“Die Trying,” the fifth episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season, begins with the crew smiling.
After traveling through time from the 24th century to the 32nd century at the end of season two, the U.S.S. Discovery crew spent four episodes regrouping and searching for the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets and its military-exploration branch, Starfleet. In episode five, they finally reach their destination and marvel at the state-of-the-art ships docked there. To capture the characters’ wonder and relief, episode director Maja Vrvilo employs one of the series’ signature visual touches: a montage of reaction shots from the bridge crew.
For Star Trek: Discovery’s critics, bridge crew reaction shots encapsulate the show’s problems. Where Trek established itself as a franchise with heady concerns, Discovery is openly sentimental, often depicting its characters crying, hugging and smiling. But in the series’ third season, emotional moments enable Discovery to do what Trek has always done: comment upon our political reality.
In the (even farther) future, Discovery’s crewmembers find that their beliefs are as outdated as their tech. A mysterious cataclysm has rendered warp travel nearly impossible, and most planets have turned isolationist and hostile. With Earth and other key worlds withdrawing, the United Federation of Planets has been reduced to a weak coalition, its power vacuum filled by a criminal syndicate called the Emerald Chain. Most people simply look out for themselves, dismissing those who espouse Federation principles as “true believers,” idealists out of step with the real world.
For Americans who watched Discovery‘s third season as it was released during the final months of the Trump administration, it’s hard to miss comparisons between the beleaguered Federation and our own embattled democracy. The weekly adventures of Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her crewmates provided less of a reprieve from the news and more of an alternate perspective, one that promised that we can overcome forces that threaten our ideals. Star Trek: Discovery’s perspective is all the more important now that a new administration has begun and, with it, the work that all Americans must undertake to restore our democracy.