The latest episode of Discovery’s title, “New Eden”, briefly recalled (for me, anyway) the crazy space-hippies in TOS’ “The Way To Eden.” But this latest episode wasn’t about stealing shuttles and eating acidic apples. The space hippies were seeking a literal Eden, whereas the crew of the Discovery happen upon a planet frozen in time and technology from an era before the Federation existed…a period right before warp travel and ‘first contact’ with the Vulcans changed the galaxy forever.
After reviewing her brother Spock’s personal logs, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) meets with Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and learns the true whereabouts of Spock; he is in a Starfleet psychiatric facility. Apparently his obsession with the seven signals began well before Starfleet first learned of their existence. Spock’s drawings of the seven signals are almost identical to Starfleet’s own current maps of the signals’ origins. Spock also made it clear that he didn’t want his parents or his sister Michael to learn of his current whereabouts.
Pursuing one of the signals, Pike asks an understandably reluctant Commander Stamets (Anthony Rapp) to use his own unique interface with the ship’s spore drive to take Discovery to a target in the Beta quadrant; a journey that would’ve taken hundreds of years, even at warp speeds. The spore-jumped ship arrives to find no trace of the signals, but instead picks up a radio distress beacon from the surface of a ringed, Earth-like planet. The distress beacon appears to be coming from an old church, built in human architecture conforming to pre-Federation Earth.
Somehow, an English-speaking human settlement exists on the planet; apparently whisked away from Earth approximately 200 years ago, during the height of World War III (approx 2053) by ‘divine’ forces, including references to the ‘red angel’ that Burnham saw in the previous episode (see: S2.1 “Brother”). Pike takes a landing party of himself, Burnham and underused bridge officer Lt. Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) to the surface of the planet (“Terra Elysium”) to find answers that may help them figure out the signals and their meaning, which is Discovery’s primary mission.
Dressed incognito, the officers try their best to observe the Prime Directive (to never interfere in the normal social development of a pre-warp drive culture). Once inside the church, they discover an old bible with cut-and-pasted (as well as redacted) texts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions of Earth, all mixed together. Similary mixed religious symbols are also in evidence on the stain-glass windows of the church.
The landing party is discovered and welcomed by the town’s populace as ’travelers from the north.’ Though a very curious man named Jacob (Andrew Moodie) doesn’t believe they are from Terra Elysium, and suspects they are from Earth…a planet that the frozen-in-time inhabitants of Terra Elysium believe was destroyed in the aftermath of World War III. Jacob may also hold the key to the distress signal that directed them to the church…
Back aboard Discovery, Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) attempts to carve a piece from the giant gravitationally anomalous asteroid they secured from their previous mission. She tries to slice a chunk of it off with a laser beam and is nearly killed by a random energy discharge.
On the bridge, Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) detects chunks of highly radioactive matter from the rings that are going to impact the planet in about an hour, causing an extinction level event. The radiation from the debris makes any kind of rescue involving transporters or shuttles non-viable. Acting captain Saru (Doug Jones) reasons that it is the ship’s obligation not just to save the planet for the sake of the landing party, but also to find a way to save the natives of Terra Elysium as well. Saru deduces that it may even be the reason why they are there.
Tilly awakens in sickbay with a head injury in sickbay, where she is met by an unknown crewman named “May” (Bahia Watson) who refers to her by an old nickname of “Silly.”
On the planet, Pike and the landing party find that the beacon is an automated signal running on battery power, and that a vintage WW3 helmet camera in the possession of Jacob might have the answers as to how the humans from Earth were transported to Terra Elysium over 200 years ago. Jacob incapacitates the landing party, steals their tech and goes to the village leader to prove that his suspicions about the newcomers were correct.
During her convalescence, Tilly and “May” come up with a way of using the captured asteroid fragment in the shuttle bay (with its anomalous gravimetric properties) to lure the radioactive fragments safely away from the planet. Against orders to rest, Tilly rushes to the bridge in her sickbay gown, babbling excitedly about her possible solution to the crisis. With Saru and Detmer’s help, they initiate her plan and it works; the asteroid chunk is released carefully from the shuttle bay, and with some fancy flying from Lt. Detmer, it successfully lures the radioactive pieces away from the planet.
On the surface, Lt. Owosekun frees the landing party by picking the old slide lock to their basement dungeon. Once free, Pike tries to reiterate his cover story to Jacob and the others, when he sees a child carelessly playing with a phaser. Instinctively, Pike jumps on the weapon as it accidentally discharges into his chest (foreshadowing of his future fate in “The Menagerie,” when Pike becomes a radiation-scarred invalid saving a shipload of Starfleet cadets). Pike is carried to the church, as the landing party locks the door to prevent the village inhabitants from seeing them beam back to the ship, but Jacob kicks in the door just in time to see them leave in glowing, enveloping halos of transporter beams (!).
A fully recovered Tilly tries to piece together the identity of the odd crewmember named “May”, when she remembers and confirms that May was, in fact, a former classmate of hers… who is now deceased.
Back on the ship, a recovering Pike tells Burnham that he now realizes he has to tell Jacob the truth. Beaming in alone in Jacob’s basement, Pike tells him about current Earth, the Federation of Planets, warp drive, the works. Pike also tells Jacob that their Prime Directive prevents he and his officers from altering their society. The two agree to a trade; Pike gives him a long lasting energy cell from Discovery in return for examination of the World War III helmet cam which was recording at the time of the colony’s original instantaneous exodus from Earth.
On Discovery, Burnham and Pike review the old footage from the helmet cam and discover the last image it recorded before the relocation to Terra Elysium was an image of the same red, winged, angelic being that Burnham saw during their previous mission.
Jonathan Frakes (“Number One” himself, from Star Trek: The Next Generation) returns to the director’s chair once again, directing a script by screenwriters Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”), Sean Cochran and Vaun Wilmott. Frakes also directed an episode of Discovery last season as well, not to mention multiple episodes and two feature films in the Star Trek franchise, including the post-World War III-themed “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996). Frakes’ direction is confident, energetic, and well-paced.
Unfortunately, the story itself retreads some very familiar Trek territory, most obviously the displaced-Earthlings western episode “North Star,” from Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as any number of episodes where the crews have had to save a planet’s primitive inhabitants from a space-borne danger (including TOS’ “The Paradise Syndrome”).
Overall, this latest ride on the USS Discovery feels more like a standalone episode of “The Next Generation” or more like “The Orville” (especially given its collisions between faith and science, a recurring motif in that series). “New Eden” probes the issues of faith and religion but without the usual metaphorical filter; this time the religions seen are a hodgepodge current Earth religions, and while Pike is sympathetic to the right of the colonists to practice their hybridized faith, Burnham takes the side that her adopted home planet of Vulcan has traditionally taken; the side of scientific rationality.
Despite her own experience with ‘the red angel’, Burnham believes there is a logical reason as to how the colonists are there, and she is right to an extant; we find the colonists were transported to Terra Elysium over 200 years ago by an apparently advanced creature/race. What’s missing is the why. Why were the colonists taken there? Why are the seven signals leading Discovery’s crew to these seemingly random-yet-related missions? It’s no coincidence that the Discovery’s payload turned out to be exactly what was needed to save Terra Elysium.
While the planet’s inhabitants are more or less well-meaning and generous, they are also shown to be somewhat backwards, save for the curious Jacob. Pike’s sympathy towards them suggests that Star Trek’s usual antagonism towards matters of blind (or misinformed) faith might be mellowing into a kind of live-and-let-live tolerance.
As a lifelong fan of Star Trek, I’m generally okay with that, as long as Star Trek not lose its own core identity. The series has long-thrived as a secular, rational beacon through the fogs of mysticism; championing science over dogma. Now with Tilly seeing a dead friends and a ‘red angel’ leading the crew to various trouble spots throughout the galaxy, I am concerned that this apparent faith-based mission sounds more like “Quantum Leap” than “Star Trek.”
I would hate to see this promising second season devolve into a slicker retread of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989). Searches for god in science fiction generally don’t end well. In fact, I really don’t think it’s a healthy thing for one to get their answers to matters of faith from a television series. The primary goal of television (and Star Trek) is to entertain. It should never be the end all to one’s search for the answers of the universe. Star Trek should ask the big questions, but it should leave the answers for its audience to figure out for themselves.
The late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once wrote an unproduced Star Trek story called “The God Thing” that dealt with the Enterprise crew learning that humanity’s concept of ‘god’ was, in fact, a malfunctioning space probe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_God_Thing). Elements of this story eventually found their way into the story of the mutated “Voyager Six/V’ger” probe of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Roddenberry’s views on religion in general were not entirely positive, to put it charitably. Many episodes of his classic series has cultures worshipping false idols who were usually debunked and revealed to be machines or alien interlopers of some kind (TOS’ “The Apple,” “Return of the Archons,” or TNG’s “Devil’s Due”).
Given Roddenberry’s general dismissal of fundamentalist religions as relics best left in humanity’s past, I wonder what he would have to say about the USS Discovery’s quest for the ‘seven signals’ and the red angel? We’ll see in the episodes to come if the answer to this seemingly ‘divine’ cosmic riddle will reconcile itself with Star Trek’s longstanding tradition of humanism, and perhaps extend an olive branch to those of faith as well.