Paramount+’s “Star Trek” franchise keeps shaking things up.
Its flagship series “Discovery,” now in its fourth season, has a new leader in the captain’s chair: Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham, whose remarkable arc over the series’ previous 39 episodes set up this moment of her ascension to be especially fulfilling.
But “Discovery” is also doing something that “Trek” has never fully embraced before: interconnectedness among its various shows airing at the moment (especially “Picard”) as well as those that wrapped more than 20 years ago, such as “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.” Even when those particular shows aired simultaneously in the ‘90s, they occupied clearly separate lanes, with almost no connections between them. Call it the influence of MCU storytelling — something that also seems planned for Disney+’s explosion of “Star Wars” series in the near future — or simply cannier brand management, but in the first episode of “Discovery” Season 4, you don’t just see a member of Morn’s species (a “DS9” fave) but a whole new Federation President whose ancestry fills in centuries’ worth of storytelling.
Laira Rillak (played by Canadian actress Chelah Horsdal) is obviously of partial Cardassian descent. On all the “Trek” shows of the ‘90s, the warlike Cardassians were a nemesis of the Federation and depicted as carrying out genocidal occupations against various other species in their quest for expansion and dominance. The crew of Discovery jumped ahead 900 years at the start of Season 3, and for the rest of its run, the show is expected to remain in the unfamiliar terrain of the 32nd century. Speaking to IndieWire, showrunner Michelle Paradise said that having a new Federation president be Cardassian is a way of filling in some of the gaps. Clearly, a lot has changed in the interim.
“Historically, the Cardassians and the Federation are opposite ends of the spectrum,” Paradise said. “With Rillak as President, it felt very interesting to us as a way of telling a story without telling a story. It represents a coming together in some way.” The Federation’s mission of finding common ground with even antagonists clearly continued to succeed in those intervening centuries. And having the Federation President be a major character on the show sets up a season that Paradise said will be focused on politics.
References among “Star Trek” properties have usually stayed in the realm of Easter Eggs, so turning what could have been an Easter Egg — the Cardassians haven’t been seen on-screen at all since “Deep Space Nine” signed off in 1999 — into a major storytelling point reflects a pivot. “We do think a lot about the connections,” Paradise said. “This is an entire universe of shows, and because we are so far ahead in the future, we have a lot of places where we can play and a lot of fresh snow ahead of us, but we never want to lose sight of the fact that we are part of a larger universe. It is very important to use that when appropriate for our own storytelling.”
That franchise interconnectedness is a change for “Star Trek” to be sure, but change is the theme on “Discovery” this season. Burnham is ready for the captain’s chair. That’s not in question at all. But with the captaincy, Burnham does have to look within herself like never before. “Who is she as captain?” Paradise said. “How is she different? How do you have to be different as captain than as a number one or as a commander? How do you have to grow and change when you take that chair and how are the responsibilities different? We will never again be able to see Burnham’s first time in the captain’s chair, so we wanted to ask these questions.”
One thing that hasn’t changed on “Discovery” is the unique commitment of “Star Trek” to be more than just escapism. Going back to the ‘60s, the series held up a mirror to contemporary issues, such as racism and Cold War tensions. In Season 4, “Discovery” allegorizes the COVID-19 pandemic, via a massive V’Ger-style anomaly that’s traversing the galaxy and leaving untold destruction in its wake. The grief and uncertainty that several characters experience this season — especially David Ajala’s Book — taps into feelings that so many are still processing in our own world.
“Grief is a part of that. But it’s not the whole of the season,” Paradise said. “It’s certainly an arc. The anomaly is ultimately about how we have to come together, Federation and non-Federation. We need to be able to work together to figure this thing out and that if we do come together, we can figure out things that seem to be bigger than us. So I think ultimately, there’s a lot of optimism and hope under that. ‘Star Trek’ has a history of being able to explore some of the things that are happening in the world around us.”