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.