Star Trek: Discovery brought the crew of the titular starship back together.
And everything fell out of balance.
The first two episodes of Discovery‘s third season saw the crew split up. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) sought her time-displaced crewmates in the season premiere. Saru (Doug Jones) and the crew searched far and wide for Burnham in the follow-up.
Now that everyone is back together as one happy Star Trek family? Something’s lost. There’s something different.
I can’t tell what it is about season three’s third episode, “People Of Earth.” But by bringing everybody back together, Star Trek: Discovery became a different show. Again.
After rescuing Discovery, Burnham reunites with Saru and the ship’s crew. She comes bearing grim news, though. The Federation was wiped out about 200 years earlier. Something called “the Burn” caused every dilithium core in the galaxy to spontaneously explode. Making dilithium – the fictional mineral that powers most Star Trek faster-than-light travel – the hottest commodity in the universe.
But, as seen in the closing minutes of the season premiere, there is hope. Starfleet still exists in small, remote pockets throughout the galaxy. And Burnham has intercepted a communication from Admiral Tal that originated 12 years earlier.
Saru, unanimously chosen as the new captain of the Discovery, sets a course for home. But their welcome isn’t exactly warm. Since the Federation’s collapse, Earth has been fending for herself. Hoarding dilithium and firing upon any ship that comes near orbit.
Captain Saru is able to negotiate an inspection to prove Discovery‘s motives aren’t hostile. But in the course of the inspection, dilithium raiders are on to Discovery‘s stash of the valuable substance. Leaving Saru to choose between respecting the new, less welcoming wishes of the Federation’s former homeworld and upholding the ideals of the Federation itself.
It all sounds very lofty. Burnham and Saru, side-by-side. Defending Starfleet’s ideals, and by extension Star Trek‘s ideals. It sounds like it should be a rampart for Star Trek: Discovery‘s third season.
Yeah. Well, it isn’t.
You can never knock the acting on Star Trek: Discovery.
Martin-Green is always good as Burnham. Even though I was less-than-pleased to see the return of the cries-every-six-seconds version of Burnham. But they’re earned tears. At least within the context of the story. Burnham is a different person now, molded by a year traveling with Book (David Ajala).
Doug Jones is always reliable in the role of Saru. Excuse me. Captain Saru. The Kelpien has always been the foundation for Star Trek: Discovery. But Jones goes a little over-the-top in some of his protesting of Earth’s new xenophobic approach to self-defense. It’s as though the tone of the story and the pressure Saru’s under in his first mission as Captain dropped Jones on the doorstep of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek School of Acting. Rule number one? Shouting means drama! It was kind of disappointing to see Jones project a general lack of nuance. The little things and the subtleties were always what made Saru special.
Star Trek: Discovery introduced a new character, Adira. One of the Earth Defense inspectors who stows aboard Discovery, hoping to learn about Starfleet. As a human somehow joined with a Trill symbiont, Adira has a vague memory of the Federation and longs to be a part of it.
Much was made in the news about Blu del Barrio being cast as Star Trek‘s first non-binary character. This is only an introduction, but Barrio uses what little screen time they have to make an impact. And Adira’s role in Discovery‘s search for the remnants of Starfleet looks to be a critical one.
The rest of the cast turns in an as-expected. Mary Wiseman continues to show restraint when it comes to Tilly’s eternally weird personality ticks. But Anthony Rapp, while always a pleasure to see as the smug Stamets, needs someone to bounce off of. His interactions with Tig Notaro’s Jett Reno (absent from “People Of Earth”) make him a far more compelling character. When it’s just Stamets interacting with insert-character-here? It just doesn’t pop.
Writing And Directing
It’s not uncommon for Star Trek: Discovery to score a hit for both writing and directing. Or to at least have a good showing with one or the other.
With “People Of Earth,” both the script and the helm fail the episode.
Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt turn in a script that’s something of a mess. As with the sprints-to-the-finish in prior seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and the debut season of Star Trek: Picard, “People Of Earth” tries to do too much. The script seems convinced that it needs to pack in twice its weight in exposition, lofty dialogue about what Starfleet is and what it means, characters struggling to grasp with a strange new world, and a curveball heading into the final act. Longtime Star Trek fans often complain that “New Trek” doesn’t understand the Utopian ideals of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
That’s where they’re wrong. The producers and writers of Star Trek: Discovery understand that just fine. They just don’t know how to tell a Star Trek story. There’s no time to take a breath, not a moment spent solving an interesting problem with cleverness and ingenuity.
And the pacing of the direction doesn’t help either. Star Trek veteran Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation) takes the helm with this episode. Just like the script, the pacing for “People Of Earth” is very inconsistent. When the story calls for brevity, Frakes slows things down. And when it’s time to slow down to take it all in, he punches it up to Warp 9.
It’s like “People Of Earth” took its cues from The Rise Of Skywalker. Great, more lessons from J.J. Abrams. It tries (needlessly) to pack too much into 48 minutes. And because it’s set its own unnecessary ticking clock, the viewer is constantly playing catch-up.
Simply put, “People Of Earth” isn’t a good way to tell a Star Trek story. It’s unbalanced, shifting between nuance and bluntness without the fluidity seen in the first two episodes of this season.
Star Trek: Discovery can’t spend forever finding its voice. It can’t just be episode-after-episode, season-after-season of a show justifying its presence on TV.
I like Star Trek: Discovery. Quite a bit. But I like it when it excites me, and I love it on the rare moment that it challenges me. This week’s episode did neiter.
It frustrated and at times infuriated me. And there’s no reason for it. We don’t have to go anywhere. There’s no Klingon War to win, no Mirror Universe to escape from. No Red Angel threatening the universe, and no torpedo lodged in the Enterprise‘s hull.
There’s an unexplored world of unmined story potential. A finite number of Star Trek: Discovery episodes in the third season to truly make a mark, to genuinely move the goalposts. Instead, the producers made “People Of Earth.”
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery stream on CBS All Access every Thursday.
All images courtesy of startrek.com.
'Star Trek: Discovery' - People Of Earth
- As ever, the acting on 'Star Trek: Discovery' is top notch.
- CAPTAIN SARU! It's about time.
- Too much plot, too much story crammed into 48 minutes
- Inconsistent writing and sloppy direction
- Squandered potential for an interesting, complicated story