In these times, more than ever, it’s important not to look a gift horse in the mouth. I had to remind myself of this as I struggled to get a bead on this week’s Discovery, which had no business going as hard as it did. As fans and critics alike will admit, this show seems physically incapable of slowing down. For better or worse, circumstances are always life-or-death, not to mention always emotionally crushing; nobody ever gets to chill and simply perform a poem about his cat, or take a couples vacation. Blame 13-episode seasons, blame an all-time-high number of TV shows vying for attention, blame increasingly thrill-seeking audiences — this is just how it is now, and you can’t really hold Discovery responsible for that reality. Yet somehow, for all this show’s uneven chaos, for its oft-distorted priorities and almost compulsive sentimentality, for however weakly this season may have set the stage to earn this week’s tête-à-tête…I think I loved the hell out of “There Is A Tide…” anyway?
Okay, that last criticism isn’t entirely fair. We have been getting hints from multiple sources that the Federation has indulged in some serious dirtbag behavior in the century since the Burn, even before it. Book told us, Ni’Var president T’Rina told us, even — rest his soul — poor Ryn told us. But I was genuinely surprised by all the new information we got this week about how pervasive the Emerald Chain really is: that so many people depend on its mercantiles; that it’s the biggest investor in scientific research in the known galaxy; that even the Federation’s deep-space stations have been compelled, willingly or not, to partake in its economy.
Until now I took the Chain as a sort of Space Wal-Mart, a monopoly of marketplaces with questionable business practices that serves a purpose in the absence of better options; the organized crime syndicate then easily functioned within that structure. Now, it looks like more of a Space Amazon, infiltrating every part of people’s lives to the point where the public embraces its dominance gladly, even as it exploits the vulnerable, weaponizes its scientists, and commits atrocities in the name of so-called progress. Where before it seemed like the Chain was a bunch of cruel, racist gangsters — I mean, can you blame me? The first time we meet Osyraa she’s breezily feeding a family member to a giant worm — now it seems that they’re kind of a garden-variety ruling class.
This gulf between my original understanding of the Chain and this reframing is probably to blame for how shocking it felt for Osyraa to waltz into Federation headquarters, sit down at a table with Vance, and suddenly propose that the Chain join the Federation. I was shocked that Osyraa would suddenly show any respect whatsoever for the Federation, but more importantly, that Discovery is now daring to dip its toes into Deep Space Nine territory, deconstructing Star Trek’s comforting myth of perfectly benevolent imperialism. Yes, Osyraa is a true monster who has built an empire on slave labor and genocidal extortion, among other horrors, whose bid for peace ends at answering for her crimes. But look at the world around us: as much as America wants to believe it can be the Federation, it’s just as likely to become the Emerald Chain.
The Federation itself is deeply compromised at this point, too, though we haven’t quite seen the scope of its damage. If I wasn’t already a fan of Vance as a character, this episode would have converted me; he comes to the table with so much feisty shrewdness, laying bare how easy it is for one (me) to put one’s (my) trust in a genuinely decent leader and still end up complicit. One fan’s relatively popular Twitter thread after last week’s episode proposed that the Federation’s failure to rescue the Kia, and by extension Su’Kal, is what actually caused the Burn — its choice to prioritize the needs of the many over the needs of the one. I don’t really agree with this idea; I think it presupposes that the Federation’s response to the dilithium crisis was about greed, as though dilithium was oil and the Federation profited from it, even though it was a trolley problem decision made to save more lives. Nevertheless, I do think it raises a good question: if we accept that the inaction and mistaken priorities of the Federation can be just as ruinous as the Chain’s objectively heinous crimes, why is it so much easier for us to forgive the former?
Osyraa gives us the answer: abstraction. The Malachite Mafiosa is clearly attempting to launder the image of her organization, as well as her own personal reputation, in distinctly moblike fashion. But now that she’s at the negotiating table, she is making some absolutely devastating points. At this rate, I’m fairly certain Trek is aiming for Gul Dukat territory with our Verdant Villainess; despicable, yes, but still disturbingly human. (Er, so to speak.) She’s a far better fit for the role than her predecessor, Mirror Georgiou, anyway. Selfish and cunning, a true capitalist to the core, but I think I believe her when she says she wants the best for the plurality of Chain “citizens.” Her read of the Federation is completely true; as she points out, the face of the biometric lie detector ELI is entirely computer generated to appear neutral, but it also just so happens to take human form. (This smelled distinctly like a criticism of journalism’s myth of objectivity, but maybe that’s just me.) And as Invigorator Aurelio proves, an outsider would be more than forgiven to see the existence of Discovery’s spore drive as the Federation hoarding critical technological advances while the rest of the universe starves.
Speaking of Aurelio! Osyraa’s chief scientist, who has been tasked with figuring out how and why Stamets is the only one who can operate the spore drive, is his own little meta-miracle, because he’s played by none other than Discovery’s stealth alum, Kenneth Mitchell. Let’s rewind a bit.
Back in 2017, the disability activism community noticed that Discovery had finally included one (1) extra who used a wheelchair; it was the first time a visibly disabled actor had appeared in the Trek franchise. But background representation was nominal, at best. Then, this past February, Mitchell — who played Klingons Kol and Tenavik in the first and second seasons — announced he’d been diagnosed with ALS in 2018, and had been using a wheelchair since last year. The show already seemed to have parted ways with the actor organically; the story has veered from Klingon territory and it would’ve been easy to simply wish him well and move on. (Star Trek will basically always have its pick of actors who can work with heavily prosthetics; Mitchell has also since voiced several bit parts on Star Trek: Lower Decks.)
But Star Trek: Discovery has developed a charming habit of keeping its people close. (See also: recasting the Airiam actor as Nilsson, and now with the brief arc of Noah Averbach-Katz, AKA Mary Wiseman’s husband.) With Aurelio, it seems they’ve either invented or retooled a distinct role for Mitchell, one that specifically works with his new physical realities. While Aurelio might not stick around, his introduction gives us the first instance of a disabled foreground character played by a disabled actor in the Star Trek universe. (I highly recommend looking up the hashtag #CripTrek on Twitter, where disabled fans and critics have done tons of great work unpacking disability representation in science fiction; I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts on this.)
Anyway, Aurelio was born with a genetic defect and might have died if not for Osyraa choosing to step in, in some undefined way. Now, he’s a scientist, although how good he really is remains to be seen. It’s quickly made clear that Osyraa has groomed this guy to be her political puppet, a guileless, science-loving himbo who has no idea the crimes she and the Chain have committed, particularly with his own scientific breakthroughs. Stamets disabuses him of that notion, pointing out that he’s having a cheerful chat with a hostage, and also that his pesticide was dangled over a planet in exchange for species extinction. Now that he’s seen Osyraa execute Ryn in cold blood, right after he defies her with a stirring little speech about real bravery and love, I think we’re going to see some more fascinating choices from Aurelio in the finale next week. (Much like Osyraa’s “abstraction” comments roast journalism, this guy’s deal seems like a pointed stand-in for people who believe science can operate independent of sociopolitical context.)
Tilly, meanwhile, is being Tested with a capital T. By some accursed miracle, that pirate Zareh actually survived the ice tundra, and is now here in charge of Osyraa’s “regulators” to humiliate Tilly like the ghost of shortcomings past, taunting her about how the ship was taken in all of 12 minutes under her command. But like Aurelio, Zareh’s qualifications are kind of sus, too. Before, he seemed fairly intelligent, deadly and street-smart on the ground as a Chain capo with his little gang. But the promotion — which he somehow received after being bested by three Starfleet officers, resulting in the death of his whole posse and his own near-death humiliation — has raised him to his level of incompetence. He has one job, yet fails on almost every count, his gestapo losing again and again to Michael and the bridge crew hostages, to the point where I’d put money on his dead pool next week. Tilly, meanwhile, is a case study for excellent leadership: expecting a brand-new first officer to outsmart the galaxy’s Chartreuse Corlione in their first few minutes at the conn, ever? That’s a confirmation bias trap, that is. (Girls are bad at video games. Look, she’s been playing this game for a week and I just handed her a controller and put her against the top pro gamer in the world and she lost! Girls are bad at video games!)
At any rate, she and the rest of the bridge gang escape the ready room to the armory and are about to make a Running Man rush for the bridge, when suddenly the Space Roombas I jokingly complained about last year appear. The Sphere data is officially Zora in all but name now, having evaded the hacking efforts of Osyraa’s crew by somehow compressing her entirety down into a file the size and shape of a Buster Keaton film. Now she’s split herself into these three maintenance droids and is ready to fuck up some space cops. Good for her.
The most upsetting element of this episode by far is — surprise, surprise — a Michael decision. She and Book have somehow zoomed unharmed through “courier subspace,” the deadly corridor-cum-ship graveyard which also seems to be how Osyraa got to them at the Veruben nebula in the first place, and manage to catch all the way up to Discovery, crash-landing into its hangar bay mere milliseconds before Vance lets the compromised ship through the Federation’s shields. Long story short, Michael crawls through the Jeffries tubes to engineering, where she stuns Aurelio and immediately sets about jettisoning Stamets from the ship, to ensure Osyraa can’t use the spore drive. Sounds like a good enough plan, if you assume that Michael Burnham is the smartest person in the room, which Michael Burnham definitely always believes. Stamets himself would prefer to simply jump back to the nebula to save Saru and Culber — and, much to his horror, also Adira, his semi-adopted child. Granted, he’s almost crazed with fear of potentially losing them, but this also doesn’t seem to be a bad plan, necessarily, just a risky one. All roads will lead back to the dilithium planet and the nebula, and Osyraa has proven she can get there without the spore drive. Had Michael known Tilly and Co. were freed and about to storm the bridge, maybe she would have made a different choice. But the way she turned on Stamets, even to save the many, wasn’t just heartbreaking — “my whole family is in that nebula!” — it was also a spooky echo of the Michael Burnham of the Battle of the Binary Stars, the mutineer who used the same Vulcan nerve pinch on her own captain in an attempt to wrest control and make the big call herself. It’s unclear whether the chief science officer can legally pull rank on the chief engineering officer, but it’s yet another demonstration of how, despite what we’ve been led to believe, Michael gets countless opportunities to outgrow the person she used to be, yet more often than not, she simply chooses not to. Discovery seems determined to ultimately get our protagonist in the captain’s chair, but at this point, does she really deserve it?
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Twice this week, Book assures Michael that Grudge is “safe and secured” despite literally crashing the ship. What the hell is that cat bed made of?
• This episode’s dialogue, written by Kenneth Lin, made me gasp several times, but the apple/shit scene absolutely killed me. What a beautiful dominance tango, made all the spicier by the GOAT, director Jonathan Frakes.
• Who is that unnamed white girl held hostage with the bridge crew who says, “I’m not dying in here because [Rhys and Bryce] are bored”? Is she like a night-shift crewmember, or something? Definitely a red-shirt in next week’s charge.
• Osyraa rescued Aurelio when he was ten, a reminder that Orions live substantially longer than humans — 150, on average — and thus probably why they look the same age.
• I know the pandemic has ruined my brain because as Vance and Osyraa discuss ELI while he sits there frozen, all I could think about was that one llama TikTok. ELI, you poor, sweet thing.