Previously, on “Star Trek: Discovery”:
And…we’re back. It’s been, what? Nine weeks since we left our heroes stranded amidst Klingon debris in a mysterious galactic location and you know what? I’d be lying if I said I’d given it much thought since the midseason cliff-hanger. True, in its absence, I’ve been watching Seth MacFarlane’s “The Orville” (which is scratching that Trek itch that “Star Trek: Discovery” just hasn’t been able to reach) and I’ve started a rewatch of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” but the return, although a pleasant one, came as a surprise because what I haven’t been doing is counting the days until the show returned.
With Stamets incapacitated and incoherent, the crew struggle to find out exactly where they are. As their systems slowly recalibrate themselves, it becomes clear that the Discovery has spore-jumped into an alternative universe*. They soon discover that this universe is a dark mirror to the one they know, with the benevolent Federation replaced by a xenophobic totalitarian Terran Empire.
Directed by Jonathan Frakes, “Despite Yourself” doesn’t need two takes to get down to what “Star Trek: Discovery” apparently does best, or at least most: lots of talking. There’s a flurry of technobabble to begin the episode as the writers seek to catch any Trek neophytes up with what veteran fans already know (*We, the viewers, know it as the Mirror Universe, which has featured in three out of the five previous “Star Trek” series). There’s some good stuff between Dr Culber and Captain Lorca, though, and then we finally get some action as the crew try to recover what amounts to a “Star Trek” box set from the nearby wreckage. For this routine mission, they select the ship’s Chief of Security. It’s the first sign of the dire threat which lurks, undetected, at the heart of Discovery’s crew; the insidious enemy within that nobody is yet alert to. I’m not talking about Tyler being Voq – which is so blatant now that if it somehow turns out not to be true it will be even worse than it being so ham-fistedly spoiled by the production themselves thanks to a cast listing – no, I’m talking about Discovery’s crippling crew shortage. This highly experimental, top-secret ship is so sparsely crewed that, apart from the bridge, nearly all other vital areas are left critically understaffed, if not completely unmanned. It’s the only explanation for Lorca to turn such an indulgently blind eye to Tyler’s performance. The failure to relieve Tyler of duty just based on his obvious problems is the worst, most reckless thing Lorca has so far done. Mind you, his most senior officers are fully aware of issues with Tyler and have said nothing. Burnham, never your most reliable decision maker, decides to cover up for Tyler’s obvious PTSD despite it being the worst possible thing for him and for his shipmates. Funny thing, love. Even Saru, never one to knowingly keep his opinions to himself, doesn’t remark on the fact that Tyler’s entrance to the bridge prompts his threat ganglia to wave hello.
Perhaps the staff shortages in security, medical and other departments is caused by the assignment of nearly everyone else to Discovery’s graphic design and tailoring departments given the speed with which the crew and ship are given a complete makeover?
The ‘Mirror Universe’ has always been one of Trek’s most fun tropes because we get to see everyone play ‘opposite day’. But once again, Discovery’s setting works against it. Because it’s a prequel, it’s beholden to the TOS’ Mirror Universe adventure, so it’s pretty much just cosplay, really. “Deep Space Nine” at least had the freedom to expand and extrapolate the Mirror Universe. Not that the cosplay isn’t entertaining. Tilly finally gets something to do, posing as her ruthless Mirror Universe counterpart and there’s some terrifically tense drama as Lorca, Burnham and *sigh* Tyler infiltrate the ISS Shenzhou. If the episode had left it at that, it would have been terrific. But this is “Star Trek: Discovery” so it has to do something edgy and extreme to show how grown up and mature it is, like a 16 year old bluffing their way into a nightclub.
This time, it’s poor Doctor Culber that’s sacrificed at the altar of shock value, although it’s hardly a surprise as his fate is sealed as soon as he promises Stamets he’s not going anywhere. It’s particularly egregious to see Discovery lean into the ‘bury your gays’ trope after going so boldy and braving such flak for including the couple. That it comes at the hands of Tyler is simply annoying, especially as Culber is made to explain, at length, how fully he was evaluated when he returned to the ship. There’s so much narrative contrivance in play to make Tyler’s plot work that everything about it feels cheap and forced. Again, the ridiculous understaffing comes into play. I can’t think of another ship in any iteration of Trek where a murder in a main area of the ship would be able to be carried out without causing any kind of alert or alarm. That Tyler has time to change and get to the transporter room beggars belief.
It’s a gratuitous, sour note in an otherwise pretty good episode, albeit an episode that once again is all set-up and kicks the pay-off can down the road for next week to deal with. Burnham is at the centre of the action again this week, but she’s starting to look a little dull next to the complex backstories and mysteries swirling around her crewmates. Despite the drama and intrigue it promises, the episode limps to a cliff-hanger which just kind of sits there until the end credits roll. There’s no real stinger and it comes as a bit of a surprise when the first credit appears.
“Star Trek: Discovery” keeps flirting with greatness but the writing keeps getting in its way. It’s still relatively early days and with another full season to come after this slightly experimental, faltering first year, there’s every change “Discovery” will manage to succeed, despite itself.