Kara Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Changing my mind about Star Trek: Discovery

Season 3 fixes so much I disliked about the first two seasons.

Last year, I made my peace with Star Trek: Discovery (DISCO). I recognized that even though the show doesn’t hit me the same way some of the previous series do, it has merits and it’s understandable why some people enjoy it so much. I concluded:

I will watch you because you are Trek, even if you are not my favourite flavour of Trek, and I will enjoy you as much as I can, even if I will never enjoy you as much as I do DS9 or TNG. And that’s ok, just as it’s ok for other Trekkies not to enjoy some of the classic series and to find in DISCO their favourite version of Trek.

I wrote that post just as season 3 ended, but it took the trailer for season 4 (coming out next month) to galvanize me into watching season 3, which I did over the course of the last two weeks. My overall impression? It’s actually not that bad. Watchable, even!

The first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) are infamously bad compared to the rest of the series. Indeed, many curated lists of “must watch” TNG episodes suggest skipping most of those first two seasons—the few exceptions being important episodes that establish characters (like the premiere, some Data episodes) or plot elements that will come back (“Q Who” introducing the Borg). I’ve watched the show so many times I’ve become inured to these seasons and even find a certain charm in them (moreover, Diana Muldaur’s presence in season two as Dr. Pulaski is great!). So, I will understand those who malign the early days of TNG. Nevertheless, even if TNG is not your favourite Trek series, it is hard to dispute that its later seasons were some of the preeminent episodic TV to be had in the 1990s. It found its footing, and its success is why we have so much more Star Trek today.

Its successors, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) also had rocky beginnings. Both arguably don’t get off the ground until season 3 (and VOY, arguably, season 4)—again, I think the early seasons have highlights, but these are shows that needed a lot of runway. Star Trek: Enterprise, in contrast, never found its footing in my opinion, and that was exactly the problem with the show—the producers kept tinkering right until the last season and ran out of runway.

This was the same issue I believed DISCO was having: each season seemed to reboot the show, offering up dramatic course corrections in an attempt to find the series its groove. In this case, though … I think it’s working, and I think DISCO is going to end up more like DS9 and VOY than Enterprise. I’m surprised but pleased to be wrong.

Yeah, I’m changing my mind. I’ll say it: I liked season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Spoilers for season 3 of the show after this point!

I still have plenty of complaints and critiques of the show. Rather than focusing on those, however, I want to focus on what worked for me.

First, DISCO’s jump into the far future. In the season premiere, Michael Burnham arrives in 3188—900 years from the first two seasons, 700 years away from other series, and at least a couple of centuries after the furthest events referenced to date, such as the Temporal Cold War. The Discovery’s anachronistic design elements and technology versus the original Trek series, set a decade ahead of it, never bothered me too much. The continuity issues introduced by DISCO’s first two seasons only bothered me in the sense that the writers didn’t have to do that. Time travel is a convoluted way of fixing your mess, but they did fix it, so I will give them credit.

The show wastes no time in setting up conflicts and mysteries for this season. The Federation of 3188 is reduced to a shadow of its former self, and indeed is a mystery for the first few episodes. This is the result of an event called the Burn, in which dilithium crystals across the galaxy exploded near-simultaneously, destroying any vessel using them at the moment to regulate matter–antimatter reactions. The Burn made already-scarce dilithium even scarcer, and as warp travel became a luxury, spacefaring civilizations fractured. At one point in the season we learn that Vulcan has left the Federation (and changed its name) and it’s a psychic shock for most of us.

This is the strength of the decision to catapult DISCO into the far future. I honestly see the futures depicted in Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks as much riskier in terms of how they use continuity, because they are filling in the decades after VOY in a very real way. DISCO, on the other hand, is so far removed that those days have become more mythology than fact. Some might see this as an attempt to jettison the tangled continuity of Trek. On the contrary, this is the ultimate embrace of Trek canon. This season is replete with references to events from long ago in a way that offers fan service to those of us who have consumed All The Trek while presenting an accessible setting to newcomers.

That has been the goal—and the struggle—all the time, of course. DISCO originally thought it could achieve accessibility with a prequel precisely because there would be less continuity to worry about. But in their anxiety to make the series feel recognizable to existing fans, they burdened themselves with other aspects of continuity (Michael’s adoptive family, the Klingons). DISCO’s new place in the 32nd century means that continuity is a touchstone rather than a millstone, and so far the writers are using this breathing room to great effect.

Second, this season eased up on the serialized aspect that I didn’t enjoy in the first two seasons. There is still an overall season arc—and I’m fine with that—but this season feels like it embraced more episodic stories. This allowed all of the characters some room to breathe and grow. I enjoyed Michael so much more in this season. Also, I finally learned the names of the supporting cast! DISCO’s first two seasons felt very different from earlier Trek series in part because they had a two-tiered ensemble cast. The first tier, with Michael, Saru, Georgiou, Tilly, etc., were all easy to recognize and follow. The second tier—Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys, Airiam, Nilsson (yes, I had to look up how to spell all these names)—were more prominent than the extras and bit characters of earlier series yet received very little actual development. This changed in season 3, for the better. I feel like I am finally getting to know this crew, and that has improved my opinion of the show immensely.

Third, the season arc is just so much more coherent. This is still the show’s weak point—for example, its villain is remarkably underdeveloped until she takes over Discovery at the end of the season, and the ultimate cause of the Burn is a technobabble-filled letdown. But as a die-hard fan of Doctor Who, I dare not throw stones regarding poor plotting! Almost all of the 13 episodes were, on their own, intense and captivating, and that is a big improvement too.

At the end of the day, there is still a part of me that doesn’t like this show. Of all the new Trek available so far, it remains my least favourite. As I reflected in last year’s post, I’ve made my peace with that. But I am looking forward to season 4 in a way that I wasn’t, not even with season 3. That is a sign of improvement. I am always ready to give Trek another chance.