Final Frontier Friday New Eden

Hello and welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! It’s “in with the new” this week, as we turn an eye towards ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ for a look at the second season episode ‘New Eden’.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I don’t usually focus on the new stuff. In fact, since it premiered, I’ve only actually covered ‘Discovery’ twice (once for the two-part premiere ‘The Vulcan Hello’ / ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ and again with ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ last summer). This isn’t because I’ve got issues with the show. Quite the contrary. If anything, I’ve often had more positive feelings about the show than our regular reviewer (though we have shared some misgivings). But that’s just it. We have regular reviews of the new episodes! Between that and the show’s embrace of a more serialized structure, I’ve largely been content to let each season play out before revisiting specific episodes. Besides which, the sheer breadth of ‘Star Trek’ content out there means I’m in no danger of running out any time soon.

So why am I covering this one, barely a month after it first aired? Well, simply put, I can’t stop thinking about it. For good or for ill? Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Burnham and Pike review the final log entry that Spock recorded before leaving the Enterprise. It includes a drawing with markings that correspond to the locations of the mysterious signals Pike has been tasked with investigating while assigned to the Discovery. Pike reveals to Burnham that Spock committed himself to a psychiatric facility at Starbase 5. While Spock didn’t want his family to be informed, Pike suggests that Burnham extend an olive branch to her brother in light of the importance of their mission and his suddenly apparent connection to it. They are then summoned to the bridge, where a new signal has been detected. The signal is deep in the Beta Quadrant, so much so that they’d never reach it in a reasonable amount of time. To that end, the decision is made to dust off the spore drive for the first time since the end of the war. They make the jump and arrive in orbit of a ringed class M planet. There’s no sign of the signal, but sensors pick up human lifesigns on the surface. Bryce picks up a distress signal, but much to Pike’s confusion, the source turns out to be a seemingly peaceful church. Saru’s analysis of the distress signal reveals it to have been broadcasting continuously for some two hundred years, placing its origin on Earth sometime before the invention of warp drive.

Further study determines that the transmission dates to World War III and is being sent using technology so antiquated as to be unsuitable for interstellar communication. While the planet itself is remarkably Earthlike, the rings are full of radioactive debris. Pike decides to lead a landing party to the surface, and Burnham suggests that Owosekun – who grew up in a Luddite collective – accompany them.

Meanwhile, in the shuttlebay, Tilly is busy trying to carve off a sample of the dark matter asteroid Discovery collected while investigating the previous signal. The determination with which she approaches the asteroid is field by her belief that it could be the key to developing a new spore drive interface. But while she successfully retrieved a sample, the rock gives off a massive energy discharge, sending her flying into the bulkhead.

Pike’s team – consisting of himself, Owosekun, and Burnham – beams down and begins to investigate the church, where they find iconography representing all of Earth’s major religions. As Burnham spots a familiar figure in the stained glass (one reminiscent of the entity she briefly saw in the asteroid field), they are interrupted by Jacob, one of the locals. Jacob in turn introduces them to the All-Mother Amesha, who welcomes them and tells the story of the First Saved – a group of soldiers and civilians who took refuge in the church during World War III. As they braved for death, an “angel” surrounded by “pillars of fire” appeared and transported the church and its occupants to this new world, which they named Terralysium. Unsure of which god to thank for their salvation, the First Saved combined their religions into one. Burnham asks if anyone has used her faith – science – to investigate their ancestors arrival on Terralysium, and is told that they barely have the technology to keep the church lights on. Jacob mentions a helmet camera worn by one of the soldiers, but dejectedly explains that it’s broken.

Back on Discovery, Tilly awakens to a sever dressing down from Saru and Dr. Pollard. Tilly explains what she was trying to do, and Saru understands but cautions her against more reckless behavior, relating it to his own experience as the only Kelpien in Starfleet. Saru is then summoned to the bridge, where he is informed that the outermost ring is destabilizing, sending radioactive material – enough to cause an extinction-level event – toward the surface. To make matters worse, the radiation is interfering with their ability to contact the surface, beam the landing party up, or even send a shuttle after them. With barely an hour to spare, they set about finding a way to avert catastrophe.

On the surface, Pike reasons that no one on Terralysium knew the distress beacon was still transmitting and decides to find a way to shut it down before they leave. The party makes its way to the church basement in search of the beacon (and hopefully, the helmet camera). Owosekun finds the beacon, but realizes that it’s been jury-rigged so that it would continue transmitting.  Before they can wonder who rigged it or why, Jacob reveals himself. His ancestors among the First Saved were scientists, and they’ve kept the transmitter running all this time. While Jacob is convinced that he’s faced with living, breathing evidence that Earth not only survived, but thrived,

Pike (having judged the pre-warp inhabitants of Terralysium to fall under the protection of the Prime Directive) tried to disabuse him of that notion. As they try to leave, Jacob knocks them out with an old stun grenade. They awake to find that Jacob has taken their equipment and locked them in the basement. They quickly escape, as Owosekun is able to pick the lock, but Pike again cautions them that the Prime Directive applies and they are not to break cover under any circumstances.

In sickbay, Tilly is maniacally brainstorming, and eventually realizes that the massive gravitational field of the dark matter asteroid can be used to literally pull the debris away from the planet. She excitedly rushes to the bridge in a hospital gown to make her proposition. It’ll  take some fancy flying (as she explains it, Detmer will basically be “doing a donut in a starship”) and they’ll need to use the spore drive to jump into position, but it should work.

On the surface, Jacob is showing the Starfleet equipment to Amesha just as Pike and the others catch up to him. Just as the conversation is about to get awkward, Owosekun notices a child playing with a phaser. Pike runs to the girl, grabbing the weapon out of her hand and throwing himself on top of it as it goes off. For the sake of discretion, Burnham and Owosekun take their dying captain to the church. In orbit, Discovery manages to catch and clear the debris as planned. Over Amesha’s objections, Jacob barges into the church just as the landing party is beamed up.

While Pike is recovering, he calls Burnham into his ready room. He thanks her for following his orders despite her obvious misgivings. Burnham concedes that she’s learned a thing or two about what can happen when you disobey your captain, and proceeds to tell Pike about the entity she saw in the asteroid field, which is apparently the same one worshipped on Terralysium. Burnham again argues in favor of telling Jacob the truth, and when Pike again reminds her of the Prime Directive, she points out that the helmet camera – if they can find it – may offer more information about this “angel” of theirs.

Later, Jacob enters the basement to find Pike – this time in full uniform – waiting for him. The captain comes clean, giving the man a Cliff’s Notes version of the last two centuries and confirming his belief that Earth survived the war. Grateful to have been given the answers his ancestors never got, Jacob shuts down the transmitter. Pike then offers him a trade: a very long lasting power cell in exchange for the helmet camera. Jacob gladly accepts, the two shake hands, and Pike beams back to Discovery. Back on board, Pike reviews the footage, which does indeed feature the same angelic being that Burnham saw.

Suffice it to say, I have some definite feelings about this one. When discussing the second season of ‘Discovery’, particularly in contrast to the first, the conversation inevitably comes rocketing back to ‘New Eden’. Why? Because frankly, the show has taken a turn in its second year, finding its footing and generally feeling a lot more like ‘Star Trek’ than the first season did.

The first season of ‘Discovery’ was very heavily serialized, which in itself isn’t a problem. ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Enterprise’ both ventured down that road, and I’d say it worked more often than not. The problem that created in the first season of ‘Discovery’ was one of balance. The story was so focused on chronicling the Klingon War in an approximation of the ‘Game of Thrones’ prestige drama style that the writers seldom left room for the sort of episodic “strange new worlds” adventures that have always defined ‘Star Trek’ storytelling. In fact, I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the two episodes least tied to the ongoing story of the war (‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ and ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’) were among the season’s strongest.

The first season also tended toward a darker, more grim tone. Which, to a certain extent, is to be expected when your show’s principle storyline is that of a war. But again, I point to ‘Deep Space Nine’. The last season of ‘Deep Space Nine’ could hardly be summed up as sunshine and kittens. But even as the war dragged on, they still managed to find room for their share of fun, standalone episodes (‘Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang’ aired the week before ‘Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges’, and you would be hard pressed to find two more diametrically opposed stories).

But I say all of that to say this: the second season of ‘Discovery’ is much better at that sort of narrative balance than the first. ‘New Eden’ in particular is a good example of that, as it ties the developing Red Angel plotline in with what is otherwise a completely standalone ‘Star Trek’ story. And an archetypal one at that: “What are these Earth people doing on this planet? How did they get here? Let’s save their lives!” There’s even a Prime Directive dilemma! And that’s the heart of it. With the war over, ‘Discovery’ now seems to be reveling in the opportunity to tell more ‘Star Trek’-ish stories, like ‘New Eden’ and ‘An Obol for Charon’.

And as long-winded as I’m getting about this, that’s what it boils down to. ‘New Eden’ – which is fast securing a place among my favorite ‘Discovery’ episodes to date – feels like ‘Star Trek’ in a way that the first season seldom did. Some of that is because of the narrative balancing act that I’ve been going on about, but some of it is down to the characters, too. Nervous as I always am about these sorts of re-castings, Anson Mount has proven a welcome addition to the show in the role of Captain Pike, helping to lighten things up and just generally give things a shot in the arm. And then there’s the supporting cast. Often overlooked in the first season, the various supporting players are actually given something to do this year. The prime beneficiary in this installment is Owosekun, but the others – including Bryce, Detmer, and the ever-underused Airiam – get their moments as well.

And all of that is without mentioning the fact that Jonathan Frakes directed the episode. Put simply, if there’s any director in television today who knows how to shoot ‘Star Trek’, it’s Two Takes Frakes. Subtle though the stylistic shifts may be, when Frakes directs ‘Discovery’, the show just feels that much more like ‘Star Trek’. It was true last year, and it’s even more the case here.

But while I may be gushing, it’s not a perfect episode. The “save the human settlements from radioactive catastrophe” subplot does feel kind of superfluous, and functionally seems to be there more to introduce May (who is barely relevant to the episode anyway) and provide a ticking clock. Because apparently the episode needed it? Sure. Okay.

But frankly, the bulk of my complaints about the episode relate to things I wished there’d been more of. Owosekun grew up in a Luddite commune? Sure, ‘Star Trek’ has dealt (in passing) with the idea “traditionalists” in the past, but that’s way too interesting a thing to reveal about a main character and just drop! I also would have liked to see more of the society and religion that developed on Terralysium. There’s a hint of conflict (not so much open antagonism as “two people who tend to butt heads”) between Jacob and Amesha that could have been fun to explore. And then there’s World War II. World War III is my one of my favorite pieces of ‘Star Trek’ backstory, and one of the reasons for that is that even after fifty-plus years, it remains largely unexplored territory. So I’m a sucker for anything that even touches on the subject.

What did you think of ‘New Eden’? Let me know in the comments, and as always, make sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!