Star Trek: Discovery made a real splash when it first debuted behind the CBS All Access paywall back in the fall of 2017. (I say first, as the series has recently re-debuted as part of CBS-proper’s Thursday night primetime line-up.) As the broadcast streamer’s second-ever original series—The Good Fight having kicked things off earlier that same year—it really had no other choice: If people were going to fork over anywhere between $6-$10 each month to access content from a network freely available to anyone with a working set of digital rabbit ears, they had to be sure that what they were going to get would be worth it. A brand new Star Trek story, a diverse cast (Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, Shazad Latif and Oyin Oladejo, among others), a mysterious connection to Spock (Martin-Green’s character turns out to be his estranged adopted sister), and an enormous budget (roughly $8 million per episode, which lands the series nearly in the same league as Westworld)? Yeah. That seemed worth it.
Unfortunately, while the first season of Discovery was indeed gorgeous to look at, and the acting top notch—Martin-Green, Yeoh and Mary Wiseman are forces of nature, and creature actor Doug Jones absolutely kills as Saru, the Federation’s first and only Kelpien officer—the writing was more miss than hit. Characters made choices that made no sense; whole plots started and stopped without real justification; and there was just so. much. Klingon.. That latter fact didn’t need to be a dealbreaker, but somehow, despite the series’ aforementioned massive budget, they couldn’t manage to make a prosthetic design for Discovery’s Klingons that didn’t impede all meaningful facial movement, clear speech included. Given how elegantly plastic Saru’s prosthetics turned out, this felt like an unforced error, and one that made the experience of watching the season actively harder. (Sure, Jones is a master of his creature-acting craft, but nevertheless; the Klingons deserved better.)
The series’ second season, which both made classic Star Trek characters Spock (Ethan Peck) and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) a part of Discovery’s crew and gave Yeoh’s alt-universe Georgiou a delicious new sandbox to play in, was a vast improvement on every level. The story felt more balanced from start to finish, and the crew’s actions had much clearer motivation, which naturally resulted in emotional arcs that were genuinely compelling, and a narrative arc that had real weight within the greater Star Trek universe. Crucially, in sending both Michael and the Discovery through a wormhole to the distant future at the end of the final episode, it also gave a definitive answer to the two major Trek-mythos problems that had plagued the series from the start: Why the original Spock never mentioned having a sister, and why the Federation would still be trucking around on dilithium technology, if something like the Discovery’s spore drive exists. For the continued existence of the entire universe, “Such Sweet Sorrow” explains, anyone left behind who knows where Michael and her crew went, or why they went there, would have to take that secret to their graves. No more sister. No more spore drive. Classic Star Trek status: Back to quo.
In the 18 months that have passed since that game-changing finale dropped, fans have only been able to hope that the promise such a big swing held would ultimately pan out. While I can’t yet say how the whole season will turn out, based off the four episodes provided to critics for review, I can absolutely confirm: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is poised to be the series’ best yet. Moreover, I’d argue it’s poised to be the best “new” Star Trek made to date, both in terms of what CBS All Access has produced in the last few years (sorry, Picard—you’re beautiful, but confoundingly paced) and in terms of what J.J. Abrams has brought to the big screen over the last decade. It takes everything the first two seasons did best—namely, Michael and Saru’s hard-earned friendship; the deep commitment felt by everyone aboard the Discovery to both the ideals of the Federation and science; and Georgiou, just as a general agent of chaos—while dispensing entirely with all the baggage five decades of 23rd-century Star Trek storytelling that had originally weighed it down. Now stranded some 930 years in the future, Star Trek: Discovery can tell literally any story it wants.
Happily, the story it has decided to tell is a great one: Michael and her crew land in the 32nd century only to discover that a mysterious, universe-wide disaster called The Burn decimated the Federation more than a hundred years earlier, leaving former member planets in complete disarray and opening a path to universal chaos. Still reeling from the traumatic shock of both saving all of existence and leaving every meaningful connection they had behind, the crew of the Discovery is ill-prepared to face a world that doesn’t at least have the structure and hope of the Federation to fall back on. Add to that the fact that Michael lands on an entirely different planet, in what might even be an entirely different moment in time than the Discovery itself, and you’ve got a recipe for what Cruz’s Dr. Culber eventually describes to Saru as post-traumatic growth on a series-wide scale. For Michael, this means she has to trust a complete stranger (David Ajala) and his massive, queenly cat to be her 32nd Century guides, and find work that’s both flexible enough to let her keep searching for her crew, and meaningful enough that it can sustain her if she never manages to find them. For the Discovery, this means plumbing the occasionally uncomfortable depths of what had (for the most part) been collegial working relationships, all in an effort to replace the familial connections they left behind. For both, it means that the purest ideals of the Federation—that connection is meaningful, diplomacy is important, and hope is real—can become their guiding light, as they take on a new mission to find what’s left of the Federation and bring it back to life.
To go into greater detail about how these tensions (and hopes) play out would give away too much, but once again suffice it to say the series has finally found the story it was meant to tell. We are living in a moment when chaos reigns, and nothing even close to the Federation exists. Watching a Star Trek story in which that is also true, and seeing how all these earnest, smart, funny Federation officers we know and love set about making the world better in spite of that, feels really good. That Michael gets to let her hair down, both figuratively and literally, and that the crew packs in even more representation with the addition of non-binary teen human Adira (Blu del Barrio) and their trans Trill boyfriend, Gray (Ian Alexander), only adds to the experience.
If there’s any major fault I can find with this newest season, it’s that the amount of time it ends up dedicating to Michael and the crew of the Discovery being apart is just too short. The anxiety the audience feels at their separation is real, but where Discovery caves and brings them back together sooner rather than later, I think the story could have benefited by instead leaving them each on their own just that much longer. I mean, think of how satisfying Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “4,722 Hours” was, when we finally got to join Jemma on her alien ghost planet after she’d been separated from the rest of the team for four whole episodes. Those weeks of anticipation were rough, but what came out of it was one of the series’ best stories. Now imagine that, but with Michael in Jemma’s position, the Discovery in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, and the story fast forwarded 930 years. What a possible coup!
That said, Michael and the rest of the Discovery crew working through problems together is what fans tune in to watch; had the show kept them apart for any longer than it ultimately does, I’m sure I would have lamented that, too. With some things, there’s just no winning.
In any case, whether you’ve been waiting 18 long months for this day, or you’ve been on the fence about giving the whole “new” Star Trek thing a shot in the first place, Discovery is finally back, and better than ever.
Thank the Federation.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery drop Thursdays on CBS All Access. For anyone not subscribed to CBS All Access, Season 1 is currently airing on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on your local CBS station.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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