Well, I didn’t think it would happen this soon into Season 2 but Mr Dalton and I already agree on something! New Eden was a great episode of Star Trek. It was fun, engaging and thought-provoking. In fact, Episode 2, New Eden, is so different from Episode 1 that I could almost imagine they were two different shows! When Jonathan Frakes cropped up in the opening credits as director, I knew we were in good hands, and it was also written by a different and, arguably, better team of writers. I say better because this episode featured things like a story and a plot in the same episode (Alex Kurtzman, take note: this is how professionals do things).
Action sequences, yes there were some of those. Did they involve pod racers… sorry, landing pods? No! They did not! [SPOILERS] They involved the whopping great big spaceship doing something pretty cool, which was launching a dark matter asteroid out of its rear end and using its immense gravity to drag a cloud of dinosaur-killing asteroids away from a planet they were about to hit. That is proper treknology! Better yet, it’s the proper use of the central character in any Star Trek show which is, obviously, the ship itself! (Did you think the central character was one of the people? Nah!)
However, some basic problems remain. While New Eden steered clear of mindless action and death simply for the sake of it (Connolly, you will be remembered), it still shared several failings with its episode 1 step-brother. These include snappy dialogue and one-liners, which feel forced and unnatural (no, CBS, Star Trek is not the Marvel movie franchise and it never will be, so stop trying).
There is also the continuing problem of technobabble that is internally inconsistent. Basically, it makes no sense! And it may seem silly to complain that fictional science jargon makes no sense, but there are some simple rules that govern these things, and so far season 2 has ignored all of them. It feels like the writers are just throwing technobabble flash cards on the floor and then kicking them around until they form rough sentences. It’s just not good enough.
But these things don’t matter. Not really, not when the meat and bone of the episode was so good. Complaining about silly jokes and daft technobabble is the highest form of nit-picking. New Eden was a great episode of Trek, and I haven’t even got to the good stuff about the Prime Directive, Captain Pike and their cool away mission, yet!
And I’m not going to, because Mr Dalton already covered that part.
So I’ll get on with telling you why, in fact, this brilliant episode of Star Trek actually left me with some very dark feelings towards the crew of the Discovery. Why, in fact, this episode revealed them to be what they secretly are: ammoral hypocrits and worthy heirs to the legacy of that pragmatic bastard, Captain Lorca!
It begins with choices, and whether or not you believe individual human beings have a right to choose.
The episode opens with the crew discovering that the next red light on their list is so far away, it would take them 150 years to travel there by warp. But wait! We have this thing called a Spore Drive that can get us there instantaneously! Mr Stametz, report to engineering!
Wait a minute! Stop right there!
Now, we all knew the Spore Drive was coming back. Episode 1 even teased us with it, when Tilly had the idea she could use pieces of dark matter to build a navigation computer that could replace Stametz. And why do they need to replace Stametz? Because every time he hooks himself up to the Spore Drive he risks becoming a mental vegetable, because navigating the mycellial network is basically melting his brain. Also, there’s the small matter of him having traumatic visions of his dead boyfriend while he’s in there, which is ruining his mental health into the bargain.
This was the reason why Starfleet, an organisation renowned for its compassion, ethics and support for the rights of individuals, banned its use and why Tilly was so chuffed she might have found a way to use it without reducing Stametz to a gibbering wreck.
But that isn’t why we need to stop right there. We need to consider two things.
One: the fact that Pike is basically ordering Stametz back into a torture chamber with no good reason.
Was there ever a good reason? Hell, yes, an existential war with the Klingons during most of Season 1. Everyone onboard knew they might have to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure victory, and thus Stametz made the choice to continue piloting the Spore Drive, even when people like Saru, Tilly and Burnham expressed their qualms over the risk he was taking with his health.
Two: the casual manner in which Pike calmly asserts that this peace-time mission to investigate distant twinkly lights is important enough to ignore Starfleet and put Stametz’s health at risk.
So, what else is important enough? A sudden need to replenish the stock of espresso capsules? Oi, Stametz! Get your ass back in the mycellium torture chamber where your brain might melt, because Tilly’s gotta have her caffeine hit if she’s going to bounce all over the ship like a hyperactive 5 year old!
What makes this even worse is that in Episode 2 we find out Stametz has resigned his position aboard Discovery. He is simply waiting to get back to spacedock so he can take up his new, and safe, desk job. We get the distinct sense that he’s no longer considered an operational part of the crew. He is, for the duration, a passenger. This sense is reinforced when, later, he turns up on the bridge during a crisis and Saru expresses both surprise at his presence and gratitude for his assistance: gratitude, because Saru understands that Stametz is no longer expected to assist.
Yet Pike still thinks it’s okay to order him back into the mushroom pain booth. How very… Lorca, of him.
The rest of the episode returns to that favourite old Trek chestnut, the Prime Directive and the fun new way we can find to break it this week! Unsurprisingly, they break it. The fun comes from the story behind it and the intelligent ethical debate the characters have in the process. It’s so refreshing, after Kurtzman’s episode, for the audience to be treated with respect. Thank you, Mr Frakes.
On the planet of New Eden there is a chap called Jacob who possesses a camera that has information on it that the crew need. But Jacob’s society is pre-warp and peaceful, united by religious faith and dismissive of scientific explanations for their origin. Jacob and his family always believed in the science and theorised that there were other humans out there, but they lacked the proof. Now, in exchange for that proof (in the form of Pike beaming down to see him), Jacob is willing to hand over the camera. He tells Pike that merely knowing the answer to his question is satisfaction enough. But there is no guarantee that Jacob will keep his mouth shut. Why wouldn’t he tell his own descendants, or anyone else who’ll listen, that instead of living this dirty, dangerous, primitive lifestyle where toothache can kill you, they could have personal hygiene, build labour-saving gadgets and watch wide screen TVs?
Of course Jacob is going to talk! Good grief…
In New Eden the crew make two ruthlessly pragmatic choices that don’t say anything good about them as human beings, never mind as Starfleet officers.
One choice is to break the Prime Directive with Jacob in order to get the helmet camera. No, the damage is not going to be limited to Jacob alone. Whether or not he has surviving family members, he cannot be guaranteed not to tell anyone else about the greatest revelation of his life. Thus, depending on how many people believe him, he will either spread the contamination of knowledge of space faring humans, at least create a competing religion that could lead to conflict within an otherwise peaceful and harmonious society. Because competing religions have a long history of working out their differences peacefully, with absolutely no one getting killed.
This is exactly what the Prime Directive was designed to avoid!
The other choice is to deny Stametz his basic freedoms, including his basic right to health and well-being by forcing him to use the Spore Drive. Compare this with Season 1 when the crew experiences qualms over harming the tardigrade, a creature that may or may not have been sentient but which, in any case, was a living being in pain. Yet there are no such qualms over harming their shipmate in Season 2! (With the exception of Tilly, the walking, talking ship’s conscience.)
What’s the difference?
Jacob’s trade is undertaken willingly by Jacob and does him (as an individual) no harm (although it might well damage his community long term).
Stametz’s trade is forced on him by the autocratic military authority of Pike and does him measurable and well documented harm. This harm is even more egregious when you consider that Stametz was basically press-ganged by Starfleet who, as was revealed in Season 1, made his joining Starfleet a condition of allowing him to continue his own work on the spore drive. Basically, his option was join up, or sign up for unemployment benefit. And this was before the Klingon war even started!
There are two main themes explored in New Eden. These are the ethical basis of the Prime Directive, and whether there is such a thing as absolute truth or it’s all just a matter of perspective.
But there is a third, hidden theme that gets no attention from any of the characters, except perhaps Tilly: this third theme is Stametz’s freedom to choose verses the casual hypocrisy and callous disregard for his well-being exhibited by most of his shipmates.
Only Tilly seems worried for Stametz, and she nearly gets herself killed trying to build a thing to help him because, apparently, she couldn’t get any of her shipmates to assist her with this project. That’s probably because they were all too busy looking the other way while their new captain carried on where Lorca left off.
[The Grumpy Guest Review is always provided by Michael Victor Bowman, whom you may wish to check out, to abuse and amuse at www.lifedescribed.com. Or follow him on Twitter: @mvictorbowman.]