Review: 'Star Trek: Discovery' Caps Season 3 with Verve and Hope

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 7, 2021

  (Source:CBS All Access)

Premiering the day after a history-making (and norms-shattering) insurrection in the U.S. Capitol - a seditious attack on Congress driven by a conspiracy theory-spouting president who has radicalized elements of his already-extreme base - there are more sober, essential things to ponder than whether Season 3 of "Star Trek: Discovery" succeeded. Or, whether the season finale was a suitable sendoff to twenty-three consecutive weeks of new "Trek" fare (these 13 "Discovery" episodes, plus the summer's run of the new animated series "Star Trek: Lower Decks").

But then again, not really. "Discovery" has interrogated the Trump era from its very beginning, with Season 1 examining the nature and driving forces of nationalist sentiment and dipping into the Mirror Universe (where sadism, rather than decency, is the rule) to, ahem, reflect the disorienting experience many Americans have had in finding themselves suddenly living in a dark, morally inverted version of the Land of the Free. (The COVID pandemic has only sharpened the show's queries: Does freedom really equate to selfishness, aggression, and dominance?)

Season 2 expanded the show's palette, and tied into the franchise's roots, by introducing a reimagined Starship Enterprise and a trio of beloved Original Series characters, Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck), and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) as they battled an (all too generic) overwhelming existential threat.

But Season 3 brought viewers right back into Trumpland with a jump into the far future, leaving the 23rd century behind (for good, the show's producers say) for a troubled era in which Starfleet - still noble, still a galactic force for good - has been hobbled and greatly diminished, thanks to an apocalyptic event known as "The Burn."

With the Federation in pieces, it's been up to Captain Saru (Doug Jones) and his crew - including the eternal misfit, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who, like Captain Kirk in the Original Series, never hesitates to buck the chain of command when she thinks she's right - to sweep up the pieces and start trying to fit them back together... even though they don't quite have the lay of a very different landscape. With Starfleet decimated, the dilithium required for interstellar travel now scarce, and the rise of the "Emerald Chain" (a coalition of convenience forged by several self-interested races), the galaxy is now a dangerous - and, in some places, authoritarian - place. The Milky Way, in other words, is no longer safe for democracy.

Season 3 felt a little greedy at times, heaping a lot onto its plate: Revisiting familiar alien races; solving a galactic mystery; introducing a medical crisis for swaggering Mirror Universe transplant Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), whose callousness was played as a refreshing counterpoint against everyone else's earnestness; and, of course, bringing us a new villain, this time in the form of Osyraa, a ruthless Orion warlord played by Janet Kidder. There was even a pair of episodes that revisited the Mirror Universe, obliquely engineering a way to send Michelle Yeoh off the series and set her up for her own show (reportedly to be focused on spy agency Section 31).

But through all of that, the series stuck to its original, Trump era brief, looking at what happens when vigilance grows lax and disasters undermine a sense of collective security, inviting the age old (and always tragic) trade-off of security in place of liberty. In short, "Discovery" did what "Star Trek" has always done, and interrogated its times.

As Season 3 charted an erratic course and wended its way through a dystopian future, it gave in to some of the show's worst impulses - storytelling shortcuts and absurd plot points that depart from science fiction and dive deep - really deep - into marshmallow-soft science fantasy. At the same time, however, it truly went where the franchise has hesitated to go, introducing two new characters who were, respectively, transgender and non-binary. Irritatingly, one of them was dead by the time we got to know them. But then, this is a show that at least resurrects its LGBTQ characters after burying them, as it did for gay ship's doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) partner of Dr. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).

Broadly-drawn politics, barely-dimensional villains, and the "small galaxy" phenomenon that guarantees fan favorite characters will keep cropping up, however improbably, shared screen time with brilliantly executed character moments. But what made the season finale especially timely - as if tailor-made for a moment in American history uniquely riven by rancor and conspiracy theories - was the episode's emphasis on connection, teamwork, and empathy.

Let's avoid spoilers and suffice it to say that as the hour begins, the crew of Discovery are in the most dangerous straits they've ever faced. They are also divided up, facing multiple threats - one of which could result in a repeat of "The Burn." The crew pull together, roll the dice on a few ridiculous Hail Mary moves, and save the day... of course; this is "Star Trek," after all, and it's no spoiler to say so.

But then, after three seasons of dread, darkness, and peril, there's a moment of light, and of renewal. It won't last, of course - if it did there would be no drama, and no Season 4 (already in production) - but for a moment the familiar optimism of the durable franchise shone through as it rarely has in this series. Finishing off the episode was a title card with a too-relevant Gene Roddenberry quote (again, about the human need for connection) and, used as end title music... but, no. I won't give that away.

I viewed the episode after seeing some of what happened in D.C. yesterday, and before spending hours watching CNN to get, and stay, caught up on real-world events. In the light of what can only be called a massive exercise in domestic terrorism, "Star Trek" and its absurdities seemed trivial... except for that spark, that reminder that the show offers, of hope for the future, and - just as hard to hold on to - hope for the decency of our fellow human beings.

In this dark moment (the prelude to...what? Even greater division? Civil war? Or, just maybe, a tentative return to democratic norms and something resembling presidential accountability?), the show did what it has done for more than fifty years: Stared contemporary reality in the face, said that we can do better, and made that message seem believable.

All three complete seasons of "Star Trek: Discovery" are now available on CBS All Access, with Season 3's finale premiering Jan. 7.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.