Star Trek Discovery pays a visit to the “People of the Earth”

Welcome back to my episode by episode review of Star Trek Discovery. My takes on previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

“People of the Earth” opens with a brief flashback of what happened to Michael during the year she waited for Discovery to arrive. In order to learn more about whatever happened to the Federation and Starfleet and what exactly caused “the burn”, Michael became a courier, working both alone as well as with Book. We learn all this from a log recording that Michael makes for Discovery, whenever she will arrive, wherein she also confesses that she fears she will never see the Discovery and her crew again. We also nicely see Michael’s hair grow steadily longer as time passes until she has the awesome cornrows she wears now. The brief flashback ends with Michael and Book (and Grudge) together, laughing and clearly comfortable with each other, when Michael’s ancient Starfleet communicator begins to beep.

Now this episode continues exactly where last week’s episode left off, with Michael and the Discovery finally reunited. As Michael beams aboard, she is met by Tilly, Saru, Stamets and the bridge crew, which leads to a massive group hug. Indeed, there is a lot of hugging in this episode, which I quite liked, though AV Club reviewer Zack Handlen didn’t.

Empress Philippa the Merciless isn’t one for hugging – too undignified. Nonetheless, she skulks around in the background, as relieved as anybody else to have Michael back. And unlike everybody else, Philippa is actually pleased that Michael has changed, has become tougher and more independent in her year away. Oh yes, and Georgiou has promoted herself to admiral, too. Michelle Yeoh is always a delight and Philippa Georgiou, Empress of the Universe, in Mama Bear mode is brilliant. iO9 reviewer James Whitbrook clearly agrees with me.

Book gets a taste of Georgiou’s protectiveness, when he beams aboard Discovery and promptly finds himself faced with Georgiou (rather than Tilly or Dettmer, as Michael promised) who proceeds to interogate him with regard to his intentions towards Michael. Book remains charming but evasive, though he does assure Georgiou that he and Michael are not a couple, at least not yet. Cause considering the sparks flying between Michael and Book, they will get there eventually.

The reactions of the rest of the Discovery crew to Book are very telling as well. Saru is grateful for Book’s help, but wary of his intentions, not to mention jealous at the new man in Michael’s life. Meanwhile, Dettmer and Owosegun quickly decide that Michael definitely made the right choice, because Book is very handsome indeed. Book, meanwhile, is bemused at the antique vessel aboard which he finds himself, which turns to amazement, once he sees the ship’s dilithium store (Michael had promised Book some dilithium in exchange for his help). Plus, to Book’s infinite disappointment, the replicator only produces synthehol, which will give you the taste, but not the buzz. Finally, Book is also still reluctant at letting himself get drawn into Starfleet and their issues, as is evidenced by a scene where he is forced to wear a Starfleet uniform and pose as an officer. He’s clearly uncomfortable and not just because he has no idea how zippers work. David Ajala continues to be a great addition to the cast and I hope we’ll see more of him, even if he takes off alone at the end of the episode.

As soon as Michael is safely back, Saru also wants to have the captain conversation with her, but Michael tells him that of course Saru will remain captain of the Discovery. It’s absolutely the right decision and one I’m very happy with, because as I said last week, Saru makes a great captain (and Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido agrees with me). Whereas Michael is probably a bit too much of a Maverick to make a good captain, but more about that later.

Saru also wants Michael to be his Number One (Is this now the standard address for first officers in Starfleet? Cause so far, we have only heard Riker [who directs this episode] and Captain Pike’s still nameless first officer called that). However, Michael is hesitant, because after a year spent as a free agent, she is no longer sure, if Starfleet and Discovery are still the life she wants for herself.

Way back during season 1, I wrote that there were quite a few space operas, including season 1 of Star Trek Discovery, which made me wonder why the protagonist(s) just didn’t steal a ship and ran away to become space pirates or open a restaurant or something instead of getting involved in some intergalactic war and generally getting treated badly by others. Indeed, the In Love and War series was born out of this frustration, when I decided to write the story of two people who decided to run away from it all together, though Anjali and Mikhail did not become space pirates in the end nor have they opened a restaurant yet.

However, in science fiction – particularly space opera – characters very rarely run away from the overarching plot, even if it would be in their best interest to do so. Miles Vorkosigan does for a while, but he always comes back to Barrayar. Therefore, I found it interesting that Michael at least considers running away to become a space pirate courier. Especially since unlike season 1, where Starfleet wanted to throw her into a slave labour prison for life, Michael is actually in a good place now. She is first officer, she has a crew she likes and who like her. However, her year in the wilderness has changed her. Georgiou already noticed and so does Book.

Of course, the episode is not all character development and interaction. There is also a plot, which kicks in gear when Michael reveals that she received a transmission from a Starfleet admiral named Senna Tal, who called for all surviving Starfleet vessels to return to Earth. However, the transmission is twelve years old and Michael has no idea if Admiral Tal and the rest of what remains of Starfleet are still on Earth. And due to the chronic dilithium shortage in the 32nd century, Michael also had no opportunity to go to Earth and check for herself. How lucky that the Discovery not only has plenty of dilithium, but also the magic mushroom drive, which can take them to Earth in the blink of an eye. What about the danger to the mycellium network posed by the spore drive? Well, we forgot all about that and will continue to use the spore drive as our “Get out of jail free” card.

However, the ample dilithium supplies of the Discovery are also about to become a problem, for they make the ship a target. And since the Discovery is 900 years old, defending herself against ships with modern weapons is not going to be easy. But Michael has the perfect solution to the Discovery‘s dilemma. Store all the dilithium aboard Book’s ship (which still hasn’t aquired a name) with its handy cloaking device. Saru is not a huge fan of this plan, because he still doesn’t trust Book, but is willing to go along with it as long as Book’s ship remains in the shuttle bay of the Discovery and Book remains off his ship.  So they repair the Discovery, transfer the dilithium to Book’s ship and take off for Earth.

The Discovery reappears near Saturn and uses the impulse drive for the rest of the trip to Earth. But it’s not a happy homecoming, for once they reach Earth they promptly find themselves faced with a massive forcefield, targeted by defence systems and hailed by a woman who introduces herself as Captain N’Doye of the Earth Defence Forces. Captain N’Doye tells Discovery in no uncertain terms to get lost.

Saru is understandably confused, because he has never heard of the Earth Defence Forces. He spins a tale about how Discovery got stranded in a far off sector by the burn and has only now limped back to Earth with the descendants of the original crew on board. As for why their ship is so old, it’s a good ship, so why waste it? And besides, the Discovery only wants to check in with Starfleet headquarters.

N’Doye tells Saru that Starfleet headquarters are long gone, moved off planet, and no, she had no idea where. Admiral Tal, whose message Michael intercepted, died in an accident. Oh yes, and Earth has zero interest in rebuilding the Federation, because they’ve gone all isolationist in the meantime. I gues we could call it Earxit.

N’Doye also tells Saru that the Discovery will be boarded for an inspection to make sure they don’t have stolen or smuggled goods aboard.  Saru does not at all agree with this, but he has little choice, for as soon as N’Doye has said the words, her people beam aboard, holding everybody at phaser point and turning the ship upside down.

Michael spirits Book away to her quarters and makes him put on a Starfleet uniform, which gives her and us the chance to admire Book’s well-muscled chest. Book also clearly has issues with zippers and doesn’t like Starfleet uniforms at all.

Stamets is not at all happy to have N’Doye’s inspectors blunder all over his engine room. He also meets a young member of the Earth Defence Forces named Adira (Blu del Barrio) who asks plenty of questions and generally gives their best Wesley Crusher impression. Adira is the non-binary character whose introduction was much mentioned in the promo materials, which is why I’m using the “they” pronoun, even if Tilly uses a female pronoun. But then, pronoun stickers are apparently not a thing in the 32nd century (and why not? They would be easy to add to a badge?).

N’Doye also reveals that Earth is having trouble with a group of space pirates called the Wen who rais Earth for dilithium and other supplies. As if on cue, the Wen show up and hail Discovery. Their leader, a being in an insect-like helmet, demands that Discovery hand over all her dilithium. N’Doye orders her people to fire upon the Wen. Saru lets her know in no uncertain terms that she has no authority on his ship and that there will be no shooting at anybody on his watch.

The stand-off becomes more tense when it turns out that N’Doye’s people cannot beam from board, because the Discovery is surrounded by some kind of forcefield which messes with their personal transporters. N’Doye accuses Saru of being behind the sabotage. But the true saboteur is found much closer to home. For in the engine room, Stamets and Tilly find a mysterious device that Adira installed and deduce that they are the saboteur. However, Adira has vanished.

Meanwhile, Michael and Book work out a cunning plan to deal with the raiders without massive bloodshed. However, Michael – back to her Maverick ways of season 1 – neglects to inform Saru about her cunning plan, most likely because she knows he wouldn’t agree. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than get permission,” she tells Book. I have no idea where that quote comes from – Wikipedia attributes it to an impressive lady named Admiral Grace Hopper – but I mainly associate it with Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS, who quotes Admiral Hopper a lot. So my first reaction was, “Oh no, don’t tell me that NCIS is still going on the the 23rd century, now headed by a hologram of Gibbs and an immortal Hetty Lang.” However, I suspect Michael was quoting Admiral Hopper rather than Gibbs, if only because Star Trek, for all its attempts to be global, is still very US focussed and clearly expects the rest of the world to know American historical figures like Admiral Hopper.

Some people have issues with Michael being a Maverick, but I think it actually fits the character as she has been portrayed. For Michael’s illustrious little brother Spock is a very similar character. Spock is deeply loyal to the Enterprise and her crew,  but he also does what he thinks is right, considers orders merely suggestions and often neglects to inform Kirk or Pike about his cunning plan. Spock also tends to nerve-pinch superior officers, when they are in the way. And oddly enough, hardly anybody complains about Spock being a Maverick, whereas plenty of people complain about Michael.

Michael’s and Book’s cunning plans involves sneaking aboard Book’s ship and taking it and all the dilithium out of the shuttle bay (the episode glosses over just how Michael manages to do this, but then I suspect she has the command codes). Then they call the raiders and tell them, “We stole all the Discovery‘s dilithium and now you’re negotiating with us.”

Saru has no idea what Michael’s plan is, but he trusts her enough to know that she has one.  N’Doye doesn’t help matters at all and orders her ship to fire on the raiders and Book’s ship. Now Saru decides to put the Discovery between Book’s ship and N’Doye’s people and absorb the shot. Dettmer, who is still shaken by the crash last episode, is not at all happy with this order, but eventually obeys. The Discovery survives the shots of N’Doye’s people, though her shields are down and she suffers some damage. Meanwhile, Michael tells the raiders that if they want to negotiate, they’d better do it now, because the Discovery cannot take another shot.

The raiders agree and lower their shields, while Book cloaks his ship. Meanwhile, on the bridge of Discovery, Saru and N’Doye note that the raiders are also powering down their weapons. A moment later, Michael and Book enter the bridge, dragging along the clearly reluctant raider captain. Once the raiders lowered their shields, they beamed aboard and took the raider captain prisoner. Sadly, we do not get to see this scene.

Saru and Michael now force N’Doye and the raider captain to talk to each other and resolve their differences peacefully. Michael also tears off the raider captain’s helmet, revealing a somewhat bedraggled looking human. N’Doye is shocked, for she had no idea that her raiders were human. The raider captain reveals that he and his people are from a research colony on Titan, which had declared itself independent from Earth a century ago (Titanexit?). The colony did fine, until disaster struck and destroyed many of their habitats. Though I don’t find it very believable that Earth had no idea that the people on Titan were suffering, because Titan is a moon of Saturn. We have space probes and telescopes which can easily observe Titan even in the 21st century. And yet the hyper-advanced Earth of the 32nd century can’t even be bothered to observe what’s going on in its own solar system? Or maybe the “Earth first” types of the 32nd century just didn’t care.

The colony asked Earth for help, but Earth didn’t respond. So the Titan colonists became space pirates out of desperation, because the people of Earth are jerks and just hoard dilithium they don’t need. Saru and Michael broker an agreement and an exchange of dilithium and information between the two former enemies. Of course, N’Doye is very likely not authorised to make such decisions and the raider captain probably isn’t either. But it’s Star Trek and overly simplified conflict resolution has always been a trait of the series.

In his review, Camestros Felapton notes that “People of the Earth” feels a lot more like Star Trek than the previous two episodes and that it plays out almost like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, down to the fact that Jonathan Frakes a.k.a. Will Riker himself is directing. He is right, too, except that rather blunt moral messages and overly pat conflict resolutions are not just a Next Generation thing, they’re a Star Trek thing. And so the original series had plenty of episodes with clumsy moral messages and very tidy solutions. See “Let that be your last battlefield” (a.k.a. the one with the people with the black and white faces) or “The Omega Glory” (a.k.a. the one with the Yangs and the Koms) or “A Private Little War” (this one has Klingons) or even “Arena” (a.k.a. the one with Gorn), which was actually an improvement on the “genocide is good” story upon which it was based. Blunt moral message in favour of collaboration rather than conflict and against isolationism have always been a feature of Star Trek. Just as “Talking to each other makes everything better” has always been a feature of Star Trek. Discovery is clearly following in those footsteps.

And even though the solution to the central dilemma of “People of the Earth” is a little too neat and easy, I personally don’t mind Discovery doing a typical Star Trek solution complete with blunt moral messaging once in a while. And “People of the Earth” manages to be less eye-rolly than some of the moral message episodes listed above.

With the conflict resolved, N’Doye allows the Discovery crew to visit Earth. And so Tilly and the bridge crew end up on the grounds of what was once Starfleet academy and find an old tree still standing that had already been there when they were cadets. Even more amazingly, the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing as well – more than 1250 years after it was built.

Michael and Saru have a heart to heart about Michael’s unauthorised decision. It’s a nice scene which shows how far these two characters have come in trusting each other compared to season 1. Michael also accepts Saru’s invitation to become his Number One, while Book and Grudge take off for parts unknown.

Meanwhile, Stamets has finally tracked down Adira, who has crawled into a Jeffries tube. The usually grumpy Stamets tells Adira that he knows they are behind the sabotage and also tells them about the magic mushrookm drive and that he is the human navigator. In turn, Adira opens up as well and reveals that they only sabotaged the transporters, so they could spend more time aboard Discovery, because they have been waiting for a Starfleet vessel to finally show up. Adira also wishes to join the crew and reveals that they know where to find Admiral Tal. For it turns out that Admiral Tal was a Trill. And upon his death, his symbiont transferred to Adira. Except that Adira cannot access all of Tal’s memories, since they are human rather than Trill.

Of course, Starfleet will not encounter the Trill and their symbionts until The Next Generation well after Discovery‘s time. But the infodump sphere nicely gives Saru and Michael the required information about how Trill symbionts work. And as we already know from The Next Generation, Trill symbionts can survive in human bodies, though it’s not an ideal solution.

I have to admit I’m not quite sure what to make of Adira yet. The fact that they are non-binary is not so revolutionary, when they’re a Trill, because Trill are non-binary by default and don’t give a fuck about gender identity. I also see a risk of Adira becoming a Wesley Crusher type know-it-all, but then many of the issues with Wesley were due to bad writing. not to mention, as Camestros Felapton points out, that Discovery already has a lot of characters, several of which (the bridge crew) are underdeveloped, so do we really need another main character? On the other hand, I enjoyed seeing grumpy Stamets bonding with Adira and I can see Stamets and Culber making good adoptive parents for Adira. So I guess we’ll see what they do with the character.

All in all, this was an enjoyable episode, though not quite up to the standards of the first two of the season. The moral message was rather blunt and the solution overly simple, but then it’s Star Trek and sometimes, Star Trek‘s just gonna Star Trek.

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8 Responses to Star Trek Discovery pays a visit to the “People of the Earth”

  1. Stamets, Culber and Jett Reno should be Adira’s adoptive parents – mind you, aren’t they actually hundreds of years old?

    • Cora says:

      Oh definitely, joint custody for Stamets, Culber and Reno. And while the Trill symbiont (Tal?) is hundreds of years old, Adira is clearly still a teenager and probably needs some parenting. Talking of Adira’s age, I did look up the IMDB entry for the actor Blu del Barrio, but it doesn’t have a birthdate.

  2. Steve Wright says:

    I’d always assumed the “easier to seek forgiveness than permission” thing originated with the Jesuits, but that might just be my jaundiced view of the Jesuits…. I found a web page with some further information ( https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/06/19/forgive/ ) – they have one version dated to 1846, and suggest it might originate with St Benedict (so, right religion, wrong order, then!)

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link. St. Benedict would definitely make sense, though I suspect that the NCIS characters are quoting Admiral Grace Hopper due to the Navy connection. As for whom Burnham is quoting, who knows? Maybe some ancient Vulcan sage who imparted his wisdom to St. Benedict during a previously undisclosed Vulcan visit to Earth. Or maybe Michael is a secret NCIS fan?

  3. Juanma Barranquero says:

    It’s Georgiou, and not Burnham, who removes the raider’s helmet.

    Also, the United Earth Defense Force’s captain is called Ndoye, not N’Doye.

  4. Peer says:

    “But then, pronoun stickers are apparently not a thing in the 32nd century ”
    Riker needed Ro Larens explanition what her first and last name was, when she was introduced, so they clearly havent figured out how to give infomation on how to adress people via universal tranlator yet.

    The running away thing is neat – Weve seen a few scenes where Star Fleet officers quit (or threaten to), so they can quit anytime. Which makes sense, considering DS9 hints they dont actually get paid, but only work for reach. I mean fulfilment (althoug they must have a spending account for paying at Quarks bar). Which begs the question: Can you quit anytime, even during a mission? Is there a two weeks notice?

    • Cora says:

      That’s clearly a fault in the universal translator then.

      Interestingly, we don’t know how quitting Starfleet works, since no one ever does. Even though it’s a risky job with little to no pay. And yes, the Federation is supposedly a post-scarcity utopia, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the galaxy is as well. I imagine people who quit Starfleet in the middle of a mission would be dumped off at the nearest outpost.

  5. Pingback: Star Trek Discovery Deals with Trauma and Recovery in “Forget Me Not” | Cora Buhlert

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