Star Trek Discovery: New Eden

Pike: "If you're telling me that this ship can skip across the universe on a highway made of mushrooms, I kind of have to take it on faith."

By nature I love brevity: Though the improvements to Discovery as a whole continue to do their work, this episode is bogged down by its attempt at religious themes when it lacks a clear understanding of religion.

'New Eden' starts out with the same log that closed out last week's 'Brother.' The opening scene with Burnham and Pike is a good example of the new status quo aboard the Disco. The friendlier, more team-oriented leadership of Captain Pike combined with the more relaxed, less anxious tone of the series as a whole make the scenes on the Disco herself work well. The character interactions were good, particularly between Saru and Tilly. I also thought the final solution looked really cool, even if there are numerous science gripes one could take. It was fairly obvious that Tilly's friend wasn't real, and once we found out it was a friend from her childhood, I guessed that she was dead. Still, that didn't make their interactions any less fun to watch, and the moment Tilly figures out that May is dead was sufficiently creepy. I think it's Mary Wiseman's expression that really sells it.

My chief gripe with the episode lies in the scenes set on the planet. To explain fully why I don't like these sequences, I'll have to get pretty in depth with philosophy. If you're not interested in reading all that, the TL;DR is that the episode fails to understand religion or religious people enough to portray them realistically, and that its attempts to stay above religious disagreements and not take sides lead it to unintentionally choose a different side entirely. There's a lot more to unpack than just that, though, and that's really the bulk of what I have to say about this episode, so continue on if you are interested in engaging your philosophical side.

There's an old story about five blind wise men wandering through the desert. After a time, they come across an elephant, and unable to see it, they reach out to touch the creature. The first grabs hold of the leg and declares, 'The elephant is like a tree.' The second grabs hold of the trunk and says, 'No, the elephant is like a snake.' The third grabs hold of the tail and corrects both, 'No, the elephant is like a rope.' The fourth grabs hold of the ear and informs them, 'The elephant is actually like a heavy piece of leather.' And the final one grabs hold of the elephant's side and says, 'It's clear the elephant is like a wall.' The five blind wise men go on their way, arguing about who is right and really knows what the elephant is like.

Anyone who's ever sat through a philosophy class will tell you the purpose of the story and its moral: the five blind wise men cannot agree on what the elephant is like because none of them has the full picture. Each has a piece of the puzzle, but none of them can see the totality of the elephant. This is then used as an analogy for God. No one religion can have the whole picture because we are all blind wise men who have only a part of it right. From the ideological basis that this story illustrates have come a multitude of pluralistic movements and systems of thought. Someone who has a 'Coexist' bumper sticker on their car or who describes themself as 'Generally spiritual, but not confined to any religion' probably derives their worldview from this basic concept. Though I happen to disagree with this idea of God, I won't argue this here. The problem comes when this is touted as a religious awakening that all religious people should agree with and get behind.

Let me ask you this: how do you know that the five blind wise men all have only a part of the puzzle? How do you know that the whole elephant isn't really like a rope, or a tree? The answer, of course, is because you know what the elephant is really like. It's because you can see. So someone who takes this analogy from the story of the five blind wise men and the elephant makes the following claim: Of all the many people on Earth who have searched for the truth, I alone can see. This is, of course, the central claim of anyone who believes they know what God is like. So the 'Coexist' spirituality is itself a religion, with its own view of God, though perhaps a view that's not definitively established. And because it is a separate religion in and of itself, it contradicts the other religions that it often claims to incorporate into its beliefs.

A monotheistic religion, like Christianity or Judaism or Islam, explicitly requires that its deity be the only true deity, and the only correct view of that deity. No one who truly believes in the Biblical God or Yahweh or Allah would ever decide that, just because everyone in their group believes something different, their true savior must be a part of all of those beliefs. The expectation that this will occur assumes both that all religions are essentially compatible with each other and that the amalgamation of these religions is a true cooperation of all of them rather than a separate religion itself. Both assumptions are false.

The resulting misconception of religion makes 'New Eden' somewhat hard to watch for a religious person like myself. Going the route of a combination of every religion is a clear attempt to not have to choose a side, but in the very attempt it chooses a side all its own. And making it so much about sides creates the friction between belief systems we see nowadays. Instead of pretending we all believe essentially the same thing, let's recognize where we disagree and be human beings together apart from that. Of course you should try to convince people if you truly believe you are right - it's an important question - but if you can't live with someone who makes a different choice about where they put their faith, you're in for a difficult life. This, along with the whole science vs. faith theme - a trope that needs to die - make all of the sequences on the planet fall flat and far short of where they could be.

The execution of this episode was perfectly fine, I just didn't like the writing choices they made on the planet. Jonathan Frakes continues to serve as a competent and proficient director, and all the acting was good. Sonequa Martin-Green seems to have settled into the role of Burnham much more this season, which I appreciate, and all our main characters continue to do well.

Strange New Worlds:

The planet was called Terralysium by its inhabitants. What we saw of it seemed like a fairly run-of-the-mill small country town.

New Life and New Civilizations:

The Red Angel continues to overshadow the season. It's also possible that the being who looks like May is actually some other creature. As far as civilizations go, the New Edeners fell flat.

Pensees:

-Spock is in a psych ward at Starbase 5. Huh.

-Pike has already redecorated his ready room so it has seats.

-I liked Stamets' fears that he'll see Culber in the network and won't be able to leave. Since Wilson Cruz is a regular this season, expect more of that.

-So, after all that pluralistic vague religion, mushrooms are the source of eternal life? Okay then.

-We heard a bit about WWIII, an event well-documented in Trek history.

-Lt. Owosekun grew up in a Luddite community, huh? I bet her parents weren't too thrilled with her decision to join the high-tech Starfleet.

-If the asteroid material weighs so much, how was Burnham able to hold a chunk of it last episode?

-It was great to see Saru acting as a mentor to Tilly. More, please; those are my two favorite characters!

-Stamets knew exactly what was going on on the bridge before he even entered. Hmmm...

-So, it's quite the coincidence that the Red Angel happened to grab a group of soldiers that contained at least one Christian, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist, one Hindu, one Shintoist, and one Wiccan. Seems unlikely that you'd find that sort of cross-section of religions in any group of soldiers. Also, every one of them had a copy of their scripture on them at the time?

-I love Detmer's reaction to Tilly's plan. Actually, I just love Detmer in general.

-The one bit of religious theme/imagery I really appreciated was at the end when Jacob plugs the power source into the church and the lights turn on. They'd said that the reason pilgrimages had stopped was because the lights were off, and here science solved that problem. Science fueled faith, which is a cooperation of the two that you don't often see in television.

-I'm surprised they so easily used the spore drive. I thought after the end of last season it would take a whole lot for them to use it again.

Quotes:

Saru: "Before we can care for others, we must care for ourselves."

Tilly: "No, I think your orders are probably good. I need to go pass out now."

Pike: "Don't make me laugh."
Burnham: "Fortunately for you, I was raised on Vulcan. We don't do funny."
Pike: *laughs*

Burnham: "Sir, I learned the hard way what not following orders can lead to."

3 out of 6 fungi of eternal life.
--
CoramDeo got tired of sitting around and picking blackberries.

8 comments:

Denes House said...

Ahh, philosophy is sweet. But blackberries are sweeter.

Denes House said...

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,”
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Patrick said...

As a guy who tends to twitch when Star Trek mishandles religion-based stories, I didn't mind this one so much. Where the people living on the planet a little contrived? Sure. But they were taken from a future time in the middle of World War III and somehow transported to another planet, who knows what that would do you your belief system? It probably would've been simpler if they'd all been of the same religion, I suppose. For me though any flaws with this episode was far outweighed by the positives. Tilly is really coming into her own, and her interactions with Saru were a hoot. I also really like her relationship with Stamets. And I'm very pleased to see both Detmer and Owosekun(yeah, I had to look it up) become more developed characters.

Those mystery of these energy bursts and Red Angel sightings is quite intriguing. I have no idea where they're going with this, but I look forward to finding out. I definitely think it's a more interesting story than what we got in Season 1, and feels more like "Star Trek". I mean, I've already seen a Trek show focused on a war with an alien empire, I'm not sure they'd be able to do it better than Deep Space Nine did.

CoramDeo said...

Patrick, I also have trouble watching Trek mishandle religion, which is part of what hurt this episode. I agree that the other portions were really great, but the approach to religion that they took is one only a secular writer would come up with, and it left a bad enough taste in my mouth that it tainted the episode for me. I like where the season is going too, but I really hope they deal with the mythical and supernatural portions of the story better than this in the future. It does seem like that's going to continue being a theme this season, what with the Red Angel. I'm glad you like this season, and I hope neither of us is disappointed by it!

Patrick said...

While I agree that the idea that believers of various disparate religions would just throw their beliefs in a mixing bowl is a bit silly, they were at least treated respectfully and not as ignorant rubes. And I liked the high priority Pike placed on not disabusing them of their beliefs. It didn't just feel like he was enforcing General Order 1, he seemed to have respect for their faith even if he didn't share it. At the same time, I'm glad he went back to tell that one guy the truth about Earth. As much as I like Jason Isaacs, I wasn't a huge fan of Lorca. But this time around I really like both Anson Mount AND Christopher Pike :)

CoramDeo said...

Agreed on Pike. I liked that he seemed able to engage with and respect their religion while Burnham could not. It made for a nice contrast. You are right as well that there was a good deal of respect for faith here that isn't present in a lot of Trek - particularly anything Roddenberry was in charge of. I do have to disagree a bit on Lorca, although he bothered me a bit in his final episodes. I don't like the guy, but I think he's a good character. And of course, Jason Isaacs is great, as you said.

Billie Doux said...

Two hundred years just isn't enough for me to sign on to Pike's use of General Order 1. Those people should have been told the truth and given the choice of staying or going home. And yes, I agree that the religion was wonky -- although it did have a Unitarian Universalist flavor. (I have close relatives who are active UUs, and one of them even gives guest sermons every few months.)

All that said, I am really loving Anson Mount's Pike. He's perfect. And Tilly running to the bridge in her jammies and telling Detmer to scooch over made this episode for me.

Victoria Grossack said...

I completely agree, Billie. These people are humans and ripped from Earth not so long ago.