Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 1 “That Hope Is You, Part 1” past this point.
Now that the Season 3 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery is officially live, it’s time to switch the little red thread on your murder board from “What is The Burn?” to “What caused The Burn?” Because thanks to some handy exposition from Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala), we know more about the massive event that took down the Federation… But not what caused that event. So without further ado, given we’re less than an hour into the 13 episodes of the season, let’s speculate wildly about what caused The Burn.
Okay, a little more ado, first. Propelled 930 years into her future, [extremely Zagar and Evans voice] in the year 3188, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) very quickly discovers that due to an event about “100, 120 years ago,” Starfleet and everything associated with it pretty much disappeared.
“Collapsed, I guess. It was a long time ago, after The Burn,” Book explains under some duress from Burnham. “The Burn is the day the galaxy took a hard left. Dilithium… One day most of it just went boom.”
Book continues that a lot of people died, and the Federation “couldn’t say for sure, or why, or that it wouldn’t happen again.” After that, it was only a matter of time before the former peacekeeping organization fell apart, and mostly disappeared. Though Burnham insists that the Federation is more than ships, more than warp drives, that’s clearly going to be the driving force of this season: what caused the Burn, and can Burnham and crew (assuming they make it through the wormhole at some point, they don’t show up in the premiere) bring some semblance of order and hope to a now lawless galaxy?
Before we get to some theories, though, one thing that makes this all extremely tricky to figure out based on previous Star Trek is the timeline. Burnham is currently in 3188, a virtually uncharted space when it comes to Trek series and movies. The two closest canonical dates on record are 3074 (an episode of Star Trek: Voyager titled “Living Witness”) and an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (a brief mention of 3125 during the Season 2 episode “Future Tense”). There’s also a Star Trek: Short Treks episode set at least a thousand years beyond Discovery‘s initial timeline titled “Calypso.” But, probably purposefully on the part of the writers, they all offer no clues about The Burn.
Also not helping is Book’s spotty memory on the subject, though I challenge you to call up random dates from a century earlier off the top of your head. According to him, The Burn could have happened anywhere between 3068 and 3088; though I think it’s fair to assume it probably happened after the Voyager episode, so there are no canonical conflicts.
The other thing tricky about The Burn happening in that time? How it connects to Discovery. Though the show is only two seasons old, as is typical for any sci-fi series (or, you know, TV series), everything always comes back to the star: Michael Burnham. Season 1 found her at the center of a power struggle for the fate of the Mirror Universe, an evil, parallel universe. Season 2 revolved around a time suit designed by her mother, and the identity of the mysterious Red Angel (guess what? It was Burnham). So naming an epochal event “The Burn” certainly seems like an indication that, once again, Michael Burn-ham is at the center of the mystery.
That said, unless she’s burning ham, it’s hard to see how, when she’s jettisoned her time suit permanently through a wormhole early in this episode, that Michael would still have to somehow travel back a century and destroy most of the Dilithium in the universe… Let alone why she would do that. Again, we’re only an hour in, and don’t have many clues, but even given all that it’s gonna come back to her eventually. Probably. Unless calling it “The Burn” is exactly the sort of red herring Discovery likes to throw out to toss fans off the track. I mean, after all, this is the franchise that invented 3-D chess.
Let’s put a pin in that for the moment, though, and talk about Dilithium. In layman’s terms (because I barely understand it myself), Dilithium is a usually crystalline substance that helps control the matter/anti-matter reaction in the warp core of nearly every starship, which itself allows for faster than light travel. Without Dilithium, that reaction wouldn’t happen, and as we see in Discovery, leads to planets essentially being stranded and alone. It also leads to the rise of Couriers, people who transport goods from planet to planet in exchange for the scant bits of Dilithium left.
The key (potentially) to understanding The Burn is that it destroyed some Dilithium, but not all Dilithium. Dilithium still exists, it still works, but in an instant much of it exploded, taking presumably hundreds, if not thousands of ships with it. It’s possible that Dilithium that grew naturally on planets also exploded, but for the moment lets concentrate on the ships. Which raises two, related questions: who could have done this; and how could they have done this?
The “who” certainly calls to mind classic, powerful Trek villains like The Borg, or Q (John de Lancie). There’s no scarcity of all powerful beings in the Trek universe, but at least Q could have been running a test on the Federation, like he would do so often on the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It could also be a new villain (or race), or perhaps a returning threat to Discovery, like the Mirror Universe.
That last one brings up a strong possibility, in fact. Given Dilithium works on a matter/anti-matter reaction, and last we saw of the Mirror Universe in Discovery Season 1 they were slowly wearing away at the bonds between the two universes thanks to their abuse of the spore-based Mycelial Network, they could be back for revenge. In fact, to take it a step further, we were told the Michael Burnham of the Mirror Universe died. What if she didn’t? And what if, like her regular universe counterpart, she got ahold of a time suit and proceeded to wreck the Federation? That would bring it back to Burnham, again… Even if it isn’t our Burnham.
Using the Mycelial Network also brings up an interesting possibility that ties it back to Discovery: the network is everywhere, in every time, simultaneously. Mucking with the Network has repeatedly threatened the universe in the past. Perhaps it is (somehow) the culprit in causing the simultaneous explosion of Dilithium, and therefore The Burn?
On the other hand, one possibility I think we can throw out based on this episode is a popular fan theory from before the season dropped: that The Burn was caused by an Omega particle. Omega was first introduced in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “The Omega Directive.” Immensely powerful, Omega could potentially power an entire civilization all on its own; but it could also destroy all of subspace in the process. While Omega is big enough to have caused The Burn, the specific targeting of Dilithium seems to rule it out.
There’s one more possibility, and it’s a weird one, but Discovery has already been fond of mining Star Trek history. In the twentieth episode of The Original Series, titled “The Alternative Factor,” the crew of the Enterprise meets a man named Lazarus (Robert Brown) who seems to be able to depower all Dilithium in the galaxy, simultaneously. He later turns out to have a parallel universe double named Lazarus-B, and if the two of them interact it will cause a cataclysmic matter/anti-matter reaction. Some other stuff happens, but those are the important bits. Could The Burn tie in some way to this early Trek episode? Maybe? I don’t know?
Whatever caused The Burn (my money is on Michael burning ham) we’ll definitely keep plumbing every episode of Discovery for clues. Stay tuned.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Thursdays on CBS All Access.
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