Michael Burnham on Star Trek Discovery

Shall We Talk About the Highs and Lows of Star Trek: Discovery Season Three?

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In its third season, Star Trek: Discovery did something unprecedented for a Star Trek series: they completely abandoned their timeline, ending up in the far-flung future. In the 32nd century, they find a universe where a mysterious event called The Burn rendered all dilithium, which powers warp drives, inert—leading to a scarcity of resources that changed everything. The Federation and Starfleet are fractured, while The Emerald Chain, a ruthlessly capitalistic syndicate of Orions and Andorians led by the leather-clad Osyraa, has risen to prominence. This is the strange new world that awaits Commander Michael Burnham and the Discovery crew.

While many of the criticisms I’ve had of Discovery in the past still hold, this season was better than the second season, and there were episodes that felt truly Star Trekian to me in a way that had seemed missing before. Discovery made room for more of its extended bridge crew to, well, do things. It gave Michael a canonical basis for character evolution, and gave her a fantastic boyfriend with a perfect cat. It gave us a boost in terms of LGBTQIA+ representation. It gave us Michelle Yeoh in all of her glory, which is a lot of glory. And vitally, in the finale’s last moments, it gave us Star Trek’s first Black lead female Captain.

So let’s talk about the highs and lows of Discovery this season. Spoilers full speed ahead.

The highs:

Michael Burnham on Star Trek Discovery

Michael Burnham is our first Black lead female Captain

That’s it. That’s the tweet.

We’ve been headed here for some time, but it was still important and thrilling to see Michael in her new uniform, taking her Captain’s seat. “Let’s fly.”

Twenty-seven years after we got our first Black Star Trek lead in Avery Brooks’ Sisko on Deep Space Nine, it’s finally a Black woman’s time in command.

Adira and Gray on Star Trek Discovery

Adira and Gray 

Discovery added two characters and talented young actors this season, which worked to increase LGBTQIA+ representation onscreen and off. Blu del Barrio, who plays Adira, is non-binary like Adira. Adira’s lost love who is in limbo, Gray, is played by trans actor Ian Alexander. Gray is the first transgender character on a Star Trek show, and that he is a Trill, a species long embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community, added extra poignancy. Episode four, “Forget Me Not,” where Adira and Michael go to Trill to explore what’s happening with Adira’s inherited symbiote, is the only time I’ve cried watching this show.

Adira has a larger role (as a whiz kid in the vein of Wesley Crusher but far less annoying), and they are played with nuance and bright-eyed intelligence by del Barrio. I was glad to see that the show gave Adira an explicit moment in which to voice that they wanted to use “they/them” pronouns, and then ensured that other characters abided by that when speaking about them. Still, it was jarring that Adira was called by female pronouns for a good portion of the season, and I wish Discovery had done much more to explore gender identity than simply mention it in passing. There was also some fan concern about Gray being introduced as essentially dead from the start, though this may change after the finale’s events.

It can be hard to add a brand-new character to an established cast, but Adira is now one of my favorite characters on Discovery, and I enjoyed the found family element of their relationship with Stamets and Culber (even if it seemed like sometimes all the queer characters were just hanging out in Engineering together—you know what, I want that show). We’ll have to see if Discovery discovers a way to make Gray corporeal again.

Michelle Yeoh on Star Trek Discovery

Michelle Yeoh, please and thank you

It would be enough to just type “Michelle Yeoh” and you’d know that’s a season high without further explanation. Yeoh has been the ace up Discovery‘s sleeve since the first season, when her initial role as the principled Captain Philippa Georgiou evolved into playing Georgiou’s mirror universe incarnation, the unscrupulous Emperor of a dark and blood-drenched empire.

As Emperor Georgiou displaced onto Discovery this season, Yeoh provided levity and badassery, always ready with an acid-tongued barb or willing to do what no one else would to save the day. Georgiou is a fascinating character played by one of the world’s most compelling actresses, and every single moment she’s onscreen is lit up. That we got to have Georgiou-centric episodes and a return to the mirror verse felt like a great escape from the pandemic, and were among the more memorable episodes of the season. (A bit sad we didn’t get another Lorca confrontation, though.) I was incredibly loath to see Yeoh go, but hopefully this means we’ll see her all the time on that Georgiou-focused Section 31 spin-off.

Book and his Cat on Discovery

Cleveland “Book” Booker

Michael’s new love interest, played by David Ajala, is hard not to love. He’s dashing, handsome, brave, supportive, a caring Empath, and he really, really loves his enormous, adorable cat Grudge. While Book seems contrived to be a love interest from the moment he and Michael meet in the future, and sometimes feels like a bit of a Han Solo send-up with his devil-may-care courier role and his Millennium Falcon-shaped ship, that’s fine. I love both Han Solo and Book, and it’s easy to see why Michael adores him.

Book’s victory over the season’s subvillain after the guy insulted his cat was one of the best moments. “SHE’S A QUEEN!”

Oded Fehr on Star Trek Discovery

Oded Fehr with silver hair in charge of Starfleet things

I have loved this man since The Mummy in 1999. What an excellent addition to the show, even if his character Admiral Charles Vance can feel like a walking forward-the-plot device.

David Ajaba on Star Trek Discovery

The future

It’s hard to completely reenvision where the Star Trek universe would be 900 years from where the show started. Discovery rose to the task of imagining not just new politics and allegiances, but also very cool advanced technology, which was integrated with seamless, impressive special effects. As always, the sets, costume design, and cinematography looked absolutely gorgeous.

David Cronenberg on Star Trek Discovery

David Cronenberg, just because

Legendary director David Cronenberg, doing whatever the hell he’s doing here. I still have no idea who or what his character is but it doesn’t really matter. Look at those glasses!

The lows

Okay, let’s talk about what didn’t work so well on Discovery’s season three.

Osyraa on Star Trek Discovery

Osyraa

I don’t think it would have been possible for me to care less about the whole Emerald Chain thing, and its underdeveloped leader Osyraa. Actress Janet Kidder did what she could with a pretty thankless, cookie-cutter villain role. It didn’t help that she basically had to look like the Wicked Witch of the West the whole time.

While Discovery attempted to give Osyraa some layers at the very end, she quickly flattened them again. It’s nice to have a female leader and villain, but the Emerald Chain was such a grasping, clunky monster of capitalism and exploitation. Nothing that Osyraa or the Chain did made much sense and seemed to change moment by moment to just set up the next scene that would require a heroic turn from someone else.

Su'kal on Star Trek Discovery

The Burn

The idea that all dilithium in the universe mysteriously went inert at the same moment is a fascinating plot jumping-off point. How do countless people and societies react and recover from a shared galaxy-wide event that changes all transportation and access to resources? The extrapolations and fall-outs for some civilizations, like the Vulcans and Romulans, were also interesting.

But the eventual cause of this massive galaxy-changing event being the grief of a mutated five-year-old? It may be that 2020 just left me cold and dead inside, but I didn’t find the execution of the Su’Kal plotline to be as moving or revelatory as Discovery wanted it to be. The pacing that revealed that story, both shoehorned in at the end and too drawn-out over episodes as it was intercut with so much action elsewhere, left me saying “hmm.”

Sphere data droids on Discovery

The Sphere Data

After causing so much trouble in the second season, that all-important, all-powerful sphere data that Discovery went into the future for is reduced to … showing 20th century Earth black-and-white movies for the crew and inhabiting WALL-E-esque droids with cute voices? There was a moment this season when it seemed like the sphere data had totally changed the nature of Discovery’s computer system in a way that would prove vital and interesting, but then … not so much?

Saru and Tilly on Star Trek Discovery

Who is really on Discovery?

Michael finally got a chance to loosen up a bit this season, after she spent an offscreen year zooming around the galaxy with Book. And then she got to really be in love! That was lovely to see. The show also gave some other characters a little space for growth and time in the spotlight, notably my beloved Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), and also Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who seemed an eye-rolling choice for Saru’s Number One but then pulled it off with conviction, if not exactly plausibility.

But there’s still so much focus on Michael and what she’s doing at all times that we lose the chance to connect more with other characters. While Owo (Oyin Oladejo) and Detmer (Emily Coutts) got more to do this season than ever before, we don’t really know anything about them or their internal lives. They get far more intriguing things to do in the mirror verse! Three seasons in, we also don’t know very much about what drives the other members of the bridge crew. They’re just kind of there, doing bridge crew things.

The show still puts 97% of all action and decision-making on Michael’s shoulders to make or break. Michael is a fantastic character, and actress Sonequa Martin-Green is a veritable goddess. It’s amazing that we have such a strong and capable female lead character. I just wish that Michael didn’t have to shoulder every burden all the time. Give her a nice vacation on Risa with Book and Grudge the cat at some point, please. I’ve been banging these pots and pans for years, but Discovery’s crew could really benefit from a Ten Forward or a Quark’s bar-type place for people to kick back and just talk. We almost never see any kind of recreation or folks in a not-death-defying situation, and that’s exhausting for everyone involved.

It sure also seems like maybe Saru is off the ship for good at the end of the finale? The great Doug Jones probably has a very busy schedule, but if he’s really gone, I will miss him.

Star Trek Discovery crew season 3

Insta-revelations

Despite finally deepening some of the characterization and interactions between the crew, Discovery still suffers from a syndrome we see all too often in movies, where characters seem to change their minds and lifelong motivations after they hear an inspirational speech or find out one new fact. Like far too many things on Discovery, character pursuits and plots that could have been complex and multi-layered receive an ultimately pat and simplistic conclusion.

These lows aside, I did enjoy this season a good deal more than season two, even if it ended up feeling like a very long Star Trek: Discovery film, complete with whizzing turbo lifts and a hand-to-hand villain final fight. I’ll be interested to see what happens in the future with Michael in the Captain’s chair and, in theory, a more space-faring, discovering-strange-new-worlds mission. And keep those ship’s cats coming.

(images: CBS All Access)

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.