Star Trek: Discovery Season 3: Making Space a Frontier Again

Star Trek: Discovery returns this week from its 18-month hiatus with its third season premiere. The show's second season finale set Star Trek: Discovery's third season up with what is almost a blank slate. Jumping 930 years into the future for Discovery's third season introduces a new and different era of the Star Trek universe that, in some way, is a return to the roots of The Original Series. But it also suggests that when you travel 930 years into the future, your baggage comes with you in what may be the shows most fascinating, nuanced, and character-focused opening yet.

(A note on SPOILERS: received screeners of Star Trek: Discovery's first four third-season episodes. While we draw upon all of them for this review, we only describe specific events from the first episode of the season, which is available to stream now on CBS All Access.)

The season begins with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) crashing into the unknown. She shoots out of the wormhole and slams into a starship piloted by Charles "Book" Booker (David Ayala). After some contentious introductions, the two agree to work together, and Book serves as Michael's guide to this new world.

At some point, the galaxy "took a hard left," as Book puts it. Due to galaxy-wide disaster, dilithium -- a vital component for warp travel -- is now extremely scarce and valuable. Space travel, for the most part, goes at sub-light speed. Unable to maintain its size under such conditions, the Federation and Starfleet diminish to almost nothing.

The result is that the galaxy feels much bigger and more dangerous than it did at any time in Star Trek's past. The lawlessness of the era calls to mind Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi western pitch for the original Star Trek series, a genre mashup that this season's second episode leans on heavily.

But it's about more than a return to Star Trek's roots. Like any good sci-fi, Star Trek is at its best when it reflects our present reality. We're living in an era when our reserves of fossil fuels that power our everyday forms of transportation are dwindling. The institutions many of us took for granted seem more tenuous now than ever. A Star Trek where warp travel is no longer a given and where the Federation can no longer reach those who depended on it is a Star Trek for our present moment. Discovery asks, "What becomes of us next when the crisis goes from being imminent to being a thing of the past? Who protects the defenseless when our institutions fail?"

The series still focuses on Michael Burnham, but it doesn't forget the Discovery crew. These characters that bravely sacrificed everything they knew to follow Michael into that wormhole are now learning to live with the reality of that sacrifice. Discovery uses this situation to explore the reality of living with trauma, how to heal and grow through it, and what it means to be a part of something larger than yourself. This is the emotional poignancy the series leans on to connect with the audience, and it works well.

Michael also has to deal with this new reality. Sonequa Martin-Green finds new depths of vulnerability in her performance. The same is true of the supporting cast like Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, Doug Jones, and Mary Wiseman. Emily Coutts also gets some time to shine as helmsman Keyla Detmer, and she does not squander it. The newcomers also make a great first impression. David Ajala brings warm confidence to the series as Book, and Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander steal the show in roles too fascinating to spoil here.

Four episodes in, Discovery hasn't yet offered that standout episode like "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" from the show's first season or season two's "Through the Valley of Shadows." It doesn't quite reach the cinematic scale of season two's premiere, "Brother." Also, anyone who has taken issue with Discovery's use of language or relationship to violence in the past will find that season three only embraces those aspects more than before. But while it hasn't reached those same peaks -- yet -- that the previous season did, it feels like even more confident in its storytelling. It has a clear purpose, a clear mission, and a familiarity with the characters that allows the writers to push and prod them in a new and exciting way.

The Star Trek universe of the 32nd century feels dangerous like it hasn't before. The Discovery crew made a sacrifice and woke up 930 years later to find the galaxy is not what they'd hoped it'd be. The institution they put their faith in failed, and no one was there to pick up the pieces. It's an emotionally fraught space to navigate as they navigate physical space searching for the Federation and a greater purpose and connection to the galaxy they find themselves in now. Based on these first few episodes, it looks to be a satisfying and resonant journey for anyone choosing to embark on it with them.


Rating: 4 out of 5

Star Trek: Discovery streams Thursday on CBS All Access.