Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, and the trailer for Discovery’s upcoming third season.
Ever since we first caught a glimpse of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season setting, I’ve been wondering what’s going on. According to everything we know at this stage, Burnham and the ship will successfully complete a 930-year time jump into the far future. That future looks pretty bleak, and perhaps could even be described as post-apocalyptic. If it’s true that Discovery plans to tell a story set in an era where the Federation is defeated or in decline, figuring out how that happened – and reversing it – is surely going to be the overarching story.
For now we’re going to have to set aside reservations about how a post-apocalyptic or otherwise bleak setting will work with Star Trek from a storytelling point of view. Instead, let’s look at things from an in-universe perspective and try to figure out what may be going on. I have already covered this theory back in March when I was wrapping up my Star Trek: Picard theories, so if you’re a regular reader it may be familiar to you.
In short, here’s how the theory goes: the race of super-synths from Star Trek: Picard are the cause of Discovery’s post-apocalyptic setting. Let’s break it down, look at why it could be a possibility, and explore it in more detail.
So although I said this would be an in-universe explanation of the theory, there is one production-side reason we need to look at too. One thing that modern Star Trek shows lack is a relationship to each other. Discovery did a pretty good job of tying itself to The Original Series, and both Picard and Lower Decks have connected themselves to The Next Generation, but there’s essentially nothing beyond a couple of throwaway lines linking Picard to Discovery right now. That would have been unthinkable during the 1990s, where The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all shared characters, settings, locations, factions, and themes.
Modern Star Trek is hampered by its shows being split up along the timeline, and this makes it harder for new fans to transition smoothly from one series to another. There are no threads of consistency running between the different series, and while they are semi-independent productions they are all being produced by one overall team of people under the Star Trek Universe umbrella.
If we were to learn at some point in Discovery’s third season that the events depicted in Picard were directly related to the Federation’s decline or defeat, suddenly there would be a reason for Discovery fans who missed Picard to go back and watch it, and for Picard fans who haven’t seen Discovery to jump over and watch that show too. There would be the strong feeling that both shows genuinely take place in the same universe and the same timeline, which right now is lacking. This would help the Star Trek brand stay cohesive, and be a frame of reference for casual viewers, all while allowing both shows to provide each other a boost.
So that’s on the production side of things. But I promised you an in-universe look! First let’s very briefly recap, in case you forgot the events of the final few episodes of Picard. While investigating Soji’s origins, Picard and the crew of La Sirena came to realise that there are a race of synthetic life-forms – created by Bruce Maddox – living on a planet called Coppelius. The Romulan faction known as the Zhat Vash were searching for the synths too, because they believe that the synths will trigger an apocalyptic event. This apocalypse was revealed to them by a beacon left behind by an ancient race on a world they called Aia, and when we got a clearer look at the message the beacon contained, it was less a warning to organics than a message to the synths themselves, offering aid. A faction of super-synths that I nicknamed the “Mass Effect Reapers” exist somewhere beyond the galaxy, and they have promised aid to any synthetic race that calls on them. Sutra and Soji planned to contact them, and to open a portal that would have allowed the “Mass Effect Reapers” to travel to the Milky Way galaxy. They successfully built the beacon, but at the last second Picard convinced Soji to shut it down, closing the portal and preventing the arrival of the “Mass Effect Reapers”.
Did I miss anything? I hope not! I nicknamed this faction the “Mass Effect Reapers” because they have noteworthy similarities to another race of super-synths in the Mass Effect series of video games.
I think that the most important thing to note is that in the finale, Soji and Sutra were successful in opening the portal. Thus, the “Mass Effect Reapers” are aware of the existence of a race of synths in the Milky Way galaxy, and also of the existence of the Federation. While Picard was able to convince Soji to stand down and close the portal, questions remain.
Now that the “Mass Effect Reapers” know of the existence of the Romulans, Federation, and synths, will they be content to go back to sitting still, waiting for another race of synths to contact them? Or did Sutra and Soji set into motion a chain of events that can no longer be stopped? Closing the portal may have prevented the imminent arrival of the “Mass Effect Reapers”, but it’s totally unclear what they will choose to do next.
The “Mass Effect Reapers” were presented as hyper-intelligent, arguably far beyond the Federation and Romulans in terms of technology, and thus their motivations and actions can be difficult to predict. This may be an oversimplification, but at the moment Soji closed the portal and shut down the beacon, she didn’t seem to communicate to the “Mass Effect Reapers” why she was doing so. From their point of view, a portal was opened – through which they could see a race of synths threatened by an imposing fleet of starships – then before they could take action the portal was closed. If I were the “Mass Effect Reapers”, I’d want to know why. And if I were paranoid, I might be thinking that the synths who tried to contact me were under attack and that the beacon had been forcibly shut down.
If the “Mass Effect Reapers” followed this line of thinking, and their motivation is still to provide help to any synthetic race that asks for it, the logical next step would be for them to set off to the Milky Way as fast as they can. Depending on how far away they are – and the show never really explained that – it could take years, decades, or even centuries for them to travel, even if their technology is more advanced than anything we’ve ever seen in Star Trek. That’s assuming they set off immediately – there may have been a debate or discussion about what to do that could have lasted years or longer.
In any case, it’s not inconceivable that this extra-galactic threat could take centuries to arrive. I like to assume that Picard and/or Starfleet will travel to Aia and disable or destroy the beacon to prevent not only the Romulans from using it, but from other synths finding it in future. Even shutting down the beacon on Aia may be too late, though, because of the events of Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2.
The “Mass Effect Reapers” are perhaps the only faction other than the Borg who could be capable of waging a successful war against the Federation. Even if all of the powers of the Alpha and Beta quadrants were to band together, it still might not be enough against the superior technology of these super-synths, and we could certainly expect any such conflict to be long and catastrophically costly. Even if the Federation survived it would be seriously weakened. Furthermore, a large-scale attack on the Federation would result in far-flung colonies being cut off, and any news or information might be hard to come by.
This is where the trailer for Discovery’s third season comes in. We see a setting best described as bleak, as Burnham and the crew arrive in a part of the galaxy that seems far away from Earth. The Federation seems to be in decline, Starfleet is described as a “ghost”, and we’re left wondering what happened to cause all of this. We’ve seen the Federation in the far future before, both in Voyager and Enterprise, and certainly 100-200 years before Discovery’s far future setting, the Federation and Starfleet seemed to be doing pretty well, even furthering their mission of exploration to include time as well as space. Reconciling that image of the future with Discovery’s setting is something Season 3 will need to do.
As a faction we know essentially nothing about – not even their name – the “Mass Effect Reapers” are ripe for exploring in more detail. Discovery could do so in such a way that doesn’t interfere with anything Picard set up, providing not only the next part of the story, but also some background. We could learn about their leadership, motivations, and level of technology in much more detail. And it would still be a practically blank slate for Discovery’s team to use to set up the third season’s bleak and dark setting.
The question of the “Mass Effect Reapers” motivation comes into play again. There are two broad possibilities for their actions in Picard – either they were genuine in their offer to help synthetic races, or the beacon on Aia was part of an elaborate trap. Neither option bodes well for the Federation, assuming that the “Mass Effect Reapers” are now aware of their existence. If it was a trap, and the “Mass Effect Reapers” were waiting to be contacted by synths simply because that would mean advanced civilisations are present, they may now have a new target. If it wasn’t a trap and their desire to help was genuine, they may be motivated by concern for the Coppelius synths or even anger at the Federation and Romulans for intruding before communication could be established. While it’s hard to say what this faction could be planning or thinking based on such a small amount of information, these possibilities seem reasonable, and if they decided they wanted to attack or investigate, the events of Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2 could have set that in motion.
Because Picard Season 1 wrapped up in the immediate aftermath of the standoff over Coppelius and the closing of the beacon, we don’t know what happened next. However, I consider two things to be somewhere between possible and likely: the synths on Coppelius would be relocated (in order to keep them safe from the Romulans), and Starfleet would make some attempt to contact the “Mass Effect Reapers” to explain what happened.
Relocating the synths feels like a necessity. Commodore Oh may not have wanted to risk war with the Federation when staring down a massive armada, but there’s no indication that she changed her mind on the necessity of exterminating synthetic life. From her perspective, Soji and Sutra building the beacon was a culmination of her worst fears, and although Soji may have been convinced to stand down, again from Oh’s point of view what’s to stop her changing her mind? Or one of the other synths building a new beacon? Leaving the synths on Coppelius would be very dangerous for them, unless Starfleet plans to permanently base a fleet in the system, so the easiest option for everyone would be to relocate them to a safer place.
However, in the context of our theory, this could be problematic. Suppose it takes the “Mass Effect Reapers” a long time to arrive in the Milky Way galaxy, and they don’t manage to travel to Coppelius for several centuries. What do they find when they arrive? No synths, but several massive interstellar civilisations and empires of organic beings. Put the two things together and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the organics wiped out the synths – especially if the last thing the “Mass Effect Reapers” saw before the portal closed was two massive fleets approaching the planet. They may take the missing synths as proof of an attack and go on the rampage.
Even if Starfleet were able to contact the “Mass Effect Reapers”, there’s no guarantee a successful dialogue could be opened. Setting aside other theories like the “Mass Effect Reapers” actually being the Borg, a race of super-synths that considers themselves light-years ahead of organic beings in every respect may look at humans the way humans look at ants or bacteria, and consider any attempt at communication unworthy of their time. That’s assuming Starfleet could find a way to make contact without opening another portal – it may simply not be possible, though I expect the Federation would want to try.
Taken together, all of these different factors make at least a plausible argument for Discovery taking this story beat and expanding it for the basis of its third season. It could certainly be done in such a way that wasn’t confusing and didn’t make Picard essential viewing to understand what was happening – just like Discovery did with Pike, Vina, and the Talosians in Season 2. The Cage certainly provided extra details and informed what was going on, but viewers didn’t miss anything important for not having seen it. I’m sure the same could be done here, especially if the attack by or war against the “Mass Effect Reapers” was already over. It would exist simply as backstory; an encouragement to hop over and watch Picard without making doing so a necessity.
While this theory remains a possibility, at least in my opinion, it’s hardly a certainty and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn Discovery is going in a wholly different direction. Many of my theories during Picard Season 1 didn’t pan out, and this may simply be another that falls by the wayside! Nevertheless, it’s fun to craft theories and speculate, and at the end of the day that’s all this is: a bit of fun, and a chance to spend more time thinking about Star Trek. So please take everything I’ve said today with a healthy pinch of salt.
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and other countries. Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 will air beginning on the 15th of October on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films discussed above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.