the second episode, where the Discovery crash-lands on a planet and tries to get help from the locals. The classic away-team/on-ship divide is downright bizarre when Starfleet idealist Commander Saru (Doug Jones of The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth) and perky engineer Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) are engaged in a hostage negotiation with a murderous, leering, spur-wearing warlord in a saloon, while the B-plot is in the much more familiar Star Trek domain of the engineers learning to ask for help in getting repairs done.
Star Trek: Discovery is far from the first show to make a shift this dramatic. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. time-traveled into a post-apocalyptic version of 2091 in season 5, and the final season of Fringe took place in a dystopian 2036.
In both those shows, the main characters spend the whole season trying to make sure that future doesn’t actually come to pass. But the focus in Discovery season 3 seems to be more about making the best of a bad situation.
In a striking glimpse of what was lost, a Federation loyalist unfurls a version of the organization’s flag in the first episode, and it has just a handful of stars, rather than the crowded starscape that represented the interstellar union at its height.
As the Discovery works to find what’s left of Starfleet and continue its mission of peaceful exploration, the third and fourth episodes of the 13-episode season settle into far more familiar territory. Discovery’s new season resembles Star Trek: Voyager, but with the ship displaced in time rather than stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Both have the effect of making the crew underdogs who can’t call for powerful backup, which forces them to adapt quickly to their strange new surroundings.
There’s certainly a lot of potential in that dynamic. Without any backing from Starfleet, Saru’s command of the Discovery is questioned by former Emperor of the Terran Empire and Section 31 operative Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who feels her moral flexibility is an asset in this grimmer world. The existence of time travel is widely known in the world of Star Trek, so characters learning about the Discovery’s origins aren’t shocked, so much as eager to get their hands on forbidden technology and the rare resources the ship has brought from the past.
The new setting also leaves showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman the freedom to do basically whatever they want with Star Trek’s canon, imagining a host of new possible alliances and crises without having to worry about how they might affect established events. But that freedom is squandered when they instead try to put a Star Trek spin on stories of resource scarcity and frontier justice that other popular works of science fiction have already done better.
The best episode of the four made available to critics involves the state of the Trill and their symbionts, which have been used to tell subtly queer stories in past incarnations of the series. Discovery’s showrunners are now using them to bring the first major trans and nonbinary characters and actors to the series, with Ian Alexander’s Gray and Blu del Barrio’s Adira continuing the franchise’s enduring focus on representation through a powerful plot about the challenges of finding your true self.