In most Star Trek episodes and movies, the title of the franchise tells you that one thing is pretty easy to do in the future: Space Travel. Since 1966, Trek's future worldbuilding has always made one thing pretty clear: The actual trekking through the stars is a given. Sure, sometimes Warp engines have malfunctioned, crystals refracted, and Scotty just can't give it any more than what he's got. But, by and large, the constant of Star Trek is the ability for its starships to boldly go where no one has gone before...fairly easily.
That is, until now. In addition to creating a new future-context for the Trek canon, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 has also done something the franchise has seldom touched. It has made space travel hard. In this way, Burnham and her new partner-in-crime, Book, have more in common with Han Solo and Lando Calrissian than they do with Captain Kirk and Spock. Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 1, "That Hope Is You, Part 1."
In the opening moments of "That Hope Is You, Part 1," we're introduced to the self-employed "courier" Cleveland "Book" Booker (David Ajala) and his slick-as-hell new spaceship. For the second time in 2020, a new Star Trek series has opted to put some characters on a lean-and-mean civilian-operated spaceship, instead of a huge and majestic Federation starship. The titular USS Discovery doesn't even appear in the new DISCO Season 3 launch, so the spaceship that gets the most screentime is Book's smooth new ride. With its cockpit off to the side of the main hull, Book's ship will obviously remind a Star Wars person of the Millennium Falcon, which kind of seems to be the point. Like Captain Rios' nimble freighter — the La Sirena —in Star Trek: Picard, the Trek franchise is clearly trying to get in on the world of smaller, spacecraft, rather than the more famous aircraft-carrier-sized starships.
Discovery has changed Trek space travel, probably forever
With Discovery Season 3, this spaceship action isn't just cosmetic. The entire way that people in the Trek future are even thinking about space travel is totally different now. In "That Hope Is You Part 1," Book tells Burnham all about the historical event called "the Burn," which happened about a century before he was been born. Basically, dilithium crystals, one day, all explode at the same time, which meant that probably millions of starships using warp drive were destroyed. Book also tells Burnham that the Gorn destroyed "two lightyears of subspace." This refers to a region of spacetime that allows warp speed and faster-than-light communication to be possible. And, if that wasn't bad enough, the Federation representative that Burnham and Book meet at the end of the episode, Aditya Sahil (Adil Hussian), says that "long-range sensors failed, years ago."
So what does that mean? Well, the takeaways are pretty big.
- Warp drive is harder to pull off now because dilithium is super-rare and possibly dangerous. Also, parts of subspace, where warp drive would happen; is now ruined.
- A general sense of where you are in the galaxy is kind of gone. Long-range sensors and long-range communication are sort of over.
- Traveling in space in the 32nd century of Discovery Season 3 isn't cozy. At all.
How Star Trek space travel closer to Star Wars now
In Star Wars: A New Hope, the idea of traveling through hyperspace is presented as complicated and dangerous if you don't do it right. There's also a sense, throughout the entire canon of Star Wars that it's hard to send signals over great distances without some amount of trouble. In The Empire Strikes Back, one Star Destroyer has to move out of an asteroid field just so Vader can make a holographic call to the Emperor without interference. This is nothing like Trek of the past. Although sometimes it took Uhura weeks to get a message to Starfleet command, it was possible. And by the time of The Next Generation, Picard could easily have chats with his superiors from all sorts of distant points in the galaxy, often in real-time. But now, all of that convenience seems to be gone for the Trek status-quo. In Discovery, communication is more short range. If the people you want aren't in the nearby sectors, you can't talk to them.
The mapping of space in Star Wars versus Star Trek is also more similar now. Although Trek makes a big deal about exploring and boldly going, by the time of DS9 and the latter-half of TNG, you had a good sense where pretty much everything was, at least on the Federation half of the galaxy. Yes, the Gamma Quadrants and the Delta Quadrants were unknown regions, but you could still point to the map and say, here's where all that unknown stuff is. But, that's not really the case anymore. This, inherently makes Trek more like Wars, again. If you just look at the sequel trilogy alone, incomplete maps, and half-assed astrogation makes-up like 80 percent of why anything happens at all.
Finally, Star Trek and Star Wars now have similar space "fuel" problems. In Solo we learned that the hyper-fuel know as coaxium is not only super-rare but also, kind of control much of the galactic economy. In Discovery Season 3, the scarcity of dilithium crystals is pretty much the same thing.
There's still one big difference
So, now that the space travel in Star Trek feels a little more rough-and-tumble, is it basically the same as Star Wars, at least in the setting? Well, no. Setting aside any of the political stuff in the two galaxies, Star Trek is different because it's always been a little preoccupied with poking a stick about its status-quo of space travel. I mean, it wasn't until 2018 that Star Wars even gave a name to its space fuel. Star Trek has been talking about problems with the anti-matter and the dilithium crystals since The Original Series. In other words, even though being able to say "Engage!" and jump into warp is a given in most Trek stories, the narrative of the shows has often dipped-into alternative forms of propulsion. On top of that, in The Next Generation episode "Force of Nature" (written Expanse producer Nareen Shankar) the franchise suggested pretty strongly that warp engines were probably ripping apart the galaxy. This idea was mostly left alone, but in Discovery Season 2, Stamets does mention that dilithium mining is really bad for the environments of most planets, which echoes similar moral questions about dilithium mining from The Original Series episode, "Mirror, Mirror."
Star Trek is poised to tell stories about the environmental and economic impacts of different kinds of space travel, whereas, Star Wars really isn't. In some ways, the alternative method of space travel on the USS Discovery — the Spore Drive – is now more relevant than ever. Plus, Discovery has made the big galaxy-altering event — "the Burn" — directly related to how starships usually do their star-trekking. Some of this is table-setting for the new world of 3188, but because the Spore Drive and the mycelial network has been such a big part of Discovery since the beginning, it seems unlikely that Burnham and the crew are just going to accept that they live in a world where being reliant on a dwindling natural resource is okay.
Does that mean Discovery is going to say something about fossil fuels and the environment, but through the metaphor of starships and warp drive? It certainly looks that way.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 airs new episodes on Thursdays on CBS All Access.