Star Trek: Discovery tackles the coronavirus pandemic (metaphorically)

Star Trek Discovery uniforms

Star Trek: Discovery will take on a grimmer tone as it hits upon the same themes as we all encountered in the pandemic. 

Michael Gibson/CBS

Last year, Star Trek: Discovery jumped nearly 1,000 years into the future in the biggest shake-up in the franchise’s history. So how does the show follow that act? It’ll take on, at least metaphorically, the coronavirus pandemic in the form of a galactic-wide threat that promises to deal some serious damage. 

A trailer for the new season teases a “gravitational anomaly” that’s five light years across (a new one from last month offers even more details). It’s massive, mysterious and threatens everyone. Sound familiar?

“What I found really interesting about this season is how collectively this group of people have to deal with trauma,” David Ajala, who plays Cleveland Booker, the roguish ally of Discovery introduced last season, said in a cast interview held last month. “You will see every character having to dig a bit deeper than they’re comfortable with to navigate being in this space because they have no other choice.” 

Star Trek has long held a mirror up to contemporary times, with the original series serving as an allegory for the Cold War and latter series tackling everything from the Israeli-Palestine conflict (Deep Space Nine) to the 9/11 attacks (Enterprise). While the writers weren’t keen to write specifically about a pandemic, they were clearly inspired by the challenges we’ve all faced over the last nearly two years. 

“We were looking at what we feel collectively,” said showrunner and co-executive producer Michelle Paradise. “What is the emotional experience that we’re all having because of this thing that’s happening globally? Uncertainty is a huge theme for the season.” 

Discovery, long the flagship show on the Paramount Plus streaming service, hit a creative stride last year with its massive time jump. Freed from the constraints of working with previous continuity and Trek lore, the last season introduced new technology such as programmable matter, a diminished Federation and classic races such as the Vulcans and Andorians recontextualized with the new status quo. 

This is how Discovery plans to shake things up further in season 4, which premieres on Nov. 18. 

A new captain (again)

Discovery set itself apart from other Star Trek shows by focusing on a character who wasn’t in command of a starship or space station. Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green, went from first officer to charged with mutiny within the first two episodes of the series, and has taken a circuitous path to leadership. 

This season marks the first time Burnham finally takes the captain’s chair.

Star Trek Discovery uniforms

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finally takes the captain’s chair. 

Michael Gibson/CBS

“You see this person growing and changing,” Martin-Green said, noting that this was part of a journey laid out at the beginning of the series. “So when I sit in that chair as Burnham, you know that I’m ready for it.” 

Martin-Green started the show as a bit of an outside consultant before reintegrating into the crew as its first officer. That shift to captain changes things for the characters. 

“It has an impact that I think even Burnham wasn’t expecting,” she said. 

“That changes everything that changes relationships,” said Wilson Cruz, who plays Dr. Hugh Culber. 

Another character wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership is Ensign Sylvia Tilly, played by Mary Wiseman. When the show began, Tilly served as a source of awkward comic relief, but has taken on more leadership duties over the last three seasons. That culminated with her briefly serving as acting captain at the end of the last season, which led to her briefly losing Discovery. 

“Really knowing what the price of leadership can be, having intimately experienced that, will maybe shape how she sees herself and how she sees the future,” Wiseman said.  “She’s getting closer and closer to the thing she’s dreamed of, and that’s raising more and more questions about what she’s doing, how she’ll do it, what she really wants and why she really wants it.”

Boldly going deeper

While a lot of big, galactic-scale things are poised to happen, the cast stressed that much of the focus will be on character, and how they change and respond to these massive challenges. 

“A lot of the blockades that stop progress of our figuring this anomaly out, like it’s been in real life, are deep-rooted emotional things,” said Blue del Barrio, who plays Adira Tal, a human joined with a Trill symbiote. “They’re things we’re not often pushed to talk about. But in Star Trek, we are.”

Booker, for instance, served as an ally who helped the Federation but preferred to keep his autonomy (“It’s his north star,” said Ajala). But his school of thinking gets challenged and the crises that occur force him to reconsider his new family. 

“Burnham has been talking to Booker about the benefits of being part of something bigger than himself and part of a family,” Ajala said. “We will see Cleveland Booker having no choice but to take that advice.”

Anthony Rapp, who plays science wiz Lt. Paul Stamets, notes that Discovery is more entrenched in the system, to the point that the crew is interacting with Federation President, played by Chelah Horsdal. Del Barrio teased seeing more familiar alien species with subtitles differences. 

But as with the best of Star Trek, all of the Federation wrangling and even the mysterious anomaly serve as a lens through which to view how its characters deal with a surreal situation, something we’ve all faced — and are still facing — in these trying times.

“It would be so much easier if we all dealt with uncertainty and anxiety in the same way,” Cruz said. “What needs to happen is we all collectively come to a decision as to what to do, and how to save each other. Will we all get beyond our own personal needs in order to create the solution for the whole?”

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