Did I keep my podcast posts up to date? I did not. Let’s not get into the question of who is responsible (me) or why that person (me) failed (laziness).
Let’s move on to the really important question: did I like season three of Discovery, and do I have things to say about it?
The answers are yes, and yes.
What I liked
Almost everything! But let’s break it down.
First, season 3 was consistent. It carried the same themes — of connection, of trust, of the need to face difficult truths in order to move forward — throughout, finding different ways to tell similar stories. Even the two-episode diversion to the mirror universe maintained the pattern.
Not by coincidence, season 3 also marks Discovery‘s first season without a change of showrunner partway through. I didn’t care much for Michelle Paradise’s contributions to season 2 (it was she who decided it was necessary to kill Admiral Kat, which I’m still not over), but it turns out she’s very good when she gets to tell her own story instead of a hodgepodge of other people’s ideas. As the season went on, I increasingly felt like the writers room knew what they were doing — and this time, I wasn’t disappointed in the end.
The Federation as infrastructure
Way back in season one, Discovery opens with Michael and Captain Georgiou on a mission to save a pre-warp civilisation from an environmental disaster, followed by an assignment to repair a damaged subspace array.
I kept thinking of that as season 3 unfolded and it became clear that the Federation’s collapse wasn’t just an empire falling (which can be sad, but is also inevitable), but the loss of the infrastructure that kept people connected, whether that’s high speed space travel, interstellar communications or sensors. Rome’s infrastructure outlived its empire, but the Federation, as Michael says in episode 1, is people, and if they have no means of communicating, the whole system falls apart.
And we’re back to that subspace relay in “The Vulcan Hello”.
Someone who is smarter than me can probably get something out of this about the inherent weakness of technocracies, and please let me know when you do, so I can read it. I’m just here for the worldbuilding, and the way the Federation breaks down into its component parts of individual worlds, or is replaced all together by a capitalist hellscape.
The Federation as a deeply flawed entity
One of the themes in season one was that utopias aren’t a one and done event. They require maintenance (like infrastructure!) and choices, and the real challenge is not letting one’s decisions be driven by fear.
Season 3 revisits this idea, both in the present and the recent past. We learn that, even before the Burn, the dilithium shortage was driving the Federation to measures sufficiently extreme that Ni’Var — the founding planet once known as Vulcan — left all together. There’s a common mythology across the galaxy of the Federation as sanctuary and utopia, but also a strong sense — from sources both reliable and otherwise — that it cannot be trusted.
I’ve spent many years and many blog posts pointing out all the ways the Federation doesn’t live up to its ideals. That’s not to say I think the universe is better off without it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge its flaws — how else can it improve?
It was notable to me that, as the season unfolded, we learned that, while founding worlds and long-time members like the Trill left the Federation, or simply disengaged with it, its newer members like the Kelpiens and the Barzans (neither of whom were warp capable when last we saw them) were doing the work of seeking dilithium sources and running seed ships. And when we do finally get to Federation headquarters, it’s literally in a bubble, inured from the chaos which has overtaken much of the galaxy. There’s a strong sense that — like many an empire before it — the Federation has diminished, becoming complacent.
We see that especially in episode 12, when Osyraa presents her terms to Admiral Vance. She wants the Federation to legitimise capitalism — and yes, in exchange the Emerald Chain will abandon slavery and stop interfering with pre-warp civilisations, but just that first step would have been anathema to, say, Captain Picard.
Now, I like Admiral Vance a lot. He’s no Kat Cornwell, and he was not entirely consistent over the season, but I really enjoyed Oded Fehr’s performance (and also his extraordinary handsomeness) as a basically decent man living through challenging times. And I don’t think he was wrong to entertain Osyraa’s proposition — but it’s notable that the point where he pushes back is a lot further down the path of compromise than the Federation would have allowed in the 23rd or 24th centuries.
ALL THIS IS TO SAY, it’s not coincidence that what ultimately destroyed the Federation was not an enemy attack, or a timey-wimey anomaly, or even the ghost of Jonathan Archer, but their own failure to rescue one lost child.
Let’s talk about my green, mean queen
Is Osyraa a rich, multi-layered character? Not really.
Do I love her regardless? Hell yes.
2020/21 has been a great time for Orion representation. Between D’Vana Tendi on Lower Decks and Osyraa here, Orion women have finally been written as people rather than sex objects. It only took, oh, fifty-five years.
I wish we had learned more about the political side of Osyraa’s life, rather than finding out in the last minute that the Emerald Chain is not just a green-themed team of pirates but an actual political entity with, like, a government and stuff. (I always want more space politics.)
But I also enjoyed what we got: a charismatic, unapologetically cruel space pirate who is competent and terrifying and yet ALSO a second-rate Georgiou. Even her costuming reflects that — unlike the Emperor, Osyraa’s leather outfits are ill-fitting and cheap looking.
(I respect the work that went into ensuring that she and Georgiou never met, because that would have wrapped up the finale very quickly, but I’m also a bit disappointed.)
And I like that Osyraa loses her alliance because she failed the season’s test: she could not move forward to face an ugly truth — in this case, justice for her crimes.
Michael. That’s the subheading.
I was about to write a whole thing about Michael and the captaincy, but then I remembered I already said it.
Here’s my response, which I’m copying here because my Tumblr is locked to people who aren’t logged in. (It’s a long story.)
The whole series has been about readying Michael for the captain’s chair, but the second half of season 3 was where she started levelling up really fast.
Like, last year, she couldn’t make the hard call and kill Airiam. This year, Vance calls her out on it, asking if she’d be able to make a hard choice when it comes to Georgiou. As it turns out, Michael doesn’t have to — but she does two episodes later, when she needs to send Paul away.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism for that decision — the Vulture reviewer said it was a regression in character development back to the premiere; related, I’ve stopped reading the Vulture reviews. But it was the right thing to do.
At the same time, it’s reasonable for Paul to be furious, and to have some lingering resentment over it. That’s the sort of organic character conflict that TNG needed.
That Michael loves her crew has never been in doubt. It took her a while to get there after the trauma of the Battle at the Binary Stars, but by the end of season one, she was ready to die for them. But it’s taken her a lot longer to understand that they would also die for her — and sometimes, she may need them to.
(Which isn’t an easy thing to learn! It’s not coincidence that one of her mentors is Chris Pike, who is introduced in “The Cage” burned out and depressed after the death of an officer. If a captain can easily accept the death of a crewman, they’re a bad captain. But they do need to accept it.)
And I love OP’s second point, “Needs of the Many Balanced with the Needs of the Few”. This is so important to season 3 — the Ni’Var president even says that Vulcans have moved on from seeing the world that way. Su’Kal was one child, but the Federation’s failure to rescue him almost destroyed them. And Osyraa could have had her alliance, if only she had been willing to sacrifice herself for justice.
It’s all about balance. And, as one of Michael’s less-admiral mentors remarked, context is king. She gets that now. And she’s gonna be great.
What I did not care for
Just because I loved this season doesn’t mean I don’t have any criticisms. I mean, have you ever met a Trekkie?
Here’s a few:
- I love that this is a season about acknowledging fear, and about understanding that it’s okay to have a learning curve and to make mistakes. In my podcast I called it a season that values emotional intelligence over logic, and I stand by that, and I think it’s great.
- However, I remain unconvinced that Saru was actually any good at being captain. In the podcast, Anika described him as a character who cares more about being perceived as captainly than being a good captain, and I agree. And that’s a really interesting flaw! One that’s completely worth exploring, and which makes a lot of sense for Saru, who has always been an overachiever to compensate for his pre-warp origins. I’m just not convinced the writers are doing it deliberately.
- There were a lot of un-earned emotional moments. A big one is the final send-off for Georgiou at the end of “Terra Firma” — it makes sense that Saru, Michael and even Tilly have feelings about her departure, but I wanted just one bridge officer to go, “Honestly, she made me uncomfortable and I’m sorry that you guys are sad, but I’m not gonna miss her.”
- Another thing I have ranged about at length in podcast form: the bridge crew are like fetch; the show needs to stop trying to make them happen.
- There are moments when I feel they’ve earned their prominence — the finale used them really well — but mostly I’m like, “Why are we looking at these people?”
- It doesn’t help that the most prominent among them are the two white women, Detmer and Nilsson. I don’t mind Detmer; she’s been around since the Shenzhou. But it turns out that I really dislike the personality she’s been given, and the way her relationship with Owosekun is entirely one-sided on Owo’s part. And Nilsson doesn’t even get a personality at all. It feels like she’s just there because someone thinks the show needs a slim, conventionally attractive white woman.
- Every single time someone said, “let’s show them who we are”, or a variation, I was like, “overcompensation much?” The people who wrote Disco off in season 1 as “dark and gritty” aren’t going to be persuaded, no matter how obvious you make it.
- Overall I feel like the season corrected a lot of last season’s errors, but it still didn’t feel great to have two men tell Michael off for Saving Everyone But In The Wrong Way in “Scavengers”. I think because the dressings down were public? That felt like an episode where everyone was in the wrong, and only Michael handled it with grace.
- Not enough Grudge. I just think that if you promise us a giant cat, the giant cat needs to be in every episode, if not every scene.
- (Okay, this is really nitpicky, but everyone talks about Grudge as if she’s massively fat, and she’s not! She’s just big! She’s a perfectly normal size for a Maine Coon!)
- I loved Tilly as acting first officer, but I hated that it brought out every sexist jerk and actual misogynist in the fandom. Shut up, she was great.
- The new uniforms in the final scene are SUPER ugly and I hate them.
What I want for next season
- More revelations of the Federation’s failures. You know I love that sort of thing. And I think it’s important to face an institution’s flaws, rather than sweeping them under the narrative rug. I want to meet the people who have really good reason to distrust the Federation.
- More Ni’Var and Romulo-Vulcans. I love those guys. (I’m still weirded out that Picard gave us light-haired Romulans, but I’m sure I’ll get over that … one day.)
- Book meeting Gabrielle Burnham, because that promises to be HILARIOUS.
- The fallout from the collapse of the Emerald Chain, both political and in terms of … you know, where that makes the world better and where the loss of that (albeit terrible) stability makes it much, much worse.
- I’d like for Saru to take on a different role in Starfleet. For one thing, it’s taken us three seasons to get Michael in the captain’s chair, and I don’t want to see her give it up again.
- MORE GRUDGE.
Have you observed this cat? She’s great. I love her.