If there's a trend to note two episodes into season two of Discovery, it's the more low-key approach. Rather than the frequent hey-look-at-me twists, turns, and sometimes-abrasive hyperbole of season one, these first two episodes take a more measured approach of contemplation and slow-burn plotting. That's not to say there aren't flashy moments of kinetics (exhibit one: the asteroid sequence of last week; exhibit two: more fun with asteroids here), but the story seems to be more intent on exploring a gradual sci-fi mystery while foregrounding a weekly plot that grows from it.
In this case, it's a human colony that somehow ended up on a planet 51,000 light-years away in the Beta Quadrant (at one of the locations of the unknown-in-origin "red burst" transmissions; Stamets reluctantly pilots the spore drive to get to this place, which would take 150 years to reach otherwise) after being grabbed from a church on Earth 200 years ago in the aftermath of World War III and dropped onto the planet with no explanation. They've been living there for generations ever since, completely unaware that the rest of human civilization went on to become what it is now.
Despite this group being human, Pike believes they should be treated like any pre-warp civilization and be subject to Starfleet General Order 1, aka the Prime Directive. I disagree with his decision that the Prime Directive should apply to abducted humans, but that's just my opinion, and Pike's decision isn't necessarily wrong; the situation has plenty of precedent in the Trek universe. Burnham also disagrees and voices her disagreement, but she heeds Pike's orders not to reveal the truth to the colonists. They go undercover as visitors from "the north" to investigate this settlement.
At the center of the colony's existence is a church made up of an amalgam of human religions (although if the colony didn't represent a significant cross-section of the world population, I wonder how this amalgam came to be). Included among the symbols of major human religions is a figure that resembles the mysterious "Red Angel" Burnham saw in "Brother." Obviously there is a connection here between the Red Angel, the red bursts, and this colony that somehow ended up on the other side of the galaxy. But what is the connection exactly — and even more mysteriously, why is this connection?
Anson Mount again shows promise as a good captain in a much more straightforward, thoughtful, classical mold of a Trek captain, and a solid co-anchor for this show. (I liked Jason Isaac's performance as Lorca last year, but the hidden twists of season one ultimately did his character no favors.) Mount and Martin-Green start to develop a rapport here that's also a good basis for vintage Trek — showing an intellectual and (understatedly) emotional connection.
The plot is nothing groundbreaking, especially the planet-side stuff which feels like TOS comfort food and doesn't go into a whole lot of depth in looking at what makes this colony tick. Instead, the away team gets locked in a basement by Jacob (Andrew Moodie), one of the colonists. While this fairly routine plot development deprives us from scenes where the away team might have had more insightful dialogue with the colonists, it does ultimately pave the way to the payoff with Jacob's final scene with Pike, where Pike provides Jacob the solution to a lifelong puzzle. Also, it allows for some action on the part of Lt. Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), one of the three members of the landing party. It's nice to finally see evidence this show will start using some of its supporting players.
In the B-plot we have Tilly attempting to get to the bottom of the mysterious, super-dense, dark-matter asteroid fragment. She does this because she wants to find a way to use the spore drive that does not involve Stamets plugging himself into it. (Stamets relays his experience to Tilly of having seen Hugh in the spore network, where lines between life and death are blurred. He's not looking forward to repeating the experience.) Tilly gets to experience this blurring of lines herself when she gets encouragement from her old academy friend May (Bahia Watson in an off-kilter performance that telegraphs strangeness before it's revealed), only to discover May died some time ago. Poor Tilly; she's already got enough neuroses to deal with, and now she gets the added challenge of I See Dead People. Why is she seeing dead people? Is it because of the spore (or whatever it was) that landed on her shoulder back in "What's Past Is Prologue"?
"New Eden" sets up a season that shows indications of analyzing questions of faith/religion/God alongside those of science. This could make for an interesting angle within the Trek universe, if they can thread the needle successfully. Trek's tackling of God/religion vis-a-vis science has ranged from mixed (the Bajoran Prophets in DS9) to disastrous (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), so there are certainly perils here. But if done well, there is fertile ground for the harvest.
"New Eden," like last week's "Brother" does not break new ground or rivet one to the screen with brilliant insights. But it does capture a nice tone of consistent intrigue and exploration, which is good thing for a series called Discovery.
Some other thoughts:
- The mystery vibe I get with a lot of scenes here (especially the mystery of Tilly's dead friend May) reminds me of the vibes of sci-fi strangeness in one of Alex Kurtzman's previous shows, Fringe. I mostly liked Fringe, so that's okay by me.
- It turns out Pike knows where Spock is, and that place is in a psychiatric institution, where he has been admitted on his own accord. And he doesn't want any visitors.
- Burnham on her initial reluctance to share her vision of the Red Angel: "The word angel does carry with it certain implications." I'm glad the writers came right out and owned up to the dangers of using such a potentially hackneyed image.
- The use of the asteroid's super-gravity properties to save the colony from incoming debris was a nice visual sequence that showed the crew working to together to solve a problem. That said, I could've done without the tired cliche of the colony being saved at the last possible second.
- Nice scene between Saru and Tilly after Tilly's ill-advised decision to take on excessive risk in studying the unstable asteroid nearly kills her.
- I finally decided to make a change with my CBS All Access connection to see if the problem lay somewhere with my devices. I was using the Android app and streaming it through a (first-generation) Google Chromecast. (Let me stress this setup streams Netflix with no issues, so it's not that the devices aren't viable so much as it might be some sort of compatibility issue between the CBS android app and Chromecast.) So I decided to instead go through the CBSAA app built into my smart TV. The results were much better, although not quite perfect. The video stutters were thankfully gone. Instead, I had two instances of static-y audio. Fortunatelly, this was fixed by rewinding the feed a few seconds and playing it again.
- Just a tip: Speculating that it takes me so long to post a review because of how I might have received the episode is almost always bound to be wrong. Do you not remember that I'm the guy who took three years to review Star Trek Into Darkness and ultimately gave it an endorsement? (For the record, I had a busy weekend that pushed my writing back for this review. Simple as that.)