One of the conceits about Star Trek for most of its history is that it’s been very human-centric. Indeed, many episodes of the original series were written as if Starfleet was a united Earth vessel—the concept of the United Federation of Planets didn’t really kick in until a score of episodes into season one—and even after the greater Federation was established as a multiworld nation, most of the Trek shows have been very human-centric, with Earth as the capital of the Federation and the most important planet to most of our heroes.
For the first time in Trek’s history, that’s flipped on its ass beautifully.
We open with a reunion between Burnham and the Discovery crew, starting with a joyous hug from Tilly, continuing with a look of respect followed by another joyous hug from Saru, and ending with a distant look of respect from Georgiou who refuses to get involved in the hug parade, or even get too close to it, but who obviously is most relieved out of all of them to find Burnham alive and well.
Indeed, Georgiou’s maternal concern for Burnham is a running theme, particularly when Book first beams on board Discovery. (And credit to David Ajala for the brief expression on his face after he goes through the transporter, as he’s obviously thinking, Damn, what a relic this is, as this 900-year-old transporter is way slower than what he’s accustomed to.) Georgiou immediately starts quizzing Book mercilessly like a mother meeting her daughter’s boyfriend for the first time. Book, to his credit, doesn’t put up with her nonsense for very long and is parsimonious with details, though he assures her that they’re not a couple. (Which is a relief, frankly. Television is really bad at showing male-female friendships, especially when the two have an equal dynamic in most respects, and I would very much like Burnham and Book’s relationship to remain platonic for the novelty, if nothing else.)
We don’t get a full look at what Burnham has been doing for the past year, but we get some absolutely delightful hints. Whether we’ll ever get the full story or not—here, or maybe in a tie-in novel or comic book or short-story anthology—the brief mentions are wonderful teases.
And Burnham definitely is different. She’s become a courier, like Book—sometimes working alone, sometimes working with him—and it’s hardened her. It also causes her to go off and do something crazy on her own without consulting with Saru first, and only Saru’s inherent trust of her enables the plan to succeed. But that trust isn’t reciprocated, given that she didn’t consult Saru on the plan, and one wonders if that’s going to cause issues moving forward, especially since Burnham is now officially Discovery’s first officer.
There was actually some question in Saru’s mind as to who would be in charge, and Saru seemed willing to step back down to first officer again in favor of Burnham, in deference to their relative positions back on the Shenzhou before Burnham’s mutiny. This didn’t really ring right to me on any level, particularly not from the post vahar’ai Saru. He’s the captain of this ship, and there really shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind. It’s to Burnham’s credit that she doesn’t even bother having a private meeting with Saru about it, instead declaring that Saru is the friggin’ captain already. But it wasn’t necessary, not from a story perspective (Saru made it clear that he’s large and in charge last week), and not from a character perspective (Burnham hasn’t even been on the ship for a year, she should not be taking command).
In any case, one of the things Burnham came across in her travels was a communication from Starfleet Admiral Tal that came from Earth twelve years ago. They need to go to Earth—but that’s way too distant for anyone in this region of space to get to. However, Discovery’s spore drive can get them there instantly.
I’m a little disappointed that the spore drive is still a thing. The beings in the mycelial network have been established as being harmed by the drive, which always struck me as a good reason why the spore drive never became a thing in future iterations of Trek. (Certainly that’s more convincing than the “we will never speak of it again” bullshit from the end of “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2.”)
Still, it gets them to Earth, at least, and this leads me to my favorite part of the episode. Once they arrive, a big-ass force field goes up, and Captain N’Doye tells them to go away.
We soon learn that whatever remnants of Starfleet and the Federation there are, they’re not on Earth, and haven’t been for some time. Earth is isolationist by necessity, fighting off raiders who want their stores of dilithium. N’Doye sends an inspection team on board to determine the truth of Saru’s claims to be a Starfleet ship. Saru is cagey about why they’re flying around in so old a ship (his response boils down to, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), but is otherwise mostly straightforward. (Book has to put on a Starfleet uniform to blend, and nobody mentions the spore drive.)
There’s a beautiful scene where the inspectors are going over engineering while a pissed-off Stamets watches and complains. This scene also introduces us to Adira, a teen genius played by Blu del Barrio. Mentioned several times in the pre-season hype as Trek’s first non-binary character, Adira is nonetheless referred to as “she” in the script, which is disappointing. Nonetheless, del Barrio does superb work here, giving us both a confident young genius and a nervous teenager, a dichotomy that has a magnificent explanation. You see, N’Doye tells the crew that Admiral Tal is dead, but Adira reveals that that’s not entirely true—the admiral’s host body died, but the Trill symbiont inside him was transferred to Adira.
In a very nice touch, both Saru and Burnham are surprised to learn that some Trill have symbionts (in keeping with the Trill’s introduction in TNG’s “The Host,” where the notion was still a secret from the galaxy at large; that episode also showed that a human could host a symbiont), and in an equally nice touch, Saru is able to verify it via the Sphere data. (In general, I suspect the Sphere data will be useful to the crew this season…) While Adira can’t quite access all of Tal’s memories—likely due to not being Trill—the young genius nonetheless stays on Discovery to help them in their quest.
But the best part of the episode is when Wen raiders attack. N’Doye says that they regularly harass them for dilithium and supplies, and they want Discovery. Burnham and Book are able to trick the Wen captain into lowering his shields and they kidnap him and bring him aboard Discovery and force the helmeted captain to talk to N’Doye. It soon becomes clear that the Wen aren’t alien raiders, but in fact humans wearing funky helmets pretending to be alien raiders. They are, in fact, the remnants of the colony on Titan, who suffered catastrophic damage and found themselves cut off from Earth. Their first ship sent to Earth to ask for help was fired upon and destroyed. So the people of Titan took on the role of Wen.
It’s always great to see Christopher Heyerdahl, who has been amazing in pretty much everything he’s been in, from Todd the Wraith on Stargate Atlantis to the Swede on Hell on Wheels to his dual roles of Bigfoot and John Druitt on Sanctuary, as the Wen captain. He brings an exhausted frustration to the role. Huge props to Phumzile Sitole as N’Doye, who modulates nicely from a hardass defending her territory to an ally once she realizes who the Wen are. Sitole’s “I’m willing to discuss terms” is loaded with regret and sadness, and Heyerdahl’s “As am I” is equally loaded with surprise and relief. And what’s best is that our heroes live up to Starfleet ideals. N’Doye urges Saru not to answer the Wen’s hails, but Saru insists on talking—and indeed, it’s talking that ends the conflict and enables Earth and Titan to, in essence, be reunited.
As a reward, N’Doye allows the Discovery crew to visit Earth, and at the end we have a wonderful scene where Tilly and the bridge crew go to the grounds of what was once Starfleet Academy, only to find the big tree they all used to sit and study under is now a much much bigger tree. It’s a wonderful scene where the time-lost travellers get to ground themselves before continuing their mission to find what’s left of Starfleet and the Federation.
Speaking of the bridge crew, Detmer is very obviously still suffering PTSD from the events of last week. She questions Saru’s orders twice in the midst of a conflict, which is both out of character and spectacularly dangerous. Between that and the tree scene, it looks like the show is committing to continue season two’s work in developing the bridge crew slowly but surely. Very much looking forward to that.
Keith R.A. DeCandido talks about Star Trek: Voyager on the 397th episode of The Sci-Fi Diner Podcast, which has been going through each Star Trek pilot one by one. Check out their talk on Voyager in general and “Caretaker” in particular…