Few, if any, slate-clearing series reboots have been as extreme (or contrived) as Discovery's jump forward in time 931 years to the year 3188 in order to (deep breath) hide a cache of indestructible, self-aware data from an evil artificial intelligence whose acquisition of that data would mean certain galactic Armageddon. I mean, that is something. The writers either wanted to get as far away from the show's original pre-TOS setting as possible, or they had some new things they wanted to explore in the very-far-flung future of the Trekkian universe. They clearly weren't interested in a mild or middle-ground shakeup.
The brand-spankin' new thing they apparently want to do is an official Star Trek remake of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. (The premise of Andromeda's post-Commonwealth fall was itself simply a way of telling a post-Federation story outside the actual Trek universe.) The news of the Federation's fall is gradually revealed in "That Hope Is You, Part 1" an episode that arrives at the season's new mission statement (let's re-establish the Federation!) by the end of the episode but, on the whole, is a pretty unremarkable but okay hour. As slow-burn establishing material goes, this is average.
One of the frustrations of the episode is indeed intentional: It gives us a strictly-Burnham-focused POV (how novel for this series!) and we don't see the USS Discovery at all. (Episode 2 will reportedly focus on Discovery's POV of arriving in the 32nd century.) We get oriented to the new setting through Burnham's arrival through the space-time wormhole and her crash-landing on the planet Hima, rather than Terralysium, which was the expected destination. Her crash in the angel suit (which is destroyed in the process) also takes down the ship of Cleveland "Book" Booker (new cast member David Ajala), a courier trafficking in mysterious cargo. The two reluctantly team up after first surviving their Introductory Action-Fight Sequence (against, naturally, each other).
The direction and Sonequa Martin-Green push too hard with the viscera of the situation at times, providing numerous examples of Burnham's Excessive Emoting, particularly after she crash-lands and discovers she's alone, and also when Book tells her that the Federation collapsed about 150 years ago (which she can't believe, although, let's face it: 900 years is a really long time and such a thing should never have been considered out of the realm of possibility when leaving the 22nd century).
The collapse of the Federation happened following a cataclysmic mystery called "the Burn" — in which most of the galaxy's dilithium suddenly destabilized and exploded or something, bringing the end to most warp travel and, shortly thereafter, the Federation and Starfleet. The details around this are sketchy (or I simply missed them) — like how prevalent warp travel is now or if there are alternative fuel sources to dilithium (which still exists in some capacity, albeit as a rare commodity). Clearly warp travel still exists in some regard, or there wouldn't be much trekking among the stars.
The most striking thing about "That Hope Is You" is the gorgeous location photography, beginning with Burnham's landing on a stark landscape that looks like a mountain of coal and continuing on to a coastal vista that's both beautiful and harsh. These are what you call production values, and this series rarely disappoints on that front. The future post-any-other-Trekkian-era technology allows this show to exist where it has always wanted to — in a VFX world beyond what previous series had shown us (even while Discovery itself was previously taking place before them).
What's less thrilling here are the rather perfunctory beats of the plot, which take us into a trading post where Book and other couriers like him peddle their wares. Book double-crosses Burnham, then Burnham double-crosses him back and punches him in the face, then they both end up on the run from some rival couriers (an Andorian and an Orion and their henchmen) who want something Book has. This leads to some frenetic action that at times plays like a 1980s video game shooter, in which a seemingly endless supply of bad guys (using this century's portable transporter equipment) beam right in front of our escaping heroes, who blast them into dust immediately. No explanation is given as to why Book and Burnham (B&B?) have to keep making successive transports rather than just one; chalk it up to the action's needs du juor, I guess. Book finally leads the bad guys to his ship under duress, where they attempt to take possession of a large CGI creature that is evidently very rare and valuable, but which he is able to turn loose to eat them.
At the very least, this story remains light on its feet. Burnham gets sprayed in the face with a truth serum that makes her very honest and very high, which allows Martin-Green to play some goofier insane comic notes, which I guess shows that the series is not taking its plotting too seriously, which is the right decision considering the limited ingenuity on display.
In terms of substance and gravitas, the story earns some points when Book takes Burnham to one of the few remaining Federation outposts, manned by a Starfleet representative who was born long after Starfleet officially disappeared and who does not even claim to be an actual officer. This man has been hoping and waiting for a long, long time for the day someone would arrive to reclaim the mantle of the Federation. He tells Burnham that day is today, and "that hope is you." It's an admittedly corny conceit (what, doesn't this guy have any dreams to do anything other than sit in an office floating in space waiting for the most unlikely of payoffs?), but damn if this show doesn't sell it with earnestness and its unfurling of a long-tucked-away Federation flag.
Whether this season will actually be about something is a good question — I'm not forgetting how Andromeda squandered its central premise, or how absurd Discovery has been in past seasons with its mammoth, comic-book stakes — but hopefully it can muster a little more imagination, subtlety, and exploration. And because the central thesis is about rebuilding something (where the Bad Thing has already happened) rather than stopping a ticking clock, hopefully that will recalibrate this series and it can learn from past mistakes. Discovery has been lousy at world building — the storytelling scope has often been microscopic — but that's going to be even more important to the series now than ever. This episode does the job of getting us into the 32nd century, but we don't get to see much of it here, and that will need to quickly change in the coming episodes for this season to be successful.
Some other thoughts:
- Book is a conservationist (trying to return the creatures in his cargo bay to nature, rather than exploiting them) and has some odd superhuman powers to go along with a mysterious spirituality. He's a promising character well played by David Ajala, though I hope he gets better plot material than "rogue courier running around."
- I sincerely hope the mysterious Burn does not become something which this season, later in the game, uses to needlessly up the stakes into possible galactic destruction. The Burn was in the past, and although I'd like to learn more about it, I hope it remains there.
- Expect somewhat shorter reviews this season. Maybe. I know; I say this every year.
- It feels like it's been about 900 years (or at least 900 days) since I last wrote to you all, back when COVID-19 had just started to get serious here in the U.S. and my kids had been home from their closed schools for all of a couple weeks, and we were all still wondering just how this all was going to go. So, um, yeah. Seven months later. To quote Pete Campbell: Not great, Bob. How are you all doing?
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