The Federation and Starfleet are quite fond of bragging to strangers about how they’ve eliminated money and hunger. It’s meant to be aspirational, and to us in the 21st century, it certainly is. Yet it always seems like when someone like Jean-Luc Picard or Benjamin Sisko talks about it, he’s telling people from a culture where these struggles do persist, very acutely. You can imagine how a person who lives or dies by exactly one resource might resent this implied superiority.
Which is why it’s always refreshing to see a Trek crew getting a literal crash course in scarcity, as they do this week. It’s a reminder to Starfleet optimists that inequality does very much persist; that even advanced tech can break irreparably; that simply getting rid of capitalism won’t rid us of the crippling compulsion to define ourselves by our work output; and while the shared vision of the Federation is a goal to be strived for, many simply can’t survive on ideals alone. And that now includes the crew of the Discovery.
To his credit, Saru is doing astonishingly well as a new captain in crisis. He’s nailing Picard’s consistent, stubborn principles to a T, even as their ship crashes into an unknown future planet teeming with parasitic ice, and as space pirates attempt to extort them for dilithium. His restraint is positively saintly as he wrestles Georgiou’s insubordinate, racist ass into line. And best of all, unlike many of the captains we’ve seen before, he’s entirely of the crew, able to be decisive and leaderly while also getting his own hands dirty and reminding his team that they’re in this together.
However, you have to admit that Georgiou’s deranged megalomania has suddenly become awfully handy to have around the house, insubordination and all. I do still resent how little this show has reckoned with The Georgiou Problem; she remains completely incorrigible, clearly making multiple bids for power and disobeying orders by following Saru and Tilly when they go on an away mission to fix the ship’s comms systems. And while I am living for Saru’s we-go-high dismissal of her behavior — she “lacks the self-awareness to control her behavior in such an unsettled state” — I get the feeling this is supposed to suffice for a larger exploration of how he feels about a homicidal tyrant who not only thinks he’s a lower life form but also wants to eat him being allowed to remain a member of Starfleet. (He doesn’t even let Tilly react to her insults! Let Tilly say “what the fuck”!)
That said, the fact remains that they would likely all be dead had she not been there to disobey orders. Saru’s plan to bring only Tilly along for first contact worked well at first — she does make an excellent first impression with the locals by citing Starfleet regulations and asking them to either lower their weapons or introduce themselves. It endears her to Kal, the de facto leader of these humanoid aliens I don’t believe we’ve seen before. They’re the kind of people I mentioned earlier, having been stranded on this planet in the life-supporting atmosphere bubbles they apparently terraformed by Zareh, a “courier” who stole their ship’s supply of dilithium, decapitated the legit courier who formerly delivered necessary supplies, and now has them living on crumbs in fear. He’s already killed Kal’s family, which he shares while building the new rubidium-based part for the ship’s comms system out of programmable matter. He’s understandably confused when Tilly is transfixed by his tech and skills, but then quietly asks her if it makes him Starfleet material. You’d be forgiven for falling in love with him here, as well as instantly shipping these two dorks, but alas, we’re not allowed to have too many nice things here on Star Trek: Discovery. Zareh shows up and kills him, very painfully, with a weapon that’s more agonizer than phaser, for attempting to help these strangers escape in exchange for dilithium.
Zareh is like if Sherlock Holmes was a sadistic pirate: he’s incredibly good at deducing information and using it for his own benefit. (The Ferengi would absolutely love this dude, but I digress.) He immediately clocks the Discovery crew as time travelers from the space stuff they left in their wake, and quickly concludes from the fact that Saru doesn’t understand their pidgin English that he’s a new captain and thus less dangerous. He’s not wrong, but Saru is ready to die before serving his crew to these wolves—and then they find Georgiou lurking nearby. She does that terrifying thing where she speaks conversationally to the henchman holding her at gunpoint about how his boss is going to get him killed since they’re essentially bottom-feeders and plenty of far more powerful competitors likely picked up Discovery entering the atmosphere. Like any self-respecting intelligent psychopath, Zareh responds with a Kal special, the extended edition.
Unfortunately for Zareh, no one told him Georgiou is a straight-up freak who probably used agonizers in the bedroom at some point. “What you call pain, I call foreplay,” Michelle Yeoh says, just to drive home the point as she fully bodies every single one of them in a matter of seconds. Saru actually helps here, too, thanks to his immense post-vahar’ai strength and delightfully alarming new murder quills. (“Enemy of my enemy” is beginning to be a theme here.) Ultimately Saru stops Georgiou from ripping out Zareh’s throat, citing Starfleet principles as they stand over the corpses of like five other people who at some point were probably just as desperate as these other guys. They consign his fate to Os’ir the bartender, who had been the Scully to Kal’s Mulder before finally seeing the Federation in action. Now a True Believer™, he decides Zareh should meet the fate he tried to assign Tilly: to walk out into the parasitic-ice-infested night with nothing but a small pack, a certainty that he’s going to die with ice in his lungs, and Georgiou’s promise that she really will rip out his esophagus with her bare hands if he attempts revenge.
Back at the ship, everything and everyone is falling apart. This is a thing that happens when you hurtle through a 900-plus year wormhole, then attempt to skid a Crossfield-class starship to a stop on an alien planet surface like this is Tokyo Drift. The poor Osnullus bridge officer who never got a name marks at least one who died in the crash; we know 16 more are critically wounded because Zareh pointedly doesn’t count them among the ship’s crew when he threatens them all. And there’s definitely something wrong with Detmer’s head, even though the doctor tells her she’s fine neurologically. (Would the doctor be able to tell if her implant was malfunctioning? Unclear.) You can see why Saru made it expressly clear that they needed to fix the ship before they could go out and play.
Beyond that, the rest of the crew seems pretty traumatized, struggling to focus as they fix the ship. Culber brings Stamets — who as we know was impaled by a seven-inch shard of duranium alloy in the season two finale — out of his coma to triage the other injured crew. This was probably a mistake, as Stamets immediately blows off his orders to stay in the cellular regeneration chamber and heads to engineering, where he pretends he’s not in excruciating agony and actually crawls into a jefferies tube to fix a circuit to spite Reno, whose back has been thrown out in the crash and who once again is the most actualized person onboard. (I do adore the Reno/Stamets dynamic. It’s very Bones v. Spock.) Of course, he gets reinjured in the process, forcing Culber away from sickbay to help Reno guide him through finishing the repair and back to safety. These three get not only the best dialogue this week—“Tell you what, I’ll let you go back to work if you can spell ‘my partner brought me out of a coma and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’”—but also the most meaningful theme: in Reno’s words, “Helpless is a shitty feeling, but it’s not forever, and it doesn’t make you any less capable.” What a time to be hearing that message, amirite?
Anyway, Os’ir and the away team complete their deal, offering him a king’s share of dilithium in exchange for Kal’s repair job. The rest of the crew, led by Nhan (who deserves more of a personality than she’s getting right now), have fixed everything else, so with Detmer and Owosekun at the helm, they proceed to try to impulse power themselves off the ground and out of the monster ice. It’s not going well, until another ship appears, grabbing hold of them with a tractor beam and hailing them. This could really have gone either way, as far as stranger danger goes! But lo and behold, it’s not an even bigger pirate—well, I guess technically it is, because it’s Michael in Book’s ship! She’s got box braids now! Because she’s been here for a year already. I can already smell the psychic trauma that awaits us.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• In retrospect, it was extremely smart to break up the introduction to the future and devote one episode to the star and one to the ensemble. We got the best of both stories without sacrificing anything.
• Tig Notaro is the secret weapon of this show and I really need her as a series regular already. Reno is extremely good at grounding the Trek universe’s technology in reality—like, I can almost understand the fake engineering concepts she’s explaining, instead of momentarily turning off my brain and letting the sci-fi technobabble wash over me, as a layman absolutely must do with the likes of Geordi LaForge or Miles O’Brien. (See also: “Back at ya, bobcat.” “Bobcat?” “I don’t know, I’m on drugs.” Extremely authentic representation of chronic pain!)
• Can’t tell you how much I wanted “Zareh” to be spelled “Zara.” Alas, the morally bankrupt retailer is not also a morally bankrupt space pirate.
• Forget the personal transporter hype—programmable matter is the coolest tech this franchise has seen in decades, and it is a theoretically very real thing. I love science.
• If they’re gearing up to Airiam Detmer, best believe I will be asking to speak with the manager. Can we please learn everything about these total badasses without worrying whether it will cost them their lives?
• Remember the old adage about a character not being dead unless you see the body? It’s a theory, but I think we’re being led to believe that Georgiou having “some Leland on her shoes” is the same thing as seeing Control’s body. Control is software that infested an organic host; just because it was neutralized doesn’t mean it’s dead. Personally, I can’t believe they risked taking his body along in the first place, when they were leaving specifically to get away from him. Does anyone really know what happens to nanites in a mycelial chamber?