Discovery Is Laying the Groundwork for Another Classic Star Trek Debate to Begin Anew

Gotta have faith, Captain Pike.
Photo: All images via CBS

The earliest episodes of Discovery’s first season set up a battlefield for an argument underlying the entire history of Star Trek: how do we reconcile Starfleet as a scientific and militaristic entity? It seems like the second season is setting up an equally familiar debate: one between faith and logic, and the perils of leaning a little too much between one or the other.

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The place of religion in a society like the Federation has long been a subject Star Trek has dabbled with—whether it’s accepting spiritually-driven potential members like the Bajorans in Deep Space Nine, or the more typical scenario of our Starfleet heroes encountering a world where faith drives society rather than science or technology. “New Eden” takes the latter approach as the Discovery finds itself whisked to the Beta Quadrant and a surprise colony of pre-warp humans. The crew is tasked with saving the world from an impending disaster while also trying to hide the fact that they’re from a much more advanced society. And while it’s a little lighter on the spectacle the premiere rested its laurels on, it makes up for it by presenting the classic Trek pull between faith and reason in some interesting ways among its crew.

After Pike, Burnham, and Lt. Owosekun beam down to investigate the colony, they find a society that’s living in blissful harmony—cut off from the galaxy around them and their own kind, but for a surprising reason: they’re the descendants of a group of survivors of Earth’s third World War 200 years prior, transported out of certain death by the mysterious angel connected to the signal they’ve been tracking and put on a world thousands of light-years away. Given the fact that their salvation took place from an angelic-looking being in a literal church, it’s turned the colonists into a deeply religious people. They’ve formed a new faith together, literally out of scraps of holy texts from all sorts of Earth religions, to find common ground in the Red Angel.

The mysterious signal Angel, rendered in the stained glass of the New Eden church.

But while the problem of a group of different religions coming together has been solved on New Eden, the underlying contrast between people of faith and people of science has not—something that ends up playing out between Pike and Burnham at large. Where Pike sees a new society that should be left to flourish the way it has, she sees people that are lost, and should be given the chance to learn that humanity evolved into something better after the horrors of nuclear war. When Burnham finds a fellow scientist in one of the colonists, Jacob, she sees a chance to save New Eden by beaming its inhabitants back up to the Discovery to re-integrate them into Federation society. But Pike—who grew up in a household with a father who taught both science and comparative religion—sees a group of humans that have managed to flourish and make a utopia in their own small way, thanks to the unity their faith has given them.

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It’s a fascinating division between Burnham and her new captain—if only because, unlike the unease between herself and Lorca in season one, they’re both coming at the quandary they find themselves in on New Eden from a similar page. Both Pike and Burnham want to save these people: Pike wants to protect the society they’ve built together on the planet, preserving it without directly influencing it, Burnham wants to save it by essentially destroying it—and bringing the colonist into the bright future the rest of humanity has evolved into.

Stamets recounts finding Hugh in the mycelial network again to a shocked Tilly.
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Back on the Discovery, a different kind of story about faith drives Stamets and Tilly’s plot in this episode—less of a spiritual one, and more of a challenge in what they hold dear to themselves. Like Burnham, they have faith in the sciences they’ve excelled in, but both officers find themselves having that faith tested. For Stamets, its doubts over whether or not he can face interacting with the mycelial network again after seeing some still-existent form of his dead boyfriend there piloting the ship out of the Mirror Universe last season—with him finally beginning to face up to the repercussions of his scientific curiosity and coming up emotionally broken in the process. Tilly’s test, meanwhile, is through not wanting to see her friend suffer—and so takes it upon herself to find a scientific answer to Stamets not having to use the Spore Drive again.

Except, Tilly’s faith in finding a solution ends up basically sending her down the same path Stamets took last season. Mining away at the dark-matter-laden asteroid Discovery recovered from the site of the last signal, she ends up getting in an accident that has seemingly altered her much in the same way Stamets was. Tilly starts hallucinating a dead schoolfriend in a similar way to how Stamets had begun seeing visions of Doctor Culber after his death. If Pike and Burnham’s arc is about finding a compromise between blind faith and blind logic, Tilly’s is one about not haphazardly marching down one path alone, so that you end up making a mistake that’s going to bite you in the ass later.

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Not even Pike getting his ribs pulverized by an exploding phaser can stop him and Burnham for still arguing over the value of faith and context.

That brings us back to Pike and Burnham, who reconvene after being rescued to further make their points about leaving the colonists to either live their lives as their families have for 200 years already, or provide a little push into what’s become of human society without them. Pike’s happy to leave them be in a sense of peaceful ignorance, satisfied that the Discovery has saved lives as an “act of God,” even if the entire endeavour brought them no closer to figuring out the signals. But Burnham’s almost blinding faith in science sees her baffled at the idea of not giving context to people like Jacob who craved it, but not learning anything from their mission. And so, at least for now, the debate is settled with a compromise: Pike bends the prime directive a little and offers a small power generator to Jacob in exchange for the helmet recording of the “angel” that sent his ancestors to New Eden in the first place. But the generator, at least for now, won’t disrupt New Eden’s society too much—it’s just enough to light up the church lights once more, allowing pilgrims to continue to share in the faith its inhabitants have built for themselves.

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That compromise might have got the Discovery what it needs right now, but it’s clear by the end of “New Eden” that this internal debate about faith and logic isn’t something it’s done with just yet. One thing’s clear: it’s all going to come to a head with Spock. The ultimate arbiter of the logical point of view we know and love, in this younger, apparently rawer state of mind, has found himself shaken by these nightmare visions—to the point that Pike reveals to Burnham that Spock’s leave of absence has seen him put himself under psychiatric observation (with the express wish of having his family kept in the dark).

Burnham learns that Spock’s signed himself in to psychiatric care.
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Even if Burnham herself is quick to note to Pike that she can’t possibly ascribe a divine connotation to the red being she saw in the ruins of the Hiawatha, as he, or the people of New Eden can, there’s a possibility that Spock has, or at least attempting to reconcile it has thrown him into an internal turmoil. After all, as Pike says to Burnham, being granted context—be it through faith or logic—can alter your perspective. How the context Spock has been given by his visions will inform the Vulcan as we come to know him by the time of the original Trek is just as fascinating to ponder as just where Discovery will take this theological debate next.

This time around, hopefully, it sticks to its guns a bit more than the first season did at times. The fact that it has a literal guardian angel to pin this all on at some point down the line (just as season one had the Mirror Universe as a catch-all excuse for any moral quandary it floated) gives me some pause, for now, there’s enough promise here that I’m willing to keep the faith a little longer.

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The face of a man who’s absolutely ready to hook himself up to some mushrooms and see his dead boyfriend.

Assorted Musings

  • Please appreciate the above look on Stamets’ face in this trying time. Anthony Rapp’s expressions as this character are just consistently excellent.
  • I really hope Owosekun coming along on this mission means we can expect to see other members of the bridge team at least get a little more to do beyond be on the bridge. I’d really like to get to know these characters more, and it seems like Discovery finally does too.
  • Speaking of which, regardless of how you felt about the science behind the Discovery literally doing a doughnut while dragging an asteroid in its wake, the palpable joy of the crew celebrating once they’d pulled it all off was so delightful that any qualms I had about their plan went out the window.
  • One weird and potentially sinister thread that’s sort of just left dangling in this episode is that the Discovery crew and its new captain are weirdly willing to forget some of the rules they fought so hard to live by last season—and this time they don’t have “it’s a time of war” excuse to fall back on. Time will tell if it’s a thing that will snowball or not, but I get the feeling that, signals or otherwise, the Federation’s not gonna take too kindly to either the Spore Drive being back in action or Pike happily leaving advanced tech on a world that is covered under the Prime Directive.
  • Still nary a Klingon in sight! This feels odd for a show that started out so fixated on showing both Starfleet and Klingon stories. Sure, we’re only two episodes in, but not a peep out of whatever L’Rell and Ash are up to is weird.
  • “My point is, I put an inordinate amount of responsibility on these slender shoulders, often to my detriment.” Saru you charmer. The success of The Shape of Water has gone to Doug Jones’ head.
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James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!