Last Thursday’s double feature was a really solid night of Trek. From the Orville, we had the fabulous episode “All the World is Birthday Cake” that grappled with respecting a planet’s culture, albeit a ridiculous one, while ensuring the safety of the intrepid Kelly Grayson and Bortus. Star Trek: Discovery’s “New Eden” shed light on second season’s themes while returning us to the feel of Old Trek with an Away Mission to a mysterious world that should not exist. It was a great Thursday to be a Trek fan.
“All the World” is a great example of what the Orville can be when it’s good, and after watching “Primal Urges” (look for that review in a few days, I have to admit, it was a fabulous palate cleanser. The joy following Mercer’s announcement that there will be a First Contact situation is palpable, and even Gordon’s enthusiasm is infectious. We also find out that it is Union policy to answer any broadcast “Is anyone out there” messages, and on a personal note, I particularly appreciated that the show indicated that the transmission took years to be received, which represents a nod to real science in a show that has largely been focused on Treknology rather than technology. In a bit of a diversion from the show’s Trek roots, Mercer explains that it is Union policy to respond to “Is Anyone Out There” broadcasts. Last season, in “Mad Idolatry,” when Kelly inadvertently contaminated a Bronze Age culture, the show hinted at a general prohibition against interfering in the development of primitive civilizations, which reflected Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Mercer’s response to the broadcast would seem to run counter to that Union policy, but it would hardly be the first time that writers hand-waved inconvenient regulations in service to the plot.
The rest of the episode is devoted to exploring the nature of First Contact and specifically how cultures can clash, despite the best intentions of everyone involved. Mercer and his landing party make contact and are given a tour of areas of interest, including medical facilities, allowing Dr. Finn to joke with Alara Kitan Version 2.0 about primitive surgical procedures, but most importantly, she notes that an unusual number of completely unnecessary C-sections are performed, resulting in some very seriously pre-term infants. The props department should be congratulated as the incubators and isolettes shown in the episode look frighteningly real. Understandably, Finn is confused and asks only to be told that the infants are delivered early so they won’t be Giliac. The best part about this moment is how secure the Regorians are that their belief system is pervasive with their blind assumption that the Union members must simply have another name for it, so they offer no real explanation. It takes a bit longer and a disastrous state dinner for Dr. Finn to deduce that the entire planet is dictated by astrology, as ludicrous as that sounds. As Kelly and Bortus are born under not only the same sign but a particularly ill-omened one, they are removed forcefully to an astrological internment camp, where the denizens are so indoctrinated that they truly believe that it is their lot in life to live in the camps due to their susceptibility to violence simply because they happened to be born under a bad star.
The episode is clear, no such susceptibility exists, and Talla Keyali, the replacement Xelayan security officer, neatly deduces that the death of a star in the Giliac constellation in the long past created such an uproar that those born under the sign became societal pariahs. The problem with this conflict is that it seems too artificial, too pat. The Regorians reached out to space, seeking what is possibly the greatest adventure available, and to spend the back half of the episode treating them as backward, complete with a bullying security guard, does not quite work.
The solution crafted by Gordon and LaMarr works nicely within the paradigm of the episode—in that it works within the confines of the Regorians’ culture, but it does not really seem plausible. When Kelly and Bortus attempt their prison break, they shoot and likely kill a large number of Regorian guards, but the show never grapples with the likely fallout of these actions. Rather, they reappear on the bridge of the Orville in an almost Simpsons-esque reset. There is a brief conversation regarding the potential problems inherent to lying to an entire planet, but the resolution to that is simply that it will be someone else’s problem at some point.
Interestingly, Discovery’s “New Eden” also involves a sort of First Contact, albeit with a civilization of humans who have mysteriously been transported so deep into the Beta Quadrant that Stamets has to risk re-opening old wounds in the form of possibly encountering his deceased partner in the mycelial network. The foreshadowing there is hardly subtle, Discovery Writers Room. As it happens, these humans were rescued from the events of World War III by the mysterious Red Angel and deposited on this new planet they’ve dubbed Terralysium, following up on the implication from the episode’s title that this planet is a new utopia.
In a refreshing return to TOS Away Party protocol, Pike himself leads the mission, bringing along Burnham and Owosekun, who apparently grew up in a Luddite Commune, which is an interesting concept that I hope gets some exploration later in the season. In fact, the entire episode feels fantastically familiar as far as Trek goes; there’s an Away Mission to a planet that is protected by what at this point is referred to as General Order One, which most of us know better as the Prime Directive. Our crew needs something from that planet, and in order to get it, the crew must find a way both to avoid contaminating a pre-Warp culture and still secure the information with a healthy side of saving the planet from certain doom in the process.
Mount’s Pike oozes competence as he deftly navigates the local religion, effectively interrupting Burnham’s frustration with how important that religion is to the inhabitants of Terralysium. Here, again, we get some unsubtle foreshadowing for the rest of the season’s arc—are the Red Angels gods? Is there a scientific explanation for all that’s happening? Pike, however, is less concerned with matters of the soul and more with completing his mission, and Anson Mount really seems to be settling into the role, imbuing Pike with enough charisma and command presence that he’ll likely transition into being one of the better captains. The peanut gallery on my couch has allowed that Pike might be the second-best captain in Star Trek as no one can really touch James T. Kirk.
Mary Wiseman continues to capture the imagination as Tilly, only this time, after an ill-advised attempt to extract some material from the asteroid chunk she captured in the previous episode, she acquires a guardian angel of sorts that has taken the form of a friend from school on Earth that we learn at the end of the episode is actually deceased, again hinting at the season arc’s ultimate question. In other news, we see Burnham and Pike developing some trust, which is nice. Burnham opens up to Pike about her vision, and Pike, in turn, reveals to Burnham that Spock has committed himself to a psychiatric facility, possibly as a result of his own visions concerning the Red Angel.
As a general observation, I’m very glad that we’re starting to see more development of the other members of the bridge crew. Kayla Detmer apparently has had her pilot’s license since she was twelve years old and gets to do a donut in a star ship. Owosekun gets actual lines and a chance to do things. Before we know it, we’ll even get a backstory for Bryce.
I also want to take a moment to appreciate the character of Jakob. Despite being presented with proof positive that not only did humanity survive the war from which his ancestors escaped, they reached the stars and prospered, Jakob neither begs Pike to return the Terralysians to Earth nor requests advanced technology. Indeed, the only reason he takes the Away Team’s technology is to prove to the rest of the group that his ancestors were correct, and once Pike confirms that, Jakob is content to turn off the signal and go about his business of keeping the lights on in the church, with a little help from Discovery exchanged for footage of the Red Angel. Though Burnham points out to Pike that Jakob has something they may need, I like that Pike does not shirk the responsibility of making the final decision and goes down himself to speak with Jakob. Not only can Pike curate the information given to Jakob, but he also recognizes that the responsibility is his alone, which exemplifies the best in Trek captains. Suffice it to say, I am quite excited to see where Discovery will go next.
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
1. TNG alum Jonathan Frakes directed “New Eden.”
2. The First Contact scene in “All the World” takes place in front of the building that served as Starfleet Academy in Star Trek 2009.
3. Was anyone really surprised when Tilly’s friend turned out to be dead? I mean…really?
4. “I was raised on Vulcan. We don’t do funny.” Best line of the episode.