Burnham's scientific breakthrough comes with ethical ramifications
“How do you want to be remembered in history?” an incensed Capt. Lorca asks Lt. Stamets after the engineering officer questions a key order halfway through “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” the excellent fourth episode of Star Trek: Discovery. “Alongside the Wright brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane? Or as a failed fungus expert?”
In last week’s “Context Is for Kings,” Discovery introduced the spore-based instantaneous travel technology that seems poised to play a key role this season; this week, the ethical ramifications of the technology began to clarify.
Lorca’s excoriation comes amidst a fast-paced episode that finds the Discovery’s crew on the clock. The captain’s superior officer, Admiral Cornwell, delivers information that the Federation mining colony of Corvan 2 is under siege by Klingons and has a matter of hours before succumbing to the violence. From a humanitarian perspective, many innocent lives are at risk.
But the tactical significance is even greater: Corvan 2 produces 40 percent of the Federation’s dilithium, a key transportation substance. The closest ship to Corvan 2 is 84 hours away, Cornwell explains. The situation necessitates Discovery’s pioneering spore technology. In an outright lie, Lorca promises unequivocally that the Discovery is up to the task.
Realistically, Stamets tells Lorca the jump to Corvan 2 is nigh impossible, especially considering the six-hour timetable presented by Cornwell. Lorca orders Stamets to try anyway — and, when the Discovery attempts the jump, the ship lands in the gravitational field of an O-type star nowhere Corvan 2’s vicinity.
Though the Discovery escapes the fiery dilemma, Staments sustains a skull fracture and ends up in sick bay. There’s some lighthearted banter with the medic, Dr. Hugh Culber — played by Wilson Cruz, a lively character who hopefully crops up more in coming episodes — as Lorca enters and reiterates that, considering the Klingon conflict, the Discovery is no longer a science vessel, but a warship. Stamets pushes back — “This is not the mission I signed on for” — and threatens to walk, prompting Lorca’s stiff suggestion that the engineer will end up as a “failed fungus expert.”
Stamets isn’t the only Discovery crewmember to question their role as part of the Federation war machine. At the conclusion of “Context Is for Kings,” it was revealed that Lorca detained the violent beast found by Discovery’s crew aboard the U.S.S. Glenn’s wreckage. He shows the creature to Burnham, ticking off the ways it clawed through ship hulls and resisted Klingon weapons. “Weaponize it,” he commands Burnham.
The wartime commander demanding ingenuity from his underlings is a trope as old as war itself. And it’s a knotty proposition for Burnham, who quickly discovers that the creature — a massively enlarged version of Earth’s resilient, docile, and microscopic tardigrades — isn’t as ferocious as it seems.
This, naturally, comes with some trial and error. Lorca assigns Cdr. Landry to guide Burnham’s research, who says that with “your science, my tactics” the pair can “deal with Lorca’s little monster.” Landry names the tardigrade Ripper and balks when Burnham posits that “nothing in its biology suggest it would attack, except in self-defense.” Push comes to shove when, claiming that Burnham’s research isn’t progressing quickly enough, Landry tries to lop off one of Ripper’s claws — and is promptly gored to death before Burnham can contain it. (Tragic? Maybe to the characters, but Landry was one of Discovery‘s less intriguing characters.)
In a Trek-ian flourish, the science-minded Burnham by turn employs Cdr. Saru and Cadet Tilly to help her ferret out what exactly makes Ripper tick. Burnham noticed that the tardigrade’s frontopolar cortex displayed activity when Discovery used the spore-based transportation system, so she enters its containment chamber with a canister of spores. Sure enough, the creature reacts positively, inhaling the substance and rubbing against Burnham like an affectionate cat.
There’s a true sense of, ahem, discovery in “The Butcher’s Knife…” that begins to snowball once Burnham tames the tardigrade. She goes to Stamets with a breakthrough. Aboard the Glenn, she recalls, the engineer had found spore-related technology that he couldn’t understand. Stamets had thought the Glenn utilized some sort of a supercomputer to parse the complexities of spore-based travel; really, Burnham predicts, the supercomputer was the tardigrade.
To build her case, she brings Stamets and Ripper to Discovery’s cultivation bay. Ripper immediately begins to symbiotically communicate and transfer energy with the growing fungi. “I always wanted to converse with my mushrooms,” Stamets remarks in a grin-inducing cadence. (Recap continues on page 2)
The scientific realization gets put to the test quickly — Discovery’s crew is still on the clock to rescue Corvan 2. Stamets and Burnham transport Ripper into the engineering bay’s reaction cube and use equipment salvaged from the Glenn to harness the vast database of galactic coordinates stored in its brain. The Discovery easily jumps into the sky above Corvan 2’s mining colony, obliterates the Klingon warcraft besieging it, and jumps away — so quickly that a young girl on the planet’s surface wonders aloud, “Who saved us?” The brand of instantaneous combat Starfleet has hoped to hone with the spore-based technology works like a charm.
But Burnham’s uneasy with how the situation plays out. As the Discovery is flitting around the galaxy utilizing Ripper, she observes the tardigrade screaming out in agony. Afterward, she brings spores to its containment pen and apologizes. Later, in her shared quarters with Tilly, the cadet congratulates Burnham on a job well done — but the moral aspect of utilizing the tardigrade clearly weighs on the hero of the day.
The emotional toll is amplified in the episode’s closing scene, when Burnham accesses Cpt. Georgiou’s last will and testament. A hologram of the deceased officer — Michelle Yeoh’s return, as promised! — appears and tells Burnham that she’s “as proud of you as if you were my own daughter.” In a resonant line, Georgiou instructs Burnham to “take good care, but more importantly, take good care of those in your care.” The captain has left Burnham her family’s heirloom telescope, driving home the connection between scientific discovery and compassion.
The Federation portion of “The Butcher’s Knife…” soars; the Klingon portion, less so. It’s tough at this point to tell whether the Klingon plotline suffers because it’s genuinely disinteresting or because there’s a tremendous amount of exposition still to go. Discovery‘s showrunners seem to have invested enough effort in it to suggest the latter explanation — but, whatever the reason, the scenes underwhelmed in this episode.
Voq, designated as the torchbearer in the series premiere by the soon-felled T’Kuvma, attempts to navigate the nuances of Klingon politics. First, Voq ally and former T’Kuvma lieutenant L’Rell convinces Voq to board the U.S.S. Shenzhou’s wreckage to salvage its dilithium and make his own vessel ambulatory once again. The mission serves as some key bonding between the two T’Kuvma acolytes, though when they return to their own ship they’re confronted by the rebellious Kol, who wants Voq’s cloaking technology and has turned the torchbearer’s crew against him.
Kol asks L’Rell to murder Voq, but she instead suggests a far more miserable fate: leaving Voq to die in humiliation aboard the Shenzhou. Voq assumes L’Rell has betrayed him, but in the episode’s final moments she joins him on the Shenzhou and offers to take him to the matriarchs of her native House of Mo’Kai, who’ll teach him a litany of new things. And he only has to sacrifice “everything.”
The Klingon story line seems headed somewhere fascinating, even if the political machinations of “The Butcher’s Knife…” aren’t much to write home about. But with with Federation plots as compelling as the one in this episode, the Klingon aspect of the show can develop in due time.