Back in the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander William Riker, expressed an interest in directing an episode of the show. The producers decided to go ahead and give him a go. Star Trek had very little track record in that regard, and only on the movie side: Leonard Nimoy directed the third and fourth Trek films, with William Shatner directing the fifth. (“Captain Kirk is climbing the mountain, why is he climbing the mountain?“) But they gave Frakes “The Offspring” to direct, a script in which Riker’s role was fairly small.
He was not only the first Trek actor to direct a TV episode, he became one of the best, and now is one of the most in-demand TV directors around. More followed in his footsteps, and some became just as in-demand (Roxann Dawson, Robert Duncan McNeill, LeVar Burton), others not so much, but Frakes’s instincts for camera work and getting strong performances out of his actors remain superb almost thirty years later, as we just got to see again in Star Trek: Discovery‘s “New Eden.”
The second episode of Discovery’s sophomore season gives us a most traditional Star Trek episode, while for the second week in a row, managing the welcome balancing act of providing a complete standalone story (last week it was the asteroid rescue, this week it’s the journey to New Eden), while still moving the seasonal arc along.
Discovery continues to investigate the weird bursts that have shown up all over the galaxy, but this one is in the Beta Quadrant, sufficiently far that no warp drive could reach it in a human lifetime. Thus, in one episode we get both a reason for why the spore drive isn’t in regular use (as explained by Saru, it can only be used by either enslaving a sentient life form or by violating the Federation’s genetic engineering laws, and the latter were temporarily lifted only because of the war) and a reason to bring it back (they need to find out about these bursts).
Stamets has to go back into the mycelial network, the first of several tough choices made by characters in this episode. He saw Culber in the network, and he’s not sure what scares him more: seeing him there again or not seeing him there again. (He didn’t when they jumped to the Klingon homeworld in “Will You Take My Hand?“) Based on Stamets’s rather pissed-off attitude following the jump, it turns out he really wanted to see Culber there and didn’t. (Either that or he saw something else there that he didn’t like. We will no doubt get confirmation soon enough, but the episode holds that particular plot point for later.)
They arrive to find a planet filled with humans who have absolutely no technology, save for a distress call made with 21st-century radio. It’s not possible for them to be there—the radio signal is contemporaneous with World War III, and warp drive was invented in the aftermath of that conflict (as we saw in the movie First Contact). Pike, Burnham, and Owosekun go down to investigate, and let me say how much I loved seeing Owosekun get more to do. Oyin Oladejo makes the most of the opportunity, as Owosekun gets to be very useful, turning on the equipment they do eventually find, and also breaking out of a locked room with a mechanical lockpick. I would have liked to have seen her take a bit more of a lead, given that she went on the landing party due to being raised in a Luddite community—just in general, I hope we find out more about that.
Owosekun’s bridgemate also gets another moment in the sun, as Emily Coutts’s Kayla Detmer gets to show off her piloting skills when Discovery has to perform a rescue. New Eden is surrounded by rings that turn out to be lethally radioactive. Tilly comes up with a crazy-ass plan to use the asteroid matter they brought aboard last week to draw the radiation out, which requires some fancy piloting by Detmer.
Burnham has some difficult decisions to make of her own. For starters, her every instinct is to tell the denizens of New Eden the truth—that Earth survived WW3 and they can rejoin the rest of the human race, which they think is extinct. But Pike refuses to violate General Order Number One, though after they later find out that there’s a subset of the New Eden residents who maintain what little equipment is left in secret (and who are the ones who sent out the distress call that led Discovery to them in the first place), Pike relents and tells just Jacob the truth.
In addition, Burnham realizes that the “red angel” she saw on the asteroid last week—which she had chalked up to being a hallucination—is also apparently responsible for rescuing these humans. At the end of the episode, she finally tells Pike about the vision, especially since it matches both the description she heard on New Eden and the representation of the being on the stained glass in the local church.
By the way, I just adore that church and its modified scripture. While architecturally a pretty standard clapboard-style American Protestant Christian church, the New Eden church has been modified to incorporate the faiths of all its residents: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, etc. Pike (whose father taught comparative religion) is fascinated by it; Burnham less so, as she states bluntly to the citizens that she worships science.
Pike’s hard decision comes early on, when Burnham plays the audio she found in Spock’s quarters on the Enterprise, and shows him the image he drew, which is a near-perfect match for the sensor data of the scans of the energy bursts—but Spock drew that weeks earlier.
And so Pike has to admit to Burnham that Spock checked himself into a psychiatric facility, and specifically asked that his family not be informed. (Not surprising, that—he wasn’t on speaking terms with either Sarek or Burnham at this point, and he probably didn’t want to worry Amanda.)
However, they haven’t gone to visit him just yet, instead haring off to New Eden. Stamets’s reluctance to re-embrace the spore drive leads Tilly to her own decision, which is far easier than it should be, as she pulls a sample from the asteroid, hoping the exotic matter it’s made out might hold the key to working the spore drive without needing Stamets. However, it’s too much even for her containment unit, and it sends her flying across the shuttle bay.
Saru and Dr. Pollard both have harsh words for Tilly after she recovers from her bleeding head wound, but before they do that, Tilly talks to another crew member (played by Bahia Watson) named May. We see May several times again—or, more to the point, Tilly sees May. Nobody else interacts with her, and by the episode’s end, Tilly realizes that she’s a hallucination of what she imagines the grown-up version of a childhood friend would be. Said hallucination is worrying, especially since Tilly did suffer a head wound. It could be a simple hallucination, or it could be connected to the bigger story. This being television, the latter is more likely.
Also, I loved Tilly, who was confined to bedrest, bursting onto the bridge in her hospital gown with her brilliant idea how to save the planet, and staying on the bridge so (not) dressed until the crisis is past, at which point she apologizes to Saru and goes to have a lie-down.
The crew is perfectly divided here. Pike—who is the prototypical TOS-era commander, leading the landing party his own self—goes down to the planet with Burnham and Owosekun, while Saru—the science officer who has worked his way up to second in command—stays on board Discovery and leads the efforts to do science with Stamets and Tilly and the gang. Doug Jones excels in command, from his pep talk to Tilly, reminding her to not focus so much on being a good officer that she forgets to take care of herself (using his own overeagerness to please from his earliest days as the first Kelpien in Starfleet as an example of what not to do) to his we-will-help-save-people-dagnabbit speech to the crew to his urging Stamets to run to the spore drive.
The episode is not perfect. I would have liked to have seen more of New Eden, and maybe have Sheila McCarthy’s Mother get to do a little bit more than deliver exposition in the most boring manner possible. It would have been nice to have gotten to know the society as a whole before seeing the “rebels” in the person of Jacob.
I also have to confess to being less than impressed with this whole “red angel” notion. Burnham’s protestations that she got no kind of divine impression from her vision of it notwithstanding, it’s still coming across as some sort of higher being that’s protecting humanity for some odd reason, which is a trope that (a) Trek has pretty well beaten to death over the last 53 years, and (b) holds very little interest for me as a viewer. I hope they can make something compelling out of it. I am not, however, holding my breath.
Still, this is a strong sophomore outing to the season, beautifully directed by the always-reliable Frakes.
Keith R.A. DeCandido wants to know the story of how Detmer got a pilot’s license as a twelve-year-old.