By Darren Franich
January 24, 2019 at 09:30 PM EST
Russ Martin/CBS

I worry about praising Star Trek: Discovery with a phrase like: “This episode felt so much like the old Star Trek.” This is a TV show airing on a streaming service in the Year of our Spacelord 2019. If it wants to rewrite the rules of this franchise, okay! Like, if there’s a teenbait episode where the bridge crew goes to Space Coachella, and everyone’s tricorder has an app for Space Tinder, and then the canon gets breached beyond repair when onetime eugenicist Khan Noonien Singh (Tony Revolori) shows up as a black-ops Starfleet operative slash hip-hop impresario who blows up Earth with an antimatter torpedo…. well, good or bad, at least nobody would be talking about the Spore Drive.

Still, I dug how Thursday’s episode, “New Eden,” conjured up some classical Trek qualities. A new Big Red Thing brings the Discovery to a curious planet in the distant Beta Quadrant, where a community of English-speaking humans live impossible light years from Earth. Captain Pike (Anson Mount) tells Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) they’re going to investigate on the surface. It’s an away mission! And they’re joined by Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), one of the familiar faces who spent season 1 power-typing at her bridge console. Turns out Owosekun was raised in a Luddite collective, so she’s an ideal envoy to a pre-technological society. In plot terms, this means she’s good at picking locks — but okay, now we’re learning about our bridge crew! (Further connectivity to Treks past: This episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes.)

The concept behind New Eden is nifty, even if the name comes straight from a 25-year-old Stephen Baldwin TV movie. Two hundred years ago, Earth was falling into the nuclear devastation of World War III. A church full of besieged soldiers and civilians was transported across the galaxy by a mysterious angel-butterfly being — the same creature, probably, that Burnham spotted last week. Here on their new planet, the survivors’ descendants have unified all terrestrial religions: “Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Wicca,” plus a dash of Red God mysticism, with a crimson-clad priestess hosting vibe sessions at a fire circle.

What to make of our Angel Butterfly? Pike quotes Arthur C. Clarke (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and notes that Federation philosophers have come up with a science-fantasy corollary to Clarke. “Any extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God,” Pike says. Is the mission of season 2 to find some kind of God Thing?

Burnham’s skeptical, especially with regard to the more direct problem. Here’s a colony of humans trapped in the 2050s — and worse, they’re devolving, losing the ability to turn on their church’s lights, holding onto a helmet camera that lost battery charge generations ago. In Pike’s view, New Eden constitutes a separate society, pre-warp and starship-free. So this a Prime Directive matter, our old friend “General Order 1.” Starfleet officers cannot interfere. Burnham counters that these humans are, basically, part of the Federation, earthlings separated from the normal flow of history by interstellar resettlement. Adding to Burnham’s argument: A local man named Jacob (Andrew Moodie) is a man of science in a man-of-faith society, who believes (rightly!) that Earth survived World War III.

I love this setup because it’s so rich with potential. Has New Eden existed long enough on its own to comprise a truly separate society? Are they better than Earth, an inverted Tower-of-Babel utopia where the divergent strands of religious tradition (Wicca and Christianity!) have formed a blessed unity? Or, alternately, does New Eden’s devotion to 21st-century Earth life actually limit this civilization’s progress, nostalgically tying them to a half-remembered glorious past? You understand why a science officer like Burnham is disturbed by this place, where citizens handwave any logical explanations for the angel-butterfly’s existence.

“New Eden” adds an essential ticking clock element: Space rocks, crashing the planet toward irreversible nuclear winter in 62 minutes!

And here’s where this hour gets muddled with scenes of Big Digital Junk. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) fires a laser at that big space rock from last week, and then works out a complicated scenario by which Space Rock 1 will gravitronically eradicate Space Rocks 2 through 47.

The best thing about this plot is the bit of character-building it offers Detmer (Emily Coutts), who’s got a bit of a daredevil streak. (She’s had her pilot’s license since she was 12, turns out.) But the rest of the episode feels painfully dedicated to quick check-ins on Stuff We’ll Get To Later. We hear the voice of Young Spock (Ethan Peck), and find out he’s gone to rehab for Space Exhaustion. We check in on poor Stamets (Anthony Rapp), brilliant scientist-turned-Guy The Spore Drive Plugs Into, who suspects his visions of Hugh (Wilson Cruz) are somehow real.

Look, Disco, we get it: You shouldn’t have killed Hugh. He was a great character. If you want to bring him back, then bring him back. Like: Hey, presto, Tardigrade, done! But this “Izzy Dreams of Denny” subplot feels like a lame tease. And now Tilly’s seeing her own [Shaggy Voice] Guh-guh-ghoooooooost?

Broken record: The serialized stuff is dragging Disco down. It took nearly 10 minutes for this episode to get to its own actual plot, minutes that could have been spent developing Jacob, or going deeper into the connection between New Eden and the other settlements, or pondering whether the Prime Directive has room for colonizing angels.

But, another broken record: Disco‘s season 2 evolution continues. We get a stray bits of biographical detail for our ace helmspeople. And there’s a long tradition of spacegodness in Trek lore, from dimensional superbeings like Trelane and Q to the goofily unknowable entity in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Even mentioning The One Where Kirk Fights The Stripper is nerve-wracking, but I’m intrigued to see Disco start developing its own pantheon of alien races.

And “New Eden” lands on a sneaky final vision. Pike leaves Jacob an everlasting battery. That power source turns on all the lights in the church: Witness religion, given new life by science.