WARNING – There’s spoilers off the starboard bow!
People seem to think that I only write negative things about STAR TREK: DISCOVERY…that I’ll never accept it and will always find something to criticize: uniforms, Klingons, lack of banter, etc.
Well, the pigs are flying folks! Satan is skating to work! And Jonathan Lane is about to write a 100% POSITIVE review of the latest episode of Discovery, “New Eden.”
What can I say? I loved it. It felt like I was watching STAR TREK…possibly for the first time since Burnham and Georgiou walked across that desert planet at the beginning of the premiere episode. Nothing bothered me…not the uniforms or the “non-canon” console graphics or even Tilly. Heck, I didn’t even mind that the magic mushroom drive once again saved the day.
When it’s good Star Trek—when it FEELS like good Star Trek—all the rest of the discontinuities with canon can be safely beamed out of my mind.
So what made this feel like “real” Star Trek to me…?
BANTER! BEAUTIFUL BOUNTIFUL BANTER!
Oh, I have sooooooo been waiting for this! And it wasn’t just from Pike this time. Saru and Tilly got some quality banter in. Burnham got more character development with her line, “Fortunately, I was raised on Vulcan—we don’t do funny…” than she got through moping her way through season one. Stamets got some banter. The new grumpy doctor got some banter. Heck, even Detmer got some banter!!
And these weren’t just opportunities for a quick chuckle. They expanded these characters. We now know that Saru learned 90 languages (seriously?) to try to fit in with his new Federation friends. We know that Burnham is well aware that the Vulcan way isn’t always the best way (at least when it comes to breaking the tension with light humor). And we know that Detmer got her pilot’s license at the age of twelve. That’s the stuff Wiki pages are made of, folks (and fan films, for that matter!).
IT’S LANDING PARTY TIME!
It wasn’t until this episode that I realized just how infrequently the Discovery crew beams down to an actual planet to seek out new life and new civilizations. There was that one episode in season one that everyone liked (“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”) where Saru has a freak-out…and what else? The desert planet in the pilot episode, the planet in the mirror universe where they met the resistance, the Klingon homeworld, and Earth (oh, and we saw Vulcan in a flashback). In the first 16 episodes, that’s 4 or 5 planets walked on. In the first 16 aired episodes of TOS, do you know how many planets the crew beamed down to? THIRTEEN! Only three episodes didn’t include a planet (“Charlie X,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “Balance of Terror”—just saved you looking it up on Google).
I’m not saying that you always need to feature a planet to feel like Star Trek. Some of the best episodes of all of the series (“Doomsday Machine,” “Tribbles,” “Measure of a Man,” “Best of Both Worlds, Part II,” “In the Pale Moonlight,” “Scorpion”) never showed a landing party or away team. But at least there was a balance. On Discovery, the ratio of planetfalls felt very UNbalanced.
THREE CHEERS FOR THE LITTLE GUYS!
Did you see what I saw? Joann Owosekun not only got to leave her seat on the bridge, she got to go on an actual mission! The “Pavel Chekov of Discovery” has been referred to by some fans as “that black woman on the bridge with the name I can never remember.” OWOSEKUN. Or, as Tilly so conveniently gave us an accepted abbreviation: “Owo.” (Although one wonders what’s wrong with Tilly calling her “Joann.”)
And as I said, Detmer got a chance to do some acting this episode, as well. There was even a little dialog thrown to Bryce and Airiam, although they didn’t really get much this time. But there’s hope!
AN HONEST-TO-GOD PRIME DIRECTIVE EPISODE!
Prime Directive episodes can be fascinating moral conundrums for our characters. Sure, most Prime Directive (or General Order One) episodes end up being elaborate excuses for Kirk or Picard or Janeway to violate the Prime Directive—and (SPOILER ALERT!) Pike was no different this time. But it’s not the destination that makes these episodes so fascinating; it’s the journey (the trek) getting there.
Prime Directive episodes usually pit “brother against brother” in arguing the impossible moral questions of total non-interference. Does Kirk arm the Hill People with flintlocks to save them? McCoy pleads with him not to release a the serpent of endless war into eden. Picard is resigned to allow the people of Drema IV to perish…until a little girl’s desperate voice asks Data for help.
This time, the debate is between Pike, a thoughtful captain raised by a father walking the paths of both scientist and theologian, and Burnham, a women of pure science and logic who often makes rash decisions and disobeys orders. Yin and Yang, perhaps, but Yin is in command, and (SPOILER ALERT!) Yang ultimately follows his orders. That scene at the end where Burnham says, “Sir, I learned the hard way where not following orders can lead to…” did more to define her character and growth than almost anything in season one (including that three-minute speech at the end of the finale). And it was all set up by that Prime Directive conflict.
MOVE TOWARD THE LIGHT!
Star Trek was never intended as a “dark” show. Oh, sure, there was the “darker” Deep Space Nine and season three of Enterprise. But at its heart, Star Trek is about good people trying their hardest to do good things for good reasons. That’s why an episode like “In the Pale Moonlight” of DS9 (where Sisko, with Garak’s help, tricks the Romulans into entering the Dominion War on the side of the Federation) works so well. What Sisko did was so UN-Star Trek that, even two decades later, fans still talk about it as a defining moment for the character. If Trek were dark like that all the time, “In the Pale Moonlight” would have been just another day at the office.
Now the Discovery crew, thanks in part to Pike’s arrival, are back to being good people again—to each other and to the rest of the galaxy. Gone and almost unrecognizable is the cynical and dysfunction-ridden USS Discovery that Burnham first stepped foot on on the third episode. Gone is Lorca…along with all the fan “Lorcapologists” from the early episodes who said, “Just give him a chance; he’s been through a horrible war…” or “I like this new, darker kind of starship captain…” Lorca wasn’t Star Trek or Starfleet, and his ultimate reveal as Mirror Lorca proved that. In his first episode, Pike says, “I’m not him; I’m not Lorca” and that’s all we fans need to know.
But just in case we didn’t get the memo, the sets themselves have been lit brighter this season. I noticed when Burnham walked into the captain’s ready room for the first time and I saw something I’d never seen before: the captain’s ready room! Sure, we’d had many scenes there in season one, but they were so dimly lit that I could barely see this beautiful set. Now it’s got light streaming in and it looks gorgeous, welcoming, hopeful…just like the show itself. Sure, it’s not as brightly lit as TOS or TNG or The Orville—and that’s okay. Some shadows and darkness can help give definition to the light. I’m just glad the light is no longer being swallowed by the darkness.
NOW I LOVE PIKE!
Last week, I said, “I LIKE PIKE!” Well, now I LOVE him! Don’t tell my wife, but that Anson Mount is a total heart throb. But more than that, he is an amazingly gifted actor. He carries his scenes forward without stealing them, with a quiet and calming presence that creates a solid foundation on which other actors can elevate their own performances. Burnham never comes off better than when she’s playing a scene with Pike…no matter if they’re arguing, joking, or just connecting on a deep, introspective level.
I actually sorta see Pike’s arrival in season two being very similar to Bruce Boxleitner’s Captain John Sheridan arriving on Babylon 5 in its second season. After the “brooding” Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Sheridan was a welcome breath of fresh air, bright and enthusiastic. Pike is the same way. “If you’re telling me this ship can skip across the universe on a highway made of mushrooms, I kinda have to go on faith.” I feel the same way! But now I feel like at least someone else (on the show) is acknowledging how ridiculous this spore drive is. That never happened in season one.
It’s amazing what the right lead actor and character can do for a show. I feel as though Anson Mount’s Pike is taking not only fandom by storm but also the writers and producers…which could be interesting when the time comes for Pike to leave the Discovery and return to the refit Enterprise (perhaps looking more like the familiar TOS Enterprise when we next see it?). After all, Kirk says he took over the Enterprise from Pike, so Pike does need to go back eventually. But how long will that be? Technically, we’ve still got nine years until the beginning of Kirk’s five-year mission. And it’ll take a while to overhaul ol’ NCC-1701. So maybe, thanks to Anson Mount’s peak Pike performance, we might see Captain Pike in Discovery‘s center seat longer than initially planned. Time will tell…
TILLY ISN’T WESLEY…OR LUCY!
Let’s face it, if it weren’t for one particular “crazy red-head,” Star Trek wouldn’t even exist! But lately, Mary Wiseman’s portrayal of Sylvia Tilly has rung just a single note: comic relief. Sure, she’s smart, and she means well, but she’s also always the one who does the gag, makes the awkward self-deprecating joke, or says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Was Discovery turning into “I Love Tilly“? (If so, does that mean Brunham is Ethel, Pike is Ricky Ricardo, and Saru is Fred Mertz? That’ll take some ‘splainin’!)
Other fans have seen Tilly as the new Wesley Crusher—smart, awkward, wholesome, and always saving the ship (although Wesley would NEVER use the F-word!).
This episode, however, while she showed a little of both Lucy and Wesley, Tilly was definitely Tilly…and not nearly as annoying as I’ve found her previously. Maybe it’s just Mary Wiseman’s solid acting (others might get swallowed by that part and play it only for laughs). Maybe it’s her new imaginary “I see dead people” friend, May…who seems to be even more awkward and clingy than Tilly (if that’s even possible!). But somehow Tilly stood up on her own this episode, saved the day in a heroic way, and had me not only rooting for her but actually wanting to see MORE of her!
LOOK, MA, NO BAD GUY!
Quick, name at episode from season one that did NOT have a bad guy, a villain, or a heavy.
Sorry, trick question—there wasn’t one. Whether it was T’Kuvma, Mudd, L’Rell, a berserk Tardigrade, Empress Georgiou, Mirror Lorca, or just the Terran or Klingon empires, there was always someone threatening our heroes, someone we could root against and hate. And honestly, Star Trek has its fair share of good (and bad) villains: Khan, Kor, Q, Lore, The Borg, Gul Dukat, Weyoun, the Hirogen, Species 8472…the list goes on and on. But sometimes it’s nice to just take a break from all of the evil and malevolence of a galaxy that’s trying to destroy you and just, y’know, explore strange, new worlds.
This episode, and last episode too, gave us just that. The Discovery is trying to solve a cosmic puzzle. No one is shooting at them (at least, not yet), and because of that, the crew gets to do a little marveling at the mysteries of the universe and use their problem-solving abilities for things like science instead of combat (or science being used for combat).
Star Trek was always at its strongest when doing the pseudo-science thing. Sure, some stuff was a little far-fetched (no one’s building a Dyson sphere, folks—you’d need the natural resources of ten million planets). But Trek was just sciency enough to seem plausible and inspire young people to learn more (at least, that was the case in the 1970s and 80s). This episode, we got to see a super-dense asteroid with a massive gravity field being used to drag away radioactive ring fragments like a magnet pulling iron filings. Sure, I saw that solution coming a light-year away, but it was still a cool bit of science! And I didn’t even mind the use of the magic mushrooms to save the day because it wasn’t the centerpiece of the rescue but only a small part of it.
NO LOST ARC EITHER!
While Star Trek began as episodic television, the Dominion War, the Xindi Arc, and Discovery‘s entire first season have made serialization the “new normal.” And I’m okay with that.
But when every episode is advancing a larger season-long arc, it’s hard to tell a story like this one where we simply get to meet an isolated society and learn about their beliefs and customs (and rescue them, of course).
However, this episode provided just enough of the larger storyline to keep it moving forward—the red angel, the dark matter asteroid, and now Tilly’s imaginary friend (who might be something more than a simple hallucination or a ghost…and might be a link to Dr. Culber’s return, as well). I’m hooked on this season’s arc so far, this strange interplay between science and religion. It seems promising and potentially hopeful—and that’s what I want out of my Star Trek, dammit!
AND THE NUMBER ONE REASON THIS WAS STAR TREK…
Jonathan Frakes knows Star Trek; that much is certain. He’s directed episodes of TNG, DS9, Voyager, and two of the feature films (First Contact and Insurrection). He also directed the first Mirror Universe episode of Discovery‘s season one. He’s actually become an accomplished director of countless other TV shows—just look at his IMDb page!—including NCIS: LA, Burn Notice, The Gifted, and even The Orville. In fact, Frakes is one of the most experienced directors who works on Discovery (he’s returning to direct their ninth episode, too), and I think he’s actually the ONLY Discovery director who previously directed Star Trek on TV or film.
But it wasn’t just Frakes who made this episode more Star Trekky. One of the writers of “New Eden,” Sean Cochran, also co-wrote the SHORT TREKS episode “Calypso,” considered by many fans (including me) to be the strongest episode of the bunch from an emotional, care-about-the-characters standpoint. His co-writer for that vignette, Michael Chabon, is also an avowed Trekkie (and a Pulitzer Prize winner!) who is leading development of the new Picard series…which one would assume will also have some episodes directed by Jonathan Frakes.
Sean Cochan’s co-writer for “New Eden” was Akiva Goldsman, an Academy Award winning writer who will also be working on the new Picard series. This latest episode of Discovery gives me hope that “Picard Trek” will not trigger the same frustrations from me and other fans of “this isn’t Star Trek!” that Discovery initially did.
And that, my friends, is what Star Trek has always been about: HOPE. Now I just hope that “New Eden” wasn’t simply a one-time fluke and that Discovery can hold onto the Star Trek “handle” now that they’ve finally found it…