Star Trek Discovery is back for its third season, which means that I’ll be doing episode by episode reviews again. For my takes on the first two seasons, go here.
In spring, I rewatched seasons 1 and 2 of Discovery with my Mom who hadn’t seen them yet for lack of Netflix. And while I initially was very harsh on season 1 of Discovery, I found that I have mellowed somewhat in the meantime, largely because I knew where the series was going and could also appreciate the little hints dropped in regarding Lorca’s true identity. Though the first four episodes of season 1 are still tough going and particularly episode 3 “Context Is For Kings” is really dreadful. And indeed, I had to assure my Mom, “Yes, the first few episodes are bad, but it gets better.”
Now Star Trek Discovery‘s main problem has always been inconsistency, both behind and in front of the camera (two seasons in, Discovery has already gone through three and a half captains and five showrunners). Particularly season 1 felt like about five different shows stitched together, only some of which actually were Star Trek. Season 2 was more consistent and also a lot better, though they were hampered by having to repair the mistakes of season 1, while sticking to established Star Trek continuity. And then season 2 Star Trek Discovery promptly upset the apple cart again by sending the Discovery on a one way trip 900 years into the future in the season finale, opening up the way for entirely new adventures unencumbered by established Star Trek continuity.
So let’s see how season 3 is doing.
Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!
Pretty well, it turns out. At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed part 1 of “That Hope Is You”. For inconsistent as Discovery may be otherwise, it is remarkably consistent in one aspect, namely that it becomes a completely different show every couple of episodes.
This iteration of Star Trek Discovery starts off as a space action adventure that is more reminiscent of Firefly or even Star Wars than of any version of Star Trek. Indeed, Keith R.A. DeCandido notes the same in his review of this episode at Tor.com, as does Sam Thielman at the Guardian.
After a brief interlude with a character whose name and purpose we will learn later, we meet the first new member of the main cast, Cleveland “Book” Booker as played by David Ajala. Book is a courier who transports more or less legal cargo on behalf of others. He starts out as your typical space rogue, which is still one of my favourite science fiction archetypes. Unlike most other science fiction franchises, Star Trek has never really embraced the space rogue archetype until recently. Space rogues do appear in Star Trek from the original series on, but most of the time they’re just guest characters. Christobal Rios from Star Trek Picard was the first space rogue main character in a Star Trek series and Book is set to be the second.
I’m also happy to see a space rogue played by a black man (and Rios is played by a man of colour as well, Chilean British actor Santiago Cabrera), if only because the two original space rogues and thus the granddaddies of all the other space rogues in science fiction, were both men of colour. C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, who was the original space rogue, is described as brown-skinned and Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark, his first descendant and still one of the best, is unambiguously described as a black man (Inbetween those two, there’s also Leigh Brackett’s Roy Campbell, another space outlaw with dark skin and a heart of gold). Of course, cover and interior artists have been ignoring this fact for decades, which is why I’m so thrilled to finally see a space rogue portrayed as a black man. The fact that David Ajala is hot doesn’t hurt either. Nor does the fact that he has a striking and very big cat named Grudge.
When we first meet Book aboard his spaceship, he’s in trouble, because he’s being chased by someone from whom he apparently stole something. But there’s worse trouble coming for Book, when a wormhole opens and out pops none other than Michael Burnham in the Red Angel suit. To refresh everybody’s memories, in the season 2 finale Michael Burnham used the time travelling Red Angel suit developed by her mother to take herself and the Discovery 900 years into the future to get the valuable data from the infodump sphere that is stored in Discovery‘s computer away from Control, a malevolent AI (Is there any other kind in Star Trek?) hellbent on destroying all life in the universe.
Upon emerging from the wormhole, Michael promptly crashes into Book’s ship which causes both of them to crashland on a planet that’s very definitely not Terralysium where Michael was originally headed. Michael manages to reboot the damaged Red Angel suit just in time to save her from splattering all over the surface of the planet whose name I didn’t get (portrayed by Iceland, which is certainly a change from “Every world in the galaxy looks like British Columbia, unless it looks like California or a quarry in Wales”). The suit is damaged and when Michael tries to contact Discovery, they’re not answering. Plus, the wormhole is closing, so Michael grabs an emergency survival kit, programs the Red Angel suit to fly back through the wormhole, send the final signal (which she promised Spock she’d do) and then self-destruct. Next Michael scans for lifeforms, any lifeform, to make sure that Control was truly beaten and did not manage to destroy all life in the universe after all. She’s successful, which we already know. Coincidentally, the lifeform scan also explains a brief, but likely expensive CGI sequence of an alien scorpion-like critter eating an equally alien dragonfly. Though I’m not entirely sure why we need to see alien scorpions and dragonflies, when we’ve already seen Book, his cat and his pursuer, all of whom are very obviously lifeforms.
Since Michael is all alone on a strange planet with nothing but a Starfleet emergency kit, she decides to seek out the nearest lifeform that’s not a scorpion or dragonfly. And of course, this lifeform happens to be Book whose ship crashed on the beach of an alien sea.
Book is not at all pleased to see Michael and not just because she caused his ship to crash. Because in typical space rogue style, Book is pretending very hard to be someone who only looks out for number one. As with all space rogues, it’s a front, as we and Michael eventually find out. And indeed the fact that Book loves his cat is a classic clue. Because while a space rogue may pretend to be a tough guy who doesn’t care about anyone other than themselves, all of them have a secret heart of gold. They only need the right person – usually an attractive woman, sometimes a male friend or cuddly pet and sometimes Baby Yoda – to bring out the good that’s hidden deep inside them.
Though Book also has a good reason to be wary of Michael. After all, she did crash into his ship and caused it to crash. Never mind that Book is still on the run from those who want the cargo he stole. And so Book and Michael’s first meeting quickly turns into a duel allowing them both to show off their martial arts skills and also allowing Book to show off his futuristic weaponry. The fight ends in a draw and both agree to put their weapons away on the count of three.
Michael, who never wanted a fight in the first place, now tries to introduce herself to Book and ask him for help, which isn’t successful, because Book is still pretending very hard not to care about anyone other than himself. In fact, he doesn’t even want to know Michael’s name, because if he learns her name, he might find himself forced to care about her and her plight after all.
The non-conversation between Michael and Book also gives us some information about the brave new future world in which Michael finds herself. For starters, the Federation is no more. It fell apart some 100 or 120 years ago, before Book’s birth at any rate. One still sees Federations relics on occasion – and Book does recognise Michael badge – but those are just relics for the terminally nostalgic. As for why the Federation fell apart, well, there was an event called “the Burn” (the name similarity to the main character is hopefully just a coincidence), during which most dilithium crystals in the galaxy suddenly became unstable and blew up, killing a lot of people and making warp travel difficult, if not impossible (and how lucky that the Discovery has the magic mushroom drive). That caused trade routes and communication lines to break down and the Federation to fall apart. As civilisation ending events go, a natural disaster that causes a breakdown of communication and supply lines is certainly one that’s not overused. I also can’t help but notice the parallels to John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, where the breakdown of the “Flow” that makes space travel possible almost leads to a collapse of civilisation.
Because “the Burn” destroyed most dilithium supplies in the galaxy, dilithium is exceedingly difficult to come by. And because Book’s ship crashed, he is desperate need of dilithium. Meanwhile, Michael is in desperate need of a subspace communicator to contact Discovery. And so Michael and Book decide to cooperate for now. Michael offers Book one of her valuable “antiques”, her tricorder, if he takes her to a trading post where she can find a subspace communicator and contact Discovery.
So the two of them set out towards what appears to be the only city on the planet. Of course, it doesn’t make sense that there is only one major city on a planet that otherwise seems to be uninhabited, but it gives the production team the chance to show off some gorgeous Icelandic landscapes. And if you have the chance to shoot your alien planet scenes in Iceland, you might as well make the most of it.
The city/trading post, when we finally see it, looks just like what you’d expect a sleazy city/trading post in somewhat dystopian science fiction world to look like. There are skyscrapers, there are a lot of neon lights, there are dodgy aliens. Though Michael is in for a surprise, because the dodgy aliens running this particular trading post are none other than the green-skinned Orions, from whom every Star Trek viewer would expect that sort of behaviour, working with the blue-skinned and antennaed Andorians, from whom we don’t expect that sort of thing. But its the 32nd century and things are different there.
At the trading post, Michael quickly runs into the kind of trouble you would expect to find at such a place. Book double-crosses her and steals her Starfleet emergency kit to trade it for dilithium. Michael is arrested and subjected to an interrogation drug that makes her babble like a waterfall in a hilarious scene. Pretty much the first thing she tells her captors is that they should never use that particular drug on Tilly, something we can all agree with. Eventually Michael gets around to telling her captors all about Book, his stolen cargo and how he double-crossed her and so Book, who has trouble selling the antiques he stole from Michael, gets arrested as well. He also gets a well-deserved punch in the face from Michael. It’s not the only punch she’ll give him.
Surrounded by hostile Andorians, Orions and Tellurians, Book and Michael decide to work together once more, which leads to a free for all fight scene. Michael grabs some dilithium crystals, Book activates his portable transporter (one of the technological leaps we and Michael encounter) and beams them both out of there. What follows is a merry chase across the gorgeous Icelandic landscape, because their pursuers also have portable transporters as well as a way of tracking them. The chase culminates in Book pushing Michael off a cliff, which promptly earns him another well-deserved punch in the face.
Eventually, the chase leads back to Book’s ship, where they are captured and surrounded. The Andorian-Orion-Tellurian villains persuade Book to give them the code to his cargo hold, which is when Michael – and we – finally see just what this mysterious cargo Book has stolen is. For it turns out that the cargo is alive and that it’s an endangered creature called a transworm. The worm conveniently eats the bad guys and swallows Michael, but Book persuades the worm to spit her out again.
The scene with the worm and a slightly earlier scene where Book persuades a plant with healing properties to grow via meditation also shows us and Michael that there is more than meets the eye to our handsome space rogue. Because Book has an empathic link to plant and animal life and also glowing spots that appear on his skin when he meditates. He mentions “his people” at one point, which makes me wonder whether he is human or a typical Star Trek style humanoid alien.
Book, it turns out, is using his courier job to rescue endangered species, there being no Federation around to protect them, and bring them to a safe place. And he takes the transworm to such a safe place and just in time for mating season, too. Michael tags along. After all, she has nowhere else to go and besides, Book has just revealed himself to be definitely one of the good guys. That he’s smoking hot certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Protecting those weaker than themselves is a character trait of space rogues that goes back to the early examples of the archetype from the 1940s. Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark may have considered himself a mercenary outlaw, but he rarely fought for the winning side, but usually on the side of oppressed indigenous people against evil corporations intent on wiping out their habitat and way of life. There is a reason I called him Social Justice Warrior of Mars. Other Leigh Brackett characters like Roy Campbell from “Citadel of Lost Ships” or Rick Urquart from the 1945 Retro Hugo winner Shadow Over Mars are similar in that they fight for oppressed indigenous people against capitalist exploiters such as those champions of truth in advertising, the delightfully named Terran Exploitation Company. Even the environmentalist angle already shows up in those early stories, because the evil exploitationary corporations usually destroy the environment along with the indigenous people they oppress. You can also find similar traits in other space rogue characters. Han Solo may pretend that he only cares about himself, but he also rescues Chewbacca, another member of an oppressed indigenous people, from abusive slavers and wins a friend for life. Meanwhile, Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly embodies the darker side of the libertarian strain that is always evident in space rogue characters. So Book is in good company with his heart for endangered species. Though it’s interesting that while his predecessors usually saved intelligent alien species that were a more or less thinly veiled stand-in for real world indigenous people, Book focusses on saving endangered non-intelligent alien species. But then, aliens as stand-ins for marginalised groups in the real world really doesn’t work anymore in the 21st century.
Book has also figured out by now that Michael is a time traveller – not that this is exactly hard to guess, even though according to Book all time travel technology was outlawed following a temporal war two centuries before. I suspect that this is the same temporal war mentioned in Star Trek Enterprise some twenty years ago. Book also reveals that he had a subspace communicator all the time, which he now lets Michael use to call the Discovery. Alas, Discovery still doesn’t reply.
Michael is now determined to seek out what is left of Starfleet to ask them for assistance. And luckily, Book knows just who might be able to help, namely a former Starfleet relay station that is crewed only by a single person, but otherwise abandoned. So Michael and Book head to the station and meet the character we had briefly seen early in the episode getting up day after day (after being woken by an alarm clock disguised as a holographic bird). His name is Aditya Sahil (played by Adil Hussain) and he has been manning this Starfleet outpost alone for forty years, waiting for other Starfleet officials to show up. Though, as he confesses to Michael, he’s not really a Starfleet officer, because he was never sworn in, since there was no one left to do it. But his father and grandfather were Starfleet officers and so he remains at his post, even when there is no one out there answering.
Michael uses Sahil’s scanners and communications relay to search for Discovery, but again doesn’t turn up anything. Though the scan range is only a few sectors, because the long-range scanners are broken, as Sahil confesses, and there’s no one left to repair them (sounds like a job for Paul Stamets and Jet Reno, once they finally show up).
Michael deduces that the Discovery has either turned up out of the range of the station’s scanners or that she is still in transit and might show up either tomorrow or a thousand years in the future. Nonetheless, Michael is not willing to give up hope, especially not since Sahil has just told her that she is the hope he’s been waiting for his whole life. And so Michael makes Sahil leading communication officer and decides to rebuild the Federation and Starfleet with her little army consisting of Book, Sahil and Grudge the cat. They also raise the Federation flag aboard the outpost, because only a commissioned officer can do so.
If “Let’s rebuild this great multi-planet political entity that fell decades before” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The basic idea goes all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but the Discovery producers probably found it much closer to home. For as Keith R.A. DeCandido explains here, Gene Roddenberry himself came up with the idea for a 1973 TV movie and never produced follow-up show called Genesis II. The planned TV series finally came about with some alterations in 2000 and was called Andromeda. It was not very good, as far as I recall. So Star Trek Discovery is the third attempt to make Gene Roddenberry’s more than forty years old idea work, only this time around in the Star Trek universe.
And indeed the basic Genesis II/Andromeda idea is not a bad premise for a science fiction show, which is probably why it keep getting reused. But touching as Michael’s determination and Sahil’s faith in an institution that no longer exists are, there are several huge problems with restoring Starfleet and the Federation.
The first is that inconvenient Prime Directive, which forbids Starfleet from meddling with other civilisations. And Michael is about to meddle in a big way without even knowing whether the galaxy needs or wants a new Federation, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out in her review at the Daily Dot. Not to mention that Michael trying to rebuild the Federation 900 years later is as if a medieval cog fell through a time warp and its crew decided to rebuild the Hanseatic League in the modern European Union. It’s neither feasible nor welcome. Of course, with Starfleet and the Federation gone, the Prime Directive no longer applies (and it only ever applied, when this was convenient for the plot anyway). Still, you’d think that Michael would at least try to adhere to the highest ideal of the institution she serves.
The second point is that while the Federation may consider itself a utopia and Starfleet may consider itself its servants and protectors, neither Starfleet nor the Federation itself have ever lived up to their ideals. The Federation has always been a very flawed utopia from the original series on, as Camestros Felapton points out in his review. And while I suspect that the flaws were unintentional in the original series and The Next Generation, the latter day series, particularly Deep Space Nine, Picard and – yes – Discovery, focussed a lot on the many flaws of the Federation and Starfleet.
And while Sahil may be forgiven for believing Starfleet’s own propaganda, considering he never experienced the real thing, Michael knows only too well what the Starfleet and the Federation really are like. After all, they gave her a life sentence and planned to use her as cheap slave labour for a supposed crime that was largely beyond her control. And then they left her at the mercy of a villainous spaceship captain from the Mirror Universe. Yes, I know that the show is pretending very hard that season 1 never happened, but Michael lived through these events. She should at least be a little bit sceptical about Starfleet and the Federation. Of course, it’s quite possible that she intends to rebuild Starfleet and the Federation like they should be, not as they were. Still, given Michael’s experiences, her optimism and utter faith in the Federation is a little odd.
Sonequa Martin-Green continues to do a great job as Michael and also gets to show off her acting range in this episode, as she goes from terrified to elated to desperate to drugged to her gills and back again. It’s also interesting that Michael seems to have ditched the emotional repression her Vulcan upbringing instilled in her. David Ajala is a welcome addition as Book and brings a lot of natural charm and depth to what could have been a very one-note character. Besides, he has a lot of chemistry with Sonequa Martin-Green. And as James Whitbrook points out in his review at io9, Michael and Book are both similar characters, because they both bear the burden of hope in a dark world. Not to mention that sparks are very obviously flying between Michael and Book and the “Coming this season” trailer at the end showed them kissing, so I fear poor Saru will still not get what he wants so very badly. Though I also find it interesting that someone with Michael’s emotionally repressed upbringing tends to go not for straightlaced Federation officers, but rogues and outlaws with a soft centre, whether it’s Klingon pretending to be human Ash Tyler or space rogue with a heart for endangered animals Book. But then Michael’s adoptive Vulcan father Sarek tends to go for human women, because they are emotionally supportive and want to have sex a lot more often than every seven years, so “opposites attract” apparently runs in the family.
But much as I like Michael, I did miss the rest of the Discovery crew and I hope that we will get to see Saru, Tilly, Stamets, Culber, Reno and the bridge crew soon, because they’re all great characters who deserve more to do than the show often gives them. Besides, the show is still called Star Trek Discovery, not Star Trek: The Adventures of Michael Burnham. And Star Trek has always been an ensemble show, as Zack Handlen points out in his review at the AV Club, so the intense focus is unusual for the franchise.
After a rocky first and smoother second season, season 3 of Star Trek Discovery is off to a good start. “That Hope Is You” did what it needed to do and introduced us both to the brave new world in which Michael (and the Discovery crew, once they finally show up) find themselves as well as to the new characters Book and Sahil. And Grudge the cat, of course, for Grudge is awesome.