This season, Star Trek: Discovery appears to be dipping its toes into questions about religion and science, but can the show—which often lacks subtlety—do these tricky subjects justice?
I’m holding out hope that Star Trek: Discovery is in for a stronger season this year than its first, which was uneven. The cast and creatives have expressed that season two will have more of a classic Trek feel, by which I assume they mean more episodes like last week’s “New Eden” and fewer that rely on intergalactic war and built-up convoluted twists.
In “New Eden,” an away team beams down to try and go incognito amongst a pre-warp society, with the Prime Directive on everyone’s minds. Directed by our sainted Riker, Jonathan Frakes, the episode definitely had more of the Trekian feel that many of us know and love. If the developments planet-side felt somewhat underbaked, this was because the episode also needed to give room to Tilly’s B-plot onboard Discovery and whatever the hell is happening therein.
Both of the “New Eden” plots indicate that the show is veering into metaphysical territory. This season’s overarching mystery about the Red Angels sparked some heavy-handed debates about religion, science, and belief. (We got Captain Pike quoting Arthur C. Clarke’s third law about technology and magic, which, okay.)
While the overall setup about the Red Angels is intriguing enough—who are they, why are they meddling, what do their mysterious beacons mean—it’s hard to imagine a resolution to their existence that could be profound after Deep Space Nine‘s seven season-deep dive into the Prophets/Wormhole aliens.
We’ve already had a Star Trek that explored aliens-as-possibly-divine-beings while also deftly examining the faith, fanaticism, and corruption that religion can inspire in its humanoid adherents. We witnessed Benjamin Sisko’s struggles as the Emissary, and the conflicts that brought to his personal life and his Starfleet duties. Deep Space Nine (the best Star Trek) begins as a show that asks what one man will do when gods—aliens—decide to upend his entire existence, and it ends the same way.
It’s hard to know where Discovery could be going with the Red Angels, but the first two episodes of the season have tried to push a mix of the alien and the spiritual. Are they Prophet-like beings with the ability to work wonders? They seemingly transported a church full of people from Earth into deep space for reasons unknown. Michael, and apparently Spock, see them in visions, and Spock may have been haunted by them since childhood. It’s not that Disco can’t go mystical because Deep Space Nine focused so heavily on these themes. Just call me a bit of a skeptic at the moment.
On the other side of the spiritual spectrum, we have whatever’s going on with Stamets and now possibly Tilly. Stamets is convinced that he saw his dead lover Dr. Hugh Culber when plugged into the mycelial network—some real version of Hugh, and Stamets tells Tilly that he’s come to believe that nothing is ever really gone. While Stamets doesn’t see Hugh again in “New Eden” to his disappointment, it’s clear that the show is heading for more encounters between the two.
Then there’s Tilly’s own foray into “I see dead people” after she suffers an accident with the dark matter asteroid in the shuttle bay. We don’t know yet if Tilly is seeing actual dead people or just projections of her own mind, but I’m going with the ghost-y theory. She saw an adult version of her friend May, and hadn’t seen May since she was a child. Even though it was implied that May was a sort of outer reflection of Tilly’s thought process, I think there’s more going on here.
Venturing into the realms of life and death and everything in between is less explored in the history of Star Trek than questions of faith and science. I have to say I’m more intrigued by these side-plots about Tilly and Stamets than I am invested in the Red Angels right now.
This brings us to another issue with Discovery that the show seems to be trying to course-correct somewhat: we still know very little about the other members of the crew not named Michael Burnham. I love Michael, but I’m anxious for stories from other perspectives that will make us care about its supporting cast.
This season, the bridge crew has had more lines and more to do, and they even got to state their names in a roll call! Considering that Discovery has fleshed out more of its characters in separate features and novels, I hope they’ll be bringing more of this to the screen.
Michael is great, but the best Star Trek stories are rarely standalones in a vacuum. Friendships and complicated interpersonal dynamics always teach us more about the characters than seeing everything from their perspective. Who is Kirk without Spock, Odo without Quark, Picard without having to navigate Wesley Crusher? I’m excited to see the rest of Michael’s world illuminated so that she shines even more brightly within it.
Discovery seems to be headed in the right direction, but I wish that it would trust its audience more. The old storytelling maxim of “show, don’t tell” keeps coming back into play here. “New Eden” lost me when the religious head of the colony embarked on a long expository speech about exactly what had happened to bring them there and their whole history, as though these visiting “northerners” would have no idea of their own heritage. I rolled my eyes so hard my face hurt. Stop telling us plot points and show us them. Stop telling us that we should care about characters and show us why we should.
Also, Ben Sisko never would have been this wishy-washy about the Prime Directive. Sometimes you just have to do the thing and damn the consequences.
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