Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 – what is the Burn?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery, including the two Season 3 trailers and the ending of Season 2. There are also spoilers for Star Trek: Picard Season 1 and other iterations of the franchise.

The most recent trailer for Star Trek: Discovery’s imminent third season dropped a bombshell: the Federation has mostly collapsed! In my breakdown of the trailer I covered my thoughts on that story premise, so we won’t get into the ins and outs of it again today. Instead, we’re going to look at the event that triggered this collapse and postulate a few theories as to what it could be! As always with any fan theories (mine or someone else’s) please take all of this with a grain of salt. No fan theory is worth getting worked up over!

Discovery has a new trailer… and a new logo!

All we really know for certain is that the event in question is called “the Burn.” Booker, the new character who’s native to this time period, tells Michael Burnham that the event was when “the galaxy took a hard left.” And that’s all the explanation the trailer gave us. However, some images and scenes from the trailer add context to this, so we should run through some of them briefly.

Firstly, we had one very short scene of an explosion aboard a starship or space station that appeared to blow a number of people out into space. This could be a flashback to the Burn, but as I noted when I looked at the trailer, it could also be something happening after Discovery’s arrival in the future. Even if it is taking place during the Burn, however, all we can gleam from this scene is that it was a violent event – which may mean it took place over a relatively short span of time.

This violent event glimpsed in the trailer could be the Burn.

Next we have two glimmers of hope: a futuristic starship, space station, or facility which Saru and Burnham visit at some point, and a black-uniformed woman who I suspect may be a Starfleet officer.

Is this character a Starfleet officer?

The woman’s uniform was at least a little reminiscent of the uniforms used to depict 29th Century Starfleet seen in the Voyager fifth season episode Relativity. The texture and pattern used for the dark upper part of her uniform reminded me of that episode, and I’m sure that must have been intentional!

Captain Braxton wearing the 29th Century Starfleet uniform.

If this woman in Starfleet, it lends credence to the idea that the facility mentioned above could be a Federation vessel or even a Starbase. Add into the mix Booker’s line that the Federation “mostly” collapsed following the Burn, and I think we can make a solid case for Starfleet being around in some form; last time I called this remaining faction “rump Starfleet.”

The final thing to look at from the trailer are the scenes set in its aftermath. Away from the woman in uniform and the futuristic facility we see what could be a shanty town or post-apocalyptic markeplace as an Orion or other green-skinned alien guides Burnham. One possible implication from this scene is that we’re seeing how the majority of people in the collapsed Federation live. In the aftermath of the cataclysm, they may all be reduced to this kind of hand-to-mouth existence.

The possible shanty town.

On the flip side, we have seen settings like this in other iterations of Star Trek, even on human-populated worlds. One that springs to mind is Turkana IV, the birthplace of Tasha Yar in The Next Generation. Described as a “failed Earth colony”, the planet was in a state of disarray in the 24th Century. In short, the existence of a shanty town like the one depicted above may not mean that everyone in the 32nd Century lives that way.

The reason I brought up Turkana IV and the like is to demonstrate that the Federation, even in the eras we’re familiar with, wasn’t always perfect and wasn’t one homogeneous bloc. Just as there seems to be a great contrast between the sleek facility and the shanty town in the 32nd Century, so too is there a contrast between different locations in the 23rd and 24th Centuries. I wonder if Discovery plans to use this dichotomy to make a point about wealth inequality.

The facility visited by Burnham and Saru.

One final point of note is that, when discussing the Burn, Booker referred to it as when “the galaxy” took a hard left. Let’s be clear about that – the galaxy as a whole, not merely the Federation. That was a deliberate choice of words, and I think what we can infer is that the effects of the Burn extend far beyond the borders of the Federation.

It’s possible that the Burn didn’t affect literally the entire galaxy; some regions and worlds may have escaped. Booker may have used the word “galaxy” in this context to mean something that impacted more than just one region and that went beyond the Federation’s borders. Even if that’s the case, we’re still dealing with what is arguably the biggest disaster we’ve ever seen in Star Trek.

Booker is the one who told us about the Burn.

That’s all we know from the trailer. It’s unclear how many people survived the Burn. Some disasters destroy infrastructure and technology, but leave organic lives intact, whereas others cause massive loss of life. There are clearly some survivors of the Burn, but how many is simply unknown right now. It’s highly likely that in the aftermath of such a catastrophe, more lives would be lost due to things like disease and starvation – especially if the Burn triggered the kind of collapse we seem to be seeing. The scene in the shanty town or junkyard seemed to show people barely surviving, living a hand-to-mouth existence without much of the familiar technology we’re used to in Star Trek. Such a loss of technology could cause even more deaths in the months and years following the Burn than the event itself.

This character could be some kind of warlord or faction leader.

We’ve seen at least one anti-Starfleet faction, which in the first trailer appeared to comprise of Andorians, Lurians, Cardassians, and humans. We also met a character in the second trailer who could be the leader of a faction or perhaps a warlord. I think this shows how, in the aftermath of the Burn, the survivors banded together into smaller groups. As with the number of survivors, we don’t know how many of these groups exist or what their relationships are with one another.

This group appear to be antagonists; opposed to the Federation.

We also don’t know for sure whether faster-than-light travel, warp speed, and time travel are still possible in this era, or whether the Burn caused such a catastrophic collapse in the Federation – possibly combined with damage to the galaxy and spacetime and/or subspace in general – that such things are no longer possible. We saw in the second trailer the USS Discovery using its spore drive, so at least travel via the mycelial network remains viable. But everything else is unclear, and if it were to be the case that warp speed and faster-than-light travel are impossible, the fractured Federation will be very difficult to bring back together.

There’s also the question of timing. When did the Burn take place? We’ve already made one assumption – that it was a relatively fast event, perhaps taking place over less than a year – but when it happened relative to Burnham and the USS Discovery’s arrival in the year 3188 is not known. I wrote last time that the furthest forward in time Star Trek has previously gone in canon is the 31st Century. However, in both stories which took place in that era the dating was very vague, and we only have terms like “years” and “centuries” to go on rather than something more precise. As a result, Discovery’s third season could be anywhere from 90 years ahead of what we saw in Enterprise and Voyager all the way to 180 years ahead of those stories. Picking a halfway point, and saying that Discovery takes place 130-140 years further on from anything we’ve ever seen still gives a huge amount of time for the Burn to have taken place.

A backup copy of The Doctor was reactivated in the Delta Quadrant in the 31st Century.

Based on the warlord/faction leader seen above, and the scene set in the shanty town/junkyard, I’m assuming it wasn’t recent. It certainly didn’t look like something that had only just happened in those scenes; the faction leader in particular seems confident in his position. Booker also didn’t appear to be speaking about something very recent when discussing the Burn; he almost seemed to be recalling history. I also noted something from the Star Trek Day panel: showrunner Michelle Paradise stated that characters like Booker had been “born” into this new future. While she could have meant simply that Booker was born in the 32nd Century, in the context of a discussion about the new season’s setting it could also mean that the Burn took place decades previously; before Booker was even born.

Did Michelle Paradise drop a hint at the timing of the Burn?

So it’s clear that at this stage we’re missing a lot of information! We don’t know when the Burn happened. We don’t know what effect it had other than the near collapse of the Federation. We don’t know how many casualties were directly and indirectly caused, or how many survivors remain.

Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know what the Burn is or what caused it. Fixing a problem requires understanding what the problem is and why it happened, so it will be absolutely essential for Burnham and the crew to figure this out. Even though we have practically no evidence to go on, I do have a few ideas! Let’s look at them in turn.

Possible cause #1: The super-synths from Star Trek: Picard

I’ve already written up this theory in more detail, and you can find that article by clicking or tapping here. But now that we know a little more about the Burn thanks to the new trailer, I was pleased in a way that it hasn’t been debunked already! Star Trek: Picard introduced us to an unnamed race of super-synths that I nicknamed the “Mass Effect Reapers” due to their similarities to that video game faction.

The “Mass Effect Reapers” left behind a beacon on the planet of Aia, explaining that synthetic life is under threat from organic life, and promising to come to the aid of any synths who ask for their help. The Zhat Vash – a secretive Romulan faction – found the beacon and interpreted it as something apocalyptic; they believed that if synthetic life were ever created, the “Mass Effect Reapers” would exterminate all organic life in the galaxy.

The Reapers, from the Mass Effect video game trilogy, are similar in some respects to the faction of super-synths in Star Trek: Picard.

During the events of the season finale, Soji and Sutra constructed a beacon to contact the “Mass Effect Reapers”, and opened a portal to the location in deep space where they reside. After being convinced by Picard – and the timely arrival of a Starfleet armada led by Riker – Soji closed the portal and shut down the beacon. The “Mass Effect Reapers” never arrived – but they are now aware of a race of synths in the Milky Way galaxy, as well as being aware of the existence of the Romulans and the Federation.

From the point of view of this race of super-synths, here’s what they saw: a race of synths who found their beacon called on them for help, and when the portal was opened they saw a handful of synths on a planet with two massive fleets of starships populated by organics. Then, with no explanation, the portal was closed. If I were them, I would have major concerns!

Picard talked Soji into closing the portal – but the “Mass Effect Reapers” probably don’t know that.

We know hardly anything about the “Mass Effect Reapers” – which in itself makes them a good candidate for Discovery’s writers to play with – including how far away from the Federation they are. If they decided that they needed to intervene on behalf of the Coppelius synths, it could have taken them centuries to travel to the Milky Way from wherever they’re based.

When they finally did arrive, they would have likely found Coppelius abandoned, as I feel certain the safest thing to do for the synths who live there would be to relocate them to a new home where the Romulans can’t touch them. Again, from the “Mass Effect Reapers” perspective, the last thing they saw was two massive fleets in orbit of this planet that asked for their help, and when they arrived, the synths who asked for that help were gone. Put two and two together and it’s not hard to imagine they would assume the organics wiped out the synths. If they were minded toward revenge, they could go on the rampage, using their superior technology to destroy the Federation and Romulans in an event that would become known as the Burn.

These two fleets – one Romulan, one Federation – were the last thing the “Mass Effect Reapers” saw before the portal closed.

From the production side of things, this theory brings together the two live-action series currently in production, which is something that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve written many times that modern Star Trek shows being split up in this way isn’t a good idea, and finding ways to bring them together will be important to the franchise going forward. Having this faction from Picard also be important in Discovery – as well as the events of one series directly leading to events in the other – would bind the two shows together and strengthen the franchise.

Possible cause #2: Michael and/or Gabrielle Burnham

The Burnhams.

I can’t be the only one who noticed that the “Burn” happens to be three letters different from “Burnham”, can I? While it may seem absolutely preposterous to assume that Burnham or her mother somehow caused this galaxy-wide calamity, there are some points we could argue are in its favour.

Gabrielle Burnham, Michael’s mother, was the original Red Angel in Discovery Season 2. At several points in the story she intervened, including to save Burnham’s life and Spock’s life in their youth, as well as ensuring that the USS Discovery would be on hand to save the data from the “Sphere” – the planetoid-sized lifeform whose data was vital to the Control AI. Gabrielle Burnham was tied to a point in the future around the same time as Season 3 is set and returned there after her many visits to the 23rd Century. But in both of the trailers we’ve seen, she’s nowhere to be found. Why is she missing, and could her absence have something to do with the Burn?

Where is Dr Gabrielle Burnham?

Discovery has been a series that places Michael Burnham at the centre of its stories. Burnham was the Red Angel. Burnham was the one who led the ship and crew home from the Mirror Universe and ended the Klingon War. Every story so far has been a Burnham-centric one, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn she has some involvement with the Burn – an event which shares part of her name.

How could this work? There are a few possibilities, but I would say that all of them have to do with the Red Angel suit and its time travel abilities. The suit was very powerful, capable of detonating powerful “red bursts” that Starfleet could detect from thousands of light-years away. It was also capable of moving the Sphere, so the idea that it could – intentionally or otherwise – be used as a weapon or cause a natural disaster is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Could Michael Burnham be guilty of causing the Burn?

When Burnham arrived in the future, she took off the suit. But in scenes that seem to be set around the same time, she doesn’t appear to bring it with her. It’s possible she abandoned the suit at her crash site, in which case anyone could stumble upon it. It’s also possible that the suit was stolen. And finally, it’s possible that some other faction who was aware of changes to the timeline could have been waiting for Burnham’s arrival and took that opportunity to take possession of the suit.

I don’t believe Burnham or her mother would voluntarily cause the Burn. In fact I’d argue that both would go out of their way to avoid it – even putting their lives on the line to prevent it ever happening. But it could have been accidental, such as a by-product of the suit’s time travel abilities. Or they could have done something while under duress – perhaps it was the least bad option if they were given a choice between the Burn and something far worse.

One thing is for sure, though. If it was Burnham’s fault, calling the event “the Burn” sounds way better than calling it “the Ham!”

Possible cause #3: The Borg

We haven’t had a Borg story in Star Trek since Enterprise’s second season way back in 2003. For a time it seemed as if Discovery’s second season was setting up a Borg origin story with the Control AI, but for whatever reason that didn’t pan out. We could still see the Borg in Discovery, though, if they turn out to be the nefarious villains who caused the Burn.

Booker said that the Burn affected the whole galaxy, and if that’s literally true perhaps it impacted the Borg as well. But it could be that the Borg either are the Burn or are the cause of it, striking out in all directions from their Delta Quadrant home and attacking multiple areas of the galaxy simultaneously.

A Borg drone seen in The Next Generation.

Though it was implied, perhaps, that the Burn was a relatively short event, it could be that it was a war. Even a year-long conflict against the Borg on all fronts could have seen the Federation on the verge of collapse, and we could be looking at the aftermath of a Pyrrhic victory, one in which the Federation and their allies were only able to defeat the Borg at a catastrophic cost to themselves.

How exactly this would work is unclear, but perhaps the Federation used a weapon of last resort that not only destroyed the Borg but also crippled themselves in the process. We’ve seen this kind of story in science fiction before, and the idea that the Federation’s collapse is in part the Federation’s fault is an interesting one. Alex Kurtzman said that the Federation’s collapse wasn’t due to infighting but was something external – and a Borg invasion is definitely an external threat.

Borg drones from First Contact.

When considering an event that has the potential to impact not only planets and star systems but Starbases and fleets of ships, a large-scale war is one of the few possibilities that I can think of. We’re talking about devastation across not only the whole Federation but far beyond its borders too, meaning the Burn has to be something immense in scope. A massive invasion could be such an event, and I can’t think of any known faction in Star Trek able to pull off something like that other than the Borg.

By their later appearances in Voyager, I think it’s not unfair to say that the Borg were becoming stale. Having seen our heroes prevail against them time and again, they definitely needed a rest. Enterprise, while it added an extra complication to the history of Borg-human contact, managed to tell an exciting and tense story, but I think it’s to the franchise’s overall benefit that the faction then took a break. However, seventeen years is a decent length of time for such a break, so could we be on the verge of seeing the Borg make a comeback?

Possible cause #4: Time travel and the Temporal Cold War

Oh no! Alien Nazis!

Star Trek stories that took place in the 29th Century and beyond depicted time travel as something the Federation routinely engages in, despite it seemingly being prohibited by the 24th Century. Preserving the timeline intact is something Starfleet of this era seems to have been concerned with, but there were other factions opposed to the Federation who made attempts to use time as a weapon.

In Enterprise we saw a Temporal Cold War play out, with several different factions all vying for control of the timeline. The mechanics of this were vague – deliberately – but by the 31st Century, which is the home era of temporal agent Daniels, the Temporal Cold War was a major issue.

Daniels was a temporal agent who made multiple appearances in Enterprise.

As I mentioned when I looked at the trailer, one issue I can see coming up if Discovery goes headfirst into another time travel story is the question of why the Federation didn’t see the Burn coming. If they explore the timeline in the same way that the 24th Century Starfleet explore space, surely they look at the future timeline too, not just the past. If they do, they should have foreseen the Burn, right?

The problem with that assumption is that time travel muddies the waters. Even in a perfect world where Star Trek had always been consistent in its depiction of the rules and laws governing time travel (which it hasn’t been at all), the concept itself still generates all manner of possibilities, loops, and paradoxes. Part of the Temporal Cold War story arc involved factions travelling to the past to attempt to undermine their adversaries before they could even develop time travel – knocking them out of the war entirely. If someone were able to travel to a point in the timeline that the Federation could not observe, or were able to operate outside of normal spacetime, the Burn could have been triggered before the Federation even knew it was coming.

The USS Relativity was a 29th Century Federation timeship.

I’d like to pick one more hole in a time travel story. If the cause of the Burn is related to time travel, it’s arguable from the perspective of Starfleet that the timeline in which it occurred is not the “real” timeline. Logically they’d want to work to undo it, and if successful it would remove this timeline – and thus Discovery Season 3 – from existence. We have seen stories in Star Trek that “never happened” for reasons of time travel, but they were single episodes, not entire seasons, and I would make the case that having an entire season’s story arc being effectively wiped out of existence wouldn’t be the best way to go.

Possible cause #5: Something related to coronal mass ejections and stars

One frame of the trailer showed Tilly, Stamets, and Reno with the woman shown above who may be a 32nd Century Starfleet officer. On the display at the console where Tilly and Stamets were standing, it was possible to make out the words “CME Detected” and “coronal mass ejection [something] magnitude.”

The frame from the trailer, cropped and mirrored for clarity.

A coronal mass ejection, or CME, is a real-world phenomenon. I’m not a scientist, but as I understand it, a CME is where a small portion of a star’s plasma is shot into space. The phenomenon is associated with sunspots and solar flares, and can cause damage to technology like phone and power lines.

There is no known way to trigger a CME or for them to occur naturally on a galaxy-wide scale. But as we leave the real world behind and head into the realm of science fiction, either of those possibilities could exist.

A real-life coronal mass ejection that occurred in 2012. The blacked-out circle in the centre is the sun.
Picture Credit: NASA via WikiMedia Commons

“The Burn” is a very evocative name, drawing on a primal fear of fire. But it could be more than just a moniker adopted by survivors of the event: it could describe the event itself, and when a star undergoes a CME it’s literally shooting burning plasma into space – space fire. The Burn could be the very literal burning of spacecraft, planets, and even whole solar systems by some kind of massive wave of coronal mass ejections.

The interesting prospect this raises is that the Burn wouldn’t require an evil villain; it could be an entirely natural occurrence. How and why millions of stars all suffered the same fate is unclear, but it would change the dynamic of the story from one that requires the crew to defeat an adversary to one which requires scientific investigation – something which is arguably at the heart of Starfleet.

The USS Discovery could engage in a scientific expedition to determine the cause of the Burn.

Equally, even if the Burn refers to a tsunami of CMEs, there could be a cause. It could even be one of the four we’ve already listed: the Borg, the Burnhams, a time travelling faction, or the super-synths from Picard. Any of these could have intentionally or accidentally triggered some event that led to millions of stars all undergoing CMEs.

The next part of this gets very deep into lore, so it’s perhaps less likely, but I like to include these things because c’mon… we’re Trekkies. It’s what we do!

Whether the Burn is natural or artificial in origin, if it’s something which causes stars to undergo massive CMEs it could also be something which triggers supernovae. And there has been one recent supernova that had a massive impact on the Star Trek galaxy: the Romulan supernova. First shown in 2009’s Star Trek, the supernova appeared to move faster-than-light and destroyed the Romulan homeworld. Spock was able to stop it by using Red Matter, but the supernova would have a lasting impact, part of which was seen earlier this year in Picard.

A supernova destroyed Romulus in 2009’s Star Trek.

Though it may seem a long-shot, tying the Burn to the Romulan supernova would bring together several different Star Trek stories in a very neat way, which is important for reasons I’ve already outlined. If the Burn is natural in origin, the Romulan supernova may have been a precursor to it. And if it’s artificial in origin, the Romulan supernova may have been a preliminary test of whatever weapon caused the Burn.

So that’s it. A look at what the Burn could be as well as some possible triggers and causes. Though the existence of the Burn poses a big challenge for Discovery – as it fundamentally changes the underlying premise of Star Trek’s optimistic future – I’m absolutely fascinated by it. What is it? What caused it? When did it happen? Why did no one intervene to stop it? There are so many questions rattling around in my head, and this article has barely scratched the surface!

I am at least a little concerned about Star Trek: Discovery choosing a post-apocalyptic setting. But at the same time the series has been great so far, especially in Season 2, and I would love to see it build on what was accomplished last year to tell a fascinating and engaging story. The Burn is going to be part of that. Figuring it out and perhaps even working to stop it could be important story elements, and I’m absolutely fascinated to learn whether any of these ideas even come close!

Figuring out what could have caused such devastation is genuinely interesting.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these are just fan theories and speculation. I don’t have any insider information – and if I did I wouldn’t share it! Several recent shows and films have suffered backlash from fans who got a little too attached to certain pet theories, and as fun as theory-crafting is, I don’t want that to be the case here. This is a bit of fun and a chance to spend more time thinking about Star Trek, and that’s all. I want to know what happens, and if it’s something I didn’t expect then that’s fantastic!

When Discovery Season 3 kicks off in mid-October, I hope you’ll join me for episode reviews and perhaps even more theory-crafting!

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 premieres on the 15th of October on CBS All Access in the United States, and on the 16th of October on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other titles mentioned 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.