Welcome to my ongoing coverage of Star Trek Discovery. For my takes on previous episodes, go here.
“New Eden”, Star Trek Discovery‘s second episode of the second season just aired and the show actually feels like Star Trek for two episodes in a row now, which has to be some kind of new record. Not that Discovery didn’t manage to be consistent for two episodes in a row even during season 1, it certainly did. But for some reason, it never felt like Star Trek for two episodes in a row.
So Alex Kurtzman and the new production team have finally figured out how to make something that feels like Star Trek. That’s a generally positive development. There’s only one problem.
“New Eden” is a rather mediocre example of Star Trek.
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
At the start of “New Eden”, the Discovery, now under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, is still investigating those mysterious signal bursts that have the Federation so worried. A new signal burst has been detected in the beta quadrant, much too far away for a regular warp drive to reach, so Pike orders the magic mushroom drive, the central MacGuffin of season 1, reactivated. Saru tries to explain why this is not a good idea, basically you can only use and control the magic mushroom drive, if you enslave an innocent creature, the tardigrade, or if you put a human being, Paul Stamets, at risk, so the magic mushroom drive should only be used in absolute emergencies. Pike, however, declares that the signal bursts are such an emergency and since there is no tardigrade handy, it’s Stamets’ turn to operate the magic mushroom drive once more. Stamets isn’t particularly happy about this for obvious reasons – the magic mushroom drive takes a huge toll on his health and besides, the last time he used it he landed the Discovery in an alternate universe, got lost in the spore network and only found his way out with the help of his dead partner/husband Dr. Culber. In many ways, it seems as if seeing Dr. Culber again or maybe not seeing him is what worries Stamets most, which is certainly understandable, considering that Stamets is still grieving.
Ordering the magic mushroom drive to be used in spite of the risks is very much what Lorca would do (and did over and over again, though even Lorca occasionally worried about Stamets’ health), but it seems out of character for Pike. Not to mention that “There is a mysterious signal burst” hardly qualifies as an emergency, unlike “There is a colony in danger and the Klingons will kill everybody, if not stopped”. And for that matter, why is the Federation so bothered about those signals at all? After all, mysterious space phenomena are hardly something new for the Federation, since Starfleet vessels seem to encounter them every other week or so, unless distracted by more pressing concerns such as a war. So what makes this mysterious space phenomenon so much more alarming than the other five Starfleet must have encountered this week alone?
But that’s a question for another episode, because Stamets gets the Discovery to the beta quadrant without any obvious ill effects, though he’s even grumpier than usual afterwards. But once they get there, they don’t get any answers about the mysterious signals, but find a new mystery instead, a two hundred years old English language distress signal, which seems to date back to what is World War III in the Star Trek timeline, i.e. before the invention of the warp drive. So how precisely did the signal and the people who sent it up get on the other side of the galaxy?
Tracing the signal leads the Discovery to the titular New Eden (though apparently the planet is named Terralisia, as Kayti Burt points out at Den of Geek), a low tech world that’s inhabited by humans and surrounded by rings of radioactive debris. This being Star Trek, Pike decides to send down an away team to investigate, consisting of himself, Michael Burnham and Lieutenant Owosekun. “Lieutenant Who?” you ask. Well, Lieutenant Owosekun is the black woman with the cornrows from the bridge crew, so apparently Discovery is sticking to its plan of giving the bridge crew more to do. As for why Owosekun (Does the character have a first name? Cause I certainly can’t recall it) was chosen to accompany the away team, it turns out she was raised by a Luddite community and should therefore be able to fit into a low tech society much better than either Pike or Michael. Now this is actually a fascinating bit of information and I for one would like to know more, such as how someone from a Luddite background like Owosekun came to join Starfleet? And in fact, “New Eden” might have made a lovely spotlight episode for Owosekun. Alas, the script mostly treats her like the redshirt of the week, only that she gets to survive and even has a few nice moments such as figuring out of to turn on ancient equipment or picking a mechanical lock, when both Michael and Pike fail. Still, more bridge crew is always nice.
Upon arrival on New Eden, Pike, Michael and Owosekun find what looks like a typical American village as well as what looks like a typical American clapboard church, though the interior contains a few symbolic nods to other religions, a rather ominous altar inscription that “Those who live by the old ways burn” as well as a stained glass window depicting a red angelic figure that looks uncannily like the vision Michael had last week, the same vision that had Spock so upset that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, which Pike tells Michael against Spock’s explicit wishes.
The team quickly learns that the people of New Eden were rescued from Earth during World War III by what they believe to have been divine intervention. This is also why they have retained religion, unlike the rest of humanity, though their faith is a blend of “all religions of Earth”, hence also the symbols in the church. They also happen to believe that they are the last survivors of humanit and that Earth has been destroyed by World War III, which is why they have foregone all modern technology. There are shades of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett here, but then Star Trek has always liberally borrowed from science fiction of the 1940s to 1960s.
The religion mash-up of New Eden is a neat idea, but it doesn’t quite work in practice. For starters, I find it hard to believe that their religion is a blend of “all religions of Earth”, because Earth has rather a lot of religions, including some very tiny ones. Does their religion blend include Jedi Knights for example (probably not – wrong franchise)? How about Scientologists? The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? A faith practiced only by approximately two hundred members of an isolated indigenous tribe in the Amazonas basin? Probably not. At least, based on the symbolism in the church, their faith seems to blend several of the major world religions, which is fine in itself – and I do applaud Discovery for remembering that “major world religion” does not just include the three Abrahamitic faiths, but also Hindusim, Buddhism, Shintoism and others, which means they do one better than my old religious education teacher who when asked when we would learn something about Hinduism and Buddhism, replied that those religions weren’t relevant enough and got very pissed off, when I pointed out that there are more Buddhists and about as many Hindus (and Yezidi, for that matter, though I wasn’t aware of them at the time) in Germany as Jews, so why didn’t we learn about them? So kudos to Discovery for being more open-minded than my tenth grade religious education teacher. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice that the blended faith of New Eden looks very Christian. The cross is the most prominent symbol in the church and the church itself looks very Christian and very much like a particular American Protestant flavour of Christianity. Why does the worship place of a blended religion not look more like a mosque, a Hindu temple, a synagogue, a Buddhist temple, a Shinto temple? For that matter, why does it look so very much like an American mainstream church? Even West European churches look quite different architecturally and Eastern Orthodox churches are completely different. Yes, I know, because it’s an American TV series made by likely at least culturally Christian Americans and because they probably used a real church to shoot those scenes. And coincidentally, the “Ooops, we accidentally started a religion” episode of The Orville last season also featured a very Christian looking church. Though Discovery is still lightyears ahead with regard to religion compared to The Expanse, where the only religions we ever seen are the Mormons of all people (and they only exist to supply a plot device needed in season 2), a military chaplain of an unknown Christian denomination and a fringe cult. Apparently, a Methodist pastor shows up in season 3 and there is a Buddha statue seen in the background of a few scenes in season 2, in the office of a character who appears to be Hindu – arrgh!
As for the divine intervention that saved the people of New Eden, unsurprisingly it turns out to be a red angel like the one seen in the church, a red angel that looks suspiciously like Michael’s vision last episode and the nightmares plaguing Spock. In order to explain the phenomenon, Pike paraphrases Arthur C. Clarke and declares that any sufficiently advanced alien technology would seem like divine intervention to the people of New Eden. There’s also a bit of a religious conflict here, when Michael bluntly declares herself an atheist who worships science, which begets the question why the so desperate to be Vulcan Michael does not follow the Vulcan religion, even though Sarek and Spock clearly do. Meanwhile, Pike’s father was a professor of comparative religion, which is not just a nice bit of character background, but also means that Pike is more open minded with regard to religion than Michael and that he can also handily explain the symbolism inside the church.
But religion isn’t the only point where Michael and Pike don’t quite see eye to eye (and isn’t it telling that Michael can’t stop rebelling even against a guy who seems to be very much a good captain?). Because Michael wants to inform the people of New Eden that humanity survived World War III and are now part of the scientifically advanced Federation and have interstellar travel, while Pike wants to leave the people of New Eden alone, since they seem to be perfectly happy in their low tech dystopia and also because intervening would bring them in conflict with the Prime Directive a.k.a. General Order No. 1, which begets the question if the Prime Directive even applies to what is clearly a lost human colony. Not to mention that New Eden isn’t quite as low tech as it seems, because someone had to send that distress signal. And indeed it turns out that there is a group of sceptics/heretics on New Eden, led by a man named Jacob, who have preserved the old technology and who are also behind the signal.
Things come to a head when Pike is near fatally injured (he sure does get into danger a lot) and the team has to be emergency beamed back aboard the Discovery, which happens to be witnessed by a bunch of colonists. The High Priestess believes it’s an act of divine intervention, while Jacob deducts that the strangers have to be space travellers. Once aboard the Discovery, Pike is quickly cured, but a new problem arises, because it turns out that the ring of radioactive debris around New Eden is threatening to rain deadly meteors down onto the planet’s surface. Both Pike and Michael agree that they have to save the people of New Eden – which is a lot better than Picard who was willing to let a whole pre-warp civilisation on a doomed planet die because of the Prime Directive in one of the most infuriating Star Trek episodes of all time – though they disagree about how. Michael simply wants to beam everybody aboard the Discovery and give them the chance to reintegrate into Federation society, while Pike wants to preserve New Eden’s way of life as much as possible. In the end, it’s Tilly who comes up with the solution.
Tilly’s subplot in this episode follows on from her subplot in the last episode, where she was tasked with recovering a mysterious, dark matter laden asteroid. That asteroid is still stored in one of Discovery’s hangars and Tilly now wants to use its unique properties to find a way to use the magic mushroom drive without putting Stamets at risk, especially after he tells her how emotionally upsetting seeing his dead partner/husband in the spore network was. So Tilly does something rather stupid and experiments on the asteroid alone, without telling anybody, and promptly gets herself injured. In the sick bay, she is confined to bedrest by the Discovery‘s surviving doctor (whose name I still don’t know) and gets a mix of admonition and pep talk from Saru, who tells Tilly that she cannot help others if she doesn’t take care of herself first and that she is important. It’s a sweet moment and shows how much Saru has grown as a character. So far he doesn’t have a lot to do in season 2, though I guess his moment will come. While confined to her bed, Tilly mulls over the problem of how to deal with the radioactive debris with a never before seen crewwoman named May. Eventually, Tilly comes up with a solution and bursts onto the bridge in her hospital gown and blurts out her plan to Saru.
Tilly’s idea involves using the mysterious asteroid and its even more mysterious properties, the same properties that landed Tilly in the sick bay in the first place, to draw the radioactive debris away from New Eden. This also involves some fancy flying manoeuvres and gives another member of the neglected bridge crew, the scarred redhead whose name is apparently Kayla Detmer, a chance to shine and show off her mad flying skills. Needless to say that the manoeuvre succeeds, New Eden is saved and Pike in the practical manner of the Original Series decides to bend the Prime Directive just a little to allow them to tell Jacob the truth and give him a generator, which will help the colony without impacting their way of life too much, in exchange for a recording of the red angel as it rescues the ancestors of the people of New Eden. Though the recording doesn’t actually show anything we haven’t seen before, namely an angelic figure.
Oh yes, and Tilly’s new friend May? It turns out that May isn’t real – which isn’t that much of a surprise, since no one except Tilly ever interacts with her – but the ghost of an old schoolfriend who died years ago. And if Tilly sees ghosts after a brief interaction with the asteroid and the magic mushroom drive, what does this mean for Stamets and Dr. Culber and might this be the reason why Wilson Cruz is actually in the opening credits, even though his character is very much dead?
“New Eden” is not a bad episode of Star Trek Discovery at all and it certainly looks good and is well shot and directed, but then if there is one person in the known universe who knows how to make Star Trek, it’s Jonathan Frakes a.k.a. Commander William Riker, who directed “New Eden”. And indeed, any problems with the episode lie not with Frakes’ direction, but with the script. Because “New Eden” manages to feel both slight and rushed at the same time.
In many ways, “New Eden” feels very much like a midseason filler episode of The Next Generation or Voyager (and indeed, Camestros Felapton points out how very much like The Next Generation this episode feels in his review of “New Eden”), though the plot is borrowed almost wholesale from the Original Series episode “The Paradise Syndrome” a.k.a. the one where Kirk falls in love with a Native American priestess in space. Which reminds me that Pike, who in his two appearances in the Original Series seems to have been as much of a womaniser as Kirk, hasn’t managed to fall for any planetary beauties so far, which is progress, I guess.
Interestingly, “New Eden” also feels like an Orville episode and indeed The Orville had at least three episodes that were a bit reminiscent of “New Eden”. However, The Orville somehow manages to put a fresh spin on shopworn Star Trek plots, while Discovery just reiterates the same philosophical dilemmas that used to characterise Star Trek from the original series to Enterprise and the only new spin it offers is action, action and more action as well as a bit of an arc plot mystery.
And talking of The Orville, it’s a bit strange how Discovery and The Orville have started to resemble each other, even though both have vastly different approaches to the general idea of Star Trek (which is a good thing, because there’s room for more than one take on Star Trek). However, the elevator gag in last week’s episode felt very much like a deleted scene from an Orville script. And this week, we get a Discovery episode that feels like an Orville episode, except with fewer jokes. Meanwhile, The Orville recently took on Star Trek Discovery‘s “The protagonist’s love interest is an undercover Klingon” subplot from last season and somehow managed to handle it much better and make the revelation a genuine surprise. And they did it in only one episode – two, if you count the episode which introduced the character in their Klingon/Krill form.
I don’t think anybody expected The Orville to pull ahead in the race of the Star Treks. But The Orville knows what it wants to do and does it really well, while so far Discovery is still searching for an identity. For the moment, that identity seems to be like classic Star Trek and/or Next Generation, but with more action and much better special effects. Which isn’t the worst path for the show to take, though it feels rather safe. And I for one miss the glorious weirdness that season one displayed on occasion, usually during its better moments.