounds in those same groups in 2021, despite the show now being into its fourth season!
There was a need for ViacomCBS to try to bring in more subscribers, and there was also a need to do something to demonstrate that the corporation still had faith in Discovery and the broader Star Trek franchise. Shutting down some of the anti-Trek hate wasn’t the main reason, but it may well have been a factor in the decision-making.
So in January 2019, as Discovery’s second season drew near, we got the announcement of the Section 31 series. But rather than the positive response ViacomCBS was hoping for, reaction to the news was muted at best – and disagreeable at worst.
I was one of many Trekkies left underwhelmed by the concept of the Section 31 series at that time. Michelle Yeoh is an outstanding performer, don’t misunderstand me for a moment. But her character of Empress Georgiou was someone who was fundamentally uninteresting – at least she was as of the end of Discovery Season 1. Remember that the Section 31 show was announced before a single Season 2 episode had aired, and long before Georgiou got some much-needed character development in Season 3.
Imagine, for a moment, that the Section 31 show had been announced last December – in the days following the broadcast of Terra Firma, Part 2. How much more excited and interested might fans have been then than they were in January 2019? I think we all know the answer to that question.
The Mirror Universe and its Terran inhabitants can be fun, and even though I freely admit that the Mirror Universe is far from my favourite Star Trek setting, I can appreciate what it brings to the table. But the Mirror Universe has only ever been the kind of over-the-top pantomime fun that I can enjoy for a single episode at a time. Terrans are basically all the same: violence-loving sociopaths. They make Prime Timeline Klingons look positively tame thanks to their gratuitous use of violence and torture, and there’s never been any demonstrable room for character depth or nuance.
The best Mirror Universe character, aside from Georgiou herself, was probably Mirror Spock way back in The Original Series.Deep Space Nine tried, to its credit, to tell some different Mirror Universe stories about enslaved Terrans and a Klingon-Cardassian Alliance – but the Alliance fell into many of the same thematic and storytelling traps as the Terran Empire had.
In short, Mirror Universe characters are uninteresting at best. At worst, as we see far too often across different Star Trek shows (including Discovery) they’re pathetically ridiculous. A combination of poor scriptwriting and a one-dimensional setting encourages even great actors like Sonequa Martin-Green to ham it up and put in performances that wouldn’t be out of place in a primary school play. At the end of Discovery Season 1, there was nothing at all to indicate that Empress Georgiou wasn’t the same kind of bland, uninteresting Mirror Universe villain as characters like Intendant Kira or Mirror Kirk.
Unlike many other Terran characters, I never felt that the acting performance put in by Michelle Yeoh was over-the-top. Some Mirror Universe performances – such as Mirror Kirk in The Original Series and Mirror Burnham in Discovery – are so truly awful that I find them borderline unwatchable, as the Mirror Universe setting seems to trick even competent performers into forgetting how to act. Badly-written scripts and a setting that doesn’t lend itself to anything but pantomime don’t help, of course. But I felt, to Michelle Yeoh’s credit, that Georgiou managed to avoid falling victim to the worst tropes of the setting. Even so, that didn’t make the way the character was presented at the end of Discovery’s first season a net positive going into the announcement of the Section 31 series.
In Discovery’s first season, we saw first-hand how Georgiou ruled the Terran Empire with an iron fist. She subjugated aliens – including Saru’s people, the Kelpiens – and ensured they were second-class citizens at best, slaves at worst. She killed indiscriminately and had no qualms whatsoever about destroying entire planets or exterminating entire sentient races. Some fans (and non-fans) derisively termed Georgiou “Space Hitler” as a result. And this was the point at which ViacomCBS announced a new series with this character as its lead.
I never liked the term “Space Hitler” to attack Georgiou… but I confess that I understand why some fans felt it was an appropriate descriptor in Season 1. It encapsulates Georgiou as a dictator, as a violent sociopath, as someone willing to inflict some truly evil actions upon the galaxy, and as someone who governs a state with a pro-human, anti-alien philosophy. It’s not an expression I would use; it’s offensive, crass, and deliberately provocative. It’s also a pretty crude analogy, but I get where it came from.
Think for a moment about Georgiou’s actions in Season 1. In her first appearance, she insists that Burnham and the crew “bow to their emperor,” then proceeds to feed Kelpien meat to Burnham a couple of episodes later. After being dethroned as Emperor and brought to the Prime Universe by the crew of the USS Discovery, she teams up with Admiral Cornwell to destroy the entire Klingon homeworld. Why? Does she suddenly care about the Federation and want to see it preserved? No: she likes killing, she likes violence, and she saw an opportunity to commit genocide and just went for it.
We began to see indications in Season 2 that Georgiou had a softer side, particularly when it came to Michael Burnham. At one point in the episode The Red Angel (unfortunately the season’s worst) she wanted to cut short a dangerous assignment when Burnham’s life appeared to be in danger. But it wouldn’t be until Season 3 – and really not until midway through the season – that any significant softening of Georgiou’s hard Terran exterior would be readily apparent.
Terra Firma went a long way to changing how I felt about Georgiou – as I’m sure it did for many other fans as well. We saw nuance in her characterisation for the first time – a sense that there was more to her than just violence and psychopathy for their own sakes. She expressed empathy for the first time, being unwilling or unable to carry out some of the violent actions that her role as Empress would have required of her. The changes she attempted to make to the way that the Terran Empire was governed ultimately led to her “death” within the Guardian of Forever’s portal – and proved to the Guardian that she was deserving of a second chance. I would argue that it was this episode that also demonstrated to us as the audience that Georgiou was deserving of a second look, too.
Georgiou needed Terra Firma to really come into her own as a character – especially a character that a new series was going to focus on. It wasn’t until we saw her returned to the Terran Empire – or the Guardian’s approximation of it, at any rate – that we could appreciate how living with the Federation had changed some of her opinions and attitudes. For example, Season 1 Georgiou would happily eat Kelpien. But by the time Terra Firma rolled around she’d come to value, in her own way, Saru as a person and even as a leader.
As the audience, we needed to see all of that before we could conceivably commit to a series starring this character. In hindsight it’s easy to say that the Section 31 series was a good idea, because I have to assume that the writers and producers already had some kind of an outline in mind for this story. At the very least they’d have known Georgiou’s destination; the culmination of her arc across Discovery’s first three seasons. But none of that was apparent to us as the audience at the end of Season 1.
Had Section 31 been announced not in January 2019 but December 2020, I think we’d have seen a far more positive and excited reaction to the new show. But ViacomCBS jumped the gun, trying to boost Discovery and CBS All Access without, perhaps, fully thinking through what the show’s actual prospects were or what the reaction from Trekkies might be. It wouldn’t be the last time that the corporation would mangle its handling of the Star Trek franchise, unfortunately.
ViacomCBS’ biggest failing when it came to Discovery’s second season is, I would argue, not realising how strongly fans would feel about Pike, and how much excitement there would be within the fandom for a Pike spin-off. If they’d realised that – and with hindsight it should’ve been obvious, especially considering these shows are almost always shown to audiences at test-screenings before they premiere – then perhaps the Section 31 announcement would’ve been held back, and Strange New Worlds could’ve been announced either during or shortly after Discovery’s second season.
Because of issues with Georgiou’s characterisation, prior to Season 2 was a bad time to announce the Section 31 series. The fact that the series is based around Section 31 – an organisation that fans have often indicated that we’d like to see more of – got completely buried by the announcement that Michelle Yeoh was going to headline it. Arguments over the character of Empress Georgiou and her suitability as the star of a new show drowned out any interest in the Section 31 organisation itself. And the otherwise muted, uninterested response from Trekkies and a wider television audience compounded that, driving the first nail into what appears to be the series’ coffin.
Speaking personally, it wasn’t until we got to Terra Firma that I saw the merits of a Section 31 show with Georgiou at the helm. One of the first articles I wrote here on the website almost two years ago was about the Section 31 series – and how I was truly not interested in it at all. It took seeing Georgiou’s character arc play out, and the strong two-part episode Terra Firma in particular, before I was sold on the concept. But by then, it seems, it may well have been too late to revive the show’s declining prospects.
Star Trek’s past is littered with unresolved story elements – though most don’t involve major characters. It’s possible that Georgiou’s story will simply be left incomplete, her destination after entering the Guardian of Forever’s portal never to be shown nor explained on screen. That would be unfortunate, especially because the character we finally got to see by the latter part of Discovery’s third season is so much more nuanced and interesting to follow. Seeing Georgiou run Section 31 had finally begun to sound like a show that Trekkies were interested in… but it feels like it’s too late now. The franchise has simply moved on to other projects.
The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
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 1-3 and the trailers and teasers for Season 4.
A bit of a morbid one this time… but it is nearly Halloween!
In the last decade or so, a number of television shows have pioneered what I call the “disposable cast” – where even main characters and fan-favourites can’t be assured of safety or survival as a series continues. Shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made this a big part of their identities, and the idea that any major character could be in danger can – when done right – add to the tension and drama. Not knowing if your favourite character will make it to the end of the episode or escape a dangerous situation can really increase the weight of a story.
Discovery has technically seen more main cast members depart than any previous Star Trek series! Captains Lorca and Pike, Spock, Georgiou, Tyler, and Nhan were all main cast members at one point before departing the series. But with the exception of Lorca, none of these characters were killed off, and in a television landscape that increasingly favours big, dramatic character deaths, the Star Trek franchise as a whole still hasn’t really caught up.
In Season 3 we saw the recurring character of Ryn killed off. He’d been a friend and ally to Booker and Burnham and his death was both a shock – due to the way it was carried out – and a tragedy for the crew. As with Airiam in Season 2, though, Ryn wasn’t a character we’d got to know particularly well before his death, and when Season 3 could have stepped up and actually killed off a main character or a character who’d been present on the show since the beginning, the writers and producers chose not to do so.
Star Trek has always had an optimistic tone, embodied in some ways by Captain Kirk’s assertion that he “doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.” The desire to save everyone every time is drilled into every Starfleet officer – particularly captains. In that sense I can certainly entertain the argument that a character death feels like a loss or a defeat in a way that is somehow “un-Star Trek.”
At the same time, I fundamentally disagree with Captain Kirk. Life is full of no-win scenarios, and one of the skills any captain or commander needs to have is knowing how to make a difficult choice; how to choose the least-bad option when no good outcomes are possible. Sometimes that means sacrificing a life to save others, and this is something that the Star Trek franchise has touched on in the past.
Though I don’t want to see any specific character killed off in Discovery’s imminent fourth season, a well-timed character death could go a long way to raising the stakes and making the story much more impactful. The gravitational anomaly would seem all the more deadly if it claimed the life of a familiar face, or the climax of the story could see Captain Burnham having to make an impossible choice.
So this time we’re going to take a look at Discovery’s main and recurring characters – and try to assess who may or may not survive the season!
The usual caveats apply: I have no “insider information” and I’m not claiming to know what will happen. All of this is guesswork and speculation from a fan of Star Trek, nothing more. It’s also entirely subjective, so if you disagree or hate my ideas that’s okay!
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get started. I’m going to put the characters into a list, then give my assessment of how likely they are to be killed off during Season 4.
Character #1: Captain Michael Burnham Status: Almost Certainly Safe 💖
Discovery has been the Michael Burnham show since its premiere episode, and that is unlikely to change! The first three seasons saw Burnham’s rise to the captaincy of the USS Discovery, and having only just got there it would be a really unexpected and subversive twist to kill her off. As the show’s main protagonist she feels safer than most – and even series that pioneered the “disposable cast” like those mentioned above have tended to save their most significant characters from harm.
The only possible argument we could consider to counter that is the uniqueness of the USS Discovery’s captain’s chair. Three seasons of the show have each been led by a different captain – Lorca, Pike, and Saru. One of Discovery’s most interesting features has been these individual season-long captaincies and the very different styles each captain had. It’s possible – though I wouldn’t call it “likely” by any stretch – that the show might choose to bring in another new captain for Season 5, continuing this trend. If that’s the case, perhaps Captain Burnham isn’t quite as safe as it seems! However, I consider that a very unlikely scenario.
Character #2: Saru Status: In Danger ☠️
What role does ex-Captain Saru have aboard a ship that has moved on without him? That’s a fundamental question that the series will have to address, because it’s quite odd for a Starfleet vessel to be racing across the galaxy with two captains on board. The situation could, perhaps, even lead to some awkwardness for Captain Burnham!
Some fans felt that Saru might’ve left Discovery after the Season 3 epilogue told us that he was returning to Kaminar to spend time helping Su’Kal. Fortunately that didn’t happen – not least because the short epilogue would have been a very disrespectful way for Saru to be shuffled off the show altogether! But the fact that Discovery has found a new captain means Saru doesn’t really have a role any more, at least not as things currently stand. Characters who feel surplus to requirements are often the most in danger – and Saru doesn’t really have a clear role right now.
Character #3: Paul Stamets Status: In Danger ☠️
Until recently, Stamets felt safer than almost any other character on Discovery! His unique ability to navigate the mycelial network meant that without him, one of Discovery’s unique selling points – the Spore Drive – wouldn’t work. For story reasons that could be a problem and certainly a limitation, so Stamets felt safe. But the revelation at the end of Season 3 that Booker – and any other empathic character, in theory – can interact with the Spore Drive in the same way as Stamets means his unique usefulness is at an end.
So the question is this: was Stamets’ unique ability stripped away from him for a reason? Could Season 3 have been setting up a situation in the near future where the crew will have to survive without him? Or was it just a natural progression in the story of the Emerald Chain’s takeover of Discovery? Actually I guess that was three questions! But the point stands: Stamets is not the only one who can use the Spore Drive any more, and thus no longer feels anywhere near as safe as he did last season.
Character #4: Dr Hugh Culber Status: Safe 💖
Dr Culber has already been killed off once – and he didn’t stay dead! There was also a minor backlash in some quarters to the killing off of one of Star Trek’s first major gay characters. Sometimes LGBT+ characters can feel more “expendable” in films and on television than their non-LGBT+ counterparts; a trope that we could definitely do without!
LGBT+ issues aside, I feel that Dr Culber’s “back from the dead” storyline in Season 2 means he’s a safe bet to survive Season 4. It would be a stupidly complicated storyline to kill him off for the second time, and I think for production-side reasons the writers and producers are less willing to kill off Dr Culber than almost anyone else.
Character #5: Sylvia Tilly Status: Probably Safe 💖
I’m calling Tilly safe because it just doesn’t seem as though the writers and producers want to get rid of her yet. Tilly has been the one character other than Michael Burnham to have seen significant growth across all three seasons of the show, overcoming her anxieties to step up and even take command of the ship. The way she led a team of officers in the final couple of episodes of Season 3 came to embody that transformation – and her arc, while imperfectly executed, was nevertheless powerful to see.
As Tilly is still young and only a junior officer, there’s plenty of room to continue that growth. I don’t think she’s going to be Captain Burnham’s first officer in Season 4, but it could well be that her arc across Season 4 and perhaps into Season 5 is readying her to take on that role again. Regardless, I don’t expect to see her killed off in Season 4.
Character #6: Cleveland Booker Status: Safe 💖
Unless Discovery plans to introduce a new main character, Book is the show’s main guide to the 32nd Century. Not only does he serve in that role for Captain Burnham and the crew of the ship, but he’s also a great character to show us as the audience the perspective of a 32nd Century native. He has a major role in that regard, and unless he can be replaced with a like-for-like character I can’t see the show dispensing with him.
Booker also has a relationship with Captain Burnham to consider, and while we can expect some bumps in the road with that perhaps, I think killing him off at this stage would be too much for Burnham after everything else she’s been through. I’d like to see Book help to anchor Burnham and keep her grounded as she handles the burden of command – serving as a confidante and her closest ally. Book’s story is also incomplete, and we’ve been promised a closer look at his background in the future. For all of those reasons and more, I think he’s pretty safe!
Character #7: Admiral Charles Vance Status: In Danger ☠️
I felt Vance was in danger toward the end of Season 3 as well, and that he could’ve fallen victim to the Emerald Chain when they attacked Federation HQ. That didn’t happen – fortunately – but Admiral Vance definitely feels in danger as we approach Season 4. As one of the most significant secondary characters in Season 3, Vance’s death would carry more weight than a lot of other secondary characters’ would, which is one reason I felt he might’ve been in danger last time around.
Two things struck me from the Season 4 trailers: the almost total absence of Vance and the arrival of Federation President Rillak. Rillak, as I’ve noted in the past, seems to occupy a similar role to Vance’s in Season 3, serving as a “big boss” for Captain Burnham and the crew to ultimately be answerable to. That was the job Vance had as head of Starfleet in Season 3, but if Burnham is now reporting directly to President Rillak… what is there for Vance to do? Combine that with his absence from the two trailers and I wonder what might’ve become of the head of Starfleet.
Character #8: President Rillak Status: In Danger ☠️
President Rillak’s status is difficult to gauge because she’s brand-new! We’ve only seen her in action very briefly in the trailers for Season 4, so what role she might ultimately play is unclear at best. However, there are a few reasons to think that she could be in danger.
Firstly, any new character should automatically be assumed to be in danger! It’s easier to kill off a brand-new character than an established fan-favourite, and doing so could be a relatively easy way to communicate the stakes in any story. Secondly is Rillak’s role: President of the Federation. The death of someone in such a powerful position is always going to have a significant effect, even if we as the audience didn’t know her particularly well. Thirdly, the main scene we’ve seen so far featuring President Rillak showed her facing off against Captain Burnham in at least a semi-antagonistic way. Killing off a character who’s either a villain or a hurdle to our heroes is a trope as old as time!
Characters #9 and #10: Adira Tal and Gray Tal Status: Safe 💖
One storyline in Season 4 is going to focus on Gray’s quest to be “seen” – to become corporeal again somehow. Discovery certainly won’t kill off Adira and Gray without bringing this story to its conclusion, as it’s an incredibly powerful analogy for the status of trans and non-binary people – as well as being an exciting and interesting story in its own right.
Gray is tied to Adira, and thus it isn’t possible to kill them off without also killing off Gray. I think that makes both of them safe, though there is a lingering question as to what exactly Gray is. Star Trek doesn’t do ghosts, so Gray has to be explained scientifically somehow! Regardless, both characters feel assuredly safe.
Character #11: Dr Tracy Pollard Status: In Danger ☠️
After three seasons we don’t really know Dr Pollard very well. She’s often been seen in sickbay, and has patched up many of our heroes when they were injured, but aside from being a competent doctor we don’t really know very much about her. She appeared a few times in Season 3, but was never front-and-centre even in sequences in sickbay.
Dr Pollard is one of those secondary characters who has been in the background for the show’s entire run. Killing her off would be an easy option for Discovery in many ways; an attempt to get the impact of the death of a familar face without having to kill off anyone major. Be on the lookout for an Airiam-style spotlight on Dr Pollard – if she suddenly becomes the focus of a major storyline, she could be on her way to the chopping block!
Character #12: Kovich Status: Safe… for now! 💖
Until we know who Kovich is and what his role is in the hierarchy of the Federation, I can’t imagine Discovery would kill him off. There’s too much mystery surrounding this character, and to leave that unresolved would be fundamentally frustrating at a narrative level. My personal theory is that Kovich is the head of Section 31, or perhaps Starfleet Intelligence, but none of that has been confirmed on screen yet.
Famed director David Cronenberg plays the character, and I think for both Star Trek and Cronenberg it’s been a great partnership. Kovich thus feels safer than most, but it’s still possible that after we learn more about him and what his role has been that he could be killed off in future; he may not be permanently safe!
Character #13: Jett Reno Status: In Danger ☠️
Tig Notaro, who plays Jett Reno, has said that the character won’t appear as frequently in Season 4 as originally intended. This is due to the impact of the pandemic on the show’s production. That doesn’t mean that Reno is necessarily in any danger, but it is worth noting.
Reno is famously sarcastic and deadpan, so her line in the second Season 4 trailer that she’s “lived a good life” could simply be her usual wit. However, it could also be some dark foreshadowing – and perhaps Season 4 could see Reno meet her end.
Character #14: Dr Gabrielle Burnham Status: In Danger ☠️
It seems as though Dr Burnham and the Qowat Milat will have a significant role to play in Season 4 – at least based on what we saw in the second trailer. One thing came to mind when I saw other members of the Qowat Milat fighting and training, though: could they be seeking revenge for the death of one of their own? If so, perhaps Dr Burnham is the one who’s died.
This could be connected to the gravitational anomaly or it could be its own independent storyline. Regardless, Dr Burnham’s death would have a huge impact on Michael Burnham, and could be a major source of emotion and drama for her as the season rolls on. Coping with bereavement and learning to move forward while grieving are themes Star Trek has touched on in the past.
Character #15: T’Rina Status: Probably Safe 💖
The President of Ni’Var, who we met in Season 3, would be an odd choice to kill off. It’s arguable that, if she does indeed lead Ni’Var back to Federation membership as the trailers have hinted, her story is complete and thus she may not have much more to do. But when considering character deaths, one factor is how their loss will impact others in the story.
Saru is the only main character with whom T’Rina has any significant relationship, and thus her death wouldn’t be as impactful for Captain Burnham and the rest of the crew even when compared to the new character of President Rillak. T’Rina being killed would still have the effect of communicating the stakes involved and the dangers of the anomaly, but it would matter far less from an emotional point of view. Thus I think there are probably better candidates when it comes to characters being killed off.
Character #16: Lieutenant Willa Status: In Danger ☠️
Lieutenant Willa was Admiral Vance’s aide-de-camp in Season 3, and also briefly spent time aboard Discovery. She helped the crew acclimatise to the 32nd Century, and brought them up to speed on some of the new technologies that had been installed on the ship after arriving at Federation HQ. Though a good deal of Willa’s story and interactions with the crew happened off-screen, it’s fair to say she’s well-known to most of them and on friendly terms.
Willa’s death would thus have a significant impact on practically everyone aboard Discovery – especially if she had transferred aboard the ship or spent more time with Captain Burnham and the crew earlier in Season 4. Her death would also affect Admiral Vance – or she could even be a secondary casualty if Vance himself were killed. As a familiar face and someone known to the crew, Willa could be killed off to communicate the stakes involved in the story.
Character #17: Grudge Status: She better be safe! Or else… 🐱
Discovery can kill off a lot of characters… but the show better leave Grudge alone! Jokes aside, one of the best moments in the Season 3 finale was the way Book stood up to the villainous Zareh when he threatened to hurt Grudge. As a cat owner I love Grudge and I’m very protective of her… so if Discovery tried to get away with killing her off I might actually cry.
On a serious note, I think Grudge is probably safe. She gives Book’s character an extra dimension; a dependent for him to care for and look after. Plus she serves as a kind of mascot for the series. I can’t see Grudge being killed off in Season 4 – no matter how bad things get for Captain Burnham and Book!
Characters #18-23: The Secondary Bridge Crew Status: In Danger ☠️
I’m lumping six characters together for this final entry because I found myself saying basically the same thing about all of them! Included in this group are the following: Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys, Bryce, Nilsson, and Linus. Most of them had an outing with Tilly at the end of Season 3 in which they were all in serious danger – most notably Owosekun. They all survived that encounter, but I’m not convinced they’ll all make it to the end of Season 4.
Detmer and Owosekun are the two characters we know best thanks to their development in Season 2 and particularly in Season 3. But any of these six could get the Airiam treatment and have a moment in the spotlight followed by a quick death. If Discovery wanted to show us the stakes and communicate the dangers involved without killing off a major character, any of these secondary characters could find themselves on the chopping block.
So that’s it. Those are my pre-season feelings about the safety of each of Discovery’s main characters!
Season 4 is only three weeks away now, so we won’t have to wait too long to find out which of our favourite characters will survive the gravitational anomaly – and all of the other dangers out there in the 32nd Century! As I said at the beginning, I’m not advocating for any specific character to be killed off. I like everyone, even the secondary characters, and I wouldn’t necessarily want any of them to die.
At the same time, Season 3 felt like it had a little too perfect of an outcome for some characters, especially in the finale. Sometimes, when facing an impossibly dangerous situation, loss of life is inevitable. Making it so that characters continually survive the impossible quickly gets boring, and there was definitely a sense in the Season 3 finale that “plot armour” was protecting more than one character.
A well-timed and well-executed character death can be shocking, impactful, and emotional. When establishing the danger involved in a situation, seeing a character we know meet their end can raise the stakes dramatically for the remainder of the story, and the sense that anyone – even important named characters – could be in danger is part of what has made television storytelling since 2010 so entertaining and dramatic. Discovery doesn’t need to go down this road – but doing so could lead to some outstanding storylines and deeply emotional moments.
I’m looking forward to Season 4 now! Hopefully the show can build on the successes of Season 3 and continue the process of establishing the 32nd Century as a setting in its own right – while also telling a new and different story about the gravitational anomaly. It will also be great to see Captain Burnham in command of the ship in her own right for the first time. Let’s fly!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 will premiere on the 18th of November 2021 on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and around the world. Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now. 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 1-3, Star Trek: Voyager, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Today we’re continuing our series of theory articles about the Burn, and we’re returning to the Voyager Season 4 episode Living Witnessfor yet another idea! As one of the very few episodes of Star Trek prior to Discovery’s third season to be set in or near the 32nd Century, Living Witness has been the source of several theories and concepts already. On this occasion we’re going to consider what the episode’s far future setting and its ending could mean for Discovery, and what implications there may be if the Delta Quadrant either partially or wholly escaped the worst effects of the Burn.
Let’s start by considering what we know from Discovery itself regarding the Burn and its possible extent. Cleveland Booker introduced us to the idea of the Burn in the first episode of the season, and used the term “the galaxy” when describing its range and scale; this may be hyperbole or exaggeration to a degree, though, as Booker’s knowledge of the wider galaxy was limited – he hadn’t even been to Earth.
Next, Admiral Vance told us that the Federation peaked in the pre-Burn years with a membership of over 350 worlds. While there are certainly enough planets in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants for the Federation to have been contained there, this expansion of the Federation is significant. The Federation was also large enough and spread out enough that Vance’s Starfleet was unable to travel to or even remain in contact with every member world. Vance was familiar with worlds in or near the Gamma Quadrant, as he noted the location of the Guardian of Forever’s new planet was in that region of space, so the Federation has clearly mapped large portions of the Milky Way by the 32nd Century.
Next we have the Burn itself. Originally assumed to have taken place everywhere simultaneously, Michael Burnham was able to prove that the Burn in fact radiated outwards from its point of origin, with ships in different sectors being destroyed milliseconds apart. However, 32nd Century Starfleet didn’t have enough information to have figured this out, instead assuming that the Burn happened all at once. This could mean that the Federation wasn’t as widespread as we might think.
Now we come to Living Witness. The bulk of the episode takes place in the 31st Century, and thus could well have been set in the years before the Burn (all dates in relation to Living Witness are guesstimates based on rounded figures). However, the episode’s ending clearly and demonstrably takes place decades – or perhaps even centuries – later. The final act of the episode sees a museum guide telling Kyrian and Vaskan citizens about the Doctor – a backup copy of whom was left behind by the USS Voyager – and this sequence takes place at the very least decades after the rest of the episode, and certainly after the Burn.
Obviously we have to acknowledge that, for production-side reasons, the two stories aren’t related. We wouldn’t have expected anyone at the end of Living Witness to talk about the Burn because the story concept did not exist at the time. But Star Trek has shown a willingness on multiple occasions to incorporate events depicted in one story into later episodes and films, and perhaps that will happen on this occasion.
In short, here’s how the theory goes: the end of Living Witness shows the Kyrians and Vaskans in the 32nd or perhaps even 33rd Century talking about the Doctor. There was no mention of the Burn, nor of any disaster affecting their Delta Quadrant homeworld, and the fact that the Doctor was able to commandeer a starship in the late 31st or early 32nd Century to undertake his voyage back to the Alpha Quadrant at least implies that there was enough dilithium in that region of the Delta Quadrant for such a voyage to be plausible.
There are other implications from the ending of Living Witness that are worth considering. The Kyrians and Vaskans don’t seem to have had further contact with the Federation since the departure of the Doctor. This could mean that travel to and from the Delta Quadrant is still difficult and/or time-consuming in this era. The fact that the museum guide was not aware of whether the Doctor made it back safely suggests that there hasn’t been any contact between their homeworld and the Federation. We could think of reasons why this might be the case, including random chance, but with more than 700 years between Voyager’s journey and the Burn, there should’ve been ample time for the Federation to revisit planets Voyager encountered if they wanted to.
So is it possible that the Burn had a limited range? Was it truly a galactic-scale event, or did its effects weaken the further out its shockwave went? I think the fact that Burnham found a millisecond difference in between starships being destroyed could hint at this, because the shockwave did radiate outwards from its point of origin. Whether we’re talking about gamma rays or ripples on a body of water, we see the effects weaken the further away from the source we get, so perhaps the same is true of the Burn.
There may have been a transitional zone in which some starships were destroyed but some were merely damaged, and then a zone were the effects of the Burn were noticeable but not catastrophic. Finally the Burn’s shockwave would reach a point where it was imperceptible to all but the most finely-tuned sensors before fizzling out altogether. The episode Su’Kal showed us an example of this, in a way, when Su’Kal’s emotional outburst “almost” caused another Burn – but didn’t. Perhaps this is what some star systems in faraway parts of the galaxy experienced.
We don’t know where the Verubin Nebula is in relation to the Federation or the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. But it could be located near one edge of the galaxy, far away from the Delta Quadrant. If so, and if the pre-Burn Federation didn’t routinely travel to and from the Delta Quadrant, things start to line up for this theory!
So let’s consider the possible implications, assuming this theory is correct. Obviously we know that the Kyrians and Vaskans seem to have escaped the Burn relatively unscathed, so perhaps other Delta Quadrant factions did as well. This could include races like the Kazon, though they seem unlikely to be a significant threat to the Federation based on how far behind they were in technological terms. It could also bode well for potential Federation allies like the Talaxians and Ocampa – if one or both had joined the Federation, perhaps they’re thriving on the far side of the galaxy even after the Burn decimated the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.
But there’s one Delta Quadrant faction that we should be more wary of than any other: the Borg!
Discovery Season 3 didn’t make any mention of the Borg whatsoever, so we don’t know if they still exist in this era, if they’ve been defeated, if they’re still present in the galaxy, etc. But assuming that they’re still around and that their power base remains in the Delta Quadrant, the Borg’s survival could be catastrophically bad news for the Federation.
Even if the Federation had managed to find a way to keep the Borg at bay in the years prior to the Burn, the Borg may have just been given a 120-year head-start on developing new technologies and building up their forces while the Federation fractured and looked inwards to its own day-to-day survival. With much of their transwarp network intact and with their ships and drones protected from the worst effects of the Burn, the Borg may have been waiting and observing the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. They may even have been slowly making inroads, assimilating planets and star systems beyond the range of the Federation’s limited sensors. Perhaps the reason some Federation members dropped out of contact was not because of issues with long-range communications… but because they’d been attacked.
The trailers for Season 4 appear to show the Federation under attack by a “gravitational anomaly.” As I pointed out, this anomaly could be argued to behave in an unnatural way if it seems to be targeting the Federation, its planets, and its starships. Perhaps the gravitational anomaly is a weapon, one designed to be the precursor to an invasion. If so, one of the primary candidates for developing such a powerful weapon has to be the Borg.
As the rest of the galaxy struggles to recover, maybe Starfleet will learn that the Delta Quadrant largely escaped the Burn. The century-long absence of strong borders and interstellar long-range communications could have allowed any faction from that region of space (including the Borg) to seize the opportunity to pursue an aggressive, expansionist policy. The shape of the galaxy could’ve changed far more in the wake of the Burn than we might think, and a return to “business as usual” may not be possible if whole sectors have changed hands – or been assimilated!
As I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s also possible that the backup copy of the Doctor is still alive in this era. We’ve heard nothing from the production side of Star Trek to suggest he might be included as a character in Season 4, but I’d be curious to see if he’ll be mentioned in some way even if he doesn’t appear on screen. If the Living Witness copy of the Doctor has survived and returned to the Alpha Quadrant, that would be the strongest hint yet that at least part of the Delta Quadrant may have escaped the worst effects of the Burn.
Though Star Trek hardly needs an excuse, this could also be a great opportunity to bring the Borg into play in a big way. Discovery flirted with a Borg origin story in Season 2 – at least in my opinion – but we haven’t seen a proper Borg episode or story since 2003’s Enterprise Season 2 episode Regeneration.
If we work on the assumption that everything seen on screen in past Star Trek episodes is canon, and that the events in Living Witness and Discovery both take place in the Prime Timeline, I think we have a solid basis to construct a theory! Did some or all of the Delta Quadrant escape the Burn? And if so, what are the implications for the Star Trek galaxy in the late 32nd Century and beyond? We simply don’t know yet!
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and internationally. Star Trek: Voyager is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK (other international streaming may vary). The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery, Voyager, 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 1-3.
In the second part of this short series about the Burn we’re going to consider the possible impact of time travel. Last time, in case you missed it, we looked at how transporters and transwarp beaming could – potentially – have provided Starfleet and the Federation with a way to relieve the pressure of dwindling dilithium reserves in the years before the Burn. I also have a column looking at how well the Burn worked as a storyline, which you can find by clicking or tapping here.
As Season 3 began – and for much of its run – I speculated about the possible involvement of time travel either as part of the explanation for the Burn or as a way for Discovery to reset or even undo the catastrophic event at the storyline’s resolution. Here’s the short version of why: the Federation had access to time travel technology for hundreds of years, and by the 29th and 30th Centuries Starfleet routinely explored the timeline and even tried to patrol it and prevent any nefarious interference. Though there was a “temporal prime directive” in effect which prevented travellers from the future from changing the past, the precise way in which this worked is not clear.
Time travel has not been depicted consistently within Star Trek, and we do have to acknowledge that. Stories featuring the cast of The Original Series – including the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – seem to depict time travel as something that basically anyone with a warp-capable starship could accomplish (via the method of slingshotting around a star). However, by the time we get to stories set in the 24th Century, time travel appears to require specialist equipment and devices – which, at various points, the Federation may or may not have been in possession of.
Even if we’re incredibly conservative with how we interpret time travel stories within Star Trek, it still seems highly likely that by the 25th Century or thereabouts, Starfleet had the technology to routinely and safely travel through time – which is more than 600 years before the Burn. Much of what we know about Starfleet’s time travel missions suggests that their primary interests would be in travelling backwards through time to get a first-hand look at historical events, as well as to prevent factions like the Sphere Builders or the Borg from changing the past to suit their own goals and purposes. But there’s nothing to say that Starfleet wasn’t at least peeking ahead at the future timeline.
I’d argue that not doing so would be a major risk and even a dereliction of duty. With Starfleet involved in a Temporal Cold War and/or the Temporal Wars, other factions were almost certainly using time travel technology to jump forwards and backwards through time to try to score an advantage. Heck, Discovery’s second season finale is an example of this: Captain Pike, Saru, Burnham, and the crew decide that sending the USS Discovery forward in time – removing it from the 23rd Century – was the safest way to keep this vital ship and its important data out of the hands of their enemy. If 23rd Century Starfleet was doing that, I see nothing to suggest that 29th and 30th Century Starfleet wasn’t doing that too.
We can’t argue that travelling forwards in time is any more difficult than travelling backwards. Again, Discovery Season 2 is a case in point. The Red Angel project in the mid-23rd Century created two time travel suits that were capable of moving forwards in time, and at various points in Star Trek’s broader canon we’ve seen ships like the USS Defiant and the Enterprise-E manage to successfully return to the 24th Century after jaunts to the past.
Everything we know about time travel in Star Trek tells us that the Federation had the capability to travel forwards in time, and a combination of their role in the temporal conflicts of the 29th and 30th Centuries as well as their previously-established desire to protect and preserve the “true” timeline gives them the motivation – and moral requirement – to do so as well.
So why didn’t anyone warn the Federation about the Burn?
The answer, at least according to Discovery Season 3, is the ban on time travel. But I’m not convinced that this works as a satisfying and believable reason on its own. Even if Starfleet were willing to abide by the ban on time travel and the temporal prime directive, would everyone have felt that way? If a Starfleet timeship encountered the post-Burn galaxy, would they not have felt an obligation to warn their colleagues in their native era?
Even if Starfleet had been willing to sacrifice countless lives and leave the galaxy in a horrible state to uphold certain ideals and principles, the Burn is bigger than just the Federation. Other factions in the Temporal Wars, had they become aware of the Burn, would likely have tried to warn their colleagues of what was to come. Even organisations within the Federation, like Section 31, seem like they’d have been unwilling to abide by a ban on time travel, let alone refuse to share knowledge of an impending disaster.
We don’t know for certain that this didn’t happen. Section 31 may not exist by this time, and if they do still exist they may indeed have tried to warn the Federation about the Burn. Other factions with access to time travel technology may have also warned their past selves too. Heck, this could be a plot point in Season 4; perhaps one faction was better-prepared than everyone else and is now ready to conquer the galaxy.
However, there is a significant counter-point that we need to consider: until Saru, Burnham, and Dr Culber travelled to the Verubin Nebula and met Su’Kal, no one knew what caused the Burn. Even if Starfleet had been warned centuries ahead of time, without the crucial knowledge of what the Burn was, who caused it, and so on, simply knowing that it was going to happen would not have been enough to prevent it. And perhaps that’s the key here. Even if Starfleet had travelled forward in time, in this exact version of the timeline, all they would’ve seen is a galaxy devastated by an event that no one knew anything about.
As I said last time, the way the Burn occurred was a combination of unlikely, unpredictable circumstances centred around a single, relatively obscure starship and one Kelpien child. When looking at a galaxy-wide event that appeared to happen everywhere simultaneously, even the most dedicated timeship crew would’ve struggled to put the pieces together. Michael Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery were able to do so only with the Federation’s help; and it seems highly unlikely that Admiral Vance would’ve agreed to help the crew of a 29th or 30th Century timeship in the way he agreed to help Saru and Burnham. Remember what Vance said when he debriefed Burnham and Saru: their mere presence in the 32nd Century was “by definition, a crime.”
Thus we can argue that Admiral Vance would have been unwilling to help a Federation timeship prevent the Burn, and would not have shared the vital information relating to SB-19 which ultimately allowed Burnham to pinpoint its source.
Likewise, if Section 31, the Emerald Chain, or some other faction operating in the 32nd Century wanted to travel back in time to prevent the Burn, the same issue of not knowing how, why, and where it happened arises. Without this information, realistically it seems impossible for the Burn to have been avoided. Only after Burnham’s investigation, culminating in the discovery of the KSF Khi’eth and Su’Kal, could anyone realistically use time travel to prevent the Burn or warn their counterparts in the past. And from our point of view as the audience, we’ve only just arrived at that chapter of the story!
When the Burn was first teased in the trailers for Discovery’s third season in 2019 and 2020, I wondered what role – if any – time travel might’ve played in the story. There were possible hints at a time travel-related cause for the Burn, perhaps even connected to one of the Red Angel suits from Season 2. There was also the Temporal Cold War from Enterprise. However, as a story point one thing about connecting time travel to the Burn seemed like it would be impossible to resolve as the season rolled on.
In short, if the Burn had been revealed to have been caused by the nefarious actions of a time traveller – or as the result of a time travel/Red Angel suit accident – then logically, from Starfleet’s perspective, the only solution to the Burn would be to undo it; to travel back in time and prevent it from happening. In the first couple of episodes of the season, as we found our feet, perhaps such a storyline could’ve worked. But as we got to know people like Booker, Admiral Vance, the leaders of Earth, Ni’Var, Trill, and many others across the 32nd Century, removing most of them from existence by resetting the timeline would have felt completely wrong.
Undoing the Burn would’ve completely changed the 31st and 32nd Centuries, with knock-on effects for all of those characters – and countless more. Even if the crew of Discovery were immune to such changes, the consequences for everyone else would be vast. As I mentioned when discussing Admiral Janeway’s decision to take a similar action in the finale of Star Trek: Voyager, wiping untold numbers of people from existence altogether seems like the worst possible use of time travel – a war crime. The Temporal Accords that Admiral Vance mentioned and which the Federation strives to protect seem specifically designed to prevent anyone from doing this kind of thing.
So we get into the weeds of philosophy with this one! The Burn happened, and until we learned exactly how and why toward the end of the season, it was possible that time travel could’ve played a role in it. But even if it had, and the Burn was entirely the fault of the misuse or weaponisation of time travel, more than 120 years had passed since. In those 120 years, billions of people lived out complete lifetimes. They made friends, had relationships, had children, and above all they shaped the galaxy in the 31st and 32nd Centuries. Some nebulous, unprovable concept of how it might’ve been “different” and thus better was already a moot point by the year 3188, because going back in time and changing the past would remove untold billions of people from existence, and utterly change the lives of everyone else.
There’s also no guarantee that preventing the Burn would’ve made the galaxy in 3188 a better place. The Burn destroyed countless starships, but if it hadn’t the galaxy’s dilithium shortage would’ve continued and even accelerated, potentially leaving whole fleets of ships – and possibly planetary power grids – with no fuel at all. Though we get into pure speculation at this point, perhaps the Burn destroyed an invasion fleet that the Borg, the Dominion, or some other villainous group had put together, and if it hadn’t occurred the Federation would’ve been conquered.
This is the fundamental problem with making changes to the timeline and with time travel in general – it isn’t possible to predict every consequence! Star Trek even has a story all about that: the Voyager two-part episode Year of Hell, in which the villainous Annorax is in control of a time travel-based weapon, but after inadvertently removing his wife from existence becomes obsessed with making changes to the timeline left, right, and centre to undo his mistake.
In short, whether the Federation, Section 31, or some other faction were involved, they wouldn’t be able to predict what consequences would befall the galaxy if the Burn never happened. It isn’t possible to take into account every individual and thus every variable – as the story of Su’Kal kind of demonstrates. One Kelpien child on one crashed starship caused all of this damage and devastation. Who’s to say that undoing that event wouldn’t have led to something worse, some other catastrophe caused by a different individual?
As a contemporary analogy, imagine going back in time and preventing the rise of Napoleon and thus the Napoleonic wars. Or going back in time to prevent the eruption of Krakatoa. Those events caused widespread death and misery, and our morality says that we should try to minimise suffering and death wherever we can. But could you reasonably predict the consequences? If Napoleon didn’t rise to power in France, would someone else – someone worse – have done so? If Krakatoa didn’t erupt in 1883, would the pressure building up under the crust be released somewhere else at a different time – perhaps somewhere more highly-populated? These are just two examples, yet each one brings with it huge potential ramifications.
To conclude, time travel seemingly presents a way for the Burn to have been avoided – if we don’t dig too deeply. But scratch the surface and it becomes apparent that there are serious barriers. Starfleet’s steadfast commitment to its principles wouldn’t have allowed Admiral Vance – or anyone else in his role – to share information with time travellers from the past. Even if someone from the past had travelled to the 32nd Century, without the very specific information on the KSF Khi’eth that Michael Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery assembled, warning Starfleet that the Burn was coming would have made little difference. Perhaps some ships could’ve been saved if the Federation were forewarned of the exact timing of the event, but that’s about all. With the destruction of the Red Angel suits, it appears that no time travel technology exists in the 32nd Century, preventing anyone – Section 31, the Emerald Chain, etc. – going back in time to prevent the Burn. Even if someone wanted to, the lack of information would once again be a hurdle even if we ignore the huge moral implications – and the implications for Discovery as a series effectively wiping out an entire season’s worth of story!
I can understand why the writers of Discovery Season 3 brought in all of the stuff about the Temporal Accords and the ban on time travel. I wish it had been elaborated on – and I also wish that Star Trek had been more consistent in its depiction of time travel on the whole, because there are definitely holes we can pick in the concept quite easily. As things sit, it feels like the writers basically said “time travel was banned, so get over it” and then moved on to the rest of the story. If you don’t look too hard, that’s okay. But we’re Trekkies – we like to dive deeply into all things Star Trek!
The ban on time travel is just one part of why Starfleet couldn’t really have used the technology to avoid the Burn, though. And the Burn’s ultimate origin as something accidental connected to a child who wasn’t even born before the KSF Khi’eth entered the Verubin Nebula provides a reasonable explanation. Without knowing the Burn’s origin, all Starfleet could’ve done was shut down as many ships as possible and try to rebuild after the Burn – and that would likely not have been good enough for worlds like Ni’Var. The Federation would still have fractured and the rest of the galaxy would still be in a mess.
As for going back in time and undoing the Burn now that Starfleet knows its origin, that seems off the table. Maybe a faction like Section 31 would contemplate it, but even then I think there are solid reasons to hesitate. The morality of wiping out an entire timeline and most of the people in it is the biggest consideration, but purely on a practical level there’s no guarantee that undoing the Burn wouldn’t lead to something else – something worse. For us as viewers, the Burn is something new. But from the point of view of characters like Admiral Vance and Kovich, this is an historical event more than a century in the past; it occurred before practically everyone alive in the Federation in 3188 was even born. Undoing it would be like one of us wanting to undo something that happened in the 19th Century. Can we think of valid, sympathetic reasons to want to undo certain historical events? Of course. But can we also understand why changing the past can have catastrophic unforeseen consequences? Absolutely. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think the Burn couldn’t and wouldn’t have been avoided via time travel.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Netflix in the UK and around the world. 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 Season 3, Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek Into Darkness, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
This article is going to be the first in a short series about the Burn – one of the main elements of Discovery’s third season. We’re going to consider different ways that the Federation – and the wider Star Trek galaxy – could have avoided the Burn, a catastrophic event that caused untold damage to factions and citizens across known space and beyond.
In order for the Burn to have occurred at all, a very specific set of circumstances needed to align in just the right way (or should that be just the wrong way?) One of these was the dilithium shortage that Admiral Vance elaborated on after Saru, Burnham, and the crew of the USS Discovery arrived at Federation HQ. In short, for a long time prior to the Burn there had been a shortage of dilithium across the galaxy. This shortage was so severe that the Federation began looking at alternative options for faster-than-light travel. One of the ideas they considered was something called SB-19 – a Ni’Var project that seemed to involve some kind of starship-sized “gateways” to get from place to place.
We’re going to leave those ideas behind for now and focus on one aspect of Star Trek that has been present since the beginning: the transporter. In short, would it have been possible for transporter technology to provide an alternative to some or all of Starfleet’s faster-than-light travel?
On the surface it may seem that the two things aren’t related. Transporters are mainly shown on screen as a method of sending people from starships to planets, and vice versa. Faster-than-light starship travel is in a completely different ballpark, right?
Not so fast! What is the main purpose of warp drive in the Federation? Starfleet uses it for exploration and military purposes, of course, so as viewers that’s what we associate warp drive with – setting course for an unknown destination and racing away to explore it. But the Federation is much larger than just Starfleet, and there must be an awful lot of civilian and cargo traffic that uses warp drive in the same way we use a car, bus, train, or aircraft – it’s a means to an end; a way to get from place to place.
2009’s Star Trek introduced something that I think is vital to this consideration: transwarp beaming. On first viewing I felt the film wasn’t clear about how and when transwarp beaming was invented, so for the sake of clarity here’s what seems to have happened: after arriving in the 24th Century following decades in suspended animation – events depicted in The Next Generation sixth season episode Relics – Montgomery Scott eventually went back to work with Starfleet. Sometime prior to 2387, Scotty perfected the formula for transwarp beaming, and Spock provided this equation to Scotty’s younger self on the planet Delta Vega after arriving in the alternate reality.
In Star Trek Into Darkness we see how much more powerful transwarp beaming can be than a regular transporter. As with most of Star Trek’s technologies, transporters have always been somewhat vague and mouldable to the needs of a particular story, but Into Darkness actually gave us a pretty solid idea about the range that transwarp beaming has: it’s possible to transport from Earth to the Klingon home planet of Qo’noS.
Into Darkness doesn’t give an exact distance to Qo’noS, but in Enterprise’s pilot episode it was far enough away from Earth that no human had ever encountered a Klingon despite humanity being a spacefaring species for decades. The travel time from Earth to Qo’noS at warp 4.5 was around four days in that same episode.
Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki, suggests that the distance between Earth and Qo’noS could be somewhere between 90-110 light-years, so for a rough guide for the sake of this argument we’re going to say that transwarp beaming has a range of at least 100 light-years. This technology was known to Spock in 2387, so it definitely existed in the Prime Timeline in the late 24th Century. Even if 100 light-years is the absolute maximum distance for transwarp beaming, it’s still a far faster method of travel than anything else known to the Federation. In Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 (the ninth episode of Star Trek: Picard), Admiral Picard tells Dr Jurati that the use of a Borg transwarp corridor allowed La Sirena to travel “25 light-years in fifteen minutes.” Picard says this with a tone of surprise, as if such speed is something that the Federation, even in the year 2399, is unaccustomed to.
Transwarp beaming, then, is even faster than the Borg’s transwarp network. Though the Borg’s spatial trajector (a technology they appear to have assimilated from the Sikarians) may give it a run for its money! Regardless, transwarp beaming is arguably the fastest method of long-range travel ever seen in Star Trek. It allowed “John Harrison” to travel around 100 light-years in a heartbeat, something that even Borg starships couldn’t do a century later.
So how does all of this connect to the Burn? Based on what we saw on screen, it doesn’t! That’s the short answer. For whatever reason, Starfleet appears not to have pursued transwarp beaming in the 29th and 30th Centuries. But this is a fan theory, so we’re running with it anyway!
Despite what’s usually shown on screen, transporters don’t just move people. In fact, living beings are arguably one of the hardest and most complex things for a transporter to manage. Early episodes of Enterprise explained that the first transporters were only supposed to move cargo, and we’ve seen industrial-sized cargo transporters on other ships, including the Enterprise-D. These transporters were often larger, capable of beaming large objects, groups of people, and other things.
Do you see where this is going yet? Much of the reason for interstellar travel within the Federation was to move objects and people from place to place. Going into space in a starship and travelling at warp speed was the best method that the Federation had of doing so – until transwarp beaming came along. Transwarp beaming, even if it had an absolute maximum range of 100 light-years that could never under any circumstances be surpassed, was still a viable option for a significant portion of the Federation’s interstellar travel needs.
Nothing we know of in Star Trek should have prevented the further development and honing of transwarp beaming. Even if no one did anything with the transwarp beaming concept before the 29th or 30th Centuries, when dilithium supplies began to run short Starfleet could easily have started to work again on a concept they’d sidelined. The formulae and information about transwarp beaming seem unlikely to have been lost in that time. Industrial-sized transwarp beaming hubs could have been built, capable of sending vast amounts of goods and whole crowds of people from one planet to another. Not only that, but transwarp beaming hubs in space could even have been constructed, forming a network that would’ve allowed Starfleet to send its vessels from system to system without expending valuable fuel.
It is possible based on what we saw on screen that some version of transwarp beaming was part of the aforementioned SB-19 project. But that has never been confirmed, and considering that transwarp beaming was known to work reliably in the late 24th Century (or the 23rd Century in the alternate reality) it seems unlikely that SB-19 would have struggled to make the concept work hundreds of years later. This was already proven, working technology within Star Trek’s Prime Timeline.
Had Starfleet invested in transwarp beaming on a large scale, it’s possible that the range of the technology could have been extended, its power consumption reduced, and a vast interplanetary network of transwarp beaming stations created that would have relieved at least some of the pressure on dilithium-powered starships. With that pressure reduced and the desperation on the Federation’s part to source new dilithium lessening as a result, the chances of the KSF Khi’eth crashing in the Verubin Nebula, setting in motion the unlikely chain of events that led to the Burn, seems greatly diminished.
In short, using transporters in this way could have avoided the Burn entirely.
Now let’s consider the biggest counter-argument to this idea: how power generation works in Star Trek.
It stands to reason that a transporter takes up a lot of power. In Discovery’s premiere episode, a particular design of transporter in use on the USS Shenzhou was considered outdated by Michael Burnham specifically because of its high power consumption. It logically follows that the larger the mass of the objects being transported, the more power is required. It also stands to reason that transporting over longer distances would likewise require a larger expenditure of power. This might even jump exponentially.
Relatively few Star Trek stories have been set on planets, so we don’t know very much about how planetary power generation works. But assuming that, in order to power the technologies and mod-cons of the 24th Century, planets require comparable levels of power per person to a starship, it’s possible that planetary power grids (such as the one on Earth that was sabotaged by Admiral Leyton in the Deep Space Nine episodes Homefront and Paradise Lost) use a similar matter-antimatter reaction in order to generate enough power for the needs of the population. And what does a matter-antimatter reaction need to be safe and stable? Dilithium crystals.
Transporters based on starships would also have this limitation – as everything on board a starship seems to be powered by a controlled matter-antimatter reaction. Perhaps, then, transporters have the same basic limitation as warp drive: a reliance on dilithium for power. This counter-argument could be used to explain why transporters and transwarp beaming weren’t able to be used as a viable replacement for even a small amount of Starfleet’s interstellar traffic in the years prior to the Burn.
I still think this is an interesting idea, though! Star Trek has thrown a lot of technobabble concepts our way over the years, so it’s inevitable that almost any new storyline can bring with it questions like “why didn’t they try to do X?” or “why didn’t someone think of using Y?” That’s just the nature of this kind of franchise.
On this occasion we’ve jumped headfirst into a theory based on a few lines of dialogue and interpretations of things shown on screen in unconnected parts of Star Trek’s broader canon. I didn’t do that to imply that there’s somehow an egregious “plot hole” in the way Discovery’s third season explained the dilithium shortage or the Burn; really this has just been an excuse to spend a bit more time in the Star Trek galaxy. This isn’t something to take too seriously – no fan theory is – and as already mentioned I can think of at least one solid counter-argument to the idea of Starfleet setting up a kind of transwarp beaming network to ease its reliance on warp drive.
I hope this theory was a bit of fun, though! Stay tuned for more in this short series about the Burn, because transporters and transwarp beaming aren’t the only ways that Starfleet could’ve potentially avoided the disaster and its consequences. And if you want to see my breakdown and analysis on how well the Burn did (and didn’t) work as a narrative in Discovery Season 3, take a look at this article.
Until next time!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and 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 Season 3.
As I was wrapping up my Discovery Season 3 series of articles in January, I said that we’d return to the Burn at a later date once I’d had time to get my thoughts in order. The Burn was the main storyline running through all of the show’s third season, and in addition it’s a story which has significant ramifications for Star Trek going forward, so I wanted to be able to do justice to this big subject. As you may recall from my commentary as the season was ongoing, I have mixed feelings. There’s a lot to talk about.
First up, let’s recap what the Burn was purely from an in-universe perspective, then we can get into my analysis of how well it worked as a narrative.
Though the timeline of some of these events was vague, we know that beginning in the 28th or 29th Centuries, the galaxy began to experience a dilithium shortage. The reason for this was never given nor explained in detail, but it was serious enough that the Federation began seeking out alternative sources of dilithium. At the same time, the Federation started to research alternative methods of faster-than-light travel, the most successful of these being the Ni’Var (Romulan-Vulcan) project called SB-19.
All of this came against the backdrop of a conflict referred to as the Temporal Wars. It’s assumed that this is related to Enterprise’s Temporal Cold War storyline, which saw a temporal agent named Daniels spend time aboard Captain Archer’s NX-01 Enterprise. The end of the war in the late 30th or early 31st Century saw the implementation of a ban on time travel, which is an aspect of the storyline that never really went anywhere.
By the mid-3060s, the Federation’s quest for dilithium was ongoing, and a Kelpien ship – the KSF Khi’eth, with Dr Issa on board – travelled to the Verubin Nebula. After finding a route inside, the ship crashed on a dilithium planet inside the nebula, and wasn’t able to be rescued. A child named Su’Kal was born to Dr Issa while inside the nebula, and as a result of exposure to the Verubin Nebula’s radiation and the dilithium of the planet where he was born, Su’Kal developed a telepathic connection of some kind with dilithium, a link which was seemingly amplified by being on the dilithium planet. At moments of extreme emotion, Su’Kal could trigger a psychic shockwave which destabilised dilithium. The death of his mother in the late 3060s caused this to happen, and the psychic shockwave travelled across the entire galaxy near-simultaneously. Almost all active dilithium went inert, and any ship with an active warp core exploded. This event was later referred to by survivors as “the Burn.” No one, including the Federation, knew how or why this happened, and for more than a century the cause of the Burn went unknown.
The Burn caused widespread societal changes across the known galaxy, including the withdrawal of many Federation members and the rise of a faction called the Emerald Chain – which was implied to be a successor to the Orion Syndicate. Worlds like Trill, Earth, Ni’Var, and others left the Federation, and the severe dilithium shortage meant that other Federation members and colonies were no longer within travel distance. It’s not clear whether the Burn wrecked the Federation’s subspace communications network directly, or whether decades of decline and decay were responsible. Either way, by the time of Michael Burnham’s arrival in the year 3188, the rump Federation was not able to even communicate with some former and current members.
So that, in a nutshell, is the Burn.
Over the course of Season 3, Discovery dropped hints about the Burn and what it could be connected to. We had the mysterious piece of music that everyone seemed to know, Michael Burnham’s year-long research quest into starship black boxes, the aforementioned SB-19 project, the missing Red Angel suits and Michael’s mother, the name “Burn” possibly implying a connection to Michael Burnham, a mention of the Gorn having “destroyed” a region of subspace, a couple of possible ties to the Short Treks episode Calypso – by way of the word “V’draysh” to refer to the rump Federation and the timelines seeming to line up – and a couple of other smaller things.
This setup forms a fairly typical “mystery box;” a style of storytelling pioneered by people like the writer/director of 2009’s Star Trek (and The Rise of Skywalker) J.J. Abrams. Alex Kurtzman, who was Discovery’s executive producer for all of Season 3 and who’s in overall creative control of the Star Trek franchise for ViacomCBS, is a colleague of and frequent collaborator with J.J. Abrams, and has adopted at least some of his storytelling methods. So it makes sense to see a “mystery box” in Discovery considering who’s in charge – and how television storytelling in general works as we’ve moved into an era of serialised shows.
The basic problem with the Burn as a “mystery box” is that the clues we as the audience were fed throughout the season did not add up to the story’s resolution. None of the clues or hints that the show dropped ultimately mattered; there was no way for anyone to put the pieces together to figure out the cause of the Burn based on what we saw on screen, not until the final episode when the Burn’s true origin was revealed. Some, like the piece of music, were dropped from the story altogether, despite seeming to be important when they first appeared. This made for a narrative that was, for many viewers and fans, unsatisfying at a fundamental level.
I’m not suggesting that the storyline should have been telegraphed or written in a very obvious way, but once the decision had been made to establish the 32nd Century’s semi-post-apocalyptic setting as being of mysterious origin, that mystery needed to be resolved in a satisfying way. The fact that nothing that we learned across the entire season mattered or had any impact whatsoever on the Burn made the reveal that Su’Kal was the cause feel like a bolt from the blue; a deus ex machina.
Had the Su’Kal reveal come in episode 3 or 4, and then the story had moved on to deal with things like the diplomacy with Ni’Var and the conflict with the Emerald Chain, perhaps it would’ve worked better. But it came at the end of a season that had been running for several months, and in which several episodes were side-missions that didn’t further the Burn story in any way. Season 3 feels like it spent a lot of time getting to an anticlimax; all of those expectations which had been built up quite cleverly over the preceding episodes basically fizzled out. It wasn’t a catastrophic disaster of an ending, but it was one which just didn’t seem to fit with the story that had been teased all season long.
For Trekkies – and for more casual viewers too, I would argue – the Burn was the most interesting, tantalising, and engaging part of the story of Season 3. How had Star Trek’s optimistic future been brought to its knees? How had the Federation allowed this event to happen in the first place, and how had the organisation so badly bungled its aftermath that even Earth had quit the organisation? These questions were all teed up by the Burn storyline, and providing a satisfying answer was perhaps the single most important task that befell the writers and producers of Season 3.
Su’Kal being the answer could have worked if the mystery had been set up differently. Bringing in the Kelpiens at an earlier stage would’ve helped, as would clues or hints about missions to seek out dilithium or experiments about radiation and telepathy. But I don’t think there can be any denying that Su’Kal as the cause of the Burn in the version of the story that made it to screen came from nowhere; it simply does not fit with what was set up in the rest of the season. That’s the fundamental reason why, for many folks, the Burn feels like a storyline that didn’t deliver at what should’ve been its climax.
There’s more to say, though. The idea of running out of an essential fuel and looking for alternative options is an interesting analogy considering that the real world remains dependent on fossil fuels. The Burn can be read, perhaps, as an extreme metaphor for climate change – the Federation’s dependence on dilithium ultimately caused a catastrophe that almost led to the collapse of civilisation itself.
But if this kind of analogy was part of the writers’ intentions, it has to get a failing grade. The concept itself works. It does what Star Trek has always done: uses its sci-fi setting to look at real-world issues. But once Su’Kal was shuffled out of the way, what did the Federation find? A massive cache of dilithium. A planet-sized mass of this vital fuel could power the galaxy for decades or more, regardless of the fact that it was almost responsible for the end of advanced civilisation. To continue the climate change analogy, this is the equivalent of running out of coal and oil, trying to use renewables, then the story ending with a huge new coal mine and oil fields being discovered.
Though some Trekkies may be glad to see that dilithium crystals aren’t in danger of disappearing from the franchise, this adds another element to the Burn’s unspectacular ending. After all of the talk of a shortage of fuel, alternative methods of propulsion (including several mentioned in the season premiere that were never spoken of again), and how dangerous dilithium could be, the story ends not with some new technology being invented to circumvent the crisis, nor with Federation starships being fitted with Spore Drives like Discovery has, but with a cop-out – finding a huge new dilithium planet that can be strip-mined for fuel.
The Burn and the dilithium shortage storylines were effectively reset by the end of Season 3. With Season 4 seemingly picking up a new story, what could’ve been one of the most powerful turning points in the entirety of Star Trek may find itself relegated to being little more than an unsatisfying season-long story arc that future stories will simply ignore. The Burn could’ve led to significant changes for Star Trek, assuming future shows might use a 32nd or 33rd Century setting. New kinds of starship could have been created using different methods of propulsion and new technobabble to explain it. Instead, basically what happened is that after a season-long dalliance with a setting teetering on the edge of the post-apocalyptic, Star Trek will shift back to using the same things as before.
A story that comes full-circle can work. After a season of seeing the galaxy struggling in the aftermath of the Burn, it will feel great to see Captain Burnham and the crew bringing hope back to the shattered Federation, and hopefully seeing the organisation returning to full strength. But how we get to those ending points is significant, and in the case of the Burn, the storyline took an odd route that has left many viewers feeling it wasn’t all it could’ve been.
Finally, we come to what I consider to be the worst and most egregious failing of the Burn and its storyline: the portrayal of Su’Kal and his role in it.
Bill Irwin put in an outstanding performance as Su’Kal, and I don’t want to criticise him for a moment. The way Su’Kal came across on screen was sympathetic, and his scenes with Saru in particular were deeply emotional. This is no criticism of the performances of Irwin or any of the other actors involved in the Su’Kal sequences.
Neurodivergent people, people with learning difficulties, and people with mental health issues have long been portrayed on screen in a variety of negative ways. That can be by becoming the butt of jokes, at other times being portrayed as villains, having no say in or agency over their own lives and stories, or simply by being ignored; it hasn’t been an easy road. Simply seeing a positive portrayal of someone in that situation could be a big deal, yet Discovery completely screwed this up.
By saying that Su’Kal accidentally caused the worst disaster in the entire history of the Star Trek galaxy, the show plays to old stereotypes of the neurodivergent as dangerous. Su’Kal is, for all intents and purposes, no different from Lennie in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Lennie would accidentally kill another character in the book because he didn’t realise or understand his own strength, and that description of a man who was “too stupid” to recognise or understand his own power fits Su’Kal almost perfectly.
Discovery treats Su’Kal with a cloying, sickening pity at times, looking down at him while trying to present him in as pathetic a manner as possible. The show sees Su’Kal as a hapless moron who blew up every starship in the galaxy with his uncontrolled emotional outburst, painting him – and, by extension, other people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities – as a serious danger to others. People with learning difficulties are often portrayed as unable to control their emotions, which is a further stereotype that Discovery leans into. These aspects of the portrayal are really just awful, and putting Su’Kal in this position has real-world comparisons that are deeply unpleasant.
How many times can you remember hearing, in the aftermath of a massacre or killing spree, that the suspect had “mental health problems” or a learning disability? It seems like it happens every time we hear of such an event, and there’s a huge stigma even today around the topic of mental health. As someone with diagnosed mental health conditions myself, this is a topic that hits close to home, and I feel that the way Discovery portrayed Su’Kal as this kind of “dangerous idiot” stereotype shows how far we still have to go as a society when it comes to talking about and depicting neurodiversity on screen.
Though I enjoyed much of what Discovery’s third season brought to the table, the way Su’Kal was portrayed in his two appearances at the end of the season were really disappointing, even more so considering that the Star Trek franchise has so often tried to be a pioneer for portrayals of underrepresented peoples. Season 3 introduced transgender and non-binary characters for the first time, for example, and the show has a married gay couple, is led by a black woman, and has characters from many different backgrounds. But when it came to depicting someone with mental health issues and learning difficulties, Discovery fell back on overused stereotypes and outdated tropes, effectively bringing a modern-day Lennie to the screen.
There are aspects of Su’Kal’s story that did work. I like the fact, for example, that the telepathic technobabble aspect of the storyline was very “Star Trek” – you wouldn’t get this kind of story in any other franchise, and that’s something that gives Star Trek a sense of identity; a slightly esoteric, weirder kind of sci-fi than you get in other stories. But that side of it is drowned out by how badly Su’Kal as a character and a trope landed.
Neurodiversity isn’t always going to be easy to put to screen, and I get that. If there were only two half-episodes to show off Su’Kal and get to know him, perhaps the chance for a nuanced portrayal that was sympathetic without being pitiful never existed to begin with. But if that’s what happened, Su’Kal should never have been created in the first place. Either a different character should’ve filled that role, or an alternative explanation for the Burn should’ve been found. Given all of the other faults, missteps, and failings present in the Burn narrative as a whole, which I outlined above, I would prefer the latter.
Su’Kal as a character exists in a weird space for me. On the one hand, the emotional side of the portrayal, and the performance by guest star Bill Irwin, were outstanding. But there are so many flaws in the premise of the character and his role in this galactic catastrophe that I can’t look past them. Su’Kal being responsible for the Burn is an age-old trope, one which perpetuates the stigmatisation of the neurodiverse, and in particular those with learning difficulties. Star Trek should know better than to use a character like Su’Kal in a role like this; Star Trek should be better than this, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to see this storyline in Discovery.
To conclude, I’ll say that the Burn was an interesting, if slightly alarming, premise for the season. It allowed Discovery to tell some truly different and unexpected stories, it provided the backdrop for some great characterisation and character moments, and it has set the stage for future stories in this era. It wasn’t a total failure and I wouldn’t want to see it somehow erased or overwritten.
At the same time, however, the storyline itself followed a very odd path. The ending didn’t flow from what had been slowly built up across the rest of the season leading to the Burn as a whole feeling unsatisfying. Season 3 is saved by the fact that it has those other great episodes, character moments, and standalone stories; had it been all about the Burn we could well be talking about Season 3 as Discovery’s worst.
For me, though, the most egregious failure and deepest disappointment with the Burn storyline is the role Su’Kal played in it, and the implications that has for how neurodiverse people are viewed and portrayed on screen. Though the stigma around mental health and learning disabilities still exists in a big way out here in the real world, Star Trek has always been at the forefront of changing minds and challenging stereotypes. To fall back on such an old-fashioned trope, even though I have no doubt it was accidental, is bitterly disappointing and even upsetting.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and around the world. 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 1-3.
Today we’re going to take a look at something that’s been bugging me for a couple of years, ever since the finale of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 in April 2019. I didn’t start working on this website until November ’19, so I haven’t written up full reviews of Season 2, nor have I spent much time breaking down all of the various story points. This will be my first big foray into that! Rather than just a critique of what could be argued to be a plot hole or “goof,” though, I want to turn this into a theory, particularly one that could have an impact on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – the upcoming series set on the USS Enterprise with Captain Pike, Spock, and a new cast of characters.
Ever since I watched Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2, something has stuck in my mind. Immediately before Burnham and the USS Discovery left the 23rd Century behind and headed into the far future we’ve seen depicted in Season 3, they were engaged in a climactic battle alongside Pike and the USS Enterprise against the Control AI. In addition to a fleet of Section 31 starships that were unmanned, Control had also possessed (or assimilated) the body of Section 31 commander Captain Leland. Control used Leland’s body to board the USS Discovery at the battle’s climax to attempt to retrieve the Sphere data – the macguffin that was the cause of the fight in the first place.
The relationship between Control and Captain Leland was not sufficiently explained on screen, in my opinion, and this has a bearing on what comes next and why I have an issue with Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2. But based on what we saw during the episode, it seems as though Control was somehow tied to Captain Leland’s body in a very significant way, such that when his body was crippled by Georgiou inside the USS Discovery’s Spore Cube, it had an impact on the battle raging outside.
This is the moment where I feel there’s an issue. The entire reason for sending Burnham and the USS Discovery on a one-way mission to the far future was to keep the Sphere data safe from Control, but when Georgiou defeated Captain Leland, Control appeared to also be defeated – or at least sufficiently incapacitated as to be unable to continue the battle. This all happened before the USS Discovery entered the time-wormhole.
So, with that in mind, why did Pike, Saru, or even Burnham not stop? Surely at the very least they could have paused what they were doing to consider their next moves. Aboard the Enterprise, Pike was able to easily destroy the disabled Section 31 ships, removing any immediate danger, and with Captain Leland incapacitated and clearly not going anywhere, the Sphere data was also safe. Before sending the ship and crew to an unknown destination with no way back, did no one realise that the battle may have already been won? Was there no reason to send Burnham and the ship into the future?
This is what I’m terming “the big mistake” for the purposes of this theory.
Although Burnham had already used the Red Angel suit to open the time-wormhole, I would absolutely argue that, based on what we saw on screen, the battle against Control had taken a decisive turn before either she or the USS Discovery actually crossed the threshold, and that there was time for Saru, Pike, Spock, or someone to point that out. They were preoccupied with the jobs that they had to do, but when it became obvious that Control was at least incapacitated – if not outright defeated – I think that warrants pause from everyone concerned. They were in the process of making a life-changing decision for Burnham and the crew of Discovery, yet for some reason no one seemed to realise that it may have ultimately been unnecessary.
So let’s break it down even more, for the sake of clarity, and follow events step-by-step. I don’t usually do time-stamps, but I think this is important so we’re all on exactly the same page. If we begin at exactly 51 minutes, 30 seconds into Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 – at least on the Netflix version (I assume it will be roughly the same on Paramount+ and Blu-ray too) – we see Burnham getting ready to open the time-wormhole. In the shot of her flying through space near the raging battle, we see the Section 31 ships beginning to slow their rate of fire with a consequent drop in the number of explosions. This is the first indication that something was changing.
At 51:54, Saru gives Detmer the order to follow Burnham’s lead. The USS Discovery moves through a field of debris (presumably caused by the battle) and then we get our first look at the time-wormhole a few seconds later at around 52:06. At this point, neither Burnham nor the ship are anywhere close to crossing the event horizon and entering the time-wormhole.
Just before 52:30 the action cuts to Captain Pike on the Enterprise’s bridge, watching Burnham and Discovery preparing to enter the wormhole. Trailing in Discovery’s wake are Section 31/Control drones, chasing after them. After Saru and Pike exchange goodbyes at 52:40, and Dr Culber tells Stamets that “we’re on our way,” at 52:57 we come to the scene at the heart of my argument – and of this theory. In Discovery’s engineering bay, the possessed Captain Leland is trapped in the Spore Cube by Georgiou.
Seemingly admitting defeat, Control-Leland tells Georgiou – in true clichéd villain style – that “this does not end here!” Georgiou then finishes the job of killing him, using the powerful magnets in the Spore Cube to force the nanites out of Leland’s body. This action cripples Control, and severs the link between it and its fleet.
53:39 sees Control-Leland hit the deck, dead. The nano-bots spill out of his corpse, and though it’s not clear exactly what will happen to the human Leland, or whether he could be saved, this is a major blow for Control. Less than ten seconds later, at 53:48, the USS Discovery and Burnham can both be seen, still outside the time-wormhole, and Control’s fleet suddenly stops pursuing them.
On the bridge of the Enterprise, Una (Number One) notes this at 53:51, informing Captain Pike that “they’re all dead in the water.” Again, this is before either Burnham or Discovery have entered the time-wormhole. Even if no one on Discovery realised what was happening – which is possible given everything else going on – the crew of the Enterprise certainly had, and there was still time to contact Discovery.
At 54:00, Georgiou contacts Captain Saru, and this is the moment where he could have made a decision too. Georgiou informs him of Leland’s death, but uses a very interesting phrase: “Control is neutralised.” Discovery has not yet entered the wormhole, and on the bridge, Saru is already aware that the reason for doing so no longer exists. Pike is aware that their reason for heading into the future no longer exists. They have already won the battle. By Georgiou’s own admission, the threat Control had posed is unequivocally over.
At 54:16, Burnham and the USS Discovery are seen reflected in the glass of Siranna’s starfighter, still not inside the time-wormhole nor having crossed its event horizon. These are the crucial seconds at the core of the theory, because it’s in these few seconds that the decision to leave the 23rd Century behind could have been called off. With the Enterprise destroying what remained of Control’s fleet, and with Leland dead, there was no immediate way for Control to access the Sphere data – and yet no one on either ship seems to have realised that.
Even if we say that Control was not totally killed off, and that its servers remained active at Section 31 HQ (or elsewhere, if you prefer) and thus that Control was still out there and potentially able to regroup, the fact remains that the immediate threat had passed. The battle had been won, even if there was still more to do to win the overall war.
No one mentioned this in Discovery Season 3. After a brief reference to Georgiou destroying the remains of Leland in the episode Far From Home, and a short conversation about Control with Admiral Vance in the episode Die Trying, their reasoning for going to the future was never discussed nor elaborated on. Burnham, when pressed about it by Book in That Hope Is You, maintained that it was the “only way” to save the galaxy, so she clearly hadn’t realised what was going on behind her – but that makes sense as she was busy operating the Red Angel suit and keeping the time-wormhole stable.
Saru and Pike have no such excuse, in my opinion. Both commanders clearly and demonstrably knew that Control and/or its fleet were incapacitated, and I believe that should have led to one or both of them bringing an immediate halt to events to take stock. If Control was disabled, there was no immediate need to head to the future. With Leland dead, the Sphere data was safe, at least temporarily. With the battle won, everyone could have taken a moment to breathe and assess the situation, perhaps planning to go to Section 31 HQ and permanently destroy whatever remained of Control. Instead, everyone simply sat back as Burnham and Discovery raced into an unknown future – a future, I would argue, they did not need to travel to.
There’s a way this could come back in either Discovery Season 4, Strange New Worlds Season 1, or both: if Saru and/or Pike realise that they made a big mistake.
Given what he went through to make the Red Angel suit possible, I would suggest the person this would affect the most would be Captain Pike. In the episode Through the Valley of Shadows, Pike obtained a time crystal from the Klingons, but did so at great personal sacrifice – solidifying for himself a future of permanent disability. How would he feel knowing that it was all for naught; that if he replays the events of the battle in his mind, he could see that Control was already beaten and that there was no need for the time crystal?
One theme Strange New Worlds is certainly going to pick up on is Pike’s knowledge of his impending disability. As a disabled person myself, this is something I’m really interested in seeing come to life on screen. I can relate to what Captain Pike is going through, because I’ve had the experience of sitting in a room with a doctor and being told things about my health and my future that are unavoidable. I get that sense of inevitability, of knowing things won’t get better but they will get worse. This is something genuinely interesting and that has the potential to be inspirational through Anson Mount’s wonderful portrayal of Pike. But I also wonder if we’ll see him wrestle with feelings of regret or remorse, feeling that his fate and future are his own fault. If he knows (or believes) that the battle was won in Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 without the need for time travel – and thus, without the need for the time crystal he sacrificed so much to obtain – will those feelings be worse for Pike?
Though we didn’t see much of this in Discovery Season 3, with Season 4 on the horizon there’s a chance for the circumstances of Discovery’s jump into the future to be revisited. Even if nobody aboard realised it at the time, it’s possible that someone will have subsequently had the revelation that their one-way trip to the future, sacrificing so much and leaving their loved ones behind, may not have been necessary. Perhaps this will become an issue for Captain Burnham or Saru, with a disgruntled crew member taking out their anger on them for forcing them into a post-Burn future that they didn’t have to inhabit.
So that’s it. My theory, based on what we saw in Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 is this: the defeat or disabling of Control toward the end of the battle means that Burnham and Discovery didn’t actually need to go to the far future – at least, not immediately. At the very least, pausing to take stock would have been worthwhile.
It seems possible to me that this could be brought back as a story point – even if it’s just in a relatively minor way, such as with a line or two of dialogue acknowledging it – in either Discovery or Strange New Worlds, as it’s a story which impacts major characters from both shows.
Having delved deeply into this battle from an in-universe point of view, now let’s step back and acknowledge that this is, in effect, a “plot hole” or production-side issue. The writers and producers of Discovery Season 2 wanted to send the ship and crew into the far future, partly due to negative fan feedback involving so-called canon problems during Season 1. But at the same time, they also wanted to make sure that the Control storyline was 100% wrapped up and concluded before Season 3 kicked off.
Unfortunately, in my opinion at least, the way they chose to accomplish those two goals has opened a plot hole. In the mad rush to wrap up Discovery Season 2 in what was already a feature-length episode, an inconsistency has been created within the plot of the show. If Burnham and Discovery had gone into the future, and in the final few minutes of the episode we saw Pike, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise finish defeating Control, there would be no problem. But because it was Georgiou, aboard Discovery, who killed Captain Leland, and because this unexplained link between Leland’s body and Control seems to have crippled the entire fleet, we have a problem.
Overall, for most viewers who don’t spend as much time thinking about (and nitpicking) Star Trek as much as I do, it probably passed by unnoticed. But even in 2019 I was having conversations with fellow viewers – including some who I would call “casual” viewers as opposed to hardcore Trekkies – who noticed this very issue. The fact that no one – not Pike, Spock, Number One, Georgiou, or Saru – thought to call off the journey to the future, even temporarily to assess the new facts, is a plot hole.
However, it’s a plot hole that could be plugged by incorporating it into future stories. Captain Pike could be affected by it, as previously mentioned. As could Spock or Number One on the Enterprise, as they saw the battle end before Burnham and Discovery entered the time-wormhole. It could also become an issue for anyone aboard the USS Discovery – perhaps with their mood and mental health suffering, they replay the events of the battle in their mind and come to the conclusion that they were forced to travel to the future unnecessarily. That’s my theory, anyway!
Whether any of that will come to pass, or whether both shows will proceed ignoring this issue is anyone’s guess right now. I would think that, if Discovery wanted to acknowledge this criticism, Season 3 would’ve been the time to do so, and the fact that it didn’t happen may mean that the writers and producers are keen to move on and put Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 behind them. But I’m not 100% convinced of that. I think there’s scope to incorporate what feels like a plot hole into the storylines of either upcoming show in a way that would make sense.
As I said at the beginning, this is something that’s been on my mind since I first saw the episode a couple of years ago! Even on first viewing, it seemed patently obvious to me that someone should have realised what was happening before Burnham and Discovery left, speaking up to put the brakes on. It really does feel that, based on the sequence of events and how they unfolded on screen, Burnham and Discovery could have remained in the 23rd Century.
Despite all of this over-analysing of a few minutes of the episode, I really enjoyed Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 – and Discovery Season 2 as a whole. It’s a fantastic season of television well worth a watch, and this theory, despite being something that’s bugged me for a while, is really just a glorified nitpick!
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The series is also available on Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery, Strange New Worlds, 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 1-3, Star Trek: Picard Season 1, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
During Star Trek: Discovery’s third season, I wrote a weekly series of theories, speculating about what may be going on with the show’s various storylines. I had some successes in my theories and predictions, but there were more than a few misses as well! Now that the season is in the rear-view mirror, I thought it could be fun to go back to some of my theories and see how wrong I was!
All of these theories seemed plausible at the time – for one reason or another – yet ultimately proved to be way off base. One thing I appreciate about Discovery – and a lot of other shows and films too, both within the Star Trek franchise and outside of it – is that sense of unpredictability. Nothing in Discovery Season 3 was mundane or felt like it had been blatantly telegraphed ahead of time, and the fact that the narrative took twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting was, on the whole, great! There were a couple of storylines I personally didn’t think were fantastic or handled very well, but on the whole, Discovery’s third season was an enjoyable ride.
Some of the theories I had were pure speculation based on nothing more than guesswork and intuition, and others seemed truly reasonable and plausible. While the season was ongoing I tended to just write up any theories I had, no matter how wild or out of left-field they seemed to be! Whether that was good or not… well the jury is out! The theory lists I published were well-read, so I assume at least some folks found something of interest!
I like to caveat these kinds of articles by saying that no fan theory, no matter how plausible or rational it may seem to be, is worth getting too attached to or upset about. The internet has been great for fan communities, allowing us to come together to discuss our favourite franchises and engage in a lot of theory-crafting. But there is a darker side to all of this, and some fans find themselves getting too attached to a particular theory to the point where their enjoyment of the actual narrative is diminished if that theory doesn’t pan out. Please try to keep in mind that I don’t have any “insider information,” and I’ve never tried to claim that a particular theory is somehow guaranteed to come true. I like writing, I like Star Trek, and writing about Star Trek is a fun activity for me – that’s why I do this, and if I ever felt that theorising about Discovery or other shows was harming my enjoyment, I would stop. And I encourage you to take a step back if you find yourself falling into that particular trap.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at ten of my least successful Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 theories!
Number 1: Cleveland Booker is a Coppelius synth.
When we met Book in That Hope Is You at the beginning of the season, it wasn’t at all clear who he was. However, there were inhuman elements to Book, such as his ability to heal, to use a holographic interface seemingly attached to his body, and glowing, almost electronic-looking areas on parts of his skin. With Book’s origin somewhat of a mystery, I wondered if he might turn out to be a synth – and specifically, a synth from the planet Coppelius (or one of their descendants).
We met the Coppelius synths in Star Trek: Picard Season 1, and I was hopeful as Discovery’s third season got underway that there’d be a serious attempt to connect the two shows – as this was something Picard wholly failed to do in its debut season. I’ve said numerous times that Star Trek needs to do more to bind different parts of the franchise together, and after Picard basically ignored Discovery, I was hoping for some kind of connection to manifest in Season 3. Booker being a synth could have been one way to do that.
So really, it’s not unfair to say that this theory was concocted more for production-side reasons than anything we saw on screen. Book’s abilities as we saw them in That Hope Is You (and subsequently in episodes like The Sanctuary, There Is A Tide, and That Hope Is You, Part 2) were clearly more organic and telepathic than anything artificial or technological in origin – except for his holographic computer interface. So perhaps this was always a bit of a stretch!
Booker turned out to be a Kwejian native – though what exactly that means is unclear. Given Book’s human appearance, it’s possible that the people of Kwejian are descendants or offshoots of humanity, or perhaps, given their telepathic nature, they’re somehow related to the Betazoids. In the season finale, Book promised Burnham he’d tell her more about his background, and how he came to use the name Cleveland Booker, so perhaps we’ll learn more about Book’s people in Season 4. He was a wonderful addition to the season, even if I was way off base with my theory about his possible origin!
Number 2: The Burn is connected to Michael Burnham – and/or the Red Angel suit.
The Burn’s origin was not definitively revealed and confirmed until the season finale, so for practically the entire season I was talking about some form of this theory! There seemed to be a few possible clues that Discovery gave us – which ultimately turned out to be red herrings as the Burn was unconnected to any of them – about the ultimate answer to the Burn, and several of them could have been interpreted to mean that Burnham was, in some way, connected to the event that shares part of her name.
The main reason I considered this theory plausible, though, was because Discovery has always been a series that put Burnham front-and-centre in all of its main storylines. Having a connection to the biggest story of the season thus seemed possible. When the event’s name was revealed, the fact that it shared part of her name seemed to lend credence to that idea – at least it did considering I’d already started down that rabbit hole!
That Hope Is You saw Burnham arrive in the future immediately following the events of Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 – the Season 2 finale. She took off her Red Angel suit and set it to self-destruct, but as we never saw the self-destruction for ourselves on screen, it was a bit of a mystery as to what became of the suit. In a future where time travel technology had been prohibited, the Red Angel suit may have been one of the last extant ways to travel through time, and would be incredibly valuable to factions like the Emerald Chain, so I reasoned that perhaps someone had intercepted the suit, and either intentionally or unintentionally caused the Burn.
I’m glad this one didn’t pan out, because it was nice to give Burnham a break! In the end, Burnham wasn’t strongly involved in the resolution to the Burn’s storyline, with that task being given to Saru, Dr Culber, Adira, and of course Su’Kal. After Burnham had just saved the galaxy by defeating the Control AI, there would have been an interesting ethical and philosophical dilemma for her if she had learned that her actions and/or the Red Angel suit had been responsible for the Burn – but it would’ve been hard to pull off and arguably too similar to the guilt she felt at the outbreak of the Federation-Klingon War in Season 1. So overall, it was an interesting theory well worth considering, but I’m glad it wasn’t true!
Number 3: The USS Discovery could arrive in the future before Burnham.
Time travel stories are complicated. Once the link between cause and effect is broken, almost anything becomes possible. Even though Burnham and the Red Angel suit were leading the way into the future, the mechanics of the time wormhole were not explained, and it was at least plausible to think that the USS Discovery might’ve arrived first.
I first posited this theory after the season premiere, and it seemed plausible for practically all of Far From Home too. One thing that could’ve happened, had this theory been correct, would be that Burnham would’ve been out of her element for a lot longer than just one episode. In That Hope Is You, we saw her completely awed by everything she saw, experiencing a completely new world for the first time. And that premise meant that we were seeing Burnham in a whole new way, not in control of the situation and having to rely on others instead of trying to shoulder all of the burden all of the time. Had the USS Discovery found her after the ship and crew had spent a year in the future instead of the other way around, Burnham could’ve been our point-of-view character for learning what was new and different, instead of reverting to type.
With both Red Angel suits gone, I doubt we’ll see the time-wormholes they could generate ever return either. But it would be interesting to get to know a little more about how that technology worked – would it even have been possible for the USS Discovery to arrive earlier than Burnham? Burnham arrived on the planet Hima, and Discovery arrived near a planet called the Colony, so considering the wormhole had two different exit points it seems possible to me anyway!
Because of the one-year time skip, we didn’t get to see much of Burnham’s exploits with Book in the 32nd Century prior to Discovery’s arrival. It would have been interesting to see either Burnham or the crew trying to learn more about their new home and the origins of the Burn, because in some ways it could be argued that we as the audience arrived with the first part of a story already complete. I kind of want to see that part for myself – and maybe we will in flashbacks in future seasons!
Number 4: Lieutenant Detmer is going to die.
One of my hopes going into Season 3 was that Discovery would finally spend some time with other members of the crew, and I was pleased that it happened. After two full seasons I felt that we hadn’t really got to know anything about people like Owosekun, Rhys, and Detmer, despite their being permanent fixtures on the bridge. Though not all of the less-prominent officers got big storylines this season, one who did was Detmer.
In the episode Far From Home, Detmer was thrown from her seat following the ship’s crash-landing. Concussed, she was sent to sickbay where, after a once-over, she was patched up and returned to work. However, there were hints – at least, what I considered to be hints – that all was not well with Discovery’s helm officer, and I wondered if her first significant storyline might in fact be the setup to her death. There just seemed to be so much foreshadowing!
Ultimately, however, Detmer’s storyline took a different path. I appreciate what it was trying to be – an examination of post-traumatic stress that ended with a positive and uplifting message showing Detmer “getting over it,” for want of a better expression – but because it wasn’t properly fleshed-out after Far From Home, with Detmer only given a handful of very brief scenes before her big turnaround in The Sanctuary, I just felt it was underdeveloped and didn’t quite hit the notes it wanted to. So despite a potentially interesting premise, the execution let this storyline down somewhat.
Especially after the way she was acting in Far From Home, I can’t have been the only one to predict an untimely end for Detmer! I heard several other theories that I considered to be very “out there,” such as Detmer’s implant being possessed by Control in the same manner as Ariam had been in Season 2, but I firmly believed the setup was foreshadowing her death due to injury rather than something of that nature. It’s probably good that it didn’t happen, as it leaves her a slightly more rounded character if the show wants to do more with her in future. However, there were several officers in the final trio of episodes who could’ve been killed off after the ship was captured by the Emerald Chain, including Detmer, and it feels somewhat like Discovery was playing it safe by not doing so. Aside from Ryn, no major hero characters lost their lives in Season 3, and while character deaths aren’t something I desperately want in a show like this, they can certainly raise the stakes.
Number 5: The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager (or rather, a backup copy of him) will make an appearance.
This was my most popular pre-season theory! I stuck with it practically the whole time, and branched out to include a handful of other characters from past iterations of Star Trek who could, in theory, still be alive by the 32nd Century. By the standards of my modest website, an absolutely huge number of you read this theory – and it continues to be popular even today, despite the season having concluded months ago. So I wasn’t the only one half-guessing, half-hoping that the Doctor might be included in Discovery!
The reason why I considered the Doctor to be one of the most plausible characters who could make an appearance is because of an episode from Voyager’s fourth season: Living Witness. In that episode, a backup copy of the Doctor was activated sometime in the 30th or 31st Centuries after being discovered among museum artefacts, and while the story was interesting in its own right and a critique of how things we consider to be “historical facts” can shift over time, what really interested me was its timeframe and its ending.
At the end of Living Witness, in a scene set even farther into the future, it was revealed that, after living with the Kyrians and Vaskans in the Delta Quadrant for decades, the Doctor eventually took a small ship and set out to try to reach Earth. If he had survived and completed his journey, he could’ve reached Earth in the years prior to the arrival of Burnham and Discovery. The timelines lined up for a possible crossover.
However, it wasn’t to be! Though we did see the return of the Guardian of Forever, which had originally appeared in The Original Series, no major characters from any other Star Trek show made an appearance. Perhaps the producers and writers felt that, with Seven of Nine carrying the torch for Voyager with her appearances in Season 1 of Picard, including a second main character from Voyager in a new show would’ve been too much, or at least that the timing was wrong. Regardless, I think it would’ve been amazing to see, and despite this theory failing to pan out in Season 3, it’s one I may very well bring back in time for Season 4!
Number 6: There will be a resolution to the story of the Short Treks episode Calypso.
Poor Calypso. I’m beginning to feel that the Short Treks episode is doomed to be a permanent outlier in the Star Trek canon, evidently connected to a version of Season 2 that never made it to screen. Broadcast in the months before Discovery’s second season, Calypso introduced us to Craft, a soldier from the far future fighting a war against the “V’draysh.” We also got to meet Zora, an AI who was the sole inhabitant of a long-abandoned USS Discovery.
Here’s where things get confusing. Season 3 saw some moves toward Calypso, including the apparent creation of Zora from a merger of the Sphere data with Discovery’s computer. The voice actress from Calypso even reprised her role, although the name “Zora” wasn’t mentioned. We also heard the villainous Zareh use the term “V’draysh” to refer to the rump Federation – seemingly confirming that Calypso must be set in roughly this same era.
However, we also saw some big moves away from Calypso as well. The most significant one is that the USS Discovery has undergone a refit. While this isn’t readily apparent from the ship’s interior – something I really hope changes in Season 4 – it was very apparent from the exterior of the ship. Calypso showed off a pre-refit Discovery, which means that resolving the story of this short episode feels further away than ever.
As I mentioned in the intro, it seems clear that Calypso was originally written with a different version of Season 2 in mind – perhaps even to serve as a kind of epilogue in the event that Season 2 would be Discovery’s last. Even going into Such Sweet Sorrow – the two-part finale of Season 2 – the possibility of hiding the ship in a nebula, as depicted in Calypso, existed, and with a few changes and tweaks to the season finale, Calypso would have been a natural epilogue to that story. That’s what I think happened on the production side of things, anyway. With the storyline of Season 2 up in the air, a somewhat ambiguous short episode was created to serve as a potential epilogue if the show was cancelled. Discovery wasn’t cancelled, though, and now the writers have to find a way to square this particularly tricky circle. Or they might just try to ignore it!
Number 7: The Spore Drive will become Starfleet’s new method of propulsion.
When it became apparent that warp drive in the 32nd Century was very difficult due to the lack of dilithium and the aftereffects of the Burn, I thought the writers and producers of Discovery had played a masterstroke by finally finding a way for the show’s most controversial piece of technology to play a major role.
The Spore Drive, which was introduced in Season 1, received a mixed reaction from fans. Some insisted that it “violates canon” by allowing a 23rd Century starship to effectively travel anywhere in the galaxy, and others wondered why the technology had never been mentioned in settings where it would have logically been useful – such as to the crew of the USS Voyager, stranded tens of thousands of light-years from home! Though I would suggest that many of the fans who felt this way about the Spore Drive also had other gripes with Discovery, by pushing forward in time there was an opportunity to expand the role of the Spore Drive in a way that wouldn’t undermine anything in Star Trek’s established canon.
The dilithium shortage the galaxy is experiencing, made a hundred times worse by the Burn, seemed to offer an opportunity to expand the role of the Spore Drive. And at first, Starfleet did seem to be keen on making use of it. However, despite Discovery’s extensive retrofit, the Spore Drive remained aboard the ship and Starfleet seems to have made no attempt to copy it or roll it out to any of their other vessels. The huge planet-sized cache of dilithium in the Verubin Nebula has also solved – at least in the short-term – the galaxy’s fuel problem, so there’s less of a need from Starfleet’s perspective to invest in recreating the Spore Drive, despite its seemingly unlimited potential.
Perhaps this will be picked up in Season 4, especially with Book’s ability to use the Spore Drive getting around the last hurdle in the way of a broader rollout. There was potential, I felt, for the dilithium shortage and Burn storylines to parallel real world climate change and how we’re slowly running out of oil, but the Verubin Nebula’s dilithium planet kind of squashed any real-world analogy! Again, though, this is something that could potentially return in Season 4.
Number 8: Dr Issa is a descendant of Saru’s sister Siranna.
The Short Treks episode The Brightest Star was broadcast in between Seasons 1 and 2, and introduced us to Saru’s sister Siranna. She returned in Season 2, in the episodes The Sound of Thunder and Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2. In Season 3, the same actress who played Siranna also appeared as Dr Issa – the commander of the crashed Kelpien ship in the Verubin Nebula and the mother of Su’Kal.
Because of this production-side coincidence, as well as Saru’s incredibly strong reaction to seeing Dr Issa in holographic form, I speculated that Dr Issa could be a descendant of Siranna, and thus a great-great-niece to Saru. That familial tie could have explained why Saru found himself so emotionally compromised during the final few episodes of the season, and why he risked everything to help Su’Kal.
However, it seems that this was little more than casting coincidence! Perhaps it was easier for the producers to work with someone who was already familiar with the Kelpiens – and Kelpien prosthetic makeup – instead of casting a new actress for the role. Or perhaps it was deliberate – presenting Saru with someone superficially similar to Siranna to push him emotionally. Regardless, this theory didn’t pan out.
It could have been interesting to see Saru coming face-to-face with a distant relative, and it could’ve added to the Su’Kal storyline. However, in the time allotted to Saru’s exploits in the Verubin Nebula, it would have been difficult to add this additional emotional element and have it properly developed, so perhaps it’s for the best!
Number 9: The holographic “monster” is either Dr Issa or the real Su’Kal.
The episode Su’Kal pushed hard for a creepy “haunted castle” aesthetic when depicting Su’Kal’s holographic world, and a big part of that was the holographic “monster.” The monster seemed like a very odd inclusion in a holo-programme designed for a young child, and even though an attempt was made to excuse it by saying it was an old Kelpien legend, I wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t something else going on.
Additionally, the monster didn’t behave or appear like any of the other decaying holograms. After decades of continuous use, Su’Kal’s holographic world was falling apart. Many of the holograms were flickering or fading, and they were quite basic in what they could say or do. In contrast, the monster moved with a natural, organic fluidity, and didn’t flicker or appear in any way artificial – even as the holographic world disintegrated around it.
The Verubin Nebula’s radiation was said to be fatal, but in horror and sci-fi radiation is often seen to cause mutations. Given the monster’s vaguely Kelpien appearance and dishevelled, decrepit, morbid look, I wondered if it was actually the real Su’Kal – or Dr Issa – having mutated and decayed after decades in the hostile nebula. The final piece of evidence I added to this little pile was the strange way that the monster interacted with Burnham in the episode Su’Kal – it seemed curious about her, perceiving her in a way I thought was almost human.
Despite all of that, however, the monster turned out to be exactly what the crew believed it to be: just another part of the holo-programme. This theory was quite “out there,” as it would’ve been a big twist on what we as the audience were expecting. There were hints that I felt could have built up the monster to be something more, but ultimately these turned out to be red herrings!
Number 10: Season 3 is taking place in an alternate timeline or parallel universe.
Over the course of the first two-thirds or so of Season 3, there seemed to be breadcrumbs that at least hinted at the possibility that Burnham and Discovery had crossed over to a parallel universe or alternate timeline. The biggest one was the initial absence of Dr Gabrielle Burnham, but there was also the strange piece of music that seemed to be connected to the Burn, the fact that the time-wormhole didn’t take Burnham and the ship to their intended destination of Terralysium, and a couple of hints from Voyager (as mentioned above) and Enterprise that could have been interpreted to mean the Burn never happened in the timeline depicted in those older shows.
There was also the possibility that the Burn was caused by the interference of time travellers. The resolution to that storyline could have been for Burnham and Discovery to go back in time and prevent the Burn from ever happening – restoring the “true” timeline and undoing the Burn. Both of these theories seemed plausible for much of the season.
I’m glad, though, that neither theory came to pass! “It’s a parallel universe” is almost akin to “it was all a dream” in terms of being a pretty lazy excuse for storylines in sci-fi, and the idea of undoing the Burn, while interesting in theory, would have effectively wiped out all of the good deeds Saru, Burnham, and the crew did across Season 3, like helping the peoples of Trill, Earth, Ni’Var, and Kwejian. So it was to the show’s overall benefit to stick firmly to the prime timeline.
Doing so is actually rather bold. Discovery took Star Trek to some very different thematic places in Season 3, largely thanks to the Burn and its lingering effects, and I could understand the temptation to brush all of that aside. We still got some parallel universe action in the two-part episode Terra Firma, which revisited the Mirror Universe. With the Burn now in the rear-view mirror and Discovery moving on to new adventures, perhaps it will be possible for Star Trek to establish the 32nd Century as a major new setting, allowing Discovery Season 3 to be the springboard for a host of new shows and films.
So that’s it. Ten of my worst Discovery Season 3 theories!
Though we can debate some of the story points across Season 3 – and I still haven’t written my big piece about the Burn yet – overall I think Season 3 did a good job of establishing the show in its new setting. The Burn presented a tantalising mystery to solve, and for the first time in the series, it felt as though more members of the crew had significant roles to play in the season’s main storylines.
So I hope this look back was a bit of fun! Stay tuned, because as and when we get news about Season 4 I’ll be taking a look here on the website, and when the season premieres later this year I’ll be reviewing every episode… and probably coming up with a few more theories!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now in its entirety on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, and for other iterations of the franchise.
Two years on from its announcement, we don’t know very much about the upcoming Section 31 series. It doesn’t even have an official title – we all assume it will be some variant of Star Trek: Section 31, but even that much has never been confirmed. Both Strange New Worlds and Prodigy were announced after the Section 31 series but have been given titles and have even seen major announcements.
Perhaps the lack of news is caused, in part, by main character Philippa Georgiou (the Mirror Universe version) being part of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season. There may have been a desire to avoid spoiling her storyline and ultimate fate, which is commendable – if true! However, there have also been rumours – which we must look at with a healthy dose of scepticism – that seem to suggest the scripts have undergone re-writes which may have contributed to the delay.
It’s been a while since I looked at the Section 31 series in any depth – though I have touched on it on a number of occasions in relation to Discovery – and despite the lack of anything concrete, now seems as good a time as any, so what I thought I’d do is put together a nice internet-friendly list and go over a few options for the series and what it could include.
Number 1: Some James Bond-style action.
You don’t make a series based around Starfleet’s answer to MI6 and not use it to tell some great action stories… do you? Spies work in the shadows, but no one wants to see Georgiou and her new crew sat behind desks listening in on subspace messages like a futuristic NSA. We want to see them out in the field, on dangerous black-ops assignments, making full use of their licenses to kill.
Section 31 is supposed to be the no-holds-barred last line of defence for the Federation, so action should be on the agenda. We could see them sabotaging spaceships, assassinating rogue planetary leaders, and chasing supervillains halfway across the universe. It should be sufficiently over-the-top, too, or we’ll be left wondering why Starfleet security couldn’t handle things!
Number 2: Enter the Picard time period.
When Georgiou stepped into the Guardian of Forever’s portal in the Discovery third season episode Terra Firma, Part II, her destination was not clear. The Guardian merely said that he was sending her to a time period where the Mirror and Prime universes were closely aligned. Many have assumed that her destination is the 23rd Century – and everything we’ve heard so far suggests the series takes place then. But what if that isn’t the plan?
When I wrote up a shortlist of possible time periods during Discovery’s third season I suggested that, rather than the 23rd Century as predicted, Georgiou may instead arrive at the beginning of the 25th, the era in which Picard is set. This would connect all three eras that Star Trek currently has on the go (at least in live-action). Georgiou would be the one character who has spent time with Pike – soon to be of Strange New Worlds – as well as Burnham in the 32nd Century and potentially Picard – or someone else we met in that series.
Finding some way to tie the disparate parts of Star Trek together is a challenge facing the current creative team. At the moment, every ongoing Star Trek project occupies a different place in the timeline, with precious little binding them together beyond a brand name and some general themes. It’s not that I’m concerned about this as a creative decision – as a Trekkie I quite like seeing different eras and settings. But from the point of view of Star Trek’s general audience this starts to look convoluted to the point of being offputting. The franchise needs those casual viewers in order to remain profitable and successful, so simplifying the timeline would be one of my top priorities.
At the very least, I would hope that the Section 31 series doesn’t end up in a distinct time period of its own!
Number 3: A great supporting cast.
Michelle Yeoh is a fine actress, but she can’t carry the series all by herself. Georgiou will need people around her, especially if she finds herself once again caught in a new time period.
These characters can’t all be morally ambiguous, butt-kicking super-spies either. Georgiou already fills that kind of role, so we’ll need to see some diversity in the personalities she works with. Each will also need a distinct role in the organisation – and here we leave the basic Star Trek formula behind. Even if the series is set aboard a single ship, the usual crew roster of a captain, doctor, scientist, and engineer won’t really fit with the kind of stories the Section 31 show could and should be telling.
Instead we’ll need to see roles closer to those in a series like Agents of SHIELD or the aforementioned Bond films – mission specialists, weapon and gadget experts, hackers/technology experts, as well as scientists, spies, and a commander to tie the team together. Georgiou may be the commander – but she could still have a superior to answer to; the overall head of Section 31.
There could be roles of that nature for half a dozen characters or more, and like Picard did, the show could expand beyond Starfleet to pick up a wide array of unique and interesting people.
Number 4: Moral ambiguity.
You’ve heard of the internet’s favourite philosophical question: the “trolley problem.” Would you be willing to actively kill one person to save the lives of several? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – even if that means murdering the few? These are the kinds of questions Section 31 has the answer to – and it’s a solid “yes.”
In Deep Space Nine, Section 31 poisoned the Founders of the Dominion with a virus that they were unable to cure, potentially committing genocide against the changelings in pursuit of ending the destructive Dominion War. Whether it’s a season-long story arc or a single episode, I want to come away from the Section 31 show at least once wondering if the ends justified the means.
These people are not Starfleet – and they cannot let such things as Federation morality, the laws of war, or anything else get in the way of their objectives.
Number 5: A mix of standalone stories with a season-long arc.
One thing that Discovery really managed to do well in Season 3 was blending standalone stories with its season-long plotlines. Strange New Worlds has promised something similar, and it would be great if the Section 31 show was likewise a mix. Picard showed that telling a single story across one season can be a lot of fun… but it also showed how that story has to really stick the landing to avoid feeling disappointing. A blend of episodic and serialised storytelling seems to be the direction of travel for Star Trek at the moment, and that’s probably for the best.
For example, we could see season-long character arcs which develop Georgiou and some of her fellow Section 31 operatives, while telling a handful of smaller one- or two-episode stories depicting some of their missions. There could be ongoing stories – like Discovery’s Burn or the search for the Federation – but allowing each episode (or at least some episodes) to stand on their own.
Number 6: A fun new starship design.
Lower Decks gave us the California-class USS Cerritos. Picard gave us La Sirena. Discovery gave us the Crossfield-class USS Discovery. Along the way we’ve seen a few other neat starship designs, and in many ways the ship itself is a major part of any Star Trek show. Thus whatever ship the Section 31 folks use will need to look awesome.
The design used for the Section 31 ship in Discovery Season 2 may come back – I did note in Season 2 that a whole set had been built for that ship’s multi-level operations centre, so perhaps we can infer from that that we’ll see Georgiou on a similar vessel. There’s scope to redesign the craft, however, especially if the Section 31 series doesn’t return to the 23rd Century.
Though Star Trek has done one series set aboard a space station, the nature of Section 31 suggests the possibility of black ops missions all across the galaxy – and for that they’ll need a ship. Modern Star Trek has done well with ship designs, in my opinion, and I’m hopeful for another great one this time around.
Number 7: Why did Georgiou not warn Section 31 about the Burn?
If Section 31 don’t care about the Prime Directive, surely they don’t care about its temporal equivalent either. It’s obvious that Georgiou won’t and can’t warn Section 31 about the impending Burn – but I think seeing her wrangle with that decision would be interesting.
Georgiou has a unique relationship with Michael Burnham, and her reasoning for never mentioning the Burn to anyone in this pre-Burn era may be simple: to avoid contaminating or changing the timeline Michael is currently living in. Doing so could have serious repercussions, and perhaps we’ll see her learn about that and come to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to put Michael in danger.
Or it could simply be that Georgiou does not care about the impending future devastation of the Federation!
Number 8: If returning to the 23rd Century, reunite with Captain Pike.
As mentioned above, the time period in which the Section 31 series will be set has not yet been confirmed. In some ways, the 23rd Century does not fit the Guardian of Forever’s statement that he was sending Georgiou to a time when the Mirror and Prime universes were in alignment – we know from what we’ve seen of the Mirror Universe in this era that it is very different! However, returning her to the 23rd Century would cure the fatal technobabble illness she was suffering from in Discovery, so it remains a likely option.
If she returns, I’d love to see her surprise Captain Pike. As far as Pike knows, she has forever left the 23rd Century, so it would be a shock to see her return! She could convey a message from Saru and Burnham to him, if she felt like it, but she could also be on a secret Section 31 mission where she needs the help of Pike, Spock, and the Enterprise – connecting the Section 31 show to Strange New Worlds.
Number 9: A time-loop storyline involving Kovich.
Why did Kovich – the ambiguous character played by David Cronenberg in Discovery’s third season – not warn Georgiou about the ailment she was about to experience? Why did he take a personal interest in debriefing her? Whether Kovich is a Section 31 operative or not, he’s clearly a high-ranking Federation official with a high security clearance. Georgiou may have been able to send a message to him by preserving it in Section 31.
This would explain some of Kovich’s actions in Discovery – such as why he didn’t tell Georgiou her health was about to suffer. He may have received the message from her at just the right moment, explaining exactly what he needed to do to ensure she would be sent back in time by the Guardian of Forever. If he’s working for Section 31 himself this would make more sense, but even if not it would be an interesting time-loop story.
Number 10: Bridge the gap between Discovery and Deep Space Nine.
Section 31 in Deep Space Nine was so deep underground that even Starfleet captains like Benjamin Sisko were not aware of its existence. All records of the organisation – which was relatively out in the open in the Discovery era – seem to have been purged, and memory of the organisation forgotten even by Starfleet. How did this happen? And why? That’s something the Section 31 series could explain.
I don’t think we need to go all-out on this one story point. It would be enough to show the organisation disappearing and heading underground, perhaps forcing senior Starfleet admirals to make its existence classified. We don’t need a repeat of Enterprise’s Klingon augment virus, perhaps showing Section 31 using Men In Black-style memory erasers on everyone who ever encountered them! Assuming the Section 31 series is set in this time period, at least paying lip service to the fact that the organisation has been depicted very differently in the past would be sufficient.
So that’s it. A short wishlist, or collection of ideas that the untitled Section 31 series could adopt.
It may be a while before we see Georgiou and the Section 31 show. Discovery Season 4 is currently filming, with Picard and Strange New Worlds both set to start filming sometime soon too. While there’s nothing to stop multiple shows being produced simultaneously, with the pandemic proving disruptive and with the two animated shows also being worked on, Section 31 may simply be at the back of the queue. I doubt we’ll see it premiere this year – but who knows, I’ve been wrong about such things before!
Speaking of being wrong – this entire list may be. I don’t claim to have any “insider information,” and as we’re so far away from seeing anything at all from the Section 31 show it may be futile to wish and speculate about what may be included. As always, I encourage you to be sceptical of anyone making such a claim, and also to keep in mind that no fan theory or wish is worth getting upset or worked up over.
With Georgiou having departed Discovery, the stage is set for the Section 31 series. Despite not being particularly excited about it at first, I think there’s potential here to tell some interesting – and perhaps quite different – stories set in the Star Trek universe. I’m interested to see what the franchise can do with a Bond-esque spy thriller.
The untitled Section 31 series currently has no broadcast date scheduled. However, it will almost certainly premiere on Paramount+ in the United States, Australia, and other countries and territories where the service is available. Further international distribution has not been announced. The Star Trek franchise – including the Section 31 series, Discovery, and all other titles 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 Season 3, including the finale.
Something interesting happened as I was going back over the Season 3 finale of Star Trek: Discovery, and it turns out I’m not the only person who noticed it. After the main storylines of That Hope Is You, Part 2 were over, we were launched into a short epilogue which tried to wrap up a few other plot points from across the season. At the end of this epilogue, Burnham was promoted by Admiral Vance and assumed command of the USS Discovery.
On what we assume is her first outing as captain, Burnham arrives on the bridge to be greeted by an honour guard made up of senior officers, bridge crew, and other characters from the season. Among them was, of course, Tilly. If you were eagle-eyed during her brief moment on screen you might’ve spotted that she’s apparently been promoted to the rank of lieutenant – a well-earned promotion after her efforts throughout all three seasons of the series, and not what this controversy is about!
Look at the close-up image of Tilly above. She, along with the rest of the crew, have been given new uniforms. These uniforms are grey with a coloured stripe on the right of the tunic (or jacket) denoting departments. Tilly’s is blue, which makes sense because she’s a science officer. But do you see something off about the blue stripe on her uniform?
I confess that I didn’t at first. When I watched That Hope Is You, Part 2 for the first and second times, and again when I went back to the episode to capture still-frames for my review and theory post I completely missed it. The excitement and emotion of this moment, coupled with Tilly only being on screen for a scant couple of seconds, meant I missed it entirely – but look closely. The coloured stripe is clearly the result of digital post-production work.
Looking at it now it seems painfully obvious. It wouldn’t be Discovery’s first digital effect that missed the mark in Season 3 – remember when Mirror Burnham was stabbed in Terra Firma, Part II? But it raises two quite interesting questions: what colour was her uniform originally, and why was it changed at the last minute?
It’s possible that this literally was a last-second change; the low quality of the texture used for the blue stripe may mean it was something thrown together in a matter of days, and this makes me wonder if the change is indicative of Discovery switching things up while the season was already in motion.
By the season finale, Tilly was acting first officer aboard Discovery. With the departure of Saru, Burnham has assumed command on what seems to be a permanent basis – but who will be her XO? That wasn’t addressed, but given their close relationship I wouldn’t be shocked if Discovery originally intended for Burnham to retain Tilly in that post also on a permanent basis. The awkward blue stripe may have been covering up a red stripe on her uniform – red denoting the command division.
Tilly becoming first officer was not a popular point, as far as I can tell from my limited interactions with the Star Trek fan community. It didn’t bother me personally, though seen in the context of the season as a whole I’d argue that perhaps Burnham’s ascent to the captaincy didn’t need the bump in the road of disobeying orders and losing her role as XO. But considering that there was some degree of pushback from fans to Tilly’s role, could that explain this seemingly slapdash digital work?
There are no immediately obvious first officer candidates among Discovery’s cast, yet in Season 4 the ship will certainly need one. A new character could be introduced, of course, or a secondary character could be promoted. But it seems at least possible that the original plan was for Tilly to stay in that post. If those plans were changed, the question is why?
The reaction from viewers seems a good bet, but considering that this was not a huge story point in Season 3 it seems at least a little peculiar for the producers and writers to go out of their way to undo it in such an odd fashion so late in the season. But it’s also possible that the storyline of Season 4 requires either a new first officer or for Tilly to be in a scientific role.
There could also be a simpler explanation: Tilly was originally wearing blue, but the low lighting on the bridge (which has been an issue at points for Discovery since Season 1) made her uniform look too dark in the finished shot. Rather than lighten the entire sequence the creative team tried to digitally recolour part of her uniform. Tilly is standing in a shadowy part of the set, so that’s a possibility.
However, that should have been known well in advance, and if it were changed for that reason it leaves the open question of why the finished effect looks so amateurish! It almost looks as though whoever worked on this retouching of her uniform simply pasted a single flat colour across the whole uniform stripe. If there had been time, you’d think that someone would have insisted that the digital effects team fix it before the episode was broadcast.
So it’s a minor mystery. What happened with Tilly’s uniform, and is it connected in any way to the minor backlash from some viewers to her role as first officer? We may never know!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the franchise.
At the end of September, with Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery looming on the horizon, I published my “wishlist” of things I hoped to see in the upcoming season. Now that we’ve seen the entirety of Season 3 I thought it would be fun to go back to that wishlist and see whether my wishes came true – and, on reflection, whether I was being reasonable!
I had eight items on my original wishlist, but I’m also going to talk about a couple of other points that came up either before or during the season that I didn’t include.
Though not everything I hoped to see came to pass in Season 3, I had a good time with it overall. Whether we’re discussing Star Trek or any other fictional franchise, success is not always about meeting specific expectations or confirming fan theories, and the writers and producers need to have the freedom to tell the stories that they want to tell. Star Trek has gone in directions I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, but that’s true of every iteration from The Original Series to Picard, and it doesn’t mean that what made it to screen was bad. Like a lot of viewers, I like to be surprised – even if I spend a lot of time talking about theories!
All of this is to say that Discovery Season 3 met my expectations in some ways, challenged those expectations in others, and told some different but enjoyable stories. Though I enjoyed some points more than others, taken as a whole the season was solid, and a worthy successor to Season 2, which had been my favourite. Taking the show – and the franchise – forward in time was always going to be a challenge, but Discovery rose to meet it.
Let’s jump into my pre-season wishlist and see what became of it.
Number 1: Some kind of tie-in with Star Trek: Picard. Wish: Granted ✅
This was perhaps the point I was most curious about. Because of its place in the Star Trek timeline, Discovery in its first two seasons had been unable to include significant references to anything other than Enterprise and The Original Series. We saw precious little from Enterprise, but from the first episode we had some major crossovers from The Original Series by way of Sarek, and later Spock and Pike.
But The Original Series, despite its importance within Star Trek, ended decades ago. While it was possible to recast classic characters, there wasn’t as much to be gained by doing so – and it proved divisive within some areas of the fandom. Picard, by contrast, is in production at the same time as Discovery, and Season 3’s leap forward in time allowed it to connect to its sister show in ways that no Star Trek production has been able to do for a long time.
I had two very early theories for how this could have worked. The first, which had been debunked even before it was written, was that Discovery would – thanks to time travel shenanigans – end up in the same era as Picard; the ship and crew being unable to complete their 930-year time jump. The second would have been for the super-synths from the Picard Season 1 finale to have been involved with the Burn.
Neither of those ideas came to pass, and I’m not disappointed – though I do maintain that the USS Discovery arriving in the Picard era would have been a fun way to go! Instead what we saw was a direct reference to Admiral Picard’s archive – which we saw in the Picard Season 1 premiere – and the return of the Qowat Milat. I didn’t expect the Qowat Milat to be the way the shows would connect, but it worked very well. It managed to be unobtrusive – nothing in Unification III made Picard Season 1 mandatory viewing – yet at the same time there was a very definite nod by Discovery to its sister show.
The only downside was that the Picard crossover was limited really to a single episode. There wasn’t room within the Ni’Var storyline for anything further, and while the united Romulans and Vulcans were seen briefly in the season finale, we didn’t see the return of the Qowat Milat or Dr Burnham. However, her presence within that convent means we could potentially see her in Season 4, and if there is some significant advancement of the Qowat Milat storyline in Picard Season 2 that could be referenced then – or vice versa.
Placing Dr Burnham in the Qowat Milat was a very random choice in many ways, and while it succeeded from a shock value point of view perhaps we could argue that it’s not a very logical outcome for her character. But I wished for a tie-in with Star Trek: Picard, and there’s no denying that Discovery delivered!
Number 2: A reference, callback, or hint to something from Star Trek: Lower Decks. Wish: Denied 🚫
The original plan for 2020 – before the pandemic disrupted things – was for Discovery Season 3 to be released before Lower Decks, so perhaps with that in mind it makes sense that there wasn’t so much as a reference to the animated show. However, as I said above, finding ways to tie together the Star Trek projects which are currently in production is to the benefit of the franchise overall – even if the projects are as radically different as Lower Decks and Discovery.
There was the potential for something as small as the name of a planet or faction to crop up in both shows; what would have seemed like a throwaway line of dialogue could have actually been a subtle nod to the existence of Lower Decks within Discovery, even if a more significant crossover was never on the table. Perhaps this is something that could happen in Season 4, though, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed!
Number 3: A storyline that doesn’t make Michael Burnham the “chosen one.” Wish: Granted ✅
Seasons 1 and 2 of Discovery put Burnham front-and-centre, making her the focal point of their main storylines. In both cases, Burnham alone was responsible for driving the plot forward, and it could often feel as though other characters weren’t permitted to do anything significant. Season 3 came close to falling into that same trap, especially early on, but by the final part of the season had stepped back. Other characters, including Tilly and Saru, were given significant roles to play, and the show was much better for it.
Burnham wasn’t even really involved with the season’s main storyline after the halfway point. Though she was instrumental in getting background information regarding the Burn, after Unification III it was Tilly, Stamets, Adira, Saru, and Dr Culber who took the lead on that side of the story. The final pair of episodes, in which Su’Kal was saved and a reoccurrence of the Burn prevented, had Burnham involved in a completely different storyline.
There were all sorts of ways that Discovery’s writers and producers could have tried to push Burnham once again as the “chosen one,” not least by having her involved with the Burn in some way. Until the final few episodes this seemed to be a possibility, and I’m so glad that it didn’t happen. The revelation that Burnham and her mother were two different Red Angels was not really the best part of Season 2, and I was concerned that Discovery might try to pull off something similar with the Burn.
Though Burnham had some issues this season – notably in the episode Scavengers – which amplified some of her least-attractive character traits, the second half of the season worked very hard to get her to a point where her ascent to the captaincy of Discovery felt earned and genuinely great. By putting her in a series of stories that didn’t put her at the centre of the universe, and by allowing other characters to have agency over those stories as well, Discovery broke away from its Burnham obsession just enough to finally allow the character to shine.
Number 4: A proper explanation for “the Burn.” Wish: Granted ✅
At some point in the future we’ll take a look at the Burn, debating the implications and how well the storyline worked. For now, suffice to say that I was concerned that Discovery might try to get away with never revealing the Burn’s origins. Sometimes this is the way stories unfold when an apocalyptic event or disaster takes place decades before the main storyline. However, as I wrote in my original wishlist:
“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.”
It took a long time to figure out the Burn, and along the way Burnham and the crew had different adventures that either advanced that narrative in a minimal way or didn’t advance it at all. Again, this is something we can debate – given the Burn’s ultimate reveal it’s certainly arguable that dragging it out for the whole season wasn’t the best idea.
But at the end of the day, whether you liked the reveal of the Burn’s origin or not, its origin was revealed. And it wasn’t something obvious, nor some sci-fi trope that could’ve been part of any other franchise. There’s a weirdness to the Burn’s telepathic origin that could really only be part of Star Trek, and despite my criticisms of the storyline overall, I like that. The fact that it wasn’t predictable was fun, and for such an important event it needed an explanation. I’m glad it got one – even if it wasn’t one I’d necessarily have chosen.
Number 5: No main villain. Wish: Denied 🚫
Though Osyraa and the Emerald Chain were not connected to the Burn, she acted as the main villain in the latter part of the season. After Control had been such a big presence in Season 2, I felt that breaking away from having one main villain in favour of scientific mysteries and perhaps a couple of single-episode antagonists would have been preferable.
Though Osyraa did see some interesting development in There Is A Tide, that development was never really expanded upon. The revelation in the season’s epilogue that the Emerald Chain had “fractured” without her strong leadership makes all of that meaningless anyway; Osyraa ended up being nothing more than a forgettable adversary who was a significant hurdle for a couple of episodes, but little more.
The most significant storyline she was part of also happens to be one of my least-favourite action tropes. When Osyraa and the Emerald Chain captured the USS Discovery at the end of Su’Kal, it was obviously only a matter of time until the ship was retaken, and so it proved. Burnham and Osyraa got a climactic hero-versus-villain fight in the season finale, and it was decently exciting from that point of view, but there was nothing particularly new or inventive about Osyraa herself.
In light of the Emerald Chain seemingly disbanding, any ongoing impact Osyraa could’ve had on the show is nullified, and perhaps that’s for the best. I stand by what I said before the season premiered: some stories don’t need a “big bad” in order to work well. The Burn was a scientific mystery to unravel, and rebuilding the Federation was something to be accomplished diplomatically. Osyraa and the Emerald Chain were, at best, a minor hurdle to achieving those goals, but nothing more. That said, the action scenes in the final two episodes were very exciting, and I’m glad we got to see that side of Discovery this season – something that couldn’t have happened without Osyraa.
Number 6: Proper development of some secondary characters. Wish: Granted ✅
After two full seasons, there were still a lot of secondary characters on Discovery’s crew that we barely knew. Though Season 3 didn’t have time to focus on everyone – and I wouldn’t have expected it to – we did finally get to spend more time with some of these officers. In addition we got the new character of Adira and their phantom partner Gray to further pad out the cast. And who could forget Grudge, the adorable fluffball kitty of Book’s?
In Season 2, Ariam got one episode of character development before being unceremoniously killed off, and I was a little concerned that Season 3 might take the same approach – turning some of the secondary characters into glorified redshirts. When helm officer Detmer was the focus of part of the episode Far From Home I felt sure she was next on the chopping block – but it didn’t happen!
Detmer and Owosekun saw some decent development this season, and we spent a little time with Rhys, Bryce, and Nilsson as well. And of course we got the aforementioned Gray and Adira. Nhan actress Rachael Ancheril was promoted to the regular cast, but seemingly left the series in Die Trying shortly thereafter. There was a lot of potential in her character, which could have seen future episodes looking at the Barzans, for example. I’m hopeful Nhan can return – even if it doesn’t look like it right now.
Among the regular cast, almost everyone had a significant arc or a lot of screen time this season. Only Stamets felt under-used, as major roles were given to Saru, Tilly, Dr Culber, and Georgiou at various points. Most characters now have a solid base or framework to build upon in future seasons and stories, and I hope that Discovery will continue to work with a broader cast going forward.
Number 7: Fix the Stamets-Culber relationship. Wish: Granted ✅
Discovery’s emotional core is provided by Dr Culber and Stamets. Where Burnham’s romantic life has been a rollercoaster ride, Stamets and Culber offered stability. Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz have wonderful on-screen chemistry which makes their characters such a cute couple, and it was sad to see them having troubles after Culber’s stint lost in the mycelial network.
I was hopeful that Season 3 would bring them back together in a big way, and it happened within minutes of their arrival in the future. Dr Culber helped Stamets in sickbay after the latter had been injured, and the “relationship on the rocks” storyline was dropped. Discovery never looked back after that, and while abandoned storylines can be an issue, this one never really worked so I’m happy to see the back of it.
As a show with plenty of drama and tension, Discovery didn’t really need to throw its only solid couple into difficulties as an additional source of drama. There was just no need for it, and doing so risked taking away something incredibly significant in the process. LGBT+ representation has come a long way, so keeping Star Trek’s first gay couple together is also something I’m happy to see. Discovery has never gone out of its way to use LGBT+ themes; Stamets and Culber’s relationship isn’t treated as anything different or special because of their genders, and I love that. The future should be a place where all couples can be accepted without so much as a second thought.
The addition of Adira was an unexpected joy. We knew Adira was coming in the months leading up to the season’s premiere, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting that they would become so close to Stamets in particular. The paternal relationship he developed toward Adira was so sweet, and when Stamets made the point to them that he and Culber came together as a “package deal” that was just pitch-perfect.
Number 8: A satisfying explanation for how the Burn surprised Starfleet. Wish: Denied 🚫
In the run-up to the season, one of the burning questions that I had was this: if time travel existed in the centuries before the Burn happened, how could it possibly have surprised Starfleet?
Star Trek has never been consistent in its depiction of time travel, and that’s at least in part because time travel stories can get convoluted and messy. They’ve never been my favourite – either inside or outside of the franchise – but having firmly established that the Federation by at least the 28th or 29th Centuries through to the 31st used time travel routinely, we needed more of an explanation for how the Burn could have taken them by surprise.
Nothing in any time travel story I’m aware of says that time travel into the future is any more difficult that travelling to the past, and in both Voyager and Enterprise Starfleet was depicted as an organisation dedicated to maintaining the “correct” timeline. To make a long complaint short: even if time travel was not being actively used by natives of the 32nd Century, it seems improbable at best that Starfleet would have been unaware of the impending Burn if they had access to time travel technology for centuries before the event occurred.
The idea of a ban on time travel is potentially interesting – and could, in theory, offer a way out of this issue. But it wasn’t explained in any detail, and I think in order to be plausible we need to know how the ban works, how it’s being enforced, and if it’s possible to travel through time as depicted in The Original Series and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home for example, how is it possible to prevent anyone from doing that?
Part of this stems from the aforementioned inconsistency; time travel post-The Next Generation seems to have been more difficult, requiring the use of specialist technology, whereas in The Original Series and The Voyage Home it was possible just by travelling at high speed and slingshotting around a star. However, even if we disregard that method of time travel, we still need an explanation for how the technology was destroyed, what’s preventing anyone from recreating it, and so on.
As I wrote in my theories during the season: it isn’t possible to un-invent an incredibly powerful technology that can be used as a weapon. Even if the idealistic Federation is content to abide by the ban, despite its own collapse and how crappy the post-Burn 32nd Century is, how are we meant to believe that everyone else is? Just from what we saw on screen, are we meant to buy into the Emerald Chain not being interested in pursuing time travel?
Then there are other factions from past iterations of Star Trek: the Borg, the Dominion, Section 31, and others. Any one of those factions could be tempted by time travel, and would surely not be willing to abide by any ban. So how is it enforced? How does it work? Even a few technobabble lines would’ve been enough for me… but we didn’t get any real explanation.
Number 9: A character crossover from a past iteration of Star Trek. Wish: Denied 🚫
Okay, so technically we got to see the Guardian of Forever as well as archive footage of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. But I wouldn’t consider either to be a significant character crossover, and while the Guardian of Forever had an impact on one of the season’s side-missions it didn’t effect the main story.
I speculated about a few characters who could still theoretically be alive in the 32nd Century, including: a backup copy of Voyager’s Doctor as seen in the Season 4 episode Living Witness, Crewman Daniels from Enterprise, Soji from Picard, the Dax symbiont, and even Deep Space Nine’s Captain Sisko. Some of those may be less likely than others, but I was at least a little hopeful that the leap forward in time could have led to a major character’s inclusion.
Seeing the Guardian of Forever was neat, and I don’t want to detract from that. But the Guardian was from The Original Series – and with Discovery finally able to move beyond the confines of the 23rd Century there was scope to link back to The Next Generation’s era. Unification III did so, and so did the inclusion of the Trill. But no characters crossed over, despite the potential existing for something to happen.
It wouldn’t be particularly difficult for practically any character from a past Star Trek show to crop up. Scotty appeared in Relics in The Next Generation’s sixth season, and if a similar technobabble explanation could be found for how a character was in stasis or travelled through time, almost anyone could be included. Since that didn’t happen this time… maybe we could get a major character in Season 4?
Number 10: A resolution to the story of the Short Treks episode Calypso. Wish: Denied 🚫
Ah, Calypso. Is the short episode destined to remain an outlier in the Star Trek canon forever, seemingly tied to a vision of Season 2 or 3 that never made it to screen? Or dare we hope that the writers and producers actually have a plan for how the loose ends from this Short Treks episode will be tied up?
We seemed to see movement toward this goal in Season 3 – though not named, the Zora AI was clearly created (the same voice actress from Calypso even reprised her role) and the use of the word “V’draysh” to refer to the Federation was heard a couple of times. But there was also some noteworthy movement away from Calypso too. The USS Discovery’s refit means that the ship is no longer in the same configuration it was in during the Short Treks story.
At this stage, it feels as though resolving Calypso would require a story built for that purpose. The refit of the ship would need to be undone. A reason would need to be concocted why the ship needed to be abandoned. If the ship was to be sent back in time, a reason would be needed for why that was necessary too. And so on.
Perhaps the ultimate resolution to Calypso will simply be to say that the episode took place in an alternate timeline, one in which the Discovery crew hid the ship in a nebula to keep it safe from Control.
So that’s it. Those were my big pre-season wishes, and while not all of them were granted by Season 3, some were.
I had a great time with Discovery’s third season, and while there are some nitpicks and gripes it was a generally fun ride. It feels as though the Star Trek franchise now has a solid foundation if the decision should be made to create more shows set in or around the 32nd Century, and that’s a big compliment! As much as I enjoyed Picard bringing us back to the 24th Century last year, I’m just as interested to see what else the 32nd Century may hold, and hopefully Discovery won’t be the last Star Trek project to explore that setting.
Some of my pre-season wishes may have been a little optimistic, or even just unrealistic! But I had fun thinking about what Discovery could look like, and perhaps this is something I’ll indulge in again in the run-up to Season 4!
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States and on Netflix in the rest of the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks, 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 1-3, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Star Trek: Picard Season 1, and other iterations of the franchise.
Almost half a year ago (26 weeks would be a half-year) we sat down to watch Second Contact, the premiere episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. This episode kicked off something ViacomCBS billed as “23 weeks of Star Trek” – ten weeks of Lower Decks followed immediately by thirteen weeks of Discovery. Now that we’ve had Discovery’s season finale, I thought it would be fun to look back on the past five-ish months and see how it went.
2020 was the first year since 2004 that saw more than twenty Star Trek episodes premiere, and with three different productions on the go for the first time since the 1990s it’s really beginning to feel that Star Trek is back! Assuming all of the currently-announced series and projects make it to screen, we’ll be seeing the franchise continue through at least the first half of the 2020s, hopefully even until the 60th anniversary in 2026. There have been bumps in the road – and more seem likely – but overall the franchise seems to be in a good place as these 23 weeks come to an end.
Lower Decks did suffer because of the stupid decision to broadcast it in the United States months ahead of anywhere else. Of all the Star Trek projects we’ve seen announced in recent years, Lower Decks had the greatest potential to expand the fanbase. The entire purpose behind creating a show of this kind is to take Star Trek to new audiences, and that required a unified broadcast so fans everywhere could enjoy it and get hyped for it.
The sad consequence of Lower Decks being split up and shown to some fans but not others is that the buzz around the show died down in the weeks leading up to its broadcast. Many potential viewers tuned out or never even became aware of its existence, and we’ll simply never know how big it could’ve become were it not for that godawful decision. Could we be talking about Lower Decks hitting the mainstream like Rick and Morty? It’s good enough on its own merit, but we’ll never know now.
When it was decided to press ahead with this 23 weeks of Star Trek, the team at ViacomCBS clearly knew that the pandemic had massively set back other projects in the franchise. Whereas we might’ve hoped to see Picard Season 2, Lower Decks Season 2, Prodigy Season 1, and maybe the Section 31 show or even Strange New Worlds in 2021, as things sit right now, no announcements have been made regarding any releases this year. Understandably so, of course, but to me it just compounds the stupidness of the Lower Decks decision.
Since we now know that Lower Deckswill be broadcast internationally later this month, I’m left wondering why it was pushed out in North America first. We could have all enjoyed it together, and it would have filled a hole in the schedule in the first part of 2021. But that’s not the way it happened, and re-litigating the issue over and over accomplishes nothing! Instead, let’s look at some of the high points from these past 23 weeks. There have been quite a lot!
First up, Lower Decks itself. Despite a rocky start, by midway through the second episode the series was beginning to find its feet, and as the season went on it became a thoroughly enjoyable watch with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. There were a ton of references and callbacks to past iterations of Star Trek, including The Next Generation era. Until Picard premiered earlier in 2020 the franchise had been looking backwards at reboots and prequels for almost twenty years, leaving little room to even name-drop something from The Next Generation onwards.
Discovery included fewer elements from The Next Generation’s era than I’d have liked to see. Partly that’s a consequence of shooting forward in time centuries beyond that time period, and partly it’s a creative choice. There were a couple of references though, like bringing back the Trill and introducing a new USS Voyager. I was especially pleased that the Qowat Milat – a Romulan faction introduced in Star Trek: Picard – also cropped up in Discovery.
Bringing together the shows currently in production is something I hope to see more of going forward! I had theorised before we knew too much about Discovery’s third season that – due to time travel shenanigans – it could have been set at the dawn of the 25th Century along with Picard, but ultimately that didn’t happen. It would’ve been cool, though!
Lower Decks and Discovery didn’t really connect in any significant way during these 23 weeks. The most significant thing I noticed which came close to tying the two series together was that in both of their season premieres, a main character gets chewed on by an alien monster! In Second Contact it happened to Ensign Boimler, and in That Hope Is You, Part 1 it happened to Burnham. Maybe that was a conscious choice – but I suspect it may be little more than coincidence.
Both Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Discovery represent a franchise stepping out of its comfort zone and trying to do something different. In Lower Decks’ case we see Star Trek trying a different genre – comedy. The particular style of comedy chosen may not be to everyone’s taste, but I would argue that fans of shows like Rick and Morty or The Orville would have found something to enjoy. Discovery took Star Trek away from the familiar ground of the 23rd and 24th Centuries in a major way for really the first time. We’d seen individual episodes or parts of episodes set in the far future before, but never a whole season.
Both shows felt like they were made with Star Trek fans firmly in mind. That may seem obvious, but we have to remember that hardcore fans are a small percentage of any franchise’s audience. Lower Decks in particular was a series that was largely episodic and that relied at key moments on references to somewhat obscure events in Star Trek’s wider canon, both for its comedy and for narrative beats. That was a bold move, and one which could have backfired.
Discovery didn’t take an episodic approach, but there are more episodes in its third season which act as standalone stories than there were in Seasons 1 and 2 combined. The writers and producers have clearly tried to blend season-long storylines with shorter episodic stories, and while we can debate which episodes were the best and the worst, taken as a whole the season was definitely better for the inclusion of some of these smaller stories.
Though we won’t know for sure until the new show hits our screens, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is supposedly going to take a similar approach: keeping the season-long arcs while at the same time flying the ship and crew to different adventures every week. Discovery Season 3 provides a good foundation to build on in that regard – provided the writers and producers pay attention to what worked and what didn’t!
Though I plan to do a proper look back at both Season 1 of Lower Decks and Season 3 of Discovery in the weeks ahead, looking back at this 23 weeks of Star Trek I can already say that I had a great time. There were some stumbles and some storylines and episodes that didn’t work for a few different reasons, but the quality of both shows was generally high. I can’t fault the visual effects, the acting, the direction, the editing, the post-production work, or anything behind-the-scenes when considering the bigger picture. Narrative will always be something subjective, but I would encourage anyone to give both shows a try and to stick with them beyond the first couple of episodes.
The only thing I’d say is that, having set up this promotion between the two shows, it’s a little odd that there were essentially no references or crossovers between them. Because of the decision to send Discovery into the future, there was the possibility for Lower Decks to reference something from Discovery’s first two seasons, and for Discovery to reference something from Lower Decks’ first season. Maybe that’s something that can happen at some point in the future.
Though we don’t have access to viewing figures – something which, unfortunately, leads to a lot of speculation and misinformation floating around online – I hope that both shows did well. On merit I’d happily recommend both to any Star Trek fan, and to any fan of either animated comedies or action-sci fi. The upcoming rebranding of CBS All Access as Paramount+ may bring in more new viewers to both shows, and Lower Decks’ international broadcast later this month will hopefully attract some attention too.
As I said at the beginning, Star Trek feels like it’s in a good place. There are projects in the pipeline that should see the franchise grow and build on what both Discovery and Lower Decks have done over the last 23 weeks, and it’s my hope that it will remain viable and stay on our screens for many years to come. I have the same sort of feeling that I had in the mid-1990s when Deep Space Nine and Voyager had picked up the baton from The Next Generation; there’s a lot going on, and all of it is different or at least not afraid to try new things.
I will miss my Friday appointment with Discovery now that the third season has concluded. However, as I look ahead to the rest of 2021, I’m hopeful that we may see Prodigy and Lower Decks Season 2 even if we have to wait until 2022 for more live-action Star Trek! I hope you’ll stay tuned here on the website, as I’ll break down any news that comes our way regarding upcoming Star Trek projects as well as look back at some of the stories and themes that we saw over these 23 weeks. It really is a great time to be a Star Trek fan right now – or a fan of sci-fi and fantasy in general. I truly hope that you enjoyed the last 23 weeks as much as I did.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on the 22nd of January in the rest of the world. Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States and on Netflix in the rest of the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks, 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 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the franchise.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 came to an end this week. That Hope Is You, Part 2 was a solid episode with plenty of action, and despite the underwhelming nature of one of its plotlines, I think it did a good job wrapping things up.
Speaking of wrapping things up, that’s what we’re going to do today! We had twenty-two theories going into the finale, and while a handful live on and may return in Season 4 depending on the way things go, most were either outright debunked or the story went in such a direction as to leave them looking very unlikely. We did, however, get three confirmations (or at least partial confirmations) so we’ll look at those first!
Confirmed theory: Aurellio stood up to Osyraa.
Although Aurellio didn’t get as much screen time as I’d have liked to see, he did break away from Osyraa and the Emerald Chain. Aurellio had a mini character arc that ran over the final two episodes of the season in which his eyes were opened to Osyraa’s villainous nature, and allowed him his moment of opposition to her when he refused to allow his technology to be used to torture Book.
I stand by my previous comparison in which I said that Aurellio fills a role claimed by the likes of Albert Speer and others who worked for the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. Aurellio seems to have spent a lot of time focusing on his work in his lab, reaping the rewards of helping the Emerald Chain but without really allowing himself to see what the organisation and its leader were doing. His conversation with Stamets opened his eyes to this, and we saw that theme come to a head in the scene in sickbay.
Though Aurellio did briefly help out later on, giving Book the idea that he could use his empathic abilities to use the Spore Drive, Aurellio feels like an underused character, and I hope to see him return in Season 4. He could have joined up with the Federation, or even serve aboard Discovery.
Part-confirmed theory #1: Burnham became captain.
I successfully predicted that Burnham would become captain… but not how it would happen! So I’m calling this one part-confirmed instead of fully confirmed!
I had speculated that Burnham could assume the captaincy either because Saru would be killed, or because Saru would be promoted and become an Admiral if Admiral Vance were killed. Neither of these scenarios came to pass, and Saru was rather unceremoniously shuffled off the ship during the epilogue without getting so much as an opportunity to say goodbye to the crew. That was poor, and Saru deserved to be treated with more respect.
However, it allowed Burnham to get her promotion, something that Star Trek: Discovery has been aiming for since Season 1. Some of the issues with Burnham, both this season and in the past, stem from her insubordination. Now that she’s in command, that should no longer be anywhere near as big an issue, and as captain she should have a lot more freedom to approach problems and adventures her way – within the spirit of the rules, if not following them to the exact letter!
Part-confirmed theory#2: The Federation’s allies arrived to help fight the Emerald Chain.
I’m calling this one part-confirmed because only Ni’Var arrived to help the Federation when the Emerald Chain attacked. I had half-expected a bigger fleet, perhaps comprised of the Earth Defence Force, the raiders from Titan, the Trill, people from the Colony, people from Kwejian, and Nhan aboard the USS Tikhov. However, only Ni’Var made it to the party!
We don’t know what became of most of the others; Trill rejoined the Federation, but the rest weren’t even mentioned in the finale. The arrival of the Ni’Var fleet felt great – up there with other big last-minute arrivals in other battles in the franchise for sure. But by the end of the episode I did feel that the absence of some of the other friends and allies that Burnham and the crew had made was noticeable… and perhaps even a little sad.
So those theories were confirmed or partially-confirmed. Up next we have a handful of theories whose status was left unclear as of the end of That Hope Is You, Part 2. It’s possible some of these will return in Season 4, but it depends how the story of that season shapes up. If Season 4 goes in a completely different direction, perhaps some or all of these theories will simply fall by the wayside. We most likely won’t know for a while!
Status: Unknown #1: The Spore Drive will become Starfleet’s new method of faster-than-light propulsion.
The revelation that Book could use his empathic abilities to use the Spore Drive has, in theory, opened up the technology to being deployed across other Starfleet vessels. Early in Season 1 Stamets seemed to suggest that mycelial spores were not easy to acquire, so that may yet prove to be a limiting factor, but if that could be overcome there’s no real reason why the Spore Drive couldn’t be rolled out.
If empathic species like the natives of Kwejian can use the Spore Drive, it opens up even more possibilities. Betazoids spring to mind as an empathic species; perhaps they could become navigators too.
As this moment came in the final act of the season finale it didn’t get a chance to be paid off, so we won’t know the status of the Spore Drive until next season at the earliest. When Burnham was in command of the ship right at the end of the episode, her orders were to deliver dilithium to other planets, so perhaps we can infer from that that not every vessel will have its own Spore Drive. Regardless, the expansion of this technology would not only allow Discovery to have new and different adventures, but would also make it so other Star Trek series set in or after this time period could do so too.
Status: Unknown #2: The Dax symbiont is still alive.
On reflection, this theory should have been put on hiatus as soon as Discovery departed the Trill homeworld in Forget Me Not. But I stand by the reasoning behind it – Trill symbionts can be very long-lived, and we got at least a hint at Tal having been alive in the 25th Century via the appearance of a Picard-era uniform. Though Dax had already had several hosts by the time of Deep Space Nine, nothing in-universe would prevent their reappearance.
However, with the Trill having rejoined the Federation, perhaps there will be an opportunity to see or hear about Dax in Season 4.
Status: Unknown #3: Kovich is an agent of Section 31.
Kovich made only a very brief appearance in That Hope Is You, Part 2, so we didn’t get an opportunity to learn anything more about him. It was implied that he has a role in Starfleet security and/or intelligence based on his debrief of Georgiou and ability to access classified files. Combined with his morally ambiguous personality – which we see on full display when he doesn’t tell anyone about Georgiou’s impending health emergency – it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume he could be an agent of Section 31… or even its leader.
Given Georgiou’s connection to the upcoming Section 31 series, and the time travel plot to get her there, perhaps the reason Kovich didn’t say anything is because he knew exactly what role he needed to play. Georgiou, as a leader in Section 31 centuries earlier, may have sent him a message through the organisation, telling him exactly what to do when she arrived. That would be a time-loop story that we could see in Season 4!
We know Kovich will be back, so perhaps we’ll learn more about him when he returns. I’ve heard other Trekkies speculating that he could be the Federation President – that would be an interesting revelation too.
Status: Unknown #4: The ban on time travel is being flouted – possibly by secretive elements within the Federation.
It was stated multiple times in Season 3 that there is a galaxy-wide ban on time travel, a ban which was brought in in the aftermath of the Temporal Wars. However, this never sat right with me for one simple reason. As I’ve said several times over the last few weeks: it’s not possible to un-invent an incredibly powerful, weaponisable technology.
Even if the ban on time travel had been adhered to prior to the Burn, it seems completely implausible that absolutely nobody would seek to revive time travel technology in the century that followed. The Emerald Chain are the main villainous faction we met in Season 3, and Osyraa seems like she would have put people like Aurellio to work on re-inventing the necessary technology. But even if the Emerald Chain were unable to use time travel, what about other factions like the Borg or the Dominion? And what about Starfleet itself, and Section 31?
Finally, assuming all of the factions mentioned have agreed to adhere to the ban, who’s enforcing it to make sure they all stick to their commitments? Communication across the galaxy is incredibly difficult, so how can any of the main factions be sure that their adversaries – or even rogue elements from within – aren’t trying to use time travel?
I find the whole idea of the ban impractical unless it can be properly explained how time travel was banned and how the ban is enforced. So I maintain that, despite what we saw all season long, there may be elements within the Federation working on covert time travel projects.
Status: Unknown #5: The ships at Federation HQ represent the majority of Starfleet’s remaining vessels. And they’re all 120+ years old.
When Discovery first arrived at Federation HQ in Die Trying, I theorised that the ships we saw might be all that remain of the once-mighty Starfleet. In addition, the devastating nature of the Burn may well have meant that building new ships would be difficult – and with very little dilithium to power them anyway, Starfleet may be forced to rely on a fleet of ageing vessels.
We saw no confirmation of this – and to Discovery’s crew, all the ships look futuristic and new! But we saw nothing to debunk it either, and while I don’t think we’ll see this point explicitly addressed any time soon, we may learn in Season 4 that the fleet is being rebuilt and expanded.
Status: Unknown #6: Tilly’s role as first officer.
I had theorised that Tilly would resign as first officer in the aftermath of the ship being captured. However, as of the end of the season it was left ambiguous as to what happened. Did Captain Burnham keep her on, or will she choose a new XO?
Tilly becoming first officer was a contentious point for some fans, and while I do understand why, I wasn’t upset by it personally. I’d be happy to see her remain in her post if that’s what the writers and producers have in mind, but equally I’d be happy to see a different character take on the role. Perhaps someone like Bryce, Rhys, or Nilsson could be promoted – and join the regular cast?
So those theories’ fates remain unknown. Will they be confirmed or debunked next season, or in some other future Star Trek story? It’s possible, but it’s equally possible that some of them will simply be ignored and their status never addressed.
Next we’ll look at a couple of theories which, while not explicitly debunked, are now certainly dead as the storylines they were part of have concluded.
Dead theory #1: Dr Issa is a descendant of Saru’s sister Siranna.
Dr Issa’s potential family connection to Saru was not addressed, and I think it’s highly unlikely it will be mentioned in Season 4. The reason for this theory was primarily production side, as the same actress (Hannah Spear) played the role of both Siranna in Season 2 and Dr Issa in Season 3. As interesting as it would have been for there to be a deeper connection between Saru, Dr Issa, and Su’Kal, the explanation for this may also be on the production side of things – it may have been easier to bring back an actress who was already fitted for the complicated Kelpien prosthetic makeup rather than casting someone wholly new.
Dead theory #2: Aurellio is married to Osyraa.
There seemed to be a hint that Aurellio was married to or in a relationship with Osyraa. Stamets noted that his partner, with whom he is said to have children, is Orion – and Osyraa seems to be Orion too. They also had a familiarity that seemed to go beyond employer and employee, as well as a history that Aurellio hinted at in his conversation with Stamets.
Osyraa attacked him in That Hope Is You, Part 2, but despite threatening to kill him, took no further aggressive action. However, now that she’s dead and the Emerald Chain has “fractured,” I doubt we’ll hear much at all about Osyraa in Season 4 even if Aurellio does return (as I hope he will).
So those two theories seem certain to be dead and not coming back, even though they were not out-and-out debunked.
Finally we come to the debunkings!
Debunked theory #1: One of the officers with Tilly will be killed.
At the end of There Is A Tide, Tilly gave the ominous order to her team that if anyone should be killed, the rest would keep going until they reached the bridge. Then in That Hope Is You, Part 2, the whole group were suffering from oxygen depletion as Osyraa tried to slowly suffocate them.
Owosekun was perhaps in greatest danger as she took their makeshift bomb to the nacelle, but she was saved at the last minute by a DOT 23 – who was in turn saved by Owosekun and Reno in the epilogue.
Ryn was the only major character on the heroes’ side who died across the whole season, and we can argue whether or not that’s a good thing at a later date. But in the context of this theory, everyone survived so the theory is debunked!
Debunked theory #2: The Burn will receive a different explanation.
At some point in the next few weeks or months I will take an in-depth look at the Burn – Season 3’s most controversial storyline. For now, however, suffice to say that this point was more a last-ditch hope than a theory, as I felt certain that if the Burn remained solely the fault of Su’Kal it would be underwhelming.
That explanation, which was first communicated in Su’Kal a couple of weeks ago, ended up being accurate. There was no deus ex machina in the season finale to re-explain what the Burn was and how it happened – and that’s probably a good thing overall. Though the Burn was – in my subjective opinion – a narrative that didn’t come to a satisfactory end, and one that has issues, a last-second deus ex machina would have been even worse!
Debunked theory #3: The Burn was the result of a superweapon.
After the rest of my pre-season theories about the Burn fell by the wayside, this was the final one that I considered to be even slightly possible. Going into the finale, the way it could’ve worked would either be that the Kih’eth (Su’Kal’s ship) was carrying a superweapon, or that Su’Kal himself had been modified somehow to become a superweapon. How or why this would’ve happened is not even relevant; it was just a way to explain the Burn beyond Su’Kal.
As mentioned above, though, the Burn turned out to be caused by Su’Kal and his connection to dilithium. In the context of the last few episodes this was a good thing, as a last-second turnaround would have been very difficult to pull off.
Debunked theory #4: There will be a resolution to the story of Calypso (the Short Treks episode).
Season 3 spent some of its runtime firmly establishing that the Short Treks episode Calypso hasn’t been forgotten and remains very much in play in the overall storyline of Discovery. However, despite several teases and moments that seemed to inch us closer to resolving the mysterious outlying episode, there was no resolution.
We have seen the creation of Zora – a merger of the Sphere data with Discovery’s own computer. We heard that some denizens of the galaxy call the Federation the “V’draysh,” which was the name Craft used in Calypso. The main unresolved point is how the USS Discovery came to be abandoned, and why, if it was abandoned, it was reset to its pre-refit configuration beforehand.
With Zora being intact thanks to Reno and Owosekun, we have all of the threads present in Calypso – but I can’t see how they’ll tie together just yet. Maybe Calypso is set in the far future – the 42nd Century not the 32nd. Maybe Discovery will travel back in time in Season 4 or Season 5 for some reason. Maybe Calypso will never be fully explained and will remain an outlier in the Star Trek canon; an episode connected to a storyline for Season 2 or Season 3 that simply never came to pass.
Debunked theory #5: A character from a past iteration of Star Trek – such as the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager – will make an appearance.
This was my other big pre-season theory that remained in place for the duration. Though it did come true somewhat thanks to the return of the Guardian of Forever, we didn’t see any of the characters I theorised about – including Voyager’s Doctor – make a return.
However, although it was debunked in Season 3, this one will almost certainly be back for Season 4! When Star Trek: Picard brought back legacy characters, we knew in advance which main actors would be returning, and their presence became a big part of that show’s marketing push. Other legacy characters were recast and their presence was kept more of a secret. In short, what I’m saying is that if we are to see the return of the Doctor or some other past Star Trek character, perhaps their return will be signalled ahead of time in Season 4’s pre-release marketing. We’ll have to wait and see!
Debunked theory #6:Discovery Season 3 is taking place in an alternate timeline or parallel universe.
The Guardian of Forever confirmed back in Terra Firma, Part II that Burnham and the crew were in the Prime timeline – i.e. the main Star Trek timeline which runs from Enterprise to Picard. However, this theory also proposed that the season may be taking place in a timeline that was manipulated by time travel; that the Burn was not “meant” to happen.
Had time travel been involved, the resolution to the Burn and the season’s story may have been to go back in time – perhaps even using the Guardian of Forever – and stop Su’Kal from ever entering the Verubin Nebula, thus preventing the Burn entirely.
I don’t think this would have been a good storyline, as it would have essentially wiped out everything that happened in the season. A one-off episode like Yesterday’s Enterprise from The Next Generation or Voyager’s Year of Hell can get away with doing something like this, but a whole season being erased due to time travel would have felt hollow – even if Discovery’s crew remembered what happened.
Debunked theory #7: Saru is going to die.
Despite being in danger for much of the episode, Saru survived… only to be unceremoniously dumped in voiceover during the epilogue. It has been confirmed that Saru will be back for Season 4; what role he will play, and whether he will even be a major character are unknown.
Saru is a very interesting character. He was, for a time, Star Trek’s first alien captain, and I wish we’d seen more of what that meant. Saru is similar to Picard in many ways – he’s diplomatic, calm, and generally not one to break the rules and rush into a situation guns blazing. Burnham, in contrast, is much closer to Kirk or Janeway – more emotional, impulsive, and quicker to bend the rules.
Both types of captain can work very well, so that isn’t a criticism! If I had one wish from the season finale, it would have been to see Saru receive a proper goodbye from his shipmates.
Debunked theory #8: Admiral Vance is going to die.
When considering characters who could’ve been killed off, aside from the main crew of Discovery few deaths would have been as impactful as Vance’s. I didn’t want to see him killed, of course, because he’s been one of Star Trek’s most interesting flag officers. The role of Admiral has often been used within the franchise to set up an antagonist for our hero captains to rebel against. Vance is one of the good ones, and I’m glad he survived.
Hopefully he will continue in this role in Season 4, because there’s a lot of potential for some fun character moments.
Debunked theory #9: Saru, Burnham, or somebody else will use the Guardian of Forever to send the USS Discovery back in time.
This was primarily connected to my theory about a resolution to Calypso – which seems to require the USS Discovery being sent back in time. If the ban on time travel discussed above is truly in effect, the Guardian of Forever is the only way we know of to travel back in time, and having gone to the trouble of bringing the Guardian back, I wondered if it might serve more of a purpose than just sending Georgiou back in time.
It turned out that this was not the case, though I hope the Guardian of Forever will be visited again in some future episode or story.
Debunked theory #10: The dilithium planet will be destroyed.
This theory came about as a way that the “formulaic” end to the story could be subverted. Rather than the dilithium planet being a resource for the Federation to use to re-establish itself, its destruction would mean that the Burn’s impact would continue to be felt, and that the task of coming back together would be more difficult.
It would have also connected to my theory that the Spore Drive would be rolled out to more starships, becoming Starfleet’s new method of propulsion. The lack of dilithium would make that almost a necessity! I theorised that Su’Kal might’ve destroyed the dilithium planet via his telepathic abilities, but it could also have been destroyed by Osyraa or even by the Federation to prevent Osyraa from using it.
None of that came to pass, however, and the dilithium on the planet is being mined by the Federation and distributed to their worlds, colonies, and allies across the galaxy – a task that Burnham and the ship are assigned to in the final moments of That Hope Is You, Part 2.
Debunked theory #11: The “monster” is the real Su’kal.
The “monster’s” presence within Su’Kal’s holo-programme was not really given an explanation beyond it being part of an old Kelpien legend. Why his mother would have chosen to include a lifelike recreation of the “monster” within the programme is anyone’s guess!
I theorised that the character we met may not have been the real Su’Kal, and that the “monster” may have instead been Su’Kal, who had been badly mutated and burned by radiation. When Burnham briefly interacted with it, the “monster” seemed to behave in an almost-human way, and that was another reason I considered this a possibility.
Debunked theory #12: The “monster” is Dr Issa.
As above, I speculated that the “monster” may in fact be a real person – this time Su’Kal’s mother, Dr Issa.
In the end, it seems that the “monster” was simply a part of the programme. It provided a great reason within the story for Su’Kal and Saru to bond, as well as a way to give Su’Kal an arc of his own, overcoming his fears – represented by the “monster” – to break free of the programme. I’m not sure how much sense it makes for the “monster” to have been programmed when considering it from an in-universe point of view… but that’s more of a nitpick than anything.
So that’s it. A few theories remain unanswered, and may roll over to Season 4 – but it depends on what route the next season’s story will take. We won’t have any indication of that until we see a trailer or receive a significant announcement, but I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground to see what happens over the coming weeks and months.
When might we see Season 4? That’s perhaps the biggest question on the minds of Trekkies and Discovery fans! We know that pre-production began weeks ago, and that filming of some scenes has already commenced in Canada. Because the pandemic remains a significant disruptive force, it’s possible that filming will proceed at a slower pace than usual. June 2021 seems to be the target date for filming to finish, and if that happens then post-production work will begin in earnest this summer. Based on how long post-production took for Season 3, it seems incredibly unlikely that we’ll see the show before next year, and I would say that spring 2022 seems a reasonable guesstimate at this juncture.
With other live-action Star Trek projects similarly impacted, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see Picard, Strange New Worlds, or the Section 31 series this year either – but there’s hope for Lower Decks Season 2 and Prodigy to be broadcast before Christmas; both of those animated shows are already in production.
Stay tuned, because if and when we hear news of Season 4 or get a trailer I’ll be sure to break it down and perhaps see if any theories can be conjured up! I’ll also be doing a look back at some of my hits and misses from a theory point of view later this year, and a retrospective of the season overall sometime soon too. There will be plenty more Star Trek content to come on the website this year, so I hope you’ll come back to see some of that. Finally, I hope that you enjoyed following my theories and predictions this season. I had a lot of fun spending time in the Star Trek universe, diving deeply into some weird and wonderful ideas!
As I always say, these are just theories. I don’t have any “insider information” and I don’t pretend that any theory I postulate is going to come true. For me this has just been a bit of fun; a chance to take a deeper dive into some elements of Discovery and the Star Trek universe. I hope you haven’t taken any of my theories across Season 3 too seriously – no fan theory, no matter how plausible it seems, is worth getting upset, angry, or disappointed over. If we could all remember to take theories with a pinch of salt, perhaps there’d be a little less toxicity within certain fan communities.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the franchise.
Thirteen weeks have just flown by, haven’t they? Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 premiered in the middle of October – right after Season 1 of Star Trek: Lower Deckscame to an end – and now, just after New Year, it’s over. I have to say that I miss the twenty-plus episode seasons we used to get! But that’s just one way that television shows have changed since the 1990s, I suppose.
For the third week in a row, the title of the episode was changed from what had been previously announced. That Hope Is You, Part 2 was previously known as Outside, but immediately after There Is A Tide aired last week, the title was changed. That Hope Is You, Part 1 was the title of the season premiere, and while it seems odd on the surface to call the season finale the second part – especially considering the entire season has been one continuous story – it works well and bookends the season. As an interesting aside, we saw two different numbering styles used for the multi-part episodes this season. Terra Firma and Unification III both used Roman numerals to denote their parts, whereas That Hope Is You uses Arabic numerals. I wonder why that is?
There Is A Tide was phenomenal last week, and I was hoping for more of the same from That Hope Is You, Part 2. My only real criticism last time was that there seemed to be an awful lot of story left for the finale to get through, and I speculated then that the season may end on a cliffhanger – but that wasn’t the case. The episode was the longest of the season by far, clocking in at almost an hour, and while I would say one of its two storylines probably could’ve used more screen time, That Hope Is You, Part 2 did a reasonably good job at wrapping everything up. It certainly exceeded Star Trek: Picard’s finale in that regard!
I had a great time with That Hope Is You, Part 2… well, for about three-quarters of it. The sequences aboard Discovery that focused on Book, Burnham, Tilly, and other crew members were action-packed and exciting, equalling the heights Discovery reached last week. But the sequences with Saru, Adira, Culber, and Su’Kal didn’t reach that level. This storyline was not my favourite part of either the episode or the season.
And we do have to consider the role That Hope Is You, Part 2 has as the season finale. As mentioned, my theory that the season may end on a cliffhanger did not come to pass, so every story thread we saw across the season that hadn’t already been completely tied up was supposed to find a resolution here. The Emerald Chain storyline, which had been teased as early as the premiere and more firmly established by the halfway point of the season, certainly was concluded. And though perhaps it needed more screen time, or needed its sequences spread out over three or four episodes instead of two, Su’Kal’s story was concluded too.
In both of these, though, as well as in the very short, almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes showing Ni’Var and Trill, we come to what is perhaps the episode’s big weakness. After the main stories – both of them – were more-or-less over, we got an epilogue of sorts that was about six minutes long. This epilogue told us about some incredibly important events, and as you may have heard me say before, it needed to show not tell. In a rapidly edited sequence, part of which was narrated by Burnham in voiceover, we saw or heard that: Trill had rejoined the Federation, Ni’Var was on the brink of doing so, the Emerald Chain has “fractured,” Saru is taking a sabbatical – if he hasn’t outright left Starfleet, Mr Sahil has become a Starfleet officer, Aurellio has maybe joined up with the Federation – but maybe not, Stamets was reunited with Adira and Culber, the Sphere data is safe, and finally, Burnham was promoted and has become Discovery’s new captain.
None of these points are problematic at all – in fact, I adore all of them, and the sequence itself had me feeling genuinely emotional. But there was a lot of important story crammed into those final minutes, some of which I really wish had been expanded upon and given their own moment in the spotlight instead of just being briefly mentioned in this epilogue.
Also, this epilogue was the moment where other characters and stories from earlier in the season should have been included, surely? What about the denizens of the Colony from Far From Home, the humans in the Sol system from People of Earth, Nhan, who had been left alone aboard the USS Tikhov in Die Trying, or the people of Kwejian from The Sanctuary? I’m not saying the sequence needed more jammed into its six minutes, but it feels like this was the moment to at least acknowledge the stories that happened across the rest of the season considering That Hope Is You, Part 2 had already tipped its hat to the others mentioned above.
So we seem to have started at the end, which is a little strange! But never mind. Let’s look next at Su’Kal and the Burn. Discovery Season 3 did a lot of things right, and my initial concerns about a “post-apocalyptic” Star Trek series turned out to be largely unfounded. The sense of optimism and hope that are – in my opinion – fundamental parts of the franchise were missing from the bleak, post-Burn 32nd Century – but they were present in Burnham, Saru, the crew of Discovery, Admiral Vance, Booker, Sahil, and many other characters across the season. In that sense the story of the Burn was a success.
The event itself, however, and the resolution to it that we saw in Su’Kal and That Hope Is You, Part 2 just doesn’t sit right.
We’ll come to narrative in a moment, because my primary concern right now is the Burn’s real-world messaging. We have Su’Kal, a man with mental health problems and/or a learning disability, as the unintentional cause of the Burn. There is a sizeable stigma around mental health and learning disabilities here in the real world, and I just feel that Su’Kal being presented as the man who accidentally ruined much of the galaxy plays into some harmful stereotyping. Su’Kal comes across similar to Lenny, the rabbit-loving man from John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice And Men. It’s implied that Su’Kal is the way he is because of the environment he’s spent his life in, but even so, there’s an obvious literary parallel. Lenny ends up accidentally killing someone in that novel, because he doesn’t know his own strength and he doesn’t realise what he’s doing. Su’Kal has done the same basic thing, only on a much bigger scale.
The message this seems to send is what I find at least a little upsetting in 2021. Though Su’Kal is portrayed sympathetically – and I would credit Bill Irwin with a wonderful performance – the sympathy he elicits is more like pity. We look down at Su’Kal as a pitiable idiot, someone too dumb to know what power he had and what it could do. We look at him like we look at Lenny.
People with mental health conditions – a category into which I fall – don’t want pity, nor do people with learning disabilities. Yet Discovery is playing into century-old stereotyping that we really should be trying to move beyond. This season has seen some wonderful storylines that deal with complex issues, but its two attempts to depict mental health – with Su’Kal and Lieutenant Detmer in earlier episodes – just didn’t work. Detmer’s story got so little time that it was basically meaningless, despite being well-intentioned, and Su’Kal’s story just rubs me the wrong way. I feel that the decision to make the Burn the fault of someone in his position was the wrong one, and the message it sends is one I’m not comfortable with.
Su’Kal himself is one aspect of the Burn that I feel didn’t come across well, and I hope my explanation and reasoning make sense to you. But narratively too, the resolution to the Burn feels anticlimactic. There’s a disparity between the epic nature and scale of the Burn and the man who we now know is the cause of it. It feels like a non sequitur; that the Burn cannot logically follow from Su’Kal getting upset – or screaming, as Culber and Adira would explain.
As I said in my review of Su’Kal a couple of weeks ago, there is something uniquely “Star Trek” about this resolution to the Burn’s story. And from that point of view, as a storyline which is perhaps closer to fantasy than sci-fi, it doesn’t feel out of place in this fictional universe, not when you stand it up alongside the storylines of episodes from past iterations of Star Trek such as A Piece of the Action, Masks, Facets, or The Gift. There’s a weirdness to the Burn being a telepathic child’s scream that is, in a peculiar way, something you wouldn’t see outside of Star Trek. I count myself among many Trekkies for whom this weirdness is precisely what was appealing about Star Trek when I first saw it.
So in a sense, the story of these final few episodes as far as the Burn is concerned fits right in within a franchise that can give us the episodes mentioned above. The Gift, from Voyager’s fourth season, is actually a pretty good frame of reference, as it’s a story which shows Kes’ mental abilities. She’s able to propel a starship thousands of light-years with the power of her mind, and that’s not a million miles away from Su’Kal’s connection to dilithium.
But the Burn was not a single-episode story, nor the kind of one-off story fit for episodic television. Not only did it impact the entire season, but it will continue to have ramifications for Discovery’s fourth season, and for any future Star Trek series or films set in or around this time period. Furthermore, it was a mystery that had been teased for over a year, since the first trailer for Season 3 was shown in late 2019. Expectations had been built up over thirteen episodes, and arguably for more than a year before the season premiered. As much as I can respect the Burn and Su’Kal and their place in the greater Star Trek canon, unfortunately those expectations were not met – at least not for me.
The disconnect between the devastating Burn and the small Su’Kal is just too big a gap to bridge at the end of a season that has been so dominated by this one event. It makes sense, and I get it – it’s not that the Burn’s explanation is somehow incomprehensible – and I’m incredibly pleased that the writers chose to make sure the Burn did receive an explanation instead of trying to brush it aside and say it doesn’t matter. But the explanation that we got is one that I feel was weak.
The story of Su’Kal being trapped alone in a disintegrating holo-world, and Saru coming to his rescue is one that could have worked as another of Season 3’s semi-standalone stories, like Georgiou’s illness and trip to the Mirror Universe. It didn’t need to be connected in any way to the Burn in order to be emotional and significant; it was a good story all on its own. By tying it to the Burn and by saying that this is the cause of the Star Trek galaxy’s biggest and worst catastrophe, the overarching story of the season has unfortunately come to an underwhelming end.
It almost feels like the writers and producers came up with the effects of the Burn and how the galaxy would look in its aftermath, and only then tried to come up with a cause. In the best post-apocalyptic stories and the best mystery stories aren’t written that way; Agatha Christie didn’t start by writing the murder and decide on a murderer later, and the Burn should have worked the same way. I’m not saying I know for a fact that they did it this way, but it certainly has that feel. The sheer randomness of the Burn may have been intended to be a shock or a surprise, and the disconnect between the scale of the event and the single individual who caused it may likewise be intentional – but it wasn’t successful.
Because the Burn is really quite unlike any other storyline in Star Trek, it arguably needed a better and more substantial payoff. I’m not saying that it needed to have one of the causes that I speculated about before the season began, nor am I saying that my disappointment and sense of being underwhelmed comes from a fan theory not being met. Instead what I’m saying is that the ultimate explanation needed to be something more than the scream of an upset child.
Finally on the Burn, its cause was only really explained in a handful of technobabble-heavy lines of dialogue. In Su’Kal, Burnham and Dr Culber had a couple of lines each, and this week Culber and Adira likewise had a scant handful of lines in which they tried to explain what happened. None of these lines of dialogue were bad – though a couple were perhaps heavy on exposition – but combined with the already-underwhelming narrative, the fact that the season’s biggest mystery was resolved with such little discussion again makes it feel as if it were an afterthought instead of the most significant storyline we’ve been watching.
There were some things to like, though. Guest star Bill Irwin put in a wonderfully complex performance as Su’Kal, showing a range of emotions as he wrangled with the idea that his entire life was changing. Despite my criticisms of the mental health aspects of Su’Kal’s story, one thing the writers managed to convey very well was the sense of isolation and loneliness that many people with mental health issues feel. I’ve been in Su’Kal’s shoes, feeling trapped and fearful, and from that point of view the depiction was something understandable and that did a good job conveying its message. Though the current state of the world wasn’t known at the time Season 3 was being written and filmed, there’s also a strong metaphor in someone who feels trapped, isolated, and disconnected, stuck in an artificial world. Many people watching in 2021 can sympathise with Su’Kal far more than they would’ve been able to a year ago.
Saru and Dr Culber were both highlights of this storyline too. Both got the chance to show off their sympathetic sides, and while Saru was the focus, as he was someone who had more of a connection to Su’Kal, Dr Culber contributed too. Su’Kal’s ability at the end of the story to push through his fears and to understand what had happened was a result of both of their efforts. Adira didn’t interact much with Su’Kal himself, but it was an inspired choice to put them in this side of the story. I feared that Adira may have been shuffled away to the dilithium planet simply to give Stamets more of an intense emotional reaction, but they contributed to the story both by bringing the lifesaving medication and by helping the others work through some of the puzzles.
Gray becoming corporeal for the first time was also a fun part of the story on the dilithium planet. Having been a phantom presence all season, it was great to see Gray finally able to interact not only with the “real world” but also with other characters. Gray’s presence has yet to be explained – and it was left completely unclear as of the end of the episode whether Gray has been given a new holo-body or if he has returned to being someone only Adira can see. But Gray, despite really only participating in one sequence, did well in That Hope Is You, Part 2, and I hope his status is clarified so he can have a role in Season 4.
So the Burn and the action on the dilithium planet was the side of That Hope Is You, Part 2 that I felt was weakest. Now we come to the bulk of the episode, and I’m happy to say that I had a whale of a time with Burnham, Book, Tilly, Admiral Vance, and everyone else.
Scenes aboard Discovery played out like an action film for the second week in a row. There were some clichés, a couple of confusing moments, and one rather awkward line, but even so it was action-packed fun. Star Trek can do action very well, and it surprises me in some ways to see Trekkies criticising Discovery or the Kelvin timeline films for being “brainless action,” then turning around to heap praise on The Wrath of Khan or First Contact. That Hope Is You, Part 2 was up there with those films and other action-heavy stories in the franchise, and it’s one of the better examples of how Star Trek can be an action-sci fi franchise when it chooses to be.
What was great about this part of the episode’s story, considering how much of a Burnham-cenrtic show Discovery can be, is that other characters got to take turns being the action hero. We certainly got to see Burnham in that role, and perhaps if she’d been alone it would’ve continued the trend of making her, and her alone, the show’s focus. But Tilly and Book in particular got big moments that not only put them at the centre of the action, but gave them genuine agency over the story, driving it forward. Burnham played one role in a larger story as the crew struggled to regain control of the ship – and that’s something the show needs to do more of!
Burnham’s mission to the data core would have been useless had Tilly and the bridge officers not been able to force the ship out of warp, and if Book hadn’t been able to defeat Zareh she would have had a much harder time. So both of them got significant roles to play – even if we could argue that, narratively speaking, it would have been nice to see Tilly be the one to kill Zareh.
I just can’t bring myself to criticise Zareh’s death, though! Book has a loving attachment to Grudge, the beautiful cat who we’ve seen as a constant presence aboard his ship this season. And when Zareh threatened Grudge I got genuinely angry with him, so to see Book use that moment to regain his strength and send Zareh falling to his doom was incredibly satisfying and more than a little emotional. I have several cats, and they’re incredibly sweet animals. No one should threaten a kitty, so Zareh got exactly what was coming to him. And Book’s action hero quip as Zareh fell from the turbolift capped the sequence off perfectly. I honestly can’t fault it. Book got his heroic moment, the creepy, evil Zareh got a fitting end, and Grudge is safe! What more could you want?
The second action hero quip was Burnham’s, and it just didn’t quite stick the landing in the same way! As Osyraa pushed Burnham into a wall of programmable matter in the data core, she said that she “already tried that [negotiating] with Vance. I won’t make that mistake again!” and then, moments later when Burnham shot and killed her, she responded by saying “Yeah, well… unlike you… I never quit.” And I honestly burst out laughing, because the response to Osyraa was just so unrelated to what she’d said a moment earlier. It feels like it was written in response to a totally different line, and it doesn’t seem to make sense in context of what Osyraa said. Osyraa never mentioned quitting, she never said that Burnham should quit, or that she had quit doing something… so it just doesn’t follow. It’s a non sequitur. The writers wanted to give Burnham an action hero line, but unlike Book’s, which is almost his catchphrase any time someone talks about Grudge, Burnham’s just didn’t make sense.
In fact it reminded me of that moment in Family Guy where they make a big joke about action movie lines. Peter Griffin uses the famous line from Lethal Weapon 2: “it’s just been revoked,” but does so in completely the wrong context. And that’s kind of how Burnham’s line felt here. That might be due to script rewrites and revisions but even so, more attention should have been paid to this line. If we’re comparing That Hope Is You, Part 2 to an action film, this was the climax of the hero-versus-villain story, and if they wanted to give Burnham a hero quip to round it off… it needed to at least make sense in context. And I know that picking on one line is a minor thing. Compared to how well the storyline as a whole worked it’s incidental, but I wanted to highlight it as it made me laugh in the moment.
There are a couple of points from this side of the story that I feel may be prone to criticism, and I want to look at each in turn. First is the sequence in the turboshafts – or rather, in the large empty space beyond the corridors on some of Discovery’s decks. This is new to Star Trek, and while there are spacious areas inside some starships that we’ve seen – particularly in engineering sections – I can foresee that some fans may feel that this huge area isn’t what they expected the inside of the ship to look like. While I don’t personally have an issue with it, and I would suggest it may be connected to engineering, the Spore Drive, or programmable matter as explanations for the large spacious area, I didn’t want to ignore this point, as it does represent a change to how starships in general – and the USS Discovery in particular – have usually been shown.
The second point is Book’s ability to fly the ship. I would argue that Aurellio, Tilly, and Stamets have all set up this moment at points throughout the season, hinting at ways to expand the Spore Drive beyond Stamets, so I don’t think it came from nowhere. I do think, however, that we could have seen a little more of Aurellio talking about or even just mentioning the possibility for empaths to connect to the mycelial network. There was an opportunity for him to have done so last week when he and Stamets talked for some time about Spore Drive options – this would certainly have better set up what was to come. As a story point, though, I don’t dislike it, and perhaps a second Spore Drive can be created for another Starfleet vessel as a result. Other members of Book’s tribe or race may even be able to join up with Starfleet to serve as Spore Drive operators, and even if only Book and Stamets can use it, well at least Discovery now has a backup!
Osyraa fell into the Bond villain trap of leaving the crew to be killed slowly and then rushing off to do something else. While Tilly, Owosekun, Detmer, Bryce, Rhys, and random dark-haired bridge officer (what happened to Nilsson?) were slowly suffocating, they managed to come up with a plan to regain control of the ship. Burnham gave Tilly an instruction via the intercom and Tilly rallied the crew to set off a bomb in one of the nacelles – knocking Discovery out of warp.
I’ll forgive the minor contrivance of Osyraa leaving them to suffocate. It’s the kind of thing I could imagine her doing, and again if we’re using the action film analogy, it’s something we see often enough. Tilly remained in control of her officers, and handled herself well in what were undeniably difficult circumstances. Her line to them that they didn’t need to join her on what looked to be a suicide mission was very much something we could imagine other Star Trek captains saying – and indeed we have seen other captains in the past telling their senior officers that a mission is voluntary. Despite losing the ship to Osyraa, Tilly stepped up and was a big factor in being able to regain control of it.
My only criticism of this side of the story is that the stakes were lowered significantly when no one was killed. Even when it seemed as if Owosekun wouldn’t survive the explosion, a last-second intervention by the Sphere data in one of the remaining DOT 23 robots saved her life. Since returning to the small screen in 2017, Star Trek has not been shy to follow the trail blazed by some other big television projects – like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones – and kill of major and secondary characters. Star Trek: Picard Season 1 had a pretty big death toll of both new and legacy characters – yet no one at all died in this storyline, despite the superficial dangers posed to the crew. In fact, Ryn was the only casualty on the heroes’ side all season.
Killing a character for shock value or just for the sake of it is not what I’m advocating. But over the last decade or so, the well-executed death of a major or secondary character can add to the stakes of a storyline, making it clear that there is significant danger and emphasising to the audience that quite literally anything could happen. In Star Trek: Discovery, being a major character seems to provide a degree of plot armour, and that risks dropping the tension at some of these key moments.
I was pleased to see that Aurellio – the scientist working for Osyraa – wasn’t on board with her methods. But this was one point where perhaps an extra minute or two was needed to show him firmly break away from her and the Emerald Chain and join up with Burnham and the crew. After making his protest and being rendered unconscious, Aurellio didn’t really have much of an opportunity to do or say anything else. We saw him briefly on the bridge later on, but that was it. This character had been set up so well last week that his significantly reduced role this time was just a little disappointing. Hopefully we can see more of Aurellio in Season 4 and beyond.
That Hope Is You, Part 2 went out of its way to show Osyraa at her worst, in order to make her irredeemable and justify Burnham killing her later on. Torturing Book was a big part of that, and the sequence in which she and Zareh used the mind control device first introduced a couple of weeks ago as an implement of torture was truly gruelling to watch – in the best possible way! Both David Ajala and Sonequa Martin-Green put in outstanding performances, and I wanted to highlight how well they played their roles. It’s easy to either under- or over-sell such an extreme moment – both in terms of the pain experienced by the victim and the emotional turmoil their partner is going through when forced to watch – but both actors hit the sweet spot and were pitch-perfect.
Admiral Vance, Lieutenant Willa, and Kovich had some short but interesting moments at Federation HQ as they organised the defence of their base against the Emerald Chain. I was concerned for Vance in particular – if no one aboard Discovery were to be killed, I thought he was probably the writers’ main target! There was organised chaos at Federation HQ as Discovery, under Osyraa’s command, ran amok inside. It was really neat to see the ships battling within this confined space at the beginning of the episode, as well as seeing Osyraa know just where to hit the base to take down its shield wall.
The arrival of the fleet from Ni’Var was one of those stirring emotional moments up there with the arrival of the Kelpiens and Klingons in the Season 2 finale, Riker showing up in the Picard Season 1 finale, or the Enterprise-E sweeping in to battle the Borg in First Contact. I adored this moment, and it felt like the beginning of the Federation coming back together – a payoff to Burnham and Saru’s diplomatic efforts throughout thr season. It was a little early in the story, perhaps, but there’s no taking away from the fantastic way it felt when the fleet arrived.
A couple of weeks ago, I said that the end of the season seemed formulaic and obvious – save or neutralise Su’Kal to prevent a second Burn, retake Discovery from Osyraa, and use the dilithium in the Verubin Nebula to power and reunite the Federation. And although I didn’t predict how exciting and action-packed that storyline would be, I was right. The end of the season was mapped out in Su’Kal, and Discovery stuck to the path. Not every show has to have twists and turns and shockingly unexpected moments, but I was still hopeful, even as That Hope Is You, Part 2 entered its final moments, that something different may have come along to shake things up.
For all the reasons given above, the Burn is the least interesting and most underwhelming part of both the season and its finale. However, despite that, I had a truly great time with That Hope Is You, Part 2. It’s true that the story unfolded exactly how I would have expected it to for the last two weeks, and it’s also the case that there were some tropes and clichés along the way. But there’s a reason why these action-oriented stories work, and That Hope Is You, Part 2 hit all the right notes in that regard. It was a solid, incredibly fun, action-packed episode of Star Trek.
Burnham assuming command of Discovery has been a goal that the series has been trying to reach since Season 1. Shuffling Saru off to Kaminar with only a brief explanation would not have been my first choice for getting there, because I feel his character deserved more respect than that. But that’s where we are – Captain Burnham. Her stupid disobeying of orders in the episode Scavengers and her struggle to come to terms with that in Unification III do undeniably undermine her ascent to the captaincy. And perhaps we need to step back when the dust settles and look at Burnham across all three seasons to see whether she really meets the criteria. Right now though, as of the time I’m writing this, her becoming captain not only works well, but it feels great too.
Starfleet has always been willing to bend the rules to accommodate talent; it’s a meritocratic organisation. Admiral Vance made his reasoning plain: Burnham may not always follow the exact letter of the rules, but she follows their spirit. She’s willing to make changes and sacrifices to adapt to the moment she’s in, and those are certainly strong qualifications for becoming a captain. Captains Kirk and Janeway in particular bent or broke the rules numerous times, and Picard, Archer, and Sisko were not immune to that either. Knowing how and when to work around the rules is part of what has always made for a great Starfleet captain. Burnham has that ability – and we’ve seen across all three seasons that she’s a natural leader, too.
The crew want to follow Burnham. They respected Saru, of course, but they love Burnham and they’re willing to follow her literally anywhere – or to any time. There are lingering issues which I hope will be picked up in Season 4 – notably with Stamets, who still seems unhappy with Burnham after she kicked him off the ship last week. But everyone else is fully on board with Captain Burnham, ready for her to lead them on to new adventures.
Where I criticised her earlier in the season for her lack of commitment to Starfleet, that has been resolved too. She felt that she might no longer fit in within the rigid confines of a Starfleet rulebook and uniform, but it turns out that she has at least some freedom to bend those rules to achieve important goals. And that does not come from nowhere. She earned that right across all three seasons of the show. She can be selfish, and she can be overly emotional, and as we saw in the Season 1 premiere she can be a complete idiot. But with a crew around her to support and advise her, with Book by her side as an emotional foundation, and having settled into her position in Starfleet, I can’t fault Admiral Vance – or Star Trek: Discovery – for putting her in the captain’s chair.
If you’d told me three or four weeks ago that I was going to say that, I would never have believed it! But that is the strength of the second half of the season. Beginning really with The Sanctuary and running through to the season finale this week, Burnham has grown in leaps and bounds and the series has put in the work to make it feel that she earned her promotion. Where I called her arrogant and selfish I can now see a character with strength and commitment, and that’s not only because she has seen this character development, it’s also because Discovery took at least some of the focus away from her and allowed other characters to shine.
Discovery isn’t an ensemble show, but giving some significant plot threads to characters other than Burnham and spending time with them instead of largely with her has contributed to getting her to where she is at the end of the season finale. There was a sense in some earlier episodes that no other character would be allowed to do anything other than ride on Burnham’s coattails, and I was pleading with the series to allow someone else to do something of consequence… and then it happened. And not only was the show itself better for it, but so was Burnham. Freed from being the “chosen one” who was somehow destined to play the only significant role, her victories truly feel like her own. She accomplished a lot, not just this week but across the latter part of the season, and the work put into developing her character, stabilising her, and getting her ready for a leadership role ultimately paid off.
There are, as noted, open questions at the end of That Hope Is You, Part 2. Saru’s status is perhaps the biggest, but I’d also like to know what became of Nhan and whether Earth has been in touch with the Federation. But those questions will have to be left for Season 4 to answer – whenever that may come.
So that was That Hope Is You, Part 2. And that was Star Trek: Discovery Season 3. For the first time in almost six months, there’s no new Star Trek to talk about! But don’t despair, because I still have to bring my Season 3 theories to a close. In addition, over the next few weeks I’ll take a look at the season as a whole, the Burn, Burnham herself, and other things we learned over the last few weeks.
There is more Star Trek just over the horizon – Lower Decks Season 2 may be coming out this year, and will finally get its international broadcast in just a couple of weeks’ time. We also have Prodigy to look forward to this year all being well. And you can bet that there’ll be news about Picard, the Section 31 series, Strange New Worlds, and other Star Trek projects coming before too long. It’s a wonderful time to be a Star Trek fan! Despite some gripes with part of its story, That Hope Is You, Part 2 was a great way to bring to an end this season and to the 23 weeks of Star Trek we’ve been lucky to enjoy.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the franchise.
I had a wonderful time with There Is A Tide this week. It was a fantastic episode jam-packed with action and excitement. But when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a lot left to do in terms of story! It’s possible, as I suggested in my review, that Season 3 will end on a cliffhanger with key storylines deliberately unresolved. If that isn’t the case, however, the upcoming season finale has an awful lot of story left to wade through – and I’m concerned that it may not be possible to give everything a satisfactory resolution.
We’ll have to wait to see what the season finale brings. Until then, we have a few more theories to discuss! This week we have two confirmations and not a lot else. Let’s look at those first before we dive into the main theory list.
Confirmed theory #1: Zareh returned.
Though his return was spoilt a little by the recap that played before the episode began, I was pleased to see Zareh return. He was a glorified bully when we met him in Far From Home, and despite his defeat by Saru and Georgiou, appears to have been promoted within the Emerald Chain. I felt certain that he would be back considering we didn’t see him killed on screen, and I was right.
Zareh bookends the story of the season in a way – he was the first adversary the crew faced after arriving in the 32nd Century, and he is now a significant opponent as the season draws to a close. I don’t expect him to survive the season finale, but if Osyraa is killed off he may be kept alive to assume command of the Emerald Chain. In the event that the season finale leaves big questions open, we could head into Season 4 with Zareh as a major antagonist – but we’ll have to wait and see!
Confirmed theory #2: Zora (a.k.a. the Sphere data) will help the crew retake the ship.
Though we had to wait for the closing scene of the episode to see this theory come true, the Sphere data has allied itself with Tilly and the remaining bridge crew as they hope to retake Discovery.
The Sphere data was seen protecting itself in Season 2 – refusing to allow itself to be destroyed even when Control was coming for it. This season, it stepped in on at least two occasions to help out the crew, and it seemed certain that the Sphere data would not allow itself to be commandeered by Osyraa and the Emerald Chain. It has transferred itself into three DOT robots – which are absolutely adorable – and will help Tilly fight back against Osyraa.
So those theories were confirmed in this week’s episode. Now we come to the main theory list.
Number 1: Aurellio is married to Osyraa.
The first of two Aurellio theories is a pretty short and simple one. Stamets noted that Aurellio’s partner is Orion. Osyraa, as far as we can tell, is an Orion. Aurellio and Osyraa speak highly of each other. So it’s at least possible that they are a couple.
This feels almost too obvious – so perhaps it won’t come to pass! There was also a suggestion that Osyraa is much older than Aurellio, which may count against this theory. However, they clearly have a connection, and unless Osyraa is on such friendly terms with all of her scientists, perhaps there’s more going on than just a professional relationship.
Number 2: Aurellio will stand up to Osyraa.
In my review of There Is A Tide I compared Aurellio to Albert Speer – the Nazi German architect and minister. In the years after 1945, Speer would claim that he knew nothing of the Nazi regime’s crimes, that he was absorbed in his work, and that the atrocities happened without his knowledge. Aurellio, in his conversation with Stamets, seemed to demonstrate a comparable lack of awareness about the Emerald Chain and Osyraa.
However, there were hints through Kenneth Mitchell’s amazing performance that Aurellio is beginning to realise that he’s working for the “bad guys.” Having seen Osyraa murder Ryn in cold blood, as well as threaten Zareh, his loyalty to her and the Emerald Chain may be wavering.
Given that he’s clearly an incredibly clever scientist, he could be very useful to the Federation. If part of the plan for Season 4 involves replicating the Spore Drive so that it can be used to power the Federation, I can see Aurellio having a major role in that story. Or in any other story Season 4 may wish to tell. But first he needs to break free from Osyraa – and I have a suspicion that he will!
Number 3: One of the officers with Tilly will be killed.
When Tilly told the officers with her that they would keep going to the bridge no matter what, was she foreshadowing someone’s demise? With her, as far as I could see, are Detmer, Owosekun, Bryce, Rhys, and at least one other character. Killing any of them would be impactful, as they’ve all been part of the series since the beginning.
Detmer had her own (underdeveloped) storyline this season, and was someone I speculated may be killed off. For several weeks I theorised that she’d meet her end – could this be the moment it happens?
Tilly and the officers with her are about to take on a very difficult and dangerous task. I doubt we’ll see Tilly killed, but any of the others who are accompanying her are perhaps about to meet their end.
Number 4: The Federation’s allies will arrive to help them battle the Emerald Chain.
Before continuing her Die Hard-inspired fight to reclaim Discovery, Burnham sent an emergency transmission to her mother. Assuming this transmission was received, Dr Burnham may begin rallying the people of Ni’Var to aid Discovery and the Federation.
Across the season, Saru and the crew made many friends. Former Federation members like Trill, Earth, and Ni’Var, as well as worlds like Kwejian were all aided by Discovery, something which greatly impressed their respective leaders. Faced with an attack on the Federation, could some or all of these once-united factions rally to Starfleet’s aid?
We saw something similar at the climax of Season 2, with Kelpiens and Klingons arriving at the last moment to help Pike and Saru as they battled Control, so it would not be without precedent. At the very least, I expect Burnham’s mother – who is now a Qowat Milat nun – will want to do something to help, especially given the desperate-sounding tone of the message she received.
Number 5: The Burn will receive a different explanation.
At the very least, the explanation for the Burn needs to be expanded upon. A couple of throwaway lines, heavy on technobabble, are not adequate to explain the season’s biggest mystery. If it’s true that Su’kal’s telepathic connection to dilithium is what caused the Burn, we need to know more about how and why that was able to happen.
It’s at least possible, given that There Is A Tide sidestepped the Burn altogether this week, that the season finale has a big surprise in store for this storyline. Perhaps Su’kal is not responsible for the Burn after all, or if he is, it’s because he was either genetically modified or otherwise coerced into it by someone else.
This is perhaps more of a hope than anything, because I feel that the Burn’s explanation was poor. I’d like to do a retrospective on the Burn at some point when the season is over, but suffice to say that this mystery had been set up as early as the first Season 3 trailer more than a year ago, and the Burn itself was named in the second trailer before the season premiered. We’ve been wrangling with this colossal event and its mysterious origin ever since, and its explanation – the way things sit right now, at least – is horribly anticlimactic. Su’kal’s story might’ve worked were it a single one-off episode, but not as the resolution to a season-long arc. There’s also, as mentioned, the disturbing implication of a man with severe mental disabilities causing such a disaster, even accidentally.
Number 6: The Burn is the result of a superweapon – perhaps one the Federation or Section 31 built.
Connected to the theory above, perhaps Su’kal either did not cause the Burn at all, or was forced into doing so as the culmination of some kind of superweapon project.
We’ve seen in past Star Trek shows stories about genetic enhancements and shadowy organisations exploiting and weaponising the unique abilities of people. Could there be another dimension to Su’kal? Perhaps he quite literally is a weapon, one designed for this very purpose – to attack the Federation’s enemies (or the Federation) through a coordinated attack on dilithium.
Though it seems like Su’kal is indeed the source of the Burn, another source may be revealed, absolving him of blame. I noted that his “scream” did not actually cause a second Burn – even though characters feared it came close – so perhaps there’s something else at play here that we don’t yet know. That other factor could be this superweapon – and it may be designed to target the Federation’s enemies, like the Borg.
Number 7: There will be a resolution to the story of Calypso (the Short Treks episode).
The main point from Calypso which is still unresolved is how Discovery ended up in a nebula abandoned. And if, as has been hinted through the use of the term V’draysh, Calypso takes place sometime around the 32nd Century, how did the ship end up back in time?
The Verubin Nebula initially seemed to offer a partial explanation, but not only was Discovery not present there, the nebula itself is very different to the one inhabited by Zora, so that option seems to be off the table.
I have no clue how this circle will be squared – but it’s still possible that it will be, especially given how much progress we’ve seen toward unpicking the mysteries of Calypso this season.
Number 8: The Spore Drive will become Starfleet’s new method of faster-than-light propulsion.
Though we don’t know how Osyraa came to know about the Spore Drive, figuring out a way to roll it out to vessels other than Discovery was a major theme in There Is A Tide. Both Aurellio and Tilly have proposed theories for how the use of the Spore Drive could be expanded, so we have to consider this a possibility.
If the dilithium in the Verubin Nebula is not able to be used to power the Emerald Chain, Starfleet, and other factions, the problem of how to travel faster-than-light still remains. And right now, the Spore Drive is really the only way I can see to allow any of the galaxy’s factions to do so. That’s why Osyraa wants Discovery so badly – not just to use the ship, but to copy its technology.
If, as predicted above, Aurellio turns on Osyraa, he could become instrumental in figuring out how to reverse-engineer the Spore Drive and the tardigrade’s DNA in order to make this a viable option. This could be part of the storyline for Season 4, so if there’s no resolution next week, this theory may simply roll over.
Number 9: A character from a past iteration of Star Trek – such as the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager – will make an appearance.
I’ve been advocating this theory in some form since before the season premiered. Though we have had some tie-ins with past iterations of the Star Trek franchise – and even seen a familiar entity return depending on how you categorise the Guardian of Forever – it would still be nice to get a major character back in some form.
There were hints this week about the Federation President – a role we’ve seen in past iterations of the franchise – so perhaps we could see a returning character occupy this position. That said, the references to the Federation President served only to allow the familiar character of Vance to conduct negotiations with Osyraa, so that may be a non-starter.
As I said last time, maybe the only way this theory could come true is as a kind of epilogue or coda after the main storylines have concluded; perhaps even as a tease to the events of Season 4. It would certainly be difficult – but not impossible – to bring back a major character from Star Trek’s past at this juncture, given the complicated nature of the story overall. Given that there’s also no clear way that a returning character could have an impact on the story without that impact seeming to come from nowhere, perhaps we won’t see any significant character crossovers this season.
Number 10: The Dax symbiont is still alive.
This one is looking increasingly unlikely, because the two locations where Dax could have appeared have both seemingly come and gone without them: most notably the Trill homeworld in Forget Me Not, but also Federation HQ in Die Trying. However, there are hints at a lifespan for Trill symbionts that may be exceptionally long, in which case Dax could very well still be alive in the 32nd Century.
Obviously we won’t see Ezri Dax (barring some bizarre time travel/stasis storyline) but the symbiont itself could have lived this long. When Adira “met” the Tal symbiont’s former hosts in Forget Me Not, one was wearing a Star Trek: Picard-era uniform, hinting that Tal may have lived 700+ years. There are production-side explanations for this Easter egg, and as stated the fact that two of the best opportunities so far to meet Dax have come and gone most likely means it won’t happen this season. But I’m sticking to my guns on this one: Dax is alive!
Number 11: Kovich is an agent of Section 31.
Kovich was presented as one of Starfleet Intelligence or Security’s senior people – perhaps someone brought in to deal with particularly complicated or dangerous situations. Thus it was a bit of a surprise not to see him this week when Osyraa arrived. His mysterious nature has led me to think he could be an agent of Section 31.
He knew a lot about the Terran Empire, and had access to classified files. He also seems to know more about certain events than he lets on; he allowed Georgiou’s health condition to manifest itself rather than warning anyone, for example, which would seem to be a pretty immoral thing to do!
The main way Kovich could have been revealed as a Section 31 operative would be if the secretive organisation had something to do with the Burn. As noted above, there is still that possibility in some form, but it feels remote. We don’t know if Kovich will be back before the end of the season, especially given how much story the season finale seems to have to get through. If we don’t see him, though, perhaps this theory will roll over to next season!
Number 12: The ban on time travel is being flouted – possibly by secretive elements within the Federation.
Admiral Vance clearly believes that the ban on time travel is intact and being followed. Kovich indicated that he does too – but I’m not sure how far I trust him. Is he an agent of Section 31?
It’s impossible to un-invent a powerful, useful, weaponisable technology, no matter how hard you try. Considering how crappy the 32nd Century seems to be, are we convinced that nobody at all is using time travel to try to give themselves an advantage? Not the Dominion? Not the Borg? Not Section 31? Seems unlikely to me, though for production-side reasons of wanting to keep the timeline intact and to avoid overcomplicating the plot we might be told this is true.
It’s possible that this theory will roll over to Season 4 if, as seems likely, the Burn is unconnected to time travel.
Number 13:Discovery Season 3 is taking place in an alternate timeline or parallel universe.
After the Guardian of Forever’s definitive statement on the issue in Terra Firma, it now seems all but certain that Discovery Season 3 is in the Prime universe – the same one as every Star Trek production from Enterprise to Picard. However, it’s still at least possible that, due to time travel or for some other reason, the Burn was not “supposed” to happen.
Thus the ultimate solution to the Burn and the storyline of the season may be to go back to before Su’kal’s ship entered the Verubin Nebula and prevent that from ever happening, wiping this timeline from existence and restoring the “true” timeline.
I don’t believe this would be a good way to go. As a one-off story, an episode set in a timeline that is ultimately overwritten can work. We can look at episodes like Timeless from Voyager or Yesterday’s Enterprise from The Next Generation. But to wipe away the vast majority of an entire season, including presumably characters like Book and Vance, just feels like too much. It would render much of what the crew did – like helping the peoples of Earth, Trill, and Ni’Var – meaningless, and while it would set up another “blank slate” in time for Season 4, I’d rather see Discovery build on this season’s successes. Even if Discovery and her crew remembered what happened, wiping it all out feels like a bad way to go – but one that’s still possible.
Number 14: The ships at Federation HQ represent the majority of Starfleet’s remaining vessels. And they’re all 120+ years old.
We didn’t get to see any kind of major space battle between Osyraa’s forces and Starfleet in There Is A Tide, so the status of the Federation’s remaining ships is not really clear. As I’ve been saying for weeks, though, it seems at least plausible that the rump Federation may only have a handful of ships available – with scarce dilithium for fuel, there is no way to maintain a huge armada, even if the ships were undamaged. It also seems reasonable to assume that Starfleet’s shipbuilding facilites were damaged or destroyed in the Burn, and that building new ships has been difficult – if not impossible for the fractured organisation – ever since.
Are there more ships beyond those few docked at HQ (and the two Mr Sahil noted)? And those ships may very well be old – they seemed new and futuristic to Discovery’s crew, but that could all be pre-Burn technology, meaning that Osyraa has the upper hand if the Emerald Chain has developed new weapons and technologies. We saw in People of Earth that quantum torpedoes were still in use, for example.
If there is to be a climactic battle between Starfleet and the Emerald Chain, perhaps we’ll learn more about the remaining Starfleet vessels at that time. If not, well it still seems like a theory that has merit!
Number 15: Saru is going to die.
There Is A Tide ignored Saru, Su’kal, Culber, and Adira, who were all left behind in the Verubin Nebula. Though they were mentioned – most significantly by Stamets as he pleaded to go to rescue them – the story focused on the battle to retake Discovery and on Vance’s negotiations with Osyraa. Thus this theory was not really advanced in any way.
We don’t know how much time There Is A Tide is supposed to have covered – it could easily be several hours, though, and Dr Culber told Burnham that if more than a day were to pass, there would be “no point” in staging a rescue as they would all be dead. I don’t expect this will be the way Saru would be killed off, but it’s a possibility.
Saru is torn between a desire to help Su’kal and his duty to Discovery. Given that he’s not thinking clearly, perhaps he will make a mistake or take a risk that results in his death. He may sacrifice himself to help Su’kal in some way, or to buy time for Culber and Adira to escape. There are many ways this could play out, but it’s at least a possibility that Saru will not survive the season.
Number 15A: Burnham will assume the captaincy of Discovery.
If Saru is killed – however that may come to pass – there will once again be a vacancy in the captain’s chair. Tilly as first officer always felt like a temporary thing, as indeed Saru himself explained when he offered her the role, and after losing the ship to Osyraa so easily there’s absolutely no way she could retain the captaincy – or even the XO position.
That would leave the captain’s chair empty with no obvious replacement. Senior officers such as Stamets or bridge crew like Nilsson or Bryce don’t seem plausible for story reasons, and with Discovery being such a Burnham-centric series, she feels like the only option. Well, unless the plan is to bring in yet another new character!
Number 16: Admiral Vance is going to be killed.
Despite standing face-to-face with Osyraa this week, Admiral Vance survived. However, there may be a battle still to come, and it’s at least possible that he – as the man leading the fight – won’t survive the onslaught from Osyraa’s forces.
If the writers wanted to kill of a character we’ve spent a lot of time with this season – but not one of Discovery’s crew – Vance is pretty much the only option. His death could make the conflict with the Emerald Chain feel more impactful, and while I would be sad to see him go as I think he’s been a great character, it would open up the story to go in different directions in Season 4.
Number 16A: Saru will become an Admiral, and Burnham will become captain of Discovery.
Although Su’kal took Saru off the rails, showing us that he isn’t always calm and level-headed, his earlier time in the captain’s chair this season went remarkably well. His diplomatic efforts in particular may yet pay off – bringing former Federation members back into the fold. If that were to happen, perhaps he will be promoted, becoming an Admiral and even assuming the position of Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet if Vance is killed.
If he departs Discovery to head up Starfleet, the captaincy of the ship is once again open. And for the reasons listed above, Burnham seems to be the only real candidate.
As I’ve said in the past, Burnham assuming command feels like a goal Discovery has been trying to reach since Season 1. Perhaps this could be the moment it gets there.
Number 17: Tilly will resign as first officer and Burnham will return to the position.
Tilly did well in There Is A Tide, and doesn’t seem to have let the capture of Discovery completely ruin her confidence. She led the remaining bridge officers out of captivity and seems well-placed to lead an insurgency to retake the ship.
Despite that, however, she did lose the ship to begin with – and Osyraa captured Discovery from her with ease. It seems unlikely she could retain her position as First Officer, and while I doubt it will be stripped from her, she may very well choose to resign the position. It feels as though her arc over these few episodes will be to recognise her own lack of experience and unsuitability for command. She may grow into that role in the future – and perhaps Captain Tilly will be a Star Trek series in a few years’ time! But right now she clearly isn’t the right fit.
If Saru survives and remains in command – which he very well may, it has to be said – that would open up the first officer’s position. Burnham is again the logical candidate, despite the broken trust between her and Saru. She advised him to remain with Su’kal, speaking honestly to him in that moment, and perhaps he will recognise that and reward her for it. Now that she seems to have put her doubts about her role in Starfleet aside, she would be a good first officer.
Number 18: Saru, Burnham, or somebody else will use the Guardian of Forever to send the USS Discovery back in time.
Assuming that the Red Angel suit is truly gone, and that no one is violating the ban on time travel, the Guardian of Forever is the only way to travel through time that we know of in the 32nd Century. While I can see no pressing need to send Discovery back in time at this juncture, if such a need arose, the Guardian of Forever is about the only option for doing so.
I wrote in my review of Su’kalthat the route to the end of the season feels “formulaic” – defeat the Emerald Chain, save or neutralise Su’kal to prevent a reoccurrence of the Burn, and use the dilithium planet in the Verubin Nebula to power the Federation, giving it the (literal and figurative) fuel to bring wayward planets back into the fold. There Is A Tide began the process of retaking the ship but didn’t complete that story, so the end of the season is still up in the air.
Even though I can’t foresee a reason why, it’s possible Discovery will need to go back in time, and the Guardian of Forever could help with that.
Number 19: Dr Issa is a descendant of Saru’s sister Siranna.
The actress who played Dr Issa, Hannah Spear, also played Saru’s sister Siranna in Short Treks and in Season 2. Why bring her back to play a different Kelpien – especially considering they look identical? My guess is that there is a familial connection there – Dr Issa may be a distant descendant of Siranna.
Though Saru was – for some reason – reluctant to share this information, the glowing patches seen on Dr Issa indicated pregnancy. Is this a trait all Kelpiens have? If so, why cover it up from the crew? Perhaps the answer is that the glowing patches are something only some Kelpiens have – such as those in Saru’s family. That could be how he knew what the glowing spots meant, and why he didn’t volunteer that information sooner.
I should note that it remains a distant possibility that Dr Issa and Siranna are meant to literally be the same character; that somehow, post vahar’ai Kelpiens live very long, or for some other as-yet-unknown reason. But I think a family connection is more likely.
Number 20: The dilithium planet will be destroyed.
The dilithium planet reminded me at least a little of the Genesis planet in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That planet was similarly dangerous and unstable, and was ultimately destroyed. Could the dilithium planet in the Verubin Nebula share its fate?
The main reason why I consider this theory at least plausible is that it would be a major twist on the expected end to the season. Rather than the ridiculous amount of dilithium being used to restore the Federation, it would instead be destroyed, leaving the post-Burn galaxy still with limited travel options.
This in turn could set the stage for Discovery’s Spore Drive being duplicated and rolled out across the fleet – as we discussed above.
Number 21: The “monster” is the real Su’kal.
The “monster” which inhabits Su’kal’s holo-world is interesting. Why would his mother or the other Kelpiens programme such a creature? Yes it’s a legend from Kaminar, but to create a holographic monster in a programme designed for a child? They may not have had long to build the programme – which explains the basic nature of some of the other holograms – so why go to all the trouble of creating this one? And why doesn’t it flicker or glow in the same manner as the others, nor seem to have degraded over time?
My theory is that the so-called “monster” – which has a Kelpien appearance – is the real Su’kal; old, decrepit, and badly mutated by a lifetime of radiation exposure that can supposedly kill within hours. The “monster” did not behave like a hologram, did not appear like the other holograms, and when Burnham encountered it it seemed to regard her with an almost-human curiousity.
Add into the mix that Su’kal appears to be far too young to have been present when the Burn occurred – 120-125 years earlier – and I think we have a solid theory.
Number 22: The “monster” is Dr Issa.
Another possibility for the true identity of the “monster” is Dr Issa, Su’kal’s mother. Though age is again a problem, if Kelpiens post-vahar’ai are especially long-lived she may have survived this long, but without the same level of protection from the radiation she may have mutated and been burned by it. The question of Dr Issa is interesting – was she just a basic plot device; a lure to drag Saru to the nebula? Or is there more to this character than a fraction of a distress call and her son?
The “monster” is one of the most interesting elements to come out of Su’kal, in my opinion, and there seem to be clues that all may not be as it seems. Obviously this theory and the one above can’t both be right – but even if neither are true, there could be more to the “monster” than we expect.
So that’s it. My final batch of theories as we approach the season finale. This won’t be my final theory post; next week after the finale has aired I’ll be back to check out any confirmations or debunkings, and perhaps to set the stage for any Season 4 or spin-off theories that I have. Then, later in the year, I may revisit some of my theories from this season to assess what I got right and got wrong! I did something similar for Star Trek: Picard a few months ago, and it was fun to go back to some of my theories knowing how the story of the season played out. So stay tuned for that!
There’s only one remaining episode before 23 weeks of Star Trek comes to an end. All being well there will be more Star Trek to come this year – both the second season of Lower Decks and the first season of the kid-friendly show Prodigy are, as far as we know, targeting a 2021 broadcast. Discovery Season 4 has entered pre-production, and depending how things go for all sorts of reasons, it’s possible we could see it before the end of the year. But that’s by no means certain!
Last week I felt that the road to the end of the season was obvious: save or neutralise Su’kal to prevent a second Burn, retake Discovery from Osyraa, and then use the dilithium planet in the Verubin Nebula to rebuild Starfleet and the Federation. There Is A Tide really only focused on one part of that – the battle over Discovery – and even then left it unresolved. As long as Osyraa remains in charge there seems no hope of a Federation-Emerald Chain treaty, and since we saw nothing from Saru and Su’kal this week I have to say it doesn’t feel like much has changed on that front. The only thing I would say that has changed my mind on how “formulaic” the end of the season risked feeling is that we may very well not see a resolution to the story, and we may instead be heading for a cliffhanger. We’ll have to see!
Please remember that these theories are just a bit of fun. Some may seem plausible – or even highly likely – but that doesn’t mean that this is the way the story will unfold. I’m just a guy with a website, I’m not claiming to have any “insider information,” nor am I saying that the theories postulated above will come true. No fan theory is worth getting so invested in that the actual story becomes disappointing or upsetting. Personally, as much as I love feeling like I predicted something that later appeared on screen, I also truly love being surprised by Star Trek and other franchises. That doesn’t mean writers should make silly or arbitrary decisions purely for shock value, but it does mean that when a theory of mine falls flat on its face, far from getting upset I revel in that. If we could all remember to take fan theories with a healthy pinch of salt, maybe there’d be a little less toxicity in certain areas of the fandom.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and for other iterations of the franchise.
For the second week in a row, there was a last-minute change in the title of an episode. Previously known asThe Good of the People, this week’s episode was retitled There Is A Tide… which is a line from Shakespeare. It’s been a long time since I studied the great bard, but this line is taken from a longer passage in Julius Caesar in which the character Brutus speaks of missed opportunities and the need to seize the “high tide” of life; acting when the moment presents itself or missing out and never achieving greatness. Epic stuff, right?
Last week Su’kal left me with mixed feelings, and I said that we needed to see its storylines play out to their conclusion before delivering final judgement. Despite that, I was critical of the technobabble explanation given for the Burn, as well as how easily Discovery was captured by Osyraa. I felt the final act of the season risked becoming formulaic, and its storyline may have been telegraphed ahead of time.
There Is A Tide was an action-packed thrill ride from start to finish, with some gut-wrenching choices for Burnham and Book as well as some desperately-needed development for the villainous Osyraa. I’m not 100% sure all of it made perfect in-universe sense; why, after all, would Osyraa take hostages if she sought an armistice? But aside from that, it was a thoroughly enjoyable episode.
What it lacked, though, was any advancement of last week’s primary story: Su’kal, the Burn, and those left behind in the nebula. With only one episode left, we need to have those storylines wrapped up in addition to the Emerald Chain-Federation conflict as well as seeing our crew retake the ship. Or do we? Could Discovery be setting up a big season-ending cliffhanger? Right now that feels like a real possibility. Beginning with The Next Generation’s Season 3 finale, The Best of Both Worlds, Star Trek has seen fourteen seasons end in such fashion – including Season 2 of Discovery.
As great as There Is A Tide was, it’s worth acknowledging the absence of any advancement of the Su’kal-Saru-Verubin Nebula story. It absolutely could be because there’s a feature-length episode or cliffhanger to come next week, but if that doesn’t happen I’m concerned that There Is A Tide has left the season finale with a huge amount of narrative to get through. I criticised the two–part finale of Star Trek: Picard for rushing too much and skipping over potentially interesting story threads, and I really hope Discovery won’t have the same issue.
There Is A Tide sidesteps the Burn altogether. While the event was discussed – notably by Osyraa and Admiral Vance – the Burn once again was not centre-stage. If there is to be any hope of a proper resolution to what has been the biggest mystery of the season beyond the couple of lines of technobabble we got last week, next week’s episode has a lot of work to do. And that really summarises my concern: taken as a standalone piece, There Is A Tide was non-stop excitement, action-packed, and fantastic… but by the end of its forty-six minutes, there remains a lot of work to do in terms of narrative.
So that’s enough about what may or may not happen in terms of the narrative structure next week. Let’s get into what There Is A Tide did right. First up, Osyraa. In her two appearances thus far, Osyraa has been flat, one-dimensional, and boring. Worse, she appeared to go from an easily-defeated cardboard cut-out adversary to a completely overpowered supervillain in between her two appearances. I didn’t find her compelling or even interesting; with no motivation beyond “I’m evil and I like it” she was just as bad as – if not worse than – Mirror Georgiou.
There Is A Tide changed that. Though some issues with Osyraa remain, the episode expanded on her character in a huge way, giving her a lot to do and showing off some genuine complexity and nuance. I’m not fully sold on her plan – which seems to have been to capture Discovery and use the ship and crew as leverage to force the Federation into… an alliance? But the way she went about it, both on the ship and at Federation HQ in her meeting with Vance provided some sorely-needed interest to her character.
We knew from Ryn a few episodes back that the Emerald Chain was running out of dilithium, and it’s this shortage that forced Osyraa to the negotiating table. While we don’t see the precise nature of her proposals, Admiral Vance considered it impressive that she was willing to offer such terms. Her motivation for doing so is, as the episode’s original title suggests, “for the good of the people.” Osyraa’s plan seemed to offer a trading arrangement and non-aggression pact with the Federation, and she made reference to one former Federation outpost that has already been trading with the Emerald Chain.
There are a couple of points from Admiral Vance’s response to consider, and both have to do with putting principles ahead of being practical. Burnham, as we’ve seen through her actions this season, is very much someone who will work around regulations and rules where necessary to get the right outcome – the ends justify the means. Vance, on the other hand, keeps his principles even if it means problems for himself and the Federation. Firstly he scuppers the deal by adding a requirement he knew Osyraa could not agree to – her standing trial for what he regards as her crimes. But secondly, and perhaps most interestingly, he allowed Osyraa to leave.
Organisations like the Emerald Chain – at least, the way it has been presented thus far – are often cults of personality, where a strong leader has all the power and influence. As we have seen many times both in history and fiction, the removal, arrest, or even embarrassment of such a leader can bring down their entire organisation. And so it is with Osyraa. If Vance had arrested her, detained her aboard Federation HQ, her underlings wouldn’t know what to do. It would have given him leverage to negotiate the release of Discovery and the crew, and it wouldn’t have done any harm to Federation-Chain relations given that the treaty was already a non-starter.
But I’m not criticising his decision as a narrative point. I think what we have with Vance is a contrast, not only to Burnham but to the way Saru was acting last time – both are impulsive, emotional, and bending the rules. Vance is steadfast – the Federation’s ideals and principles are not to be compromised, even if that means making life harder for himself and the Federation. While Burnham’s storyline in There Is A Tide is far more exciting, I would argue that Admiral Vance is the one who best embodies what Starfleet and the Federation are all about.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what the story of Season 3 has tried to be about? Rediscovering Starfleet’s values and placing them front-and-centre. That’s what Saru has tried to do with Earth, Trill, Ni’Var, Kweijan and so on. It seems at least plausible that these forces may come to the Federation’s aid if there’s a battle or war – like the Kelpiens and Klingons did against Control at the climactic fight in Season 2. If they do show up, it will be because they were inspired by Saru, Vance, and the principles they stick to.
On the other hand, as Burnham and other main characters have shown throughout Discovery’s run, rigid adherence to rules and principles isn’t always the right way to go. Compromise is sometimes needed – and Vance bottled a chance to do so. There’s a real-world message here, one which is a little odd given the polarising times we live through: moral absolutism is okay. Recent political events have reminded us of the need for compromise and to find ways to bridge the gap, yet Discovery seems to be saying that it’s fine to stick to idealism even if that means division and fighting continue.
Perhaps that’s enough politics for now! One character I loved in There Is A Tide was Aurellio, a man with a fittingly Shakespearean name! When it was announced before the beginning of the season that Kenneth Mitchell, who had played Kol in Season 1, Tenavik in Season 2, and a couple of other characters both in Discovery and Lower Decks, would be returning, I wasn’t sure how it would work. Mitchell has recently been diagnosed with ALS (motor neurone disease). There was no way for the series to ignore that – Mitchell uses a wheelchair now – but I was hopeful to see a character and storyline that treated disability respectfully. As you may recall if you’re a regular reader, I’m disabled myself.
I adored Aurellio, and Mitchell’s performance in the role. The way the series incorporated his standing-wheelchair was tasteful and sweet, and Aurellio being disabled was neither ignored nor tokenistic. The fact that Aurellio has – as he puts it – “a genetic defect” was not the only aspect to his character, who comes across as a scientist or technocrat who is unaware of the extent of the criminality and depravity of the organisation he works for. Shielded from the day-to-day running of the Emerald Chain, Aurellio is – perhaps wilfully but perhaps not – able to concentrate solely on his work.
Though this will not sound like a compliment, I regard Aurellio as being Albert Speer – or at least, the public persona claimed by Speer after 1945. There are people like Aurellio even in the worst organisations and regimes – blind to the worst aspects, focused only on their own small work. Often in these stories, a character like this will step up once their eyes are opened to what’s going on beyond the confines of their laboratory – and perhaps that’s something we’ll see next time or in a future story. I’ll save discussions of Aurellio’s possible future for my theory post.
Aurellio was tasked with working on the Spore Drive – though it remains unclear how the Emerald Chain came to know as much about it as they do. To that end he was teamed up with Stamets, and their tête-à-tête in Engineering was fascinating to watch; both Mitchell and Anthony Rapp put in outstanding performances during this sequence.
The plan Aurellio had to try to recreate the DNA of the tardigrade seems to have merit – or at least no less merit than any other technobabble in Star Trek. Perhaps with Stamets’ support it could be taken more seriously both by Starfleet and the Emerald Chain. Stamets objected, saying he believes it is not possible and that the tardigrades are extinct – but neither of those claims are supported by on-screen evidence. We’ve seen tardigrades referenced as recently as December 2019 in the Short Treks episode Ephraim and Dot. The nature of that story’s relationship to canon is not clear – but tardigrades are still alive and kicking within the Star Trek mythos, at least.
Earlier in the season Tilly was said to be working on a plan for a non-human navigator to replace Stamets; this is something that, while never followed up on, would have allowed the Spore Drive to perhaps be rolled out to other vessels. It’s understandable why Stamets wouldn’t want to discuss any of this with Aurellio – but we’ve seen in the past that he’s very happy to talk about his creation with other scientists.
Besides the plot-heavy conversation about the Spore Drive, two things stuck with me from the Aurellio-Stamets conversation. First was that Aurellio mentioned several times that he’s in a relationship and has children. Stamets figures out he’s in a relationship with “an Orion” – it’s not unreasonable to assume that this person could be Osyraa herself, but we’ll save that for my theory post! Next was that Stamets claimed to have a child of his own. Since, as far as we know, Stamets and Culber do not have any children, this appears to be a reference to Adira, which was incredibly sweet. There has been a parental vibe between Stamets and Adira for much of the season, so for Stamets to say it aloud here was wonderful.
This would go on to be at the heart of the Stamets-Burnham argument later on, with Stamets arguing for a return to the Verubin Nebula to save Culber and Adira, but Burnham insisting he needs to get off the ship to prevent Osyraa using him to take Discovery away from Federation HQ. Rapp put in his best performance of the season so far in There Is A Tide, especially as he desperately argued with Burnham to remain aboard the ship.
That scene was truly heartbreaking. Of all the moments in There Is A Tide, the sequence between Burnham and Stamets was perhaps the shortest, which is a shame; it could certainly have been expanded by a couple of minutes. But a lot was packed into their time together, as Burnham rendered Aurellio and a guard unconscious in order to get Stamets off the ship. She knew that by doing so she was endangering Saru, Culber, and Adira, but when faced with the prospect of Osyraa and the Emerald Chain keeping control of the ship she evidently deemed the sacrifice worth it.
Stamets’ protests as Burnham prepared to eject him from the ship grew more and more desperate, until in his final moments he seemed resigned; cursing her for what she was doing. Anthony Rapp ran the gauntlet of emotions in his scenes this week, and after Stamets hasn’t has that much to do across the season, it was wonderful to see him put in such an outstanding performance.
So we come to Burnham. This review is surely not going to be the first time you’ve heard this, but her story this week was basically Star Trek’s answer to ’80s action film (whose Christmassy status is debated) Die Hard! Crawling around in the Jeffries tubes and conversing with Zareh on the radio was clearly inspired by Bruce Willis’ character of John McClane, who spends much of Die Hard similarly sneaking around and conversing with his adversary by walkie-talkie. The Star Trek franchise has had many action-packed stories and moments over the years, but Burnham’s entire storyline this week has to be one of the best.
As I’d been predicting since his first appearance, Zareh was back. His return makes it feel as though the story of the season is beginning to come full-circle: we started with the revelation of the Burn and the initial conflicts with Emerald Chain couriers, and we’re ending with the Chain and the resolution to the Burn. Zareh bookends the season in a way, and I like that. It gives something more to the story than in Burnham was just facing off against a new unknown goon. The only drawback is that Zareh didn’t get to see Georgiou or Saru – the two characters who wronged him worse than Tilly.
At the beginning of Burnham’s story we saw her and Book navigating a “transwarp tunnel.” Whether this is part of the Borg network or not is unclear – as is the fate of the Borg, come to that. It was convenient that this network leads right to Federation HQ, but I suppose we can forgive such contrivances within the story! Book’s ship crash-landing was a more explosive and dramatic version of the shuttle crash in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. There was also a callback to Voyager, where Borg drones were ejected into space in a manner similar to Burnham kicking one of Zareh’s henchmen out into the vacuum of space. I appreciate that there are these little thematic, visual, or narrative nods within Discovery, even when the show isn’t overtly trying to relive Star Trek’s greatest hits.
It was horribly unfortunate for Burnham that, in her first encounter with one of Zareh’s men, she got stabbed. And my gosh that stab was absolutely brutal! Discovery has been much more gory and visceral with some of its depictions of injuries when compared with past iterations of Star Trek, and this was certainly one of the most visually brutal. The camera work and direction showed just how painful Burnham’s wound must’ve been for her, and the follow-up as she cauterised the wound with a phaser was equally gruesome. Wonder why she didn’t use a medical kit? Compared with the dodgy CGI involved in Mirror Burnham’s death a couple of episodes back, this injury was so much better from a visual standpoint, and worked perfectly within the story.
The injury likewise harkens back to Die Hard, as John McClane suffers injuries to his feet from walking on broken glass in that film. Both characters – Burnham and McClane – were left hobbling by their respective wounds, trailing blood as they crawled and snuck around. I have to assume these Die Hard throwbacks were deliberate on the part of director and Star Trek legend Jonathan Frakes. It’s by no means a carbon copy of that film, but anyone who’d seen Die Hard would struggle to miss the similarities!
Burnham succeeds in her initial objective – to free Stamets and smuggle him off the ship. However, the task of retaking the ship and defeating Osyraa and Zareh is pushed back to next week. Burnham got the bulk of the action this week, but she wasn’t the only one who got exciting scenes. Tilly and the secondary characters from the bridge managed to escape their confinement and defeat their guards, and the morse code tapping was another reference to The Final Frontier – and not to mention a very clever way to outwit the henchmen guarding them!
Ryn, who was initially with the group of bridge officers, lost his life by Osyraa’s hand. This mig