After being separated for the first two episodes of the season, the reunited crew of the USS Discovery journeys to Earth, where they hope to find answers and a new home with the 32nd century’s Starfleet. Instead, they are met by a hostile and isolationist new Earth government that wants nothing to do with them, and a curious young engineer (newcomer Blu Del Barrio) who may be more than they seem. Meanwhile, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) adjusts to returning to Discovery and the family that she never expected to see again.
Who Paid for the Big Ugly Space Wall?
After settling the question of who should take permanent command of Discovery (more on this later), the ship employs its Spore Drive to make the otherwise impossible journey to Earth, where the suspicious Captain Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole, Orange is the New Black) informs them that the planet has withdrawn from the Federation and is closed to all outsiders. The new United Earth is a wealthy isolationist power, complete with a border wall and a policy of shooting down any encroaching craft. While undergoing an invasive inspection from UE officers in appropriately fashy uniforms, Discovery finds themselves caught in the middle of a firefight between the United Earth Defense Force (UEDF) and a group of “raiders” who are — to the surprise of no one but Ndoye — actually the victims of Earth’s paranoid militarism.
While the first two episodes of the season both stand out as new and different, “People of Earth” is a surprisingly traditional Star Trek episode, in which our heroes must sort out a conflict between two warring factions who might stop fighting if someone could get them to start talking to each other. This scenario is a franchise staple, but instead of using an alien planet to represent or exaggerate a real-life political or social issue, “People of Earth” aims closer to home. Earth, or the Federation at large, has typically represented an idealized United States in Star Trek’s political allegories. “People of Earth” doesn’t totally undercut the utopian future of Earth that Star Trek has always hinged on — things still seem pretty nice down there — but instead adds a dash of the real, uglier USA to demonstrate how cold and hollow that utopia is if it’s not open to everyone.
If anything, “People of Earth” lets United Earth off the hook for their behavior way too easily. Through the raider leader Wen (Christopher Heyerdahl, Van Helsing), we learn that the UEDF destroyed a ship dispatched from a colony on Titan to ask for disaster relief. Ndoye responds to Wen’s story with a sympathetic non-apology, claiming the UEDF didn’t know about the Titan colony’s plight. That may be true, but they knew they were killing somebody, apparently without any provocation beyond “stay off our lawn.” The episode commits a sin common to 90s Trek, refusing to entirely condemn either side of an issue even when one is clearly wrong. At least the story ends with a glimmer of hope that, since they finally agree to extend aid to Titan, perhaps they will be less hostile the next time someone comes to Earth in their hour of need.
The New Kid
Among the UEDF officers to board Discovery during its inspection is Adira, a sixteen-year-old technical genius who confounds Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and effortlessly sabotages Discovery to pursue some unknown agenda. Stamets wins Adira’s trust by reversing the polarity of his Dad Energy and learns that they’re the unlikely human host of a Trill symbiont belonging to the very Starfleet Admiral whose signal brought Discovery to Earth in the first place. As a joined Trill (sort of) with the knowledge and experience of at least one adult Starfleet officer, Adira could become the most believable Eager Young Space Cadet in franchise history, but how much the character remains enjoyable will depend on how well the writers can avoid creating their own Wesley Crusher, and whether or not Adira’s going to be accompanied by that cutesy musical motif whenever they’re on screen.
Adira’s addition to the show was heralded in advance by CBS’s announcement of Star Trek’s first canonically gender non-binary human character, portrayed by non-binary actor Blu Del Barrio in their first major screen role. Knowing this ahead of time, it’s very awkward to hear characters referring to Adira using she/her pronouns. Del Barrio has revealed that Adira will come out as non-binary later in the season, and my reviews will use they/them pronouns for the character in advance since that is how Del Barrio and other cast and crew have referred to them in interviews.
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Michael Burnham v3.0 Patch Notes
“People of Earth” introduces us to the latest evolution of Discovery’s lead character, who has done a year’s worth of growing since we last spent time with her in the season premiere. Forced to confront the collapse of the Federation and the possibility that she may never see her surrogate family again, Michael has moved on. Her work as a courier that began as a means of solving the mystery of the Burn has become her new life, one in which she seems to have found a sense of peace. She’s no longer beholden to anyone else’s rules or expectations, and that’s allowed her to (literally, because this is television) let her hair down.
Michael’s decision not to pursue the captaincy of Discovery may disappoint some viewers who have wanted to see Star Trek’s first black female lead get to take the helm of her own show, but the writers have at least built a solid justification for her abdicating the big chair to Saru (Doug Jones). In truth, Michael has never seemed to want to command a starship as much as others (Saru, Georgiou-Prime, or the audience) have wanted it for her. This new Michael isn’t interested in immediately putting the weight of the galaxy back on her shoulders, and to be honest, after seeing the way she comes to life when playing the rogue with not-boyfriend Book (David Ajala), I almost wish she had decided not to rejoin the crew of Discovery at all, and got to continue down her new path.
Sonequa Martin-Green gives a fantastic, nuanced performance in this episode, introducing us to a version of her character who is very different but still recognizable. In an interview back in September, veteran Discovery director and Star Trek legend Jonathan Frakes described feeling a new sense of joy from Martin-Green on set. When asked about it, she told him, “My character is no longer driven by fear,” which, in Frakes’ opinion, has brought new life to both the on-set work environment and the final product on screen. Now, having finally met Michael 3.0 in “People of Earth,” that joy is palpable, and inspires some confidence that, despite this uneven episode, the season can keep building momentum and reach its full potential.