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Challenge accepted: Inventing a plausible far-flung future for ST: Discovery S3

Enlarge / Sonequa Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham in the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, which is set over 900 years in the future from the first two seasons.

Star Trek: Discovery started out as a prequel to the original series, set roughly 10 years before Captain Kirk and his crew took over the USS Enterprise and boldly went where no man had gone before. But we’re now in uncharted territory with ST: Disco S3, which rocketed the ship and her crew over 900 years into the future. That posed a considerable creative challenge to stay true to the ethos of the franchise while reimagining its future—a challenge facing not just the writers, but series prop master Mario Moreira and science consultant Erin MacDonald as well.

(Some spoilers for S2 and the first five episodes of S3 below.)

The series stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, an orphaned human raised on the planet Vulcan by none other than Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife, Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner)—aka, Spock’s (Ethan Peck) parents. So she is Spock’s adoptive sister. As I’ve written previously, the S2 season-long arc involved the mysterious appearances of a “Red Angel” and a rogue Starfleet AI called Control that sought to wipe out all sentient life in the universe.

The big reveal was that the Red Angel was actually a time-travel suit worn by Michael’s biological mother. She had accidentally jumped 950 years into a bleak future in which Control had achieved its nefarious goal and had been traveling through time leaving signals (the Red Angel visions), hoping to alter that future. In the S2 finale, Michael donned a copy of her mother’s suit to lead Discovery over 900 years into the future. The crew of the Enterprise told Starfleet that Discovery was destroyed in the battle and were ordered to never speak of the ship or her crew again.

In the S3 opener, Michael (and, eventually, Discovery and her crew) arrives in the future and finds that Control’s plan has been thwarted: life still exists. But the galaxy is very different thanks to something called The Burn, a catastrophic event that caused all the dilithium in the Milky Way to explode and destroy much of Starfleet in the process. In the aftermath, with no warp drive possible, all the planets have become disconnected and are no longer governed by the Federation. Michael does, however, manage to locate one sole Federation liaison on a remote space station, with the help of a new ally, Book (David Ajala).

All the props

The first two seasons of Discovery were akin to period pieces, according to Moreira, since they were set 10 years before TOS. That meant reverse engineering a lot of the props, like the phasers, tricorders, and communication devices. (The opening credits pay homage to that rich franchise history.) Jumping 900+ years into the future freed Moreira and his team to be a bit more creative, although the iconic Star Trek technologies are still preserved.

For the futuristic tech, an overall design principle did gradually emerge: rather than having many different kinds of tools, Moreira and his team envisioned a future where the multipurpose tool was the norm. So the new Federation Tricon badges are “hubs to the ship’s systems,” Moreira told Ars. They serve both communication and transporter functions and can link to tricorders as well, all in one simple, compact device. Ditto for the new medical tool, which was initially nicknamed “Beyond One” in the writers’ room until everyone eventually settled on calling it the “medical PIN” (poly-inoculator).

“It’s your tricorder, it’s an anesthetic, it’s a laser scalpel,” said Moreira. “It’s everything in one, because everything in the future is about getting down to a minimal item that can do the maximum amount of work.”

The biggest technology leap this season (thus far) was the introduction of “programmable matter,” which is basically a highly advanced version of the nanotechnology and 3D-printing capabilities of today. Programmable matter can take almost any form: it can be solid, liquid, or even holographic. It’s a key feature of the control console for Book’s ship, but it’s also a huge advantage when it comes to multipurpose tools.

“A pre-programmed amount of matter that’s carried on a person can become a pre-programmed shape,” said Moreira. “You’d always have your tools on you,” but you wouldn’t need to be carrying a number of individual tools.

His team also redesigned the iconic Star Trek phasers as programmable matter units. “The previous phaser on ST: TNG was nicknamed ‘the Dolphin’ by fans because of its shape,” Moreira said. “We knew we wanted ours to be tougher than that. We had already nicknamed it the ‘Great White Shark,’ so we have elements of the shape of a shark body.”

Moreira is especially proud of the hand cannons featured in the first episode (“That Hope Is You Part 1”). “We were inspired by the idea that the guards would have this wrist tech on, and when their phasers came out, it would realize the shape of their wrist,” he said. And thanks to recent advances in paint finishes and 3D printing, “All those hand cannons you saw on-screen were both foam stunt versions and safe (‘hero’) versions,” said Moreira. “There was no need to switch back and forth.”

In the fifth S3 episode (“Die Trying”), the people of Discovery are finally reunited with the remnants of Starfleet, which is in the midst of a medical crisis. Anxious to prove their usefulness (and trustworthiness) to a suspicious Starfleet Commander-in-Chief Vance (Oded Fehr), Burnham, Dr. Hugh (Wilson Cruz), and security officer Nahn (Rachael Ancheril) use Discovery‘s spore drive to travel to the USS Tikhov. The Tikhov houses the seed archives that might hold the cure for whatever disease is ravaging Starfleet.

The concept of the seed archives has a real-world counterpart in the Svalbard global seed vault in Norway, which provided much of the inspiration for Moreira’s design. At Svalbard, seeds are stored in sealed three-ply foil packages, which in turn are placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks in refrigerated rooms. To update the concept for the series, “We designed single-unit refrigeration pieces that could hold liquid inside,” said Moreira. It looks like a futuristic, high-tech collection of safety deposit boxes inside a bank vault.

Science serves the story

For science consultant Erin MacDonald, an astrophysicist by training, working on Star Trek: Discovery is a dream come true. (She has also consulted on several episodes of Orbital Redux.) She regularly cites Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager as inspiring her to pursue a career in science, along with The X-Files‘ Dana Scully. So seeing an upgraded, future-generation version of the USS Voyager in episode 5 was a particular thrill.

Despite its futuristic setting, Star Trek has always taken a fairly serious approach to how it incorporates cutting-edge science and technology—that’s one reason so many working scientists, like MacDonald, cite their love of the franchise as a main reason they chose to make science their career.

“We’re on multiple generations of people who have gone into science because of Star Trek, and I think a lot of the creators and writers want to keep that legacy going,” MacDonald told Ars.

The challenge for a Hollywood series like Discovery is to be entertaining while still including cool, solid science that could inspire future generations. It’s a delicate balance, and ultimately the story comes first. That means occasionally being willing to stretch the science a bit in terms of plausibility when the narrative requires it. “As long as it’s a conscious decision and you want to have that factored into it, you can work around the science,” said MacDonald.

One of the most successful S3 examples of keeping the science reasonably accurate, while still in service to the story, is when Michael arrives in the future a full year ahead of the Discovery crew, even though they entered the wormhole just a minute or so apart. It’s an example of gravitational time dilation, a central feature of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity—one of MacDonald’s scientific specialties. Einstein unified the three dimensions of space with the fourth dimension of time, and this spacetime will warp and stretch in the presence of a mass or equivalent distortion. “So when you’re inside a gravitational well, you experience time differently than someone outside of that gravitational well,” said MacDonald.

Transporter accidents

This particular trope is a common feature in the Star Trek franchise. In the case of ST: Discovery, “As they’re going through the wormhole, there is an extreme stretching of spacetime,” MacDonald said. “So as Discovery is still in the wormhole, the crew were experiencing time differently than Burnham, who came out first and [thus] was outside the wormhole. It’s a great way of implementing some known physics and taking it to the extreme degree as a storytelling tool.”

MacDonald’s influence is particularly evident in the fifth episode, in which Michael and her cohorts arrive at the Tikhov to find all the occupants are dead except for one man, who exists out of phase. They learn that the fatal event was a coronal mass ejection (CME), a massive release of plasma from a star like our Sun that can give rise to geomagnetic (Solar) storms when they hit Earth’s magnetosphere. (The largest Solar storm recorded on Earth occurred in 1859 and was known as the Carrington Event. It knocked out telegraph systems and was accompanied by strong auroral displays.) The sole survivor aboard Tikhov happened to be mid-teleport into the seed bank when the burst of radiation hit. So he survived, albeit trapped out-of-phase.

“We all love our transporter accidents,” said MacDonald, “so this is just another great one for the books.”

Thus far, Star Trek: Discovery continues to withhold any further details about the specifics surrounding The Burn, although fan theories abound. So does MacDonald have any scientific insights into what might have caused The Burn? “No comment,” she laughed. “Anything I say is going to be a definitive answer.” Her advice: “Stay tuned.”

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery‘s third season air every Thursday on CBS All Access.



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