Trek’s flagship series takes a dramatic leap forward, stumbling toward its true potential.
One of the advantages that Star Trek: The Next Generation had is that it was set years and years after its 1960s predecessor. That meant it didn’t have to adopt the status quo established by The Original Series. It meant the new show could make grand changes without fearing that they would totally disrupt the canon. And it meant that a new crop of creative storytellers were no longer boxed in by what had come before.
The Next Generation was, more or less, the last Star Trek series to truly enjoy that freedom. Deep Space 9 had a different corner of the galaxy to explore but still had to play in the sandbox established by TNG. Voyager was theoretically in a new quadrant with new rules but operated largely out of the previous series’ playbooks.
Even the J.J. Abrams reboot films, with their alternate universe, were strongly informed by the 1960s show. Modern programs like Lower Decks and Star Trek: Picard are rooted in TNG’s history, even as they move the timeline forward. And Enterprise, as a prequel, was inevitably constrained by what came later in the franchise’s timeline, an issue that also afflicted Star Trek: Discovery.
Until now. The first part of “That Hope Is You” has some of the typical Discovery problems that remained evident over the past two seasons. The dialogue is often stilted and too far removed from actual human conversation. The characters aren’t as layered or endearing as we might like. There’s a lot of superfluous action tossed in that neither excites nor advances the story beyond including the necessary quota of fistfights and phaser blasts.
But the decks have officially been cleared. We’re in the future (er…further in the future) — the 3100s to be exact. We have a new scenario that’s not only removed in time from the eras Star Trek fans are familiar with, but also removed from the franchise’s typical setup, to the point that Discovery can truly and finally chart its own course.
The galaxy the show unveils in the 3100s is one where the Federation has slowly collapsed over the prior decades until it splintered into various collections of “true believers” keeping the faith in isolated pockets. At some point more than a century prior, dilithium crystals (the key element of warp travel) blew up in an event dubbed “The Burn.”
That grave misfortune caused untold deaths, crippled the Federation, and made traversing space a much more difficult endeavor. The future did make some technological strides in the form of pin art control stations, personal/portable transporters, and other whiz-bang advancements. But this is, at first glance, a much grimmer and more cynical world than the one Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) left behind.
What’s worse, Michael is alone. One of the smartest choices Discovery’s season 3 premiere makes is to isolate our protagonist in this brave new world. That decision helps personalize and individualize Michael’s (and the audience’s) growing understanding of the new state of affairs all these centuries later. Centering the episode on Burnham as she makes her way in this strange and unfamiliar setting helps acclimate viewers to the sharp differences at play, letting her reactions — whether they’re of wonder, shock, or confusion — mirror those of the folks watching at home.
One of the smartest choices Discovery’s season 3 premiere makes is to isolate our protagonist in this brave new world.
Unfortunately, Discovery must also establish her new, inevitable partner-in-crime and/or love interest. Book (David Ajala) isn’t terribly compelling as a character in his introduction. He’s framed as yet another Han Solo type: a handsome rogue who seems out for himself while secretly possessing a heart of gold.
The existence of this sort of character — one who is knowledgeable about the ways of the future who can ally with our heroes and shepherd them through it — is probably necessary given the time jump. But the fact that he has to fit into such a tired archetype, particularly in the form of a likely punch-punch-kiss romance with Burnham, makes his scenes far more exhausting than endearing.
The other thing that drags this installment down is the fact that the show must pick up the pieces from the aftermath of “Such Sweet Sorrow”, last season’s finale. In fairness, it’s good (in principle) that Discovery takes time to show Burnham recovering from the psychological trauma and disorientation after she succeeds in her mission but leaves everything she knows and loves behind in the process. The catch is that season 2 of Discovery offered such an unsatisfying, arguably nonsensical finale, that every reminder and connection to it hurts the new season by association with that near-baffling conclusion.
There’s also plenty of wheel-spinning and empty spectacle amid Burnham’s adjustment to the new normal, forging a bond with Book, and uncovering her latest quest. It’s entertaining enough, albeit shallow, to see our main character betrayed by her reluctant compatriot, navigating a jointly-run Andorian/Orion trading post, and leaping from place to place using personal transporters.
Some of these interludes are enjoyable on a surface level. At best, they establish a sense of place for the darker and scrappier 3100s. But they don’t do much to strengthen or elucidate Burnham’s rocky transition to the future, let alone sell her quick (if begrudging) friendship with this trope-ily rakish new pal.
But hey, it turns out that Book isn’t such a bad guy. He is, instead, someone trying to rescue endangered species, including “transworms” and big fluffy kitties. Sometimes he prays and/or uses magic powers to summon healing plants or commune with animals. Eventually, against his better judgment, he even takes Burnham back to a beautiful sanctuary planet with impossibly colorful flowers and seas where such creatures can roam free.
With that, the new addition to the series’s cast represents somebody trying to hold onto what’s good and what’s left, in the hopes that it can one day flourish again. That fits nicely with what follows, as Book takes Michael to one of the few remaining souls still tending to the Federation’s flame so many generations later.
The only genuinely emotionally affecting part of “That Hope Is You” comes when Burnham meets Aditya Sahil, a Federation “liaison” who stands as the latest and last in a long line of Starfleet officers. He’s waited forty years for a glimpse of the possibility Michael represents, and persists as another “true believer” happy to help Burnham find her ship and her crewmates. There’s power in the way Sahil is clearly moved when Michael bestows him with a commission, just as his forebears received, made fit to raise the Starfleet flag once more. Adil Hussain gives the best performance in the episode, selling the emotion and magnitude of that moment like nobody’s business.
That’s a wonderful and important thing, because it’s his reaction that (hopefully) sets the tone for the season to come. The universe has become a much harsher and more disconnected place since “The Burn” and the seeming demise of the Federation. Pirates and warlords on the fringes of the galaxy act only in their own self-interest, seeming brutal in their methods and devoid of the spirit of altruism and exploration that defined Starfleet for so many centuries.
And yet, with Burnham (and presumably, her crew once they arrive) comes the titular hope. She carries Starfleet’s ideals with her to this woebegone future. Bolstered by those animating beliefs, she brings with her a second chance, to find those who remain true believers and perhaps rebuild the Federation once more. She has a mission: not only to find the U.S.S. Discovery and her friends still aboard it, but to find all of those still sympathetic to a cause forged millennia ago and restore those foundational beliefs to a galaxy sorely in need of them.
With that, Discovery finally has the chance to do something different, beyond just reimagining and recontextualizing the TOS years. It has the opportunity to set the tone for its own era of Star Trek, to tell a story of rebuilding the Federation within a skeptical galaxy, to prove that the old sense of idealism still has a place amid a fractious, mercenary, and divided world. Little from the past two seasons suggests that the series will flawlessly realize the boundless potential of that idea. But with a board this clear and open, unburdened by fifty years of continuity and expectation, for once it’s truly exciting to see Discovery try.