This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers for “People of Earth” and some decades old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Despite landing in a future in which the Federation’s influence has been greatly diminished, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is shaping up to be far less dark and dystopic than many predicted. In Episode 3, “People of Earth,” the USS Discovery visited the home planet of the Federation, and although that visit was a mixed bag, things did end on a very hopeful note—one that is even more hopeful when you understand the canon significance of a certain giant tree. Here’s why that big tree on the grounds of Starfleet Academy is likely a reference to old stories told by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in The Next Generation...
At the end of “People of Earth,” the bridge crew of the USS Discovery went down to check out what was going on in the mostly-abandoned section of Starfleet Academy. Although Starfleet and the Federation haven’t operated on Earth for about a century at this point, all the familiar structures and buildings in San Francisco seem to still be standing. Notably, this includes the Golden Gate Bridge, which, although it was partially destroyed in the Dominion War in 2375, was rebuilt by the 2385 timeframe of the Picard flashbacks. Who knows how many times it’s been torn down and rebuilt since then!
But what about that tree? Well, there’s every good reason to believe that this is an Elm tree that was mentioned by Jean-Luc Picard in two separate episodes of The Next Generation. In “The Drumhead,” Picard and Simon Tarsus talked about studying underneath an Elm tree at Starfleet Academy. In “The Game,” we learned that Picard once carved his initials into the same tree, and the groundskeeper — Boothby — was pretty ticked-off.
So, now the question is, are we looking at Picard’s tree? In both stories, we never actually saw the tree, so it’s possible that this is a different tree. It’s also possible (and I’m no tree expert) that this is not an Elm tree, and therefore not the same tree. But, when you Google images of huge Elm trees, it seems like this tree could be an Elm, and therefore, could very much be the same tree Picard talked about. Now, the Discovery bridge crew all, presumably, went to Starfleet Academy about a century before Jean-Luc Picard (probably sometime in the early 2350s) which means the revelation of the tree in this episode is twofold: Not only does it still exist in 2388/2389, but that it also existed about a century before Picard went to Starfleet Academy.
But how big was the tree? Well, in the Star Trek: Picard flashbacks to 2385, we see a few candidates that could be much younger versions of the giant Discovery tree, but that would also mean that the tree would have been even smaller in the 2250s. When Raffi and Picard confer in 2385 outside of Starfleet Headquarters, there are actually a bunch of different trees. So, maybe those aren’t the same ones. On top of that, although located near each other in and around San Francisco, Starfleet Headquarters and Starfleet Academy are not the exact same thing. Most canon (like The Undiscovered Country) holds that Starfleet Headquarters is in Petaluma — technically not in San Francisco the city proper, but instead, across the bridge. So, the trees surrounding Raffi and Jean-Luc in “The End is the Beginning” in Picard, probably don’t contain the same tree Tilly and the gang hugged in “People of Earth.”
But, all of that still means that the tree described by Jean-Luc in TNG is the same tree we see in Discovery. Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) says, “We all stood in the same spot 930 years apart,” and Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) says the tree is “so big now!” So, we have to assume that in both the 2250s and in Jean-Luc’s time, this tree was much, much smaller.
Will a future Short Treks episode solve the mystery of the Starfleet tree? If so, that hypothetical episode could literally be the thing that ties all of Star Trek canon together.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is streaming now on CBS All Access.