NEW YEAR, NEW SPOILERS
I know that some of you out there read my editorial reviews either before or instead of watching STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. This time, please take my word for it: don’t. Watch the episode first. And if you don’t usually watch Discovery or gave up on it (and if you have access), just watch this one episode. You don’t need to have watched the rest of the series or even the third season. This episode provides enough exposition along the way that you won’t feel lost.
It’s just a damn fine, exciting, fast-paced, engaging, well-crafted, and most of all highly entertaining piece of television that is loaded with surprises and the unexpected. So just watch it…trust me.
In fact, “unexpected” serves a very appropriate way to begin this blog because, even though I usually try hard to go into each new episode of Discovery open to anything and with no preconceived expectations, this time I was sooooo sure I knew what was coming! This would be Discovery‘s version of the TNG episode “Starship Mine.” Tilly, reeling from her dismal failure during her first command, would need all the help and hugs her bridge crew friends could give her as she proved herself by leading a successful plan to retake the ship. I was even thinking of titling this blog “How Tilly Got Her Groove Back”—that is, until I actually saw the episode.
From the first moment, the episode had me hooked with things I didn’t see coming. Using Discovery as a Trojan Horse to get inside Starfleet’s defense shield by “coming in hot,” being fired on by Osyraa’s dreadnought, communications jammed…brilliantly simple and simply brilliant! But then, as Book and Michael crashed into the hangar bay in the nick of time, I thought: “Wait, what about Discovery‘s shields? They were being fired on, why wouldn’t the shields be up?” So then I thought I’d write another nitpicking blog…those are always popular on Facebook! (Actually, I’m being sarcastic. My Guardian of Forever “Time Error” blog was royally bashed on Facebook.)
But then we came back after the opening credits to see this little nugget…
Award a point to the writers for addressing my gripe so quickly!
Okay, with my nitpicking nullified, I decided to just sit back, enjoy the episode, and write the blog later—and so I did. This was the seventh episode of the series and third this season directed by JONATHAN FRAKES, and I must say, the man knows what he’s doing. The episode was written by co-executive producer KENNETH LIN. Interestingly, Lin wrote and Frakes directed the 8th episode of the season, “Sanctuary,” where the crew goes back to Book’s home planet. Most fans found that episode somewhat mediocre (including me), but this episode was much the opposite, demonstrating that you can’t just an episode simply by the writer and director. Sometimes magic just happens.
Let’s look at how…
ALL STORY—NO BLOODY “A,” “B,” “C,” OR “D”
Usually on television (especially Star Trek), you get an A-story, which is the main plot of an episode, a B-story that’s a little less important, and sometimes a more minor C and possibly D-story. This time, there was such an alphabet of stories that everything stood out as potentially the most important. There was no point in the episode where I was thinking, “Oh, get back to the main storyline already because I’m not interested in this plot line.” I was interested in everything that was shown to me…and always for different and very engaging reasons:
- Will Admiral Vance fall for Osyraa’s ruse? (Almost!)
- Will Michael and Book make it onto Discovery in time? (Of course, but how suspenseful!)
- Zareh’s back, and he’s picking on Tilly.
- Stamets and the Emerald Chain’s scientist bonding over children and opera!
- Michael Burnham as Bruce Willis in Die Hard. (Yippee-ki-yay!)
- Vance and Osyraa negotiate an armistice. (Don’t do it, Chuck!)
- The prisoners plan their escape. (We knew thew they would!)
- Osyraa is telling the truth! (But we still don’t trust her!)
- Zareh gets the upper hand on Burnham! (Then Burnham turns the tables!)
- The prisoners have a plan to retake the ship !(Go, bridge crew, go!)
- Michael “saves” Stamets. (Then neck pinches and jettisons him!)
- Osyraa shows her true colors. (She’s a scorpion, people!)
- Tilly’s new DOT-bot army. (And THAT’S what I call a cliff-hanger!)
So let’s unpack some of this…
AND THE AWARD FOR BEST ADMIRAL GOES TO…
Let’s face it, Star Trek has had its fair share of admirals who were bad apples (and now we know what apples are made of!). So in the back of my head—and even sometimes in the front—I suspected that Vance might not be as noble as he seemed. But lord a’mighty, he’s actually all righty!!!
Vance shows in this episode that he’s truly a good man with the best interests of the Federation at heart. Osyraa’s offer actually makes a lot of sense. And if the Emerald Chain is willing to (eventually but soon) give up slavery and truly try to reform itself, then the union of their commerce with the Federation’s compassion might actually be good for the galaxy. Of course, can you truly have commerce without greed, and won’t greed always lead to haves and have-nots? Who cares about the Burn, feel the Bern!!! (Okay, I admit that I’ve been waiting all season to make that political pun…just needed the right set-up.)
But all punning aside, though, we fans know the truth—at least as far as the Federation is concerned. GENE RODDENBERRY always dreamed of a future utopia without hunger or poverty, and that meant no money (or at least everyone having enough). So we just know in our Trekkie heart of hearts that, despite Osyraa carefully not lying in front of Eli the e-lie detector, that she’s up to something. It all sounds too good to be true. But then, even Admiral Vance seems to be slowly coming around. Osyraa is mesmerizing as only Orion females know how to be. Maybe this alliance is the right thing, after all?
In the best Star Trek episodes, Kirk or Picard or Sisko or Janeway or Archer is offered a deal that’ll cost them their soul—a bite at the forbidden apple, as it were (hmmmm, I wonder if that’s why they had an apple in that scene!). And their struggle with temptation and ultimate decision helps define them as characters and leaders. Kirk won’t give up his pain to Sybok. Janeway says no to a way back to the Alpha Quadrant. And yet, Sisko accepts Garak’s help to trick the Romulans into joining the alliance against the Dominion. Some will sell their soul, some won’t. What will Vance do?
Ultimately, Vance asks Osyraa the one question she can’t lie her way out of, and the spell is suddenly broken. She will not consent to facing justice. Vance might be tempted by Osyraa’s offer, but not at the cost of giving her a free pass for her heinous crimes. Justice is too important to both Vance and the Federation. And in fact, this is a tenet that Star Trek has been founded on for 54 years. Discovery, I think, lost its way in the first two seasons, and it may have taken the show 930 years, but they’ve finally RE-discovered what this show and this United Federation of Planets is truly about. Bravo!
A REALLY GOOD VILLAIN
Last week, I talked about what makes a really good, really effective villain (both in Star Trek and in general). Here’s what I said:
[S]adistic intentions, the upper hand, and arrogance—(over)confident in the certainty that they can and will win, relishing the inevitability of their victory, and most of all, gloating with sinister satisfaction over their helpless adversary. Mercy isn’t an option, and any that might be offered would be suspect anyway.
With Osyraa off the ship and trying to look as trustworthy and sympathetic as the writers can make her (without being totally convincing but getting as close as possible), the villainous Osyraa from the previous episode must remain hidden away. This means, however, that we still need a villain—a Hans Gruber to face off against Burnham’s John McClane (Die Hard reference)—and thanks to “nobody ever really dies in sci-fi” writing, we see the return of space-mafia cappo Zareh from the second episode of season 3, played with Al Pacino-like perfection by actor JAKE WEBER.
Zareh checks all the villain boxes: sadistic intentions, the upper hand, and arrogance. He starts off by taunting Tilly and hitting her right where it hurts…
And even though he orders the goon squad not to harm the hostages in any way, his sadistic intentions come through loud and clear both when he belts Book as well as a short time later when he plays cat-and-mouse with marauder-Michael…
By making Zareh so wonderfully loathable (we love to hate him), it becomes even more satisfying when Michael surprises him and gets a pretty significant victory when she spaces his goons and then picks up a communicator and says, “Hey, Zareh, you’re gonna need more regulators.” Taunting the taunter is one of the most cheer-worthy moments of fighting the gloating bad-guy. Remember such memorable Star Trek moments as “Khan, I’m laughing at the superior intellect…” or “Sorry about your crew, but as we say on Earth, c’est la vie.” Sure, gloating is something the bad guys do, but as long as THEY start it, then the hero is just giving them a bitter taste of their own medicine.
By the way, more kudos to the writers for having Michael finish the mission in her bare feet. BRUCE WILLIS spent most of Die Hard walking and climbing through that building with no shoes. So the writers were graciously tipping their space-hat to those who blazed the trail. Also, props for a very clever way for Michael to get out of an “impossible” situation by setting off the fire alarm…extremely suspenseful and brilliantly executed!
WHAT’S GONNA WORK? TEAMWORK!
As I said, I wen t into this episode expecting it to be a Tilly episode where she starts off miserable and mopey and slowly works her confidence back up to lead her friends and crew mates to victory. This didn’t happen at all. Tilly had her “big girl” pants on from the first moment we saw her, even though we could tell it was taking every last ounce of willpower keeping those pants from being soiled. And applause to MARY WISEMAN for making Tilly’s terror so palpable while still putting on a “fearless” face.
Some reviewers have criticized this choice as missing an opportunity to develop Tilly’s character by having her defeated and humiliated and then showing her climb back up out of that emotional abyss. I totally disagree. I think that this was the true opportunity to develop Tilly’s character. When faced with every reason for self-pity, Tilly doesn’t indulge the temptation and instead keeps her pre-replicated matter together (see what I did there?). In other words, Saru was right to make Tilly his Number One because, when the going got tough, Tilly didn’t falter.
But the other aspect of the hostage scenes that I appreciated was that the whole bridge crew got to shine in the overpowering the regulator guards. Rhys and Bryce started the distraction, then the rest of the crew quickly understood the ruse, and suddenly it was clobberin’ time. Sure Michael was going full commando, but at least in this episode, she didn’t single-handedly save the day.
And once again, cheers to the writer(s) for coming up with a super-clever way for the hostages to mask their life signs as they try to retake the ship. While I was already too “in the moment” to keep up my search for nits to pick, it seemed like a pretty obvious obstacle to overcome mounting an attempt to retake the ship when the sensors can detect where every body is. So if you can’t deactivate the sensors, then overload them with data from the last three months…yes!!!
ABOUT THAT EMERALD CHAIN SCIENTIST
A lot has been made this season about Discovery bringing on two actors with outside-the-“norm” genders: BLU DEL BARRIO (who identifies as neither male nor female) and IAN ALEXANDER (who is transgender). Co-showrunner and executive producer MICHELLE PARADISE said in a recent interview, “Star Trek has always made a mission of giving visibility to underrepresented communities…” Well, this episode, that visibility extended to an actor in a wheelchair.
KENNETH MITCHELL has had a successful acting career spanning over two decades. In fact, he’s had previous roles on both Star Trek: Discovery (the Klingon Kol in season one and Kol-Sha and Tenavik in season two) as well as voicing a couple of characters in the Lower Decks episode “Veritas.” But in 2018, Kenneth was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the same condition that ultimately forced STEPHEN HAWKING into a wheelchair after being diagnosed with the illness in 1963 at the age of 21.
Kenneth has been in a motorized wheelchair since 2019, at the still-young age of 45. He has a loving wife and two children aged 13 and 8, and he is still vital and trying to live life to the fullest. But Kenneth can no longer walk, which makes it difficult to be hired for an acting role outside of voice-over. So let’s hear it for the folks at Star Trek: Discovery for creating a character for Kenneth to play who is believably immobile: the Emerald Chain scientist Aurellio, who has a significant part to play, it seems, in both the machinations of Osyraa as well as (possibly) her defeat. Say all the negative things you want about this show, but at least give them credit for this.
IF YOU HAVE TO SACRIFICE SOMEBODY…
Ah, Ryn, we barely knew ye! Actually, actor NOAH AVERBACH-KATZ is probably one of the biggest Trekkies in the cast, having gone to countless Trek conventions as a child with his Trekkie mom. He actually auditioned for the role of Spock on Discovery (a part ultimately given to ETHAN PECK), but he still managed to stick around because he’s married to Mary (“Tilly”) Wiseman. In fact, Noah actually runs a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for Discovery cast members ANTHONY (“Stamets”) RAPP, EMILY (“Detmer”) COUTTS, along with wife Mary and “youngsters” Blu and Ian. So now you know who the real nerds are.
The frustrating thing about powerful storytelling is that usually, in order for victory to be truly “earned,” there’s supposed to be a heroic sacrifice of some kind. Star Trek had it with the death of Spock, the destruction of the Enterprise (twice), the death of Data, and (rather frustratingly, since it was really done clumsily) Trip Tucker at the end of Star Trek: Enterprise. This time, the sacrificial lamb-hero was the Andorian Ryn, played by Noah. Considering how “important” everyone else is, it didn’t really surprise me that Ryn is out, despite liking how his character has developed. However, Noah was also under a LOT of make-up, and remember that this show is not above bringing back the same actor multiple times in different roles.
STAMETS GETS HIS MOMENT, TOO!
In an episode so filled with action, excitement, intrigue, subterfuge, and tension, it’s almost impossible to believe they could have squeezed anything else into it! But Anthony Rapp got more dramatic, character-developing scenes this episode than he has all season! And Anthony made the most of it, turning in some masterful performances while essentially as immobile actor Kenneth Mitchell, whom Anthony was playing against. Then, once Michael broke the handcuffs, Stamets flew into action, and that was one intense sequence! I have to say that I did NOT see the neck pinch coming, and it was beautifully executed as a scene.
Now, I will also say that I’m not entirely convinced that Michael was right to get Stamets off the ship. Like Paul, I’m not thrilled with the idea of leaving Saru, Dr. Hugh, and Adira to die in radioactive agony. But I guess that was the point of the scene. Would Michael take the compassionate path or put the needs of the many (not letting the Emerald Chain get the spore drive and destroy the Federation) over the needs of the few (the landing party) or the one (Paul)? It was a VERY uncomfortable and controversial scene, and it could have major repercussions for the Paul/Michael relationship going forward.
TWO CLIFFHANGERS IN A ROW???
And speaking of going forward, just as I was about to hit “pause” to see how many minutes of the episode were left, we see the DOT-bots pop up in front of Tilly and her posse. Now, I realize that the DOTs are cute as heck and are probably more suited for a Disney/Pixar movie than Star Trek, but I really don’t care. I’ve been waiting for the return of Zora the sphere-data-computer-entity-thingie for half a season! Now, I realize that sentient shipboard computers are nothing new in sci-fi, but they’re pretty rare in Star Trek…and certainly on starships. So color me intrigued by this “new character.”
But what really got me about the ending was the courage the producers had in NOT resolving the main problem—that Discovery is still under Osyraa’s control—and moving that plot forward into the season finale. Also, it was gutsy to completely leave out Saru, Culber, and Adira, considering how compelling their predicament is, as well. But with so much else going on, squeezing them into this episode would have been totally unwieldy.
So instead, we have a true 3-parter to end season 3. Altogether, it’ll time out to about two-and-a-quarter hours of continuous Star Trek story…the length of a full feature film! There’s no doubt that this season is their strongest so far, but they are also ending with some of their best material yet. Let’s hope they can keep it up for one more episode!