Apologies for the delay in getting this review out there, but as I was writing, it started out as one thing and sort became something else as I went along. Not unlike “Star Trek: Discovery”, actually, but we’ll get to that in due time. In the meantime, let’s go into the woods today: we’re sure of a big surprise.
With the Klingon Ship Of The Dead en route to Pahvo, Starfleet orders Discovery to withdraw to Federation space to protect its most valuable asset. Lorca, however, has other ideas and tasks his crew with coming up with a way to neutralise the Klingons’ cloaking technology so they can defend the peaceful inhabitants of Pahvo instead of abandoning them to the mercy of the Klingons. As the plan comes together, it’s clear it will come at great personal risk – to more than one crew member.
As predicted, Saru’s mutiny and attempt to maroon his crew mates from last week goes unpunished and unmentioned (even in the ‘Previously’ recap), making Burnham’s punishment seem even more disproportionate than it already did. In fact, much of the meat of the previous episode’s plot is jettisoned and never mentioned again save for the need to protect the innocent inhabitants from the inevitable Klingon wrath. Fortunately, “Star Trek: Discovery”’s biggest problem – its inconsistent writing and characterisation – becomes its saving grace in this mid-season finale (in a broken clock being right twice a day sort of way) and delivers us the most authentically “Star Trek”-y episode of the series to date.
The opening scene of the episode proper is, if I recall correctly, the very first time we have seen the entire principal cast on the bridge at the same time. It’s a little, magical moment of Trek goodness to see the crew working together with a dynamic not driven by bitterness, secrets and lies. Granted, it’s more than a little convenient that they manage to devise a plan to penetrate the Klingon technology within the space of a couple of hours when Starfleet’s entire cadre of scientists have been working at the problem for months but that much is par for the course aboard starships which have their own TV series.
Anthony Rapp (Stamets) again provides the emotional core of this episode, both in the poignant glimpses into his relationship with Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) and his willingness to risk so much for both the good of the crew and the Federation. Captain Lorca, on the other hand, shines in moments where we see the man he was before the loss of his previous ship and crew scarred and hardened him, allowing a shaft of nobility and honour to shine through his pragmatic and amoral facade. Whether or not even this was arch manipulation and low cunning is a debate to be had in a few episodes’ time but for now, his better instincts seemed to override his usual approach. The inexplicably-not-in-the-brig Saru gets to do his science officer thing and analyse data but given the stakes and the riskiness of the mission to come, his threat ganglia are once again conspicuous by their absence. If Tyler had threat ganglia, though, they would have been Mexican waving or doing the Macarena throughout this episode as his mission to infiltrate the Klingon vessel brings back a whole host of traumatic memories.
Ironically, as this complex and exciting plan to take down the Klingons comes together, it becomes apparent there’s nothing for our ‘lead character’ to actually do. Because the series is stuck with the declaration that it has a lead character, it has to place her in the middle of all the action and so she throws a strop until Lorca capitulates and lets her go with Tyler on the away mission. There’s no real reason for her to go or stay on the ship but the story needs her to be aboard the Klingon ship so that’s what the characters do. Of course, Tyler needs to go because it’s an irresistible opportunity to revisit the is-he-isn’t-he question of whether or not he’s an imposter. Whatever happens in the rest of the series, I hope they can stick the landing of the Tyler/ L’Rell plotline in a way that doesn’t end up making one or more other characters look like idiots. In amongst all this jockeying for narrative position, it’s also easy to overlook the last remaining main cast member, but that’s because the Wesleyfication of Tilly is almost complete. After being introduced in a flurry of excitable idiosyncrasies, the series has failed to do anything at all interesting with the character or her potential and she’s been reduced to the equivalent of an engineering version of Nurse Chapel, simply there to pass other characters the tool they need. It’s a shame and a waste that the series seriously needs to address before the season is done.
Perhaps Tilly could have been in charge of prepping the equipment for the mission because as it is, Tyler and Burnham seem to decide to bring with them Starfleet’s noisiest secret sensor pods: bleeping drum-like devices with conspicuous flashing lights that loudly announce their connection to Discovery’s computers. Luckily, the Klingons are too busy standing around making pronouncements to each other to notice their ship has been boarded and is suddenly filled with bleeping, flashing, taking Starfleet equipment. Perhaps if the bridge of the Ship Of The Dead wasn’t designed like a Trump-commissioned, HR Geiger-designed hotel lobby and had a few more duty stations, they wouldn’t have been taken so unawares. Arguably the reinvention of the Klingons has been the least successful aspect of “Star Trek: Discovery”. Cosmetically, great effort has been put into giving them a distinctively different look but everything about it screams impracticality and it shows in the performer’s movements and speech. Repeatedly shown to be all mouth and no trousers, their scenes have been dull and dialogue heavy drama-free zones. Hopefully, the death of Kol and the destruction of the Ship Of The Dead will rid us of the need to continually revisit the tedious horse-trading of Klingon politics which makes “The Phantom Menace” look like “House Of Cards”.
Now it might sound as though I didn’t care for this episode very much and that’s not true. It was exciting, action-packed, intelligent and possibly the season’s best so far. It’s just that it doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the episodes before it. It just seems like “Star Trek: Discovery” can’t get out of its own way and realise its full potential. It’s spent its first nine episodes focussing on a tedious war with the Klingons that’s lacked potency, drama or any kind of significant threat given how infrequently our characters have encountered it directly. This overarching arc hangs like an albatross around the whole series and, in nine episodes, the crew have encountered precisely two new life forms, one of which they tortured and enslaved, the other they asked to ‘borrow their phone’. By this point, TOS had encountered salt vampires, telekinetic teens, evil duplicates and *ahem* Harry Mudd, TNG had encountered Q, the Ferengi and a host of new aliens and new phenomena and Voyager had started to explore an entirely new quadrant of the galaxy. Even Deep Space Nine had encountered The Prophets, Tosk and murderous clones by this point in their first series. Given its unparalleled mobility, it’s ironic indeed that Discovery continues to feel the most static of all the franchises. The camerawork and direction are conspicuously modern and kinetic and swoopy but it’s all to disguise the fact we’re invariably on one starship set or another.
It’s made much worse by the fact that in the background, fascinating character-driven stuff is happening. It’s like “Star Trek: Discovery” is making the same fundamental mistake that “Star Wars” did with its own prequels: the original succeed because they are the stories of a group of characters told against the backdrop of vast, galactic events. The prequels, on the other hand, are the story of vast galactic events told against a backdrop of a handful of characters. The characters of “Star Trek: Discovery” are some of the finest ever created for a Trek series – and a billion light years better than the anodyne non-entities of “Star Trek: Enterprise” – so why side-line them in favour of a story arc that adds very little to canon or story?
I’m hoping this mid-season cliff-hanger may prove to be something of a watershed for the series and it will be interesting to see if the Klingon War is pushed into the background or just fades away entirely as the crew of the Discovery figure out where they are and how to get back. It certainly gives the writers the opportunity to pivot the series and settle into a more consistent style of storytelling, preferably one without the need to drop the occasional f-bomb or gratuitous Klingon nudity to show you just how edgy they can be free of the constraints of network television. If they continue writing the characters in the way they did in this episode (albeit giving Tilly much more development) and focus less on the arc than they do on the episode, then I can see a path through the forest they’ve lost themselves in that will lead them to a truly great “Star Trek” series.