Reach out and touch faith.
Which is to say, I swear to God (pun intended), I will pay actual money for Star Trek to stop trying to deal with religion. The closest it’s ever come to success is DS9, and even there, I’m pretty mixed on the results.
I keep forgetting to plug it here, but I have a podcast now! It’s about Trek in general, but Anika and I are currently getting together weekly to talk about the latest episode of Discovery.
I mention it here because I cover a lot of the same ground in this post as I did in this week’s episode — so I guess it’s not so much a plug as a warning that, if you’ve listened to that, you’re going to get a sense of deja vu as you read this.
A lot of people are calling “New Eden” Discovery‘s Trekkiest episode so far. And with good reason: it has a lot of familiar tropes, to the point where you could call it a remix, if not a straight-up remake, of certain episodes.
The problem, for me, is that “New Eden” does very little to interrogate or subvert those tropes. It’s playing it safe in a way that Discovery just didn’t in season one.
Is this set-up for a twist down the line? Or a response to the backlash? It’s far too soon to say, so, of course, I shall proceed to theorise wildly.
The planetside business
I’m gonna be blunt: the whole New Eden concept did not work for me in the slightest.
First, I do not buy that five of the world’s major religions (and … Wicca) can or would combine to form a cohesive, Christiancentric whole. Well, the Christiancentricity makes sense, ‘cos, you know. But the rest?
Shinto and Buddhism are, of course, compatible with each other. And I assume they can work alongside Wicca, although I don’t know much about that, and I’m extremely distracted by its inclusion over, for example, Sikhism. You know, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world.
The Abrahamic religions … not so much. Ironically, sharing a common deity and some key texts and figures makes it harder to combine Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
And that’s okay! The differences are important!
Erasing these differences in favour of a homogenous, Christiancentric monoculture is … well, it’s very Star Trek, but not in a good way.
Now, some of this — the combined religions ending up looking and feeling extremely Christian — might be intentional.
It’s hard to tell because the worldbuilding is so thin. We only meet two residents of New Eden: Jacob, The Man of Science and Asker of Questions, and Amesha, the All-Mother and Giver of Exposition. (Jacob also has an adorable daughter, but she has no dialogue.)
Science and technology (the two are conflated) have been forgotten on this world, but knowledge has been handed down through Jacob’s family. This is, of course, one of those worlds where you are either Religious or Scientific, and there is no overlap or doubt or intellectual curiosity. And if there’s a tradition of theological intellectualism, we don’t see it.
In short, it’s yet another Star Trek episode about religion, written by people who have little or no experience with it. Or, at best, whose experience is limited to one particular subculture within Christianity, which they have assumed is universal.
(See also: DS9, where we’re meant to believe that a people who have had spaceflight for millennia will object to their children being taught astrophysics.)
On the other hand…
One of the things which distinguished this version of the story from all the others is that we didn’t have Picard giving speeches about how humanity no longer has any need for religion.
In fact, it’s heavily implied that the religions of Earth are still practiced, albeit by a minority. Pike may or may not be a believer himself, but he has a level of comfort and familiarity with houses of worship and religious people which suggests more than the intellectual exposure that comes from being the son of a teacher of comparative religion. And, of course, there would be no need for Owosekun to specify that her parents were unbelievers if that was universal.
For all my criticisms of the worldbuilding, this detail is really cool. The end of religion on Earth implies a genocide, after all — cultural, if not literal — and I’m quite happy for Star Trek to back away from that. It’s still very much a secular universe, but there should be room for difference.
Meanwhile, back on Discovery
The ship-side B plot is pretty basic — one of the planet’s rings has, um, suddenly turned radioactive, and the crew has to find a way to save the population. But it’s all character stuff, and focused on Tilly, so I have no complaints there.
It’s a Tilly episode!
I can’t believe that I, a Janeway fan, am about to say this, but I think she needs to cut back on her coffee intake. And also just … chill, generally. But I’ll get to that.
One of the things I love about Tilly is that she’s intensely ambitious, but equally generous. Knowing that Paul is struggling, and that returning to the mycelial network is difficult for him, she sets out to singlehandedly science the mysterious dark matter asteroid into a new spore drive navigator.
How, exactly, is that going to work? No idea! Don’t care! The technobabble will take care of it, and in the meantime, Tilly has put herself in sickbay with a concussion.
Tilly sees dead people now
I’ve seen Battlestar Galactica. I can spot a head person a mile away. So it wasn’t a surprise that only she could see May — but I’m intrigued that “May” is a girl Tilly knew when she was young. Who is now dead.
- literally a ghost?
- a manifestation of the mycelial network via the spore that entered Tilly in season one, using her subconscious to take on a familiar form?
- the dark matter asteroid?
- an interaction of the mycelial network and the dark matter asteroid via Tilly’s subconscious?
- some other alien entity?
- the result of a head injury followed by too much coffee?
My money is on the mycelial network + the dark matter asteroid, with a dash of subconscious.
So far, “May” seems benign — I love that Tilly, who literally has “I want to be more confident” on her to-do list, has basically hallucinated up a personal cheer squad — but seeing head people is usually a bad sign.
Overcompensating and trying too hard: recurring motifs for the last two episodes. Pike trying too hard to differentiate himself from Lorca. Tilly going overboard in an attempt to justify her place in the command training program. Even Michael’s whole “what if science is my religion” schtick feels more like a reaction to the shock of seeing the red angel and learning that Spock predicted the red bursts than a literal description of her belief system.
Saru addresses it directly, telling Tilly that, as a young man, determined to prove himself and represent his people, he learned ninety Federation languages. (This anecdote delights me unspeakably.)
Tilly, I think (I hope), is going to settle down, now — she seems to have taken Saru’s lesson to heart, and she has other things to worry about now, like head people. And, honestly, it’s not a moment too soon — I felt like she was constantly teetering on the edge of becoming a caricature.
But I find myself wondering if the series itself is overcompensating, making changes in response to fandom criticism rather than letting the series evolve organically.
Once again, for example, the bridge crew’s growth feels forced — great as it is to see Owosekun on the landing party, it feels slightly pat: we’re told she grew up in a Luddite collective; conveniently, she’s the only person who knows how magnets work.
But this is still better than Detmer’s “I’ve had my pilot’s licence since I was twelve” — that’s cool to know, but why is it coming up now?
Much better was the collective problem solving scene on the bridge, with Tilly concussed, over-caffeinated and in her hospital gown, and the crew pulling together to make her idea happen.
Are the writers trying too hard to make the bridge crew happen? One of the criticisms of season one was that the audience didn’t know anything about them — because this is the first Trek where they’re not the main characters. I feel like this is one of those cases where Discovery tried to do something new, and it was great, but they’re now pulling back because a section of the audience not only didn’t like it, they willfully refused to understand it.
And then there’s the move back to more episodic, self-contained storytelling, and even cosmetic changes, like the Klingons being redesigned to look more like they did in the nineties. And the straightforward execution of Star Trek tropes.
It’s natural for a series to change between seasons, and the dark tone of season one couldn’t possibly be sustained without becoming absurd. I just wonder how much is a natural evolution, driven by the needs of the story and characters, and how much is a response to fans who think the series is flawed because it’s not a TNG clone.
On the other hand…
Despite the presence of a straightforward, heroic, white, male captain, this is still Michael’s show. (And yes, the Reddit bros are mad about it.)
Which is not to say that Pike is not a major character — we learn a lot about him this week, and he feels closer to the intellectual, introspective character of “The Cage”. Having complained above about inorganic character development, I feel like I should list all the characterisation he got this week:
- Information about his background, delivered via exposition, but it felt like a conversation not a HEY LOOK, HATERS, WE’RE DOING THIS moment.
- He quotes Shakespeare, that’s how you know he’s a real captain.
- He’s close to Spock, who trusts him enough that Pike is the only person who knows Spock has checked himself in to a psychiatric hospital.
- He has integrity: he’s cautious about revealing that information to Michael, and only does so after she convinces him that the need is very great.
- He’s abandoned Lorca’s ready room for a larger, more comfortable office on another deck, away from the formality of the bridge. This is a neat bit of detail: he’s more consultative than his predecessor, and he wants his crew to feel safe to confide in him. (It probably also feels familiar after the Enterprise, where the captain doesn’t have a ready room at all.)
- He can and will throw himself on an overloading phaser, which is your standard captainly self-sacrifice, but is it also a manifestation of his guilt over missing the war and sense of having to make up for that?
- Characterisation through absence — or leaving, at least. Lorca left Discovery as rarely as possible, and Saru only got to take command in a crisis. Pike leads the landing party, leaving Saru in charge, trusting him to take care of the ship.
The trust Spock has placed in him is notable — and important, because it encourages Michael (who has good reason to be wary of her commanding officers) to follow his orders, even when she disagrees with them, and to eventually confide in him about seeing the red angel.
(Which is a relief, after she rightfully criticised Ash for not coming clean about his blackouts and growing identity crisis last year. I didn’t want Michael to be a hypocrite.)
(Now, someone needs to directly ask Tilly if she’s seen any dead people lately.)
Someone in one of my Discords described Pike as a character who is masculine without being toxic, a necessary counterpoint to Lorca. And … I like that. Like, if we have to have another white dude captain, that’s what we need right now.
(I still miss Lorca, but I acknowledge this is a character flaw on my part.)
It’s all about Michael (but it’s also not, and that’s okay)
Last year’s arc was intensely personal to Michael herself: she was scapegoated for starting the war, she had lost everything, and Lorca offered her a chance to redeem herself by ending it. Except, of course, he didn’t. And she did anyway. Nevertheless, you might say, she persisted.
It’s less fraught this time around — Spock is the one suffering, and although Michael is confronting her guilt over their estrangement, she has her rank, her position and the support of her captain and crewmates. She’s being challenged, but she’s not being beaten down.
And thank God for that. Michael needs a good year. Maybe several. She’s had a rough time.
I mean. She’s still going to take it all on — that’s what she does, and Spock, going by the trailer, is going to call her out for her tendency to assume that she is responsible for fixing the entire universe. (I’ve seen reviewers who don’t seem to realise that this is an intentional character flaw/strength dating back to the loss of her parents? Like, Discovery is not a subtle show, this isn’t difficult to understand.)
I’m here for both Michael’s determination to save the world, and for someone to point out that it’s not always wise. Or logical.
- Tilly sees dead people. Paul, it seems, does not.
- We glimpsed Dr Pollard late last season, but she’s more prominent now — but we still don’t know if she’s the chief medical officer. Official social media says her given name is Tracy.
- Tilly at one point attended Musk Junior High. Named for Elon? Ew. Ewwwwwwwww.
- I’ll say this: even though Star Trek has done the New Eden story many, many times before, this is the first version where women outnumber men on the landing party.
If I were the type to assign episodes letter scores, I’d give this a B minus. Thank God there are Klingons next week.