STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Review: 2.02 “New Eden”

An old-school Prime Directive debate grounds this week’s episode.

After last week’s pretty bloody great season premiere, it seemed certain that two reunions would shortly take place: Michael Burnham, with her estranged brother Spock; and ship’s engineer Paul Stamets, with his deceased partner and ship’s medic Hugh Culber. After this week, it seems those reunions are a ways off yet. In their stead, we get a surprisingly old-school Star Trek story - and some intriguing developments for the Discovery crew.

As for Spock, well, there is no search for him - not yet. As Captain Pike reveals, he’s been voluntarily committed to a Starfleet psychiatric hospital, with a request for no outside contact. But he'd been having nightmares of mysterious red signals - the Science MacGuffin driving this season’s plot - months before they appeared, drawing them in the electronic journal now in Burnham's possession. We’ll be seeing him soon enough.

This week’s story revolves around another one of those signals, appearing in the Beta Quadrant - over a hundred years away by warp, but only a second away by spore drive. Stamets is, understandably, conflicted about using the drive: on one hand, the stress of using it nearly destroyed him last season, but on the other, his visions of Hugh appear to be connected to it. At any rate, he performs the jump, and Discovery drops into orbit around an Earthlike planet, inexplicably bearing human life signs, an antique church, and a two hundred-year-old distress signal. Suddenly, Burnham, Pike, and ops officer Owosekun are off, incognito, into a Star Trek situation as time-tested as any.

The plot purpose of this arc revolves around the signals, and the “red angel” seen by Burnham, apparently responsible for transporting these humans to this planet at the height of Earth’s World War III. But what it’s actually about is faith, science, and the good old Prime Directive (or rather, General Order Number One) - again, a classic Trek ethical debate. This "New Eden" revolves around a faith cobbled together from all Earth’s religions, plus a belief that the red angel is some kind of divine being - a religious extrapolation, Pike points out, of the truism that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A godlike alien? What is this, the '60s?

Clad all in red, the elders of this society have no interest in discovering the true reason they were brought to the planet they dub “Terralisia.” Their one skeptic is Jacob (Andrew Moodie), a technology hoarder, science enthusiast, and given the circumstances, a conspiracy theorist who's actually right. Pike’s conduct here is absolutely by-the-book, refusing to acknowledge where the landing party is from even despite Jacob’s desperate attempts to the contrary. Only when Pike gets wounded in a phaser accident, then beamed offworld, is any hint of the party's origins revealed - a series of events interpreted vastly differently by Jacob and the town elders.

Back on the ship, an unexpected energy discharge while core-sampling last week’s hideously dense dark-matter asteroid puts Tilly in sickbay. This happens just as a load of radioactive material from Terralisia’s rings starts to descend towards the planet’s surface, threatening an extinction-level event. Brainstorming with a nice young crewmember (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Bahia Watson), Tilly comes up with a notion of using that asteroid’s gravity well to draw the material off into space - a procedure involving tractor beams, spore-drive jumps, and, er, “doing a donut in a spaceship.” It works! And everyone cheers, just as real people probably would!

Dramatically speaking, the sequence is exciting, if a little emptier than it should, but that’s not really what Tilly’s arc this week is all about. Looking through the Discovery computer for details on her new friend (the 23rd-century equivalent of Facebook stalking), Tilly discovers she is in fact May Ahern, an old friend from school. So old, in fact, that she’s dead. “Your mind is so much fun,” Ahern says during their brainstorming session; a line that has implications for both slash fiction, and as it turns out, Tilly’s literal mind.

Either Tilly’s straight-up hallucinating May, or there’s some scientific hocus-pocus afoot - possibly connected to the asteroid’s energy discharge, or to the mycelial network, or possibly - according to director Jonathan Frakes - to an entity “like a green spark, like Tinkerbell,” that "entered her" at the end of season one. I do not recall this happening, unless he’s referring to her getting high AF on Qo’noS (or the aforementioned spores), but whatever the case, this is going to be a profound worry for Tilly. Her social interactions are awkward enough without the knowledge she’s seeing someone who isn’t there.

Closing out the show are a series of scenes ruminating upon the events on Terralisia. Pike and Burnham debate about their actions down there, and a discussion of context and perspective brings Pike to beam down to tell Jacob the truth. Pike’s speech - explaining the nature of the Federation and the importance of non-interference - flagrantly violates the very general order he’s describing, but given the circumstances also feels compassionate as hell. Jacob learns seemingly all he really wanted to know - what happened to them, and what happened to Earth - and though he seems at peace swapping a broken helmet camera for a brand-new power cell, I suspect he’ll either be driven crazy by the questions he should have asked, or driven out of his village by religious elders angry at his heresy.

The image at the end, a church with the lights suddenly going on inside it, is laden with meaning. It caps off a surprisingly nuanced dramatisation of the relationship between faith and science, if something of a rushed one. In Treks of old, we’d have seen more of Terralisian society, learned more about their worldview. Discovery’s season-two energy is too lightning-paced for that, but it still makes the effort to be societally thoughtful, and utterly infatuated with science - without dismissing out of hand the role of faith.

Next week brings the Klingon Empire back into the show, while Pike is sure to begin properly investigating the red angel, now confirmed to him by both Burnham and the footage on the Terralisian helmet cam. When will Spock appear? Maybe next week - who knows. Maybe that particular reunion will have to wait.

Stray observations:

  • Owosekun grew up in a Luddite collective on Earth, which feels like a way more interesting character detail than the screen time devoted to it would suggest.
  • Saru telling Tilly to take better care of herself because she’s “important” is the week’s most heartwarming moment.
  • Discovery is shown in orbit around Terralisia “upside-down,” which is immensely gratifying.
  • Saru speaks ninety different Federation languages, and helm officer Detmer has had her pilot’s license since age 12. Again: let's dive into this stuff, writers.
  • "Initiating donut manoeuvre, sir" seems sure to become a meme for fried dough snack-loving Trek fans.
  • Tilly wants Burnham to “be here and yes-and me.” Does she perform improv in her off-duty time? Is her crack about a “ricin Mai Tai” the kind of thing that would appear in her stand-up? [edit: as pointed out in the comments, she's totally saying Risan Mai Tai, but I would counter that a ricin Mai Tai works too, given the context - it's just a darker joke.]
  • “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.” Fair.