We gave it a B-
As Star Trek: Discovery approaches its midseason finale — Sunday’s episode was the penultimate installment before it takes a break until January — the show has dabbled in plenty of the franchise’s plot staples. Discovery has devoted episodes to science and to intergalactic strife, to psychological drama and to the manipulation of time itself. But, perhaps because of the new series’ serialized nature, there hadn’t really been a disposable hour — until “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” that is. While the episode developed the plot in some significant ways, making it likely next week’s “Into the Forest I Go” will be a doozy, it wasn’t tremendously compelling in its own right.
That’s partly because the Klingons reappeared. So far, the Federation’s adversaries have proved most useful as specters lurking in the galactic background, driving the show through their mere existence. Stiff dialogue, flat performance, and a disjointed story line make scenes with characters like L’Rell and Kol a drag — and there were multiple such scenes in “Si Vis Pacem.”
At the conclusion of “Lethe,” Cornwell led a mission to Cancri IV (in Sarek’s stead) to negotiate with the Klingons, who captured her and murdered her companions. Now the admiral is imprisoned aboard the vessel of the Klingon leader Kol, whom L’Rell visits to offer her talents as an interrogator.
But L’Rell — who saved Voq from death at Kol’s hands in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” — isn’t genuine: When she enters Cornwell’s cell, the Klingon says she wishes to defect and proposes that she and Cornwell escape. The plan goes awry when Kol and a companion see L’Rell and Cornwell walking through the ship’s halls — and to dispel suspicion, L’Rell murders Cornwell. L’Rell drags Cornwell’s corpse to an adjacent room, where she discovers corpses of some of her Klingon allies and swears vengeance upon Kol.
Later, when L’Rell meets with Kol aboard the Klingon vessel’s bridge, the leader chastises her for being “reckless” with their Federation prisoner. L’Rell swears fealty, but Kol sees through her deceit, instructing his minions to “show her how House Kor treats liars.”
In prior installments, thrilling Discovery stories have offset inert Klingon plots. But “Si Vis Pacem” mostly sidelines some of Discovery‘s most compelling characters — Lorca, Stamets, Tilly, and Culber — in favor of a mission on the planet Pahvo. As Terral, the Vulcan admiral, explains to Lorca at the outset, after a particularly bloody day for the Federation, the mission is of utmost importance. Fine — but that doesn’t mean it makes for great TV.
Burnham, Tyler, and Saru have descended upon Pahvo to harness what they believe to be a crystal structure that’s a naturally occurring transmitter. By modifying its electromagnetic frequency, Starfleet hopes to use the structure to detect Klingon vessels cloaked in invisibility.
Predictably, things don’t go as planned. The Discovery crew thinks Pahvo is uninhabited, but they’re greeted by peculiar, amorphous beings — whom Starfleet’s technology doesn’t register as lifeforms. Saru, a self-described “first contact specialist,” initiates a dialogue with the Pahvans, creating a hairy situation: As Burnham explains, now that they’ve revealed themselves to these sentient beings, they can’t borrow or alter any Pahvan property without receiving consent — including the transmitter they wish to harness.
Initially, that doesn’t seem like it’ll be much of a problem. Saru laments that establishing a vocabulary with the Pahvans has been difficult, but remains optimistic. And in the evening, after Tyler shares his hopes of returning to Lake Shasta, going sailing, and catching fresh trout for Burnham, the two kiss. The whole thing feels like a cosmic campout.
But while Tyler and Burnham sleep, the planet’s noise overcomes Saru, who leaves their shelter. The Pahvans permeate him, and he has a strange dreamlike experience. The next morning, he’s chipper — but takes Burnham and Tyler’s communicators and smashes them, explaining that the Pahvans “have already achieved everything we say we seek through our exploratory and diplomatic efforts.” Saru’s been co-opted by the aliens and has determined the trio isn’t leaving the planet.
In response, Tyler — who asserts his status as commanding officer, now that Saru is incapacitated — instructs Burnham to proceed with the mission to harness the transmitter. She slips away to do so as Tyler distracts Saru, but the science officer sees through Tyler’s ruse and tracks down Burnham. They engage in combat until the Pahvans mysteriously transport Tyler to the transmitter’s site and offer to facilitate communication with Discovery. Saru urges them not to, because they could invite Klingon retribution, but Burnham convinces them otherwise.
Once they’re back aboard Discovery, Burnham talks to Saru, who is no longer under Pahvan influence. The Kelpian explains that he’d “never known a moment without fear” and the freedom associated with that until he melded with the Pahvans. The overwhelming relief was irresistible for him.
As the episode’s Latin title suggests — it translates as “If you want peace, prepare for war” — the Federation’s efforts were futile. The Pahvans try to “bring harmony to discord” at every turn and, as the episode concludes, it’s revealed that they’ve sent a beacon to attract the Klingons. The Pahvans seem inclined to facilitate peace negotiations between the two warring sides — even if such an outcome is more or less unfathomable.
Burnham explains the stakes to Lorca: Discovery is the only real defense the Pahvans have, so the ship must protect the alien planet. As Kol’s ship beams into the planet’s orbit, the credits roll.
With the midseason finale due next week, plenty hangs in the balance. In the short term, how will Discovery fare in battle with Kol? But more generally, what will come of the ship’s spore drive, which has played such a central role so far? In a maddeningly brief scene that’s left unresolved, Tilly confronts Stamets about the toll the drive has taken on him. He explains that the physical cost has been significant, but that he’s kept the health ramifications from Culber, who is both his partner and the ship’s medic. Should Stamets’ ability to power the ship’s spore drive dissipate — particularly as Discovery engages in a key battle with Kol — things could get nasty in a hurry.
Even if “Si Vis Pacem” didn’t live up to the high standard Discovery has established thus far, it set the stage for an explosive installment next week — and, if the season’s track record serves as any indication, the show should capitalize on the drama.