Tuesday 3 November 2020

TREK REVIEW: DIS 3-3 - "People of Earth"

A very enjoyable, straightforward episode, once you get over the strange way into the set-up. It's an interesting decision to leave Burnham out of the loop for a year and then catch up with her, giving her the job of filling in the crew on the exposition for the future history. I can't escape the feeling that there's a lot more fun to be had with Burnham's adventures as a 32nd century courier - her turning up saying "I've changed" is effective, but not half as effective as actually following her and seeing her change. Still, I suspect we'll get a few flashbacks still, and there's plenty of scope for quick adventures in future Short Treks installments. It's fun to see that she and Book have developed a strong relationship, but have spent the last year pretending they don't have a thing for each other. He won't be out of the picture long, we can be sure of that. 

So, we're off to Earth, surprisingly early in the season. This is actually very effective, with life on Earth not being the be all and end all of the series. This isn't Voyager, where getting home to Earth was the whole point (even for the third of the crew or so who weren't even from there). Earth turns out to be a false hope and the stopover, although allowing for some emotional scenes, is ultimately a brief one. There's more important stuff to do, more necessary places to go.

The crux of this being that the mission for this season is to save the Federation, whatever's left of it, and that is no longer synonymous with Earth. The mother planet has Brexited out of the UFP, turning in on itself and becoming xenophobic even to its own colonies. There's a wall around the Earth, and although this one's made of orbital battle satellites rather than bricks and barbed wire, it's hard not to see a parallel with the USA's position in the world. As a Brit, though, it plays more like the UK's increasingly inward-looking attitude and the rampant propaganda against our nearest neighbours. We've not got the stage where we'll shoot down refugee boats coming asking for help, but we are prepared to push them back out to sea, and the parallels are clear.

In practice, "People of Earth," for all its foundation-shattering isolation of the homeworld, is about as pure and old-fashioned an episode of Trek as we've had in a while. The original series was full of episodes where the Enterprise turned up at a world with a generations-long social problem, then sorted it out in fifty minutes. Many of the episodes had an alien world that reflected a real life contemporary social problem, magnified for the story. These tropes are both happening here, only this time, the strange new world in question is the Earth.

The revelation that the raider Wen is not an alien but a human in a fancy helmet is about the most obvious twist imaginable (I believe I actually said, "Ooh, a new alien! Oh no, it's just a bloke in a hat," as soon as he appeared onscreen), but it sets up a lot more of the future climate than it at first appears. We've already seen (probable) humans living distantly from the Earth, abandoned by their civilisation, and humans who work to uphold the ideals of the Federation. We know that sometime in the future, the "V'draysh" will be fighting against human factions. Having Earth turn its back on its colonies and end up in unknowing conflict with Titan is another example of how humanity is splintering in the far future. 

It's a strong episode for the characters, too. The more open Burnham is much better company than the pseudo-Vulcan, guilt-ridden version we've lived with so far, and Martin-Green really brings her to life. It's absolutely right that she immediately hands over the captaincy of Discovery to Saru - making him the first alien command lead for the franchise - but she almost immediately undermines him. However much she says she's changed, Burnham is just the same in this regard, going against the captain's wishes as soon as she thinks she knows better. At least it's consistent. Her plan to trick Wen into lowering his shields is a brilliant (albeit very risky) one, but did she not think it would work better if she let Saru know what was going on? 

Tilly is a joy in this episode, as ever, with her sibling-like relationship with Stamets holding together the fun scenes where new recruit Adira runs rings round them. It's interesting to hear Adira referred to as "she," when all publicity so far has indicated that they'd be non-binary like the actor playing them, Blu del Barrio. There's been some speculation about this, but Blu themself gave a fascinating interview on the subject here. The reveal that Adira is carrying a Trill symbiont, and is therefore the mysterious Admiral Tal the crew are looking for, adds a whole other level to their character. Adira could become one of the most complex characters we've ever had in terms of gender and identity. My partner and I have been rewatching DS9 lately and talking about Dax's character, wondering how much of the Trill's allegory for trans people was deliberate. It's good to see that, inarguably, Discovery's writers are using the concept to explore gender identity now. As for Adira themself, so far they're a bit inscrutable, but I enjoyed del Barrio's performance and look forward to getting to know the character better.

There's less focus on the rest of the cast this week, although even the lesser crewmen get their moment. It's good to see Detmer's response to the trauma of the journey through time hasn't been forgotten, even if Saru seems blind to how well some of his crew are coping. Even Georgiou is pretty good in this episode, toned down a bit from last week. Among the guest cast, Christopher Heyderdahl is sympathetic as the desperate Wen, while Phumzile Sitole is impressive as Captain Ndoye of the United Earth Defence Force. (Apparently Sitole was disillusioned with acting when she auditioned for the role, and thought it would be her last. Glad to read that it's been a positive experience for her and she plans to continue acting.)

Regarding the future Earth, some elements work, some don't. I love the idea of the crew gathering around the now-enormous tree they once sat under at the Academy. Notably the Golden Gate Bridge has been repaired in the centuries since the Breen attack. Having the United Earth Defence Force look so similar to Starfleet was perhaps a mistake, since they're supposed to be a breakaway from the Federation. That said, Starfleet originated with United Earth, predating the Federation, so perhaps they're holding onto the retro, 22nd century look. It still beggars belief that the spore drive is so utterly advanced that it's beyond anything in the 32nd century, but at least the rest of the technology is way beyond Discovery's: the UEDF can beam straight through the ship's shields, and knock them out with one torpedo. Still, it's pretty mad that a) the Earth's super-advanced long range sensors couldn't pick up that Wen's ships came from Titan, which in space terms is down the road and round the corner; and b) that Wen couldn't have just radio'd them. Also notable is that, although the Earth is now isolationist, they have no problem employing aliens in their ranks.

Far future quibbles aside, this was a very enjoyable episode that colours in some of the new world we've found ourselves in. Onto Trill.

Continuity spots:

The stardate is 865211.3, which is suitably far off from the 24th century shows.

Book and Burnham went to the Donatu system, and Burnham refers to Earth as being in a new quadrant, so while she didn't land at Terralysium, she did make it to the Beta Quadrant. She was certainly close enough to communicate with Terralysium.

We're starting to piece together the future history here, and Book's explanation previously was a bit broad. Around the 2950s the dilithium supplies began to dry up (overmining resources, another contemporary allegory). Experiments into alternatives weren't successful (did no one remember the Romulans' quantum singularity drives?) Sometime between the 3060s and 3080s, the Burn happened, in which all dilithium spontaneously became inert, causing every active warp drive to lose containment and detonate. Millions dead, Federation in tatters. Not long after that, about a century before 3189, Earth dropped out of the Federation, and the Federation and Starfleet headquarters were relocated. 

Some of this is hard to tie up with the super-duper advanced Federation of the 31st century briefly witnessed in Enterprise, but the dates are vague enough to make it work. In fact, while the ban on time travel kind of covers it, there's no reason to be certain that this is the same timeline we saw in Enterprise's future. Burnham and co. have already altered future history once by defeating Control, and the Temporal War saw multiple changes in history in Enterprise, so it's actually quite unlikely that this is exactly the same future Daniels came from.

Stamets confirms that they left from 2258, which means the end of Disco season two is set at the same time most of the 2009 Star Trek movie is set, in different timelines. 

Book has never been to Earth, even though his first name is Cleveland. (I was going to comment that my name's Daniel and I've never been in a lion's den, but then I remembered that I have.)

Museums are cool.

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