There is no feeling greater than “Star Trek anxiety, followed quickly and efficiently by Star Trek relief,” and friends — for we are friends — that is the feeling I was privileged to experience during this week’s episode. While I remain skeptical toward a great many of the choices from Discovery’s first two episodes, tonight’s soft relaunch offers up the Star Trek and/or Mean Girls and/or high-school-A.U.–cum–The Thing homage my hungry little heart never even knew it had always longed for.
You will not be surprised to learn that the rest of Discovery does not follow the story of Michael Burnham’s life imprisonment, and that her prison shuttle is instead diverted to the mysterious USS Discovery. Once aboard, she faces a logistically implausible but deeply personally satisfying Uncomfortable Cafeteria Scene, a talkative new roommate, and one of those great scenes all the best high-school movies have where someone points out all the various cliques in rapid-fire succession to the audience’s bewildered point-of-view character. “You ever seen a black badge before, Starfleet?” asks one of Michael’s snarky fellow prisoners as they’re led down one of Discovery’s corridors. “No, I have not,” I answered from my couch, “but please, please stick around forever and describe various Starfleet social groups in vague and insinuating detail for the rest of my life. Also, oh my God, does this mean we’re going to get a Section 31 subplot?”
Burnham’s penal shuttle is temporarily picked up by the Discovery after they lose their pilot during an infestation of electricity-eating space bugs, and the prisoners are given unrestrained access to the ship shortly thereafter. I don’t even care how unlikely that is, because it gives us a scene where Burnham wanders around the ship’s cafeteria carrying an actual lunch tray looking for someone to sit with like Cady Heron on the first day of school at North Shore. An insufficiently disgruntled fellow prisoner carefully announces his intention to kill Burnham, pauses for a full two-count beat, then stands up and takes a wild, windmilling swing in her general direction; she takes him and several other nearby rowdies out in a matter of seconds. (“It’s suus mahna,” I excitedly informed my friend watching with me, who was not especially interested in hearing about suus mahna.) Afterward, Burnham is whisked away to see the ship’s captain by perpetually unimpressed Security Officer Landry, who says, “So that’s suus mahna. Vulcans should stick to logic.” (“See?” I said once again to my friend. “That was suus mahna.” My friend contended that this did not enhance their experience of watching the show in any way, and I was forced to concede the point.) We meet Captain Gabriel Lorca, who is purposefully vague as to why the Discovery picked up Burnham’s shuttle, what he wants from her, and how long she can expect to stay with them.
Jason Isaacs’s Captain Lorca has displayed, thus far, two character traits: He constantly fiddles with a bowl of fortune cookies, and he is brusque with everyone. This does not endear him to me, nor make me long any less for what might have been with Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou, although I hold out the same hope for her that I do with any character who dies in a sci-fi story whose body is never recovered: Namely, that she will turn up at the 11th hour with a wildly unlikely story of survival and increased narrative significance.
The real standout of the episode is Sonequa Martin-Green, who’s given a lot more to work with and is, in turn, captivating, charming (I didn’t know I wanted to see her scrabbling through a series of Jefferies tubes reciting Alice in Wonderland to herself until it happened), and heartbreakingly winsome. Honorable mention goes to Mary Wiseman as her new roommate, Cadet Sylvia Tilly, who chatters nonstop at every opportunity and somehow doesn’t connect Michael, her reserved new roommate with Michael, the famous Starfleet mutineer, until it’s spelled out for her. “A roommate is an automatic built-in friend!”
I do not know what your patience is for the old trope wherein a Shinily Overeager, Wide-Eyed Naif befriends a Brooding and Complicated Non-Talker. Mine is boundless. “I’ve never met a female named Michael before,” Tilly says to Burnham, whose face makes it clear how much she’d rather be in prison right now, leading me to shout from my couch, “Cadet, it is the 24th actual century and you are in outer actual space, you cannot be surprised by gender-variant naming practices!” Tilly tries to assign Burnham a more “approachable” nickname. Burnham declines the honor. I cackle.
I’m so glad we’re getting to meet more of Discovery’s crew, because UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS between MUTUALLY ANTAGONISTIC PARTIES is one of my absolute favorite things, and this series is setting up a number of absolute doozies. Anthony Rapp’s Lt. Stamets hates everybody because he cares too damn much about his research, and I cannot wait to see what begrudging respect Burnham is able to slowly extract from him between her excellent coding skills and idiosyncratic-yet-severe internal moral code. Saru — now First Officer on the Discovery — gets a few lovely, wistful scenes with Burnham where he also manages to deliver some of the most casually brutal remarks I’ve ever heard, capping it all off with, “I intend to do a better job protecting my captain than you did yours.”
Other highlights include: the ubiquitous floating touch screens of the future, assigned-seating anxiety in the science lab, a so-ridiculous-I-loved-it scene where Burnham manages to steal her own roommate’s breath in order to override Engineering’s security protocol (“You know, like people used to think cats did. Also, this ship really needs two-step verification” — Me), some lingering shots of horribly mangled bodies on Discovery’s sidelined sistership that are disturbingly reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, another unnecessary swipe at Andorians, an Amanda Grayson reference that had me squealing with delight, and a discursive conversation about “physics as biology,” and how that’s the distinction that will enable Starfleet to win the war. “Lorca is sassy again,” I wrote in my notes, “and I hate it.”
Burnham turns down Lorca’s invitation to join her crew because she’s convinced that Discovery’s research (“spore-y biological weapons,” to the best of my understanding) violates the Geneva Convention, and that he’s only after her help because he sees her as a genius who’s willing to wage unsanctioned war unilaterally. In fact, she’s committed to abiding by Starfleet’s principles, even though she’s no longer part of Starfleet. Lorca claims that they’re actually working on a new way to fly, not kill — an “organic propulsion system” that would enable the Discovery to be anywhere “and gone in an instant.” He wants Burnham for her ability to think predictively, not because she shoots first. Lord knows I’m sorry for working in a Star Wars debate here, but I kind of adore that Star Trek is exploring space-cowboyism from its own particular frame of reference. “You helped start a war,” he says. “Don’t you want to help me end it?”
He also gives her a fortune cookie while she considers the offer, because he’s the most on-the-nose captain to ever live.
In closing, if you’d like to read a fan theory about Burnham’s origins and motivations and how they may relate to the Discovery’s time-bending propulsion system — a fan theory that is wholly unverified and that I have nonetheless decided to believe in with my whole heart — you can follow the thread by clicking here and scrolling wildly up and down.