Michael Burnham has flung herself a thousand years into the future to foil the plans of the evil AI Control that has taken over the black-ops wing of Star Fleet aka Section 31. Discovery has always been a show of contrasts which it would then confuse or muddy. In season 2 the bad aspects of Star Fleet and the federation were embodied by Section 31 and the ambiguities of both former mirror-universe emperor Philippa Georgiou and the Klingon-disguised-as-a-human Ash Tyler. Reflecting their position was the inclusion of the original Enterprise and the former-trivia-question original Captain Pike and crew.
Yet both plot and characters skated over these contrasts or confused them as character depth. Not unlike the Picard-series, the show set itself up to make a point and yet failed to do so other than “AI’s will eventually go rogue and kill all humans”. That’s not even a point, it’s just a lazy plot device.
Episode 1 of the new series shows a lot of the strengths of Picard and Discovery. It looks tremendous, it is visually imaginative and it is happy to draw upon other space-opera tropes and ideas that pushes it beyond the limits of the older versions of Star Trek. It also makes excellent use of good casting. Given how uneven Discovery has been the single best decision the show made was casting Sonequa Martin-Green who has had to carry multiple episode with the unenviable task of playing a character who isn’t a Vulcan but has to act like somebody who was brought up by Vulcans.
This episode places everything on her shoulders again. Rocketing out of a time-wormhole and colliding into a space battle, Michael ends up crashing into a planet. There she encounters Book (IMDB says ‘Cleveland Booker’ but I thought they just said ‘Book’), some kind of dodgy space courier who has an illicit cargo and a broken space ship. The only trustworthy aspect of the man is that he has a very large cat which means he is a rogue who will turn out to be good in the end OR it means he is a super-villain (which we can discount because he doesn’t have a monocle).
And so we are into a new season and a new premise. A grunge galaxy of lawlessness and Wild West justice. Well Trek always did say that space was the final frontier. Is there a new sheriff in town? No, there’s an old one. We learn that a 100+ years ago was the apocalyptic event that led to dilithium exploding across the Federation. Called “the burn”, this event led to the collapse of the Federation and Star Fleet with just a few outposts and true-believers hanging on.
Given that the kind of benevolent one-world (or rather multi-world) governmental ideal is thoroughly baked into Star Trek, there’s not a lot of point now in questioning this assumption of benevolence. In particular, the confusion between the Federation and its military wing of Star Fleet is not something any Trek series has managed to interrogate except in the most shallowest way. The set-up for Season 2 of Discovery and the set-up for Picard were tailor-made for this kind of questioning of some of the core assumptions of Star Trek but both series dodged their own questions. Season 3 of Discovery looks like it is going very much the other way. The galaxy without the Federation is a bad place and what it needs (according to what we are being shown) is the Federation back.
Overall, clever and entertaining if lacking some of the depth of the better episodes of previous seasons. Yet, depth has always been a failed promise with Discovery — it fumbles big themes. We’ll see how this goes. A season of episodes like this one will be entertaining but I’ll still be disappointed if the resolution is the Galaxy just gets the Federation and Star Fleet back as it was. It is very easy to be cynical about Roddenberry’s idealism, in fact I’m very cynical about Roddenberry’s very confused ideals. Yet, however poorly thought-through they were and however much they were based on idyllic view of US and British history, they were very much based on an idea of helping and protecting all people as the highest ideal. It would be nice to have a series that took that core but came up with a better answer.
ETA: Cora has a review here which covers more of the plot details and links to other reviews: http://corabuhlert.com/2020/10/17/star-trek-discovery-goes-back-to-the-future-in-that-hope-is-you-part-1/