First Impressions & Third Time Lucky? STAR TREK: DISCOVERY – ‘That Hope Is You’

Come the end of Star Trek: Discovery’s much anticipated third season premiere, That Hope Is You, I was left wondering if the title referred to protagonist Michael Burnham in more ways than one.

As premieres go, this one takes a calculated gamble. In solely featuring Burnham’s journey, having blasted her way 930 years into the far future ahead of the titular USS Discovery following the histrionic climax of Such Sweet Sorrow, writer and showrunner Michelle Paradise (alongside co-writers Jenny Lumet & CBS/Paramount Trek uber-producer Alex Kurtzman) operates on the assumption that Burnham continues to be the primary reason we’re tuning into Discovery. Has any premiere of a Star Trek season structured an opener quite like this? It had more in common with Lost’s Season 3 premiere A Tale of Two Cities, for me, which doubled down on the show’s principal protagonist Jack Shepherd as he was thrown into the unseen world of the Others on the mystical Island, with much of the supporting cast having to wait their turn an episode, or even two.

Given how Discovery’s playbook across Season Two very much aligned with the Bad Robot stable of serialised television, this comes as no surprise. Kurtzman is of that aegis, forged as a producer on shows which advanced serialisation across the 2000’s in genre television following the millennial boom in prestige cable drama, and under his overall direction Discovery has rarely embraced the Star Trek structural model of old. Star Trek: Picard was of similar stock earlier in the year, with only the recent Star Trek: Lower Decks defiantly returning to a largely stand-alone episodic format in line with The Next Generation-era. Opinions on which style better suit Star Trek vary far and wide but Discovery, a show which thanks to all kinds of behind the scenes changes and course corrections has struggled in its own skin, has always had one eye on being Star Trek for a new era.

That Hope Is You, by that definition, straddles the middle. It is defined by examining the future yet remains, stubbornly, partially stuck in the past.

It is always impossible to judge any season of television based on the first episode. There is too little context and often too little information. If we did, Season 2 of Discovery would have been an unqualified success.

As anyone who has read my writing on Star Trek in the past will know, I largely disliked last season of Discovery. Without re-hashing the arguments I parlayed here, and podcasted about here, in essence Season 2 was, for me, glorified fan fiction and often badly written fan fiction at that, which relied far too heavily on the nostalgic glorification of the iconic Spock character and the classic The Original Series U.S.S. Enterprise at the expense of its own momentum and characterisation. It also spent an entire season locked into a dragged out, largely underwhelming serialised mystery which half the audience had successfully guessed early on, while heavily bending if not outright breaking Star Trek canon (particularly with Christopher Pike & Section 31) to do so. Far from innovating Star Trek’s storytelling for a new era, Season 2 played out structural techniques and twists that half a dozen shows have done better, some of them decades ago. Season 1 is, unquestionably, a better year of television, as fractured as that season itself is.

Therefore, Discovery is sailing into Season 3 with a rebooted mission statement which, to my mind, suggests Kurtzman & company deep down recognised that Discovery—which following Bryan Fuller’s almost immediate departure abandoned any pretence of the original plan of being an anthological look at Trek across different eras—had become mired in its own nostalgic inertia. They could not have re-wired the series more deliberately in concept for this season if they tried, and had to resort to some hilariously ridiculous plotting leaps (Discovery being covered up by Starfleet and Spock promising never again to speak of his sister) to do it.

Yet, right from the first moment I heard of their plan, I was convinced it was a good move. Discovery has always had a collection of characters who deserve better scripts and stories, and who at points have displayed real potential – look at how well Saru has developed, how Tilly has grown, or even Stamets has thawed. None are yet classic Star Trek characters who will echo through the ages but they could be. All they needed was the space to stand on their own, space a far future setting affords them by degrees.

That Hope Is You refuses to provide that space yet, however, choosing instead to ground Burnham in her strange new world and initiate what will surely become a romantic connection with the shows newest regular addition, Cleveland ‘Book’ Booker (David Ajala), a swarthy yet charming Han Solo-type who Burnham quite literally crashes into as she plummets from her time travelling wormhole through a Federation starship graveyard onto the planet below. They fight, they travel, they betray, they bond. End. That is essentially the plot, establishing for Burnham an edgy male lead to replace the 23rd century stranded Ash Tyler and fill an important narrative space for a strong, humanoid masculine figure the show would otherwise be lacking. Ajala is a fine actor, and Book a relatively interesting creation, though he is imbued with the accumulated DNA from half a dozen other characters. The writers clearly had Firefly on their mind when developing him, not simply thanks to his moniker but also the whiff of Mal Reynolds about him.

That disorganised sense of futuristic dystopia is also glimpsed as Burnham very rapidly realises the far future holds no cohesive Federation, and on visiting the Mercantile on the planet Hima—basically Mos Eisley meets Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles 2019—she finds a black market of technology and antiques being run by ascendant Orion criminals, Andorian thugs and numerous recognisable prosthetics free to kill and steal without the sustained order of the Federation to keep the galaxy together.

This feels like a natural extension really of the post-Neutral Zone fringe of the almost 25th century presented in Picard; the idea that a world of gangsters and crime and lawlessness existed beyond the Federation frontier Star Trek rarely allowed us to glimpse, a realm saved for the Star Wars’ of the storytelling world, and that refusal to indulge such a universe was always part of Star Trek‘s charm. The Federation’s pristine utopia was the point, one Kurtzman’s era has systematically worked to dismantle. The old Federation order is now left to be gently mocked for how archaic it feels by Lower Decks.

On the one hand, this is depressing for a Star Trek fan, particularly those of us who grew up possessed of Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision as it was carried through into the 90s, but on the other it feels appropriate. If Picard actively worked to question whether the Federation would retreat back into existential isolation following terrorism, looming climate catastrophe and populist politics, Discovery’s third season looks to explore what happens when the Roman Empire crumbles.

Released on the eve of an election which could either signal the salvation or implosion of the America on which the Federation has always truly been modelled, That Hope Is You suggests the worst took place: dilithium, the substance on which warp power and galactic travel was based, caused a cataclysm known as ‘the Burn’ which, around the 31st century, decimated the galaxy and caused the Federation’s near total collapse. It now, much like a post-Sack of Rome imperium, exists merely as outposts surrounded by the relics of their own destruction, unable to communicate with each other and on the verge of obliteration. Discovery is a warning that maybe America won’t last either if the Federation hasn’t.

Thankfully, Burnham’s return isn’t prophecy, mysticism which Picard proved does not sit well with Star Trek‘s science-oriented universe, but rather the affirmation of a Federation ‘believer’ in Aditya Sahil (Adil Hussain), a mild-mannered clerk who has monitored a ruined Federation relay station for years in the hopes he might receive orders. In another Lost nod, he reminded me greatly of Desmond in the Hatch – the episode begins much like Lost’s Season 2 premiere Man of Science, Man of Faith, with Aditya’s daily routine in his own hatch of sorts, and it would have only taken him to ask Burnham “what did one snowman say to the other?” to really cap off the homage.

Aditya is, much like Desmond, a man of faith, and belief serves as the primarily thematic thrust of the episode. Burnham believes she will find her lost crew. Book believes in, uh, his weird deus ex ‘slugina’. Aditya believes that there is hope for the Federation, and by extension if Burnham is that hope, then a broad seasonal arc could be that her attempts to reconstruct and rebuild the Federation serve as a reminder to us, the audience, to not yet abandon hope in our democratic and societal norms, even if they feel on the verge of a Burn of their own, especially after Covid-19 – although given Season 3 was written and filmed before the virus reconfigured everything, we can’t give that credit as an inspiration.

What does deserve credit, perhaps more than anything in this opener, is how Paradise, Lumet & Kurtzman work to genuinely advance the technology of the far future. This has always been a problem in Star Trek, whether it’s Kirk’s communicator looking less capable than a modern iPhone, or Picard’s iPadd in TNG looking fairly archaic after the rise of Apple, Star Trek’s centuries ahead creations have often looked fairly similar to what we have on the modern horizon. Not so here. People create holographic images with a wave of their hand which become flesh and blood matter. Disruptors are welded to hands and can warp space around people. Faces on viewscreens break dimensions and begin to emerge on opposing bridges.

These are genuine leaps that have been well-considered and constructed, to the point they feel a thousand years beyond our reach and understanding. Science as magic, almost, and that feels new for Star Trek, and exciting. It suggests the possibilities for real innovation in technology now on Discovery. Perhaps the fairly bonkers spore drive that always felt an egregious betrayal of basic Star Trek universal rules will finally fit in and make sense in such a strange and disordered future universe.

That Hope Is You ultimately is more of a prologue than a clear and understandable road map for Season 3, choosing to layer in central themes for Discovery’s new season through Burnham and allow her to be our initial tether to an entirely new world. This is a solid narrative tactic and might well turn out to be adept, and provide a strong base from which to carry Discovery as it adjusts to very new circumstances, new characters and new ideas. Evidence shows that almost every Star Trek series takes a least two seasons to find itself, and truly begin telling stories that maximise its potential. If the Federation’s hope is Burnham, that maxim should be our hope as an audience, particularly as Discovery will have a fourth year. There is no turning back from this fork in the road, for us, Burnham or any of the other characters in Discovery. Let’s hope the path they have chosen is the right one.

For now, I am choosing to believe it will be.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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