31 January 2021

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (CBS, season 3)

in Bucharest, Romania
Star Trek: Discovery - Season 3

After successfully thwarting an AI menace to biological life, the USS Discovery traveled through time to the 32nd century following the Red Angel to protect the Sphere data from falling into the wrong hands. They now encounter a vastly different galaxy: a century prior to their arrival, a mysterious and sudden event called The Burn has wrecked immense devastation. Dilithium was temporarily rendered inert, causing uncontrolled reactions in active warp drives and many ships immediately exploded. With its fleet decimated, the Federation is much diminished, a couple dozen member worlds struggling to fight off aggressive rivals, such as the Emerald Chain, a criminal association between the Orions and Andorians.

Having followed online discussions about this season on its dedicated subreddit, I started watching it with low expectations – and despite the warnings finished it with a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. The great premise, a jump forward a couple of centuries in the future, to a period not explored previously in Star Trek material, was mostly squandered, with poor worldbuilding, weak characters and implausible storylines.

One of the things that bothered me during this season were the constant emotional outbursts from the Discovery crew. I do not remember them being this volatile in previous seasons, cheering their pilot after routine maneuvers, needlessly bickering over minor things. I have never watched Oprah, but this is the first association that came to my mind. Most of the crew, apart from Dr. Culber, behaves like a bunch of teenagers, or rookies on their first flight, not an experienced Federation crew. It does not help that we as viewers barely know any of their names after three seasons…

Their behavior is in stark contrast with the Federation officers of the 32nd century, composed, thoughtful and disciplined, despite their complicated position. The new character of Admiral Vance was possibly my favorite addition to this season, a combination of integrity and leadership coming close to Captain Picard. Ironically, the only time when the Discovery crew worked together efficiently, as one would expect from a Federation ship, is when Michael Burnham temporarily assumes command. Which makes the writing choices for her character even more puzzling: promoted to First Office, then demoted because of insubordination, she questions her place on Discovery and in the Federation, but ultimately saves both and becomes the ship’s captain for upcoming missions.

The leadership skills of Saru felt lacking, his decision-making rather poor and emotional – this was his first time as full-fledged captain after all. Promoting Ensign Tilly to First Officer over everyone else on the bridge felt unearned – she made one good suggestion about handling a situation and suddenly she is officer material! The entire crew, Saru and Michael in particular, should learn humility and how to listen to constructive criticism. In the future, they are outsiders with little knowledge of the political setting and repeating how they saved all sentient life in the past is not a recipe to gain trust and respect.

The role of Emperor Georgiou, one of the best parts of the previous season, was much diminished. Her character is basically wasted, waiting around for the two-part incursion into the Mirror Universe that resets her story and sends her back in time, setting up the upcoming Section 31 series. It makes no sense to me why she did not simply remain in the 23rd century as Discovery jumped forward in time; this entire ark was a convoluted, pointless mess.

Individual episodes are hit-and-miss, with many plot holes and illogical twists. The first one, when Michael crash-lands on a desert planet after exiting the time vortex, felt like a series of scenes from Men in Black, with aliens blasting in all directions and giant alien-swallowing worms. The return to Earth centers around a nonsensical conflict: do they no longer have radio communications to talk to outposts on Titan?!

The trip to Trill went decent, but quickly spoiled in the next episodes when Adira Tal starts talking to the previous host of the Trill symbiont – her recently deceased boyfriend – as if he were standing next to her… This later leads to a moment of unsolicited wokeness when Adira asks to be referred as ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ – a reference to transgender pronouns that does not work here, because viewers could easily interpret ‘they’ as referring to Tal’s past hosts…

Another implausible crisis results from a coronal mass ejection hitting the Federation’s seed bank ship. I would expect a ship that important to not wonder around near dangerous nebulas with minimal crew and have much better shielding to prevent this sort of problems. Not to mention a seed bank should have multiple backups, or the genome could have been stored digitally with their advanced technology – so many writing failures in a single episode!

The plot moves forward many times through sheer convenience. Conveniently Michael arrives at just the right moment to help Discovery in the second episode. Conveniently Michael investigates The Burn and finds black boxes with new clues (no idea why starships would still have black boxes like contemporary airplanes) after a century of research somehow failed to pick this up. Conveniently she is Spock’s sister, giving her an opening with the reclusive Vulcan-Romulan society to obtain their measurements of the event. Conveniently her mother shows up on Vulcan to help her with this assignment. And most conveniently, in the finale Book is suddenly able to operate the spore drive to jump Discovery out of harm’s way!

I think the main failure of this season is underdeveloped worldbuilding. When starting fresh, writers should take the time to introduce the new factions and characters, to show the audience their relationships and motivations. Michael spends an entire year exploring this strange new world together with Book, but we do not see any of these adventures on screen! The season should have more episodes and focus first on the post-Burn galaxy, rather than rushing to solve the mystery and move on. Spending more time with solo Burnham would make her later reluctance to serve under the Federation clearer.

In parallel we could have episodes from the point of view of the Federation, struggling to police its borders and uphold their values. Michael could encounter the Federation during this solo year and alert them of Discovery’s pending arrival. Patrolling Federation ships could then keep watch for unusual readings and show up to rescue Discovery, instead of Michael doing everything of consequence. The Discovery could have conceivably arrived mid-season, or even during the finale. With extra screen time, the writers could have introduced episodes from the perspective of the Emerald Chain, to better show their ruthlessness and contrast to the Federation. Frankly, the Chain did not feel particularly menacing as a villain – it does not help that they show up in about half of this season’s episodes. As a side note, I find it odd that they chose an obscure TOS race to lead the Chain, when a more suitable choice would have been the Ferengi

Compared to this host of issues, I admit I did not mind the reveal of what triggered The Burn as much as other people. That turbo-lifts scene in the final episode was utterly nonsensical though, along with many other elements of the three-part finale. But at that point I was beyond caring about what happens to any of them. The season overall felt hollow and bland, with little at stake for the main characters and practically no consequences for poor judgements. I am confused about the direction the show can take in upcoming seasons, but it will have to be a big turnaround to regain my interest.

My rating: 3.0

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