[Ed. note: One major spoiler ahead for the previous season of Star Trek: Discovery.]
At the end of season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, the crew of the titular science vessel traveled 930 years into the future in a bid to prevent a rogue AI from wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy. It was a bold gambit for both the crew and the showrunners, pushing the series from a somewhat nostalgic prequel to the original 1960s Star Trek run into uncharted territory for Trek canon.
Season 3’s opening episodes are likely to feel as jarring and unpleasant to viewers as that jump is for the characters. Picking up right after season 2’s climactic battle, season 3 opens with Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green of The Walking Dead) tumbling out of the wormhole she made using experimental time-travel technology. When she lands, she’s in an entirely different style of science fiction.
About 750 years after the events of season 2, a mysterious catastrophe known as The Burn destroyed most dilithium, the element that powers the warp-drive systems that makes faster-than-light travel possible. The United Federation of Planets fell soon after, and the galaxy is now a smaller, more fragmented place that resembles Firefly or the grittier aspects of Star Wars more closely than it looks like anything Gene Roddenberry would have dreamed up. Starfleet has become a sort of mythical force of law and goodness akin to the Jedi in Star Wars: A New Hope, with some true believers hanging onto their faith that it will return to bring them justice or purpose.
Michael’s first encounter is with Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala of Nightflyers and Supergirl), a Han Solo-like character in trouble for stealing precious cargo. He grudgingly agrees to help her by taking her to the Mercantile, a galactic swap shop that’s definitely a wretched den of scum and villainy. He also has the mysterious ability to conjure healing plants and speak with animals, which he uses to rescue giant man-eating mesmerizing worms from poachers. As Michael points out, it falls to him to save them, because without the Federation, “there’s no one around to enforce the Endangered Species Act.”
The plot and character are a nod to the 1986 film Star Trek: The Voyage Home, mashed up with a bit of the mysticism of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His scene-stealing Maine Coon Grudge also follows in the footsteps of Data’s pet cat Spot in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But even with those franchise touchstones in place, having Michael running around with a space druid who snaps people’s necks feels like a shockingly weird turn for the series. The violence is amped way up in season 3’s first two episodes, with plenty of disintegrations and one particularly brutal murder that feels a long way away from “Set phasers to stun!”
The disconnect is even greater in the second episode, where the Discovery crash-lands on a planet and tries to get help from the locals. The classic away-team/on-ship divide is downright bizarre when Starfleet idealist Commander Saru (Doug Jones of The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth) and perky engineer Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) are engaged in a hostage negotiation with a murderous, leering, spur-wearing warlord in a saloon, while the B-plot is in the much more familiar Star Trek domain of the engineers learning to ask for help in getting repairs done.
Star Trek: Discovery is far from the first show to make a shift this dramatic. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. time-traveled into a post-apocalyptic version of 2091 in season 5, and the final season of Fringe took place in a dystopian 2036. In both those shows, the main characters spend the whole season trying to make sure that future doesn’t actually come to pass. But the focus in Discovery season 3 seems to be more about making the best of a bad situation.
In a striking glimpse of what was lost, a Federation loyalist unfurls a version of the organization’s flag in the first episode, and it has just a handful of stars, rather than the crowded starscape that represented the interstellar union at its height. As the Discovery works to find what’s left of Starfleet and continue its mission of peaceful exploration, the third and fourth episodes of the 13-episode season settle into far more familiar territory. Discovery’s new season resembles Star Trek: Voyager, but with the ship displaced in time rather than stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Both have the effect of making the crew underdogs who can’t call for powerful backup, which forces them to adapt quickly to their strange new surroundings.
There’s certainly a lot of potential in that dynamic. Without any backing from Starfleet, Saru’s command of the Discovery is questioned by former Emperor of the Terran Empire and Section 31 operative Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who feels her moral flexibility is an asset in this grimmer world. The existence of time travel is widely known in the world of Star Trek, so characters learning about the Discovery’s origins aren’t shocked, so much as eager to get their hands on forbidden technology and the rare resources the ship has brought from the past.
The new setting also leaves showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman the freedom to do basically whatever they want with Star Trek’s canon, imagining a host of new possible alliances and crises without having to worry about how they might affect established events. But that freedom is squandered when they instead try to put a Star Trek spin on stories of resource scarcity and frontier justice that other popular works of science fiction have already done better.
The best episode of the four made available to critics involves the state of the Trill and their symbionts, which have been used to tell subtly queer stories in past incarnations of the series. Discovery’s showrunners are now using them to bring the first major trans and nonbinary characters and actors to the series, with Ian Alexander’s Gray and Blu del Barrio’s Adira continuing the franchise’s enduring focus on representation through a powerful plot about the challenges of finding your true self.
It’s reasonable for Discovery’s writers to want to forge their own path, but they’ve left a bit too much of the previous seasons’ characterizations behind. The relationship conflict between astromycologist Lt. Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and medical officer Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) came to an abrupt resolution in the season 2 finale and hasn’t really been addressed since, while Michael has largely abandoned the Vulcan logic she was raised with, and become a far more generic action girl.
The crew of Discovery faces an identity crisis in season 3. Separated from the organization they dedicated their lives to along with almost everyone they knew, they struggle to find new purpose and connections. “We’re in uncharted territory, and they know it,” Hugh tells Saru when assessing the crew’s mental state. “Discovery could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a ripple. No one would miss us or mourn us.”
Fans have endlessly debated the comparative merits of Star Wars and Star Trek, but the two iconic franchises feel closer together now, with parts of this season of Discovery resembling The Mandalorian. While Discovery features a full ensemble crew rather than a lone-wolf star and an adorable puppet, both series follow remnants of a fallen organization trying to continue to live by a strong moral code as they journey through a broken world. The end of an evil Galactic Empire and a benevolent Federation of Planets both left power vacuums filled by cruel opportunists, giving heroes plenty of room to make a real difference among all the scrabblers and scroungers just trying to get by.
For both franchises, venturing into uncharted territory away from the story-defining heroes and villains gives the writers the freedom to tell new stories. As jarring as it may be, imagining such a novel future for the world of Star Trek fits well within the original mission of the Starship Enterprise: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Star Trek: Discovery premieres on CBS All Access on Oct. 15. New episodes release on Thursdays.