HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Last week, Star Trek: Discovery took us to the lawless Wild West, and this week, the show demonstrates that the Burn did not leave Earth unaffected. Earth removed itself from the Federation and has turned itself into a fortress, choosing to protect its own, no matter the cost. Earth’s decision is not unlike Michael Burnham’s own decisions; both plots feature strong themes of reintegration, mistrust, and finding a way back to a better place. However, “People of Earth” portrays nothing so much as the difficulty of growing from change.
“People of Earth” picks up from last week’s cliffhanger with mostly warm greetings for Burnham. Philippa Georgiou, of course, is not much of a hugger. Burnham briefs her crew on what she knows about the Burn and confirms Saru as the captain of Discovery. Based on intelligence Burnham possesses, Saru directs the newly repaired Discovery to head toward Earth, and Burnham convinces Cleveland Booker to join them, even storing the Discovery’s dilithium stores aboard his ship as a protective measure.
Paul Stamets activates the spore drive and jumps them to Earth. The Discovery comes into scanning range, and they find Earth surrounded by satellites that generate a powerful forcefield that encompasses the entire planet. A Captain Ndoye of the United Earth Defense Force hails them and demands that they leave. Saru insists that they have come to find Federation headquarters based on the transmission Burnham received. Ndoye explains that Earth seceded from the Federation and requires the Discovery to undergo an inspection by her people for piracy. Apparently, Earth ships have been attacked by a pirate known as “Wen,” and they must determine whether the Discovery is part of Wen’s group. Saru, affronted, insists otherwise but allows the UEDF inspectors aboard. One of the inspectors beaming directly to Engineering, Adira mocks the Discovery for being an antique as they tinker with various bits of technology.
The inspectors conclude their inspection, and they attempt to return to their vessels, but something has jammed their personal transporters. Wen’s raiders appear and demand Discovery’s dilithium and refuse to be persuaded that the ship has none.
Burnham recognizes the danger, so she and Booker leave the Discovery in Booker’s ship and amicably hash out a plan solely by alluding to adventures they have had previously. They contact Wen and offer him the dilithium aboard Booker’s ship in exchange for Discovery’s freedom. On the bridge, Ndoye orders her ships to fire on Booker’s ship because she cannot allow Wen to get his hands on that much dilithium. Saru, despite not being privy to Burnham’s plans, orders the Discovery to take the full brunt of the torpedoes fired by the UEDF ships. Wen agrees to the deal with Burnham and lowers his shields.
The Discovery’s sensor detect this lowering, and as Saru prepares to respond, Burnham and Booker return to the bridge, with Wen as a captive. Saru demands that Ndoye and Wen discuss their hostilities, but neither party, in true Star Trek form has the slightest desire to do so. Ndoye accuses Wen of piracy while Wen levels allegations of selfish hoarding at Ndoye and the United Earth government as a whole.
In Engineering, Tilly determines that Adira is the one who sabotaged Discovery’s tech to jam the UEDF personnel’s transporters, so Tilly convinces Stamets to go find out more about Adira. Stamets finds Adira in a Jeffries Tube, investigating more about the spore drive. He talks her out of the tube and explains how the spore drive generally works and they are a ship from nearly 1000 years in the past. Adira, for their part, confesses that they know the Admiral who sent the message.
In Saru’s conference room, Ndoye and Wen continue to bicker, but Georgiou loses patience quickly. With a kick to Wen’s leg, she drives him to the floor and rips off the helmet he wears, revealing a human underneath. Wen reveals that he is part of a group of survivors on Titan, where an accident destroyed many of the research colony’s habitats. The colony dispatched a ship to Earth to seek help, but the UEDF fired on and destroyed the vessel before it could identify itself. Saru stares Ndoye down and suggests that the United Earth government could trade supplies and aid to the colonists on Titan in exchange for their research, and both Ndoye and Wen agree to negotiate for terms.
Adira asks to accompany the Discovery, at some point revealing that they host the symbiont Tal, and Ndoye grants them permission to do so. Saru and Burnham discuss her actions, and Saru promises to trust that Burnham can find her way back to being part of the Discovery’s crew. She accepts the position of First Officer. Ndoye grants the Discovery permission to beam to Earth’s surface, and most of the bridge crew beams down to what was Starfleet Academy where they find an old study tree still standing on the grounds. Burnham says goodbye to Booker, and the Discovery departs Earth to continue its search for the remnants of the Federation and Starfleet.
“People of Earth” feels very much like what would have happened had TNG had a Mirror Universe episode. While the UEDF seemingly lacks the malice that characterizes the Terran Empire, the United Earth’s isolationism has the same effect. Because the UE government and people have decided to prioritize Earth’s protection above all else, they adopt a shoot first attitude that nearly condemns the colonists to extinction and in the process, the UE loses people and materiel that have incredible value in a galaxy caught in a century-long resource war, all of which could have been avoided with sufficient communication. In that sense, the United Earth of the year 3189 is hardly the earth the Discovery left in 2258, and as Georgiou continues to note, the future of 3189 shares more in common with her Empire than it does with Burnham’s Federation. Saru channels his inner Captain Picard by forcing everyone to the negotiating table, and he solves the conflict between Earth and its lost colony via diplomacy, following a pattern perfected by TNG, episode after episode. With respect to the UE plot, communication therefore both causes and resolves the primary conflict.
Communication serves as a stumbling block for Burnham as well. “People of Earth” hints at the life Burnham lived during her year as a courier, allowing the growth of Burnham’s hair to convey the passage of time. A quick sequence featuring Burnham training in a combat simulation, even taking a strike across the jaw, implies that Burnham has found herself in physical danger, and her exchanges with Booker imply that she has found herself in morally compromising situations. Her year in this dystopian future has changed her, and Burnham seems to lack the ability to articulate the exact nature of those changes. In part, her life without the strictures and supports of Starfleet has left her more prone to relying on herself and Booker. She does not think to inform Saru of her plans; she merely acts, expecting him to divine her intent. Fortunately, Saru’s trust in Burnham remains steadfast, though I do wonder what Georgiou would have done had Saru not moved to place the Discovery between Burnham and the quantum torpedoes. However, despite the situation’s generally positive result, Burnham will have to remember how to trust and communicate with her own crewmembers. Saru already has one loose cannon in the form of Philippa Georgiou. He cannot afford to allow Burnham to become one, which she knows.
However, both Saru and Tilly offer Burnham the benefit of their confidence, trust, and empathy. Even in the midst of her own grief and mixed feelings about the life she left behind, Tilly looks into Burnham and recognizes both the changes in her friend and simultaneously, the similarities. Saru does the same. He uses the metaphor of “growth,” when he speaks to Burnham, communicating his recognition that while Burnham is changing, her root system remains the same. Saru, as he reminds us, is no stranger to transformation and radical self-acceptance, and he uses Captain Georgiou’s antique telescope as a prop to remind Burnham both of their own history of conflict and the bond it engendered between them.
Tilly, who wished to find some sort of legacy that could tie her to the life she left behind, finds it in a tree, perhaps continuing the “growth” metaphor. The tree stands on the grounds of what was Starfleet Academy’s grounds, and the fact that the UE government did not destroy the campus serves as a reminder that Earth, too, like Burnham still has its roots in the ideals of its past. However, director Jonathan Frakes does not show us Starfleet Academy as it remains. Rather, the bridge crew finds its comfort in a tree before the camera pans out to show the Golden Gate Bridge, hinting that the Federation vision of the past persists naturally even in a future characterized by paranoia and isolationism. Burnham, Earth, and Starfleet all have to trust in their metaphorical roots and grow into a better version of themselves, which the show will hopefully spend the rest of the season exploring.
Adira as a character is interesting. While human, they serve as a Host to a Trill symbiont, which if Riker’s experience in “The Host” is anything to go on, should be far more difficult for them than it appears to be. I’ll be interested to see how Discovery engages with canon on that point. Michelle Yeoh’s Georgiou still serves as the snarky shadow that both dogs Saru’s steps and ultimately forces the plot to move forward. Georgiou obviously recognizes the darkness in Burnham, and she relishes it. Her affection for Burnham remains both unspoken and obvious, but in light of the changes in Burnham, I wonder if she has begun to see more of her Burnham in the Michael of 3189.
I do wish that rather than having Wen turn out to be a disenfranchised human, the story had left him as an alien. While I understand the point the story tried to make—that the UE’s xenophobia hurts its own people—I do wish the episode had forced the UE to engage with a non-human species. Star Trek as a franchise has sometimes struggled with engaging with The Other in its episodes, and I wish this episode had not fallen into that trap, no matter how pitiable Christopher Heyerdahl played Wen. That story choice made the episode’s denouement feel too pat and too easily resolved. Still, there is enough emotional meat in the rest of the episode to make up for that plot weakness.
Also, yes, Tilly. Cake is eternal.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea and a Saucer.
Stray Thoughts From the Couch
- Did anyone else wonder about the jahSepp and the danger of using the spore drive? Wasn’t that part of the issue in “Saints of Imperfection” from last season? Clearly, I need to go re-watch that episode.
- According to Blu del Barrio and promotional information regarding Adira, they are the first non-binary character in Trek canon, which is why I use the same they/them pronouns preferred by del Barrio themself for Adira.
- This episode is no more subtle than any of the others. Ndoye reveals that Earth believed the Burn could have been an attack against the Federation and responded by rejecting the ideals and literal institutions of the Federation, choosing to protect its people above anything else. Taken in the context of Trek as a narrative of American exceptionalism, it’s hard not to see the shadow of 9/11 and the resulting titanic cultural shifts in the U.S. in the UE’s actions. Saru rejects the “Make Earth Great Again” attitude out of hand. If Star Trek: Picard is about dealing with not only the failure of societal institutions and one’s own guilt in that failure, then Discovery’s season three might be setting itself up to be a potential answer to the question of where does one go from here.
- If you don’t remember “The Host,” Riker temporarily serves as host to Odan and doing so nearly kills him.
- I’m also starting to wonder if the Burn links back to “Force of Nature.” I hope it doesn’t, but it’s an idea that struck me while watching “People of Earth.”
- Burnham gives Saru Georgiou’s telescope in “Choose Your Pain.”
- I do wish we knew more about how Burnham found the Discovery; “People of Earth” does not address that question. Neither does it tell us much about Burnham’s mother except that the people of Terralysium had never heard of her.