Say what you will about tonight’s outing, it was certainly an episode of television. I don’t mean to sound snarky; I’m trying to figure out how to relate to a Star Trek series that, thus far, seems relatively interested in being a show about Star Trek. Lots of Trek shows start off with a rocky first season or two, and of course “being about Star Trek” is a concept with variable interpretations. This week’s episode is a bit of a mess, but I’d like to start by talking about what I loved first, and that is, hands down, temporary Acting Captain Saru’s attempt to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People his way to success using the ship’s computer.
“Computer,” he says, “compile a database of the most highly decorated Starfleet captains, living and dead.” (Jonathan Archer made the list, in case you’re wondering.) Then he asks the computer to cross-reference “the qualities that made them successful,” which is such a wonderfully vague thing to ask a ship’s computer, sort of like asking Watson to analyze your Myers-Briggs type. What were the ineffable personality traits that contributed to the achievement of strangers, and why aren’t I like that? He orders the computer to run a How to Be the Best Saru Possible protocol (sure), and the computer tells him about the “negative element” holding him back from achieving his full potential (your first two guesses about the identity of the negative element don’t count), and recommends he remove the element. Saru’s not willing to go that far, but he does seem pretty chuffed at his excellent captaining strategy, which seems to be, essentially, “Make sure the computer gives me a periodic pep talk.” Which is not a bad strategy, as those things go! It was delightful and a little embarrassing and extremely on-brand for Saru.
My greatest objection to tonight’s episode, while we’re talking about high and low points, came during the closer, when Lieutenant Stamets and his husband Dr. Culber are standing around brushing their teeth and catching up after the day’s events, and Lieutenant Stamets pulls his toothbrush out of his mouth mid-brush, starts talking, and fails to either spit or rinse his mouth. I found this viscerally upsetting, as I kept imagining how his mouth would have filled with toothpaste as he tried to speak without rinsing. I’m sure Starfleet has some sort of, I don’t know, dissolving toothpaste at this point, but it was all I could think about for hours afterward. It haunted me as I brushed my own teeth hours later.
Meanwhile, Burnham dreams she’s electrocuting her own double in the spore-navigational chamber (if you can think of a better word for it, please God, let me know), which really sets the tone for how the rest of the episode is going to go. Captain Lorca gets intercepted by Klingons on his return from a profoundly unsuccessful strategy meeting with Starfleet Command, and gets thrown into a cell with a full gritty-upbraid Harry Mudd, who I am going to do my best not to refer to as Dwight Schrute for the duration. Mudd’s backstory — he got into trouble borrowing money to buy his girlfriend a moon, and angry creditors handed him over to the Klingons — brought up a rousing economic debate between my friends Sergio and Norah.
Sergio: But there’s no money in the Federation?
Norah: I mean, if you’re buying your girlfriend a moon, I think you’re operating outside of standard Federation parameters already.
The general consensus was that Norah is right. Mudd also delivers a “maybe Starfleet is to blame for all this conflict, with their relentless expansionism; no one ever thinks about the little guys like me!” monologue. Between that, and the moment where Burnham tells Saru that “his culture” leads him to mistrust her (since he’s from a planet where everyone shares the same basic character traits due to, you know, evo-psych), it feels like the show is really heavily leaning into the whole immediately-post-9/11 discourse thing. I’m not wild about it!
Anyway, Captain Lorca is kidnapped by the Klingons and held in an ill-lit prison cell, where the Klingons have their prisoners routinely beaten on a weird shared-pain round-robin system. You can either take your torture yourself, or “volunteer” one of your co-prisoners to get beaten up on your behalf. (Guess which option Mudd routinely chooses. You have guessed correctly!)
There’s also an extremely unsettling dude sharing their Torture Quarantine named Ash Tyler, a broken-down lieutenant who practically begs to get beaten up and left behind to die at every opportunity. After a brief round of perfunctory Clockwork Orange–style eyeball torture, Lorca and Tyler team up and take out their sleepwalking-on-the-job captors the next time they demand one of them “choose their pain.” They also leave Mudd behind after Lorca determines he was feeding prisoner secrets to the Klingon command, which is sort of understandable, if not exactly on Starfleet brand. (Please feel free to substitute Victor Garber’s “Very wool” and “That’s not wool” line readings from his episode of 30 Rock whenever I declare something “Starfleet” or “not Starfleet.”)
Back on the Discovery, Burnham finally finds someone willing to listen to her concerns about the toll all these jumps are taking on the tardigrade in Dr. Culber, although he kind of hilariously bails on her to perform an Andorian tonsillectomy the second Lieutenant Stamets pushes back. There’s some more Bad Discourse, Lieutenant Stamets says, “You say portobello, I say portabella,” for some reason (is that a thing?), and ultimately they decide it’s worth trying to upgrade the tardigrade’s genetic sequence into a willing, sentient host in the hopes of finding a better long-term solution to powering the spore drive. Also, they get to say the F-word twice, and they all seem very pleased with themselves. This isn’t network television! Harry Mudd has an angry beard, this Captain blew up his last crew to spare them all from Klingon torture, and we’re swearing now.
Saru’s response is, not incorrectly, that upgrading a human’s genetic sequence in order to power a starship qualifies as eugenics, and therefore Not On. The tardigrade dehydrates itself into a hibernating husk to avoid the whole situation, and Saru orders the crew to, essentially, “Just Magic Sponge him back to normal,” so they can rescue the captain already. Lorca and Lieutenant Tyler come tearing out of Klingon space under hot pursuit, get beamed aboard, and Saru orders the team to jump.
The second Stamets said simply, “We’re ready,” after Saru asks if the tardigrade is fully functioning again, Norah and Sergio exchanged Significant Looks and I pretended to have guessed what they had, too — namely that Stamets had uploaded the genetic sequence into his own body, and powered the jump himself. This both worked (the crew gets away!) and did not work (he collapses and starts giggling in a very upsetting way).
Afterward, Burnham and Saru have another rehashing of old resentments in her quarters: Saru clarifies that he isn’t afraid of her, and he’s jealous he didn’t get to experience Georgiou’s mentoring once Burnham had gotten her own command because it would have prepared him better for today’s events. I’m skeptical that anything could have prepared him to deal with the genetic manipulation of living Starfleet members in order to fuel a mushroom-based warp drive, but fair enough. Burnham offers him Georgiou’s telescope, which she received merely a single episode ago, because this show seems anxious to burn through as much plot and dramatic capital as quickly as possible. It’s like a game of closure hot-potato! Saru offers a conciliatory gesture of his own and gives Burnham the freedom to care for the tardigrade however she thinks best, so she releases it into space on a total hunch. It works out, but it’s not even a hypothesis, she just thinks being outside will make it feel more relaxed.
Which, in her defense, it does!
The last thing we see is legitimately great, like Event Horizon–level great. After that terrifying giggle-collapse, Dr. Culper can’t stop fussing over Lieutenant Stamets in their quarters, and you know that something Weird is going to happen once he finally heads to bed, leaving Stamets alone in front of the mirror, weirder than talking after brushing your teeth without rinsing. And you think, I don’t know, you think he’s going to have weird eyes, or giggle again, or do something that lets the audience know that he Came Back Wrong, and he does, but it’s not what I expected at all. Stamets calmly walks after his husband, leaving behind his own image standing perfectly still in the mirror. It’s a great moment, and it freaked me the hell out.