CBS-All Access has just dropped the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery’s third season, “People Of Earth” for streaming, and it’s another winner. New showrunner Michelle Paradise’s arc for this season (so far) feels much more confident and surefooted than the show’s prior two seasons. Directed by 33-year Star Trek actor/director veteran Jonathan Frakes (“Will Riker”), “People of Earth” has that warmer touch with the characters that typifies his episodes. Frakes is the directorial equivalent of that setting on your TV or monitor that warms up the picture, both in color vibrancy and temperature.
In the last episode “Far From Home” we saw Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) reunite with the crew of the USS Discovery, as they rejoined her in the late 32nd century after time travel through the wormhole separated them by an entire year. And what a difference that year made to Michael…
*****QUANTUM TORPEDO-YIELD SPOILERS!!*****
S3.3: “People of Earth.”
The story begins with Michael recording a log of her past year. She and her ally (budding boyfriend?) Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) have spent the past year working out of his luxurious starship Nautilus, transporting rare dilithium for whatever is needed to help Booker’s efforts in relocating endangered species throughout the galaxy, and to get a better bearing on life within this fractured new galaxy…
During that year separated from her time traveling starship Discovery, Burnham has learned to relax a little, enjoying some of the good life in Booker’s company. Booker (formerly called “Book”) brings out a side of Michael she never realized she had–an ability to live by her own rules and needs. This is something the very rigid, Vulcan-raised Burnham we saw in the show’s first two seasons could never do. Her year as an independent courier, operating away from the rigid rules of Starfleet, has dramatically changed her outlook.
We see Michael enjoying an ale with Booker, figuratively and literally letting her hair down. Despite her newfound chill, she maintains a vigilant hope of locating her shipmates one day, while facing the possibility that she may be alone here in the 32nd century. With Booker at her side, that prospect may not be quite so bad after all, even if the Federation and everything she once stood for is now a pale shadow of itself. Like many things in Star Trek, Burnham’s adjustment to life in this broken but livable future is a metaphor for making the best of a bad situation (as so many of us are trying to do during the COVID pandemic–my wife is literally teaching her class from our living room as I type).
Michael keeps hope alive by remaining in contact with Sahil (Adhil Hussain), the lone “Starfleet officer” she commissioned in “That Hope is You, Part 1” . Sahil has been using his old, damaged relay station’s limited communications ability to scan for the signature of the USS Discovery. As Burnham is recording yet another log of another day in her year apart from her ship, she receives a signal on her old flip-top communicator–Discovery has finally arrived in the 32nd century!
Michael beams aboard Discovery and shares in a well-earned group hug from her shipmates, Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and acting captain Saru (Doug Jones). In between the hugs and the tears of her reunion, she also encourages her old colleagues to trust her new ally Booker, aboard the Nautilus.
Saru and Michael share a walk in order to get their bearings with each other. Being aboard Discovery is both familiar and strange. After a year apart, Michael isn’t quite the same person who led them to this time. Saru is dubious about Michael’s trust in Booker, to whom she’s promised a few of Discover’s dilithium crystals as payment for his help during the past year. As Saru offers Michael her old job back, she politely declines, reiterating to Saru what a fine job he’s done of leading the ship in this new and unfamiliar era. Saru’s captaincy is officially cemented in this episode (something I was hoping would happen, sooner or later; actor Doug Jones has ‘Star Trek Captain’ written all over his prosthetic face).
We also see Burnham catching up with Tilly as she makes a memorial wall of Starfleet badges in one of the ship’s corridors; her way of honoring the fallen, including those family and friends who just lived out their lives not knowing whatever became of their loved ones aboard Discovery. It’s in this scene where Tilly notes the changes in Michael as well; her observation that Michael has learned to let go, of undue responsibility and perhaps even her old life, brings both to tears.
Now come time for Booker to meet Michael’s disapproving adoptive “mother”, the wily Section 31 operative Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) who beams Booker aboard the antique ship, and assesses this new man in Burnham’s life. While Booker assures her that he and Michael are nothing more than ‘friends,’ Georgiou (and the audience) know better.
Back aboard the bridge, Michael lays out this future to her old friends, telling them about how ‘the Burn’, a galaxy-wide destabilization of precious dilithium, essentially fractured the Federation. This is something Engineer Stamets finds hard to believe happened all at once. Michael also tells her shipmates about the relay station, and that the last known Starfleet leader was one Admiral Tal, who was last heard from 12 years earlier. Rallying the troops, Saru gives a fitting captain’s speech about the need to return to Earth–a goal easily achievable now, given Discovery’s unique spore drive (which doesn’t need or use dilithium). Before returning, Michael advises them to jump into the outer reaches of the Solar system, not wanting to trigger a now xenophobic, isolated Earth’s defenses.
Arriving near Saturn, even 32nd century native Booker is impressed with the antiquated vessel’s spore drive, which drops the ship at its destination in an instant. Approaching at sublight speeds to Earth, they trigger the defenses of the “United Earth Defense Force,” a xenophobic truncation of Earth’s Starfleet. The ship is warned away by the UEDF, which Saru ignores, insisting that they have business at Earth with Admiral Tal. Immediately boarded and seized by an ‘inspection team’ led by Captain Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) and Adira (Blu del Barrio), UEDF forces seize the engineering section, as well as other vital systems of the ship.
Stamets and Tilly are bewildered by the brusque boarding of their starship upon their arrival at Earth. Captain Ndoye and her assistant Adira are fearful that Discovery might be a raider ship coming to pillage, an ongoing problem at Earth these days.
As they try to relax a little around each other, Stamets learns that Adira is only 16 years old but, as Tilly notices, she’s a “freaking genius” who is very curious about the ship’s unique spore drive, a technology that is still unknown, thanks to Starfleet’s deep burial of all records of the ship. The seemingly arrogant Adira dismisses Discovery as a flying museum, to which Tilly quips, “Museums are cool.” Elsewhere in the ship, Michael, Booker and even Georgiou are forced to don Starfleet uniforms to present a united front to the inspectors, and prevent being mistaken for raiders. Michael enjoys a look at her would-be beau in Starfleet blues, while Georgiou assumes a rank of admiral (no less).
As Captain Saru diplomatically advises his crew to cooperate with the ‘inspection’, Adira takes a deeper look into the spore chamber and other vital components…a seeming ulterior motive to her curiosity. Noting her curiosity, Stamets confronts Adira about her fascination with his spore drive. Hoping to relax her guard, Stamets comes clean with the young inspector; he tells her they’ve traveled into her century from 930 years ago, and that he alone has the biologically-implanted interface to operate the drive. Sometimes honesty is a better tool than confrontation (another time-honored Star Trek theme of this episode–the vital need to talk and trust).
Captain Ndoye tell Saru and his staff that the UEDF is constantly on alert for marauders led by a being known as Wen (Christopher Heyerdahl), who routinely leads raiding parties to Earth in order to steal dilithium and other vital resources. It’s a shocking turn for the Starfleet officers to see their once expansive and open home planet reduced to a frightened, internalized, xenophobic version of itself (a more fitting metaphor for current America you won’t find).
As they speak, forcefields go up all over Earth, as a raiding party led by Wen attacks. This is the space opera-action portion of the episode, as we see small ships take on Earth’s defenses. Not wanting to see their ancestral home planet harmed, Discovery enters the fray. Saru attempts hailing the raiding party, as their helmeted leader speaks to them through a distorted voice, refusing to yield to any authority for a truce.
The Discovery positions herself in the middle of the conflict, as Michael clandestinely joins Booker in an attempt to kidnap leader Wen using the Nautilus’ advanced technology… something Michael knows her captain wouldn’t approve of, but which Section 31 operative Georgiou quietly gives her consent.
As Discovery takes a pounding from Earth, the conflict is quickly ended when the raiding party’s leader Wen is abducted. This act takes both the raiders and Captain Saru by surprise. With Wen in their custody, Saru arranges for a face-to-face meeting aboard Discovery between Wen and Captain Ndoye.
An uncooperative Wen is brought to the briefing room, where a quick kick to the shin (courtesy of Georgiou) leads to Book unmasking the inscrutable ‘alien,’ who turns out to be a starved human from Earth’s own colony at Saturn’s moon, Titan. The colony has been long cut off as its technology fails and its people grow increasingly desperate. With Earth selfishly hoarding its resources, the raiders have resorted to piracy to survive. These aren’t alien criminals–these are human beings. Inspired by the humanitarian principles of their lost Federation, Michael and Saru negotiate for Captain Ndoye to spare some engineers and materials in order to aid and assist the ailing colony within its own backyard.
Note: Once again, this is classic Star Trek holding up a mirror to our present; the ‘raiders’ in our own solar system (much like migrants at the United States’ southern border) aren’t evil ‘aliens’ entity seeking to steal from us (i.e Trump’s “rapists” and “criminals”); they are mostly desperate people seeking a better life. While their actions may seem criminal, these acts are born of desperation, not malice.
With Michael and Saru successfully negotiating an end to the hostilities between the UEDF and the ‘raiders’ from Titan, tensions ease. Saru forgives Michael for her ignoring the chain of command in kidnapping Wen, and he once again offers her old position as First Officer, which she now accepts. Michael’s acceptance of her old job means a farewell to her life as a rogue courier with Booker, the man who fundamentally changed her life for a single year in his company. Adira chooses to come clean about her ulterior motive as well… she has been researching the ship’s spore drive in the hope of finding Starfleet’s newly relocated headquarters. She wants to locate Starfleet because she is Admiral Tal. The 16 year old human woman bears a Trill symbiont within her, much as we’ve seen other humans bear Trill symbionts (even director Frakes’ character of Will Riker temporarily carried one in TNG’s “The Host”). Adira’s Trill symbiont was once part of the late admiral Tal, so Adira literally carries the last vestiges of Starfleet’s leadership within her.
The final moments of the story sees Discovery preparing to once again depart in search of Starfleet’s true headquarters, which are no longer based on the isolated and withdrawn Earth. Before departure, several of Discovery’s crew, including Tilly, Bryce (Ronnie Rowe), Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Nilsson (Sarah Mitich), Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) and the recently traumatized Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) enjoy a few minutes on the grounds of where Starfleet Academy once stood. A still-beautiful San Francisco’s air is clean, the grass is fresh, and even an ancient tree which Tilly and her shipmates used to study under is still there. Tilly gives the tree a grateful hug, thankful for some surviving link to their past. This may not be the same Earth, but it’s still Earth. Watching from orbit, Saru grants the tired crew five more minutes to enjoy home.
If there’s any nits I have with this otherwise solid installment of Star Trek: Discovery, it’s seeing Book (David Ajala) depart by the episode’s end. Of course, we know from trailers of this season’s forthcoming episodes that this departure is most likely a temporary one, but I really like this character, who adds a humanistic Han Solo-vibe to the show, and has successfully converted the previously too-stoic-for-her-own-good Michael Burnham into a looser, lighter version of herself (an observation made by Tilly and the audience). Yes, we know he’ll be back, but for however long he’s gone, Cleveland Booker (full last name), will be missed. Here’s wishing Booker and Grudge a safe (and temporary) journey out of sight aboard the Nautilus.
As Booker temporarily departs, actor Blu del Barrio joins the cast as “Adira,” a member of the United Earth Defense Force who has an ulterior motive in learning about Discovery’s spore drive. It turns out Adira is a human carrying a Trill symbiont (see: Dax, “Deep Space Nine”). That symbiont Adira is carrying was once part of a joined Trill who was Admiral Tal…the last leader of the Federation. While assuming the body of a 16 year old engineer (a freaking genius, by 23rd century standards), she learns all she can about the ship’s spore drive in order to locate the headquarters of Starfleet where Adira hopes to help stitch the Federation back together once again. In just one episode, actor Blu del Barrio (who is nonbinary and doesn’t adhere to male/female pronouns) made a strong impression, and the character’s revealed secret near the end of the episode adds a sympathetic element as well as a callback to Star Trek’s past (the Trill) that makes Adira an intriguing character ripe for exploration in the episodes ahead.
If anyone in Trek fandom is still worried that Star Trek Discovery’s third season is descending into a Mad Max-style dystopia, I think I can safely say they are wrong. That hope, that dream of a better tomorrow that has made Star Trek such a powerful beacon of hope in pop sci-fi, is still very much alive in Star Trek’s 32nd century; however, like the best of Trek, it’s also holding a mirror to our own currently dysfunctional political scene here in North America (and the UK), with a stern warning about what increasing isolation and xenophobia will do to us if we continue down a path of distrust. The 900 year-old starship arriving in the fractured 32nd century offers hope. In just one episode, those values held by the Discovery’s Starfleet crew quickly settle a piracy conflict between Earth and its isolated colony on Saturn’s moon of Titan. The lesson couldn’t be made clearer than the moment Wen’s mask was taken off, and he was revealed to be human. No matter how badly we treat each other, no matter how ugly our language to each other, at the end of the day we’re still human, and part of a shared humanity. “People of Earth”, written by Bo Yon Kim and Erica Lipholdt, reaffirms that which unifies us is ultimately stronger than what divides us. Divisions are never insurmountable if we learn to talk and to trust.
The Earth glimpsed in the climax when Tilly, Owo, Bryce, and Nilsson beam down for a quick look at the verdant grounds of the former Starfleet Academy served as a powerful reminder of the simple joy of connecting with one’s home. Tilly hugging an ancient tree that she and her Academy classmates used to study under was a powerful image. Yes, you can return home sometimes, even if only fleetingly. That Earth already had its own climate and internal racial/economic divisions long solved before “the Burn” destroyed dilithium and ended warp travel means that it’s an autonomous paradise in the 32nd century (we even see a cruise ship in Frisco Bay). Yes, Earth of 3189 is in much better shape than its 2020 counterpart, but it’s still missing something…that sense of belonging to the universe that it once shared with the lost United Federation of Planets. While the United States and Great Britain have become increasingly xenophobic in the last few years, there is always the hope that they can one day fully return to the world stage (and family). The Earth of Star Trek’s 32nd century is a hermetically-sealed paradise (we even see a cruise ship in Frisco Bay). But can it truly be a paradise if it’s shuttered and locked away? The greatest strength of the Federation (and the world today) lies in its diversity, and that is the goal of this season–the reconnection with a greater world beyond our backyard. That message is also an apt metaphor for life in a pandemic–that dream of once again reconnecting with those from whom we’re cut off, either by suspension of travel, or the inability to share a good hug.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (and all of Discovery) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is nearing 227,000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact timeline for a vaccine so, for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!