NOTE: The following analysis speculates about the third season of Star Trek: Discovery and contains SPOILERS.
What is The Burn?
The trailer released last week for Star Trek: Discovery season 3 made clear that the galaxy has fallen on hard times by 3188, and the Federation has “mostly collapsed.” According to showrunner Alex Kurtzman, the Federation remained “strong” until “something cataclysmic went down that changed everything.” In the trailer, Book (David Ajala) describes this cataclysm to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as “The Burn,” saying it “was the day the galaxy took a hard left.”
So far that is all we know about “The Burn,” but some fans, including us at TrekMovie, think we have it figured out. And the answer comes from a surprising place: Star Trek: Voyager.
Omega answers the question
One of our first clues leading to Voyager comes from the moment in the trailer when Saru encounters a Coridanite on the planet where the USS Discovery crash-landed, and the alien says to Saru, “I always believed you were out there somewhere and that we were part of the Federation no matter what.” This, along with the appearance of several other familiar aliens in the trailer, shows that “The Burn” didn’t seem to kill off life in the Federation, but it appears to have cut off communication and travel, leaving planets isolated.
If you are looking for something that could stop travel and communication you need to look no further than the Omega molecule.
The Star Trek: Voyager fourth season episode “The Omega Directive” introduced the Omega molecule into Trek canon. According to Captain Janeway, synthesized Omega is “the most powerful substance known to exist,” derived from extremely rare boronite. A single Omega molecule has the same energy as a warp core. It was first discovered by the Federation in the 23rd century in the search for an inexhaustible power source; however, there was an accident and a single particle of Omega destroyed a Starfleet science station and destabilized an entire region.
It turns out there is no known way to stabilize Omega molecules—any attempt to create them resulted in disaster. The first try by the Federation created ruptures in subspace affecting an entire sector. The incident was classified and the Federation implemented the “Omega Directive,” known solely to captains and flag officers. After any detection of Omega, orders were to destroy it “at all costs,” even if this required violating the Prime Directive. Omega was so dangerous that the Federation was willing to violate its most core principle to destroy it.
Omega can “burn the sky”
The danger of Omega wasn’t just that a sufficient quantity could (according to Janeway) “wipe out half a quadrant.” The Federation was even more concerned about the larger effect on subspace. As explained in Voyager, disruptions in subspace kept ships from being able to go to warp in the sector around the failed 23rd-century test with Omega, even into the 24th century. And warp travel is fundamental to the Federation—potential member species don’t even merit “first contact” until they independently develop warp technology.
A sufficiently large Omega explosion could eliminate warp travel within the entire Federation and possibly throughout the whole galaxy. It would also cut off subspace communication between worlds. Messages would take years, if not decades, to travel at light speed, and ships would be back to flying at sublight speeds. This would separate members of the Federation and other galactic powers. This is exactly the kind of thing that could isolate planets and peoples, like the one talking to Saru in the new Discovery trailer.
As for who caused “The Burn,” the most obvious suspect is The Borg. The Voyager episode revealed that The Borg were obsessed with the perfection they saw in Omega. They learned about Omega even before the Federation and assimilated a dozen species with myths about it, including one that described “a powerful substance that could burn the sky.” Sound familiar?
Eventually, The Borg assimilated a civilization with more advanced knowledge and attempted to create Omega themselves, which resulted in the loss of 29 vessels and over 600,000 drones sacrificed. Seven still saw this as something of a win, because they were able to keep it stable for “one trillionth of a nanosecond.” Maybe eight centuries later the Borg are still around, and they gave it another shot on an even bigger scale… a scale big enough to “burn” the sky across the galaxy, sending it on that left turn.
It’s also possible another civilization tried to stabilize Omega—or maybe “The Burn” was even done on purpose. Some anti-technology or isolationist faction may have wanted to reset the galaxy back to a time before warp travel, with all the societal and cultural impacts that would have. Maybe finding out who was behind setting off a massive Omega event is a core mystery for season three.
Omega gives Discovery purpose
So, Omega fits the facts as we know them, but this theory also answers the meta-question of why the creatives behind Discovery sent the 32nd century back into a dark age. After dealing with issues of running into (and periodically conflicting with) Star Trek canon in the TOS era, Discovery producers decided to move the setting of their show to new ground—and there is no newer ground than the 32nd century, beyond all canon set by previous Trek series, including various future time-travelers who popped into episodes of Voyager and Enterprise. As star Sonequa Martin-Green says in the latest Star Trek Magazine, “We’re literally boldly going where no one has gone before.”
While the 32nd century gives the show a mostly blank slate in terms of canon, jumping forward over 900 years makes our heroes a bit out of date, and their ship, the USS Discovery, an ancient museum piece. In his recent TrekMovie.com interview Doug Jones (Saru) described it as a “Model T comes driving into the new neighborhood.”
But there is something special about the USS Discovery, something explicitly erased from the Starfleet historical record at the end of season two: the spore drive. This unique technology allows the USS Discovery to travel throughout the galaxy via the mycelial network. USS Discovery’s resident mycologist Paul Stamets describes the network as “a discrete subspace domain,” with the key word being “discrete,” allowing plenty of room for it to be immune to Omega’s impact on the rest of subspace.
The new trailer also showed us various shots featuring a lot of spaceship debris, around at least two planets. While this wasn’t established in the Voyager episode, it’s possible “The Burn” not only prevented ships from going to warp but also destroyed ships either trying to go to warp or already at warp. Thus all the debris we see in the trailer would be what remains of the Federation fleet and other starships.
According to Alex Kurtzman, season three of Discovery is all about restoring the Federation, which has been “diminished” and in “survival mode.” It’s clear that Starfleet’s resources and assets have been severely impacted by “The Burn.” And undoing the damage caused by it could be the core mission for the season. Having a ship immune to the effects of “The Burn” would be vital.
We can also see Michael Burnham and Saru joining the new Starfleet, putting on the new Starfleet badges, and heading off into space on the USS Discovery. If travel and communications have been cut off due to some kind of Omega event, then the ancient USS Discovery may now be the most important ship in the galaxy.
What say you?
The season 3 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery arrives in four weeks. Do you buy into the Omega hypothesis? Do you have your own theory for “The Burn?” Let us know in the comments below.
Keep up on all the Star Trek: Discovery news and analysis at TrekMovie.com.