Star Trek: Discovery almost blew itself up. Should it go further?
I love the weird tradition in Star Trek storytelling: alien Greek Gods, evil Picard clones, the seductive alien-goddess cenobite, the murderous salt vampire impersonating ghosts of girlfriends past. And Discovery‘s four-episode adventure in the Mirror Universe has been some weird Star Trek. SPOILER ALERT, because that adventure seems to be over now, and it’s worth taking a close look at just why this new Discovery chapter has been so fun.
I laughed a lot during Sunday’s episode, “What’s Past is Prologue,” but one line sticks out to me as sheer understatement. “It was a good plan,” says the Emperor (Michelle Yeoh), congratulating her reality-crossing ally Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) on a job well done.
Now, from what I could see, their “plan” had three distinct parts:
STEP ONE: Walk into the lair of the big bad guy, surrounded by a full squadron of other bad guys.
STEP TWO: Punch, high-kick, shoot, and stab everyone.
STEP THREE: Profit.
Oh, and also, a spaceship blew a roof off the place. What fun! This episode was directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, who has a real flair for visceral science-fiction action. (He previously worked on TNT’s Falling Skies, which costarred Discovery‘s Doug Jones as a different poignantly endearing alien). The hand-to-hand fight scene between the two tough women and the fascist rebel squad was a feast of cheap thrills. Michelle Yeoh kicked a man in the face: That’s just an explanatory statement, but also the best review I’ll give anything this week. Wait, never mind: Michelle Yeoh killed a man with a sword.
In last year’s Chapter One, Discovery was expensive-looking, sincere, ambitious, long-winded. In this Mirror Phase, the show blew itself up. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) was a moody wet blanket, so now he’s a Klingon sleeper agent tearing his own chest to bloody pieces. Yeoh’s Georgiou was a compelling commander who died in the season premiere, but now in the alternate universe, she’s a mass-murdering matriarch flying a golden megaship to blow up rebel strongholds. (She nuked the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.) They even brought back the great Rekha Sharma, too-briefly playing the evil version of Security Chief Landry.
Meanwhile, L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) was in the brig, the whole master plot of Chapter One spiritually vanquished to a waiting room. “The war, and all your devious designs, mean nothing now,” Saru told L’Rell. Was there a wink to the audience there? Did the Klingon War ever really matter? Isn’t it more fun when everyone wears gold body armor, and every elevator trip is a deathmatch?
I referred to this new Chapter as a “reboot” a few weeks ago, maybe an unfair act of cute-headline semantics. It’s possible that this was the plan all along. The revelation that Captain Lorca was, literally, his own bad self suggests a clever act of deconstruction.
And yet, part of what I loved about this Mirror misadventure was how fully Discovery embraced its own bad self. You say deconstruction; I say destruction. Witty calamity burst free every few minutes. In Sunday’s episode, Lorca perches Evil Stamets right above the burning supernova-ish core of the mycelial network. Lorca starts to describe the poetry of this execution—a scientist killed by his own invention!—but then he stops. “Just kidding. I hate poetry,” he says—and then a henchman blows Evil Stamets to red sparkly bits.
There were a lot of red sparkly bits in this episode. But Discovery is pretty violent in general, snapped necks and exposed ribcages. How can I put this? If you’re going to be the most violent Star Trek show ever, you might as well be a fun violent Star Trek show. And at the risk of praising Discovery in a way that sounds damning: It’s possible that the best version of this show is the one where people kill each other with swords. (Cut to Burnham, in Episode 1, astronaut-fighting with a Klingon.) This instinct is in no way a betrayal of what Star Trek can be. Sunday’s goofy-thrilling hand-to-hand fight scene is just one boulder-toss away from Kirk fighting the Gorn.
Is there some deeper meaning to glean from all this? Reply Hazy; let’s discuss after the finale. “The Captain was a Villain All Along” suggests some real heavy theme twists, and his death could be just a prelude to a deeper understanding of what Lorca meant for his crew.
But to take down Lorca, Burnham has to team up with Emperor Georgiou, who was introduced launching a thermonuclear assault on a group of justice-seeking rebel alien races. Enemy of my enemy, sure, but this episode’s breakneck pacing accelerates the Emperor’s story line in a strange direction. There was something diminishing in the suggestion that the Emperor was so completely defeated so quickly, after one single corridor phaser-duel. Like: She is the Emperor of the Galaxy, commander of an economy that runs on ambitious assassination. Surely she has planned for days like this?
But also: They saved Michelle Yeoh! “I will die on my feet,” the Emperor announced, right before Burnham teleported away from certain doom. Discovery needs more of that spirit, brutal and fantastical. These past few episodes had some problems—Stamets floating in a shiny coma, “Captain Killy” reduced to more heartfelt typing. But at its best, the Mirror Phase saw Discovery reconfigure itself as a swagger-y space opera.
Now, the Discovery has returned to the original universe—where the Klingons have won the war. Back to Chapter One, I guess? There was some talk of time travel, which could imply some chrono-hopping in the next couple episodes. Back in September, Discovery began with Burnham, Georgiou, and Saru on the bridge of a spaceship. They’ll be all together in next week’s episode—different ship, different Georgiou, but still fighting Klingons. There’s a symmetry here, but you worry it’s also a kind of stasis. I’m intrigued to see where this goes, but with the Mirror Universe in the rearview, I already miss where it’s been.