This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 3.
In Star Trek: The Original Series, the USS Enterprise never once visited a contemporary version of Earth. Yes, the crew often time-traveled to Earth of the past, but going to the 23rd century of Earth was totally passé. Obviously, the Trek franchise has visited future versions of Earth a ton since then, but in the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3—“People of Earth”—the Trek franchise seems to split the difference. Yes, this episode is about checking out what Earth is like in the 32nd Century, but it’s also bringing Trek back to a place where talking about Earth a lot just isn’t something you do anymore. Here’s how “People of Earth” made the Planet Earth itself into a planet-of-the-week, and why the big twist probably reminded you of Star Trek: Insurrection.
When Gene Roddenberry first conceived of Star Trek in the early 1960s, one of his first “rules” was that there probably wasn’t a good reason for the Starship Enterprise to go back to Earth in the original show. In the pages of the 1968 book Inside Star Trek, you’ll learn that most of this was a practical decision from a production point-of-view, but also, that it represented a forward-facing vision of the future in which humanity wasn’t exclusively associated with Earth. “I should like maintain the feeling there is still much we haven’t seen and don’t know about [the galaxy] We don’t want our galaxy in Star Trek to become too traveled and too familiar. This takes away mystery and reduces story opportunities.”
Interestingly, many fans and scholars have argued that by the late ‘90s, that’s exactly what happened to the larger Trek canon. The franchise attempted to “fix” the notion of a crowded galaxy by sending Voyager to the Delta Quadrant, and then, later, heading back to the 22nd Century and a time when the NX-01 Enterprise couldn’t call for back-up. And now, Discovery has done something similar – by pushing the show into the 32nd Century, the USS Discovery is kind of doing planet-of-the-week stories again. But this week, that planet-of-the-week story just happened to take place in our own home solar system.
In some ways, it’s kind of shocking how quickly Discovery Season 3 decided to take us to Earth. Although we expected Earth maybe still be part of the Federation, it turns out, they’re not at all. A mysterious message from Admiral Senna Tal claims he will “wait on Earth” for people to join him in rebuilding the Federation. But, by the time they get there, there’s no Federation anymore. We don’t yet know how Adira fits into this mystery – they’re carrying the Trill symbiont of Tal inside of them — but we do know that Earth is no longer the seat of power for the United Federation of Planets at all.
On the one hand, this comes as kind of a shock to the crew: Basically, for many of them, their home is no longer their home. But, on the other hand, it allows the narrative of the episode to play out the way many TOS episodes did, except this time, instead of kooky alien planets, the warring factions came from Earth and Saturn’s moon, Titan.
When Burnham and Georgiou figure out that the attacking raiders led by Wen (Christopher Heyerdahl) are actually humans wearing spooky helmets, the twist recalls a similar plot development in the 1998 movie Star Trek: Insurrection. In that film, Picard and the gang figured out that the innocent Ba’ku and the aggressive So’na were actually the same race, even though they had been in bitter conflict for a long time. Basically, the twist in “People of Earth” is the same, but, it literally hits closer to home. In the past, Star Trek has used the trope of waring planets with common ancestry as a metaphor for the way wars happen on Earth. But in “People of Earth,” the metaphor becomes unnecessary since the waring planets are all populated by earthlings.
It’s not a new twist per se, but it’s impressive how expediently Discovery made it to Earth and decided that it wasn’t all that great anymore. It’s an interesting dose of pessimism and optimism at the same time. We certainly get the feeling that Burnham and Saru made Earth’s problems a little better than before. But, the larger mission of the Discovery is much bigger than fixing Earth’s problems. Metaphorically, Star Trek helps us fix our problems on Earth, but in the literal galaxy of Discovery, it seems like Earth needs to get it together all on their own.