Eventually everything falls apart: our bodies, our countries, the governments and systems we create, even empires, ships, land masses. This is a fascinating concept to witness from the perspective of history and distance. However, experiencing these transitions can be terrifying.
The third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” offers specialist Michael Burham (Sonequa Martin-Green) a little of both. In blasting her and the rest of the USS Discovery crew more than 900 years into the future up to the 32nd century, she represents history for everyone she meets.
What is waiting for is also a version of a universe beyond their imagination: one in which Starfleet and the entire United Federation of Planets have ceased to exist. Starfleet was almost wiped out in a flash, disappearing in a catastrophic event known as The Burn that occurred just over a century before Burnham landed on an unknown planet.
As a new ally named Book (David Ajala) explains, this is the name given to the moment when all the dilithium in the galaxy suddenly exploded for unknown reasons. With Dilithium being the main core energy source of any warp capable ship, this meant the simultaneous destruction of thousands of starships and the loss of potentially millions of lives not only in the Federation but in any civilization dependent on it.
All of the Federation̵
Each iteration of “Star Trek” is a reflection of the era in which it is broadcast, with elements of its narrative updated to suit the specific sensitivity of the era of its audience. Specific rules and principles are carried over from series to series and from generation to generation to maintain a standard framework around which fans can interact with what they love about the franchise and what it stands for.
This makes the new season’s abandonment of everything fans take for granted about “Star Trek” a refreshing challenge that has the potential to change the way we see the Trek universe at large. Fans can argue and complain about the merits and legitimacy of events in the Prime and Kelvin universes, but removing the Federation from the equation entirely from a more distant future than the show bravely went before it was inspired.
People imagine that our future is based on everything we know in the present, and this includes the assumption that the rules that hold the fabric of our existence together can be tested, but will usually hold up or be repaired if they break.
But if everything we believe to be true disappears overnight, it questions the course of our existence. In a real sense, the world experienced this in 2016, when America elected a despot, and a large portion of the public calmed down by reminding their crazy friends that the Constitution’s system of checks and balances would ensure that it wouldn’t do too much damage to the nation and the world.
No wonder, then, that this new season turns the table upside down on our hypothesis that Gene Roddenberry’s bright, powerful and fair Federation would survive and thrive beyond a thousand years, a similar hypothesis to what we assume a devotee Roman citizen The Empire could have held.
The book characterizes The Burn as the event that irreparably altered the course of the galaxy, “the day the galaxy took a left turn,” he said. In the season premiere, “That Hope Is You, Part 1”, we see the immediate effects of that change of course. Book is essentially an outlaw, surviving as best he can and looking for the remaining dilithium he can get to power his equipment, like anyone else in the universe.
The presence of Starfleet is non-existent and Book advises Burnham to hide any identifying elements for his safety. However, before we see where Burnham lands, we see a man whose only job appears to be waking up and scanning a digital view of the galaxy for any signs of the Federation’s return.
That is to say, the hope remains. . . only now is it in the form of pure aspiration, which suits a group of travelers accustomed to being recognized as agents of authority who enter a frontier where curiosity and strangers are.
The cinematic modernity of “Star Trek: Discovery” has earned criticism from purists who lose the more cerebral attention of the previous series and denigrate its emphasis on action, explosions and dark themes. This interpretation is not entirely out of bounds; “Discovery” is part of a franchise that debuted in an era of successful entertainment dominated by the franchise.
Importantly, it is also a “Trek” chapter that debuted in an era of despair. The first two seasons seem like a reaction to this rather than an answer, with storylines designed to earn its place in the “Star Trek” universe instead of expressly forging its own path.
Admittedly, season one is part of that, mainly by introducing a technological innovation in the form of Discovery’s “spore drive,” an organic system that allows the ship to leap great distances into space almost instantly. But it was primarily given to us as a character-driven work on action and reaction, testing what an explorer’s role should be in a time of conflict. The second season left something behind and she felt lighter for it while continuing to function as a franchise film.
And I can’t say Season 3 diverges from that approach. If anything, the series settles into the chaos of the 32nd century after the second episode, when we see what happened to Discovery and its crew and witness Burnham’s adaptation to the survivalist spirit of this new era. (The ship followed Burnham through a wormhole that propelled them forward in time but didn’t land in exactly the same place she does, physically or chronologically.)
Once everyone is in the know in terms of The Burn and the disappearance of Starfleet, the season suggests family management to find out not only what caused this story-altering disaster, but whether and if they can go back to their own times.
This development also transforms “Discovery” into a kind of environmental tale. It doesn’t matter that the ship discovers a method of travel that essentially works on mushrooms; the dilithium crisis could also be a parable of how much instability we are experiencing by swallowing resources and taxing the planet’s natural systems to obsolescence.
But as the Discovery crew moves along their uncertain path, the season’s spiritual refrain reminds Burnham, the crew and the viewer what the AWOL organization they represent stands for, and wonders if the dissolution of a body is a reason. enough to abandon his ideals.
The late Gene Roddenberry built “Star Trek” around an ideal of unity, curiosity and adventure, with the idea that humanity and its allies could bring a message of hope and understanding to hostile places even as it specifically sought to refrain from ‘interfere (while, in truth, often doing exactly that). The new “Trek” series – “Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” use their storylines to speak to a world embroiled in nationalism, exclusion, xenophobia and division.
“Picard”, which is set long after the events of “Star Trek” and James T. Kirk’s adventures on the Enterprise, introduces a Federation that has been corrupted by politics and has lost its way. “Discovery” predates the original “Star Trek” in the franchise timeline, which means that his mistakes and lessons inform Kirk’s knowledge of history. These captains and crews have a map, in other words.
The 32nd century takes us beyond those old margins – the official channels of diplomacy of the past and agreed rules of government in a future that is very imperfect. But he does so with the awareness that despite knowing, as Burnham says, that “our numbers are few, our spirits have not diminished”. Following the dissolution of a system or organization, the higher ideals that forged them can remain.
Still to be seen is whether these new episodes of “Discovery” will show viewers a way to evolve towards them.
Season 3 of “Star Trek: Discovery” begins streaming Thursday, October 15 on CBS All Access.