The Bryan Fuller-helmed Star Trek: Discovery might not have much in the way of confirmed plot, casting, or a specific air date, but what it lacks in details it makes up for in fan anticipation — and the test footage revealed at SDCC has given us more than enough to speculate about for the next few months.
Fans and journalists alike have torn apart the footage, analyzing everything from the ship's design to the mysterious, asteroid-like starbase it emerges from. But there's one hint that has everyone buzzing, and that's the ship's designation: NCC-1031.
After trawling through the annals of Trek history (a.k.a. Memory Alpha), we postulated that this NCC designation could denote the era Star Trek: Discovery is set — between Enterprise and The Original Series, possibly exploring the Klingon conflicts at the time. Bryan Fuller recently confirmed this time setting at the Television Critics Association panel, revealing that Discovery will be set around 10 years before TOS.
But is there something more to the NCC designation than the era?
A Nod To Section 31
As with many aspects of Star Trek (see also: stardates), there was not a specific order for the designations when they were first created in TOS. This resulted in a vaguely chronological order later on, but even the later shows featured ships with inconsistent NCC designations.
Long before any idea of chronology was introduced to the designations, the ships' numbers were sometimes assigned with cheeky Easter Eggs in mind. For example, Leonard Nimoy and JJ Abrams' birthdays have both been used for starship designations. It's entirely possible that the designation NCC-1031 is not only hint of chronology, but a nod toward something else. Which brings us to the theory.
Section 31 is a clandestine, secretive branch of Starfleet. The organization is almost as old as Starfleet itself, predating the Federation and taking its name from the section of the Starfleet charter that grants the organization the use of extreme force: Article 14, Section 31 allows "extraordinary measures" to be taken in times of threat, seeking out potential enemies of the Federation and "disposing of them quietly".
Deep Space Nine was the first show to explore Section 31, as the branch attempted to recruit Dr. Julian Bashir into their ranks. The DS9 team had already clashed with the Cardassian Obsidian Order, and the Romulan Tal Shiar, and they were shocked to discover that Starfleet had its own form of secret police.
"Interesting, isn't it? The Federation claims to abhor Section 31's tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way. It's a tidy little arrangement, wouldn't you say?"
Until DS9 unveiled Starfleet's dark secret, the existence of Section 31 was unknown to fans and inhabitants of the Trek universe alike. Unfortunately, the series was never able to explore this clandestine organization in depth, as the show ended a season later. JJ Abrams resurrected this part of Trek's history for Into Darkness, looking into the earlier days of Section 31 and their role in the aftermath of the Eugenics Wars, as they experimented on cryogenically frozen augmented individuals such as Khan.
Obviously, the prospect of seeing Section 31 in Star Trek: Discovery is very exciting. Just as DS9 cast a critical eye on the hypocrisy at the heart of Starfleet, Discovery could continue this theme by exploring why Section 31 exists, when it is necessary, and the moral dilemmas its existence poses.
The time setting only makes this more interesting, as we could discover the growth of Section 31 from an only-as-necessary part of Starfleet, to a growing power. By the time DS9 rolled around, Section 31 was operating almost autonomously from Starfleet. The secrecy surrounding the organization granted them the freedom to do pretty much whatever they wanted, as they pulled strings and influenced interstellar diplomacy through assassinations, secret attacks, and all manner of shady espionage.
Hints From Bryan Fuller
So could this be the plot for Star Trek: Discovery? This isn't just speculation — Ain't It Cool News directly asked Bryan Fuller whether the "31" in NCC-1031 referred to Section 31, and Fuller's reply seemed to suggest it does.
"There are aspects of our first season that, depending on how well versed you are in that mythology, you could either read into it a connection, or not."
And then there's the starbase from which the NCC-1031 emerges — instead of being out in the open, or even close to Earth, this base is hidden in an asteroid.
Previously, we speculated that this could be because the ship was built in a time of conflict, making the asteroid base a tactical decision. But this could also be to conceal the ship from other Starfleet vessels, playing into the secrecy of Section 31.
Then there's the new information revealed by Fuller recently. Discovery will indeed have a female lead — which was pretty inevitable — and her story will be very different from anything we've seen before. Like Benajamin Sisko before her, the protagonist will not be a captain as the show begins, but a Lt Commander, making her the lowest ranking Trek lead yet (as even Sisko was a Commander).
"We're going deep into something that was for me always very tantalizing, and [we're telling] that story through a character who is on a journey that is going to teach her how to get along with others in the galaxy. For her to truly understand something that is alien, she has to first understand herself."
So what is it that Fuller found so "tantalizing" about Star Trek? Granted, this is barely anything to go on, but it certainly seems as though Discovery will explore an aspect of Trek's history that has only been touched on before — and that may well be Section 31.