The away team’s away with the fairies in Star Trek: Discovery – Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (S1E08) Review
If you type the title of this week’s episode into Google Translate, you get “If you want peace, prepare Geller”, [Editor’s note – I swear this happened at the time of writing, but in hindsight it seems more like an inadvertent typo/ autocorrect was too tempting to ignore] but you can quash those fanfic dreams of the Discovery crew encountering the cast of “Friends” – this episode is all about confirming that any suspicions you might be harbouring about Ash Tyler are probably correct. It’s not even being subtle about it anymore.
With the narrative pendulum of war having swung back into the Klingon’s favour, Starfleet finds itself on the defensive now that the Klingon fleet has been equipped with cloaking devices. To level the playing field once more, Starfleet dispatches a mission to the planet Pahvo to make use of a galactic natural phenomenon to create a sonar-like sensor net which will neutralise the Klingon’s advantage.
The episode opens with a space battle substantially more exciting and kinetic than the long-range exchanges of “The Battle Of The Binary Stars” but the pew-pew-puny sound effects for the starship weapons still sound stupid, weak and faintly embarrassing. At least we’re finally back to the Klingon storyline and who’d have thought it? Their multi-vessel cloaking technology turns out to be a better secret weapon than Starfleet’s single experimental starship crewed from top to bottom with psychologically damaged and dysfunctional misfits.
Once again, the show – having told us repeatedly of Lorca’s brilliant tactical acumen – shows us him failing in battle and at some point he needs to show us just how good he is because his ‘losses’ column is filling up fast and there’s only so much Jason Isaacs can do to keep our Captain awesome if he continues to be given material like this.
Meanwhile, on the planet of Pahvo, Burnham and Tyler could be having a romantic forest getaway were it not for third wheel Saru spoiling their nature trail, complaining about the planet’s unique harmonic vibrations, its song. We don’t get to hear any of the song for a while because Burnham’s constantly talking over it with one of her interminable personal logs. The away team has to hike to their destination for narratively convenient technobabble reasons, giving them a chance to encounter the unforeseen natives of the planet, who manifest as distractingly spore-like will o’ the wisps. After a hesitant first contact where the universal translators prove useless, it takes, like, two seconds for Saru to go full-on ‘Jake Sooley’ and turn against the away team’s mission in favour of the planet’s indigenous population and their pseudo-spiritual connection to all life therein. Meanwhile, the Discovery’s Chief of Security is repeatedly blindsided by ambushes, traps and double-crosses. I’d blame it on him being a spy, but then Discovery’s science officer is similarly useless when her specialism should be on point. Saru isn’t the only one who’s acting strangely, though, because for no apparent reason (other than clumsy story ones), arch-rule breaker and celebrated mutineer Michael Burnham is now the sole voice of protocol and regulations.
While the Discovery waits to hear from its away team and Tyler, Burnham and Saru play “Dances With Sparkles”, across the galaxy we finally catch up with L’Rell – her trademark nail-polished shoulder spikes as sharp as ever – and…wait! Who’s that? Why it’s Starfleet’s forgotten Admiral Cornwell. Things look like they’re about to get interesting but then get silly (‘Scream!’) before getting stupid as the pompous and posturing Klingons double and triple-bluff each other in a series of escalating twists that tie their characters in knots and fray the audience’s patience. After last week’s tough Mudd-er of an episode forgot her, the return of Admiral Cornwell is brief and perfunctorily violent, leaving a trail of question marks over the fate of the characters involved which you’d normally expect to be wrapped up in next week’s episode, but with this series? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Meanwhile meanwhile, the best story “Star Trek: Discovery” is trying to ignore inches forward too as the nature and effects of Stamet’s experiences in the spore drive pique Cadet Tilly’s curiosity and suspicion and the show drops a big old hint that Stamets has become something of a pan-dimensional traveller. I wonder if The Traveller will pop in at some point to pick him up, a la Wesley Crusher’s departure in season seven of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”?
The episode title may translate (properly) as ‘If You Want Peace, Prepare For War’ but it might as well be ‘If you want a mid-season finale, prepare for a frustratingly clumsy two-part story’. It’s over-ambitious in the number of cliff-hangers it tries to set up, careless in its characterisation of established characters and almost pathologically obsessed with focussing on the least interesting stories it has to tell. The performances continue to be great and the special effects (starship weaponry aside) and production values are first-rate but the writing on “Star Trek: Discovery” is turning out to be the series’ main problem. It’s torn between servicing its interesting characters with fascinating standalone stories and pandering to its profoundly uninteresting series arc of the Federation/ Klingon war. Lieutenant Ash Tyler is the crux of the problem. Thanks to the inept pre-publicity, it’s all too obvious that he isn’t who he seems to be. Shazad Latif is a great actor and the idea of a Security Chief who is struggling with PTSD and bitterness at his treatment at the hands of the enemy is rich material for him to work with but “Discovery” isn’t interested in that, seeming to prefer the obvious ‘twist’ that he’s either Voq in disguise or some other spy. It’s bet so heavily on that that if it turns out Ash Tyler isn’t a spy, then he’s simply too bland and dull a character for this series (the invocation of ‘the needs of the many’ in this story is just awful); he belongs on “Star Trek: Enterprise”.
Offered up as part of his motivation for betrayal, Saru living in a constant state of fear is an interesting character revelation that feels like it’s been made a few episodes later than makes sense. Also, Saru’s actions on Pahva are pretty much on a par with anything Burnham did, yet I bet he won’t face any charges or penalties for jeopardising not only the mission but the entire war effort
I’m enjoying “Star Trek: Discovery” far more than I expected to. I love the characters and don’t really mind its fast and loose approach to canon and continuity but I’m finding it hard to trust the writers know what they’re doing and I don’t like the stories they’re telling. It’s a problem I also had with season three of “I, Zombie” wherein I still liked all the characters, I just didn’t care at all for the story they were in. It’s sometimes unfair to judge part one of a two-part story too harshly in case the second part addresses and retrospectively mitigates the problems problematic but I’ve near no faith left in this series’ writing and, after this muddled riff on “Errand Of Mercy”, it’s just as likely the next episode could be a reimagining of “Spock’s Brain” as it will be a satisfying and exciting mid-season finale. Prove me wrong, “Star Trek: Discovery”, prove me wrong.