Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Voyager, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Today we’re continuing our series of theory articles about the Burn, and we’re returning to the Voyager Season 4 episode Living Witness for yet another idea! As one of the very few episodes of Star Trek prior to Discovery’s third season to be set in or near the 32nd Century, Living Witness has been the source of several theories and concepts already. On this occasion we’re going to consider what the episode’s far future setting and its ending could mean for Discovery, and what implications there may be if the Delta Quadrant either partially or wholly escaped the worst effects of the Burn.
Let’s start by considering what we know from Discovery itself regarding the Burn and its possible extent. Cleveland Booker introduced us to the idea of the Burn in the first episode of the season, and used the term “the galaxy” when describing its range and scale; this may be hyperbole or exaggeration to a degree, though, as Booker’s knowledge of the wider galaxy was limited – he hadn’t even been to Earth.
Next, Admiral Vance told us that the Federation peaked in the pre-Burn years with a membership of over 350 worlds. While there are certainly enough planets in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants for the Federation to have been contained there, this expansion of the Federation is significant. The Federation was also large enough and spread out enough that Vance’s Starfleet was unable to travel to or even remain in contact with every member world. Vance was familiar with worlds in or near the Gamma Quadrant, as he noted the location of the Guardian of Forever’s new planet was in that region of space, so the Federation has clearly mapped large portions of the Milky Way by the 32nd Century.
Next we have the Burn itself. Originally assumed to have taken place everywhere simultaneously, Michael Burnham was able to prove that the Burn in fact radiated outwards from its point of origin, with ships in different sectors being destroyed milliseconds apart. However, 32nd Century Starfleet didn’t have enough information to have figured this out, instead assuming that the Burn happened all at once. This could mean that the Federation wasn’t as widespread as we might think.
Now we come to Living Witness. The bulk of the episode takes place in the 31st Century, and thus could well have been set in the years before the Burn (all dates in relation to Living Witness are guesstimates based on rounded figures). However, the episode’s ending clearly and demonstrably takes place decades – or perhaps even centuries – later. The final act of the episode sees a museum guide telling Kyrian and Vaskan citizens about the Doctor – a backup copy of whom was left behind by the USS Voyager – and this sequence takes place at the very least decades after the rest of the episode, and certainly after the Burn.
Obviously we have to acknowledge that, for production-side reasons, the two stories aren’t related. We wouldn’t have expected anyone at the end of Living Witness to talk about the Burn because the story concept did not exist at the time. But Star Trek has shown a willingness on multiple occasions to incorporate events depicted in one story into later episodes and films, and perhaps that will happen on this occasion.
In short, here’s how the theory goes: the end of Living Witness shows the Kyrians and Vaskans in the 32nd or perhaps even 33rd Century talking about the Doctor. There was no mention of the Burn, nor of any disaster affecting their Delta Quadrant homeworld, and the fact that the Doctor was able to commandeer a starship in the late 31st or early 32nd Century to undertake his voyage back to the Alpha Quadrant at least implies that there was enough dilithium in that region of the Delta Quadrant for such a voyage to be plausible.
There are other implications from the ending of Living Witness that are worth considering. The Kyrians and Vaskans don’t seem to have had further contact with the Federation since the departure of the Doctor. This could mean that travel to and from the Delta Quadrant is still difficult and/or time-consuming in this era. The fact that the museum guide was not aware of whether the Doctor made it back safely suggests that there hasn’t been any contact between their homeworld and the Federation. We could think of reasons why this might be the case, including random chance, but with more than 700 years between Voyager’s journey and the Burn, there should’ve been ample time for the Federation to revisit planets Voyager encountered if they wanted to.
So is it possible that the Burn had a limited range? Was it truly a galactic-scale event, or did its effects weaken the further out its shockwave went? I think the fact that Burnham found a millisecond difference in between starships being destroyed could hint at this, because the shockwave did radiate outwards from its point of origin. Whether we’re talking about gamma rays or ripples on a body of water, we see the effects weaken the further away from the source we get, so perhaps the same is true of the Burn.
There may have been a transitional zone in which some starships were destroyed but some were merely damaged, and then a zone were the effects of the Burn were noticeable but not catastrophic. Finally the Burn’s shockwave would reach a point where it was imperceptible to all but the most finely-tuned sensors before fizzling out altogether. The episode Su’Kal showed us an example of this, in a way, when Su’Kal’s emotional outburst “almost” caused another Burn – but didn’t. Perhaps this is what some star systems in faraway parts of the galaxy experienced.
We don’t know where the Verubin Nebula is in relation to the Federation or the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. But it could be located near one edge of the galaxy, far away from the Delta Quadrant. If so, and if the pre-Burn Federation didn’t routinely travel to and from the Delta Quadrant, things start to line up for this theory!
So let’s consider the possible implications, assuming this theory is correct. Obviously we know that the Kyrians and Vaskans seem to have escaped the Burn relatively unscathed, so perhaps other Delta Quadrant factions did as well. This could include races like the Kazon, though they seem unlikely to be a significant threat to the Federation based on how far behind they were in technological terms. It could also bode well for potential Federation allies like the Talaxians and Ocampa – if one or both had joined the Federation, perhaps they’re thriving on the far side of the galaxy even after the Burn decimated the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.
But there’s one Delta Quadrant faction that we should be more wary of than any other: the Borg!
Discovery Season 3 didn’t make any mention of the Borg whatsoever, so we don’t know if they still exist in this era, if they’ve been defeated, if they’re still present in the galaxy, etc. But assuming that they’re still around and that their power base remains in the Delta Quadrant, the Borg’s survival could be catastrophically bad news for the Federation.
Even if the Federation had managed to find a way to keep the Borg at bay in the years prior to the Burn, the Borg may have just been given a 120-year head-start on developing new technologies and building up their forces while the Federation fractured and looked inwards to its own day-to-day survival. With much of their transwarp network intact and with their ships and drones protected from the worst effects of the Burn, the Borg may have been waiting and observing the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. They may even have been slowly making inroads, assimilating planets and star systems beyond the range of the Federation’s limited sensors. Perhaps the reason some Federation members dropped out of contact was not because of issues with long-range communications… but because they’d been attacked.
The trailers for Season 4 appear to show the Federation under attack by a “gravitational anomaly.” As I pointed out, this anomaly could be argued to behave in an unnatural way if it seems to be targeting the Federation, its planets, and its starships. Perhaps the gravitational anomaly is a weapon, one designed to be the precursor to an invasion. If so, one of the primary candidates for developing such a powerful weapon has to be the Borg.
As the rest of the galaxy struggles to recover, maybe Starfleet will learn that the Delta Quadrant largely escaped the Burn. The century-long absence of strong borders and interstellar long-range communications could have allowed any faction from that region of space (including the Borg) to seize the opportunity to pursue an aggressive, expansionist policy. The shape of the galaxy could’ve changed far more in the wake of the Burn than we might think, and a return to “business as usual” may not be possible if whole sectors have changed hands – or been assimilated!
As I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s also possible that the backup copy of the Doctor is still alive in this era. We’ve heard nothing from the production side of Star Trek to suggest he might be included as a character in Season 4, but I’d be curious to see if he’ll be mentioned in some way even if he doesn’t appear on screen. If the Living Witness copy of the Doctor has survived and returned to the Alpha Quadrant, that would be the strongest hint yet that at least part of the Delta Quadrant may have escaped the worst effects of the Burn.
Though Star Trek hardly needs an excuse, this could also be a great opportunity to bring the Borg into play in a big way. Discovery flirted with a Borg origin story in Season 2 – at least in my opinion – but we haven’t seen a proper Borg episode or story since 2003’s Enterprise Season 2 episode Regeneration.
If we work on the assumption that everything seen on screen in past Star Trek episodes is canon, and that the events in Living Witness and Discovery both take place in the Prime Timeline, I think we have a solid basis to construct a theory! Did some or all of the Delta Quadrant escape the Burn? And if so, what are the implications for the Star Trek galaxy in the late 32nd Century and beyond? We simply don’t know yet!
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and internationally. Star Trek: Voyager is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK (other international streaming may vary). The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery, Voyager, and all other properties 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.