Category Archives: Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery – “Into the Forest I Go” is a strong winter finale for a different show than what we’ve been watching

On its own merits, “Into the Forest I Go” is a solid, even excellent, episode of Star Trek: Discovery, exactly the sort of thing I want this show to be, but after the previous six episodes of wildly varying quality and success, it’s also somewhat baffling. Weeks of inconsistent characterization, confused motivations, and other strange writing decisions can’t simply be undone or redeemed with a single great episode. It just ends up feeling like a fantastic hour of another, different and overall better show, and that’s exactly what happens here. Optimistically, maybe this means the show will have solved some of its more pernicious problems going forward, but the garbled preview for the show’s return in January isn’t especially encouraging.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode starts with a little bit of anticlimax after last week’s sorta-cliffhanger ending. Instead of launching right into an epic space battle with the Klingons that are en route to Pahvo, Captain Lorca is ordered to return with the Discovery to a nearby Federation outpost. The Pahvo plan has failed and, logically, it doesn’t make much sense to make a stand there, especially if it means risking the incredibly valuable Discovery, which is the only ship of its type. Still hoping to strike a blow against the Klingons, however, Lorca gives the crew three hours to come up with a way to crack through the Klingons’ cloaking technology so they can prevent any more of the devastating ambushes that have been such a problem for the Federation.

They quickly hammer out a plan that would let them see the Klingon ships, but it requires that they place a pair of sensors at each end of the Ship of the Dead. Burnham and Tyler, being the only ones on the Discovery who are familiar with the inside of Klingon ships, are up to the task, but there’s one more problem: the data and calculations from the sensors will take hours to collect, and they can’t just hang around next to the Klingon ship while that’s going on. To speed things up, they decide that they’re going to use the spore drive to do dozens of short jumps around the Klingon ship, which will, somehow, enable them to collect the data they need in about five minutes instead of three hours.

It’s not a bad plot if you’re willing to suspend some disbelief about how sensor data collection works, and it’s generally well executed in terms of episode construction, acting and production values. The thing is, it’s also a plot that exists primarily as a framework on which to hang character development. The episode is packed with character moments for Burnham, Tyler, Lorca and Stamets. Unfortunately, though all of these moments work well within this episode, not many of the have been earned by the material that we’ve seen the last several weeks. The Stamets material comes closest to feeling like a real, natural progression for what we’ve seen of his character so far, but Lorca, Burnham and Tyler all suffer from inconsistent characterization or just plain lack of any characterization whatsoever.

Stamets’ secrecy about his condition since his injection of tardigrade DNA has gotten a little tiresome, especially since it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be being closely monitored throughout this whole time, so it’s nice to see that ended at last. While Stamets’ reasons for keeping secrets from his doctor husband are a bit specious, the way their conflict plays out over the episode is pleasantly low-drama. It’s easy to see how much these two men love each other, and their ability to separate their personal relationship from their work is commendable. I can’t say I think their relationship is altogether healthy, considering Stamets’ secret-keeping about the effects of the tardigrade DNA and the usage of the spore drive, but it is something of an extenuating circumstance, and Stamets and Culber’s style of conflict resolution is a refreshing change from the more explosive styles of romantic conflict that are usually popular on television. I can even forgive that shamelessly on the nose reference to La Bohème (Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz starred together in Rent).

What’s harder to make sense of is the interactions between Stamets and Captain Lorca. Frightened by his deteriorating condition from using the spore drive, Stamets needs some convincing to take part in Lorca’s plan to use the ship’s teleportation abilities to collect the sensor data from the Ship of the Dead, and Lorca is up to the task of persuading him. What’s difficult to understand is what we’re supposed to understand about Lorca from his arguments to the effect that Stamets needs to do this for science because once the war is over they’ll have the whole universe to explore. In any other Trek, it would make sense to take Lorca’s statements at face value and accept them as earnest. Even in the context of just this single episode, that reading holds up; Lorca even cedes his award to Stamets in the wind-down of the episode as a gesture of appreciation for Stamets’ extraordinary service, and Lorca reiterates his earlier sentiment at that time. However, we’ve been shown all season that Lorca has a strong manipulative streak and that he’s willing, at least sometimes, to do difficult things for the greater good, and Lorca’s understanding of “the greater good” is both self-serving and big-picture-thinking enough that Lorca is able to abstractify the value of other people’s lives in ways that make it possible for him to justify all kinds of unethical behavior.

So, is Lorca a fundamentally principled leader bonding with Stamets over a shared interest in science and exploration and expressing a real desire for peace? Or does Lorca just know the best ways to manipulate someone who he sees as less sophisticated than himself? Or is the truth somewhere in between these extremes? And if the most generous interpretation of Lorca’s actions in this episode is true, are we meant to understand this as character development for the Captain? Because this ambiguity in the portrayal of the man has existed all along. It’s one thing to make a character a little mysterious or morally gray and inscrutable, but at some point it’s important that the audience is able to actually form a real opinion about the character or all that ambiguity simply becomes bad, inconsistent writing. Seven episodes into Lorca’s tenure as Captain, it should at least be clear whether he’s a protagonist or villain, and while villain protagonists and anti-heroes and redemption arcs are a thing, it should also be clear by this point if Lorca was one of those character types. Nothing about Lorca is clear, and that’s deeply frustrating.

For all that Burnham is billed as the most important character on the show, this mid-season finale was decidedly light on character development for her. We do get to see her kick some ass aboard the Ship of the Dead, but her battle with Kol is somewhat anticlimactic. Visually, it borders on magnificent; though I’d like to have seen more fighting, what we do get to see is well-choreographed, and the set for the Ship of the Dead’s bridge is a gorgeous backdrop for it. Emotionally, though, it leaves something to be desired as a conclusion to Burnham’s grieving-over-Georgiou arc, mostly because there just isn’t enough groundwork laid in previous episodes to support Burnham’s desire to fight a personal duel against Kol. The audience was told, back in episode three I think, how Kol defiled Georgiou’s body, but there’s no way that Burnham could have known about it. We could understand her to have inferred it from previous knowledge of Klingon cultural norms, but it still doesn’t quite work as a motivating factor for her here. Once Kol taunts her with Georgiou’s insignia, it makes sense that it would become personal for Burnham, but that wasn’t effectively communicated as the turning point of the scene. Instead, the show seemed to rely on the audience’s meta knowledge to give the moment emotional impact, an irritating bit of lazy writing that shouldn’t occur in professionally produced media.

The most memorable storyline of the episode belongs to Tyler, who goes with Burnham to the Ship of the Dead, only to have an attack of PTSD when they stumble upon the dead body room, where they find Admiral Cornwell (still alive, yay!) and L’Rell, whose appearance trigger’s Tyler’s PTSD episode. Setting aside what a bad idea it is to send someone who was tortured by Klingons on an important, time-sensitive mission to infiltrate a Klingon ship, and also setting aside how strange it is that L’Rell isn’t locked up in a secure place but was just chucked into the random room full of dead bodies and left there without guards or even a decent lock on the door, the exploration of Tyler’s PTSD is interesting, if not necessarily well done. The big issue here is that the portrayal of Tyler and his PTSD struggles with the same problem of ambiguity that Captain Lorca does. I don’t know if the show’s writers think this ambiguous treatment of characters is clever or insightful, but it’s mostly just too confusing to be either of those things.

There has been speculation for weeks that Tyler is the Klingon Voq in disguise, and there’s some compelling evidence to support that theory in this episode. At the same time, there’s very little of that evidence that can’t also be interpreted as Tyler being exactly what he appears to be: an unlucky human man traumatized by months of torture and rape at the hands of a Klingon woman who has become obsessed with him. Even L’Rell’s promise to protect Tyler at the end of the episode isn’t conclusive proof that he’s Voq; it could just as easily be more evidence of her obsession. What we do know is that either Ash Tyler is who he believes himself to be or he’s Voq, but so changed by whatever procedure made him human that he has no recollection of his former self, whether because he’s a sleeper agent or because the transformation procedure has damaged him, which could account for his PTSD as well and would explain why some of his flashbacks look like they could be of surgery rather than torture. But this all still leaves Ash Tyler’s identity as something of a question mark for now, and this is incredibly frustrating after weeks of speculation and build-up and with a long wait before we get more episodes of the show.

Miscellany:

  • I’d love to learn more about the unnamed members of the bridge crew. Alright. I guess they do have names on IMDb, but I don’t think they’ve been said aloud on the show yet. I want to know more about them, either way.
  • No Saru material at all in this episode. I can’t recall if he even got a line. He’s such an interesting foil to Burnham and their shared history is emotionally compelling, but it’s been either played for melodrama or ignored for most of the season so far. Disappointing.
  • The props they made for the sensors that Burnham has to plant on the Klingon ship will never not be hilarious to me. They’re like a foot and a half tall with bright glowing lights. They beep. And they have Starfleet logos right on the tops of them. Because no Klingon will ever notice the large, bright, noisy sensors labeled “Property of Starfleet.” Very stealthy.
  • What is certain from Tyler’s flashbacks is that L’Rell is a rapist. Whether Tyler is human or whether he is Voq robbed of his identity has no bearing on this fact, and yet it seems as if the show doesn’t actually recognize it as a fact at all. Tyler’s flashbacks to his rape at L’Rell’s hands are eroticized in a way that suggests that it’s not being taken very seriously, either because he’s a man raped by a woman or because someone thought this was another area where they could create ambiguity as to Tyler’s identity. It is not. And just because you can show a Klingon boob because you’re on a streaming service instead of broadcast TV doesn’t mean you have to.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is a bunch of nonsense

“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is the episode of Star Trek: Discovery that has forced me to finally admit that I am hopelessly confused about some important aspects of this show. Namely, what is going on with this war between the Klingons and the Federation. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, and this episode (the title translates to “If you want peace, prepare for war”) builds up to a cliffhanger that leaves us set up for next week’s fall finale, after which we’ll have to wait until mid-January for the final six episodes of the season. I’m not optimistic that one more episode will be enough to untangle this mess, but that would be less of a problem if the garbled plot and inconsistent characterization of the show’s main players didn’t combine to make it difficult to become emotionally invested in the story on screen.

**Spoilers below.**

This may be the most “classic” Trek episode of Star Trek: Discovery so far; it’s the first episode since the premiere to take our heroes to the surface of a planet, and it’s the first episode in which that planetside adventure is the primary plot. “Si Vis Pacem” starts with the Discovery failing to save hundreds of lives that are lost when a couple of Federation ships are ambushed by Klingons using stealth technology. As much as the Discovery’s spore drive gives the Federation an edge by making the ship incredibly swift and nimble, the Federation is still struggling with the dangers posed by the Klingons’ invisibility shields (“cloaking” technology comes years later, from the Romulans). To help allay the problem, Burnham, Saru and Tyler travel to the planet Pahvo, which houses an enormous (-ly phallic) crystal resonator that they hope to use to boost a sonar signal that would, theoretically, allow them to detect invisible Klingon ships within range. It’s a scientifically dodgy-sounding proposition, but okay. At this point I was just thrilled to get to see them go to a planet. It’s a nice change after eight episodes taking place almost entirely on ships.

When Burnham, Saru and Tyler arrive on Pahvo, they quickly realize that the planet is not, as previously thought, uninhabited. The planet is well known for its peculiar “singing,” which is channeled through the crystal antenna I guess? But it’s somehow never been thoroughly investigated enough for anyone to learn that there are creatures that live there and that appear to be the people responsible for the sounds that have been heard from the planet all this time. I suppose this oversight can be forgiven, since the Pahvans are incorporeal beings made of a sort of glittery blue mist, but it still kind of begs the question of how anyone in Starfleet could come up with an important plan that utilizes a feature of a planet like this without knowing a little more about the place. In any case, though hooking up the sonar thingy to the crystal thingy is important, the mission immediately switches to first contact protocols once they realize the Pahvans exist.

Though Burnham is the first one to insist that they follow first contact procedures and ensure that the Pahvans consent to the use of their crystal antenna, it’s Saru who does most of the communicating with the Pahvans, through a kind of telepathic connection. It’s awkward to watch, and things take a weird turn when Saru is seemingly mind-controlled by the Pahvans, who are purely peaceful beings dedicated to harmony. When Saru destroys Burnham and Tyler’s communicators and expresses his desire to stay on the planet, where he insists they can live in harmony, they’re forced to think fast and come up with a plan to escape so they can get back to the war with the Klingons. While Tyler distracts Saru, Burnham heads to the crystal antenna to contact the Discovery for help. Unfortunately, Tyler’s distraction of Saru doesn’t last long enough and the first officer chases after Burnham, attacking her and trying to destroy her communication device when he finds her at the antenna.

Before either Burnham or Saru is seriously injured, but not before Burnham has to use a phaser on Saru to defend herself, the Pahvans show up. Saru reiterates his desire to remain on Pahvo, but the Pahvans are, as apparently as possible for clouds of blue glitter to be, receptive to Burnham’s plea for permission to use the crystal antenna in order to bring an end to the war with the Klingons. This is about the time that the Discovery gets in contact with its away team and transports them back to the ship, where they quickly realize that the Pahvans aren’t transmitting a sonar signal; they’re sending out a message that is drawing the Klingons to Pahvo, presumably in the interest of forging a peace between the warring factions. We’ll find out next week how that works out for them.

There are a number of weird things about the whole ordeal on the service of Pahvo, and the vague silliness of the science of it is just the beginning. A major problem is what exactly is going on with Saru’s motivations throughout the episode. When they first arrive on Pahvo, Saru is in physical pain from the constant noise, which overstimulates his keen prey-species senses and makes him anxious to quickly finish their mission and get back to the ship. His change to being at peace with the noise and attuned to the Pahvans happens off screen, which makes his sudden desire to stay on the planet forever feel jarring and out of character in a way that suggests mind-control. However, while Burnham and Saru recuperate in sick bay, we find out that Saru wasn’t mind-controlled at all; he was just really into the Pahvans’ message of harmony. Saru’s anger at Burnham as they fight at the foot of the antenna feels real enough, and his fury over her continued “taking” things from him fits with what we’ve already seen of their relationship (although I thought they buried that hatchet several episodes ago), but it’s not an effective bridge between the earlier scenes on Pahvo, where Saru seems mind-controlled and the scene in sick bay where we learn that he’s not.

There’s no natural character progression or arc here for Saru, and the overall effect is to make him seem unbalanced and fragile. What he says, explicitly, is that he’s constantly stressed out by being a prey creature trying to do things that go against his essential nature. Saru’s outburst of extreme rage and violence, coupled with the anxiety and resentment he expresses, is indicative that he may only be barely holding things together most of the time, and this is at odds with what we’ve learned about Saru so far. Previous episodes of the show have touched upon Saru’s species traits and what they mean for him as a character, but the overall tone of that earlier material seemed to be that we should view his peculiarities as just that: peculiarities which, like all such individual traits, have pros and cons. There’s even an implicit message of diversity and acceptance (including self-acceptance) in Saru’s narrative in previous episodes. Sure, he may have traits that seem odd to humans, but he was also portrayed as studious, loyal and capable; his instincts were shown more as an extra sense that could even be useful, but here Saru’s instincts override everything else about his character.

It’s not even that this racial essentialism is uncommon in Star Trek; just look at this show’s Klingons (or DS9’s Ferengi or basically all Vulcans ever) for further examples. What I find frustrating about Saru’s actions in this episode is that I get the feeling the show’s writers don’t grasp the way they’ve undermined their own point. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising after the way the bungled Harry Mudd as a Lovable Rogue, but it’s irritating to watch. If Saru is supposed to be a sort of ambassador for diversity aboard the Discovery, with most of his portrayal dedicated to the idea that his species traits don’t dictate his fitness to serve in Starfleet or present a barrier to his ambitions there, showing him as unpredictably violent due to those same traits really works at cross purposes with that message. In the end, it’s just nonsensical.

The other big storyline this week belongs to L’Rell, who is trying to ingratiate herself to Kol. Or something? It’s actually not at all clear exactly what L’Rell is trying to accomplish here. I suppose there’s intended to be layers and layers of scheming going on, but what comes across is a confusing sequence of failed plans that end with L’Rell being imprisoned by Kol. First, L’rell offers Kol her services as an interrogator, and she’s given the task of extracting information from the captive Admiral Cornwell. However, as soon as the guards leave the two women alone, L’Rell tells Cornwell that she wants to defect to the Federation. L’Rell claims to have an escape plan, and she escorts Cornwell through the halls of the Klingon vessel, ostensibly on the way to L’Rell’s ship, but they’re caught by Kol, at which point L’Rell stages a fight with Cornwell and kills her, telling Kol that the Admiral had overpowered her. When L’Rell drags Cornwell to, I guess, the ship’s dead body room (I mean, I don’t even know?), she finds her own crew slaughtered and piled up on the floor and vows to avenge them. She returns to Kol and swears fealty to him, but he sees through her, calls her a liar and has her escorted out.

This is all a lot, and it doesn’t make much sense at all. L’Rell’s stated desire to defect to the Federation could make sense as either a ruse, to trick Cornwell into giving her sensitive information, or as a sincere desire if L’Rell really is angry at Kol and wants nothing but vengeance on him for deposing T’kuvma’s chosen successor, Voq. However, L’Rell doesn’t get any information from Cornwell, at least not on screen, and her apparent murder of the Admiral and quick abandonment of the plan is evidence against L’Rell’s desire to defect being for real. It’s also notable that L’Rell seems surprised to find her dead men, and this is the first time we see her vow vengeance, which undermines vengeance as a possible motive for her earlier actions. But, if L’Rell was only trying to insinuate herself with Admiral Cornwell by pretending to be an ally in hopes of getting information, why would she be so quick to murder the other woman? And when Kol calls L’Rell a liar, what lies is he referring to? What evidence is he basing this judgment on? Why isn’t he more upset about L’Rell casually murdering a valuable prisoner? If this is all some kind of extremely layered ruse, what is L’Rell’s endgame here? How does being locked up in Klingon jail get her closer to success? And where is Voq, anyway?

Something tells me that these questions aren’t all going to be satisfactorily answered next week.

Miscellany:

  • Burnham and Tyler finally get that kiss.
  • When Tyler is trying to delay Saru, there’s a moment where Saru calls him out on his deception, and Tyler looked really uncertain and frightened, almost as if he thought Saru might have sensed some deeper deception.
  • Unpopular Opinion: The Tilly/Stamets stuff was the most compelling material in the episode. We know that the spore drive doesn’t survive into later Treks, but it’s a fantastic piece of technology so I’m interested to see what catastrophic drawbacks cause it to be abandoned.
  • Also, why does this show have such a high body count for women characters? If Cornwell really is dead, it was upsettingly abrupt and senseless. Even if it wasn’t especially brutal or bloody, it’s still part of a sad pattern on this show where any woman in a position of power or influence has a shockingly early expiration date.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” could have been great

So, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is definitely my favorite episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date. It’s a time loop episode, which is one of my favorite genres of sci-fi television stories, and it’s, for the most part, really well done. It’s often hand-wavy about science and logic, but that’s been the Star Trek way since forever and isn’t really a negative to my mind. There’s some interesting character work going on, especially for Lieutenant Stamets, who we’ve seen little of since he injected himself with the tardigrade DNA. It also brings back Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, which is rather earlier than I expected but welcome nonetheless. ALSO, there is a space whale. It’s not a perfect hour, by any stretch, but it’s pretty good, and it’s a pleasantly standalone episode that I could see rewatching on its own in the future.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode opens with a party that’s notable in Trek history for actually feeling like a party that real young people might go to and enjoy. There’s drinking and dancing and people making out, and it’s nice to get another look at life on the Discovery when there’s not a crisis going on. Of course, right as Tyler is about to ask Burnham to dance, a crisis starts, and it starts with an endangered space whale that needs a lift to, I guess, a space whale sanctuary of some kind. The space whale turns out to be Harry Mudd’s way onto the Discovery, and he comes out, phaser blazing, to take over the ship, find out its secrets, and sell them to the Klingons. He’s only got thirty minutes to accomplish this, but Mudd’s got a time crystal that lets him murder Lorca and destroy the ship time and time again to perfect his strategy. Also, for funsies. Fortunately, through cleverness and teamwork, the Discovery crew foils Mudd’s plans. And they get to talk about their feelings, to boot.

It ticks a lot of classic Trek boxes—time loop, Mudd, weird space creature, feelings, friendship—and these overlap quite a lot with all my personal boxes that are ticked by this episode—time loop, weird space creatures, feelings, friendship, smooching, Rainn Wilson. For Trekkie reasons and personal reasons, I basically uncritically love about the first 85% or so of the episode, but that first 85% is also a smartly constructed, well-executed and highly entertaining bit of television. For most of the hour, it manages to strike a great balance between hijinks, romance, science and the darkness that’s characteristic of this Trek iteration. Certainly, it’s a much better balance than existed in the previous several episodes, and it makes it that much more disappointing when it fails, pretty spectacularly, to stick its landing. I just don’t know what the Discovery writers—and costumers and directors and anyone else involved in the end of this episode—were thinking by tacking on such a tonally dissonant mess at the end of an otherwise excellent hour, but that’s a thing that has happened.

In a lot of ways, this is a Stamets episode. Due to his combining his DNA with that of the giant space tardigrade, he’s now outside the normal spacetime continuum, so he’s the only member of the Discovery’s crew to realize what’s going on. After last week’s brief glimpse of the new, post-tardigrade Stamets, it was nice to get a better idea of how he’s doing these days and how much he’s changed. Here, we find a kinder, gentler Stamets, capable of and willing to give Burnham dancing lessons and relationship advice, but most of Stamets’ time this week is spent trying to convince Burnham and Tyler to help stop Mudd and save the ship. Anthony Rapp does a fantastic job of portraying a coherent character arc for Stamets, and it’s Stamets’ reactions to the experience of being trapped in Mudd’s time loop that are the most interesting thing about the episode. His journey through feelings of anxiety, frustration, resignation, fatalism, and desperation to put a stop to it are compelling and heartfelt.

The stress and trauma of experiencing the ship being destroyed time and time again is conveyed to the viewer largely through confident editing as we see short snippets of many instances of the time loop in the first three quarters of the episode. It’s not always entirely clear how Stamets is supposed to have learned all the information we’re meant to believe he’s learned from each loop, but the episode is fast-paced and fantastically-premised enough in the first place that it’s not hard to suspend disbelief. Rapp’s skillful portrayal of Stamets’ arc is mirrored by Harry Mudd’s arc, in which Mudd starts the hour gleefully murdering Lorca over and over again, only to become fatigued by the experience in the end. By the time Mudd stops the time loop, he’s entirely lost interest in killing Lorca and is simply anxious to get his promised pay-out from the Klingons, and this is what allows Stamets, Burnham and Tyler to trick him into ending the time loop at all. Thinking that he’s captured the ship and Michael Burnham, Mudd cheerfully transmits their coordinates to, theoretically, some waiting Klingons, only to find out that the ship that is coming to meet them contains his wife, Stella, and her arms-dealing father.

And this is where things get bad.

Listen. There’s definitely something a little off, just overall, with the way Harry Mudd is written on this show. I’ve written before about similar characters in other shows, usually white, almost always men, who we’re supposed to understand as Lovable Rogues. They’re crude, sexist, sometimes racist, generally self-serving, often craven and greedy, but they somehow manage to have all these negative qualities in a way that we can be convinced is charming. So, we like these characters, rather in spite of ourselves. The thing is, in order for these characters to maintain their lovableness, their transgressive behaviors can’t be too transgressive. Stealing stuff (especially from the rich and powerful), getting in fights, treating romantic partners poorly, being generally unreliable, that sort of thing works. Gleefully murdering hundreds of people dozens of times over as part of your plan, motivated by revenge and spite and not a little bit of a greed, to sell out the Federation to a brutal adversary is a more than a little outside the “Lovable” Rogue wheelhouse. The cruelty and sadism of Mudd’s actions in this episode are genuinely dark and horrifying, far beyond anything that should be accepted as the sort of whacky hijinks that make Lovable Rogues beloved.

To be fair, Mudd’s actions take a toll on him. However, whereas it’s obvious that Stamets’ desperation to bring the time loop to an end comes from a place of caring for others and not wanting to see any more suffering or experience more pain, Harry Mudd’s fatigue seems more connected to boredom and actual physical exhaustion after well over 24 hours without sleep while he ran and reran the scenario of taking over the Discovery. Mudd doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed of his actions; he’s simply achieved maximum catharsis through murder, and he’s now impatient to be done so he can get his payday and, presumably, hit the sack. It’s also not clear, in the final time loop, how much damage Mudd has actually done on the Discovery. In previous versions of the loop, he killed multiple people on his way to the bridge, but even if he didn’t physically harm anyone this last time through the time loop, Stamets exists as a witness to Mudd’s litany of crimes in earlier iterations of the event. Mudd has proven himself to be unprincipled and dangerous, and by the episode’s end he’s still in possession of sensitive information, even if his ability to monetize that information is greatly reduced.

So, you’d think that Harry Mudd, once his plan was foiled, would be arrested and imprisoned pending trial for whatever crimes he’s committed, even if all they can get him on is “conspiracy to commit.” You would be incorrect in thinking that, however. Instead of facing any kind of actual punishment or legal consequences, Mudd finds himself tricked into ending the device he used to create the time loop and escorted to the transporter room, where he’s not greeting Klingon guests like he expects, but is instead faced with his wife, the mythical Stella, and her father, a wealthy arms dealer. I hate this.

So, apparently, in the Original Series, Harry Mudd’s wife, Stella Grimes, was a famously nagging harpy of a woman, with the punchline of one Harry Mudd episode, in which he’d made a Stella fembot (as part of a whole scheme of selling fembots), being the creation of hundreds of robot Stellas who can all harangue him at once. That’s obviously a damaging (and sadly pernicious) misogynistic stereotype, and it would be a disaster to replicate uncritically in 2017. Still, the ending of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is little more than a variation on that theme. The only problem is that Discovery’s Stella isn’t a middle-aged harridan, ready to hound her wayward husband; she’s young (like, young enough to be Rainn Wilson’s daughter young, and looks younger), and she seems to have genuine affection for Mudd. I just… don’t know what they were going for here.

Discovery!Stella, as I said, is younger than her husband by quite a bit, younger enough that it’s hard not to suspect that Mudd has preyed upon her youth and ignorance in order to finagle his way into an advantageous marriage. This perception isn’t helped by the confused portrayal of Stella as both somewhat aggressively overbearing and rather stupid, while her father, Baron Grimes, is portrayed as patronizingly indulgent of his daughter’s foibles. It’s like the people in charge of coming up with this stuff kind of understood that it’s not 1967 anymore, so they tried to soften the trope of the Nagging Wife in several ways and to create Stella as a sympathetic and humorous character. This is apparent in her dialogue, though there isn’t much of it, but also in the costuming of Stella and her father. They’re both in get-ups that could have come straight from the Original Series, Stella in bright synthetic fabric and her father in some kind of pleather old-timey mobster number. Compared to the show’s other excellent costumes, these are retro in all the wrong ways, and contribute to the complete tonal dissonance of this ending when set against the rest of the episode.

For an otherwise strong episode to end on such a strange, regressive note, especially when it’s so at odds with the tone of the rest of the hour, is a huge disappointment. I loved the time loop; I loved Stamets; I loved Burnham’s burgeoning romance with Tyler; I loved the party and Tilly and the space whale; but I hate, with a passion, that Harry Mudd’s “punishment” for all the many crimes he committed in this episode is still, in the year of our Lord 2017, having to return to the mildly unpleasant wife he jilted.

Miscellany:

  • I loved Stamets’ story about how he met his partner. That story, coupled with the sensible advice he gives Burnham, helps to put this new, softer side of Stamets that we’re seeing post-tardigrade in a context where we can see that this sensitivity in him isn’t entirely new or unprecedented and helps to diffuse some of the sense of body-snatching I had watching Stamets in the last episode.
  • I’m starting to reconsider my early perception of Cadet Tilly as neuroatypical. It seems weird that her allergies and mild snoring would keep her from having a roommate before Burnham arrived, but the issue of Tilly being neuroatypical hasn’t been addressed since, and she’s seemed to behave fairly typically in the intervening episodes. Which doesn’t rule out neuroatypicality, but I’m not going to give this show credit for representation if I have to imagine it all in my head.
  • Tilly seems fun at parties. Also, I like her friendship with Burnham better when they are just young women being friends. Because of Burnham’s background as a mutineer, she’s a somewhat inappropriate mentor or professional role model for Tilly, which is a concern, but it also bothered me to see a black woman character, herself so in need of love and guidance, being made to mentor a white woman. I’d much rather see them have a more equitable relationship and, as in this episode, see more of what Tilly brings to the table as a friend and confidant to Burnham.
  • What emotion was Lorca supposed to be expressing as he turned the ship over to Mudd? Seriously? This moment felt like it could be character development; perhaps we’re meant to understand from this that Lorca’s learned from past mistakes and doesn’t want to repeat them. Certainly, in the moment, before it’s revealed that the Discovery crew has executed a plan to foil Mudd, Lorca’s sentiment seems real enough. But we’ve also seen as recently as last week that Lorca has a manipulative and calculating side to him that hasn’t been trained out by Starfleet. His submission to Mudd is feigned, after all, so it’s also possible that Lorca just has a fantastic poker face.
  • I like Burnham and Tyler together. Very cute.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Lethe” is largely forgettable

So, the thing about “Lethe” is that, though I really liked some things about it and have a vague feeling that it’s a continuance of the show’s improvement, it’s not an especially memorable episode. Its emotional beats are fine, but they’re pedestrian, and the episode, overall, relies a little too much on well-worn tropes and by-the-numbers storytelling to make its points, which are slight. Add an ending that’s a bit maudlin and you’ve got an altogether forgettable hour that entertains while it’s running but doesn’t stick around to make you think very much.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode opens with a look at two new mentoring relationships. Captain Lorca has taken Ash Tyler under his wing in the days since their escape from the Klingons, and the beginning of the hour finds them going through a training simulation in what—contrary to Trek canon—appears to be a holodeck. I’m not a stickler for that sort of thing, though, and I suppose that if there is going to be an anachronistic holodeck it would be on a state-of-the-art science ship like the Discovery. After they get through the sim, Lorca offers Tyler the recently vacated security chief position, which I guess takes care of that loose end that I’d totally forgotten about. Also, obviously nothing could possibly go wrong with this idea. I’m sure Ash Tyler is totally okay and fit for duty and completely ready to take on an important position in the Discovery team. I’m also sure that no one else on this ship with a crew of hundreds had any interest or qualification or familiarity with the job that might make them a better prospect for the position. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Burnham is mentoring Tilly, mostly by helping her develop a strict regime of healthy eating and exercise, though they still have time to bond a little over how hot Ash Tyler is. There was a little of this slice-of-life stuff last week after several episodes without it, and I’m glad to see more of it in this episode, though the friendship between Burnham and Tilly still feels a little contrived and perfunctory. That said, it’s early yet. There’s still time for their relationship to develop the real, lived-in quality that other Trek friendships have had, and while I’m not totally sold on this one yet, both women are interesting and likable. Mostly, what I’d like to see is for the friendship between Burnham and Tilly to get the same kind of hour-long focus that Burnham’s relationships with the men around her get. This show initially got me really excited about it with marketing featuring Burnham and Georgiou, and it’s deeply disappointing how devoid of relationships between women it’s actually turned out to be. All this is to say, YES, more, please, of Burnham and Tilly. Maybe go really wild and introduce another girlfriend or two for them.

Burnham and Tilly are introducing themselves to Tyler when Burnham collapses, writhing on the floor in pain. Burnham’s foster father, Sarek, is in trouble; while en route to a secret meeting where he was supposed to negotiate with the Klingons, a Vulcan extremist, resentful over Sarek’s love of humans, tries to assassinate the ambassador. Sarek, injured and his ship knocked off course and lost in a nebula, reaches out with his mind for Burnham. Once it’s confirmed what has happened, Lorca is quick to approve a mission for Burnham, Tilly and Tyler to go retrieve Sarek, which they do, using a device that works like a Vulcan mind meld that allows Burnham to track Sarek on his disabled ship. It also sends Burnham on a trip into Sarek’s subconscious, where he’s dwelling on the day Burnham was denied entrance into the Vulcan Expeditionary Force, reliving it over and over as he lingers near death.

This is fine, but ho-hum. Sarek’s failings as a father have been adequately covered several times over through his relationship with Spock in previous Treks, so there’s not much new here. The irony of Sarek sacrificing Michael’s prospects in favor of his biological child’s only to have Spock reject the opportunity and join Starfleet instead isn’t that great of a shock and doesn’t really justify an hour-long episode to deal with it. Burnham’s sanguine response to the knowledge shows us something about her, but there’s a sense of inevitability about the way she comes to terms with the way parents and children disappoint each other that doesn’t ring true. From the way she reintroduces herself to Tyler at the end of the episode as “Michael Burnham, human,” it seems like this wasn’t intended to be about the fraught nature of parent-child relationships at all but about Burnham’s understanding of herself and her own identity. This, again, is fine, but the whole message, in addition to being trite, is garbled and unclear. And none of this is helped along by the fact of this show being a prequel, which prevents any of the danger Sarek is in from ever feeling truly consequential, which in turn blunts all the emotional moments.

On the Discovery, Lorca has much more interesting problems. They just aren’t particularly Star Trek-ish problems. His friend Admiral Cornwell is so concerned about his recent behavior that she shows up for an in-person meeting with him, where she expresses her observation that he’s changed following some recent traumas and her fears that he’s not competent to captain a ship, especially one as important as the Discovery. On his best behavior, Lorca puts on a reasonably convincing show of being okay and points out that, unorthodox as his methods may be, he does get results. Cornwell doesn’t seem quite convinced, but she’s convinced enough to have a few drinks and sleep with him. It’s only when she wakes up in the night, gently touches a scar on his back, and suddenly finds herself pinned down with a phaser in her face that she’s certain Lorca isn’t fit for duty. Before she can head back to Starfleet headquarters, however, Cornwell has to go fill in for Sarek at the meeting with the Klingons, which is, naturally, a trap.

Either predictably or surprisingly (and I’m leaning toward predictably), Lorca isn’t rushing to rescue the admiral from the Klingons. Cornwell explicitly threatened Lorca’s job before leaving the Discovery, and his plaintive “Don’t take my ship; she’s all I’ve got” had a ring of truth to it that makes me think we might be about to find out what Lorca will do to protect the only thing he’s got. I guess we’ll find out next week if Lorca’s refusal to immediately chase after Cornwell is motivated by a sincere desire to play by the rules in a last-ditch effort to rescue his career or if it’s a cynical choice to leave her in Klingon hands as long as possible. I’m not sure there’s any middle ground here.

Miscellany:

  • So, Stamets has obviously been straight-up body-snatched, right?
  • I’d like to see Amanda Grayson get a little more to do than just be a supportive mother. She seems nice, I guess.
  • I want a “DISCO” shirt.
  • It’s nice to see a man Lorca’s age with an age-appropriate partner, even if the professional ethics of their sleeping together aren’t great.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Choose Your Pain” tries to have everything at least two ways

After the clinical, impersonal sterility of last week’s bleakly dull episode, “Choose Your Pain” is a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the great potential this show possesses. The grimdark elements are still firmly and problematically in place, but at the core of “Choose Your Pain” is a glimmer of unironic optimism that is wholly Star Trek and that has been largely absent from the series so far. At five episodes into a 15-episode season, Discovery is, rather frustratingly, still establishing its identity, but it felt much surer of itself this week than last. Though it’s not entirely without problems, it’s an altogether better-constructed episode with a more compelling and complete story than either of the last two episodes, and it certainly works to help regain some of the momentum lost since the two-part premiere.

**Spoilers below.**

The episode begins with a meeting between Captain Lorca and his bosses at Starfleet, who are taking the Discovery out of action for the time being. Though we haven’t seen but the one major mission so far, apparently the ship has already made a name for itself, jumping all over the place to engage the Klingons and defend Federation space, and the higher-ups are concerned that the Klingons might try to capture the ship or figure out its technology. Lorca isn’t happy about having to take this step back from active duty, but there’s no hint of what he might do next because before, he even makes it back to the ship from his meeting, his shuttle is captured by Klingons and he’s promptly tossed into Klingon prison where he meets blatant fan service character Harry Mudd (a great use of Rainn Wilson’s talents) and Lieutenant Ash Tyler, a Starfleet officer captured at the Battle of the Binary Stars who has survived for eight months being raped by the Klingon woman who commands the ship. It’s a weird, excessively dark set-up, and much of what happens on the Klingon ship after Lorca’s arrival is nonsensical.

Harry Mudd is played with less disreputable rakish charm and more genuine pathos and anger at what he perceives as Starfleet’s elitism and lack of care for the common people, and this is a genuinely interesting idea that doesn’t go anywhere. We get some backstory for Lorca, who, it turns out, was famously (or famously enough that Mudd recognized his name) the single survivor when the ship he previously commanded was lost early in the war. The twist here is that Lorca destroyed the ship and its crew himself, to prevent them from being captured and tortured by Klingons, which makes it very weird later in the episode when Lorca bonds with Lieutenant Tyler and the two of them leave Mudd behind while they fight their way off the Klingon ship. Lorca knows exactly what fate he’s leaving Mudd to, and it’s hard to see Lorca or Tyler as sympathetic characters when they are willing to do something so unconscionable for petty revenge.

My frustration with this storyline is exacerbated by the fact that this unlikely escape happens too easily; not only are Lorca and Tyler able to overpower their guards with a simple ruse, but they are able to commandeer a small, two-person fighting ship with such minimal trouble that it happens entirely offscreen. By the time they are found by the Discovery, however, they’ve got four or five more small fighters chasing them, which means that there are personnel to fill them and that those personnel were able to launch their ships quickly enough that they are right on top of Lorca and Tyler. This points to a relatively large crew on the main Klingon ship, but they only encountered their two guards, a couple other Klingons in the hallways, and the Klingon captain herself. It’s a level of silly, hand-waving whiz-bang storytelling that depends on its audience failing to think even the least bit critically about the basic mechanics of how the story is supposed to unfold, and I hate it.

Meanwhile, on the Discovery, we get a more Saru-focused storyline. In Lorca’s absence, Saru is acting captain, and the Discovery is the only ship with the capabilities needed to locate and rescue Lorca once he’s captured, so the burden of managing this task is on Saru’s shoulders. It’s a time for Saru, potentially, to shine in a leadership position, but he’s suffering from a lack of confidence and comparing himself to other successful captains as he tries to ascertain whether he’s doing a good job. Complicating matters for Saru is Burnham’s report that the spore drive is depleting their tardigrade navigator to such a degree that it may jeopardize their continued ability to travel. Saru won’t hear of suspending use of the spore drive, however, even when Burnham’s theory about the tardigrade is supported by Lieutenant Stamets and Dr. Colber. Burnham is banished to her quarters, perennially doomed to Cassandra status, which effectively cuts her out of the story for much of the episode’s second half, during which time the ship’s final jump using the tardigrade practically kills the poor creature. Even that (with the added likelihood that the tardigrade is sentient, to boot) isn’t enough to sway Saru away from wringing every last drop of life from the creature if they need to in order to accomplish their mission.

Frankly, it’s not a great look for the first officer, for all that it’s a humanizing and compelling story, and once again Burnham is proven correct by the end of the episode, even as she’s castigated in the narrative for her high-handed methods. It’s deeply frustrating to watch her be right, over and over again, but also being constrained by a hierarchical system that punishes her for stepping out of line. It was tolerable enough when she was in trouble for mutiny; that’s a major offense, and her actions had severe consequences. But it’s starting to feel like Burnham is right about something new every week, only to have her every action and motive distrusted and second-guessed and criticized. Saru confining her to quarters this week was especially upsetting as it meant that Burnham wasn’t able to help implement her own solutions to their problem; Stamets takes the risk of injecting himself with tardigrade DNA so he can navigate the ship. Sure, he’ll almost certainly have to deal with consequences at some point for violating Earth’s anti-eugenics laws, but he also gets much of the credit for saving the day.

Burnham, on the other hand, gets to clean up the mess, of both the tardigrade, who has gone into a deep hibernation, and of Saru’s feelings—it turns out he’s angry and jealous and resentful towards Burnham for robbing him of his chance to study under Captain Georgiou. I’m very interested in the ways in which Burnham’s story is about how she chafes in the strictly hierarchical structures of Starfleet, and I think there is plenty of potentially useful commentary that could be made on the Starfleet ideal and the Trek vision of the future in general, but I’m not entirely confident that this show has the capability of examining those things in the way they deserve. There are glimmers of insight every now and then, and there’s interesting set-up for these big ideas—for example, Saru’s clear disdain for Lorca, which takes on a new depth of meaning when set against his obvious love and respect for Georgiou—but there’s not much payoff so far. Still, the Star Trek optimism shines through in spite of itself, in moments like the Burnham’s revival of the tardigrade or in her ability to bury the hatchet with Saru.

My major takeaway from this episode is that the people behind this show still aren’t certain what they want the show to be. At times, it’s as if they envision it as the unholy love child of Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica, but at others it’s Star Trek through and through. I’m just not sure if all those different stylistic and philosophical parts are ever going to make a coherent story.

Miscellany:

  • I want to know more about Harry Mudd’s little scorpion friend.
  • Lorca’s vision problems are seeded at the beginning of the episode, there’s a reminder when he’s captured and drops the injector he uses for his medicine, and the Klingon captain tortures him by shining bright lights in his face, but there’s no actual payoff? The bright light torture is obviously uncomfortable, but it doesn’t even do any serious temporary damage that would hinder Lorca’s escape or force him to make a decision about getting proper medical care for his condition.
  • Cadet Tilly: “I love feeling feelings!” (I loved the scene with Tilly and Burnham having lunch together, which is exactly the sort of slice-of-life stuff I’ve been missing so far on this show.)
  • Also Cadet Tilly: “That’s so fucking cool!” (On the one hand, I appreciate the sentiment; on the other hand, it’s very weird to hear the f-bomb on Star Trek, which in my day was a family show.)
  • The final scene with Stamets and Colber was nice, both confirming the characters’ relationship and providing more of the domesticity I love in Trek and that provides reasons to care about the characters.
  • So… Burnham and Tilly are the only major female characters at this point, but I guess good job for not killing off any more women of color this week?
  • Speaking of two ways, looks like we’re getting some Mirror Universe funtimes soon!

Star Trek: Discovery – A long, poetic episode title is no substitute for real depth

After a strong two-part premiere and a decent transitional episode last week, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” is a bit of a disappointment. After cramming a ton of set-up and plot into its first three episodes, what the show needs now is to establish a new normal and give the characters a reprieve from the constant barrage of Events! Happening! so the audience can get to know these people we’re supposed to care about. This is a needle that was successfully threaded in “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” where we were given a nice prologue and several flashbacks to establish Burnham’s character and her friendship with Captain Georgiou, and this gave weight to the events at the end of the second episode, setting up Burnham for a redemption arc over the rest of the series. Last week’s episode contrived to get Burnham onto the Discovery and introduced a new cast of characters, so the next logical step would be to show us more of how these characters interact with each other, what makes them tick, or even just how Burnham settles in to the normal rhythm of life on the ship. Instead, this episode features another crisis, but it struggles throughout to convey why any of these events should matter to the viewer.

**Spoilers below.**

One of the things that worried me most about this show was when I read, months ago, about the ways in which it was inspired and influenced by Game of Thrones. While the most optimistic interpretations of statements from the Star Trek: Discovery show runners to this effect could point to a more general aspiration to craft the show more in the fashion of HBO’s prestige programming, I was pretty certain from the favorably framed allusions to Thrones’ penchant for killing major characters that whatever lessons Discovery was taking from Game of Thrones were wrong ones. I was disappointed when Georgiou was killed off so early in the season, but it made sense if the show was going to be about Burnham and her redemption arc. T’kuvma’s death didn’t even feel like a main character death; it had already become clear that Voq was the main point of view character in the Klingons’ storyline. These deaths made sense in context and within the larger structure of the show, even if they weren’t entirely welcome. The optics of Georgiou’s death were especially bad considering how much the show leaned on marketing the mentorship relationship between Georgiou and Burnham in the lead-up to the series, but still. It made sense, from a storytelling standpoint.

Last week, there was a classic redshirt death on board the Glenn when Burnham, Lieutenant Stamets, Cadet Tilly and Commander Landry went to investigate what had cause the other ship to stop communications. It was a little darker than one might expect from Star Trek, but not terribly so, and the redshirt trope is a trope for a reason. It was fine. Meaningless, but fine. If nothing else, it was in keeping with the overall tone of the episode and the series so far. This week, however, it’s Commander Landry’s turn to shuffle off her mortal coil, and it’s the definition of gratuitous.

Burnham’s first official assignment on the Discovery isn’t with Stamets as expected. Instead, she’s taken down to Lorca’s little mad science lab where the creature from the Glenn is being kept and told to find a way to find out how it was so good at fighting and to “weaponize” the beast. To keep Burnham on task, Commander Landry is assigned to oversee the project, but she quickly loses patience with the lack of immediate results. Burnham’s initial examination of the creature suggests that it’s an herbivore, something akin to a tardigrade, that was only acting in self-defense, but Landry is impatient to find some aspect of it to exploit. To that end and against Burnham’s protests, she opens the cell and attacks the creature only to die horribly when it responds in kind. Lorca uses Landry’s death to exhort Burnham to hurry up and find some way to use the creature—so that Landry’s death won’t be “in vain”—but the truth is that the whole thing happens so quickly and Landry has been so poorly developed (and with only antagonistic character traits in this episode) that it’s impossible to care very much about her other than simply on the very basic level of not wanting her to die because she seemed like an important character.

There’s certainly no reason for Landry’s death to affect Burnham, and it doesn’t; Burnham continues to investigate the creature, dubbed “Ripper,” in her own way and finds out that its usefulness is not as a weapon but as a tool for using Stamets’ spores for travel. Ripper is how the scientists on the Glenn were planning to navigate using the spore drive, and Stamets is able to use the creature to get the Discovery to a crucial Federation outpost that is under attack by Klingons. The Discovery saves the day, but Burnham notices something disturbing: the device used to harness Ripper’s navigational powers seems to be hurting it. However, that’s an ethical dilemma for another episode because this one isn’t about to deal with anything so interesting or Trek-y.

In the end, it’s hard to see the point of Landry’s death here, and the pointlessness of her death makes the existence of the character at all highly questionable. If Landry was intended to be a foil for Burnham, as it seems she was, the perfunctory way in which she was disposed of kind of defeats the purpose. We didn’t get to know her well enough to feel much of anything about her on a personal level. In fact, I had to check IMDb for her name. Landry is never a threat to Burnham’s new position on the ship, and she never truly challenges or tests Burnham’s beliefs or values, only reinforces them. If the point of Landry’s death was to reinforce the value of Burnham’s methods to others on the ship, it doesn’t seem to have done that; Lorca, at least, is unaffected by the death, and no other characters seem to know or care about it since Landry isn’t mentioned again once her corpse is packed away. That Landry is the second woman of color to be violently killed in just four episodes only makes things worse. This show traded heavily on its diversity in marketing, but the systematic killing off of non-white characters is at odds with the picture they’ve tried to put forward of a diverse and inclusive series. It’s disappointing, to say the least.

On a more general note, the show is suffering quite a bit from its overall surfeit of plot. There’s still a lot going on, and all of it is supposed to feel urgent, which makes none of it feel very urgent. The worst part is that there’s no time being spent on giving us any real sense of who any of these characters are or how they exist together. Potentially interesting relationships are suggested or teased, such as the antagonism between Landry and Burnham or Burnham’s complicated situation with Saru or the budding friendship between Burnham and Tilly. Even Stamets’ sense of awe and wonder when he sees the tardigrade monster with the spores has the potential to be an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of the character. But over and over again, revealing moments are cut off before they can reveal much of anything and character development is rushed past or ignored altogether in favor of showing us a thing happening. The problem is that we need character development and relationships in order to care about the constant crises the crew is finding themselves in.

There’s a reason why so many episodes of other Treks featured the crew during their leisure time. There’s nothing like a malfunctioning holodeck or a trip to a resort planet to reveal something new about the characters and force them to work together to solve a problem. So far, that sense of unity and cohesiveness of purpose is decidedly missing from Discovery.

Miscellany:

  • The reveal that Voq and the Klingons ate Captain Georgiou’s body was another bit of absolutely gratuitous grimness.
  • I do like L’Rell, and I’m looking forward to seeing Klingon matriarchs.
  • Why did it take so long for Georgiou’s bequest to make it to Burnham? Because it sure seems like a case of naked emotional manipulation on the part of the show’s writers, who really want us to feel something about it. All I can think of is that I would still much rather be watching the story of Burnham and Georgiou’s years together on the Shenzhou.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Context is for Kings” introduces a new ship, new characters and a new direction for the show

In “Context is for Kings,” Star Trek: Discovery does several interesting things, but some of the fundamental problems with the show’s premise and execution are on display as well. My appraisal of last week’s two-part series premiere as a prologue to the actual series is confirmed; though there are some familiar faces on the Discovery, there’s a significant difference in tone, content and style from last week. This is a much more Trek-y episode, structurally, than either of the previous two, which should please longtime fans of the franchise, but the strong shift from last week’s introduction and the necessity of reintroducing Burnham’s new circumstances, introducing some all-new characters, and setting up the rest of the season-long arc makes this hour feel like a pilot episode all over again. It’s still, overall, promising, but it’s also not quite as cohesive or compelling as the first two episodes were.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The episode picks up six months after Michael Burnham has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and she’s already infamous. The conflict with the Klingons has continued in the intervening six months, and the Federation and Starfleet are apparently fully focused on the war effort. During what appears to be a routine prisoner transfer, the shuttle Burnham is on with three other prisoners runs into some trouble and is picked up in the tractor beam of a brand new, state-of-the-art science ship, the Discovery under the command of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). When Burnham is basically conscripted into service on the Discovery, ostensibly until the shuttle she arrived on is repaired, she finds that her past has followed her here. She’s reunited with Saru (now Lorca’s First Officer) and another officer she served with on the Shenzhou, and things are awkward, but pretty much all reactions to Burnham range between distrust and hostility; she’s widely blamed for the war with the Klingons and the thousands of casualties at the Battle at the Binary Stars.

Sensibly, Burnham’s strategy is to keep her head down. It’s obvious that she’s still consumed with guilt and grief over the consequences of her decisions and actions on the Shenzhou, and she insists several times to Captain Lorca and to Saru that she wants to return to her imprisonment where she belongs. It’s also obvious that no one Burnham meets is willing to forget the Shenzhou either; even Burnham’s roommate, the sunny-dispositioned Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) turns cold at the mention of Michael’s name. All the same, Burnham finds herself intrigued by the work being done aboard the Discovery. It’s the largest science ship ever built, with space to have hundreds of projects working at once, all bent on discovering, inventing or refining some new technology that will help the Federation win out against the Klingons. Burnham is assigned to work under Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who is doing some kind of probably-mad-science experiment involving fungus and quantum mechanics.

Stamets is working in tandem with a close colleague on another ship, the Glenn, but whatever they are up to goes very wrong, knocking out communications with the Glenn and sending Stamets with an away team—including Burnham—to find out what went wrong. When they arrive on the Glenn, they find the place full of mangled corpses that have been twisted and torn apart by something that looks like a giant tardigrade, which they then have to escape from. It’s Burnham’s quick thinking and knowledge of ship architecture that lets her distract the monster so Stamets and the others can get back to their shuttle, but what I loved best about this sequence was Burnham reciting lines from Lewis Carroll to herself as she crawls through the ship. It’s a detail that works nicely on its own as an indicator of an interesting whimsical streak in an otherwise highly logical and grounded-seeming character, but it’s also a neat Easter egg for serious Trek fans, who may remember that Amanda Grayson was a fan of Lewis Carroll in the animated series.

In any case, the team makes it back to the Discovery, minus one redshirt (sadly difficult to identify with these new uniforms); the Glenn is destroyed; and Burnham has earned herself the offer of a permanent (presumably) place on the ship. She’s skeptical of Lorca’s motives, however. Stamets, an academic, called the captain a warmonger, and Burnham has drawn her own conclusions about what the Discovery’s mission may be. For all that her actions helped to foment this war with the Klingons, Burnham still believes in the more peaceful mission of Starfleet and doesn’t want to help develop weapons, especially when she suspects that Lorca’s goals are somewhat outside the bounds of what would be strictly considered legal. He insists, however, that they aren’t working on a weapon but on a new method of near-instantaneous travel using the power of Stamets’ spores, and, in the end, Burnham is convinced. She’s fascinated by the work and hoping for a chance at redemption, and that’s enough to overcome her distrust of Lorca and his motives.

And she should be distrustful of Lorca. His “context is for kings” speech, in which he pontificates about the importance of knowing when and how to break rules is a giant red flag. Also, the creepy lab where he’s keeping that tardigrade monster doesn’t exactly seem like it’s totally on the up and up, either.

Miscellany:

  • Lorca has a pet tribble on his desk.
  • It’s not clear so far exactly what Cadet Tilly’s “special needs” are supposed to be. While she specifically cites allergies and a tendency to snore, it also seems like we’re supposed to understand her as being on the autism spectrum. Her tics and social strangeness read as something more than simple nervousness. So far, she seems like a sensitive portrayal of an autistic character, and I like that she’s ambitious, intelligent and seems to be cool under pressure. She does well on the Glenn, anyway. I’ll be interested to see what more expert-on-autism viewers have to say about this portrayal of disability, though.
  • Saru is probably the second most interesting character on the show after Burnham. I loved his bowl of blueberries. I’m curious to find out what he was reacting to at the end of the episode when his danger-sensing frill thingies stood up. Was he reacting to the tardigrade being brought aboard or to Burnham not leaving?
  • Commander Landry is played by Rekha Sharma, who was the cylon Tory in Battlestar Galactica.
  • I despise Rent, so I thought I would hate Anthony Rapp as Stamets, but I kind of like him? The academic pressed to adapt his research for war is an interesting character through which to explore the tension between Starfleet’s ideals and the reality of their doubling as military forces.
  • I was really hopeful that we’d see more of Georgiou in flashbacks, but that wasn’t the case this week.