On Star Trek: Discovery, You Really Can't Go Home Again
This week, Star Trek: Discovery reunited the disparate halves of its cast for an emotional chance to take stock of their unprecedented situation. The crew has arrived in the future and is headed to the ancestral home of the Federation—but as we so often learn when we return to our roots, they come to the stark realization that they have all changed, whether they know it or not.
“People of Earth” opens with a bit of a flashback explanation for what life’s been like for Michael Burnham in the year between her debut episode and last week’s Discovery-centric perspective. It’s an unsurprising infodump: she’s still with Booker, emulating his career as a courier to learn more and more about the Burn that shattered the Federation, not destroying it but cutting off its parts to destabilize the cohesive whole. It’s information that, even if it’s interrupted by the moment of her finally connecting with the Discovery’s transmission signatures, sets the tone for this entire episode: whether anyone wants to admit it or not, traveling 930 years into the future has changed everything, our heroes included.
Michael herself has pretty rapidly come to this conclusion—after all, she has had a year to adapt to this world, and she has always been the kind of person on Discovery most willing to change given the situations unfolding around her. Her will to survive for her friends and for the hope that the Federation might exist once again is still palpable. Though as her opening log communicates, she has also had to confront the stark reality that she has to let her friends go, before the pain of never seeing them again undoes her entirely. It makes her reunion somewhat bittersweet: it is emotional for her to walk the Discovery’s halls once more, for her to be called Commander Burnham again, but both we and she realize that she’s no longer really Commander Burnham. Her time away has changed her, and now the halls of the Discovery are as alien and unfamiliar to her as the world she found when she first hurtled into the 32nd century.
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This is a theme that Discovery tackles in big and small pictures over the course of this episode, to fascinating effect. In the big picture, coming “home” to Earth—hoping to follow up on a Federation message Michael found in her travels as a courier with Book—the Discovery is confronted with what just happens in a future where the Federation is in decline. Earth shuns them for being Starfleet upon arrival, and is revealed to have become aggressively militarized—hoarding what dilithium it can, not to use it, but because it can. It’s a gut-wrenching thing to watch unfold, as Saru finds his captaincy off to a questionable start, completely laid low as Captain Ndoye (guest star Phumzile Sitole) and her “United Earth” forces insta-beam onto the ship and start locking things down for inspection. Instead of being welcomed to a tired, but stalwart home, they’re confronted with perhaps something we should not really be surprised at all: an Earth that has grown selfish and callous. Without the ability to communicate and connect with the worlds it once called allies, humanity has turned inwards, only caring for itself.
But the reality of those macro scales also impact the crew. The one-two punch of Michael’s reunion tour and the harshness of Earth’s rebuttal of them is a shock to the system of the crew. They must begin to really grapple with the scope of what they’ve done in leaving their lifetimes and families behind. We see it in small ways at first—Tilly’s tear-soaked realization to Michael that she had indeed let them go in her year in the future, an accusation that is accurate but Michael cannot even bring herself to admit to her friend, letting the moment painfully pass. It’s an energy that lingers throughout Michael’s awkward conversations across the episode with Saru, as she tries to reacclimatize to being part of the Discovery’s crew—its family—while dancing around the fact that her time away from its rules and its restrictions has fundamentally changed her perspective.
In the end, as was the case in the first two episodes, it all comes down to communication. Plagued by raiders seeking to swipe Earth’s dilithium stocks has meant that Ndoye and humanity’s home, in general, have taken a “shoot first, ask questions later” stance. It’s a situation that rapidly escalates when said raiders detect Discovery’s own ample dilithium stores and swoop in to attack—leading to her being fired on from both sides because Ndoye cannot listen to Saru’s pleas. That plays into Michael’s own quandaries, too: having closed parts of herself off to survive alongside Book in this past year, she is no longer utilizing the same playbook as Saru and her friends. Her unwillingness to communicate that painful realization flares up in crisis when she, hoping Saru will still trust her enough to understand what she’s doing, sneaks off with Book on a risky, unsanctioned plan to nab the raider’s leader, Wen (Christopher Heyerdahl), by offering to steal Discovery’s dilithium for them.
Saru does, giving the chance for Earth and the raiders, and Saru and Michael, to do what they’ve needed to do all episode: sit down and talk. In doing so, Ndoye learns that the raiders aren’t a hostile alien force, but the struggling human survivors of mines on Saturn’s Titan. The isolated Earth assumed the team was self-sufficient, but when disaster struck their habitats, they were violently turned back by their former home instead of listened to, leading to them becoming scavengers. Earth spent a century tearing itself and its former colonies apart based on a toxic lie that everyone has to manage for themselves, so utterly broken by the lack of a unifying thread like the Federation that they’d forgotten how to just reach out and help one another.
But it’s the same with Michael and Saru, who—having successfully managed to get into Ndoye and Earth’s good graces for settling the situation with Wen and his raiders, it’s finally time for them to have a similarly tough conversation. Michael has to admit to herself and her friend that she has changed: they still share similar goals, still want to find what’s left of the Federation and reconnect, but Michael’s place on the ship is suddenly very different, and she and Saru alike are going to have to trust each other as she adapts. Most crucially, as Saru and Michael acknowledge, they can only repair that trust and confidence in each other—which is still there, just distanced by time—by having this open dialogue and going on the path together.
Just as they look out on an Earth that is familiar and yet alien, and as the rest of the bridge crew beam down to what was once Starfleet HQ—only to find an old tree that was once part of its gardens, still standing in spite of all the change it has quietly witnessed—you have that moment of clarity, for these characters and the show at large. They understand now that things have indeed changed. There are flickers of familiarity in this new world, and in this new Michael, but they are not the world or person the Discovery left in the 23rd century. Now that they have acknowledged that, they can move on to the work ahead of them—and they can only do that work together.
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