Being a fan of anything long-running brings with it occasional doubts over what we expect from that property. When something too familiar is produced, it leads to a feeling of stagnation or, at very least, playing it safe. When something new is created, it can lead to a feeling that it is no longer the thing we love. With ‘New Eden’, the second entry in the new season of Star Trek: Discovery, the show may have found the sweet spot.
‘New Eden’ was directed by Jonathan Frakes. Frakes played Commander Will Riker in all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), as well as directing two of the feature films starring that crew. This is appropriate for an entry that doubles down on last week’s ‘Brother’: an episode that suggested Disco’s second season would be hewing closer to legacy Star Trek in tone and construction. This episode echoes so much of the best of what we have seen of the Star Trek franchise over the decades.
The show picks up from where ‘Brother’ left off: Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) entering Spock’s quarters on the moderately-reimagined-Enterprise, and finding her foster brother’s renderings of the signal phenomenon explored last week. Upon discussing this with Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), we learn both that Spock has had himself committed to a facility at Starbase Five, and that Pike considers the investigation of the latest signal the top priority – even if it requires Stamets (Anthony Rapp) to interface once more with the Spore Drive. In the B plot, Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is investigating the asteroid taken in last week, whilst bonding with a fellow crew member – the latter part of that not really going anywhere, but then, as we must remind ourselves, this is serialised television, and there should be more to come.
The Spore Drive takes ship and crew 150 years’ worth of conventional warp travel across the galaxy to a seemingly unremarkable Class-M planet (broadly similar to Earth in its ability to support human life), which then turns out to have a small population of humans present. There is mystery both in how they could have got that far pre-warp travel, why they are living a simple life (with no electricity, for example) under a unified mesh of Earth religions. As the planet of New Eden is facing an external threat, Pike will need to consider the applicability of the Prime Directive to a pre-warp society that are, nonetheless, former citizens of Earth. How much to tell them – and how much to aid them – becomes the defining themes of the episode, with resident, and descendent of original settlers, Joseph (Andrew Moodie) pressuring the crew at every turn for the truth.
So much of Star Trek’s history is evoked in ‘New Eden’. In turning up at a planet to be presented immediately with an anachronistic society and setting resembling an earlier point in Earth’s history: this resembles Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) – episodes such as ‘A Piece of the Action’, amongst many others. In finding humanoids that should not be there, seemingly oblivious to external threats, the show is reminiscent of TNG episodes such as season three’s ‘The Survivors’; and the deep discussion of the Prime Directive is TNG to its very core – episodes such as ‘First Contact’ covered this; as well as the issues of what to do with an under threat society being a theme central to Star Trek: Insurrection. Pike even gets to quote a little Shakespeare, Jean-Luc Picard style.
‘New Eden’ manages to take these legacy elements and package them afresh for a new generation, however. Some of the work here is truly cinematic, with the show really starting to benefit from its budget and the technologies now available to them – one or two external shots looking very Kelvin Timeline / JJ Abrams. Everything familiar is presented a little…different. Pike discusses what to do prior to heading down to the planet surface: but it is presented neither with the TNG propensity for the formal table-bound staff meeting, nor the Kelvin Universe tendency for everything to be an emergency, with everyone virtually screaming at each other.
This is a calm conversation between Captain and trusted advisors, shot in a way that feels natural and organic. Even the Prime Directive – a concept of non-interference in the history and development of pre-warp societies, which was done to death in the TNG / Star Trek: Voyager era – is referred to as ‘General Order Number 1’. It has been referred to as that before, but the slight shift in terminology is a subtle distinction between a show reaching to stand on its own two feet, and an attempt to simply bring back Trek with a new coat of paint.
Serialised storytelling is a curate’s egg of a development in mainstream television. At its best it has the ability to give more weight to the narrative decisions made in an episode – as it can reverberate over following weeks; it can discourage deus ex machina storytelling, where something convenient comes along, because there are three minutes left to credits, and everything has to be reset; and it can deepen character development (the writers of Michael Burnham are yet to get that memo, sadly).
At its worst, though, you end up with later episodes of Heroes: where a mystery is teased endlessly, with the end result that the show is cancelled, or that the writers had no true idea where they were going anyhow. Season one of Star Trek: Discovery only really worked when binged. Individual episodes tended to feel little more than teases for future developments. With ‘New Eden’ it feels as though the show has learned how to have its constituent parts stand alone, whilst striking a tone that honours the past, but pushes forward.
This is very promising indeed.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 airs every Friday on Netflix in the UK.