Star Trek: Discovery S3E3, “People of Earth” brought the Discovery crew back together and sent them all to the now much less idealistic Earth of the 32nd century. The episode had a lot of ground to cover as it had to reintegrate Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) into the crew now that they are finally reunited, answer the question of who is now in charge of the Discovery, and give us some insight into what the Earth of this time period is actually like. It also introduces us to a new character I’m hoping will really give the show some great connections to both the current time period, and to some of my favorite characters of the Star Trek series of the past.
The first point led to a sweet set of scenes of reunions and hugs. Martin-Green is great at playing the emotional reactions and gives each reunion a nice differentiation from the ones before it. It is Tilly (Mary Wiseman) who has the most heartfelt reunion, opining on the loss they have now all suffered, and noticing that Burnham does not seem like her old self. Burnham, to her credit, opens up more to Tilly and tells her how in the year that she has been here in the future waiting for them, she has let them go, and allowed herself to go with her own life. It is a quiet little scene and short, but it burbles with emotion and character moments for both of them.
Skipping 930 years into the future isn’t going to be easy for any of them, and that is a good thing. As Tilly says, “We haven’t even had a chance to say goodbye to the friends we lost. They got breakfast, were late for work, had kids, I mean they had whole lives, and they’re gone. They’ve been gone for centuries.” It wouldn’t be meaningful to the characters, or dramatically interesting for the audience, if this time jump doesn’t actually affect the characters and how they interact with the world. There is a sadness about them all now, a sense of being out of place in the universe, even as they are about to start the fight to rebuild the Federation. Burnham has already processed a lot of this while she waited for her crew to return and it has made her different as well.
Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) recognizes the differences in Burnham instantly, it seems clear that she believes that this version of Burnham is becoming more and more like her Mirror Universe counterpart, and Georgiou is quite happy to continue to push her in that direction. Georgiou gleefully interrogates Book (David Ajala) about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Burnham, in a really fun scene where we start to learn the backstory of what he and Burnham have been up to over the past year. Then she basically takes every turn to pick at the others about Burnham and show the ways that she is smarter and more capable of understanding the way Burnham’s mind works than any of them. She also disguises herself as an Admiral because, as she says, “I had to make it believable.” Basically, Georgiou remains the absolute best.
Burnham is very different, more liberated, free from a lot of the constant conflicts that used to overwhelm her mind. (Like the contrast of her feelings to her Vulcan upbringing.) It is hard to remember that the stoic (attempting to be Vulcan and please her father Sarek) version of the character was on the screen just a few episodes ago. Of course, as the perpetrator of a coup in the very first episode of the show, it isn’t like Burnham was a consistent rule follower. It is just that now when she and Book are sneaking into Book’s ship and causing a diversion that nearly gets everyone killed, they can both have fun with in-jokes and sexual tension in the midst of it.
Which she does right after giving up any claim to the captaincy of the ship and officially pronouncing Saru as the new Captain. It has seemed certain for a while now that this was the way they were going to go with the captaincy and while I would have liked the show to have a woman of color in the captain’s seat longer term, I think this move makes the most sense for the story they are currently telling. Burnham, with all of her history of active disobedience and her current storyline of feeling the call of freedom, doesn’t make a lot of sense to then be in the chair where her job is to think of the crew first and her own needs last.
Saru though, especially now that he is confident and forceful but still remembers and empathizes with his own feelings of fear and inadequacy, has become the perfect type of captain for the moment. Or as Burnham says of the Kelpian, “You are a captain in the truest sense of the word.” He has to be quick thinking and trusting (as he ultimately is in the battle between the people of Earth and the mining colony) while also being cautious and delicate (as he is with his discussions with Burnham). Each Star Trek captain brings a certain feeling to the show, even when the captain is not the main character, and Saru, with his grace and bearing, and his very different place of origin, can bring a bunch of new and memorable qualities to the role. I’m not a big ranker of captains as in any ranking someone would have to wind up last and I legitimately love them all. (Well not Lorca back in Discovery Season 1, but it turned out there was a very good story reason for that.)
The titular “People of Earth” turn out to be a bit less perfect. The entire encounter with Captain Ndoye (Phomzile Sitole) and the defense forces of United Earth is a classic encounter with a planetary population that has lost its way. They have, out of fear of the unknown, built a giant wall around themselves, and refuse to accept the goodness or humanity of any potential visitors from outside the now fortress planet. (Can’t imagine there are any real world parallels they were going for there.) The political commentary is a bit soft and nondescript but the solution is also right out of classic Trek: once the warring parties are forced to get in a room, they discover that the “evil raiders” who were coming to steal Earth’s resources were in fact the colonists of Titan who were of course, humans themselves. The solution was fine and made sense, though with all the destruction that happened beforehand, it would have been nice if it hadn’t seemed to wrap up quite so neatly.
Of course, it never would have wrapped up at all if not for the ingenuity of the latest in a long line of precocious teenagers to ultimately join a starship, Adira (Blu Del Barrio). The junior inspector beamed aboard the Discovery with Ndoye and her crew ostensibly to check for contraband. Then she promptly disabled the ability of any of them to beam away because she “wanted to explore the ship.” There is a delightful scene where Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Tilly figure out that it is Adira, who has been snarking about how they “live on a museum,” who had to be the one to sabotage the transporters, and that leads to Stamets being the one to winningly find Adira later in a Jefferies Tube and instead of berating her, or turning her in, he basically talks up why she should join the crew.
And join the ship she does, but not exactly for the reason anyone thought she would. The entire reason the Discovery came to Earth was to find a Star Fleet Admiral named Tal who sent a message years ago that Burnham had discovered. Ndoye informs the Discovery team that Admiral Tal died in an attempt to leave the planet a couple years prior, which leads to everyone thinking the mission was for nothing. Until Adira tells her big secret, Admiral Tal is alive and he is her, or in her, so to speak. Tal is a Trill symbiote and somehow she, a human, is now the host. This development is super exciting as Deep Space Nine is my favorite Star Trek series and the Trill character, Dax, is one of my all time favorite characters (in a tie with every other DS9 character at the very least.) There are so many great questions it opens up: how is Adira carrying the symbiote, what information can she remember, how much of Trill society is intact, and so many more. It is a great development and Blu Del Barrio seems to portray the character with the best balance of sass and sadness to make it work.
S3E3 was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who besides memorably playing William Riker in five different Trek series has also become a beloved and well renowned television director. Just how much influence any individual director has is always a huge question on any television show. It is usually the executive producer or head writer (the “show runner”) who helms the creative side of the endeavor. The tone and feel of a show is set and they don’t want that to change with the normal practice of having different directors each week. This is not universal, of course, and in the modern era there have been some spectacularly successful runs by directors running the show (Steven Soderberg with The Knick), or co-running a show (Cary Fukunaga with Season 1 of True Detective). With Discovery, while there is a certain “house style” the episodes directed by Frakes just feel a little different.
Perhaps it is because he knows the universe so well, or because he is by all accounts just an exceptionally personable human being and actor’s director, but the episodes he directs all seem to have an extra bit of interpersonal connection that is sometimes a little missing from the modern Trek series. He has the timing to do action sequences down of course, and the space battle between the Earth defense, the miners, and the Discovery, was really well choreographed. The ship is also clearly outclassed in every way other than its ability to travel by Spore Drive, so they had better deal with that quickly. But it is the character moments that Frakes really nails: Burnham deferring to Saru on the bridge, with the music soaring and crew hailing the new Captain; Saru and Burnham later discussing her disobedience and their shared goal; Burnham and Book with the quips. It all worked because Frakes got the best out of the actors and his direction gave room for the funny and character-centric script by Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Yippolt to breathe.
“People of Earth” ends with the bridge crew back at StarFleet Academy standing under the same tree where they all studied. And it is a classic bit of Star Trek imagery, the hope of the future and the hope for the future tied to an idealized version of who they can all be.