After two seasons of overabundant story and prestige TV signifiers, the writers of Star Trek: Discovery hit the reset button on Season 3. They cast off two sacred fundamentals of the Star Trek universe, the United Federation of Planets—an interplanetary government that sought to peacefully explore and unify the known universe—and warp travel, which allows starships to travel faster than the speed of light. What a welcome relief to see them go.
When the first season of Discovery premiered in 2017, I was thrilled to welcome a new ship to the fleet. But it quickly became clear that this Star Trek series would rather drag us along on season-long arcs than serve the familiar episodic storytelling of Treks past. The dense garble of plot juggled too many stories at once, and the creators gave themselves a deceptively tough task setting the show in a pre-Original Series world while preserving the existing canon. Instead of embracing the freedom of a foregone conclusion, they spent too many episodes trying to infuse early Trek lore with a modern TV gloss. And while the titular ship is a stunning new invention—a science vessel able to instantly cross the universe coasting on a wave of mushrooms—too often those skills were used investigating series-long McGuffins about red lights in the sky and Klingon politics.
I still ate it up because I’m always hungry for Trek, and the brilliant cast kept the ship on course in spite of itself in Season 1. But by the end of Season 2, the Discovery writers had trapped themselves in their own story with a sentient artificial intelligence threatening to destroy a universe we already know survives because we’ve seen the series that follow. The only solution was to start from scratch—which they accomplished with an absurd time jump, sending the Discovery crew nine centuries into an unknown future.
A lot has changed while they’ve been gone. A few centuries prior, the galaxy experienced what’s known as “the burn,” when the universe’s dilithium (the power source for warp travel) suddenly stopped working, destroying every ship that was actively engaged in warp and killing millions. This tragedy fractured the Federation and turned the universe into a much wilder, bigger place in which fast travel is no longer a given.
The third season opens with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) crashing into a planet in a one-woman space-time suit, separated from the crew who were following her through the timehole in the USS Discovery. She’s forced to forge ahead solo in this foreign time until reunited with her ship, which similarly crash lands a year later. It’s clear their year apart has changed Burnham. She seems to have accepted she’d never see her crew again and pivoted to investigating the mystery of the “burn.”
Without a Federation to return to or a place to call home, the crew must grapple with a galaxy no longer tethered to Starfleet ideals, and the difficulties of adhering to those ideals when they might be the only ones who remember them. It’s like we’re watching Star Trek: Voyager 2.0—and that’s what makes it so satisfyingly Trek. Yes, the crew are interested in discovering the cause of this mass death, but, like the Treks before, they’re back to exploring newly unknown reaches of space and solving crises through diplomacy, wit, and compassion.
As early as the third episode, the Discovery crew must solve a generational miscommunication between a now alarmingly militaristic Earth and a crew of dilithium bandits. The fourth episode brought me to tears as it takes us back to Trill, a significant planet from earlier Trek series that’s home to humanoid beings and their symbiotic worm counterparts. It’s classic Trek, a loving homage that both appreciates the TV that came before and recognizes that survival isn’t about just playing the same stories on repeat. They need new variations to thrive.
Rather than focusing on mysterious existential threats, much of the third season’s tension comes from Burnham’s newfound freedom in a wilder time clashing with the essential ideals of Starfleet, whose rules and regulations feel stifling. Her leadership-defying tactics were essential pieces of previous plot, where she was a lone officer willing to break rules to get the real work done. But here they alienate her from her shipmates and threaten the tense and fragile stasis onboard. The crew needs a first officer they can trust to follow command, because it’s the only stability they have left, and if she’s running around defying orders, there’s nothing stopping anybody else from doing so either. It’s tough to see her chafe under the command of her friends, but that tension just helps color in the rest of the cast, with crew members like Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) having the chance to come into their own.
If it’s hard for Burnham to stick to the rulebook, it’s even harder for the writers to abandon their own show bible. They keep throwing in stuff from previous seasons at every turn—and yet thankfully none of it sticks. I certainly didn’t remember why Michael’s mother was in the future, or what the sphere data is, but this season proves we don’t need our time wasted on plot minutiae. The Trek core has always really been the discovery of human (and alien) connection, so let’s just wave away anything else as space magic.
In the past, Discovery got too wrapped up in characters skirting Federation regulations to do the real work that needs to get done and spent too much time playing in a universe already fully mapped. This third season finally understands that the only way forward is into the unknown, a lawless universe where the only option the crew have is to adhere more steadfastly to their ideals and the (sometimes imperfect) rules that help enforce them. Star Trek: Discovery has finally figured out how to be Trek. Captain Janeway would be proud.