Discovery continues to become more conventionally Star Trek while also pushing boundaries for the franchise. More than ever though, Discovery reflects and comments on contemporary society in “People of Earth.”
Star Trek Discovery (Season 3)
“People of Earth”
Jonathan Frakes (director), Bo Yeon Kim & Erika Lippoldt (writers)
Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, David Ajala, Blu Del Barrio, and Michelle Yeoh (cast)
October 29th, 2020
In this new century, Earth has cut itself off from outsiders and put up massive military defenses around its atmosphere. It’s not a subtle American allegory, but it manages to not be too ham-fisted either. Saru, Burnham, and company save the day with sleight of hand surrounding their ships and Dilithium storage, but the real, long-term solution lies in getting these two opposed groups to talk, listen to each other, and work together. This isn’t a story about Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives. It’s a story of people coming together and working past their differences for a brighter future – a hopeful and quintessentially Star Trek message.
In this episode, Saru (Doug Jones) becomes the first alien (non-human) Captain to headline a Star Trek series. It’s a natural next step for his character and wonderful to see. We’ve seen him grow so much over the last two years and he truly deserves to be Captain of the Discovery. It’s a great step for Doug Jones as well. He imbues Saru with so much character and personality, both in his physical mannerisms as well as his speech. Jones is an amazing actor, but he’s often done parts with little to no speaking and not been properly recognized for them. Saru’s so humble as he takes the mantle, feeling out everyone else’s thoughts first. I don’t know if Jones is that humble as well, but I want to believe he is.
Not only did he bring them to the future, there’s also no one else for the job. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) returns calmer and more confident than ever, but with more of a focus on surviving, adventuring, and enjoying herself in this new century. Burnham sports box braids now, as seen in the end of last week’s episode and teasers for this season. Her braids reflect her shift in character — a newer, even more independent version of herself — as well as make a political statement. She’s the show’s main character and the First Officer of the Discovery; she’s able to take care of herself and others and think outside of the box, all while rocking a hairstyle that Black women are often discriminated against for wearing.
There’s a wonderful little moment when Burnham and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) reunite and Tilly compliments Burnham’s look. The two characters share in their adventures and excitements, and continue to grow every episode. In contrast, there’s a hilarious moment where Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) grills Book (David Ajala) just like a mom meeting a new boyfriend — except it’s Burnham’s former mentor’s Mirror Universe evil Empress doppelgänger meeting her new partner in space adventuring and reestablishing Federation values. It’s a cute, funny scene as Book assures Georgiou that they aren’t dating and she has nothing to worry about. Burnham has such complex relationships with everyone aboard the Discovery and now Book gets to enjoy that and try to make sense of it.
As well, Blu del Barrio joins the cast as new series regular and Discovery crew member Adira. In discussing their character, I’ll include minor spoilers concerning them for future episodes. They’re a nonbinary character being played by a nonbinary actor — a first for Star Trek and an exciting step forward in trans representation overall. They’re a teenage tech genius and a new addition to the team in Engineering. They’re shy but driven to work for the greater good. They partially sabotage the ship’s transporters, forcing the Earth Defense units to stick around and listen to the Discovery crew, both as part of achieving peace and progress, but also as an opportunity for them to explore the Discovery.
Throughout the episode, Adira is referred to and addressed with she/her pronouns and it was a little jarring to me. Reading some interviews with them following the episode, they’ve said that the character will have a coming out arc over the season. I have faith in the writers and directors treating them well, and I’m very thankful that they’re played by a trans actor who shares the character’s identity. Still, it’s tiring. None of the show’s other queer characters (Stamets, Culber, Reno) have had to “come out” to the other characters or have arcs just centering their queerness. That has nothing to do with those characters’ origins in the 23rd century or their 32nd century contemporaries. That’s completely a reflection of modern social politics, and it’s honestly tiring.
As well, it’s revealed at the end of this episode that Adira is not merely human as they appear, but a human joined with a Trill symbiont. It’s a fun exciting twist that reflects the possibilities of Discovery’s new setting, but I really wish it was applied to a different seemingly-human character. It’s frustrating and tiring to see that the first nonbinary character in the Star Trek universe is also revealed to be not completely human. Trill symbionts have been part of trans allegories and queer coding in earlier Star Trek series, but that’s not necessary in 2020. It feels cowardly and confused to me. The Trill symbiont can add a fun sci-fi queer coding, and I’m happy to see more Trills in Star Trek, but trans people deserve more representation that doesn’t paint us as monsters or aliens, even well-meaningly.
Despite my frustration, I have faith in the creative team behind Discovery. They care so much about representation and are constantly making the cast more diverse and giving every character unique opportunities for growth. I’ve been frustrated in the past by the tragic stories and backstories given to other queer characters, but the writers are listening and adjusting accordingly. Still, I look forward to the future where Discovery is remembered like Star Trek: The Original Series: progressive for the time it aired, but also reflective of that era’s shortcomings.