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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Michael and friends reunite on an emotional Star Trek: Discovery

Blu de Barrio as Adira
Blu de Barrio as Adira
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS
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Hey, remember Lost? Pretty good show, right? Yeah, I have fond memories—and one of the things I remember most readily is how much the show liked putting in emotional beats whenever characters were reunited with each other. It didn’t matter if they’d been gone a year or just five minutes down the beach, if an episode could put in a montage with people hugging while the waves crashed benhin them, it would do so. Mostly it worked; the show was willing enough to kill off its characters that moments had weight behind them, even if it got a little predictable after a while. I don’t know if Lost was the first show to use this trick, but it’s become a gold standard for genre series since, and boy does Discovery love using it. At the end of last week’s episode, we learned that Michael had been waiting in the future (which is now the present) for Discovery’s arrival for a year. “People of Earth” begins with a quick catch up on what she’s been up to, and then, oh yes, we get the emotional reunions. Several of them. It’s a lot.

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It’s a weird vibe. On the one hand, these characters have been through a lot together, and they care about each other (if you ever forget that, just wait five minutes and someone will remind you), and it makes sense that they’d be happy to see each other again. At the same time, while Michael’s been waiting a year to see Saru et al, to the Discovery crew, it’s been a separation of, what, a day? Maybe two? And for the audience, it’s been two episodes. So while it’s possible to intellectually appreciate that this is necessary, it’s difficult for me to empathize directly. The music swells (again, and again, and again), there’s hugging and tears, and it’s so clearly and obviously manipulative that it sets the rest of the hour off on a bad foot almost immediately.

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I think this may be the biggest difference between people who really enjoy Discovery and skeptics like myself: how you respond to these constant victory laps, the need to underline and highlight and overscore every emotional beat. If that works for you, great, but if it doesn’t, it makes for exhausting, often infuriating television. There’s no trust here, no faith that the audience will connect with what’s happening unless it’s always on full blast, and while that sort maximalism can work, I don’t think it works here. Maybe if we’d had a little more time to get a handle on Michael and Discovery being separated. Maybe if it was more than just an episode.

Because the thing is, it looks like that separation is going to be a big part of Michael’s character arc this season, and that’s an interesting development. “People of Earth” starts with her return, but things don’t go entirely smoothly; we get a glimpse of the Michael we haven’t really seen since the series pilot, as she takes a crisis into her own hands late in the hour, exploiting the trust of her co-workers and friends because she’s convinced she’s doing the right thing. In this case, her plans work out perfectly, thanks in no small part to Saru’s faith in her. But questions remain about what will happen the next time she decides to go rogue, and it would be a relief for the character to have something to do beyond being really really intense about everything.

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Stripped of its theatrics, the plot is decent enough. Discovery returns to Earth, following a ten year old message from a Starfleet admiral, only to find that Starfleet, and the Federation itself, is no longer around; the planet is now run by the United Earth Defense Force, and they are very skeptical around outsiders. Saru handles things well enough, but the situation gets more complicated when a group of raiders show up, determined to steal Discovery’s supply of dilithium crystals. There’s a stand-off, Michael (and Book, in Book’s ship) run a con with the dilithium to capture the head of the raiders (we don’t actually see how they do this, which is kind of annoying), and force the UEDF contact and the raiders to negotiate. It turns out the raiders are actually humans, which means the whole thing was just one big misunderstanding. Long life the Federation, etc.

Sarcasm aside, this does at least try and make a case for why the Federation matters—the future is a pretty cutthroat place, and Saru’s insistence on peaceful solutions whenever possible is something worth fighting for. It’s disappointing, and weirdly convenient, that the big turn happens when we learn that the raiders are from a human colony on Titan; isn’t the point of the Federation to be building relationships between species? But it does, at least, nod towards the problem created by the premiere, giving our heroes both a reason to continue their quest to find the remains of Starfleet (I apologize for using “Starfleet” and “the Federation” interchangeably here) and a justification as to why we should care beyond mild curiosity.

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“People of Earth” also introduces a new recurring character: Adira (Blu del Barrio), a teenage genius. Adira was announced in press releases before the season began as the first official non-binary character on a Trek show; curiously, Adira is referred to as “she” and “her” by both her commanding officer and Saru. (del Barrio uses “they/them.”) Hopefully the character’s non-binary status is something that will be clarified in future episodes, as it would be pretty bizarre for the show to promote the distinction without actually using it in the context of the show itself. For now, I’ll use the “she/her” pronoun when referring to the character, and “they/them” when talking about the actor. I’m explaining this here not because I’m annoyed (well, I’ll be annoyed if the character was promoted as non-binary and the show never actually addresses it), but to acknowledge that these distinctions do matter, and I don’t want to misgender anyone, fictional or otherwise, if I can avoid it.

Adira herself is interesting; she seems like an irritant at first, but the switch from “arrogant twerp” to “vulnerable idealist” happens fairly quickly. The reveal that she’s a Trill joined with the symbiote of the admiral who sent the message Discovery followed to Earth means that she’ll be sticking around for a while; del Barrio makes a strong impression, and it’ll be good to have a Trill back in the franchise.

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I think that’s about it for this week? “People” leans too hard on its victory laps and the score is exasperatingly overbearing, but there are some decent ideas here. It would be nice if Michael’s decision to break protocol hadn’t been rewarded by giving her a promotion; Saru isn’t over the moon about her behavior, but everyone still spends way too much time worshipping Michael, and that’s going to be a problem in trying to make her a complicated, flawed human being. I’m hoping that there will be a little more interpersonal conflict going forward, and maybe some struggle over what a reformed Federation might actually mean. Oh, and the Burn. I gotta know more about the Burn.

Stray observations

  • Adira wasn’t the only new character promoted before the season began; we still haven’t seen Gray (Ian Alexander), a trans man with his own Trill symbiote. I only bring him up here because it’s a bit of a choice to make both the non-binary and the transgender character Trill.
  • The Burn is a very cool mystery, and I like how the show keeps layering it in; feels like we’re going to get a flashback episode at some point, and I would not object to that. (Actually, given that these seasons are so short, we probably won’t get a flashback. Maybe a scene or two.)
  • Another shirtless Book scene. Maybe that’s gonna be his thing? (He’s fun, and his banter with Michael is very Whedon-eseque and fun: “That was entirely monosyllabic, I love it when you do that.”)
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