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Star Trek: Discovery continues to go boldly, not wisely

Anson Mount
Photo: Russ Martin (CBS)
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“New Eden” finds Star Trek: Discovery offering its own take on a classic Trek archetype: the theme planet. When Tilly (with an assist from Burnham) comes up with a way to track the the red bursts, Pike orders the spore drive back online for a jump that takes the ship halfway across the galaxy, or near abouts. There, instead of an answer to their questions, they just find more questions: a planet populated by humans, sending up an English language distress signal that’s 200 hundred years old—which, as Burnham helpfully reminds us, is before the advent of warp technology. Pike takes Burnham and Lt. Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) down to the surface to investigate, where they find a colony which has combined all religions in order to explain their salvation from World War III. Meanwhile, back on the ship, Tilly makes some poor choices, saves the day, and meets what might be a ghost.

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Sounds exciting, no? And yes, Discovery remains an exciting show. A little too exciting, to be honest—much like last week, the episode rockets from point to point as though so terrified of losing our attention that it can’t bear to stand still for more than half a second before throwing out something new. The result is an hour that works on the surface, but only on the surface; think about anything in it for more than five seconds and it all starts to fall apart. It’s a ride, but that’s more or less all it is, and while there’s nothing wrong with a good thrill ride, the show’s refusal to let us get to know its characters and their circumstances is starting to wear thin. Discovery doesn’t build stories so much as it offers us ideas it knows we’ll like, and hopes we’ll do the rest of the work of filling the space between them.

Take that colony, for instance. As mentioned, this would seem like a great jumping off point for the show to take on a staple of the franchise, the away mission where we meet new guest stars, learn their culture (which usually tends to be suspiciously similar to some variation of our own, only more so), and try not to wreck everything up. Or, if you’re Kirk, you break it all and tell everyone to thank you later. New Eden suggests a coherent narrative structure at the outset, giving Discovery the opportunity to either retread a familiar, well-loved path, or strike out for something new.

Instead it does neither, landing on all of the familiar beats of those older plots while refusing to deliver on any of them in anything like a satisfactory, or even deconstructive, manner. Again, it’s all surfaces: the Big Idea here is that the colonists of New Eden have attempted to build new lives based on an amalgamation of all of Earth’s religions, in response to the alien savior who rescued their ancestors so long ago. Which is—well, I’m not going to lie, it’s almost astonishingly dumb (all religions?), but it at least has the semblance of a theme. Pike explains to Burnham that the old Arthur C. Clarke quote about advanced science being indistinguishable from magic was extrapolated to mean that advanced extra terrestrial behavior would be indistinguishable from God, which is very much old school Trek (remember the “god-like beings?”).

So, you’d expect the episode to follow would have something to do with this, right? But it doesn’t, not really. The community that Burnham and the others discover is barely developed, and the only real conflict on the planet comes from a man named Jacob who instantly recognizes the Discovery crew for what they are and does everything in his power to force them to confess. Pike reiterates “General Order Number One,” which was the Prime Directive before there was a Prime Directive, and after some sparring, Burnham gets him to change his mind. For… reasons, I guess? It’s not a bad idea, and the concept of compromise—making the best of what you can from what you have—is something that’s been important to Discovery as whole. And the final scene between Pike and Jacob works well, largely thanks to the actors’ commitment on both sides.

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The thing about “New Eden” is that for all its problems, it’s still immensely watchable. That’s the trick the new showrunners/producers/whatever have pulled off—everything moves quickly, most problems are solved within minutes of being introduced, and there’s none of that pesky friction or awkwardness to get hang up on. Even Tilly, who constantly vacillates between “enjoyably odd” and “please stop,” always gets to have a moment of triumphant to make up for her generally twitchy behavior. Nothing lingers, nothing ever threatens the pace, and that means it’s incredibly easy to just put on an episode and let it pass over you in a friendly, blue-and-gold wave.

The problem is that this approach makes for a show so interested in being breathless that it’s in danger of becoming airless, a collection of feel-good moments without the necessary context or build to give them shape. There is a constant stream of crises to keep our heroes moving, but too many of those crises are introduced and resolved before they ever register as more than an idea, and none of them feel like actual meaningful threats. Good storytelling should at least make you a little nervous that things might not work out, but while Discovery is more than willing to lay on huge stakes, it lacks the patience to give any of those stakes a meaning outside of the instant they’re introduced.

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That comes to character work as well. A classic Trek version of this story might’ve been duller, and I don’t object to trimming some of the fat of the original series. But at least we would’ve had a sense of New Eden beyond the name. As it is, the show is offering up the simplest possible variation on familiar ideas, using volume, nostalgia, and a charismatic cast to distract from the lack of depth. At its worst, it’s cheerful nonsense. At its best, it’s good enough that I can’t help wishing it was better.

Stray observations

  • I’m really struggling with Tilly, although I’m interested in the fact that she’s met a ghost.
  • Spock had himself committed to a psychiatric unit.
  • Still using the spore drive, huh? Cool, cool.
  • “I’m familiar with the text of Earth’s religions.” -Burhnam. Like, all of them? Earth is a big planet. There are a lot of religions here.
  • Another example of the show’s bad world-building: Burnham suggests bringing Lt. Owosekun on the mission to New Eden because she was raised by Luddites, which gives her a better understanding of pre-warp culture. This would seem like a chance for us to get to know a member of the bridge crew better, but she’s basically a glorified extra here.
  • Where the hell is Tig Notaro in all this? 
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