Warning: This article contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 3 of Star Trek: Discovery.
In the opening minutes of "People of Earth," the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery's third season, we learn more about the precise nature of The Burn, and it's fascinating to get these details. Roughly a century before Burnham's arrival in the future, dilithium supplies were drying up. As this is the fuel for warp technology, the Federation (and presumably other organizations/governments) were working on alternative designs for warp engines, which came up short.
Then, The Burn: All dilithium, across the all known space, went inert. For the purposes of this recap, I'm going to get technical. Despite the way it's often referred to, dilithium isn't actually used as fuel, though it is a consumable good on starships. Instead, it's necessary to regulate the matter/anti-matter reaction that provides the power for starships and warp drive. When that substance went inert, there was nothing to regulate that interaction, and as a result, all warp-capable ships with an active drive exploded, presumably as a result of warp core breaches.
It's hard to imagine the subsequent devastation, the loss of ships and life, that occurred as a result. It's possible entire civilizations were wiped out; The Federation pretty much was. But Burnham isn't going to stand for that. She's been a part of this brave new future for an entire year, she's become a courier (sporting a new, excellent hairdo), and she's searching for answers to what might have caused The Burn. Her intention? To rebuild the Federation. But first, she has to find what's left of it.
The reunion scene between Burnham and the crew was everything I could have hoped for — the excited hug from Tilly, the slower moment with Saru as he acknowledges the life she's led over the past year and Michael releases all the emotion she's been holding in. Stamets, Detmer, Owo — and the nod to Georgiou, the acknowledgment of what she's given up again and again for Michael.
After the decision is made to go to Earth, to see what is left (if anything) of the Federation, there's an awkward moment as Saru invites the conversation of who is in command of Discovery — him or Michael? Burnham sidesteps all of it elegantly and entirely, insisting that Saru is the captain of Discovery, "in every sense of the word." (It's hard to count how many times I cried during this episode.) They didn't have to make a big deal out of Saru becoming captain, but I'm glad they took the time. He deserves it.
It's also great to see all the shots with Lieutenant Nillson on Discovery. People might be wondering who she is — she's getting more screentime even though she was in season 2. The actress (Sarah Mitich) actually also played Airiam for Seasons 1 and 2, and even if Airiam is gone, it's nice to see that she still gets to be a part of the DISCO family.
We don't know the ins and outs of what Michael experienced over the past year, and while she never gave up hope she'd see Discovery again, she did have to move on in order to survive. Now she's back, and she doesn't quite fit in the mold she left behind. The fact that she chooses not to put her Starfleet uniform back on for the trip to Earth (at least, until she has to) is telling — does she fit in aboard Discovery anymore? It's clear that she and Book are questioning that, and while Saru knows where Michael should be, he recognizes she's having doubts and tries to make room for them.
The welcome that Discovery receives at Earth is not exactly warm, but it is fruitful. Not only does the ship defuse tension between the Earth Defense Force and their "enemy," but they make contact with a Starfleet admiral — a Trill symbiont inside a human host. This is Adira, Discovery's new nonbinary character, played excellently by newcomer Blu del Barrio. It's interesting, given that del Barrio (who is a nonbinary actor) uses they/them pronouns, but so far, the crew has used she/her to refer to Adira. Hopefully, more clarification on that will be forthcoming, but I'm going to follow the show's direction and use she/her pronouns to refer to the character until it's otherwise addressed onscreen. (It's also possible that accessing the symbiont's memories and identities will affect Adira's sense of gender, which would be a bit unfortunate. While the symbiont is a cool way to explore gender issues, it shouldn't just be alien influences that allow for that kind of interrogation.)
Adira is having trouble accessing the memories of her previous hosts, presumably because she's a human. This is a puzzle Discovery is going to have to unlock; my guess is that, in the next episode, they'll take a trip to the Trill homeworld.
"People of Earth" ends with Saru and Burnham having yet another frank discussion as he gets to know her again in this uncertain future. She acknowledges that she's not the same person she used to be and that she hasn't found her way back yet. But, as she works through that, she will be Saru's first officer. It's a simple scene, but like every one that Doug Jones is in, a very touching one. He's really establishing himself as a compassionate, empathetic captain, and I absolutely love seeing it.
We've laid the groundwork for Season 3 over these first three episodes. It's clear that the search for Starfleet and the Federation is key here, as well as the larger mystery of what happened during The Burn. Was it an orchestrated attack against the Federation? Where are the other warp-capable species that weren't Federation members — the Cardassians, the Klingons, the Dominion? Going forward, we're also probably going to see more of what Burnham experienced during her year alone in the future, and I'm guessing that, despite the fact that Book went his separate way at the end of the episode, we'll see him again very soon.