Star Trek: Discovery
As a culture, we tend to accept “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” as a fairly unassailable axiom. The idea makes sense in the context of questioning authority, of speaking truth to power, at least. Who wants to have to ask permission to have fun? Or worse, to do the right thing? We can all agree that red tape is bad. But this forgiveness-over-permission philosophy starts to fall apart when it’s applied to a situation like the one Michael Burnham puts herself and her friends in this week. Because it’s not just direct orders that she violates; it’s the trust that holds her friendships together, the faith that she put in a friend when she conceded a leadership position to him. Is it really better to ask for forgiveness if your plan — the first plan you thought up, the one that features exactly zero compromise and allows you to do exactly what you want — involves knowingly hanging the people you love out to dry?
These are not thoughts Michael has when she is presented with her first dilemma as Discovery’s first officer. The ship has been repaired and retrofitted, bringing its systems and crew into the 32nd century with programmable matter, detached nacelles, and multifunctional badges. Between the 900-year learning curve and the top-secret, super-powered spore drive, Discovery may still seem to the rest of Starfleet like the homeschooled genius who just transferred to their public school, but they’ve finally earned their place among their endangered brethren. Yet within minutes of receiving orders — be on standby to intervene at the planet Argeth, in case the Emerald Chain spurns diplomatic talks there in favor of violence — Book’s ship appears at the Federation bubble’s gates, with only Grudge in the captain’s chair. The rogue courier has left a holo-message for Michael, explaining that the ship was programmed to take off without him and find her if he didn’t return from his mission within 24 hours.
That mission: He’s found a lead on a third Starfleet black box. She’s been tracking these down for the past year, hoping to prove that the Burn was not, in fact, a simultaneous freak event; if it had been, each box would have stopped recording at the exact same microsecond, but the two boxes she’s found ended at slightly different times. (By now, 50 Trekkie scientists watching this have probably rattled off as many reasons why both facts could be true, but let’s go with Occam’s razor on this.) Finding a third box would give her enough data points to triangulate a possible point of origin for the Burn.
And now, with Book apparently in danger (the message was recorded three weeks ago), she has two reasons to flounce from the boring work of waiting patiently to save lives. Poor Saru is in a position not dissimilar to that one time Captain America keeps a helicopter from taking off: Of course he feels the same way Michael does about saving lives and solving the mystery of the Burn. But as captain — a role she herself all but handed him — he now also has to think about the consequences of abandoning the Federation citizens he and his crew are imminently responsible for protecting in favor of a sexier, more heroic mission. “The admiral would not be convinced by a cat in a ship,” he explains as he gently tells Michael to stay put. (Translation: “By all means, please give me better evidence and a better plan to sign off on.”) Michael concedes, “Yes, sir,” but even as she says it, her face does the real talking: Look what you’re making me do, sir.
Is she wrong when she says, “The Federation cannot stabilize while the cause of the Burn remains a question”? Absolutely not! Is this mission critical to the safety of thousands, starting with her own Just-a-Friend? Yes, probably! The point is, instead of figuring out how best to juggle it all — to trust her friend, to honor the critical needs of the crippled organization she also spent the past year trying to find, to rescue her Friend Just a Friend a Very Good Friend and salvage an essential piece of intelligence — Michael Burnham goes directly to the most eagerly treacherous person she knows and sneaks out in Book’s ship to do what she wants anyway. “I can’t do nothing,” she reasons to Georgiou, a person who definitely needs a moral justification before acting. Of course Michael equates these orders to inaction. The past year hasn’t changed her, so much as it has nurtured the part of her that has always existed, the individualist streak that drove her to mutiny. (And we all know how that turned out.)
To her credit, Georgiou does actually advocate reason for once, making sure Michael understands the ramifications of what she’s planning before saying yes. Maybe it has something to do with her increasingly violent fugue states, flashbacks to images of blood, the Terran empire crest, possibly a cityscape (?), and what appears to be a pre-empire version of herself screaming, “Son!” If they were memories she recognized, she wouldn’t seem so deeply disturbed by them, so they could be repressed trauma, or some sort of interdimensional crossover weirdness. Whatever these episodes are, it’s quite rich of her to keep talking shit about Ash Tyler, the poster boy for weird PTSD. (Miss you, sweetheart!) Even Michael notices this, despite being consumed by denial that she and Book aren’t madly in love with each other.
Reverse-engineering Grudge’s microchip to locate Book, they arrive at a planet that has been converted into a junkyard filled with parts and scraps scavenged from a debris field of Burned ships in its orbit. It’s run by the Emerald Chain, or more specifically, by Emerald Chain boss Osira’s meatsack of a nephew, a C-average, Harvard-legacy, daddy’s-hedge-fund-looking motherfucker whose name is not important. Being exactly as stupid as he looks, he immediately buys Georgiou’s grift, which happens to be the same one Book used on those Andorians in the premiere: pretend to be richer than you are, and threaten a crony with the wrath of his own boss. Once they arrive on the surface, he brags that all the workers here are actually slaves, permanently indentured to Osira the loan shark for one (likely bullshit) reason or another.
As it turns out, being from the 23rd century makes for an exquisite con when dealing with lunks like Meatsack Nephew. Georgiou immediately brushes off items like a TNG-era phaser as “too advanced” for the era of antiques they seek, then uses another mint-condition Discovery tricorder as shiny misdirection while Michael evades his goons’ supervision to search for “24th century self-sealing stem bolts.” She also feigns interest in buying the plant’s new proprietary perimeter-fence tech, which explodes collar-like implants in workers’ necks if they attempt to escape, hoping he’ll slip and tell her how it works. (In an uncharacteristically gruesome moment for a Star Trek show, he demonstrates its power by forcing a Bajoran worker who has stolen a water ration to run across it, decapitating himself.)
Meanwhile, Michael tracks down Book, and they immediately have a clandestine, Definitely Not a Lover’s spat over whether his holo-message was a passive-aggressive request for rescue. (Come on. It was.) Insisting that escape from Osira is impossible — Rin, the long-haired Andorian with hacked-off antennae forced to implant the trackers in workers’ necks, was once a member of the elite, before he attempted to rally a proletariat revolt — he tries to get her to take the black box from his quarters and leave without him. But he should know by now that Michael Burnham will not be stopped, not by her captain and certainly not by her Friend. With another opaque playbook reference meant to suggest the depth of their gunslingin’ history together, they hatch an escape plan.
Meatsack is finally getting it through his green skull that maybe he should be suspicious, and he assigns a drone to supervise them. Burnham immediately knocks it like a pop-fly out of the park, triggering an alarm that, sure, gets them arrested. But it also cues Book and his comrades to commence the revolt with a bomb, forcing Meatsack to cut short his crowing and dilithium-stealing and send two of his three guards to quell the rebellion. Despite another one of Georgiou’s PTSD episodes paralyzing her for a good ten seconds mid-brawl, the pair manage to attack and overcome their captors, disable the fence, and pull the ship around to provide cover fire while the workers make a run for it. They beam aboard Book and Rin, who has been shot but managed to retrieve the black box from Book’s quarters before their escape, and Georgiou bombs the salvage ships and the larger facility on their way out. (A bigger nerd could probably identify at least one of these ships as an easter egg, but your humble recapper has yet to wade that far in.)
Meanwhile, Tilly and Saru have compared notes and figured out exactly what Michael did. (Kind of weird that Saru tells an ensign that his first officer violated his direct orders, but strange times call for new rules.) Surprisingly, Tilly, who is somehow still an ensign despite having become so comfortable with the new tech that she is managing her peers and superiors alike, doesn’t defend her: “Sir, you know Michael is one of the people I love most in this world. But she made a choice, and now because of that, you don’t have one. You should tell the admiral … Discovery still has a lot to prove and if Admiral Vance finds out and you’re not the one who told him, the entire crew will get painted with the same brush.” Luckily for Saru, Vance and Willa are too busy putting out about 15 different fires in the middle of a crisis to be appropriately angry. And luckily for Michael, it seems they won’t have to jump to Argeth to intervene after all (at least not this week), so when she and Georgiou return, Discovery’s sickbay is able to immediately tend to Rin’s injuries and remove both his and Book’s implants.
Burnham’s saving grace this week: kissing. KISSING. KISSINGGGGGGGG. While escorting Michael to “face the firing squad,” Book stops the turbolift — a known, incredibly sexy boss move in the Trek universe — to thank her for saving his life. Linus transports his ass directly into the sexual tension, but the moment he’s gone, they’re on each other. An incredibly fine consolation prize, considering that when she steps out to meet her firing squad, it is savage: a dressing-down from Vance, then an emotional gutting from Saru, followed, finally, by her losing her job as first officer. “While I agree with your intentions,” Saru says. “The decision I am now forced to make comes down to one thing and one thing only, commander. It’s not about your skill. It’s not about your ability. It is about trust.” Sure, she told him she was ambivalent when she accepted the job, but now she’s making Saru cry. We’ll need a lot more than a “you’re doing the right thing” to make up for that.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• Those “24th-century self-sealing stem bolts” Michael and Georgiou claim to be looking for are likely an easter-egg callback to a goofy episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which Jake Sisko and Nog come into a bunch of Cardassian yamok sauce and try to turn a profit on it. Instead of simply paying them in latinum, however, potential buyers keep offering them large quantities of comically low-demand goods in trade. One of those goods: self-sealing stem bolts.
• Tilly tells Grudge she is “not a cat person” and “doesn’t like” her, which would track, if it wasn’t for the fact that she keeps calling her by her name and talking to her and picking her up like a baby and letting her use her body like a cat castle. (Don’t worry about it, Tills, Maine coons are basically dogs anyway.) The two of them together give off strong Georgia Nicholson/Angus vibes.
• She also says “shit” four times in front of Saru, only this time, he replies, “My sentiments exactly.” Growth!
• Linus’s badge transporter “malfunctions” are making me wonder whether he and Georgiou are compatible after all.
• Discovery’s new programmable matter means all their new tech adapts to its users’ personal habits, creating tools unique to each crewmember’s needs. Three cheers for radical acceptance and disability justice!
• Speaking of radical acceptance, in this week’s C-plot, Adira confides in Stamets that she’s seeing Gray, and he fully believes her. (I mean…how could he not?) Their conversation is corny, I know. And it really feels like Gray might actually be a projection of Adira’s mind trying to come to terms with loss, not to mention the symbiont memories. I mean, “he says I need to make friends” and “he says he likes you” sure sounds like Adira’s mind trying to protect itself. But it’s still adorable. Crazy kids and their chaos!
• Can someone please allow Culber an opinion that isn’t some bit of sage wisdom for someone else? I know his return-from-the-dead arc was almost unbearably painful, but at least it gave Wilson Cruz space for some emotional nuance.
• Favorite bit of dialogue this week: “What makes you think—” “What makes you think? Oh, don’t tell me you have actual brain matter. Or whatever nephews have.” Made me nostalgic for Connolly the Short-Lived Mansplainer.