Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 Episode 1
“That Hope Is You Part 1”
Star Trek: Discovery returns for a third season with a jump to the far future and a new set of problems to be solved.
This show will probably always be fighting uphill with some viewers because of how it set itself up. It was a prequel to The Original Series with an updated production aesthetic with a singular character leading the show rather than the ensemble piece Star Trek as a franchise had become when it was at its peak. Perhaps leaping into the far future to escape any connection to any existing era while still keeping most of the elements that make up the show is pandering to those detractors but it’s also an opportunity to build something truly new and exciting. This time period is brand new territory for the franchise with no canon to adhere to and a relatively blank canvas to create something that truly pushes the franchise forward rather than focusing on its past. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing but Star Trek: Picard fell far short of the mark and Star Trek: Lower Decks has built its entire premise around reverence for the former golden age of the franchise.
One of the worst things in fiction is unfulfilled potential and this first episode is unfortunately full of it. I am hopeful this isn’t representative of the rest of the season and it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions from what this episode provides because it isn’t really much of anything. It’s an establishing episode in pretty much every way by offering questions without providing much in the way of answers. When done well those questions prompt an engaging mystery for the characters to chew on over the course of the season; when done poorly there’s little more than vague references to things that will be incrementally clarified over the course of the season. Regrettably this episode leans towards the latter which makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience.
The key questions outlined in this episode are “Where is Discovery?”, “What caused “The Burn”?” and “Does the Federation actually still exist in some form?”. If you’ve seen any marketing for the show then you know the answer to the first question is that Discovery will be along eventually so it’s largely moot in the grand scheme of things. Keeping Discovery out of the first episode entirely does help build the isolation and desperation that Burnham is experiencing after finding herself alone in an unknown future. It’s very much her episode and seeing her try to come to terms with her current situation while finding the courage to forge ahead is engaging at times.
Burnham’s arrival in the future has her immediately collide with a ship and hurtle towards a nearby planet. It’s an incredibly unfortunate start considering how big space is and how unlikely it is that a ship would be directly in your path when emerging from a time/space wormhole but it does get things moving very quickly. It doesn’t move too quickly though with some time taken to reflect on the events of the previous season and have Burnham react to learning that the mission succeeded. It’s a very quick moment but masterfully performed by Sonequa Martin-Green who effortlessly transitions from unbridled joy that life has been detected nearby to immense grief because of all she has lost and left behind. It’s an effective reminder of where the previous season left off and a strong character beat for Burnham. Her display of strong emotion in this moment is especially impactful because of how much effort she typically makes to control her feelings. Seeing her have to will herself to stand up and walk forward was really powerful as well as it highlights the uncertainty facing her after ending up alone with no idea if Discovery survived the trip.
It isn’t long until she meets Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala); a roguish smuggler who answers to no-one but himself and isn’t interested in making friends. He’s Burnham’s window into the future as he belongs to the time period and knows how it works so his function for much of the episode is to explain things to her while being confused as to why she doesn’t know basic information that would be impossible to miss. David Ajala is a good actor and imbues Book with a lot of personality but there’s not a lot about his character that stands out at first. It has long since become a cliché for a displaced character to run into someone what has no interest in helping them only to slowly wear them down over a shared adventure they stumble into. Their interactions go through the standard manoeuvrers of fighting, bickering, being forced to work well together, realising they work together and finally reaching an understanding that makes them friends. The actors are good and have believable chemistry together but I kept wanting to fast forward to the point that their connection becomes interesting instead of the tired early back and forth.
The weakest part of the episode by far was the visit to the alien marketplace. From a design point of view it wasn’t all that interesting to look at and it completely failed to look any more futuristic than a similar setting in “Stardust City Rag” over on Star Trek: Picard. With this being the first proper look we get at the far future and how aspects of it work it feels lacking in imagination; especially with it being populated by one dimensional morally dubious smuggler types. The scene where Burnham is high on some sort of drug and acting very unlike herself while also paradoxically acting very like herself was entertaining in isolation but from the moment Burnham and Book arrived in this place I really just wanted them to leave and get on with what little plot there is.
Ultimately Book proves to have more to him than meets the eye when it’s revealed that he tracks endangered creatures and brings them to a sanctuary planet where they can be safe. In a universe that’s falling apart he’s a conservationist and has a very clear moral code that he has to keep hidden in order to function in such a broken lawless society. Once again it’s nothing new but once he drops the brash exterior his interactions with Burnham are far more interesting because they start to veer into the territory of what he stands for.
Book is a hopeful man in a hopeless universe and the arrival of Burnham -as well as eventually Discovery- represents the hope that the universe needs. Burnham is from a time where the Federation was a thriving and functional organisation that was in a position to practice what it preached and Burnham is very much a product of that time. She and the crew of Discovery were in a position to determine the right course of action and use the resources at their disposal to follow through on it whereas in this future time period people who believe in those values have limited scope to do much to make the universe a better place.
This looks to be the central conflict of the season; can Burnham and Discovery start to rebuild the Federation back to what it once was? The Federation is in tatters because of “The Burn”; a catastrophic event described by Book as most of the Dilithium mysteriously exploding at the same time. Since every warp capable starship runs on Dilithium it was a crippling blow to the Federation as it would wipe out a vast chunk of their resources in one fell swoop. It’s difficult to accept that starships would still be using warp drive so far in the future particularly when Slipstream is mentioned and -possibly- seen in this very episode. The faster travel method would have surely become standard long before “The Burn” happened or possibly something even more advanced than that. That aside, the cause of “The Burn” is another mystery the episode sets up and will likely be explored over the course of the season. There’s also talk of subspace being wiped out by The Gorn across two light years and mention of having no access to far flung sectors because long range sensors no longer work.
Ultimately this amounts to a thinly veiled allegory of the time the show is being made with a strong focus on conservation and a distinct environmental message. The Federation is crippled presumably because of an over-reliance on a single resource and are unable to recover when that resource becomes too scarce to sustain the existing infrastructure. Perhaps in the subsequent episodes we will see evidence of an organisation that were unwilling to change because the problem seemed either too far away to presently worry about or non existent to those in charge at the time. The collapse of the Federation has left the galaxy in a state of disorder where there is no visible rule of law to adhere to and those who aren’t cut-throat enough to thrive in such a situation are rapidly losing hope. Connection between planets and cultures seems to largely be a thing of the past which is very much the opposite of what the Federation is supposed to stand for so there’s a lot of repair work that needs to be done. Discovery is the perfect ship to facilitate the reconnecting of these separated areas of space as the Spore Drive will allow for instant travel between planets in order to determine what the cause of the near total breakdown of communication was.
It’s a reasonable setup even if the questions being posed aren’t all that interesting by themselves. I have serious issues with a lot of modern Star Trek being beholden to catastrophic events whether that be all sentient life under threat from artificial intelligence on no less than two shows or a past event that has had a disastrous environmental impact that has broken civilisation as we know it. Star Trek has rarely been about Apocalyptic events which isn’t to say that they are unwelcome periodically but the fact that those events or the fear of them happening amounts to so much of the output in recent years suggests a lack of imagination. It’s as if there’s a belief that the interest of viewers can only be captured if all life in the universe is at risk. That isn’t the case and there needs to be a focus on stories that are small in scope but large in intelligence. Some of the best episodes of Star Trek involve a very simply described problem that the characters have to deal with. Hopefully the Apocalyptic event will serve as a backdrop and the writers will understand those fundamentals.
Speaking of fundamentals; the portrayal of the Federation in this episode is very much focused around those. Burnham meets Aditya Sahil (Adil Hussain). He is a true believer who upholds the founding principles of the Federation despite having nobody around to commission him into any official role. He feels unworthy of hanging the Federation flag as a result of this but takes great pride in letting Burnham as a commissioned representative of the Federation hang the flag as a symbol of hope. On the surface it’s a powerful symbolic display and the Federation ideals are certainly worth aspiring to but one of the things that Discovery frequently explored was that the Federation wasn’t a flawless organisation and certainly had things about itself that could have been improved. The fact that the working assumption is that it all but collapsed after a catastrophic event is a clear highlight that there were flaws so holding onto the past in this way would seem to run counter to the mission statement of forging ahead down a new path in this season. Altering the messaging ever so slightly to be around building a better Federation free of the flaws that ultimately doomed the old one would be more in line with what this season appears to be looking to achieve.
As I mentioned above this episode wasn’t really much of anything though that’s probably because it’s part one of a two part story. This episode starts to ask the questions while the next episode begins to answer them. We get a taste of the future -albeit a largely uninteresting one- and stick rigidly to Burnham’s perspective of arriving there. Since Discovery and the rest of the crew don’t appear there’s a vast chunk of content absent. My guess is the next episode will detail their arrival into this time period and have them learn similar yet slightly different information. As a season opener it wasn’t all that exciting and didn’t deliver enough of a primer for what is supposed to represent a bold new direction for the show.
An uneasy beginning to the third season that fails to capitalise on the opportunity of a bold new direction for the show. There are some really strong character moments such as Burnham’s reaction to learning that the plan worked. It’s complex, well acted and comes across really well. Book isn’t an interesting character at first though David Ajala is an engaging enough presence and has great chemistry with Sonequa Martin-Green which makes their interactions more interesting than they otherwise would be. The problem is that their introduction is very clichéd and he doesn’t become interesting until his brash attitude is stripped away and they start to properly relate to one another. In this episode his role amounts to being Burnham’s window into the future which sets up some mysteries to be explored over the course of the season. The weakest part of the episode was the marketplace that had no interesting characters associated with it and looked no more advanced than any other recent examples seen in the franchise.
The ideas to be explored over the course of the season amount to a thinly veiled allegory of the time the show is being made with a strong environmental and conservation message. It looks as if the Federation is being presented as an organisation that failed because of over-reliance on a single resource meaning they were unable to continue once that resource was lost. Burnham and Discovery represent the hope to rebuild because they have the resources to reconnect the separated worlds. It’s a reasonable setup though hopefully won’t come to rely on the Apocalyptic scenarios that have plagued so much of modern Star Trek. The messaging around the Federation is somewhat muddled as this show often explored the flaws built into the setup but now presents it as a flawless ideal. If the messaging was slightly altered to building a better Federation in line with its core beliefs then it would fit better with what the season is looking to achieve.
- the complex and well delivered moment where Burnham reacts to learning that the plan worked
- strong chemistry between David Ajala and Sonequa Martin-Green
- a solid setup to be worked with over the course of the season
- the uninteresting marketplace setting
- a standard early dynamic between Book and Burnham
- very little offered to suggest there is an exciting bold new direction for the show
- mixed messaging around the Federation and its ideals as presented by the episode
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