Star Trek: Discovery
Let me get this out of the way first: there will be no Charles Vance libel in this recap. Sure, the Starfleet commander-in-chief may have eerily dead eyes. Sure, he grimaces like a shark in such a way that I’m not sure he’s ever actually laughed at a joke in his entire life. If he was a woman, men would be calling her a frigid you-know-what. Say what you will about the admiral, but each time, I must ask you: Can you blame him?
I mean, imagine that, in addition to heading Starfleet, you’re also responsible for a thousand-year-old interplanetary alliance that has suffered what is effectively a multi-species genocide, such that 90 percent of the member planets have either been left for dead in the far reaches of space or have actively betrayed the alliance in favor of militant protectionism. Imagine having to keep alive a now-dwarfed civilian fleet of 38 vessels in total secrecy, not to mention the spirit of the Federation in a time that is lethally hostile to those ideas.
And then out of nowhere, here comes the U.S.S. Pollyanna, a 900-year-old ray of nerd sunshine with non-dilithium warp capabilities, an obscene amount of dilithium, and seemingly no respect for the immense degree of discipline this organization has had to develop simply to survive. Their mere presence as time-travelers is a diplomatic nightmare, at best. Worse still, they’re carrying 10,000 years of intelligence that could make them, and now us, just as much a target as their dilithium. To say nothing of the fact that there’s absolutely no record of their survival past their reported destruction in 2258, meaning these wide-eyed, willful naïfs expect everyone to just take their word for it. As much as I adore the Discovery crew, I cannot in good conscience tell you that, were I in Vance’s shoes, their arrival would not annoy the living shit out of me. The fact that he simply does not offer warmth or friendliness or trust where it’s not earned, instead of just throwing them all in the brig, seems like a pretty spectacular feat of self-control. His whole deal is summed up perfectly with his response to Burnham saying they jumped to save all organic life: “If that’s true, then we owe you a debt beyond words. But from where I sit, and I sit here, trusting you is a risk I cannot take without evidence.”
How can you not respect the hell out of this guy? The Vulcans must adore him.
On the other hand, what I can’t imagine is living with the kind of technology that Starfleet and the Federation now have. Here’s a probably incomplete list of the brand-new stuff our crew geeks out over, from the moment they pass through the giant, vibing donut of the distortion field (collectively powered by all the ships inside, I should add):
• Neutronium alloy fibers (AKA super-advanced shielding tech)
• Organic hulls (a little Farscape shout-out, perhaps?)
• Hulls made entirely of holographic containment fields
• A new U.S.S. Constitution, now big enough to house a crew of 2,000
• An 11th-generation U.S.S. Voyager
• Detached nacelles (meaning engines are held to their ships by some sort of forcefield)
• A “flying rainforest” (hello, Elysium)
• Floating office furniture (okay, I was the one geeking out over this)
• Flooring that just appears under your feet as you walk, like you’re fucking Magneto (technically programmable matter, but still — coooool)
• Extremely rude medical AI with serious biosurveillance problems (nobody was excited for this one; I’m just disturbed by an AI that can scan people down to the molecular proteins, decide whether you are lying, and then casually insult you for being too “emotional”)
While Adira Tal is shuffled off to medical for analysis — Vance summoned her, too, thinking she was Senna — Saru and Burnham learn several things: one, that Kaminar joined the Federation, although the Burn means they haven’t heard from them in a while; two, that something called the Emerald Chain, which is apparently the name for the mobbish Andorian-Orion syndicate we saw at work at the mercantile in the premiere, is a big problem for the Federation/Starfleet; and three, that there’s currently a ship full of Keelie refugees (a new species for Trek, as far as I can tell) in sickbay, rapidly deteriorating from some illness that is misfolding the proteins in their DNA and causing their nervous systems to break down.
Of course, Michael being Michael, at the sight of the writhing Keelies, her mouth starts moving almost as fast as the wheels in her brain start turning. She wants to see their ships’ logs to determine where they’ve been and thus how they got sick. Vance says, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” (not really) and instead insists the entire crew be disembarked from the ship and debriefed — he plans to reassign them, though that clearly does not end up happening — while Saru smoothes over Burnham’s boundary-crossing with exquisite diplomacy: “Simply put, we are anxious to help our Federation family.” (Clearly, the Federation hasn’t really been a “family” for a while, but bless him for trying.) Later in private, Saru also has to reprimand Burnham for suggesting they simply take the roster and disobey a direct order, rightly horrified to hear her talking like season-one Michael, the one who got her captain killed, started a war, and branded her Starfleet’s first mutineer. (Though I’ll say his advice to the crew to “trust the process” is a bit unnerving — why not just ask them to trust their captain?)
The crew debriefs are … perfect. Just *chef’s kiss* a spicy, spicy meatball. “Well, I was emotionally dead, too,” says Culber, as a holo-interrogator asks him if he was legally dead. “What is [the Emerald Chain], some sort of Risan party drug?” Reno asks hers, after demanding snacks. Stamets and Tilly’s stories flesh out what must objectively be the most insane crew debrief in Starfleet history. And Nhan — oh, Commander Nhan — goes full-on P.O.W., refusing to answer a single question.
Speaking of Nhan — who I just realized recently is played by Rachael Ancheril, AKA the Blacksmith/Mattie from Wynonna Earp and the Warden from Killjoys — the only reason this episode gets four stars instead of five is because they did the Airiam thing again: pelting us with a bunch of reasons to love Nhan before tearing her away from us. Thankfully, she doesn’t die, but come on. I only hope that her sacrifice was written in because Ancheril got a steadier, better-paid gig elsewhere.
This all goes down because eventually, Burnham convinces Vance’s security chief, Lt. Willa, that they have nothing to lose by sharing the roster; indeed, within minutes she and Saru are reporting back that the Keelies stopped at a planet where an industrial hub destroyed the atmosphere (hmm, can’t relate) and, as a result, UVB radiation completely mutated all plant and animal life on a genetic level; whatever the Keelies foraged there is now giving their DNA proteins horrible directions. Lucky for them, Starfleet has recently come into some 900-year-old institutional memory that they have a seed vault ship with all the non-irradiated plant samples they need to reverse-engineer a cure — and a 900-year-old ship that can get there in seconds instead of five months at sub-warp. Burnham back-talks Vance again when he suggests that the ship doesn’t need any of its original crew besides Stamets to accomplish their goal, and Saru again reverse-anger-translates for his first officer — “I would ask that you allow Discovery to serve as she is able” — and offers to stay behind as a show of faith. Vance sends Willa and some Starfleet cops with them for good measure.
While Saru remains the best choice for captaincy, that doesn’t change the fact that watching Burnham work from the chair is nothing short of thrilling. She’s decisive, daring, and immediately inspiring; even after everything she’s said this week up until this point, 30 seconds of this and even I would steer directly into an ion storm for Captain Burnham. That’s how they finally get their tractor beams on the U.S.S. Tikov, the seed vault ship that is watched over by each Federation planet in shifts. As luck would have it, the current sentinels are a family of Barzans; Nhan’s people joined the Federation two centuries after their time. (I can’t believe we watched Burnham actually “… anyway” Willa on the bridge when she’s being rude about Nhan’s excitement about this.)
They arrive to a jungle. Someone has cracked the seed vault, and the Barzan atmosphere — Burnham and Culber must wear breathing apparatuses, but Nhan can finally take hers off for a minute, which also melts the color of her eyes back from the glazed blue we know to Ancheril’s natural brown — has accelerated the plants’ growth. Soon, they discover this was the work of Dr. Addis, the husband and father whose two daughters and wife and lab partner died mysteriously and are now in cryostasis while he desperately searches for ways to “save” them, while Addis himself is phasing in and out of physical form erratically, like a glitching ghost.
Long story short, it turns out they were all victims of a freak accident: a coronal mass ejection, or CME — or, as Reno explains to Willa as she watches them work, a “star burp” — passed through the ship at the exact moment Addis was beaming into the vault itself, thus killing the girls and wife and only disrupting his molecular signature. To save him, they have to unplug the whole ship, use their own transporter to beam him back together, and then plug the ship back in again — a move that, unfortunately, means ending Addis’ family’s cryostasis. He’s obviously devastated, and Nhan is clearly emotionally compromised, so it’s Burnham who, with one of her weekly and apparently contractually guaranteed inspirational monologues, finally convinces him to help them save Keelie families and unlock the vault.
Addis helps them, but he refuses to leave his family’s bodies to receive medical treatment. Culber and Burnham are inclined to take him against his will, but Nhan, who has been deeply affected by the whole experience of being somewhere and with someone resembling home and is now overwhelmingly homesick, puts her foot down, volunteering to resign her post to stay with Addis, help him complete the Barzans’ watch, and safely return him and his family to their home planet. Another tearful goodbye, another scene in which Airiam’s memory is more present than the many episodes her actual body was in before the episode in which she was quickly summarized and then killed off. While what Nhan says about Michael is lovely, and while this scene passes the hell out of the Bechdel test, it’s one of the rare moments on this show where I felt distinctly manipulated. She could have just requested temporary reassignment from her commanding officer and been back in a couple episodes! She was a recurring character anyway! Why do we have to keep saying goodbye to cool women?
Speaking of cool women, Georgiou’s debrief is, shall we say, a bit more intense than everyone else’s. As a Terran, she’s an object of great curiosity for an unflappable old man who seems like maybe he’s Section 31, but also seems to be a scholar in all things mirror universe. (Strong “guy who is way too into Nazis” vibe, if you ask me.) After she glitches and shuts down his holo-interrogators simply by blinking, they get into a fascinating tête-à-tête, and he actually bests her, not only deducing that she joined Discovery not because, like other Terrans, she simply “feels like it,” but because she cares about someone onboard, but also informing her that the two universes have been drifting apart and no one has crossed between them in over 500 years, suggesting she is “all alone.” It’s not clear whether this debrief is the cause, but later, when Michael comes across her in the hall, it’s like she’s a frozen computer program for a full minute before snapping out of it and pretending it never happened. Or maybe those Leland guts really did rub off on her?
At any rate, the successful mission puts Discovery, at last, in Vance’s good graces. After an inspiring monologue from Saru in which he suggests that, as Italian painter Giotto helped usher in the Renaissance by developing the idea of three-point perspective, so Discovery might be able to help Starfleet “look up” in its own Dark Ages. If Jean-Luc Picard and Data were combined into one person, they would be Saru. Corny, sure, but if it works for Vance, it works for me.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Taking bets now on the nature of that “universal” melody Burnham notices the Barzan holo-memory playing, which is the same one Adira was playing last week on her cello. My money is on some sort of pre-Burn musical code.
• Keyla Detmer definitely has PTSD, which raises two questions: one, why did that doctor’s neurological scan not pick up on that, and two, why do we not have more effective treatment for that by the 23rd century?
• They really used a lot of words to argue why the Discovery crew should stay together when all they really should have said was, “All of these freaks are completely ruined for other people. Just go with it.”
• That little spooky ghost moment behind the away team as they walk into the ship, before they learn it’s Addis phasing? This show is really starting to get the hang of the classic Star Trek episode vibe.
• The way Culber has been written recently has been weird to me. He does the thing again this week where he asks Michael to do something he is perhaps even more experientially and emotionally qualified to do. Moreover, as a formerly dead man, he’s oddly firm in his assessment of Addis as delusional for thinking he can save his family. He also says in his debrief that he and his “murder are good now.” That mess hall fight might have sealed the deal for some cishet bozo, but not the Culber we’ve come to know. So when did this resolution happen??
• Big ups to reader @seansheer, who pointed out in last week’s comments that the new voice of the computer is that of Zora, Discovery’s far-future computer in the 2018 Short Trek “Calypso.” There have also been other confirmed connections to “Calypso” this season. In “Far From Home,” Zareh the pirate refers to the Federation in pidgin as “the V’draysh,” which is the same name “Calypso” protagonist Craft uses to describe the people waging war on his apparently peaceful homeworld. This implies that sometime in the even-farther future — more than a millennium, since according to Zora, the ship will have drifted without passengers for that long) — the Federation will be…not very nice. Not all that surprising, given that even benign imperialism is still imperialism, and given how cheerful Starfleet Command seems now. (Read more about the “Calypso” easter eggs here.)