Dec 14, 2020
Star Trek: Discovery “New Eden”
Previously on Star Trek: Discovery: Captain Christopher Pike arrived to take command of the Discovery, due to the detection of mysterious “red bursts” all throughout the galaxy that need investigating. But instead of a Red Burst, Discovery found an asteroid with some exotic “dark matter” properties, and pulled a chunk of it into the shuttlebay. Burnham went over to the Enterprise but Spock was gone, and all he left was a map of the galaxy showing the locations of all the other Red Bursts.
As everyone expected, it looks like Discovery is becoming a decidedly more TOS/TNG-flavored show that’s all about bridge crews, and away teams, and the Prime Directive, and First Contact situations, and Strange Planets of the Week, and the whole A-plot/B-plot structure. While it’s entirely possible to make a quality Trek show that follows this formula, it remains to be seen if Discovery can pull it off, because “New Eden” is one of the sloppiest and choppiest episodes this show has churned out yet.
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It looks like our recent article revisiting the Enterprise episode “North Star” was unexpectedly timely, because we get a shameless rehash of that story here, along with a dash of “Terra Nova”, as well as TNG’s “Up the Long Ladder”, Voyager’s “The ‘37s”, and just about every other Star Trek episode about discovering a lost colony of humans who only have dim memories of Earth and its traditions. There are some interesting concepts to be found here, but everything is rushed through at such a breakneck pace that absolutely nothing makes an impression.
Jonathan Frakes (speaking of TNG) directs this episode, and he did a decent enough job last season, so I don’t know what happened here—the performances are weak, the dialogue is awkward, and the editing in particular is headache-inducing. My understanding is that the season premiere went wildly over budget, so perhaps there was some pressure to finish this episode on time/under budget, which then led to mistakes that had to be quickly fixed in the editing booth. But that’s just a guess.
We open with a voiceover from Ethan Peck’s Spock, and just when you’re steeling yourself for another episode’s worth of pretentious voiceover, it turns out it’s really Burnham playing Spock’s last log entry for Captain Pike in his (all-new) ready room. She shows off the map embedded in Spock’s log entry, which looks completely different from the map we saw in the previous episode, but Pike pulls up a Starfleet map and can see that, yep, Spock knew the locations of the Red Bursts months before they were detected.
Burnham says that vacay or not, they have to go find Spock and get his help, so Pike breaks the news that Spock is actually in a “psychiatric unit” on a starbase, which he checked into voluntarily. Paying him a visit seems to be out of the question, which of course drags out the whole “Where’s Spock?” plotline for another week or two.
They’re called to a bridge because another one of those Red Bursts has been detected. They track the source of the signal to the Beta Quadrant, 51,450 light years away, which Pike says would take 150 years to reach at maximum warp. And I realize these bursts appearing everywhere throughout the galaxy is the whole basis for this season-long arc, but how exactly are they detecting the presence of signals that are too far away to even be reachable by warp?
Saru says they could use the spore drive to get there, and starts to explain how it functions, and how Stamets injected himself with tardigrade DNA so he could interface with magic mushrooms, and Pike looks totally bewildered by all this. Which is funny, but… wouldn’t Pike have been briefed on the spore drive in full before taking command of the Discovery? It’s sort of what the ship is known for, given it was the Federation’s ace in the hole during the Klingon conflict.
In Engineering, Tilly preps Stamets for another spore jump, which he’s willing to do despite vowing last season that he was done with these. He confesses that he saw Dr. Culber, his dear deceased partner, in the mycelial network, and he knows it wasn’t just a hallucination. In fact, Culber was the one who helped them navigate back home from the “Terran universe”. And I appreciate how they’re keeping up the Star Trek tradition of never actually referring to it as the “Mirror Universe”; it makes sense, since there’s no reason anyone would call it that, er, in-universe.
Pike orders a Black Alert (he sure got up to speed on the spore drive quick), but when they jump to the Beta Quadrant, once again there’s no sign of whatever was generating the signal. Instead, all they find is a ringed Class M planet. The crew is then shocked to discover human life signs on the surface, as well as a distress call coming from the planet.
Scanning in on the source of the distress call, they find a rather quaint-looking village complete with a church. They also determine the distress call has been playing on a loop for over 200 years. This means these humans somehow reached this planet during the pre-warp days of World War III, which Burnham explains was a big nuclear cataclysm that killed 600 million people, but I’m guessing Pike is already well aware of an event that wiped out over a tenth of Earth’s population.
Also, Pike mentions the distress signal is being broadcast in “Federation Standard”. This is a term that’s cropped up in the Trek books and comics, to suggest everyone in the Federation is not actually speaking in English, but rather a language called “Standard”, but I believe this is the first time in 50+ years of canonical Trek it’s ever been mentioned on screen. Which is cool, and adds to the lore and all, but how in the heck could a colony of humans that were taken from Earth before the founding of the Federation be speaking “Federation Standard”?
Pike stresses that these people are living in a pre-warp society, so “General Order One”, AKA the Prime Directive applies to them. And in case this doesn’t stick in your mind, he will repeat the phrase “General Order One” half a dozen times over the course of the episode.
So Pike, Burnham, and Owosekun beam down to the church, and discover it has stained glass windows bearing symbols of every major religion on Earth… plus “Wicca”, which I assume was meant to be a small joke. Burnham then sees a figure in one of the windows that looks like the Red Angel from her vision on the asteroid.
A guy named Jacob barges in, and Pike tells him they come from “the North”. Jacob welcomes them to “New Eden” and takes them to see the “All Mother”, an older woman wearing a silken red robe who leads a pseudo-religious ceremony to greet their new friends from the “Northern Territory”. During this ceremony, she drops a big info-dump on them and us, about how back in 2053 on Earth, some soldiers took refuge in a church where an “angel” appeared to them and spirited them and their church away to this planet, which they call “Terralysium”. She also explains that the soldiers didn’t know “which God” to thank for their salvation, so they just combined all their religions into one. Yep, all they had to do to solve religious strife is merge together seven or eight incompatible faiths; it’s really that simple.
Jacob also expositionizes that one of those soldiers back in 2053 was wearing a helmet cam that captured the encounter with the “angel”, but it’s broken and they can’t play back the video.
Meanwhile on the ship, Tilly is using a “laser core sampler” to break off a piece of the asteroid chunk they picked up last week. She collects a sample, which immediately releases an energy discharge that knocks her out and sends her to Sickbay. When she wakes up, she’s greeted by an officer named May who speaks in a cartoon-like voice with a Jamaican (or some other type of islander?) accent, and her whole demeanor is so bizarre she makes Tilly for once look like a person who’s not on the spectrum.
Suddenly, there’s a crisis: the rings around the planet contain “radioactive debris”, and in just a few minutes, that debris is going to rain down on the planet and cause an “extinction level event”. And of course, they can’t beam up the landing party or take a shuttlecraft down to rescue them.
In Sickbay, Tilly talks to May (who’s saying increasingly weird stuff like “your mind is so much fun”) and gets a flash of inspiration: They can use the gravity of their asteroid fragment to pull the debris away from the planet. But they would need to position the ship between the debris and the planet, and the only way to do that, apparently, is with another spore jump.
And Stamets is once again all too happy to hop back in the spore chamber. I mean, didn’t they tell us last season that the spore drive was destroying his brain a little bit every time he did a jump? Regardless, they make the jump, and Discovery releases the asteroid chunk, which successfully draws away the debris. And, um, I hate to get juvenile, but the way Discovery releases the chunk looks a lot like… well, something else.
Back on the planet, Pike wants to turn off the distress beacon, and leave these people as they are, but Burnham objects. She thinks it’s wrong to let them believe that God brought them here, but Pike suggests maybe there really was some sort of divine intervention involved. He again brings up General Order One, but going by what we saw on TNG, didn’t they already totally violate the Prime Directive by preventing a disaster that would have wiped out all life on the planet?
They find the beacon in the church basement, but Jacob bursts in on them, and explains that his family kept the beacon going all these years in the hopes someone would find them. He knows Pike and Company are from Earth and came here on a spaceship. And I have to say, there’s some exceptionally bad acting going on here from the guy playing Jacob, but I can’t tell if he’s an awful actor or his performance was hampered by having to deliver all this rapid-fire exposition.
Jacob tosses a flash grenade that knocks them all out, and takes their phasers and communicators to the All Mother to prove who they really are. Pike and friends recover and show up just as Jacob’s daughter picks up a phaser, and somehow activates its self-destruct mode.
Pike knocks it out of her hand and jumps on it, and given what we’ve been told previously on Trek shows about how much energy is released when a phaser self-destructs, you’d expect him and most of the town to be vaporized, but instead he’s only critically injured. They have to get him back to the ship, so they bring him to the church, where Jacob catches up just in time to witness them beaming out.
Back on the ship, Tilly wonders about this May person, and does some research on her, and discovers that she’s May Ahearn, a girl she went to junior high with (and we get another Elon Musk namedrop when Tilly pulls out her holo-yearbook from “Musk Junior High”). Tilly asks the computer to locate May, and is told that May Ahearn isn’t aboard the ship. Tilly does some more probing and finds out May died about five years ago, which means Tilly presumably has her own Force mycelial ghost, just like Dr. Culber.
Pike is recovering in his ready room when Burnham enters and finally tells Pike about the hallucination she had on the surface of the asteroid, where she saw a Red Angel, and she thinks it’s no coincidence that the people on the planet below have stories of something similar. Also, she reminds Pike that they need to get the footage from that soldier’s helmet camera, which might be worth bending the Prime Directive.
Pike returns to the planet in his uniform, and tells Jacob the truth, and says he can’t interfere with their society. But he does give Jacob a “power cell” in exchange for the helmet camera. After he beams away, everyone in New Eden watches in awe as the lights come on in the church.
Back on the ship, Pike watches the helmet cam video, and as expected, it shows another Red Angel.
“New Eden” is kind of a mess of an episode; it’s like they set the editing machine to frappé. It’s almost as if they started out with an old TNG script, and the first thing they did was rip out every other page.
A fast pace is great for an action spectacle like last week, but not here, where we would expect to have a moment or two to get to know this long-lost colony of humans. Instead, only two characters in New Eden get any dialogue, and almost all of it is spent doling out non-stop exposition. Was this due to budgetary concerns? It’s hard to imagine that a few extra scenes set in a rustic village without any special effects would have been that costly to film.
There are a lot of potentially interesting concepts here, but the episode has no interest in spending time on any of them. There’s a whole science vs. religion debate with Pike wondering if those Red Bursts might be a summons from a higher power, and Burnham adhering to her very Vulcan-like faith in science, but like the rest of the episode, it falls victim to lazy writing. They even use that Arthur C. Clarke quote in their debate—you know the one, because literally every sci-fi show ever has quoted it.
And I’m sorry to say the “North Star” comparisons are warranted, because this feels like an episode of Enterprise, in that it’s a retread of a tired premise that was already done better on both TOS and TNG. But judging by the overall “this show finally feels like Star Trek” reaction to this episode (along with generally positive comments about Fox’s TNG clone The Orville), it seems what Trek fans really want these days is a blatant rehash of past Star Trek series. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, considering how successful reboots and remakes are nowadays, but it would be a big disappointment if Discovery went back to the same tired formula that made Enterprise such a chore to sit through.
Next up: L’Rell and Tyler are back, as is Empress Georgiou. I’d love to tell you more, but the episode promo on CBS All Access has an audio issue where you can hear the music and sound effects but not the dialogue. Maybe the episode itself will have the same glitch, which might improve things.