'Star Trek: Discovery' Gets Back to Basics

With a Star Trek alum in the director's chair, Discovery learns from its past mistakes.

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CBS All Access

It's often said Star Trek needs a second season to find its footing. Star Trek: The Next Generation certainly had a few rough patches in its opening episodes and subsequent series weren't immune from the first season slump either.

But with Star Trek: Discovery things somehow felt different. Everything was too different, the tone was completely off, and the world felt completely foreign to most Star Trek fans. But while the new season hasn't quite shrug off that J.J. Abrams-esque CGI polish, the content of the show is learning from its past mistakes.

Star Trek is starting to feel like Star Trek again.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Time For Some Discovery

One of the weird things about the Discovery's first season was its particular lack of discovery. Although it's right there in the name of the ship, the first 15 episodes dealt with a galactic-sized war between the Federation and the Klingons—with a brief aside into an evil universe—that felt like a never-ending gauntlet of action and bloodshed.

Discovery's new season, at least so far, has significantly redirected the ship, and with Star Trek alum Jonathan Frakes at the helm for this episode, "New Eden," Discovery is growing into something that's finally worth watching.

Picking up from the premiere, Captain Pike reveals to Burnham that Spock is actually in a mental facility, in a sort-of self-imposed exile and choosing not to let his family know about it. Strangely, Spock appeared to know the exact locations of these new "signals" months before they began appearing. TL;DR: The plot thickens.

In short order, Discovery finds another signal, only this one is very far away, some 150 years traveling at Discovery's max warp capability. Of course, well-established in the first season, Discovery has another ultra-powerful means of transportation—the spore drive. While this bit of tech makes Captain Janeway's celestial odyssey in Voyager almost laughable, it certainly helps from a show writing perspective. What? Location is too far? Spore drive! What? Impossible maneuver? Spore drive! I very much don't like this tech whatsoever, but alas, we're stuck with it.

Luckily, once Discovery arrives at the signal's locations things go from good to great. In classic Trek fashion, Pike and his crew uncover something seemingly inexplicable—a camp of humans far, far from their Earthly home. To make things even more confusing, a 200-year-old SOS signal means this civilization comes from a time when humanity was pre-warp?

When something seems impossible and you need to learn more, there's only one thing left to do...

A Good, Old-Fashioned Away Mission

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CBS All Access

Captain Pike, along with Michael Burnham (of course) and lieutenant Joann Owosekun (Discovery's attempt to give some other members of the bridge crew screen time), go down to the surface to discover a civilization centuries removed from the technological progress that's unfolded on Earth.

Motivated by General Order One, a kind of proto-Prime Directive, the away teams acts as travelers from the north in order to figure out how these humans arrived on this far-flung rock. After discovering that the society had essentially synthesized all Earth religions into one belief system (all cleverly told through stain glass windows), we also learn that a mysterious "angel" transported an entire church during a time of war on Earth to this new planet light years away for reasons unknown.

As answers unfold on the planet's surface, Saru, temporarily in command of Discovery has another problem to deal with—radioactive material is destabilizing in the planets's upper atmosphere endangering the entire community below. Saru weighs the importance of General Order One or if these galactic "signals" sent the Discovery to intervene. He chooses the latter course of action.

Through a long series of mishaps and hijinks, Tilly (with the help of an invisible friend?) figures out that the Dark Matter astroid's extreme mass could sling the harmful debris away from the planet, saving the away team and the inhabitants below.

The show's beautiful CGI-rendered sequence of Discovery pulling off this gutsy maneuver (once again with help from the spore drive, ugh) is one of the good uses of modern TV storytelling. Where The Original Series or TNG would just show the bridge shaking a bunch and a poorly rendered Enterprise, Discovery's embrace of high visuals pays off in this instance, specifically because it helps tell a story rather than fill the screen with gratuitous explosions.

So Who Are the Angels?

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CBS

With the inhabitants now safe, the away team deals with assuring a nosey scientist that they aren't travelers from another world. After he refuses to believe their story, Pike relents and tells him that in fact they are humans from Earth, and society has progressed in ways he couldn't possibly imagine.

He quickly exchanges a high-tech battery for a soldier's helmet cam from some 200 years ago in an effort to see exactly how they were transported to this planet, and once onboard Discovery his suspicions are confirmed. A winged figure, one similar to Burnham's vision in the previous episode, appears in shakey cam before the feed cuts to black.

With "New Eden," director Jonathan Frakes continues Discovery's hopeful upward trajectory. The introduction of Pike, the focus on character relationships, expanding the cast to also include the rest of the bridge crew, and all around better pace and plotting has helped lift Discovery from a Star Trek wannabe to something wholly its own.

It still has a long way to go to convince me that it belongs in the annals of great Trek television, but it's heading in the right direction.

Stray Thoughts:

  • While the plotting of Season Two is certainly better, some of the writing could use a little more subtly. The overtones of religion vs. science in this season or painfully apparent, that it feels in moments that it takes its audience to be idiots.
  • The Spore drive, much like poor characterization, is one of the lingering curses from Season One. I hope it doesn't slowly devolve into a "solve every problem wonder machine."
  • The moment with Tilly and Saru having a heart-to-heart in the med bay was exactly the kind of character moments Discovery desperately needs. More of that, please.
  • Theory Time: As for Tilly, she's likely affected by the mycelial network just like Stamets. Where Stamets sees Culber, Tilly sees her dead friend from childhood. Remember, that from Season One? Seems important.
  • More Theory Time: These angels are liiiiikely (which astute Star Trek fans ), an ancient race that ruled the galaxy thousands of years before humans became warp capable. They're a relatively unexplored species in other Star Trek shows, so this feels like good territory for Season Two.
  • Where is Tig Notaro? Feels like a bad decision to introduce and interesting new character only to have her immediately disappear.
  • As the show progresses, it's becoming more clear that Burnham is really the weak link on this show. She just hasn't connected with audiences yet. Hopefully that changes seeing as she is the main character.
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