Tuesday 29 January 2019

TREK REVIEW: Discovery 2-2 - "New Eden"

Well, that's more like it. As much as I've enjoyed Discovery so far, there haven't been many episodes that have felt particularly Trek-like. This isn't in itself a bad thing, given that the Trek formula has chugged along for decades and needed a good kick up the arse, but sometimes it'd be nice to see an old-fashioned mission to a strange new world and a mystery to solve. "New Eden" gives us exactly that: a very traditional Star Trek plot told in a fast-paced, modern way.

Following on quickly from the season opener, "Brothers," the episode continues to explore the mystery of the seven red starbursts and the image of the red angel. Another red burst is detected, over fifty thousand light years from the Discovery's position, deep in the uncharted sectors of the Beta Quadrant. In spite of the enormous distance, which would take 150 years to cover at high warp, Captain Pike elects to boot up the spore drive and take a huge jump across space to go investigate. When they get there, the red burst has gone again, but a new mystery presents itself: a distress signal emanating from a nice little human town.

What follows is that classic Trek set-up: the pre-warp society, with the added mystery of how a bunch of humans managed to get 50 kly from Earth without warp drive. Pike, Burnham and Owesekun (finally given a trip away from the bridge and a little character background) beam down to the surface to investigate the colony of New Eden. Long story short, in 2057, a bunch of people were abducted out from the middle of World War Three, spirited away to another planet and left to build a community.

Season two of Discovery has been said to have a theme of "science vs. faith," something that Star Trek has explored before with mixed success. This episode, however, handles the debate with some subtlety and even-handedness. Pike (Anson Mount), displays an unexpected spiritual side, recognising the sanctity of the Church and its importance as the central point of the town. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), having been raised to the strict tenets of logic of Vulcan society, has little patience for the religious people of New Eden, although she also positions this as science being her faith. (Admittedly, Vulcan society as anti-religious is a little hard to accept, giving all the mystical rituals and actual body-hopping ghosts on Vulcan, so perhaps this is more Michael's view than her culture's). Owesekun (Oyin Oladejo) comes from a "Luddite commune" (presumably the 23rd century version of the Amish or suchlike), but her family are non-believers. The New Eden folk worship the red angel that rescued them, combining it with a multitude of faiths from Earth into a new religion.

What's so effective about this element is how respectfully the script treats the Eden people. Burnham may dismiss their beliefs but she never treats them as stupid. Jacob (Andrew Moodie), the most scientifically minded of the community, is positioned as the closest thing to the Starfleet mindset, but even he has faith in the mystery of his people's past. Trek has always displayed an atheist perception of the universe, even as it has populated it with gods, but occasionally an episode comes along to suggest that science and religion might not be as incompatible as they might initially seem. It might not quite cross over to real life - there aren't really red angels and wormhole aliens and Q acting as gods - but it's a good attitude nonetheless.

The theme of faith informs the episode in other ways too. Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a pure scientist, is beginning to develop his own faith in the mysterious mycelial network, submitting to yet another dangerous trip through the spore drive in the hopes of seeing his late partner again. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) also has her own spiritual experience when she is visited by a long-dead school buddy after a dark matter-related accident puts her in sickbay. To be honest, I'm not pleased at the spore drive being reactivated so soon. Tilly's mission to find a new way of fuelling the drive, without resorting to a living interface, is pretty irrelevant if they can just keep plugging Stamets in. On the other hand, it seems to be building up to something interesting that I wouldn't be surprised somehow links up to the red angels. The writers have to do something to scupper the spore drive eventually, or it's going to be impossible to incorporate this into continuity (that said, the original Enterprise frequently made seemingly impossible trips to the edges of the galaxy, so perhaps there is room for some crossover there).

"New Eden" is also a Prime Directive episode, that most well-worn of Trek story types, but a far more intelligently written one than we usually got in the past. The colony on Terralysium falls under the rule of General Order One since the inhabitants haven't achieved warp drive, and as such can't be informed of the existence of alien life - including the interstellar civilisation now based on Earth. Pike is staunchly in favour of going by the book, while Burnham doesn't see how it can apply to a human society that has already been altered by alien intervention. Rather than interminable debates in the ready room over whether or not to inform the Eden folk of their heritage, the debate is handled with a lighter touch that makes both sides reasonable. There's a definite argument to say that they do have a right to rejoin Earth society, but on the other hand, aside from some limited technology life on Terralysium doesn't seem too bad at all.

Out in the planet's rings, a radiation event is approaching, one that is dealt with by the Discovery crew, but at no point is there any discussion about whether preventing this from wiping out the colony would constitute unlawful interference. Because that would be idiotic, and no one would suggest such a thing until the time of The Next Generation. (Seriously, I despise episodes like "Homeward," where a lazy cod-ethical debate honestly asks us to consider that allowing a civilisation to be wiped out by a natural disaster is in any way morally preferable to interfering with its societal development. And yet there are fans complaining that this episode didn't have a moment when Saru said, "According to the Prime Directive, they've all got to die because that's just the way it is.) In any case, the event is stopped by some nifty thinking on Discovery with no need to make contact with the people on the surface, while Pike and Burnham come to a compromise on exactly how much knowledge can be permitted to reach the people of the colony.

If this episode is any indication, Discovery season two could really be the Star Trek we've been waiting for. The mystery of the red angels - and of Spock's apparent madness - is becoming very intriguing. It'll be interesting to see how - and if - everything is tied up at the end of the season.

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