Star Trek: Discovery season 3 failed its characters and plots

Photo: Michael Gibson / CBS Interactive

[Ed. note: This piece contains some spoilers for seasons 2 and 3 of Star Trek: Discovery.]

Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery sends the crew of the eponymous science vessel far into the future, setting the series free from the franchise’s established canon. It was a bold move for showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise, letting them explore issues like resource scarcity — previously anathema to Trek’s largely utopian principles — and show a version of the United Federation of Planets in even greater decline than it is in Star Trek: Picard.

As the episodes aired in a world that felt absolutely unmoored due to the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread social and political unrest, Discovery had the potential to live up to Star Trek’s classic mission of providing perspective and commentary on the biggest issues of the day. Yet for every topic the writers tried to tackle, the conclusion was muddled or perfunctory rather than actually insightful. The main arcs were also rushed, since two of the season’s 13 episodes were entirely devoted to setting up a spinoff. The result was an extremely weak season that didn’t deliver satisfying arcs for most of the show’s characters. The writers introduced complex plots, then wrapped them up with feel-good simplicity. Here’s what season 3 of Discovery tried to explore, and how it failed.

Photo: Michael Gibson / CBS Interactive

Resource scarcity

Season 3’s primary conflict is the Burn, a mysterious event that affected dilithium — the element responsible for faster-than-light travel and much of Trek’s other wondrous technology — and left the quadrant diminished and fragmented. Dilithium was in short supply in the period immediately before and especially after The Burn, leaving the Federation and various other factions only able to apply force based on their dwindling reserves.

Star Trek has always existed in a post-scarcity future, so this twist enabled a huge rethinking of how various species and planets would evolve and change to deal with the challenge. The fact that the Federation was so hard hit provided a particularly grim metaphor for the current decline of the United States as a world power. The near-future realism of The Expanse has made it a far better venue for stories about humanity’s endless struggle over resources, and the people who are inevitably exploited and neglected as a result, but there was certainly potential in approaching the topic from a Star Trek lens.

One plot provided a critique of colonialism, with the Emerald Chain mercantile syndicate providing a powerful argument in favor of the Prime Directive — Starfleet’s ban on significantly interfering with alien civilizations. The Emerald Chain shows up to offer wondrous solutions to problems like environmental crises, which are contingent on their ability to exploit the resources of the planets they help.

The idea shows Star Trek fans how lucky Earth was to make contact with the kindly Vulcans before encountering other alien species, and it fits in well with the questions raised in 2020 about the degree to which Earth could actually unify if alien life arrived here. But while season 2 of The Mandalorian provides a powerful analysis of the way major powers trample over indigenous peoples, Star Trek: Discovery’s writers resolved their exploration of the topic with a solution that has all the nuance of a Captain Planet episode with some empaths using their connection to nature to solve the problem the Emerald Chain was ostensibly helping them with.

Discovery appearing in the future shakes up future politics, with the ship and its spore-drive engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) becoming the ultimate commodity by providing a non-dilithium-based method for faster-than-light travel. The show is at its best when the crew provides a light in a dark world, such as when protagonist and occasional first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) inspires a man who’s maintaining a vigil for remnants of Starfleet despite never officially being inducted as a member. But its utopianism reaches ludicrous levels through Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr of The Mummy and Resident Evil: Extinction), whose ignorance of realpolitik in demanding a ludicrous number of concessions from a powerful potential ally — including that she stand trial for war crimes — makes it baffling he’s achieved such a high rank. His intransigence pays off anyway, in ways that feel like entirely unearned plot fiat.

Photo: Michael Gibson / CBS Interactive

Coping with trauma and the burdens of leadership

At the end of season 2, Discovery’s crew heroically agree to travel into the distant future in a desperate bid to save all life in the galaxy, and the early part of season 3 sees them struggling to come to terms with the consequences. Kelpian crew member Saru (Doug Jones of The Shape of Water and Hellboy) finally finds the courage to embrace his role as captain, but he also ends up in the uniquely difficult position of having to getting a crew of perpetual overachievers to acknowledge they’ve been pushed to the breaking point.

This plotline left plenty of room for commentary on mental-health issues in high-stress jobs, coupled with some ripe personal plots about adjusting to change. 2020 was certainly a year that could use more thought and stories around those ideas. But these were largely oversimplified, mishandled, or used for awkward comedy. Lieutenant Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) has been at the helm since Discovery’s first episode, but has received pretty much no character development, so the arc exploring her instability following the jump to the future could have remedied that oversight. Instead, it’s considered resolved as soon as she’s willing to ask for help.

Saru should also have had time to shine in the captain’s chair. Instead, he’s left making meta jokes about what catchphrase he should use when giving an order. When Michael is stripped of her role as first officer due to insubordination, he promotes ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) into her position, in a decision that clearly had more to do with the writers not knowing what to do with Tilly than any in-world logic. Michael may be the only character whose arc has a satisfying conclusion this season, but it again comes at Saru’s expense. It seems like Jones has been written off the show as of the end of this season, which is probably for the best, because the actor deserves better.

Photo: Michael Gibson / CBS Interactive

Gender identity

Paramount grabbed a lot of attention in 2020 with the announcement that season 3 of Discovery would feature the series’ first major trans and non-binary characters, Gray (Ian Alexander) and Adira (Blu del Barrio). Their introduction should have been a powerful embrace of representation in a once-trailblazing franchise that was lagging behind the progress made by other major shows. But the idea fell apart because the writers couldn’t decide what approach to take to the characters.

The ideal way to introduce them might have been to not even comment on their genders. That did happen with Gray, who is just presented as Adira’s boyfriend. But rather than clearly stating their pronouns upon arrival on Discovery, Adira is called by female pronouns throughout most of the season before raising the issue with Stamets. He’s apparently the first person Adira has told about their gender identity, aside from Gray, which makes their identity seem like an inherently shameful secret.

If they weren’t serving the same role of portraying a more inclusive world as the original Star Trek’s multiracial cast did, Gray and Adira could have been used as metaphors for discovering and embracing gender identity. That seemed to be the direction the writers were going in early, with the implantation of Gray’s Trill symbiote feeling like a stand-in for gender confirmation surgery. After the procedure, Gray assures Adira, “I’m still me. I’m just more me.” And Adira changing pronouns could have been part of them coming to terms with the way being a Trill host changes their perceptions about themselves. Given that the character is only 16, that plot could easily be a stand-in for the way some teenagers struggle to come to grips with their gender.

But the biggest problem is that both characters are just used as accessories for the relationship between Stamets and his boyfriend, ship physician Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), which hit a rough patch after Hugh returned from the dead in season 2. The writers sought to rectify these issues with the classic romance cliché of having the two effectively have a kid in the form of Adira, though neither really asked Adira to consent to the role. A plot reveal in the finale surrounding Gray does hint at a more meaningful arc for the characters to come. But this season, they were just another example of the writers setting bold goals and underdelivering.

CBS All Access has already renewed Star Trek: Discovery for a fourth and fifth season, which will be shot back-to-back. Showrunner Michelle Paradise says Discovery’s crew will stay in the 32nd century, and that season 4 will have the same focus as season 3 on “trying to make sure our characters can grow, exploring new relationships, exploring how people can change, finding new layers for each of our characters.” But the writers need to grow and change too. It isn’t enough to have great ideas, or a willingness to engage with difficult subjects. The show needs to be better at engaging with those ideas and the show’s larger themes if it’s going to do right by the characters, the franchise, and the fans.

Comments

As the episodes aired in a world that felt absolutely unmoored due to the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread social and political unrest, Discovery had the potential to live up to Star Trek’s classic mission of providing perspective and commentary on the biggest issues of the day.

Seriously? They wrote it in 2019 and finished shooting in February of last year. How dare they not anticipate a global pandemic and social upheaval.

Umm half the plot is about travelling into the future, surely the writers could have just used that to predict what was going to happen?

Further, it’s bizarre to suggest that this season, of ALL the seasons of Disscovery, didn’t "live up to Star Trek’s classic mission" – this was easily the most empathetic, hopeful, and optimistic season of the show, period. By a considerable margin, as well.

This was a Star Trek that spoke explicitly to an audience short on that sort of optimism and empathy in real life, and showed over and over again how emotional honesty and open communication helps bridge divides and solve problems.

Star Trek fans who complain about starfleet heirarchies and fictional-engineering gobbledegook in the name of adhering to "real Trek" or "classic trek" have been a part of this series’ fandom for as long as the fandom has existed, and considering it’s basically THE BIRTHPLACE of fandom itself, that’s a long time. But all that reallymeans is Star Trek fans have had a lot of practice missing the forest for the trees, and it’s just that much more tired when it KEEPS popping up in the 21st century, especially in response to a show that isn’t at all embarrassed, worried, scared, or apologetic for daring to give all of the fucks (verbal as well as emotional) that they can.

Points for this article for trying to provide new angles on missing that forest, though. Gotta think it’s worth questioning what you’re into Star Trek for if aspiring towards utopia (which is, literally, Star Trek’s storytelling mission) seems beneath you. I particularly disliked the bit where the writer indulges in fanfiction re: making Adira/Gray a 5x more on-the-nose and clangorous a metaphor when it didn’t NEED to be a metaphor at all, and worked as well as it did BECAUSE it wasn’t one.

This was a great season of Star Trek. Not just Discovery, but Star Trek. And if this is the direction it keeps going in, this optimistic, hopeful, and emotionally-engaged direction, than I’m all for it. Especially considering what the show was like in its first season, where that optimism and emotionality was constantly roughed up and muddied for bad reasons. Now it feels like it fits comfortably next to other feel-good shows like The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso, and One Day at a Time. And if anything, the fact Star Trek fits next to those sorts of shows SHOULDN’T be a surprise, either.

No… a bs series made by people who have little to no understanding of the franchise of Star Trek made a finale that was- bs? How is this surprising?!

Dogg, Star Trek is a place.

Are you a friend of DeSoto?

Best boss I ever had.

LOL You have watched TNG/TOS recently right? Most of TOS and the first several season of TNG were garbage. Just a lot of hate from white neck beards that now have to share stories with other outlooks.

The same white neck beards who loved Deep Space Nine…

You do see the profile pic, right? I’m African American, Non descript Person.

I didn’t want to speak specifically for you, particularly since avatars are not necessarily who we are in real life (like I am not a bored 2D drawing), which is why I just commented on a specific line of text that does not ring true for Star Trek fans.

I did watch TNG and TOS… and all of the TOS movies, and TNG movies, and Voyager and DS9, and Enterprise and this STD (pun intended). I personally didn’t want game of thrones in space, rewrites of canonical franchise history, connecting the franchise to those POS Bad Robot reboot films. I could forgive all of the above if it (Discovery) was well written or unique- it is neither. The showrunners claim this is the first show to have a black, non-captain main character in Star Trek history- it is not, that was DS9 with Benjamin Sisqo. They want to go edgy and challenge the ideals of Star Trek… it was already done, and done exponentially better in DS9. Go watch "In the Pale Moonlight" in DS9 where Sisqo manufactures evidence, has multiple people murdered, and lies to an ally in order to get help to defeat the Dominion- damning his own faith in the ideals of Star Fleet proclaiming in his own log "…And if I had the chance, I’d do it all again… Long live the Federation… end transmission and erase all records". If it was original and good I would kneel down at the altar of Discovery… but it isn’t. It’s hot, buttered trash.

Nice .gif but really, I’m Black.

It’s from In the Pale Moonlight. You know, after Benjamin Sisko gives him falsified intelligence.

I am aware of it. Sisko stains his soul for what he perceives as the greater good. Like I said, Discovery is cribbing from a playbook from 93-99 and it isn’t new or innovative, and the showrunners continuing to portray the show as so groundbreaking is a joke and offensive. They need to do some new stuff…. that’s better written, better acted etc.

I’ve been watching Discovery and DS9 concurrently. I don’t think the acting is better in DS9 overall. There are standout performances in both shows, as well as some questionable reads. I think that DS9 benefits from having 24 episode seasons. Discovery’s real failing is trying to cram 24 episodes worth of characters and plot into a 13 episode bag.

It’s kind of a double edged sword – the shorter episode run means the show looks and sounds amazing, the production level is the best the television side of the property has ever looked. But shorter runs to a lot of tv execs almost necessitates serialized, arc-based storytelling as opposed to episodic story-of-the-week type stuff. It doesn’t HAVE to be that way, but it seems like status quo at studios is that if you’re doing less episodes, those episodes HAVE to be in service to a larger serialized arc.

The next season seems to be at least hinting at a format where it’s basically "Discovery goes to a new/old Federation planet each week" and hopefully Season four is almost solely story-of-the-week stuff. Honestly, all they have to do is look across the way at Disney+ and note that most of Mandalorian’s biggest successes come when it’s adhering to that story-of-the-week mode.

Or as old folks like to call it, "How TV Shows Used to Be"

I’d like to see them do episodes that are connected but are effectively stand alone. It does seem like the premise of Discovery jumping around spreading the good news of the Federation reborn would lend itself to this.

I’m also excited that seasons 4 and 5 are going to be shot back to back as that seems to indicate that they might be connected. The finale of season 4 could be treated like a more traditional mid season finale.

I disagree, STD’s flaw(s) are many and numerous. A severe lack of Trek lore continuity, badly written characters, deus ex machina writing, illogical leaps in logic, a lack of in universe law following. The accelerated season is the smallest issue with the series.

Haven’t seen the last episode yet, so I haven’t read the whole thing, but yeah … this was Discovery’s weakest season yet.

I really enjoyed the second half of season 1, and season 2 was a fun ride.

A lot of people said it wasn’t "their Star Trek" and honestly, it’s not mine either, but I still enjoyed it and have appreciated the new Treks as a way to explore this show and universe in different ways.

But Season 3, woof. It started out pretty okay, but every step of way I felt like I could feel the writers hand at work instead of the actual characters on the screen. People changed and acted in ways I didn’t really understand, making me often confused about their motivation.
I normally liked Saru, but he’s the worst captain I’ve ever seen in Star Trek. Hands down. He’s emotionally compromised from every angle. He jumps to conclusions and will only begrudgingly admit he’s wrong. His motivations are completely self serving and he’s often hypocritical with his decisions.

Having a NB character with Adira was a good idea, but they screwed it up so bad. Why not just have them be NB from the very beginning? Why not have them mention it the moment they were misgendered, instead of having a weird heartfelt moment about the gender "reveal" when it could have just been "I’m non-binary and use they/them pronouns" and then they could have moved on. But then they were like "ooooh, we’re so special that we recognize gender diversity" glowing in their own self satisfaction.
Even TNG handled gender identity better than this

I get that Discovery is trying to flip the script on Trek in a number of ways, and I do respect that even when it doesn’t always work, but I can’t say I expected them to flip the "it gets good at season 3" script I’ve come to expect from most TV Trek.

It started out pretty okay, but every step of way I felt like I could feel the writers hand at work instead of the actual characters on the screen. People changed and acted in ways I didn’t really understand, making me often confused about their motivation.

That’s exactly how I felt about Season 3. 1 and 2 still had odd random things happening, but characters were all developing in a consistent way and it was entertaining to watch. Season 3 they just become puppets for whatever the writers need each week and it’s really off-putting.

I think on it’s own that wouldn’t have killed it for me, but making the Emerald Chain into the worst cookie-cutter cliche villain when it wasn’t even needed, and having the big reveal for the burn be so disappointing just pushed it over the edge.

It could have been a really interesting change of pace for them to focus entirely on trying to re-establish the Federation, and discover the source of the burn – if they actually wrote a good reveal for that instead of what we got. And wasting two episodes on effectively revisiting season 2 was a pointless waste of time.

Update: Watched it last night. Read this article fully this morning.

It’s only solidified my opinion. This is the worst season of Discovery yet, by an order of magnitude at least.

Nothing about the burn makes any sense. How it was caused, how they never found the source for over a hundred years, how it never occurred even once more since even though it seems very easy to trigger.

I know these shows are made by writers, but I shouldn’t see them actively at work while watching the show. Things need to feel natural and make sense, and this season was none of that. I’m really disappointed with what they did with what could have been a cool departure from the usual Trek.

I have so many more issues, but I’ve already written more than I care to.

Nah, but you’re entitled to that opinion.

I think you’re being a little hard on the season (but your points are valid, just wanted you to know!)

Resource scarcity is a huge issue and yeah, the season could have been a mirror for our current society on how colonialism works, but Star Trek has had many, many episodes where a scarce resource was found by the crew and helped a society thrive again. So while it may have been a relatively quick wrap up of a major issue, it is in tune with what Star Trek has done in the past.

Burdens of Leadership is a good take on everything, but I feel like the characters were respected. Michael has always been afraid of the Captain’s chair, she’s never felt secure in that role and I think its because she’s always carried some guilt with having caused the Klingon war and Georgiou’s death.

This season we saw the culmination of her growth all click together. The first season was about redemption for what she had done. Season 2 was growing into that role of someone who had respect again, and learning that there is far more to life than she had ever allowed herself to experience. Healing her rift with Spock opened her up to feel again, something she was always trying hard to not do, either because she was scared or because she was raised on Vulcan.

Season 3 is her having these experiences but also learning that Starfleet can be a hindrance doing what is right right away. She pays for this lesson by losing her post and honestly the respect of people around her.

It isn’t until she’s trying to eject Staments into space that we see her literally battle herself. The emotional side she’s learned to embrace is screaming at her to NOT do this, but the Starfleet side of her is the one knowing she is doing the right thing. You see this fight with her facial expressions, she looks like she’s about to have a break down…but then she snaps it down and continues on. She’s learned how to put her emotions aside without ignoring them.

Tilly I will admit I was surprised too, but she has been a breakout character who is beloved. As much as it didn’t make sense, seeing her in command was wonderful because Tilly is the everyfan person personified — The geeky, somewhat awkward person but being embraced FOR those quirks and getting to Captain a ship. How many Star Trek fans fit that description and had fantasies of getting such a chance.

The Adira thing… It’s really hard to say. As someone who isn’t non-binary but looking from the outside in AND wanting to grow and learn, I saw it as a perfect example of "coming out" because…that’s honestly part of being LGBTQ+ these days. Yes, Star Trek wouldn’t have that issue if we see it in the context of the 32nd century, but Adira and Gray are there to represent people who are these things, and having a coming out on screen and met with such coolness has to be dream for many people who fit these descriptions and are afraid to speak about it. Seeing Adira succeed can give people that strength to face these challenges in their own lives.

Anyway, just my two cents. I liked this season and I’m very excited for season 4.

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