The third season of Star Trek: Discovery takes science-fiction’s most popular utopian franchise and turns it into a compelling, resonant dystopian epic without sacrificing one iota of the hope or idealism on which Star Trek was built. The fact that this story about people finding their way back from an isolating disaster, filmed mostly in 2019, happened to first land in the middle of the 2020 pandemic when we needed it so badly is the mint frosting on the cellular peptide cake.

The Show (light spoilers)

For its first two seasons, Discovery was a prequel to the original Star Trek series, set in the decade leading up to the televised adventures of Kirk’s Enterprise. At the end of Discovery‘s second season, for reasons that don’t need exploration at this juncture, science officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) led the Discovery and her crew through a temporal wormhole, landing 930 years in their future. The new season opens with Michael arriving in the future alone and cut off from her friends. She forms an alliance with a courier called Book, who will become the Han Solo to her Princess Leia in all the right ways. Michael also finds that this new time period is shockingly different from the universe she left. 

The benevolent United Federation of Planets has been decimated after a mysterious disaster made travel and communication between distant solar systems all but impossible. Without the regular exchange of food, medicine and ideas, the Federation’s post-scarcity society crumbled. Capitalism has come roaring back and with it the wealth inequality that leaves many scraping to survive and a few hoarding resources for themselves. 

In time, Michael and her crew are reunited. They find additional allies and set out to learn if anything of the Federation that they fought for still exists. Whether friends or foes, the people of this new time see Discovery’s crew as clinging to an impossible fantasy, a way of life that just doesn’t make sense in their reality. It puts the characters in the same position as many of us fans, who sincerely believe we can build a Federation-like world beyond capitalism.

Yes, it’s a little meta, in the way that Star Trek always has been — simply and earnestly. Trek says we can build better societies with a place for every kind of person and proves it by casting the kind of people ignored by most of Hollywood. In the tradition of Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in the 1960s, Discovery brings in two new crew members: Adira, played by non-binary actor Blu del Barrio, and Gray, played by trans and non-binary actor Ian Alexander. Adira and Gray’s story at times teeters between a successful sci-fi metaphor for real-life struggles of LGBTQ people and an echo of the familiar trauma we’ve seen centered too often in their stories. Still, with queer showrunner Michelle Paradise at the helm, we have faith in where the journey is ultimately taking these characters, and the connections that form between Adira, Gray and Discovery’s crew are a joy to behold.

It’s not quite a perfect season. The big bad, Osyraa (Janet Kidder), feels one-note at times, and the makeup does her no favors. The show tried a new approach to its Orion characters; once these aliens simply wore green face paint, but now the actors have silicone prosthetics to give them more texture and make them look a little less human. It’s an interesting concept in theory, but in practice it gives Osyraa in particular a Botox problem, robbing her of significant shades of expression. On the other hand, a late episode confrontation with Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns) adds fascinating layers to her motivation. The final trilogy of episodes is unusually paced, but its two parallel plots moving at subjectively different speeds works much better on a second viewing.

In any case, these quibbles are relatively minor next to everything Discovery‘s third season does so very well. Other highlights include a two-part epic focused on the incredible Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), big changes for our favorite Starfleet officer ever, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), and even more chances for nerds to save the day with collaborative science. Even though Discovery is the first Trek series to be centered on a “protagonist” character in Michael rather than a captain, it’s also one of TV’s best examples of ensemble storytelling. History’s real progress isn’t made by individuals, but by groups and connections. Michael’s growth is brilliant to watch (and Martin-Green is a treasure). But even when she’s playing John McClane in the Jefferies tubes, success never rests on her shoulders alone. The story is built around a team with members that each get their moments to step up and shine bright.

That’s how the crew of Discovery wins. It’s also how the show manages to pull off a dystopian setting without sacrificing the things that make Star Trek matter — because it turns out the Federation was never a utopia anyway. Even in its heyday, it was never perfect. It just looked a lot more perfect from our 20th- and 21st-century standpoints because they’d built a society that prioritized long lives and prosperity for everyone over maximizing the profits of the few. The point of Star Trek isn’t to dazzle us with an utopian fantasy. It’s to remind us that better societies are possible if we commit to them and work for them even if the rest of the galaxy thinks it can’t be done.

Special Features

On Blu-ray and DVD, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 boasts two hours of extras, including deleted scenes, a gag reel, video diaries from Paradise and Martin-Green, and short features on Discovery’s fantastic bridge crew ensemble, stunts, actor Kenneth Mitchell and the season as a whole.

Those last couple of features illuminate well how Trek lives its ideals on both sides of the camera. One section of the season overview details how Discovery’s producers set out to cast a non-binary actor and then adapted Adira’s story to prioritize what the actor needed in their own gender identity journey. Similarly, “Kenneth Mitchell: To Boldly Go” features a Discovery cast member diagnosed with ALS after portraying multiple Klingon characters in seasons one and two. The crew not only created a new disabled character for Mitchell to portray, they also built a unique wheelchair so he could be at eye level with other actors and still work comfortably for long days on set. The story is largely told by Mitchell himself, speaking emotionally to the effects of both the work and Star Trek’s philosophies on his life and his family.

Take My Money

The music by composer Jeff Russo is gorgeous. That’s been true every season but it’s especially impressive here. While principal filming for this season was completed prior to the pandemic, the score was recorded in isolation by individual musicians in their homes, with each track later combined to achieve the full orchestral effect. The Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 soundtrack is available now wherever you get your digital music.

The story of Michael and Book’s adventures in between the season’s first couple of episodes is also explored in Una McCormack’s excellent novel, Wonderlands.

Rachael and John Derrick both grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation but have very different opinions on Data. Under the name John Clifford, John wrote and directed a one-act play, The Dream in Question, as well as several short plays for sci-fi conventions. He grew a Riker beard during lockdown and Rachael insisted he keep it. Rachael worked in journalism and international education before becoming a therapist, a choice that had almost nothing to do with her infatuation with Deanna Troi. They live with their son and two cats in Indianapolis. Their first novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman reliving her teenage life with brand-new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.