This rebooted, late-‘90s cartoon “classic” is a lot like the original—including the subtle ways it pushes the envelope.
Space: The Final Frontier.
So said captains Kirk, Picard, Spock and who knows how many others as they introduced the adventures of the starship Enterprise. But you know what? They were lying: Exploring space’s frontier is like taking a ride on a playground swing compared to hopping through timeor blasting into mirror dimensions and the like.
And that’s something that Michael Burnham, a once-and-future science officer on the starship Discovery, knows way too much about.
Sure, it’s not like this particular franchise is unfamiliar with the concept of alternate timelines and dimensions. The famous U.S.S. Enterprise has squirmed through its share of wormholes and bounced against its own quirky mirror universes. But the Discovery, over its last few seasons, has positively lived there.
The Discovery’s adventures technically predate Captain James T. Kirk’s Enterprise by about a decade or so. Indeed, Burnham—though entirely human—was raised on the planet Vulcan alongside Spock himself. (Michael’s his foster sister. Small universe, right?) But from the get-go, Burnham’s adventures might seem, to some, highly illogical.
While serving as first officer aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, Burnham committed an act of mutiny and was sent to prison. That’s a pretty big strike against anyone’s Starfleet career. No matter: Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, brings Burham aboard as a sort of unofficial scientist. But then things get really out of hand. She deals with old Star Trek foes, mirror-dimensional realities and a seriously nasty Starfleet AI system—one so lethal that Burnham and the Discovery decide to travel into the future to save the universe from it.
They succeeded perhaps a little too well.
As Season 3 begins, Burnham is now technically 930 years older. The Galactic Federation is long gone, and the technology that powered its lofty ideals is either gone or sputtering its last. If Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars,” the galaxy’s now the Wild West, with bandits aplenty and no cavalry in sight.
Star Trek: Discovery’s time-busting leap into the future has given new energy to the series. Instead of tip-toeing around established continuity (which is zealously defended by its very knowledgeable fans), Burnham and her cohorts now have license to truly go where no one—no one in the Star Trek universe, in any case—has gone before.
Some secular critics say that Discovery is now one of television’s most innovative shows. Even we faith-based viewers can shower a few decorations on it.
The Star Trek franchise has always set itself apart for its optimism—its belief that science paired with human (or humanoid) will and goodness will propel us into a sort of utopia. That marks it as a massive contrast to the dystopian futures that most science-fiction creators are so fond of pushing these days.
But this addition to the franchise is far from a Pollyannish acolyte of Roddenberry’s vision. Burnham and Discovery find themselves in something of a dystopian future here. And yet, in Burnham and others, the Federation’s ideals live on—even if the Federation itself is gone. That’s a pretty encouraging message for our own stressful times: Hope in Discovery, as it is here, is more an act of will than a blind wish; an act that, when paired with hard work and trust and, yes, a little bit of science, can push us toward a brighter future.
Discovery’s future, though, sports plenty of contemporary elements to navigate.
When the CBS All Access series launched in 2017, many noted that it featured the first true gay couple in the Star Trek universe: Chief Engineer Paul Stamets and Medical Officer Hugh Culber. The show itself doesn’t make a big deal out of the pair; it’s simply accepted. But certainly, it’s an unavoidable part of the show. Other couples are, naturally, part of the show as well, so a bit of smooching and a little canoodling is not unheard of.
The show’s language issues are perhaps more out of step with its ethos: While captains Kirk and Picard rarely uttered profanity while on duty, profane language is suddenly part of the galaxy again, with harsh profanities being flung without much care.
And, of course, Star Trek stories have always featured a certain amount of violence. People get shot, stabbed and occasionally eaten. The galaxy, after all, can be a dangerous place.
Discovery is, aesthetically, a solid addition to the Star Trek canon that manages to feel both familiar and new. But for those who seek to discover its virtues, this starship bears some disappointing vices, as well.
Burnham blasts 930 years into the future to, essentially, save that future. It worked, but unfortunately the Discovery—which was supposed to be following her in the time-shaking wormhole she traveled in—didn’t make it all the way. She now seeks to try to find the Discovery again. And she needs the help of a “courier” named Book to do so.
Couriers are generally a lawless lot, but Book is different than most. We learn that his cargo—which he stole from another courier—is a member of an endangered species that he’s taking to a special sanctuary. But the shapeshifting creature can be pretty dangerous in its own right: We see the thing devour a couple of attackers. It gobbles up another person, but spits the human out, leaving the victim covered in goo.
Book and Burnham trade laser fire with many assailants, and a number of humans and humanoid beings are simply vaporized. Book and Burnham also engage in hand-to-hand combat with attackers, and with each other. Burnham slugs Book in the face a few times.
Characters say the s-word twice. We also hear “b–tard” and “d–n.” Burnham is sprayed with something designed to loosen her tongue and encourage her to tell the truth. But the drug also acts as, apparently, some sort of intoxicant as well; Burnham spends much of the episode under its influence.
Book takes off his shirt and chants in a foreign language. His forehead grows and, as he chants, a beautiful, healing plant suddenly appears. (“Were you praying?” Burnham asks. “Something like,” Book tells her.) Burnham and Book steal, and someone commits an act of betrayal. Burnham vomits after her time-traveling trip. In the credits, two hands (one organic, one robotic) seem to intentionally mimic Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, wherein God’s hand touches Adam’s.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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