It was a truism among the “Star Trek” fandom for years that the best Trek series did not come into their own until season three. This was certainly true for “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine,” which both suffered from rocky beginnings, albeit for different reasons. But that assumption has since been tested by CBS All Access. “Star Trek: Discovery” launched in 2017 with the best pilot in franchise history to date, and “Star Trek: Picard” followed this past winter with a first season full of the sort of self-assuredness that comes from a lead who has spent the bulk of his career in the franchise. Even so, Discovery’s first season failed to keep up with its high-flying pilot. The good news? “Discovery’s” new season proves the third season may be the charm for "Star Trek" after all.
“Star Trek: Discovery” (affectionately known as “DISCO” to fans) certainly came out swinging in 2017. It kind of had to.
“Star Trek: Discovery” (affectionately known as “DISCO” to fans) certainly came out swinging in 2017. It kind of had to; executives had very clearly identified the show as the main vehicle for fledgling streaming service CBS All Access. CBS’ streaming service was light years ahead of its peers back in 2014, before Disney+ was a twinkle in Bob Iger’s eye. But it was also ahead of its audience, with a measly 1.2 million users on the eve of “Discovery’s” delayed launch. “DISCO’s” confident arrival was a welcome jumpstart, but by February of 2020, in the wake of “Picard’s” debut, CBS still only boasted about 11 million subscribers after six years. For those keeping track, that’s a hair above the number Disney+ launched with. And even this number includes other Viacom subscription services, like Showtime. A rebrand is now in the works, and come 2021, CBS All Access will attempt a rebirth as Paramount+.
“DISCO” does not have the ability to rebrand itself wholesale, but season three might as well be a reboot. The series has experienced issues since its highly publicized arrival, with four different configurations of showrunners over three seasons. Onscreen the ship mostly sails smoothly, but a closer inspection reveals the cracks. Brilliant twists, like the first season's mirror universe reveal, has been accompanied by a failure to deliver on the show’s progressive ideals. Moreover, the show was stuck going where it had already gone before. The original idea of “DISCO” as an anthology series was lost in the showrunner shuffle, leaving the series stuck in the 2250s (just a scant few years before the original 1960s “Star Trek” was set) and threatening decades of longstanding Trek canon.
But while problematic plotlines and historical meddling were bad, “DISCO’s” biggest issue was its own gritty self-image. The last “Star Trek” series to air, “Enterprise,” was canceled in early 2005, just ahead of the prestige TV era. When CBS revived the show, the franchise’s original “planet of the week” episodic structure was no longer trendy, and certainly not for shows hoping to be both critical and ratings hits. So “DISCO” abandoned the format.
Season three corrects nearly all these problems. At the very end of season two, the starship Discovery and Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) are each thrown through a wormhole (separately) into the future — far, far into the future, to the year 3188. This setting makes for the most futuristic “Star Trek” to date, complete with unexplainable and mindblowing technology, as all good “Star Treks” should have. It also gives the crew an entirely new storyline to play with: a world that’s changed without them, and a Federation that’s all but disappeared.
The series has remembered that it’s ok to be “Star Trek,” and that those more procedural planetary adventures can still help drive the overall arc.
But most impressively, the series has remembered that it’s ok to be “Star Trek,” and that those more procedural planetary adventures can still help drive the overall arc. Indeed, in the first four episodes, the Discovery team travels to four different locations, exploring the new configuration of the galaxy as God and Gene Roddenberry intended.
By going back to a more classic format, the series manages to combine its darker side with more hopeful vibes. The Discovery is now a ship out of time, standing alone as a beacon of hope and ready and willing to journey to unforgiving places, including an Earth that no longer remembers such aspirational ideals. The show has some uneven patches, even as it continues to break barriers in casting inclusivity. But at least now the foundation is solid. “DISCO” has finally found a balance between the prestige TV series it wishes to be, and the “Star Trek” series that it’s based in.
And just in time too. Viacom and CBS are going all in on the Trek franchise as part of that aforementioned Paramount+ rebrand. Besides “DISCO,” “Picard” and the recently launched animated comedy “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” there are three new franchise shows confirmed. These include “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” (a Pike and Spock show that will carefully try to fix the canon damage between “DISCO” and “TOS”), “Star Trek: Section 31” (a spy vs. spy series) and “Star Trek: Prodigy” (a preteen show for Viacom’s kiddie channel Nickelodeon). The goal is to have year-round Trek — and prevent fans from getting bored and unsubscribing between seasons. “DISCO’s” rebirth is a reminder of the best way to do that: go boldly where no one has gone before.