Our weekly review of Star Trek‘s newest run of episodes continues. It seems that the series teeters between good and great for us here at TrekThis, remaining frustratingly inconsistent at times. Spoilers throughout…
First up it’s Dave who celebrates a return to some classic Trek elements.
‘People of Earth’ was a fine Star Trek episode, it had a feel to it that bordered on nostalgia as it played with the troupes of classic episodic Trek. A visit to a planet that due to being 930 years older than when they last visited, was very much the “planet of the week” and alien to the crew. Misunderstandings, a potential threat, and a resolution all in keeping with the values of the Federation.
It starts as ‘Far from Home’ ended, with the crew reuniting with Michael Burnham and after learning she had a year alone in this new century it was an emotional scene which was well-acted and written. Over the course of 2 full seasons the dynamics between Burnham, Tilly and Saru are well established but this season looks to play with this a little more. Having to survive a year alone and away from her ‘home’ has changed Michael Burnham to the point where she has become distant and unsure of her role on the USS Discovery. Her year with Book was told very briefly but something tells me we will see more of that year in the coming episodes as we will get flashbacks to explain possible changes in Burnham’s character. The worst kept secret in Star Trek played out as Burnham, while explaining the new universe the Discovery and her crew were now in, stepped away from the captains chair and endorsed Saru to take on the role fully which he duly did. It’s a great moment as Doug Jones has played the part so well and Saru has developed into a fan favorite in the series and on multiple occasions he has demonstrated the traits needed of a captain and its great to finally see him sit in that centre seat as a legitimate captain.
A black alert – jump later they arrive at Earth and are instantly under threat by the Earth Defence Force. They are boarded and we meet Captain Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) and our newest member of the cast Adira (Blue del Barrio) who offer some explanation. Since the Burn, the Federation left Earth for a new location over 100 years earlier and in their absence the Earth Defence Force came into being to help protect the planet whose inhabitants had become isolationists and wary of the outside universe. Due to the hoard of Dilithium crystals on board, the Discovery find themselves attacked by Raiders. The EDF don’t intervene or help but explain that the Raiders attack any of their ships for the Dilithium on board. Burnham and Book hatch a plan that manages to snare the raider leader. This is the moment we see the Federation back on the screen. The diplomacy we saw in the last episode, which was falling on deaf ears, plays out here in the tradition of classic Star Trek. As Saru and Burnham sit the leader of the Raiders, Wen (Christopher Heyerdahl) and Captain Ndoye in a room and talking peace. We learn that the Raiders are actually Humans, cut off from Earth and stranded with dying technology on Saturn’s moon Titan.
The episode ends with Burnham staying on board and becoming Sarus number 1 and Book leaving to continue his own journey. I feel it won’t be the last we see of Book, mainly because of the relationship built between the two and of course there is a few seconds of the two kissing in the season 3 trailer. Whether that be in flashback or his return to the ship is to be seen.
It would also seem that whatever has happened to Detmer is going to play out more over the season. During the Raider sequence she questions a command by Saru that places the ship in danger, and it’s the hesitation and the doubt that really suggests that she has PTSD and is not the officer we know from the previous seasons. I have a feeling at some point in the series something will happen to the ship and it will be down to her actions. It was also during this sequence that it struck me that the Discovery will need to get a major makeover if it is to survive in this future. One hit on its hull by a Quantum Torpedo was enough to affect the shields and damage the ship, if it had taken another hit then it would have been game over. Its clear that alien vessels in this century will always have the upper hand so at some point the ship will need an upgrade.
I found this to be a good entry into the seasons so far, although I do not rate it as high as the two previous episodes and I think that is mainly down to the EDF. Although the Discovery and Saru displayed everything we love about the Federation, it’s the fact that Earth, one of the founding members had changed so much, the ideals that we know from the Federation had been replaced by an aggressive and mistrusting nature. And while Earth appeared to be thriving this just left me feeling a little disappointed. But that’s just my opinion. What this does do though, is offer our series narrative. The macguffin for this season will be twofold. Find the new HQ of the Federation and find out what the Burn was (which no further explanation of was offered in this episode). And this has me thinking about the seventh episode planned for this season called ‘Unification III’. That would be halfway through the season and a good place for a mid-season break / cliffhanger if they chose to do that. Could it be that the Federation now counts Romulans as its members? After the events of Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek: Picard it could be that the mission Spock was on in the TNG episodes could finally come to fruition and maybe the Burn had some part in that. That’s just me probably reading too much into things but it would make sense that the search for the Federation would take up one half of the season, and the search for the truth behind the Burn the second half.
I guess we will see.
Next we have Elliot’s opinion. His journey this year with Discovery has so far been somewhat bumpy, but there’s hope that it’s plain-sailing from here on in.
Star Trek as a whole over the last 15 years has seemed to struggle in being on an actual trek of exploration and discovery. The Kelvin Timeline did its own thing (with very little seeking out new life-forms and new civilisations) and Picard had a different agenda, too. Lower Decks may have re-addressed that. And Prodigy? Well, let’s wait and see.
Discovery, meanwhile, became weighed down by its desire to be different. It forgot to have some fun along the way (apart from a bit of saving grace from Pike and co.).
But this season there have been flashes of brilliance. I don’t just mean Tilly’s smile. I’m willing to overlook a) Burnham’s brushed-aside 365 days away from her friends and colleagues, and b) her ease at which she said goodbye to Book (a year together and they both thought “…yeah, ‘bye, then!”?).
Instead, ‘People of Earth’ presented us with a scared and insular Earth, one afraid of its neighbours and its own shadow. In a time where the Federation no longer exists and lawlessness runs rife, this is completely understandable. The bafflement of the Discovery‘s captain and crew is a little forced, however. They know they’re in the future, they know things really aren’t the same. The surprise that they didn’t find what they were expecting felt as if it was pushing the point. It would have made much more sense for Saru to gather his bridge crew and heads of department together, to remind them to expect the unexpected. Nothing in the future is what it seems.
I was aware though of the inclusion of a joined Trill. In all honesty, I’d also forgotten about that. So when one appeared, it was an “oh…yeah…of course…” moment. But this being Discovery, it’s not that straight-forward. Let’s not all forget Book, though… I hope he’s not sidelined for Adira. She already has the potential to be a strong voice in the ensemble crew. Both are intriguing, both need screen time to allow us to get to know them. Similarly, Detmer…we need to know what ails her. The next ten weeks, while a relatively long period for episodic story-telling, will go by pretty quick. Therefore the minor plot arcs must be resolved and addressed in time.
All that said, ‘People of Earth’ felt like a bonafide, old school Star Trek episode. Mystery aliens, a planet under fire, unfamiliar new characters, fun crew interactions, a test of loyalty, courage and ethics. This is what Star Trek excels at and Discovery finally peaked. For a series that began as a prequel to most of what we already knew, the wonder and excitement of a bold new future is a journey I’m very happy to watch unfold.
Here’s Vedran’s view of events, sharing much of the frustration prevalent so far.
Last week I expressed my hope about Saru becoming captain, as well as my fear that he might be sidelined by Burnham.
I am happy to say that my fears were unwarranted. From this week’s episode onwards, Saru is the captain. He is an ideal choice. Discovery needs a calm and calculated officer in this brave new world of the future. Which brings me to the other issue, the search for Michael Burnham, which ended before it even started.
The reunion was full of ‘feels’, which is becoming the usual thing for the series, but I could not shake the feeling that this part of the plot was a bit forced (another thing that the screenwriters are still doing three seasons later). It took only a year between Burnham’s arrival in the 32nd century and the reunion. It is hard for me to believe that such a short time-period was enough for Burnham to abandon the search for her crew, her friends. Adding one zero would do wonders in raising the stakes, making the reunion more believable. More earned.
But this is just a nitpick, from someone who considers the small details of paramount importance in world-building. Despite my misgivings, the return of Burnham and her later conversation with Tilly about everyone they left behind almost a millennia ago was quite touching. There is no way back… From now on, the Discovery and her crew are all alone in the world they can barely recognise.
This “alone in the unknown” theme continued through the rest of the episode. Our heroes reached Earth, but that is not the Earth they remember. Subverting the idea of utopia, the 32nd century Earth is a green hi-tech paradise, ran by an isolationist society. The Earth Defense Force (EDF) guards the precious dilithium reserves, resorting to the use of force to keep the planet safe.
It is not surprising that Discovery was perceived as a threat. The hostile behavior of the EDF was somewhat justified in the attack of an unknown alien force shortly after Discovery arrival. But it was also nicely subverted when the alien leader Wen was unmasked as a human, a leader of a colony on Titan, which lost contact with Earth years ago. Setting aside the issue of Earth-Titan vicinity (and the ease by which a normal radio signal could reach Earth), the agreement between the Earth and Titan representatives was a pure Trek moment. It showed the value of dialogue and compromise.
The entire accident also highlighted another issue, which could play a bigger role in the following episodes. Burnham who returned to Discovery is not the same woman who led the ship to the future. Something happened in that one year, and even if Booker left at the end of the episode, it is obvious that there is a close bond between the two characters. He is still in the same sector. I am sure we will see both him and Grudge the Queen again.
Also, a new character embarked on Discovery. EDF member Adira brought a rare moment of humor in her conversation with Stamets. And when it seemed that we are in for another iteration of the tired trope of a teen (tween?) genius, Discovery surprised me again. Adira is indeed a teen, but she is also the host of a Trill symbiont who happens to have memories of a Starfleet admiral. And this means that we are for a trip to the Trill home world next week. Hopefully, we will see more of Trillius Prime, than Earth. In a bad example of subversion, it had just a few minutes of screen time. It was enough to see a huge tree and a not so futuristic looking San Francisco bay.
With the Discovery crew reminiscing of something we have not seen nor heard in the prior episodes, once again the writers should learn the value of the “show, don’t tell” approach.
All in all, this was quite a good episode. I cannot wait to see what secrets Admiral Tal Sella (aka the Trill symbiont) has in store for us.
Finally, Jack takes to the podium to express his optimism towards what we’ve seen to date.
I am reminded of a line from the musical Hamilton. ‘A legacy is planting seeds to create a garden you never get to see.’
By that measure, I feel the fundamentally changed Earth (or so it seems) introduced in this episode is key in the justification of Discovery’s third season. Its overall message of optimism has been at the centre of the beating heart of the good ship Star Trek these past 54 years.
I was taken aback at first by an establishing shot of a Starfleet ship’s saucer. A few scenes later, we are told Starfleet ceased to be around some three centuries before. The Federation had left its ancestors home on Earth a century before this episode (so around the year 3000…a move no doubt instigated by the band ‘Busted’). At first it seems a bit far-fetched that a ship can last all this time. Yet in retrospect this seems endemic of the series’ optimism, arguably even further proof of Discovery fitting perfectly into canon (were it needed).
Star Trek has shown ships lasting centuries before. Voyager’s ‘Futures End Part I’ mentioned USS Voyager being found in the 29th century. A small heavily-adapted Intrepid-Class can have a lifespan of over a half millennia. Enterprise’s ‘Azati Prime’ featured 200 year-old Prometheus-Class vessels taking part in the 26th Century Battle of Procyon V. I personally think that very early they are establishing that even under the most taxing of circumstances (which the Burn certainly can be described as), with an adaptive nature anything can survive. This forward thinking message is, to me, something Star Trek has always had since first premiering on NBC in September 1966.
The optimism has to be tempered somewhat. ‘People of Earth’ does that in spades in a single scene. Ensign Tilly places delta arrow badges on a public wall of the ship to memorialise the deceased crew and their relatives. This was reminiscent to me of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, where there were similar memorial walls on the Galactica which were in turn, a mirror of various hastily improvised 9/11 Memorials around late 2001. This was before the official 9/11 World Trade Centre memorial was opened in 2011. I’m focusing on seeming minutiae, but that optimistic nature seems to be at all levels of the episode.
The inclusion of the Star Trek theme near the end and the Starfleet Academy tree thriving at the conclusion only served to underscore this sense of optimism. One wonders if it’s the same one Jean-Luc Picard defaced in his own Academy days some 800 years prior. Much like Michael’s ‘Yes, that is Starfleet…’ speech at the end of Season 1, while this could be construed as a bit cheesy (and maybe it is), it is endemic of this episode and series’ bright outlook.
This optimistic tone is well served by the direction of franchise-mainstay Jonathan Frakes. While after a few watches, I can’t identify which parts of the episode are a result of his direction or not, the episode serves the season well and fits with his established works. Well, maybe not Thunderbirds. ‘People of Earth is actually good.
While arguably the weakest of the three episodes so far, that assessment has a lot in common with saying The Godfather Part III is the weakest of the trilogy. It is, but the first two (to quote a–ha’s ‘The Living Daylights’) ‘…set the bar way too high, the living’s in the way we die…’ The first two episodes represented a level of sheer class which we waited over a year for. While this was a fine follow up for sure, this will not exactly convince any naysayers to accept this season as a part of Star Trek Discovery.
I was disappointed we didn’t get to see the battle between the ships over Earth to aid the USS Discovery herself. The franchise has a firm decades-long history of the biggest action scenes being off-screen. Coupled with the fact that the current pandemic has meant Discovery’s post-production was largely done in isolation this season, this is a very understandable omission.
I thus give it an overall score of seven out of ten, noting that it may improve once the season can be enjoyed as a whole come the dawn of 2021.