Star Trek: Discovery backpedals in a talky, table-setting episode
I have two big questions going into the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery.
1. Does anything that has happened since the Battle of the Binary Stars actually matter?
2. Does this show think that Starfleet needs to cowboy the f— up?
The first question is about plot, the second focuses on theme. I assume that the writers of Discovery believe the answers are, respectively, “yes” and “no.” Yes, everything Michael Burnham has experienced since the loss of her beloved Captain has led to next week’s finale showdown with the Klingons. No, Starfleet represents the pure spirit of openhanded intergalactic cooperation, and enemy infiltrators (Mirror Lorca, Voq/Tyler, and now Emperor Georgiou) represent perversions of that egalitarian doctrine.
Discovery loves curveballs, has built a narrative foundation on ever-shifting quicksand. So, I’m hesitant to say we have any final answers. But the season’s penultimate episode seemed to walk back much of the twisted fun of the Mirror Universe arc.
The crew barely talked about Lorca, the charismatic commander who spent months transforming them in his warlike image. And, in a parallel plotline, Discovery suggested that the darkness lingering throughout this season really could be just a simple contagion, something that requires a bit of surgery. Cue the return of Ash Tyler, with Voq’s memories but not Voq’s personality. At this point, after two different “Main Character Is Secretly Evil” revelations, we’re prepared to read this redemption as as setup. (Maybe L’Rell buried Voq just enough to get him into place for a big Klingon transformation?)
Weird, though, this episode treated the Voq reveal as a personality hiccup. “You finally went there with someone,” Tyler told Burnham about their relationship, “And things got complicated.” Gyeesh, I’ll say! In their own logistically different-yet-existentially similar ways, Voq and Lorca were both wolves in sheep’s clothing, Starfleet officers with complex personal motivations. And this episode vanquished all complexity from those scenarios, like Admiral Cornwell phasering Lorca’s fortune cookies into oblivion.
Meanwhile, Emperor Georgiou was under house arrest. (Along with L’Rell, that makes two warrior women imprisoned on the ship, because Discovery can never do anything once.) When the episode ended, she was sitting in the Captain’s Chair on the Discovery, having negotiated her freedom in exchange for helping Starfleet on their decisive attack on the Klingon homeworld.
So, if you’re keeping track: Admiral Cornwell, Michael Burnham, and Saru all just learned a valuable lesson about not handing Discovery over to one vicious fascistic Terran. And now they are going along with a plan that hands Discovery over to the most vicious fascistic Terran of all.
Michelle Yeoh playing a horrible person playing a decent person is fun. And, again, the first season of Discovery has prepared us for further backstabbery from the Emperor. My bigger issue with this twist circles back to Question #1: Have we moved anywhere since the premiere. The Battle of the Binary Stars saw Georgiou, Burnham, and Saru fighting Klingons. Sarek was there, too, sort of, checking in from across the universe. In the finale, they’ll all be kinda reunited, fighting the Klingons. (Yeesh, even Detmer’s there!) I guess you could call this story “cyclical.” But it also feels frozen. Lorca, poor Dr. Culber, Burnham’s mutineer guilt, the spores, the spores: Did any of this really matter, or was it all just a lengthy distraction, a way to pass the time until the status quo returned to Episode 1?
Things have changed, sort of. Georgiou is literally a different character, although Burham (and maybe the show itself) has a confusing grasp on the alternate universe concept. Emperor Georgiou is a mass-murdering woman Burnham just met. She happens to look like Captain Georgiou, but the deceased Captain was decidedly not a xenophobic fascist with a gold fetish. Yet Discovery is hanging a lot of drama around this relationship. Burnham told the Emperor that she brought her to this universe for a reason, to show her “a place of morality and hope.”
And then she asked the Emperor how she defeated the Klingons, because a place of morality and hope does need a bit of the old ultraviolence. I know what Discovery is trying to get at here: That desperate times call for desperate measures, enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc. But I don’t know. I always get the sense that Discovery is paying lip service to these ideals, that the marching orders of this season has been “Star Trek but way more badass, bro!” Which, again, is not necessarily a bad thing. It feels unconvincing, though, how the show wants to honor pacifistic ideals (“morality and hope”) and then ramp everything up to a big crazy awesome Emperor-in-Charge season finale space-fight extravaganza.
One big thing has changed since the pilot episode of Discovery. The Klingons we met back then were fascinating, curious, multifarious beings. T’Kuvma was a zealot racist, but also a bizarre sort of unifier, building an army out of misfits (an outcast albino, a woman caught between two clans.) It felt like we were primed to learn more about Klingon culture, that the 24 Great Houses could very well be for Discovery what the great families of Westeros are for Game of Thrones.
Now? You hear talk about the Klingons’ “feudal savagery,” how they will stop at nothing but the destruction of Earth; how, for that matter, they have no real purpose and never want this war to end. This is a reset backwards to the broadest ideas Trek ever had about Klingon culture, to say nothing about the fact that Tyler’s Klingon-ness has (so far) been presented as a personality defect cured by cool modern science.
Meanwhile, our pals in Starfleet are primed for a great climactic battle: A battle that their depraved Captain trained them for, that the annihilating Emperor is leading them into. We’re primed for a reckoning on all fronts. Oddly, what excites me most about the finale is the possibility that we will finally learn what kind of Star Trek show Discovery wants to be.