Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 3 review contains major spoilers for episode 1 – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Star Trek: Voyager made a big thing of the fact it was going where no Trek had gone before. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t. While Captain Janeway and friends found themselves exploring unknown regions of the galaxy – contemplating a decades-long journey back home while integrating a faction of terrorists into the crew – it didn’t take more than a few episodes for the show to settle into old rhythms. All the Starfleet/Maquis tension evaporated in an instant and even the aliens looked strangely familiar – aside from the fact they had slightly different prosthetics on their foreheads.
The new season of Star Trek: Discovery is significantly bolder. In fact, opening episode “That Hope is You, Part 1” throws out so much of what’s recognisable about the franchise that it feels like a fresh start. It’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it.
With Commander Michael Burnham launched 930 years into her future, this is so far beyond Trek’s traditional 23rd/24th century hinterland that it’s given the writers the opportunity to completely reset the universe. It makes total sense that they’ve changed so much; if Burnham had travelled this far back in time, she’d be preparing to experience the Black Death. In 3188, existing Trek canon – so often a weight on storytelling – is such a distant memory that it might as well not exist. That’s a refreshing place for a much-loved, 54-year-old franchise to be.
This vision of the future is almost unrecognisable. The tech, in particular, goes one step beyond, with Burnham’s phaser and tricorder now considered antiques, and even the holographic controls from Star Trek: Picard seeming retro in comparison. Transporters are now portable (albeit with a 30-second recharge time), the handheld weapons deliver a surprisingly gory kick, and user interfaces are made of constantly shifting matter. The visuals and sound effects feel like they come from a completely different franchise and the production team clearly enjoyed the chance to break the mould.
But despite the universe being full of gadgets that appear to run on magic, some things have gone backwards. At some point during the intervening centuries, the mysterious “Burn” caused most of the dilithium in the universe to explode, rendering starships inoperable. The Federation couldn’t explain how or why it happened, so the interplanetary organisation that’s always formed the backbone of Star Trek gradually fell apart, to the point it’s now represented by one lonely man in a space station. The galaxy has become a more-or-less lawless place, where space travel can no longer be taken for granted – like the Wild West with state-of-the-art gadgets.
Burnham quite literally crashes into this culture shock of a future after she emerges from the time portal she used to save existence from malevolent AI CONTROL. After an unfortunate collision with another spacecraft, she tumbles towards a barren planet that looks a lot like Iceland and has a conveniently breathable atmosphere. Before long she bumps into the ship’s pilot, Cleveland Booker (aka Book)…
There’s fighting, bickering and the odd betrayal before they form an alliance of convenience, mainly because Book’s the only person Burnham knows in the last thousand years. While their banter initially feels like an awkward mix of exposition and forced antagonism, some real chemistry is developing by the time they reach the spectacular city of Requiem.
The random selection of aliens they encounter – including familiar faces such as Andorians, Orions, and a Lurian (the same species as Deep Space Nine’s resident barfly Morn) – ultimately feel more Star Wars than Star Trek, especially as most of them seem to operate in black markets. Their scrap over Book’s cargo culminates in a fun, incredibly inventive chase sequence based around on-the-run transporter action as the protagonists beam about the planet’s surface. It’s reminiscent of the sequence in The Witcher where Yennefer portalled herself away from the bad guys.
Book himself (played by David Ajala) is not quite the Han Solo-ish rogue he first appears to be. Yes, he operates in lawless worlds and his job as a courier (moving merchandise between holo-sellers and holo-buyers) could easily be confused with that of a smuggler. But he’s also hiding his ability to form a telepathic bond with the natural world – most notably the giant trans-worm he’s trying to save from the bad guys. Who’d have guessed that the scoundrel-ish character we meet at the beginning of the episode would turn out to be an interstellar conservationist? Or that Star Trek: Discovery would go slapstick with Burnham getting eaten (and spat out) by a giant slug. Was it written on the day the writer’s room exchanged notes with Star Trek: Lower Decks?
By the end of the episode, the big question on your mind is what’s happened to Discovery? All the evidence suggests it’s a victim of the kind of tricksy temporal mechanics that caused Spock to arrive years after the Narada in J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek. At least Burnham’s got company while she waits, now that she’s found the Federation’s last man standing. There’s something rather touching about the idea of a guy who’s devoted his entire life to keeping the Federation flame burning – even if he’s still out-ranked by Burnham when she arrives. Indeed, it looks like rebuilding the Federation is going to be the new series’ Prime Directive – but Burnham really needs to find her shipmates first…
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 3 land on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the US, and on Fridays on Netflix in the UK.