With the launch of Discovery Season 3, the Trek franchise gets to have it both ways when it comes to honoring that complicated continuity and letting it all go. The season premiere sees Michael Burnham arrive in the year 3188, well beyond any point the franchise has ever visited. Fans have known this was coming since the end of Season 2, but now that it's actually here, it's clear Discovery Season 3 is the biggest Star Trek reboot since J.J. Abrams took the reins in 2009.
But this reboot might be even bigger.
Warning! Light spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 1 — which you can watch now on CBS All Access.
Inverse caught up with Olatunde Osunsanmi, director of the premiere and a creative force behind the show since Season 1. He says that if the episode feels like a huge game-changer, that's because it is.
"We were hitting a major reset button," Osunsanmi tells Inverse. "We’re going further in the future than any other Star Trek show, and we have the technology to introduce, and how the characters interact with the world around them — but also a different tone."
If you'd never seen an episode of Discovery, the first episode of Season 3 would not be a terrible place to start. Just like a potential new viewer, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds herself in a place that is totally unfamiliar and has to rely on a stranger, a dashing space courier named Book (David Ajala) to give her the deets on what the 31st century is all about.
As all the trailers have made clear, this future is lacking Trek's one big overarching constant — the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet. Burnham quickly learns her benevolent government and the noble organization she works for isn't really much of a thing in the year 3188.
Book mocks Burnham in the way someone who doesn't get Star Trek might gently tease a devoted fan. "Sometimes you see guys with one of those badges getting all worked up about the Federation... true believers," Book says with a wry smile.
The premise sounds dark on paper, but the episode itself is anything but. There's a buoyancy to this new season that feels far less self-conscious than the previous two. Sure, this future seems a little messy, but the show is not dark. It's a refreshing change.
"I really worked hard to find the humor, land the jokes, the fun of this new relationship, and the fun of being in this new and strange world," Osunsanmi says. "There’s a lot of dark material in there, but we don’t want it to be a dark show. Book is a character who has had a lot of things happen to him, but he's very jovial in a swashbuckler way."
Osunsanmi doesn't make the comparison, but Book feels closer to Lando Calrissian than any previous Star Trek regular. But Book isn't in it for himself or for money. This is Star Trek. There's always going to be a slightly optimistic twist, even when you think a plot is going to go a certain way.
In Discovery Season 1, Osunsanmi directed an episode with the frightening title "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not For the Lamb's Cry," in which the audience thinks that a monster nicknamed "Ripper" is a mindless killing machine. But, in the end, we learn that Ripper was a giant mutated Tardigrade and the victim of circumstance. This kind of hopeful Trek plot twist can be traced all the way back to the original series, and it happens again in the Discovery Season 3 debut. Throughout the episode, you think Book is some kind of heartless smuggler, but it turns out he's actually transporting an endangered alien animal — a Tranceworm — to a safe habitat on another planet.
This twist in Episode 1 is a good way of forecasting what fans can expect for at least the first four episodes of Discovery Season 3. For the first time in a very long time, this Star Trek series is focused on actually exploring the galaxy, and so the premiere episode — filmed entirely in Iceland — has a sweeping cinematic feeling of openness that contrasts with the more claustrophobic settings of previous big Discovery episodes, including the Season 2 finale. The series is called Star Trek: Discovery, but by the end of the first episode, the title starship is still missing.
"How do we really capture the scope of what it is to be in a brand-new time period in a brand new world, in a universe we haven’t quite seen before?" Osunsanmi says. "We kept coming back to Lawrence of Arabia. We didn't want to get those close-up shots too close. We wanted to see that terrain."
Without spoiling too much, the rest of the season embraces the swashbuckling feeling that Osunsanmi describes. While it took half of the first season of Discovery for members of the crew to beam down to a strange new world, the new season finds the characters exploring planets – some familiar, some not – seemingly every single episode. In this way, Discovery has rebooted the Star Trek universe by simply deciding to re-explore it from a fresh perspective. In 2009, J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman made Star Trek fresh by creating an alternate universe. Now, 11 years later, as the producer overseeing all of Trek on TV, Kurtzman has pulled off something similar with Discovery Season 3. But, instead of a bizzaro dimension populated by funhouse mirror versions of fan favorites, the far future setting avoids the traps of fan service and nostalgia more than any sci-fi legacy property has managed in years.
That said, there are certain puzzles leftover from previous Discovery-centric adventures that may or may not play out in Season 3. Back in 2018, Osunsanmi directed the Michael Chabon-penned Short Treks episode "Calypso," which depicted an abandoned version of the USS Discovery in the far future. Will we see this future come to pass in Discovery Season 3? Did Star Trek always know it was headed to this point?
"Alex [Kurtzman] had always teased this idea that we would make a major jump into the future," Osunsanmi says. "But, did I know that everything in 'Calypso' would make its way into the future now? I didn't know."
As Season 3 unfolds, Osunsanmi also wants fans to be careful in assuming they already know how certain things might play out with the USS Discovery based on the future hints from "Calypso."
"It's not a one-for-one. What we see in 'Calypso' isn't going to necessarily happen throughout the rest of the season," he says. "I mean, we're fans too. And we are excited to tell stories in this new world and answer that big question: What does the future of Trek look like?"
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 airs new episodes on Thursdays on CBS All Access.