[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.
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.
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.
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.