“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.
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.
- 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.