Sometimes you just need to get away from it all.
That seems to be the primary motivation for “Star Trek: Discovery” to jump ahead 930 years from its 23rd Century setting all the way to the far-flung year of 3188. And though no one involved in the production has explicitly said so, it seems like this creative choice was fueled by a desire to have a blank slate to do whatever the producers of this CBS All Access show want with this extremely talented cast. Up till now, “Discovery” has been a prequel, set 10 years before “The Original Series” and more than a little bogged down by the limitations involved in having to weave an original story into a time period in which so much franchise mythmaking has already taken place.
Some of the fan quibbles lodged during the show’s first two seasons have been undoubtedly silly. “Why didn’t Spock ever talk about having a sister?” went one, referring to series lead Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human raised by Spock’s parents on Vulcan alongside the future Enterprise science officer. That myopic question was posed by fans who completely forgot that Spock also had a secret brother, revealed in one of the movies. “Why do the Klingons look so different?” went another. CBS All Access wanted to go in a different design direction, okay?
Prequels are fun, but they have the potential to be more about recontextualizing characters and events we already know than in actually breaking new ground for original characters. The remarkable thing is that, through all that franchise red tape, Martin-Green imbued extraordinary life into Michael Burnham — and gave her one of the clearest arcs any “Trek” series lead has ever had, from Vulcan restraint at the beginning to human emotions flowering in full when we last saw her. With a time jump into the 32nd Century at the end of Season 2, she feels truly liberated. How something fits into existing canon no longer matters. All that does matter is good storytelling.
And good storytelling is what we get in the first four episodes of “Season 3” that have been made available for critics to review. Burnham finds herself truly in the unknown. Landing on a desolate, granite-gray planet of high dunes and tranquil seas, she’s all alone. Remember, she had to fly in an Iron Man-type suit through a wormhole in order to blaze the trail for the USS Discovery to follow her into the future and out of the 23rd Century where it had become impossible for them to remain. As Season 3’s first episode, “That Hope Is You,” begins, Burnham and the crew are separated. We won’t reveal for now what actually happened to her starship, but Burnham has to adapt to 3188 largely on her own.
Though that granite-gray planet is some strange alien world in the show, in our world it’s actually Iceland. Along with Jordan in the pilot episode of “Discovery,” this is one of the very few times that any “Star Trek” show has filmed on location outside the U.S. and Canada. And my, does it show. “This Hope Is You” is one of the best-looking episodes of any “Trek” series ever, showing off massive, wide-angle helicopter shots by director Olatunde Osunsanmi, who’s quickly become a “Trek” MVP.
Before she landed, Burnham crashed into a ship piloted by a smuggler, or “courier,” named Book (David Ajala). Sorry to cross-pollinate franchises, but he’s a Han Solo-type, a daring rogue who might betray you at any moment — but who really has a heart of gold, and a deeply felt mission. Han Solo was never a cat person, though. Book is.
It’ll be interesting to see how Book develops over time. His role in the first episode is largely to provide exposition about this strange new galaxy Burnham finds herself in. Apparently, the Federation suffered a cataclysm over a century earlier: suddenly, all over its part of space, dilithium just exploded. For those of you who didn’t keep a “Star Trek: Ships of the Line” calendar on your wall as a kid, dilithium is the crystalline material that allows warp drive to function. This devastating event, known as The Burn, caused space travel to be a possibility for far fewer people. The Federation retreated into a tiny rump state, with barely any of the influence it once had.
Book is joined in later episodes by a couple of other new additions: Blu del Barrio’s Adira and Ian Alexander’s Gray, whose presence is yet another welcome step forward in what’s always been an inclusive franchise, but also provide some of the biggest emotional fireworks of Season 3’s early episodes. Book, Adira, and Gray are all characters who are trying to do the right thing in a universe that’s upside down and in which they may not even know where to begin doing the right thing. Sound familiar?
The expansive visuals of the first episode begin to retreat into more familiar territory, but the emotions end up riding even higher, especially by the end of Episode 4. What’s intriguing about this whole new world of storytelling possibilities is that, unlike “Star Trek: Voyager,” which plunged a Starfleet crew into similarly unknown terrain, these characters aren’t necessarily setting out on “a journey home.” No, they made a choice to be in 3188, and it seems like they’re going to stay there. What matters isn’t going back from whence they came as much as bringing their values with them into this uncertain new present. And that could lead to many more emotional adventures ahead.
“Star Trek: Discovery” Season 3 premieres Thursday, October 15 on CBS All Access.