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Burnham's scientific breakthrough comes with ethical ramifications

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October 08, 2017 at 11:34 PM EDT

“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)

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