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.
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.
- 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.