What If…? Star Trek edition!

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Search for Spock, The Next Generation Season 3, Nemesis, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Star Trek 2009.

Over on Disney+, Marvel has recently put out a series of animated short films with a very interesting premise. These shorts asked what might’ve happened in the Marvel universe if circumstances had changed, characters had taken different actions, or things had ended differently.

Alternate history has always been a subject that fascinated me! So with that in mind, we’re going to consider a few “what ifs” from the Star Trek franchise – from an in-universe point of view, naturally! There are more than 800 Star Trek stories at time of writing, meaning that there are literally hundreds of potential scenarios where a different decision or different outcome could have radically changed the Star Trek galaxy.

Inspired by Marvel’s What If…? series, we’re going to put a Star Trek spin on this concept!

As always, please keep in mind that all of this is one person’s subjective opinion! I’m indulging in fan-fiction and pure speculation based on my own thoughts about how some of these scenarios might’ve unfolded. If you hate all of my ideas, or something you like wasn’t included, that’s okay! Within the Star Trek fandom there’s enough room for different opinions.

With that out of the way, let’s consider some Star Trek “what ifs!”

Number 1: What if… Captain Picard couldn’t be saved after being assimilated?

Locutus of Borg.

This isn’t going to go the way you might be expecting! In this scenario, the events of The Best of Both Worlds play out as we saw on screen: Picard is captured, the Borg defeat the Federation at Wolf-359, Riker and the Enterprise race to confront them over Earth, and Captain Picard is able to communicate to Data how to defeat them. The Borg cube explodes, and the Federation lives to fight another day! But unfortunately Captain Picard then dies – severing his connection to the Collective and/or removing his Borg implants was too much for his body and mind to take, and he doesn’t survive beyond the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

As Starfleet and the crew of the Enterprise-D mourn the loss of Captain Picard, Captain Edward Jellico is assigned to the ship as his replacement, and many of the events later in The Next Generation proceed unaltered. As Q would tell Picard in the episode Tapestry, even without him in command the Enterprise-D and Starfleet would be fine.

Captain Edward Jellico.

The Federation, armed with new knowledge of the Borg, developed new ships like the Defiant-class and Sovereign-class, and were even able to defend against a second Borg incursion a few years later – albeit at great cost. But the loss of Captain Picard would have a huge impact later, in the year 2379. A coup on Romulus brings a human clone to power – Shinzon. Shinzon’s plot to destroy the Federation was only stopped because of his personal connection to Picard, a connection that fascinated him and that he hoped could save his life.

Without that obstacle in the way, Shinzon sees no reason to wait or to play nice with the Federation before implementing his plan. He takes his flagship, the Reman warbird Scimitar, and heads straight for Earth before the Federation even has time to respond diplomatically to the change in government on Romulus. Under cloak, the Scimitar deploys its thalaron radiation weapon – massacring all life on planet Earth and crippling the Federation government and Starfleet command.

Without Captain Picard to pose a distraction, Shinzon was able to launch his attack on Earth.

With war now assured between the Romulans and Federation, Romulan commanders who had been sceptical of Shinzon rally to the cause. All-out war breaks out between the Romulan Empire and the residual Federation, but without a government or command structure to provide a coordinated response, and seriously demoralised from the attack on Earth, things don’t go well for Starfleet. The Scimitar proves to be an unstoppable force all on its own, and its thalaron radiation weapon is able to devastate multiple other planets: Betazed, Andoria, Alpha Centauri, Mars, and others. The Federation is forced to sue for peace on very unfavourable terms.

However, Shinzon wouldn’t live to see the Romulan victory. Without the original Picard, there was no way to save his life from the DNA degradation that he was suffering from, and shortly after the Federation’s defeat Shinzon dies. His Reman viceroy would succeed him as the new leader of the Romulan Empire, an empire which now incorporated large swathes of what had once been Federation space. Whether the Romulans could hold all of this territory, and whether their empire would accept a Reman leader, are now open questions…

Number 2: What if… Spock wasn’t resurrected on the Genesis Planet?

Spock’s empty coffin on the Genesis Planet.

This scenario sees the events of The Wrath of Khan unfold exactly as we saw on screen. Khan stages an attack on the Enterprise, steals the Genesis device, and is defeated at the Battle in the Mutara Nebula. Spock sacrifices his life repairing the Enterprise’s warp drive, allowing the ship to outrun the blast of the Genesis device. But in our alternate world, Captain Kirk doesn’t give Spock a Starfleet funeral. Instead Spock’s remains are returned to Vulcan, in line with his and his family’s wishes. There is no chance for a resurrection because Spock never came into contact with the Genesis Planet.

Spock would indeed prove instrumental in several key events later in his life that now can’t happen. But we’re going to focus on the Kelvin timeline today. Spock’s actions in the Kelvin timeline saved Earth from Nero’s attack – but without his presence there’s no one to stop the crazed Romulan commander.

Nero.

Assuming that Nero arrived in the Kelvin timeline thanks to Red Matter (presumably deployed by someone else from the Federation as part of a plan to save Romulus), he has no reason to wait for Spock before enacting his revenge plan. After destroying the USS Kelvin (killing the infant Kirk in the process), Nero races to Vulcan and destroys the planet in the year 2233 – decades earlier than he would during the events of Star Trek 2009. Before the Federation even has time to realise what’s happening, and with Vulcan still collapsing, Nero heads to Earth and deploys his weapon for the second time – destroying the planet.

Nero then moves on quickly, targeting Tellar Prime and other Federation member worlds and colonies. The devastating losses mean it takes Starfleet a while to reorganise, but eventually the remaining fleet comes together to make a last stand over Andoria – the last remaining Federation member world. The battle against Nero’s powerful flagship is long and incredibly difficult, but Starfleet eventually prevails through sheer numerical advantage – despite suffering huge losses.

The Narada and the USS Kelvin.

Nero’s defeat wouldn’t mark the end of the rump Federation’s problems, though. With many planets and colonies destroyed, more than half the fleet lost, and millions of people turned into refugees, the Federation is an easy target. First the Klingons come, seizing planets and systems near their borders. Then the Gorn, the Tholians, and the Romulans also join in, picking off star systems that the Federation could no longer manage to defend. Federation space shrinks to a small area in the vicinity of Andoria.

The Andorians were not happy with the large numbers of refugees who sought them out, though. Plans were put in place to resettle humans, Vulcans, Tellarites, and others on new colony worlds, even though doing so would leave them vulnerable. After being kicked out by the Andorians, the remaining Federation members maintained their alliance more out of fear and necessity than anything else. How long these small populations can survive in a hostile galaxy is unknown…

Number 3: What if… the USS Voyager went the other way?

The USS Voyager.

The events of Voyager’s premiere episode, Caretaker, play out much the same as they did on screen in this scenario. But after that, things take a very different turn – literally! The Maquis raider Val Jean, under Chakotay’s command, is transported to the Delta Quadrant by an entity known as the Caretaker. The USS Voyager is likewise transported by the Caretaker’s Array, and after the death of the Caretaker and a short battle with the Kazon, Captain Janeway orders the destruction of the Array. Voyager must find a way home.

Instead of taking the most direct route to Earth, Captain Janeway and the crew of Voyager consider an alternative idea – heading for the Gamma Quadrant, and the far side of the Bajoran Wormhole. From there it would only be a short journey back to Earth! The crew debate the ideas for a while, and there isn’t a clear consensus. No starship has ever undertaken such a long journey before, so there really aren’t ground rules for route planning when it comes to long-distance interstellar travel.

A non-canon map of the Star Trek galaxy.
Image Credit: Star Trek Star Charts (2002) via Memory Beta

Using the map above (which is non-canon) as a guide, the crew quickly figure out that both a direct route home via the Delta and Beta Quadrants or an indirect route via the Gamma Quadrant and Bajoran Wormhole are roughly the same length and would take roughly the same amount of time.

The two crews can’t agree at first. Chakotay and the Maquis, keen to avoid going anywhere near Cardassian space and fearing being turned over to Cardassian authorities upon their return, firmly advocate for the Delta Quadrant route. Neelix claims to be familiar with space in both directions and along both routes, but ultimately the decision falls to Captain Janeway.

The choice of route ultimately falls to Captain Janeway under the “my ship, my decision” principle.

Somewhat ironically when considering her actions in Endgame, Janeway chooses the Gamma Quadrant route. Why? She’s fearful of the Borg, naturally. Whatever dangers and obstacles may await Voyager in the Gamma Quadrant, she tells her crew, Starfleet has known for years that the Borg’s home territory is the Delta Quadrant. Taking that path seems positively suicidal in comparison, so Voyager will instead head for the Gamma Quadrant terminus of the Bajoran wormhole.

Voyager’s superior technology makes battling the Kazon sects in the area around the Caretaker’s Array relatively easy, but they have to be careful to avoid space claimed by the Haakonian Order – the conquerors of Neelix’s people, the Talaxians. After they leave their starting region, though, the truth is that we simply don’t know very much at all in canon about this area of space. Would Voyager find a faster way home through some technological means or natural phenomenon? Or would the ship and crew have to undertake a slow, decades-long journey to reach the wormhole? Would they even survive at all, or instead fall victim to some villainous faction or dangerous anomaly present in this unexplored region?

Number 4: What if… the USS Discovery didn’t go into the far future?

Michael Burnham and the USS Discovery at the mouth of the time-wormhole.

I already have a theory discussing in detail why I think the USS Discovery didn’t need to go into the far future based on the outcome of the battle in Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 – and you can find that one by clicking or tapping here. For the sake of this scenario, though, all we’re going to say is that somehow Captain Pike, Burnham, and Saru figured out a way to defeat the Control AI without sending the USS Discovery into the 32nd Century.

Obviously some changes wouldn’t appear until the 32nd Century. Without the USS Discovery and Michael Burnham, no one is able to discover the source of the Burn or the huge cache of dilithium in the Verubin nebula. Without the USS Discovery and its Spore Drive to fight over, the Emerald Chain doesn’t stage a bold attack on Starfleet HQ. Su’Kal would almost certainly die alone when the KSF Khi’eth is destroyed – whether that event would trigger a second Burn is unclear.

A second Burn could occur.

But more substantial changes could have taken place in the Star Trek galaxy centuries earlier. With the Spore Drive still in existence in the 23rd Century, it stands to reason that Starfleet would have continued to explore the technology – it works, after all, so if a new way of navigating the mycelial network could be discovered, the Spore Drive would be an absolute game-changer for the Federation.

At some point, Starfleet scientists would hit upon the idea of using empaths to connect to the mycelial network in place of augmenting human DNA. After promising test flights using Betazoid and even Vulcan navigators, in the late 23rd Century Starfleet is able to begin a wider rollout of the Spore Drive. At first a handful of ships are kitted out as rapid-response vessels, able to jump across Federation space at a moment’s notice to assist with emergency situations.

Starfleet is able to kit out a whole fleet of Spore Drive-enabled starships.

The Spore Drive would soon attract the attention of other factions, however. Unwilling to allow the Federation a massive tactical advantage, particularly in the aftermath of the Federation-Klingon war, the Klingon Empire begins development on their own Spore Drive programme. The Romulans follow suit, and by the early part of the 24th Century the Spore Drive has become a mainstay of interstellar travel in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.

No longer limited by geography or travel time, Starfleet is able to jump to interesting-looking phenomena across the galaxy with ease, initiating dozens of first contacts decades ahead of schedule. On one unfortunate occasion, however, a Spore Drive ship jumps to the Delta Quadrant… right into the heart of Borg space. The Borg quickly assimilate the vessel, taking the Spore Drive technology for themselves and putting a target on the Federation’s back. Due to the distances involved, Starfleet remains unaware of what happened, merely recording the USS Discovery-C as “missing in action…”

Number 5: What if… Benjamin Sisko wasn’t the Emissary of the Prophets?

Commander Benjamin Sisko.

Ignore for a moment the revelation from Image in the Sand about Benjamin Sisko’s Prophet-induced conception! For this scenario, we’re considering that there were two occupants of the Runabout which first discovered the Bajoran Wormhole: Sisko and Jadzia Dax. Though the Prophets would choose Sisko as their Emissary, they could just as easily have chosen Dax instead.

Jadzia Dax returns from the wormhole having been anointed by the Prophets as their Emissary, and receives much respect and adoration from the Bajorans. Meanwhile, Sisko makes good on his threat and quits Starfleet, returning to Earth. Jadzia is promoted to the rank of commander and given “temporary” command of DS9, due in no small part to the way the Bajorans feel about her.

Jadzia Dax assumes command of Deep Space Nine.

First contact with the Dominion occurs, and shortly afterwards the Dominion and Cardassians form an alliance – the work of Dukat, formerly the commander of Bajoran occupying forces on Bajor. The Dominion Cold War begins. Behind the scenes, Dukat is researching the Pah-wraiths, the ancient noncorporeal enemies of the Prophets. In disguise he travels to Deep Space Nine with a lone Pah-wraith, and in the course of unleashing the entity into the wormhole, kills Jadzia.

With no Emissary on the outside to come to their aid, the Prophets are fighting a losing battle against the Pah-wraiths while the Dominion War rages. The loss of Dax, though distressing to the crew of DS9 and her husband Worf, doesn’t appear to matter to the Federation war effort… not at first. In fact, the wormhole’s closure appears to provide the Federation alliance a reprieve, as the threat of Dominion reinforcements is reduced.

Jadzia is killed by the Pah-wraiths.

However, without the Orb of the Emissary re-opening the wormhole and expelling the Pah-wraiths, things go badly for the Prophets. When Dukat is able to implement the next phase of his plan and release the rest of the Pah-wraiths from the Fire Caves, there’s no one to stop him. The Pah-wraiths seize control of the wormhole, and as a thank you to Dukat they destroy the Federation minefield, allowing a massive fleet of Dominion reinforcements through the wormhole. The Dominion conquer DS9 and Bajor with ease.

With no way to stop Dominion reinforcements pouring in through the wormhole, the Federation alliance moves into attrition mode, trying to hold the existing front line for as long as possible against repeated Dominion attacks. Though the Pah-wraiths don’t actively take part in the fighting, their involvement allowed Dukat and the Dominion to swing the balance of the war back in their favour. By controlling Deep Space Nine and the wormhole, the Cardassian-Dominion alliance has the Quadrant’s most significant asset. It seems like only a matter of time until the Federation will have to sue for peace, if the Dominion would even accept…

So that’s it! Five Star Trek “what ifs!”

There are many more “what if” scenarios in the Star Trek universe!

I can already think of more, so watch this space. I might return to this concept in future. I hope this was a bit of fun, and a chance to consider some alternative outcomes to some of the events we’ve seen across Star Trek’s history. I tried to pick a few different ideas from different productions – otherwise this could’ve been “five Captain Picard what ifs!”

As always, this was really just an excuse to spend a little more time in the Star Trek galaxy. It’s totally fine if you disagree with any of the storylines I’ve suggested today, or if you think this whole concept was a silly idea! None of this will ever make it to screen, and it was more of a thought experiment and creative writing project than anything else. I had fun putting this together – and I hope you enjoyed reading it.

What If…? and the logo for the series are the copyright of Marvel and The Walt Disney Company. The Star Trek franchise – including all films and series 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.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 – what was the Burn?

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.

SB-19 was a pre-Burn Federation experiment – and one of the clues Discovery Season 3 dropped as to the event’s origin.

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. Figuring out what caused it was a big part of Season 3.

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.

Discovery implied a connection to the Short Treks episode Calypso – among others!

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.

Star Trek: Discovery executive producer Alex Kurtzman.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Su’Kal, a Kelpien who had no connection to anything else in the story, was ultimately revealed as the cause of the Burn.

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.

Having set up a season-long mystery, the storyline jumped to a completely different conclusion that ignored what had been previously hinted at or established.

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.

Finding a dilithium planet rendered what could’ve been an interesting and timely story about fuel and energy resources somewhat meaningless.

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.

Discovery can warp away to a new adventure next time and shelve the Burn.

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.

Bill Irwin was wonderful to watch as Su’Kal.

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.

Su’Kal is basically a futuristic Lennie from Of Mice and Men. (1992 film adaptation pictured.)

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.

Su’Kal being the cause of this disaster has some really disturbing implications beyond the story.

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.

Su’Kal’s emotional outbursts are deadly.

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.

I’m very disappointed that a Star Trek show would choose to rely on these outdated stereotypes.

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.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 – my worst theory failures!

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.

Book’s ship at warp in the season premiere.

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.

Book and his adoptive brother in the episode The Sanctuary.

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.

Book’s telepathic abilities caused glowing areas to appear on his face.

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.

Michael Burn-ham.

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!

One of two Red Angel suits seen in Season 2.

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.

The USS Discovery had a rough landing in the 32nd Century!

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.

We missed a year of Burnham’s exploits in the 32nd Century.

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.

Lieutenant Detmer in People of Earth.

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!

Detmer eventually survived the season.

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.

The Doctor.

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.

A picture of the Doctor seen at the end of Living Witness.

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.

Craft, the protagonist of 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.

The unmanned USS Discovery tows Craft’s pod.

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.

The USS Discovery making a Spore Drive jump.

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.

Captain Saru orders Black Alert and initiates a Spore Drive jump.

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.

Dr Issa’s holographic message.

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.

It seemed that Saru was seeing something more in Dr Issa than just a fellow Kelpien.

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 holographic “monster.”

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 monster turned out to be just part of the holo-programme.

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.

“An alternate reality?”

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.

It seemed possible, for a time, that Discovery Season 3 was taking place in a parallel universe.

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!

I had some pretty significant theory misses last season!

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.

With Burnham having ascended to the captain’s chair, and a new threat seemingly having reared its head, Season 4 is going to take Discovery to different places yet again. And if there are theories to be crafted – and I daresay there will be – I’ll be writing them up! Even though a lot of the theories I came up with in Season 3 didn’t pan out, I had a blast thinking them up and writing them down. At the end of the day, it’s an excuse to spend more time thinking and talking about Star Trek.

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.

Star Trek: Discovery theories – week 13

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.

Aurellio and 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.

The arrival of Ni’Var’s fleet.

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.

Discovery makes a Spore Drive jump.

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.

Jadzia Dax.

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.

Who is Kovich?

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.

The USS Enterprise travelled through time in Assignment: Earth.

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.

Federation and Ni’Var ships at warp.

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.

Tilly eyes the captain’s chair.

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.

Just like this theory, Dr Issa is dead.

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.

Was Aurellio meant to be 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.

Things looked grim for a moment, but everyone ultimately survived.

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.

The moment the Burn occurred was captured in this holo-recording.

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.

The Burn.

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).

The USS Discovery as seen in Calypso.

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.

The Doctor didn’t 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 USS Voyager in Year of Hell.

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.

Saru survived the season.

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.

Admiral Vance lives to lead Starfleet in Season 4.

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.

The Guardian of Forever.

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.

The dilithium planet.

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.

Su’Kal and Saru confront the “monster.”

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.

The “monster” was not 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.

Whenever Season 4 arrives, Zareh won’t be coming back.

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.

Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 3, Episode 13: That Hope Is You, Part 2

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 Decks came 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?

Burnham in That Hope Is You, Part 2.

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.

Culber, Su’Kal, Saru, and Adira aboard the Kelpien ship Khi’eth.

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.

Burnham was promoted at the end of the episode.

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.

Nhan was absent from the episode and its epilogue – as were several other characters and factions from earlier in the season.

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.

Su’Kal causing the Burn is not devoid of real-world meaning.

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 with Saru.

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.

Su’Kal’s home for many years – the Kih’eth.

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 Burn was set up as a huge and apocalyptic mystery.

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.

The holo-world with its monstrous inhabitant was a very “Star Trek” story in many ways.

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.

A recording of the moment the Burn occurred.

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.

Many people in 2021 feel trapped and isolated, making this a timely metaphor.

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.

Gray and Adira.

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!

Tilly in command of the bridge crew.

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?

“She’s a queen!”

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.

“It’s just been revoked!”

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!

The interior of the USS Discovery.

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.

Osyraa in command of Discovery.

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.

It seemed for a moment as if Owosekun wouldn’t survive, but she did. And so did every other hero character.

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.

Book was tortured in That Hope Is You, Part 2.

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.

Admiral Vance watches as the N’Var fleet arrives.

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.

“Let’s fly!”

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.

Burnham takes her seat in the captain’s chair for the first time.

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.

Burnham and the crew are ready for their next adventure.

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.

Star Trek: Discovery theories – week 11

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

Su’kal was an interesting episode. It’s also one that, as I noted in my review, is hard to judge fairly before we know the ultimate outcomes of several of its key story points. I’m split on the revelation of the mentally challenged Kelpien Su’kal being the cause of the Burn – the biggest disaster in galactic history. While on the one hand it’s an interesting way to go, and one that is similar in some respects to older Star Trek stories, on the other hand it’s anticlimactic, coming in the eleventh week of the season. There’s a huge disparity between the small, terrified Su’kal and the Burn – an event which caused devastation on a galactic scale and destroyed the Federation. And there is a worrying message underneath the sci-fi trappings, one which risks further stigmatising mental illness and those with learning disabilities.

But that’s enough about that for now. Read my review if you want my full thoughts on Su’kal and what it brought to the table. We’re here for theories! And there’s a lot to get through this time. We got two confirmations, five debunkings, and there’s also one theory I’m choosing to retire. Let’s briefly look at each of these before hitting the main list.

Confirmed theory #1: The Emerald Chain will attempt to steal the USS Discovery and/or the Spore Drive.

Discovery held captive by Osyraa’s flagship.

Aside from the revelation that Su’kal caused the Burn, this was the biggest event in the episode. Osyraa – the Emerald Chain’s leader – showed up at the Verubin Nebula aboard her flagship and was able to very easily capture Discovery. How she came to know about the Spore Drive is unclear, as is how her ship magically became so powerful since its last meeting with Discovery. However, she not only attempted to capture Discovery and the Spore Drive this week, she succeeded.

Confirmed theory #2: The Emerald Chain will attack Federation HQ.

Osyraa set course for Federation HQ.

After capturing Discovery, Osyraa set out to her next objective – Federation HQ. Though this attack didn’t take the form I expected, Osyraa is headed there to take on Starfleet. Whether she will pull her forces away from Kaminar to join her as her flagship and Discovery travel to Starfleet HQ is not clear, but it would be a reasonable assumption. We will see exactly what happens next time, including how successful her attack is. But we can consider this theory confirmed.

Debunked theory #1: A time-travelling (or parallel universe) USS Discovery is at the centre of the nebula – and may be responsible for the Burn.

The USS Discovery.

As far as we can tell, only the Kelpien ship was in the Verubin Nebula. Given Su’kal’s connection to dilithium and the Burn, it certainly seems as though this is the way the story of the season is going. Additionally, the nebula looks very different from the one encountered by Craft in Calypso, meaning the chances of a crossover between that story and this one now seems remote.

It was an increasingly distant possibility, especially after the discovery of the Kelpien ship. The departure of Georgiou – who was the character I suggested may have taken Discovery back in time in the event that this theory was true – also decreased its probability. With only two episodes remaining, Discovery having already entered the nebula, and with an explanation for the Burn at least halfway explored, changing tack now to suddenly put the USS Discovery in the nebula would be difficult to pull off at best.

Debunked theory #2: A familiar starship is at the centre of the nebula – and may be responsible for the Burn.

The USS Cerritos from Star Trek: Lower Decks.

As above, it seems certain that the explanation for the Burn lies with Su’kal and the crashed Kelpien ship. Between continuing to explore these story threads and depicting the battle to retake Discovery from Osyraa, there is no time left in the remaining couple of episodes to suddenly drop in another familiar starship and give such an important moment the respect it needs.

As such, we can consider this debunked.

Debunked theory #3: The Red Angel suit is at the centre of the nebula – and may be responsible for the Burn.

The Red Angel.

As above, it’s the Kelpien ship in the nebula – and as far as we can tell, not much else. While the prospect of the Red Angel suit accidentally causing the Burn was a fascinating one, it may have been a bridge too far for Discovery in the end. As Saru and Culber remain behind to help Su’kal, and with everyone else off trying to retake the ship, there seems to be no place for the Red Angel in this storyline.

Debunked theory #4: The name “Burn” is derived from the name Burnham.

Michael Burnham did not cause the Burn!

This theory was intrinsically linked to the one above. As I noted the first time I discussed the Burn, it was odd, in a show that has always put Burnham front and centre, that there was a catastrophic event which happened to share part of her name. It seemed at least possible that there would prove to be a Burnham connection, just as there was with the Red Angel in Season 2. However, with the discovery of Su’kal and the Kelpien ship, it seems impossible for the story to go in a Burnham-centric direction this time, which is nice!

Debunked theory #5: Tilly is going to go rogue.

Tilly in the captain’s chair.

When Tilly became first officer, I was struck by one word in particular: “compliant.” That’s what Tilly thought Saru considered her to be, and I speculated that she may have ended up disobeying orders in a future story. However, it now seems clear that the reason Tilly was chosen was to be an inexperienced commander, making Osyraa’s victory and capture of Discovery more plausible. With Discovery under Osyraa’s control and Saru away on the Kelpien ship, it’s hard to see how this could pan out.

So those theories are considered debunked – even if, technically, we didn’t see 100% confirmation on all of them! Before we hit the main list I have one theory that I’m choosing to retire, and it’s connected to two theories above.

Retiring theory: Burnham’s Red Angel suit has been stolen.

Burnham with the suit on Hima in That Hope Is You.

With the Red Angel suit clearly not in the Verubin Nebula – and as far as I can tell given only two episodes remain, not connected to the story of the season at all – I’m retiring this theory. Burnham set the Red Angel suit to self-destruct after delivering the final Red Burst for Pike and Spock to see, and as we saw in the finale of Season 2 they got the message.

In order for someone to have been able to capture it, they would have had to know exactly when and where the suit would be, and if time travel has indeed been outlawed – as Admiral Vance told us – no one would be able to recover the suit. Thus we can assume its mission is complete and it was destroyed.

So that theory has been retired – and that brings this week’s theory massacre to an end! Now let’s jump into the list of theories I have as we approach the final two episodes of the season.

Number 1: The “monster” is the real Su’kal.

Is this 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 2: The “monster” is Dr Issa.

The “monster.”

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.

Number 3: Saru is going to die.

Saru in his human disguise.

This isn’t the first time I’ve theorised about a character’s death or departure this season – and so far no such event has come to pass! But as Burnham told us, Saru is “emotionally compromised” by the presence of Su’kal and Kelpiens, and is not thinking clearly. By the way, Burnham calling out someone else for jeopardising the mission and acting impulsively? That’s some top-tier hypocrisy right there!

But we’re off topic. Saru is torn between his almost paternal desire to help Su’kal and find out about Dr Issa and his duty to Discovery. He opted to remain behind aboard the Kelpien ship, and while I doubt he and Culber will simply succumb to radiation exposure, I’m beginning to wonder if this turnaround in his character from the level-headed captain to a risk-taker and mistake-maker will lead to him meeting an unjust end.

Perhaps this is the reason for the odd (and nonsensical within the story) decision to have Saru appear out of costume – to allow Doug Jones to have a more epic death scene? Time will tell.

Number 3A: Burnham will assume the captaincy of Discovery.

Burnham in temporary command of Discovery earlier in the season.

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 4: Admiral Vance is going to be killed.

Admiral Vance.

With Osyraa targeting Starfleet, Admiral Vance is the man to lead the fight. I noted an air of finality in his words to Saru in Terra Firma, Part I, and while he has survived thus far, he’s about to face his biggest confrontation.

The conflict with Osyraa and the Emerald Chain has rumbled in the background for more than half of the season, but this is the moment where it has come to the fore. Osyraa already feels like a flat, one-dimensional villain, one who went from easily-beaten to overpowered in the span of a couple of episodes. One saving grace – from a narrative point of view, at least – for the Emerald Chain storyline would be to see a significant character killed.

It certainly could be Saru, as noted above. Or we could see a named secondary character like Detmer or Bryce killed. But Admiral Vance is someone we’ve spent a certain amount of time with this season, and if the writers saw fit to kill off a significant character – but not one of the main crew – he is pretty much the only available target whose death would feel impactful. In that sense, Vance could fill a role played by Admiral Cornwell in Season 2.

Number 4A: Saru will become an Admiral, and Burnham will become captain of Discovery.

Vance, Saru, and Burnham.

If Vance is killed and Saru survives, the question of leadership within Starfleet will arise. Though I would argue that Saru’s recent mistakes – including entrusting Discovery to a first-year ensign – count against him, for story reasons he may be offered a promotion. Earlier in the season he demonstrated his diplomatic skill – with Earth, Ni’Var, and so on – and is arguably well-placed to help the Federation rebuild and begin to come back together.

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 5: Tilly will resign as first officer and Burnham will return to the position.

Tilly regards the captain’s chair.

I think it’s a given that Tilly will not be first officer when the ship is retaken from Osyraa – and it will be, obviously. That’s part of the reason why these stories annoy me; I’ve seen enough “the heroes’ ship has been captured!” stories to know what comes next. But we’re off topic!

Rather than Saru or Vance forcibly demoting her, I think Tilly handing the position back is the most likely outcome. 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 6: Zora will help the crew retake the ship or protect them from Osyraa’s forces.

Saru talked with Zora in Forget Me Not.

Aside from a tie-in with Calypso, which is interesting in itself, I’m wondering why we’ve seen the Zora AI feature in the season so far. Is it just to connect to that Short Treks episode, or is there something more?

Zora is a combination of the Sphere data and Discovery’s computer, and one of its primary goals – which has been stated as recently as Terra Firma, Part I – is to protect the crew. With the ship having been attacked and conquered by Osyraa, will Zora simply let that slide? Will Zora trust the Sphere data to Osyraa, or will it/she fight back, helping the crew retake the ship?

I suspect it may be the latter, though perhaps Zora will take some persuading. If she is on the side of Tilly and the crew, she might help Burnham and Book get aboard, she might save lives, or even turn Discovery itself against the Emerald Chain, using things like artificial gravity and the environmental controls against Osyraa’s forces.

Number 7: Saru, Burnham, or somebody else will use the Guardian of Forever to send the USS Discovery back in time.

Georgiou used the Guardian of Forever to travel through 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’kal that 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. But perhaps I’m wrong – there could be major twists and turns in store.

At the beginning of the season, the main reason for Discovery travelling through time would have been to warn Starfleet about the Burn to prevent it from happening. That possibility still technically exists, but as we’ll discuss in a moment I don’t feel that would necessarily be the right way to go. However, 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 8: Dr Issa is a descendant of Saru’s sister Siranna.

Dr Issa.

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 9: The dilithium planet will be destroyed.

The dilithium planet.

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 – a theory we’ll look at in a moment.

Number 10: Discovery Season 3 is taking place in an alternate timeline or parallel universe.

The Enterprise-C in Yesterday’s Enterprise.

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

Is Su’kal the cause of the Burn? If so, is he the sole cause?

Is the reason for Su’kal’s power really just technobabble about radiation exposure in the womb? Or is there more to it than that?

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 12: There will be a resolution to the story of Calypso (the Short Treks episode).

Craft, the protagonist of Calypso.

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 13: The Spore Drive will become Starfleet’s new method of faster-than-light propulsion.

Tilly and Stamets by the Spore Cube.

As mentioned, the end of the season from here could have already been telegraphed: retake the ship, save/neutralise Su’kal, and use the dilithium planet to bring the Federation back together. But that may not be the way the story ends.

As mentioned, the dilithium planet could be destroyed – perhaps to prevent another Burn, perhaps to save it from falling into Osyraa’s hands, or perhaps even accidentally either by Su’kal or someone else. If it’s gone or rendered unusable somehow, we’re back to the Spore Drive as a potential way to give Starfleet faster-than-light capabilities.

Doing so would finally find a use for Discovery’s most controversial piece of technology, and would potentially open up whole new regions of space for exploration. The Federation, despite having almost eight centuries to expand, appears to have mainly been an Alpha Quadrant power even before the Burn. Did they ever revisit the Delta Quadrant, for example? Did the Burn reach that far? Perhaps future Star Trek shows could be set in this time period and could follow the adventures of a new crew aboard a new Spore Drive-powered ship, exploring the galaxy. It would also set the stage for Season 4.

Number 14: A character from a past iteration of Star Trek – such as the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager – will make an appearance.

Tom Paris with The Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager.

As time drags on with no appearances, I’m beginning to think that the only way this theory – which I posited before the season premiered – 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.

However, it remains a possibility. The Doctor is one character who fits the bill, but there are others who could reasonably have survived this long. And as I mentioned several times already, all it would take to bring back practically anyone is a technobabble explanation for how they were in stasis or travelled through time.

Having seen a tie-in with Picard via the appearance of the Qowat Milat, and the aforementioned Guardian of Forever return from The Original Series, it gives me hope that Discovery will find more ways to tie itself to the wider Star Trek franchise. A character crossover is a spectacular way of doing that, and as The Next Generation showed with episodes like Relics, the passage of centuries is no barrier to such a crossover in a sci-fi world. Until the credits roll on the season finale, I’ll keep advocating this theory!

Number 15: The ships at Federation HQ represent the majority of Starfleet’s remaining vessels. And they’re all 120+ years old.

A portion of the fleet docked at Federation HQ.

I’ve been suggesting for several weeks 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.

With Osyraa now on the warpath, we could finally see whether Starfleet has an ace up its sleeve. 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. Does Osyraa have a more powerful fleet?

Number 16: The Dax symbiont is still alive.

Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine.

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

Kirk’s stolen Bird-of-Prey travels through time in The Voyage Home.

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.

Number 18: Kovich is an agent of Section 31.

Who does Kovich work for?

Who is Kovich? He doesn’t wear a normal Starfleet uniform, and doesn’t appear to hold a Starfleet rank. Yet he wears a Starfleet combadge and is clearly a high-ranking intelligence officer as he undertook Georgiou’s debriefing and has access to classified files that pertain to time travel and parallel universes.

It is at least possible – if not outright likely – that this mysterious character works for Section 31. Since we now know he hasn’t just disappeared and may well be coming back, perhaps we’ll learn more about him. We know he has an interest in the Mirror Universe and Terran society, expressing almost an admiration for Georgiou and her way of doing things.

It seems less and less likely that Section 31 or Starfleet are connected to the Burn – but as noted above, it remains a possibility. Perhaps Kovich knows more about the Burn that he let on?

Number 19: We haven’t seen the last of Zareh.

Zareh in Far From Home – his only appearance to date.

After weeks of suggesting Zareh could return, I half-expected to see him beaming aboard Discovery with Osyraa’s forces. Though we didn’t see him in the first wave, he may yet prove to be among her troops, and if he is he may wish to seek revenge against Tilly and Saru for abandoning him. These kinds of characters have a tendency to pop back up, and although leaving him alone on the surface of the Colony back in Far From Home was described as a “death sentence,” the fact that we never saw him die means his fate is unclear. If he survived, would Osyraa even want him back? Maybe.

So that’s it. Despite losing a number of theories this week, we also added several new ones! They aren’t all going to be right, of course – perhaps none will be – but one thing is for sure: Su’kal shook things up in a major way after several weeks where the series made scant progress on its main storyline and attended to side-missions.

Despite what I’ve said about the road to the season finale seeming to be obvious, there are undoubtedly going to be at least some unexpected moments along the way. I’m hoping that will be the case, actually, because I love being surprised! I’m also not 100% convinced that Discovery has got the right story if I’m correct about the direction of travel. The journey may still be fun – as indeed Su’kal was for the most part – but it may end with a less-than-satisfying explanation for the season’s big arcs.

Let’s hope not, though!

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.

Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 3, Episode 11: Su’kal

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

Until three days before its broadcast, Su’kal went by the title The Citadel. It wasn’t immediately obvious why the name was changed – or why the producers at ViacomCBS felt a need to conceal that fact. After all, they let us know every other episode title before the season premiered, even spoiler-ish ones like Unification III. So it was a bit of a surprise to learn that we’d be watching Su’kal this week!

The twopart episode Terra Firma largely took us away from progressing the overall story of the season and focused on the departure of Mirror Georgiou to a still-unknown destination. With only three episodes left before the season is over, Discovery really needed to begin bringing its storylines together and wrapping them up, lest it repeat the mistake made by Star Trek: Picard earlier in the year and rush through a lot of potentially interesting plots. This was the moment where the season needed to enter its endgame, and for better or worse it seems to have done so.

Discovery finally took us to the Verubin Nebula after a few episodes of doing other things.

My first thought when the credits rolled was “hmm.” What had we all just watched? The two major storylines both had ups and downs, and we’ll have to deal with them in turn. I liked the idea of the holographic world. Both as an interesting setting and as a metaphor for isolation – something many people dealing with mental health issues will experience – it worked very well. Tilly sitting in the captain’s chair for the first time was great to see, and we can see why she was chosen ahead of, for example, Stamets to serve as first officer given that the conflict with Osyraa needed someone less experienced at the conn. I also liked the standoff between Discovery and Osyraa’s ship; it had a familar feel that anyone who’s seen the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in The Wrath of Khan can appreciate.

Now let’s get into the big disappointments. Discovery being captured so easily by Osyraa, whose ship had been simple to defeat a couple of episodes ago, was poor. Yes, it showed how Tilly’s inexperience at the conn was an issue, but even then it felt too easy. Osyraa’s ship, with its ability to transport huge numbers of troops and its weird grappling arms, just felt overpowered. Next – and I will admit this is perhaps more of a personal pet peeve – the cliched story of “the heroes’ ship/base is captured” just doesn’t really work for me. It’s annoying more than anything, and since we know Tilly, Burnham, and the crew will retake the ship it just feels like forced tension.

Discovery was very easily captured by Osyraa.

Now we come to the point of the season, and the main storyline which underpins all of the others: the Burn. If Burnham and Culber are correct in their assessment of Su’kal, he caused the Burn telepathically when his fears destabilised dilithium across the known galaxy. Though my initial reaction to that was some form of “what the actual fuck,” I’m prepared to wait and see what the next two episodes have in store, and whether they can better explain how this happened. Burnham and Culber’s analysis of the situation was short, and if all the explanation we’re going to get is some technobabble about dilithium and DNA cells in an unborn child, I think that’s poor.

But I’m hopeful that won’t be the entirety of the explanation that we get! The Burn had been set up across the season (and even before if you count the trailers) as a huge mystery, something galactic in scale. Perhaps the reason this answer feels like such a non sequitur – aside from the fact that it only consisted of a couple of lines from Burnham and Culber in the midst of a bigger crisis – is that the explanation for this colossal apocalyptic event being a mentally ill man with the mind of a child is some combination of anticlimactic and small.

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line from Dr Culber surely cannot be all the explanation we get for how Su’kal caused the Burn.

Huge events in fiction typically need causes that are comparable in scale, and there’s a disparity between the truly epic, cataclysmic nature of the Burn and Su’kal, a mentally challenged man who’s led a horrible life trapped in a weird educational holoprogramme. That’s before we get into the frankly upsetting real-world implications of this metaphor: a mentally ill person ruining the galaxy.

When dealing with significant events, we can typically point to powerful characters or forces of nature setting those events in motion. We can point to Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, for example, or Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars. Or we could look at the zombie virus in The Walking Dead as a force of nature – a powerful, planet-wide force. Su’kal doesn’t fit the bill, and while the idea of the Burn being something accidental rather than something intentional like a weapon may indeed be a good one – and one I’d support – this particular way of explaining it feels like an anticlimax right now.

Su’kal – the cause of the Burn?

On the other hand, if this is the explanation for the Burn, it would be in line with certain other Star Trek stories. The V’ger probe in The Motion Picture was similarly described as “a child” as it caused chaos en route to Earth. The Star Trek franchise has always been about exploring the unknown and offering help – and Su’kal clearly needs the Federation’s help.

Any time a mystery is created in an ongoing story, there’s a risk of the explanation jarring with what some members of the audience expected. I’m not criticising Su’kal from that point of view, though – or at least I’m consciously trying not to. I’m not saying that the Burn needs to have some other explanation, like one of the ones I postulated before the season began. What I am saying, though, is that if this is all the explanation we’re going to get – that Su’kal’s body somehow adapted, connecting him on a quantum level to dilithium, and that he accidentally caused the Burn as a child while upset – it feels anticlimactic.

We’re being asked to buy into a story that says one mentally ill person caused all of this destruction.

The discovery of the Verubin Nebula and its dilithium planet is likewise a little odd. This is perhaps more of a nitpick, but in the 32nd Century, when the Federation and other spacefaring cultures have had a millennium to explore and chart the galaxy, how could they have been unaware of this dilithium nursery/dilithium planet? A few weeks ago I wrote that the discovery of a huge cache of dilithium at the end of the season, allowing the Federation to get back on its feet and rebuild, could feel like a deus ex machina – and that’s kind of how this planet feels right now. The story from here seems predictable: save or neutralise Su’kal to prevent another Burn, use the dilithium planet to power the Federation and Starfleet, and retake Discovery from Osyraa.

There may be twists and turns along the way, but that seems to be the direction of travel. Simplifying a story as it approaches its end is inevitable, perhaps, but coupled with what I have to call an unsatisfying explanation for the Burn, it risks the end of the season feeling formulaic. Having made those criticisms, two caveats: there are still two episodes to go in which the Burn’s explanation can be padded out or even changed entirely, and if this is the real explanation for what happened, it avoids many of the pitfalls I feared a 32nd Century post-apocalyptic story would. It isn’t as epic in scope as perhaps I was hoping, nor does it seem to connect to other iterations of the franchise. But it is a very “Star Trek” way for an apocalyptic event to play out.

The titular Su’kal seems to have caused the Burn.

By that I mean it’s closer to some stories from The Original Series or even The Animated Series in terms of pure science-fantasy. Su’kal being the cause of the Burn because he has some kind of telepathic link to dilithium is a weird story, and that weirdness and quirkiness is what made many fans – myself included – fall in love with Star Trek to begin with. So I’m hot and cold on the Burn right now, as you can tell. I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the right way for this story to conclude, given that it’s taken us eleven weeks to get here and the Burn has been presented as this epic cataclysm with mysterious origins. But as a pure Star Trek story, I can’t deny that it works.

If you’re a regular around here, perhaps you’ve read my methodology. If not, you can find it via the menu at the top (top-right on mobiles). To make a long story short, I never read other reviews before writing my own, and I do my best to avoid any and all critical opinion and even responses by people involved with whatever I’m reviewing until I’ve got my own piece published. So I have no idea if I’m alone in my feelings about Su’kal offering an unsatisfying end to the season’s biggest mystery or not.

Is this how the Burn happened?

I feel like I’ve deconstructed the titular Su’kal and his relationship with the Burn as much as I’m able to at this stage. Like several ongoing storylines that saw major developments in Su’kal, my thoughts on this point can and likely will shift depending on the way that the remainder of the story progresses. So let’s look at a few other points from the episode.

Tilly becoming first officer was a point of contention in earlier episodes, and I do understand that. While I defended Saru’s reasoning at the time, as he felt Tilly had adapted best to the future which was a significant consideration in his XO search, what I’d say now is that that storyline feels as if it was constructed deliberately to reach a specific goal. The first part of that goal is, as we saw this week, the capture of Discovery by Osyraa, which we’re to understand came about in part through Tilly’s inexperience. But there may be a further plan for this storyline – effectively cornering Saru and forcing him to reinstate Burnham as first officer.

Tilly in command.

So what we got with Tilly this week was a deeply emotional and very touching scene between her and Burnham. As Saru prepared to lead the away team, it was her turn in the big chair for the first time, and she was nervous. Burnham tried to comfort her, and in this moment she was back to the older, more nervous character from earlier episodes. A lot of us have been nervous or anxious about taking on a big task, and Tilly’s reaction to what was going on was very human.

Likewise, the scene where she took the captain’s chair for the first time was also very well done. Though clearly still nervous she sat down for the first time with determination – and with a plan for what to say and do. She handled herself well, and she clearly had the respect of the other officers on the bridge. But there was a different kind of respect that they showed Tilly compared to Saru, or past commanding officers like Pike. Tilly was almost being treated as a child, judging by some of their expressions: “aww, it’s so sweet they’re letting her have a go in the big chair,” some of their faces seemed to say. While the crew followed their orders, there was a sense among some on the bridge – at least in the moment Tilly assumed command – that they didn’t hold her to the same standards as Saru or Pike.

Tilly regards the captain’s chair.

When confronted by Osyraa, Tilly played a role comparable to Sulu in Star Trek Into Darkness – sitting in the big chair for the first time talking to an enemy. In Sulu’s case he was broadcasting a message to someone rather than having a two-way conversation, but like many things in modern Star Trek I appreciate the symmetry that exists between wholly different stories.

As I said, though, the ultimate payoff to this storyline was Osyraa’s incredibly easy capture of the ship. We can argue that Su’kal’s telepathic tantrum damaged all the ship’s systems and thus probably knocked the shields down, which is how Osyraa’s goons could so easily beam over. But as a point of drama, the standoff between the ships was far too short before we got to this point. When Detmer took Book’s ship and completely disabled Osyraa’s flagship a couple of weeks ago, Osyraa’s flagship was shown to be big but flawed, and Osyraa herself made no moves against Discovery. This time, she was able to defeat Discovery in seconds using powers we’d never seen her vessel have before. There were low stakes at the beginning of the engagement – because Detmer had so easily beaten her using Book’s ship a few weeks ago – and thus Osyraa’s victory seems to come from nowhere.

Osyraa’s flagship proved a very difficult opponent… this time.

If we had seen some more of her ship before Su’kal to know what its capabilities were, that feeling would not persist. But despite its vaguely menacing appearance, the only time we encountered Osyraa before this episode showed her ship to be vulnerable even to Book’s glorified shuttlecraft. The turnaround was only explained by a single line from Osyraa, as she claimed to have fixed the vulnerability Detmer had exploited – but that just wasn’t good enough, in my opinion.

There’s also the big question of how Osyraa came to know about the Spore Drive. This seems to have happened entirely off screen, and while it may be shown in a flashback later on, it’s something we as the audience needed to know. What is Osyraa’s plan now she has control of Discovery? What will she use the Spore Drive for? Who told her about it/how did she find out? None of these points were touched on, and while we can construct theories based on Book’s macguffin from last week that concerned Admiral Vance, nothing was explained on screen in a satisfactory way.

Discovery jumped to the Verubin Nebula with its Spore Drive.

As this is an ongoing story, these points may be addressed, and if so I will gladly withdraw my criticisms. But right now it feels like Osyraa knew about the Spore Drive almost by magic – she even knew its name, despite having never heard of it the last time we met her. She also managed to turn her ship from an easily-beaten wreck into an invincible powerhouse and defeat Discovery with a snap of her fingers. And after all that, we don’t know her intentions. There are too many unknowns for the stakes to feel particularly high.

I mentioned at the start that this storyline – the heroes’ ship being captured – has never been one I enjoyed, and that’s a factor in how I feel about Su’kal too. I tend to feel that any time a story goes down this route the ending is usually known, and as a result the drama and tension just feel forced. Whereas we could see any one of a hundred different endings to Su’kal’s story or even Georgiou’s Mirror Universe story over the last couple of weeks, it’s obvious that Burnham and Book will retake the ship from Osyraa, just as it’s obvious in any comparable story that the heroes will reclaim their starship or base. It’s not exactly a cliché, but it’s a basic narrative that I’ve seen play out dozens of times at this point – including within Star Trek.

These stories have never been a favourite of mine.

Enough about Tilly, Discovery, and Osyraa for now. The sequences set in Su’kal’s home were interesting. The setting itself was reminiscent of the castle Captain Pike encountered on Rigel VII – as seen in Star Trek’s original pilot, The Cage. Castles and Star Trek have an association going back a very long time, and the dark, abandoned castle – with a monster to boot – gave the sequences set there a very creepy, almost horror vibe.

The cinematography for some of these scenes was outstanding, too, and shots of the fortress and its surrounding landscape were beautiful and immersive. There were some amazing overhead angles that gave the stepped structure a deeply confusing feeling, one which helped us get into the mindset of Burnham, Culber, and Saru.

Some of the shots here were beautiful. The set design and animation work were absolutely outstanding.

Speaking of the away team, the choice of makeup was interesting. Having Burnham and Culber be a Trill and Bajoran respectively really didn’t do much, and in a lot of scenes where they were seen from a distance the makeup wasn’t even noticeable. Saru being portrayed as human, however, was far more visually interesting, and the reveal of Doug Jones without makeup was perhaps the biggest shock moment of the whole episode. Everything about that moment was perfectly set up, from Burnham and Culber noting their appearances first to build up the mystery to Saru’s voice being heard before the camera panned to him. It was a very well-constructed moment.

Within the story, though, I’m sorry to say it makes no sense. Saru is a Kelpien; a species Su’kal is obviously familiar with as he has at least one Kelpien hologram – the Elder. Likewise we saw human holos within the programme, and since Burnham and Culber’s physical appearances were not changed to copy pre-existing holograms, I don’t know what reason there is for changing their appearances in this minimal way. Nor do I understand why – aside from reasons of dramatic effect – the away team’s radiation burns were visible on their holographic bodies.

It feels like the choice of making Saru human was just there for surprise value.

If the roles of Burnham, Culber, and Saru were to be played by three different actors for this story, actors who also took on the roles of three holograms within Su’kal’s programme, I could understand it more. It wouldn’t be good to have this crucial moment acted out by different folks, but it would make sense in-universe, because the programmer of Su’kal’s world would have intended his rescuers to assume a familiar form. But the way it was done here was just odd, and I can only assume it was done for the sake of that one shocking moment – revealing Saru in his human guise. Constructing a story point off of one moment seldom works, and while it was interesting (at least, at first) to see these three characters in different makeup, as a story point I don’t get why it had to happen.

It also arguably detracts from Saru’s storyline, which seems to be building to an emotional climax. This is the first Kelpien he’s met since he left the 23rd Century, and there’s also the open question of a possible familial connection via Dr Issa. Saru being distracted by all things Kelpien is affecting his judgement, and this is a storyline worth pursuing. However, having Doug Jones essentially be out of costume is detracting from that. While it was visually interesting at first, it risks getting in the way of the story as it comes to a head. It’s possible that there may be a moment where Saru snaps out of the way he’s feeling due to being in this human guise, which if well-written could work and would be a payoff of sorts. Discovery tends not to do things randomly – somehow there may well be a reason why the away team ended up in these bodies. It’s just difficult to see right now, and the question of whether it will work as intended is up in the air.

Saru in his human disguise.

Burnham’s work with Su’kal was sweet, and she seemed to be beginning to find a way to get through to him. Saru asked her to remain because of her training in xenoanthropology, but just as she accused him of being distracted by Su’kal, I would argue that she is equally distracted from the mission by Book – she wanted to get back to him, because within the nebula he is in danger. She did seem to make some progress with Su’kal before he cut her off – but is that the real Su’kal?

I’ll save the bulk of this discussion for my theory post, but here goes: the “monster” that inhabits the holodeck is vaguely Kelpien in appearance, and also looks older. Its decayed body could be a result of radiation exposure, and when the monster met Burnham, it seemed to react to her in an almost-human manner – by which I mean, not like a programmed machine. The character we’re calling Su’kal is far too young to be 125 years old – or at least appears to be too young – and no suitable explanation has been given for this. So my pet theory right now is that the “monster” is the real life sign that Burnham and the crew identified before beaming down.

Is this a holographic monster… or Su’kal?

I don’t know for sure if that will pan out, or how it could be made to fit, but it seems interesting so I’ll go into more detail next time. There were a few other little moments in Su’kal that I thought were worth pointing out, such as the little robots being identified as “DOTs” for the first time outside of the Short Treks episode Ephraim and Dot. That was a sweet little inclusion. I also liked seeing Adira and Gray back together, as well as Gray giving Adira the confidence boost they needed to make their first big independent move since joining the crew.

Speaking of Adira, Stamets’ line to them at the beginning about he and Culber coming as a “package deal” was cute, and ties in with the parental theme going on with the three of them. Stamets has gone out of his way to help Adira since they joined the crew, even talking to the unseen Gray – whenever he does that I’m reminded of a parent talking to their child’s imaginary friend. Stamets feels protective of Adira, and helping them settle in has been an unexpectedly sweet turn for his character.

Gray and Adira in Su’kal.

So there we are. That was Su’kal, an episode which will have to be revisited in context once we know the overall outcome of the season’s big storylines. It can be difficult to fairly judge one section from the middle of a story – it’s like trying to review chapter ten of a thirteen-chapter novel – because Su’kal cannot be taken as a standalone piece of television. That said, it’s an episode which made significant developments and perhaps set up one or two more mysteries.

I’m troubled by the fault for the Burn lying with a mentally disabled man. Mental health and learning disabilities are already the subject of considerable stigma in our society today, and while on some fronts that is improving, we still have a long way to go. The episode The End is the Beginning from Star Trek: Picard showed a very crude stereotype of “mentally ill people” earlier in the year, and laying the fault of the Burn at Su’kal’s feet seems to continue an unfortunate theme in this year’s Star Trek productions. It almost feels as though the writers have picked on an easy target in Su’kal.

As mentioned, there are different ways the story could pan out from here. I briefly explained one theory I have about Su’kal, but there are different paths the story could take over the next couple of weeks before the season ends. I’m cautiously interested to see more; I do want a resolution to the Burn, but it needs to be a satisfying one – and ideally one that doesn’t stigmatise people.

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.