Star Trek: Discovery
What will it take for Star Trek: Discovery to finally win?
In the premiere recap, I touched on this vaguely. I used phrases like “succeed on its own merits” and “unfettered by entrenched canon” but never really specified what that might mean in practical terms. Huge and daring though it was, the crew’s 900-year jump was, ironically, only the first step. So we’re here in 3189. We’re out of the shadows cast by existing Trek timelines. Now what?
“People of Earth” does an all but comprehensive job of answering that question as elegantly as any hall-of-fame episode of Treks past, thanks to three priceless elements: a perfect marriage of formats, a main character’s long-deserved redemption, and a new face whose introduction marks exactly where this franchise should be in 2020.
First, this is the first time Discovery has done a quintessential Star Trek procedural episode. You could probably count “The Sound of Thunder,” the Kaminar episode from last season, as the true first procedural, but that episode was still hostage to the larger, wildly Abrams-y drama of season two’s main “red angel” arc. This week’s episode was written by the same team, Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt, only this time the story is freed from most of its external weight and allowed to exist on its own as a mission wherein a Starfleet crew just does what Starfleet crews do best: accidentally get themselves into hot water with the locals, then patiently and empathetically steer whatever bitter enmity they find there toward peace and mutual understanding. Not only that, but the episode manages to integrate this classic arc with one of the hallmarks that has made Star Trek: Discovery truly unique: its deep well of earnest, unfiltered feelings. This show finally feels like Star Trek, and we get to keep all the crying and hugging and unabashed (dare I say millennial?) enthusiasm, too.
Also, Frakes directed it.*
Kim and Lippoldt apparently share my devotion to the cause that is Stop Being Space Racists and Give the Kelpien His Due Already, because this is the second time that everyone has put aside a moment to truly appreciate Captain Saru. That’s right — finally, after two seasons of “Eh, he can be substitute leader while the humans are busy doing more important things, but he’s not really captain material, is he?” Burnham very publicly puts to rest the question of who would get the captain’s chair once they arrived in the future.
“It’s you, Saru,” she says in front of the bridge crew, shortly after a very tearful team reunion on the transporter pad. “I don’t know if it’s ever been me.” Sure, the concession might be a little bit thanks to the extreme whiplash and anxiety she’s feeling after learning to survive in a lawless frontier world for a year and then being expected to return to a life and family that haven’t changed at all. But Michael also knows and loves Saru better than anyone else onboard and speaks the truth that should’ve been spoken long ago: “You brought this ship through time. You carried this crew on your shoulders. You are a captain in the truest sense of the word.” If you weren’t convinced last week that this Kelpien is already on the path to being one of the greatest Starfleet captains of all time, I’m not sure we’re watching the same show.
Anyway, now that Michael is back, and the crew’s 32nd-century intel gathering has, shall we say, left something to be desired, she fills in some specific blanks: Sometime in the 25th century, dilithium supplies everywhere suddenly and unexpectedly dried up. (Whether that means something horrible happened to Xahea — last season’s major source of natural dilithium — remains a mystery.) Scientists tried and failed to find an alternative to dilithium warp cores. Then came The Burn, during which all dilithium became inert and any ships at warp exploded, killing millions in an instant. Most ships with dilithium warp cores were Federation, which spurred the dissolution of the alliance almost immediately.
Now, for the past year, Michael has been working as a courier, not just for shits and giggles but to obtain intel on what remains of the Federation and Starfleet and the dilithium in order to search for them. In just a year, she has changed profoundly, having had to survive on her own, without the safety net or structure of collective Federation ideology or the support of her crew family. (Not that people in 2020 know anything about suddenly having to adapt to a chaotic new social paradigm.) Luckily she’s done so alongside Book, who is a FRIEND, okay? “A FRIEND IN THE TRUEST SENSE OF THE WORD.” But more about that bald-faced lie in a moment.
In that time, the best lead Michael has found is a garbled 12-year-old transmission sent on a defunct Starfleet channel from Earth by one Admiral Senna Tal. Without Discovery or dilithium, she’s had no way of making the long trip to Earth to seek him out, but now the spore drive is here. They agree it’s best to jump to just outside Earth’s sensor range and come in on impulse, posing as a wayward Starfleet ship that has finally found its way home after *checks notes* two centuries. To mask just how much dilithium the ship has (read enough to run a few sectors), Saru cautiously agrees to trust Michael’s plan to cloak it in Book’s ship in Discovery’s hangar bay. A Russian doll of dilithium, if you will.
Despite their best efforts, however, nothing could have prepared them for the paranoid welcome they receive upon approaching Starfleet’s home planet. That is, what used to be Starfleet’s home planet. Because now the reigning organization protecting Earth is the United Earth Defense Force, a protectionist super-agency whose charming demeanor brings to mind the likes of the IDF or ICE, and they are not interested in making friends. One of its leaders, Captain Ndoye, gets on the horn and immediately negs them for still using space Zoom (viewscreens) before telling them to GTFO or die. Welp!
However, Saru being the best, he calmly convinces them that they’re the descendants of the Discovery’s original crew, enough for Ndoye to dispatch a team of inspectors across the ship, instantly and without warning thanks to personal transporters, to ensure they’re not pirates. (What did she expect to have found if they had been pirates? A skull-and-crossbones flag? Treasure chests?) She comes over, too, at which point she explains what’s happened since they’ve “been away” and it’s not good! Apparently after The Burn, Earth decided that hosting Starfleet’s headquarters was too risky, in the event that it had actually been a planned attack; furthermore, with its remaining stores of dilithium, being a part of the Federation at all was an unnecessary gamble. “Why should we be?” she says, nonplussed. “We can take care of ourselves.” WELP!! So much for mutual aid! Also, she notes, whoever this “Senna Tal” was, he died on an outbound ship from Earth two years ago (destination unknown).
Anyway, they’re just glad that Discovery isn’t in league with Wen, a masked enemy whose tiny band of raider ships has regularly attacked their borders in search of dilithium for years now and who shows up to the party within minutes of his introduction, demanding the dilithium he knows Discovery has — how else could they have arrived here so quickly? Oops! Looks like Starfleet has found itself in the middle of a local conflict again! Its options: leave and let the two parties duke it out, ensuring Earth will probably wipe out these dinky raider ships, who do seem very desperate for going up against an entire planetary defense system, or stay and risk starting a war with Earth for interfering with its defenses. I wonder what they decide!
Just kidding. They interfere, of course. (In this case, though, unlike so many other scenarios previous ships have encountered, it is their own people, so it’s not technically interventionism, right?)
Meanwhile, Burnham and Book, who are absolutely just friends, sneak off together in Book’s dilithium-filled ship without telling Saru to pull off a very risky maneuver they very cutely and coyly refer to as “Orion Tango.” The chemistry between these two is almost too strong. It is a force to rival a dilithium warp core—talk about a burn. The glances they shoot at each other, clearly debating whether they should tear each other’s clothes off (especially once Michael finally gets Book into a Starfleet uniform to deter the suspicions of the UEDF agents)? The “what ‘we’ are we really talking about”? Michael’s “shush”?! Book’s “I know by now it’s a lost cause trying to say no to you”????????? Ash who?
Anyway, despite Orion Tango apparently having not worked the only other time they attempted it, the Just Friends pull it off beautifully this time: They offer the huge stores of dilithium directly to Wen, but when he lowers his shields to beam it all through, they beam over and pick him up instead, then beam directly onto the bridge of the Discovery. Meanwhile, Saru has put the entire ship at risk trusting Michael, even though she’s sO diFfeReNt** now, and ordered a bewildered Detmer et al. to take several massive hits from Earth’s defense cannons to shield both Book’s and Wen’s ships.
Luckily his gamble pays off, adding another reason for the crew to trust his judgment. In a conference room, all three parties convene to try diplomacy for the first time. Earth “hangs everyone out to dry”! Wen & Co. are lawless criminals! Earth doesn’t even use their dilithium! Blah, blah, blah — for the second time this season, Georgiou … Georgious, cutting to the chase by disarming Wen and removing his helmet before anyone can blink. Surprise! Wen is a human, the designated leader of a colony on Saturn’s moon Titan. (Did anyone really doubt from the moment we saw that Black Manta mask that Wen was human? Or at least a bit too desperate to appear menacing?) The colony became self-sufficient and cut loose from Earth about a century ago, but since then, an accident at their liquid-hydrocarbon research base destroyed a third of the habitat they’d built, poisoning their tillable soil and disabling their long-range comms and making it impossible to call for help; then, when they sent a ship to Earth to get help, Earth shot it down without warning. Voilà: a war.
Because this is Star Trek and not real life, Ndoye immediately drops the aggressive posturing upon hearing this information. “We didn’t know,” she says. Both parties agree to discuss peace terms: Earth engineers and resources to rebuild the Titan colony in exchange for their research. Diplomacy! Cooperation! Mutual aid! Plus, the bridge crew gets shore leave to visit the old Starfleet Academy site and sit under a familiar tree for five whole minutes!
Which, finally, brings us to the third, perhaps most heartening ingredient of “People of Earth”: Adira, the baby genius UEDF inspector who secretly hacks the Discovery’s deflector shields and sabotages her own team’s personal transporters, risking war to keep them on the ship long enough to investigate its mysterious mushrooms and seemingly new ancient tech. Now, is it kind of weird that the show didn’t adjust the character’s pronouns to respect the fact that Blu del Barrio is the first out nonbinary actor in Trek history? I think so! One would hope that they/them pronouns are so common in the future that it would be nothing at all to let Adira be nonbinary, have someone like Ndoye correct someone like Saru once, and then move on. But hey, cisgender people are already running free in the fields of trans characters!
Regardless, del Barrio is an utterly perfect fit for this dork brigade, Stamets and Tilly especially. Once the pair discover her ruse, she reveals herself as an enthusiastic nerd who just desperately wants to go with them — Starfleet seems important to her, because she is Senna Tal. Or rather, Senna Tal was the Trill host of her symbiont. That’s right, she’s a human host of a Trill symbiont. Maybe the first-ever human host? The chills that went up my spine! Forget “It’s the USS Enterprise!” from the season-one finale; this is the canon we should’ve been building on all along — the pioneering gender-bending species that embodies the progressivism this franchise stands for. It’s new and thrilling and dares Trek’s older conservative fans (yes, they exist) to join the rest of us in the future, where everything is a nightmare but people are still capable of compassion, curiosity, and trust.
Speaking of trust, Adira isn’t the only one staying aboard the Discovery: In a final, candid heart-to-heart in the captain’s ready room, Burnham apologizes to Saru for not trusting him with her plan. She admits she had to let go of some things — I assume she means things like rules, which is funny coming from Starfleet’s first mutineer — and that she’ll need time if she’s ever going to get them back. Saru’s response very nearly breaks me: “I will trust you to grow through change, as you have trusted me.” To which Michael replies, “Then it would be my privilege to be your No. 1.”
Now, look, it’s a real pity Book doesn’t like that uniform, let alone enough to stay onboard, but I have a feeling he’ll come around, don’t you? Starfleet saves endangered species all the time, after all.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Tilly’s existential crisis is so viscerally relatable right now it’s hard to believe it was thought up, what, last year? I get that we’ve been in sociopolitical freefall for a while, but damn. Gotta find me a thousand-year-old tree, stat.
• How much money would you bet that mycelium drives are going to end up being the future’s alternative to dilithium warp cores? (Provided, of course, that they make nice with the jahSepp first.)
• I love that the Sphere data is effectively the Discovery crew’s Memory Alpha, offering to fill them — and by extension Discovery fans new to Star Trek — in on canonical knowledge they couldn’t possibly have had in 2258 but would be annoying for longtime fans to wait around for the team to learn the long way.
• Michael tells Saru she checked Terralysium and no one there had heard of her mom. Where is Dr. Burnham?
• Despite being “the man who jumps his starship through mushroom space,” as Georgiou puts it, Stamets’s protests re the scientific likelihood of The Burn seem significant. Could it have actually been intentional? Either way, I hope the explanation avoids the magical MacGuffin territory that was last season’s time crystals.
• Is cake truly eternal? Fight me in the comments, see if I care!
*Jonathan Frakes, a.k.a. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Commander William T. Riker, a.k.a. the infamously effective director (nickname “Two Takes Frakes”) behind numerous Star Trek episodes across the franchise, including Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection.
** I know they want us to believe Burnham might not be trustworthy anymore — Georgiou certainly does a lot of work trying to convince us that she’s a loose cannon now — but come on. So she’s a little more mysterious now. Everything she has been doing is still for the Federation; now she’s just doing it with a mild brokenness of spirit!