The Incredible, Intoxicating Potential of Star Trek: Discovery's Third Season

A red angel guides Star Trek: Discovery to a new age.
Image: CBS

Last week, Star Trek: Discovery’s second season finale delivered more explosions than a full compliment of photon torpedoes ever could. But with them, it also delivered one of the biggest status quo shifts a Star Trek show has ever contemplated—and it wasn’t just shocking, it brought with it some truly fascinating promise.

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“Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2” concluded with Michael Burnham and the Discovery having to actually act on a plan most shows would usually leave to the “dire scenario our heroes asspull their ways out of at the last minute” sort of cliffhanger archetype. In order to stop the dangerous A.I. system known as Control from gaining the data it needed to become sentient (and, y’know, destroy all meatbags), Michael and the crew construct an angelic time-traveling suit that the former uses to pull the latter, and the Discovery itself, a whopping 930 years into the future—permanently.

In one shocking moment, Star Trek: Discovery stopped being a prequel to the very first Star Trek show, and instead became the farthest-flung series in the venerable franchise’s entire history. And not just farthest flung by a couple of decades, as was the gap between Deep Space Nine and the upcoming Jean-Luc Picard show, or even a century like the leap from Star Trek to The Next Generation. Nine entire centuries puts Discovery now in a timeline so far removed from the rest of its predecessors that they might as well be in a completely different series.

The Discovery boldly goes.
Image: CBS

But it isn’t, as much as some of Discovery’s detractors might desperately want it to be. Instead, the time jump invites us to ask incredibly exciting questions of both Discovery and the franchise at large: What does Star Trek so far removed from its familiar trappings even look like? And, most importantly, what is it about Star Trek that is so enduring, so fundamentally defining about the series, that even the most subversive versions still include it no matter what?

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This isn’t actually the first time Star Trek as a franchise has had thoughts like this. The entire initial premise of Star Trek: Voyager was to imagine what a Starfleet vessel so far removed from Federation contact, in an unknown region of space, values of itself and its crew as it goes out and carries on that fundamental mission of diplomacy and exploration. If anything, Voyager’s biggest disappointment is that it drops those questions relatively quickly to just become a Star Trek show with minimal involvement from Starfleet and the Federation until near the end of its run. But even then, it still delivered on a base level of bringing in new worlds, species, and cultures into the vast Star Trek pantheon thanks to that premise, adding to the variety of Star Trek’s rich tapestry instead of simply just playing about with what was established by the shows that had come before it.

But Discovery’s status quo shift means so much more than the exciting base potential of new worlds, of new races, of new villains and new problems for Michael and her fellow crewmates to tackle as they adjust to their new normal. Because unlike Voyager, its removal from its franchise predecessors is not by vast distance—to the point that franchise staples still existed as we knew them, they were simply out of reach—but by vast time. The Federation and Starfleet as we know them in the 23rd and 24th centuries no longer exist in Star Trek: Discovery’s future-present. Neither do even the versions of them briefly glimpsed in Star Trek: Enterprise’s temporal storylines, drawing upon a potential 26th century—either because by this point they don’t exist at all, which would be interesting, or because those societies and structures have evolved so far beyond those points that they are practically unrecognizable not just to the Discovery and her crew, but us as viewers. Which would be even more interesting!

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The Discovery, as seen abandoned in the future of the Short Treks episode “Calypso”—an eventual future for our heroes?
Image: CBS

Contrast the difference between the gung-ho expansionist Federation of Kirk’s time and the diplomatic, scientific bureaucracy it had become by The Next Generation. That was just a century’s difference—contrast it even further with what was perhaps meant to be the Federation at its apex in Enterprise’s imagined future, where Klingons, Ithenites, and Xindi had entered the fold, a few centuries beyond that. Discovery now gets to play with what a difference can be made by going another six centuries even beyond Enteprise’s ponderance. In doing so, it can say so much more about the ideals and values of Star Trek as a franchise than it ever could while being so intimately enmeshed in the nostalgic world of being a close prequel to the original series.

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And really, that is the other truly liberating aspect of Discovery’s time jump. One of the biggest weaknesses in the first two seasons of the show has been a reliance on the crutch of nostalgia for the original Star Trek. It’s been used to either distract from messy storytelling, or to back down from asking challenging questions about Star Trek as a series. Discovery’s first season set up an intriguing critique of Starfleet’s approach to its own lofty values in a time of war, only to immediately negate those critiques by revealing that the focal character issuing them—in this case, Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca—was in fact from the familiar world of Star Trek’s Mirror Universe of sinister assholes. It lead to not only a muddled back half to the season, but the show itself having very little to say thematically, beyond the fact it knew that the Mirror Universe was an Old Thing that the fans liked.

Its second season at the very least handled its nostalgia in a much more nuanced fashion. That’s surprising, given that it went immediately for the nostalgia jugular, so to speak, recruiting legendary figures like Captain Pike, the Enterprise, and even Spock himself instead of something as intrinsically fannish as the Mirror Universe. These nostalgic elements ended up being much more delicately handled in comparison—Michael and Spock’s relationship as adoptive siblings became a great emotional spine for the entire season, and some truly incredible performances from Anson Mount and Ethan Peck as Pike and Spock delivered definitive new takes on these familiar characters. But they were still ultimately very slick distractions from the fact that the show once again started asking interesting ethical questions about Star Trek’s revered institutions (in this case, Section 31, and what its existence has to say about the Federation’s utopia) only to back down from them the moment they got too challenging a prospect to consider.

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One last blast of nostalgia in the closing moments of Discovery’s second season finale: a reverse recreation of the opening shot of “The Cage,” Star Trek’s original pilot episode.
Image: CBS

Now, by its own decision to completely sever itself from that time period, Star Trek: Discovery can no longer rely on those nostalgic elements to mask its hesitation to really challenge us with imaginings of what the Star Trek universe can be. And that is incredibly exciting, not just because it’s hard to imagine where else the show could’ve gone with its nostalgia—other than rapidly downhill—after literally canonizing Star Trek’s original pilot into its premise. But because it means now, it has to commit: there’s no Spock or Pike, nor a gorgeously re-imagined Enterprise bridge, to hide behind. It has to move forward, and forge a path of its own, at practically every level of its premise. One it is seemingly is going to do, given that a new comic will explore what the show left behind in the 23rd century, rather than the series itself.

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It’s time, at last, for Star Trek: Discovery to truly boldly go where none of its predecessors have gone before it. And I absolutely cannot wait to see what it does with such a powerful opportunity.


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About the author

James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!