The Discovery faces a new paradigm as it embarks on the second half of its debut season.
Credit: CBS
Star Trek: Discovery

The U.S.S. Discovery returned Sunday night after nearly two months away — for viewers, at least. At the end of midseason finale “Into the Forest I Go,” the crew had notched a major tactical victory against the Klingons and deployed the controversial spore drive a final time to travel to Starbase 46 with a coveted Klingon cloak-breaking algorithm in hand. But Lt. Stamets convulsed while facilitating the jump, leaving Discovery adrift in a mysterious chunk of space with no Federation outpost in sight.

“Despite Yourself” explains that absence: Discovery has crossed into a parallel universe where the Federation doesn’t exist. But while it’s unfamiliar territory for the ship’s crew, the alternate reality has appeared in iterations of Star Trek since the franchise debuted in the ’60s.

Before Discovery premiered in September, its creators told EW that the show would allegorically tackle contemporary political issues through the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. However, the decision to revisit the Terran Empire — which Spc. Michael Burnham describes in “Despite Yourself” as “an oppressive, racist, xenophobic culture that dominates all known space” — marks a bolder, more effective attempt to achieve political resonance. As some decry an alleged global rise in fascism, it’s savvy for Discovery to revisit the fascistic, human-only organization that Trek first deployed in 1967’s “Mirror, Mirror,” just over two decades after the conclusion of the Second World War.

The crew doesn’t immediately realize where they’ve arrived, of course. Upon completion of their ill-fated jump, Capt. Gabriel Lorca and his colleagues have little time to process the wreckage of a Klingon ship that surrounds them before a Vulcan vessel appears and opens fire. What the Discovery believes to be the U.S.S. Cooper soon arrives and neutralizes the threat. “Spooked by rebels, Discovery?” its captain inquires via an audio-only transmission. “You’re losing your edge.”

Off the bridge, Lorca explains to Burnham and Cdr. Saru that he and Stamets had suspected the mycelial network could lead to parallel universes. The 133 spore drive jumps Discovery has taken, he estimates, “filled in the gaps” and made travel to such an alternate reality possible. To begin to grasp their surroundings, Lorca sends Lt. Ash Tyler on an exploratory mission to retrieve a data core from the Klingon wreckage.

Upon its retrieval, Burnham analyzes the core and learns about the Terran Empire. The existence of the human-only organization explains certain inconsistencies — like why Vulcan and Andorian bodies littered the Klingon wreckage. In this universe, alien species have allied to fight back at the oppressive human regime.

The episode gets a little whimsical from there. When the Cooper reappears and opens a communication line with Discovery, Burnham prevents Lorca from speaking because in the Terran Empire, he isn’t the ship’s captain. Awkward, oversharing Cadet Sylvia Tilly occupies that role, and is forced to masquerade. “What the heck! Hold your horses!” she exclaims in a hilarious scene before handing off to Lorca who, in an homage to Scotty, pretends to be the ship’s Scottish engineer.

In order to pass as Terrans while they figure out a way home, the crew rebrands. “To successfully crash a party you have to look like you belong,” Lorca explains in a voice-over. “You must project confidence. Every detail of this so-called Terran Empire must be replicated exactly — and where we may fall short, we have to get creative.”

The subsequent transformation is a little far-fetched — beyond renaming themselves the I.S.S. Discovery, the crew does things like renovating the bridge’s interior and making replica Terran uniforms — but also thrilling. Going off rebel intelligence, Burnham explains to Tilly that to Terrans she’s a ruthless captain known by monikers like “the Slayer of Sorna Prime,” “the Witch of Wurna Minor,” and “Captain Killy.”

But if Tilly’s captain, what does that make Lorca and Burnham? As Burnham tells Lorca, they’re crucial players in the Terran Empire. Or, were. The Terran Lorca initiated a rebellion against the despotic emperor, killed Terran Burnham when she attempted to intervene, and struck out on the lam. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Lorca tells Burnham as the duo gazes out at the stars. “Different universe, but somehow the same people had a way to find each other. The strongest argument I’ve ever seen for the existence of destiny.”

Other destinies continue to unfold elsewhere on Discovery throughout the episode. A cloudy-eyed Stamets spends nearly the entire episode unresponsive in the sick bay as doctor and lover Lt. Cdr. Hugh Culber cares for him. Lorca visits Culber to apologize for ordering Stamets to make excessive numbers of spore drive jumps — but when Culber suggests Stamets’ “well-being falls to me now,” the captain informs him that he’s ordered another doctor to handle the case, as “medicine requires professional objectivity.” Culber flags Lorca’s hypocrisy: “Suddenly you care about protocol?”

Meanwhile, Tyler visits the still-imprisoned L’Rell, who was both his lover and torturer while he was in Klingon captivity, in the brig to inquire about his increasing bouts of PTSD. The Klingon convinces Tyler to release her; when he does, she begins to speak in her native tongue and triggers Tyler to respond to her in Klingon. “What did you do to me?” he says when he snaps out of it. “I’m not myself.” As L’Rell laments that the prayer she uttered hasn’t worked as planned, Tyler locks her back up.

Despite temporarily holding off L’Rell and her mind games, Tyler eventually succumbs. He visits sick bay later in the episode to ask Culber if the doctor can identify any odd experiments the Klingons may have performed while he was in captivity. When Tyler leaves, Stamets has a moment of clarity where he warns Culber, “Be careful, the enemy is here.” The caution’s warranted. Upon Tyler’s return, Culber tells the security officer that the Klingons performed “bone-crushing” procedures on him that have transformed him both mentally and physically — and Tyler snaps his neck. While it’s unfortunate that Stamets and Culber, two of Discovery‘s most compelling characters, appear to have been sidelined (at least for the time being), those plot developments have given the show some real stakes.

After offing Culber, Tyler arrives at the transporter chamber, where he meets Lorca and Burnham. The trio’s preparing to transport to the I.S.S. Shenzhou after concocting an elaborate plan. As Lorca and Burnham explain to Saru, they’ve discovered that another Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Defiant, previously stumbled into the Terran universe. (Trekkers know this story from Enterprise‘s “In a Mirror, Darkly” arc.) By accessing Terran databases, they can ascertain how the Defiant returned to its proper timeline. How to do that? A risky gambit where the presumably dead Burnham returns to the Shenzhou — a ship she’s the captain of in the Terran Empire — with the “captured” traitor Lorca. A better-prepared Tilly initiates contact with the ship and its new captain, Danby Connor (Sam Vartholomeos), to set the plan in motion.

Once she transports aboard the Shenzhou with Lorca and Tyler, Burnham asserts her dominance over Connor, per Terran custom, refusing to let the officer or his crew take possession of Lorca lest they take credit for the fugitive’s capture to curry the emperor’s favor. She intends the move to protect Lorca from excessive Terran torture, though even she can’t figure out a believable reason to spare her companion from “the finest agonizer booth” the Shenzhou has to offer. And when Burnham finds herself alone in an elevator with Connor, he attempts to murder her to solidify his command and the fealty of his underlings. In a harrowing scene, Burnham kills him in defense — and when the door opens to the bridge, Connor’s dead body falls to the floor as Shenzhou’s officers begin to chant, “Long live Capt. Burnham! Long live the Empire!”

The episode ends in this dystopian gray space. Tyler visits Burnham in her quarters aboard the Shenzhou, and she tells him she hasn’t yet found an opportune time to research the Defiant. Unaware that he’s compromised by the Klingons, she begins to make out with Tyler as the show cuts to a final scene of Lorca in an agonizer booth.

While “Despite Yourself” went heavy on exposition, it provided some promising strands for the forthcoming five episodes that’ll conclude Discovery‘s debut season. For one, the show has abandoned the extensive Klingon scenes that hindered its initial run, without excising some of its most fascinating plot elements. And the Terran Empire story line exhilarates in a zany, Trekkian way while achieving contemporary relevance and paying homage to the show’s storied past.

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Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery
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