****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!****
Last Time On Star Trek: Discovery…
In those pre-pandemic days of early 2019, the season 2 finale of Star Trek: Discovery “Such Sweet Sorrow,” part 2 saw the 23rd century Federation starship USS Discovery being led by science officer Michael Burnham, in her time travel suit, through an artificially created wormhole to take dangerous information sought by a rogue artificial intelligence out of the 23rd century into the ‘safety’ of the 32nd.
“That Hope Is You, Part 1.”
Writers Michelle Paradise (season 3’s new showrunner), Jenny Lumet, Alex Kurtzman (producer) and returning director Olatunde Osunsanmi pick up exactly where season 2 of Discovery left off, but begin with an intriguing teaser first…
We see a mysterious man waking up, day after day, in a sleek futuristic environment with a squawking holographic bird as an alarm clock. He then begins washing and dressing himself in an ultra hi-tech manner that would make George Jetson green with envy. Making the bed is also a snap, as the entire bed dissolves into pixels and disappears until needed. The man then goes about his well-rehearsed daily ritual of searching his corner of the galaxy for signals…
Note: I love the notion of everything in the man’s living space just dissolving away until needed again. This makes a lot of sense in a post-replicator, post-transporter universe, where the idea of actually owning clunky, heavy furniture would probably seem as archaic as installing an 8-track cassette player in one’s brand new Tesla.
We then see a man named Cleveland Book (David Ajala) aboard a sleek starship being fired upon by an alien named Cosmo who accuses Book of taking something that didn’t belong to him. As Book tries to evade destruction, he comes across a wormhole opening, dead ahead–it’s the artificial wormhole generated by the ‘red angel’ time travel suit which deposits Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) into the year 3188. Crash-landing in her suit on a strange planet that isn’t her sanctuary destination of Terralysium, Michael confirms that she is in the 32nd century, and sets her mother’s time-travel suit to fly off and self-destruct. Wherever she is, she’s here to stay.
Michael is overjoyed by the suit’s confirmation of life forms on the planet, literally dropping to her knees in a cry of gratitude (and no doubt, exhaustion). Her former mission, taking Discovery and herself safely out of the 23rd century, has been achieved. Now she has the task of figuring out the state of this ‘brave new world’ 900 years removed from anything she knows.
Note: The planet was filmed using natural locales in Iceland, which has become something of an alien-planet-for-hire in movies these days, appearing in 2012’s “Prometheus” as well as “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013).
Unpacking her Starfleet tool-pack, Michael takes her flip-top communicator and tries to contact the Discovery, which should’ve been in the wormhole right behind her, but she is unable to raise the vessel. Having faith that they made it somehow, Michael walks toward a nearby shoreline, where she sees a crashed ship on the beach…the very ship she collided with in orbit after exiting the wormhole.
The ship’s owner, Book, thinks she might be a member of Cosmo’s crew and they set about kicking each other’s asses. Deciding this stranger isn’t after ‘his cargo’, Book reluctantly agrees to a truce with Michael. For safety’s sake, they take temporary refuge aboard his ship, the Nautilus (nice nod to Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) which he can cloak and de-cloak at will, rendering it wholly invisible to both eyes and tracking gear.
Note: Given that Burnham left the prime Star Trek universe before the events of TOS’ “Balance of Terror” (with its Romulan invaders and their ‘new’ cloaking device), Book’s easily cloaked ship should seem even more miraculous to her, but her reaction seems a bit underwhelmed.
Inside Book’s ship, Michael is a mite overwhelmed by the state of technology in the 32nd century. Large consoles on the Nautilus allow Book to effortlessly control every system aboard, making him a one-man crew. The interiors of the ship are a luxe fusion of wood accents and shiny metals.
Michael also meets Book’s great big cat named “Grudge”, named so because “he’s heavy, and he’s with me forever”. Michael asks if there’s a communication relay nearby where she can contact her missing ship. Book tells her he’s on his way to a nearby trading outpost to try to find some extremely rare dilithium for the Nautilus’ engines, but he’s broke (his ship’s dilithium “re-crystalizer” was damaged in his collision with Michael). She offers him the ‘antiques’ in her survival kit to barter with, in the hope of finding a comm relay. They set out on foot to the outpost…
Note: Book is well delineated in the season 3 premiere. Much like Captain Pike’s introduction in season 2, we learn many of his idiosyncrasies, yet there is much room for future exploration. That the premiere remains largely focused on a pair of characters instead of the usual crowded Discovery ensemble gives this season opener a very strong pilot vibe to it. It also reminds me a bit of the original 1977 Star Wars (“A New Hope”), where the first quarter of the movie was told almost entirely from the perspective of two bickering robots, making their way across a desert planet together in a universe very unfamiliar to both the characters and the audience…
Making their way to the outpost, Book notices Michael’s Starfleet badge, and the bad news trickles in. He tells her that Starfleet is gone. The Federation collapsed over a century ago, well before he was even born. There was a galactic cataclysm called “the Burn”, where most of the dilithium in the galaxy destabilized somehow, leaving the Federation without its familiar, comfortable convenience of warp drive. Worlds and populations were stranded, commerce between systems broke down, and the Federation fell. The exact cause of the Burn and how it destroyed the Federation is unknown, but is clearly set up as the mystery for this season to solve.
Note: The notion of familiar institutions collapsing, such as Starfleet and the Federation, seems particularly relevant now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing withdrawal of the United States and Great Britain on the world stage. The “Burn” as (unintentional) metaphor for current heavily-restricted/banned air travel around the world is especially on-point. This episode was shot pre-pandemic, yet its release right now is eerily prescient. The Burn also echoes how many great kingdoms and empires (Egypt, Rome, Greece,Spain, Britain) have risen and fallen throughout history. No ruling government, no matter how powerful, is truly permanent in this ever-changing universe. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the Soviet Union collapse on live TV–something my younger self would’ve never imagined.
At the outwardly shiny, inwardly grimy trading post, we see some familiar aliens; Andorians (working with Orions now), Tellarites, an Yridian and a Lurian (like “Morn” from Deep Space Nine). Michael is amazed by some of the advances in technology, such as personal transporters. Michael and Book are stopped at the entranceway to the trading post, until Book bluffs their way in by offering her ‘antiques’ as prized collectibles to gain admittance. At this point, Book’s need for precious dilithium overwhelms his sense of decency and he betrays Michael to the authorities!
Held by Orion and Andorian interrogators, Michael is doused with a truth spray that sends her into a false (and hilarious) euphoria, and she tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all while laughing her ass off. She also tells them that Book set her up, and he is captured as well.
Note: The ‘laughing gas’ interrogation was a much welcome chance to show off Sonequa Martin Green’s great range for comedy. My wife and I once saw her at a live taping of “The Wil Wheaton Project” (2014) in Los Angeles, and she made a public service announcement parody called “A Moment of Patriotism” (YouTube it). Her timing was great. Having only seen her in “The Walking Dead” at that point, I had NO idea she had a knack for comedy, so I’m very glad to see “Discovery” finally embracing that skill of hers. I also liked Burnham mocking her own martyr-complex nature. This loosening up of Burnham will help us better relate to and love her as a character.
With Michael and Book both captured, they decide to trust each other, and make a coordinated escape… though Burnham’s judgment still off-kilter from the laughing gas. Using large bazooka-like energy weapons, Michael manages to steal some momentarily unguarded dilithium and evade pursuit. Using personal transporters, they manage to stay one step ahead of their pursuers…
Note: Personal transporters are also very much a thing in Star Trek: Picard’s late 24th century as well.
One of my biggest nits with this otherwise terrific season opener is the prologued pursuit between the escapees and their various alien pursuers. Granted, it’s meant to give a bit of action to the episode, but it’s a dramatic dead end; we know that Michael and Book are not going to be killed by these jokers, so the chase across the planet with personal transporters and wearable forearm weapons feels needlessly protracted.
During a lull in their pursuit, Book notices a burn on Michael’s arm where she was badly nicked by one of the energy weapons. Reaching into the water of a nearby pond, Book shows some strange, Jedi-like connection to living things by summoning a plant from the water. As Book communes with the plant, he begins chanting, and his forehead begins to glow with tiny points of light. With the plant rising from the water into his hand, he takes a secreted gel from it to treat Michael’s wound.
With Michael’s wound treated, they make their way back to the Nautilus, where their captors corner them and force them to drop their weapons. The Nautilus is de-cloaked, and Book is coerced into giving up his ship’s cargo hold entry code: “Sticky.” The large cargo pod atop the ship opens, and we learn the thing Book ‘stole’ from Cosmo was a giant “trance worm” (think: an aquatic-friendly version of Dune’s sand worms). The whale-sized creature slithers out of its hold, panicking its prospective buyers (“It was a lot smaller on the hologram…”) right before it proceeds to devour them, one by one.
The trance worm almost devours Michael as well, swallowing her whole, until Book uses his animal-empathy power and communes with it to stop. Michael is indignantly spat out, but grateful. Using the dilithium crystals taken from the outpost, Book is able to warp to his destination, promising to take Michael to a communications relay afterward. Book’s mission was to relocate the trance worm to a new home in a red-forested world’s lake, where the creature splashes happily in the water. It turns out, Book is a closet crusader. With the collapse of the Federation, there is no longer an Endangered Species Act, so Book has taken it upon himself to act on behalf of creatures who can’t. This also explains Book’s kitty, Grudge, who may well be an endangered species himself. Despite coming from a family of soldiers, Book chose to be something else… a force for good. With the trance worm successfully relocated, Book takes Michael in search of another “true believer” in order to contact her ship.
Note: The trance worms are a mix of Dune’s sand worms as well as the snowy menace that nearly ate Kirk and the aged Spock on Delta Vega in 2009’s “Star Trek.” Book’s ability to ‘talk with the animals’ (no Doctor Doolittle jokes!) reminded me of Zefram Cochrane’s closed-eye telepathic communication with “the Companion” energy cloud creature in TOS Star Trek’s “Metamorphosis.”
That middle-aged ‘mystery man’ seen in the episode’s teaser is the true believer Michael has been seeking. He is Aditya Sahil (Adil Hussain) and he lives aboard a dilapidated Starfleet communications array. Sahil is descended from Starfleet officers, but could never become one since Starfleet was disbanded long before he was born. He keeps a Federation flag in pristine condition in the hope that the Federation might rise again. Sahil recognizes Michael as real Starfleet and asks if she would do the honor of giving him an official Starfleet commission. She obliges. He tells Michael she is “that hope” he’d been patiently waiting for his entire life. When Michael asks if he can do a long-range scan for Discovery’s location, he tells her the station only has a scan radius of about 30 sectors (600 light-years), since long-range scanners no longer exist.
The final images are of Michael, Book and Sahil unfurling the Federation flag in Sahil’s office. It’s a symbol of unity will hopefully inspire others to band together once again in common cause, the way their ancestors had centuries before.
By the Book.
David Ajala (“Supergirl”) makes a nice addition to the cast as Cleveland Book, a rogue trader who’s a closet crusader; secretly saving endangered species throughout the galaxy by smuggling them from danger and transplanting them onto safer planets. He’s the optimist pretending to be a hardbitten cynic.
Ajala’s Book has a lot of chemistry with Sonequa Martin Green’s Michael, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a romantic pairing were in the cards for these two. I’m also guessing his cat Grudge will become a fan favorite as well. With his sweet ride (the Nautilus), an ability to commune with other species (still not sure if this is an organic or cybernetic-endowment), as well as a really cool cat, Cleveland Book is a character with a lot of potential. He could be the Han Solo-sort this series needed; the ‘non-believer’ who throws in his lot with the good guys.
The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn.
Star Trek: Discovery’s third season has landed in what is essentially a second pilot for the series, propelling the ship and its characters into an alien century, far removed from the familiar comforts we’ve taken for granted in the Star Trek universe; warp drive, starbases, and even the Federation itself are all gone now, following a cataclysmic event called “the Burn.” This event will presumably be the centerpiece of this season’s arc; understanding exactly how and why the Federation collapsed, and if possible, restoring it.
The premise of this new season/series reminds me very much of the two unsold pilots from Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. Those pilots were “Genesis II” (1973) and “Planet Earth” (1974), which were later reworked after his death into the early 2000s TV series, “Andromeda” (2000-2005). All three pilots/series saw a character from the past named Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord/John Saxon/Kevin Sorbo) awakening in a strange, dystopian future where society had collapsed, leaving Hunt to try and rebuild the future again. This new season of Star Trek: Discovery makes Michael Burnham the new Dylan Hunt. The late Gene Roddenberry’s bipolar visions for humanity’s future are finally converging.
When I first read that the third season took place in a future where the Federation and Starfleet have collapsed, my optimist heart sank. In our current time, when political chaos, increasing threats of totalitarianism and a global pandemic are making daily life increasingly miserable, I was really hoping Star Trek: Discovery’s return supply be my weekly optimism-escapist fix (as the franchise has been during other turbulent times, such as the late 1960s). But, as writer/director Nicholas Meyer (“The Wrath of Khan”) once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Don’t give the audience what they ask for. Give them what they didn’t know that they wanted.” This third season premiere has done just that.
With its roots still planted in the Star Trek universe, Discovery’s season 3 premiere could just as easily be a pilot for an all-new series. We, the audience, are as in the dark about this new Star Trek universe as Michael and her shipmates, and that’s truly living up to the show’s name since everything in this season will be a discovery.
Despite the high-tech dystopia glimpsed so far in season 3, Discovery has not abandoned Star Trek’s unique brand of optimism. Hope for a better future is still there… but our characters have to work for it this time. The mechanics of just how the human race got its act together in Star Trek’s bright and shiny future has always been vaguely hinted at, but never explicitly shown. If successful, Discovery’s 3rd season could see the franchise truly going where no Trek has gone before– taking a seemingly hopeless present and turning it into a better future. A more timely lesson for our own troubled, turbulent present I can’t imagine.
I’m genuinely excited to see where this new season of Discovery goes.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (and all of Discovery) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is nearing 220,000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact timeline for a vaccine so, for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!