I’m going to say nice things about this week’s Star Trek Discovery or Die Trying S3E05 Review
At last, our long search is over and the Discovery finally arrives at Starfleet and Federation headquarters – where it turns out Starfleet has Wakanda-ed itself behind a forcefield to keep a hostile galaxy at bay. Not that “Black Panther” is the only influence on show as we arrive, as wide-eyed like the Discovery crew, at our destination because once we’re inside, it’s very, very reminiscent of the Resistance command ship in Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. Influences aside, there’s a very strong sense of the series resetting itself – again – and being determined to prove its “Star Trek” bona fides, or die trying.
Arriving at the command centre of what remains of the Federation and Starfleet, the USS Discovery receives a frosty and suspicious welcome. With the ship and crew staring down the barrel of being broken up and reassigned, it’s up to Captain Saru and Commander Burnham to convince a sceptical Starfleet Commander-in-Chief (Oded Fehr) that they can be of use despite being nearly a millennium out of date.
Early in the episode I was once struck by the lack of professionalism in Discovery’s crew, especially given its roots as a super-secret experimental science vessel. Despite their multiplicity of talents, very few of them seem to be Starfleet material, especially the bridge crew but I guess Saru can only work with what he’s got.
Last week’s BFD, Adira Tal, is sidelined pretty quickly in this episode although I very much doubt we’re done with Tal’s story, or any of the symbiote’s previous hosts quite yet. Instead, we’re presented by a hostile Starfleet run by an admiral who gives off strong ‘evil admiral’ energy, especially in his early scenes. It’s well played by Oded Fehr, who sharpens his usually easy charm, into an Omar Sharif-like intensity, although his sidekick – Lieutenant Willa (Vanessa Jackson) – is a little too archly ‘Mean Girls’ to be truly convincing. In any event, it’s a time-honoured “Star Trek” tradition for hostile admirals to be accompanied by officious hostile adjutants, especially when our heroes and their ship are undergoing inspection and evaluation. It’s basically Admiral Quinn and Commander Remick all over again – although hopefully with fewer creepy crawlies?
Speaking of inspection and evaluation, we get some fun debriefing scenes with the crew, with Tilly again, unfortunately, being saddle with a seemingly endless cycle of goofy intern nonsense and Reno (Tig Notaro) proving once again she’s by far and away the best character on the entire show. It’s Georgiou’s interrogation that provides the most intrigue, though, debriefed as she is by a magnificently impassive and sinister Kovich (David Cronenberg). It’s self-evidently an intellectual chess game between well-matched opponents and a small scene at the end of the episode leaves it tantalisingly unclear exactly who ended up in check-mate.
For a Federation and Starfleet of which Earth is no longer a member, it seems, oddly, to be predominantly run by humans but I’m sure we’ll get some more exotic characters as the series progresses. It’s also interesting that Starfleet and The Federation seem to have become indistinguishable in, and perhaps because of, their reduced circumstances. There’s certainly no indication that Admiral Vance is accountable to or must consult with the Federation President or Council in terms of what to do with the Discovery and the problems and opportunities it presents.
It’s refreshing to see the series reframe Burnham’s terrible instincts (react emotionally, disobey orders, sass superiors) against the framework of the chain of command and – not before time – good to see Saru gently rebuke her for her confrontational attitude, pointing a pathway to redemption for the character. It’s also very “Star Trek” for Burnham to then immediately be given the chance to ‘prove’ herself having been shown to be wilful and insubordinate. The thing is, when she’s actually given the command she so often exercises indirectly from other duties, she’s pretty good. She’s a bit more chummy than commanding officers usually are, but you’ve got to love the sly subtext Sonequa Martin-Green injects to the line ‘black alert’.
The quest part of the episode is pretty entertaining and although it’s blighted by yet another function for ‘Swiss Army Burnham’ as she becomes a better grief counsellor than a medical doctor who has actually died, its not as egregious because the rest of the episode is so strong. Once again, a departing character gets a backstory and strong character development as a going away present but there’s a glimmer of metatextual awareness that Nahn references ‘what Airiam and I went through’ given they’re both fleshed out just as they leave the show.
Sure, solution-wise, it’s all a bit straightforward and, in the end, easy (there’s not much dying to try, really) but it’s pure “Star Trek” – even down to the seed vault indicating which pod is needed in the showiest, most extra way possible and Lt Willa’s grudging admiration for the Discovery‘s unconventional but effective dysfunctionality is a very familiar refrain.
Atmospheric, uplifting (thanks to the frequent use of Alexander Courage’s original “Star Trek” leitmotifs) and crammed with eye candy and impressive visuals (the arrival inside the Starfleet bubble merits frame by frame analysis, not least of all for the touching tribute to Deep Space Nine’s Nog, played by Aaron Eisenberg who died last year), by the end of the episode, “Star Trek: Discovery” feels far more rooted in “Star Trek” than it ever has before.
The mystery of ‘The Burn’ remains – no quick answers there – and the Discovery returning to active duty opens up a plethora of storytelling opportunities but it’s going to annoy me if the crew don’t have new uniforms in next week’s episode. As is by now traditional, this third series is shaping up to be the strongest yet. The balance between stories of the week and season arc feels about right, the balance of characters – although still too distorted by the event horizon of focus on Burnham – is improving and I’m genuinely looking forward to the upcoming episodes.