This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 10
The creative team behind Star Trek: Discovery can’t be this culturally tone deaf, right? They’ve heard of the “Bury Your Gays” trope and the vocal backlash against recent unnecessary, insensitive deaths of queer characters, right? They know they have also been criticized for killing of their characters of color? (Up until this point, it has been women of color, with Captain Georgiou and security officer Landry as primary examples.)
OK, just checking. Because, for roughly 35 minutes, “Despite Yourself” is a new, focused lease on life for this show that, while enjoyable, has seemed confused about its direction. With the jump into the Mirror Universe, where the Federation has been replaced by the Terran Empire, and the reveal that Ash is, indeed, a Klingon sleeper agent, Discovery is committing to storylines it has previously only hinted at.
Then, comes the snapping of Hugh Culber’s neck by a confused, traumatized Lieutenant Ash Tyler, followed by Burnham being forced to kill someone in self defense, followed by Tyler sleeping with Michael, who is unaware of her lover’s recent act of murder. Discovery has definitely chosen a direction; I’m just not sure if it’s the one they want to be going in.
For a long time, TV narratives existed in an industry that asked its series to return to the status quo at the end of every episode. Things would go wrong, shenanigans would ensue, but, by the end of the hour, everything would be back to a pre-established norm. It was arguably necessary for a world where viewers couldn’t catch up on episodes they had missed. If you wanted to keep viewers around, you had to give them a stable set-up. That way, if you missed an episode, you still knew what was going on.
With the development of technology like DVDs, streaming, and DVR, it is much easier for viewers to catch up on missed episodes. This has led to a rise of serialized television and a reveling in the possibility of changing the status quo from episode to episode. Star Trek: Discovery is the first Star Trek show to truly exist in this TV world, and, like many modern TV dramas, it is drunk on the possibility of changing the status quo in shocking, often unnecessary ways.
From its reset in Episode 3 to the reset in Episode 9 to its casual murder of characters seemingly purely for the shock value of it all, this show has a bad habit of trying to Game of Thrones its way out of every situation—something that stopped working for Game of Thrones when the serialized shocks crossed the line from earned to relatively meaningless and contrived.
The possibility of serializing TV and changing the status quo of your story is a wonderful thing, but modern TV drama and the modern TV viewer have arguably become too addicted to the shock of killing someone off (disproportionately the characters who are deemed less “important,” and are more like from an underrepresented demographic). There are other ways both to surprise the viewer and to give a story more emotional weight. I challenge more TV writers to explore them.
It was particularly discouraging to see Star Trek: Discovery make the choices it did in the second half of this episode because the first half was so strong. It pulled a Voyager on us, sending its crew far, far away from home, forcing them to re-establish the bonds they have with one another and to get creative about how they will survive in such a hostile, unfamiliar environment.
In the aftermath of the crew’s realization that they have landed in the Mirror Universe, we see them checking in with one another in the kind emotionally-driven, grounded scenes this show has not had nearly enough of. Tilly apologizes to Hugh about not telling him sooner about Paul’s side effects. Michael makes Tyler promise he will tell her if his trauma becomes too much to handle (although, this guy is visibly losing it in front of pretty much everyone on this crew—why isn’t there Starfleet protocol for this?). Even Lorca is less of a dick, having an honest conversation with Hugh about his responsibility for Paul’s current state.
The Mirror Universe twist, while a bit predictable, is a great one (see, you don’t have to shock viewers to delight them). It pulls on a rich history of Star Trek Mirror Universe episodes and, at a time when we are so openly questioning our national values, it’s topical to ask questions about what kinds of choices we make when we find ourselves part of an openly cruel, unjust world.
For the first half of the episode, Discovery has a fair amount of fun with the Mirror Universe elements. We get a glorious montage that has the crew turning the ship and themselves into their Terran versions. We get to see Tilly transform into “Captain Killy,” receive a pep talk from Burnham about how to exude threatening confidence, and memorably pretends to be her Mirror Universe self over the comm.
“Hello, this is Captain Tilly. What the heck… hell? What the hell? Hold your horses!”
For the most part, I liked how the episode handled Tyler’s quickly deterioating mental health and the reveal that he is, in fact, a sleeper Klingon. From L’Rell’s reactions, it seemed like Voq should have been able to remember his previous Klingon identity, but something has gone wrong with his conditioning. This makes Tyler a much more sympathetic character. He isn’t simply a Klingon spy, but a deeply confused and traumatized man.
Shazid Latiff does an amazing job selling Tyler’s vulnerability, frustration, anger, confusion, and fear. In his capable hands, Tyler’s mental instabilty and allegiance confusion is interesting. We don’t need Hugh’s murder to up the stakes; his mental turmoil is enough. We also don’t need Hugh’s murder steps from his committed partner, moments after Hugh told him: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna stay right by your side. It’ll be OK.”
Similarly, we don’t need the undercover away mission to the Shenzhou, at this point, to up the stakes of Discovery‘s time in the Mirror Universe. The situation is already scary enough without adding what Saru calls “a suicide mission” on top of it, even one that could get information necessary for returning home. This all moves very quickly. I would have liked to see Discovery sit a bit longer with the character repercussions of jumping to another universe, and losing Stamets’ mind in the process. We didn’t need to go further than that, not yet.
“We are now the ISS Discovery,” would have been a great place for this episode to end, letting viewers and characters alike settle into the horror of ending up in a universe where humans run a facist empire that is built on an “unconditional hatred and rejection of anything and everything ‘other.'” Between this reveal and the confirmation—both to the viewer and Tyler—that Tyler is not what he seems, “Despite Yourself” had more than enough narrative material to work with.
Instead, we see one main character murder another (Wilson Cruz is technically a guest star, but he is a member of this crew that we care about), Burnham murder someone with the face of a friend in an act of self-defense, and the consummation of Tyler and Burnham’s romance in this dysfunctional, horrifying context.
I know Tyler is unsure of who he is right now, but if he really cared about Burnham, he would be honest with her about the depths of his instability and about what he has done. He wouldn’t agree to go with her on this mission, and he definitely wouldn’t sleep with her without making sure she had all of the information necessary to make an informed decision about entering into a physical relationship with him.
Some might think these narrative bars are too high—the avoidance of harmful tropes and questionable consent—but Star Trek has long been the franchise people with high sociopolitical bars go to for their storytelling. I’m not ready to give up on Discovery yet, though I understand if others are, but I do hope that it finds the confidence it needs to tell its own, patient, inclusive, and ultimately optimistic story.
Does anyone else feel like there are like 15 people working on Discovery? Sometimes, it feels like an all-out ghost ship. This was never more apparent than when Tyler had his conversation with L’Rell or when he killed Hugh and no one was around to notice.
Georgiou is the Emperor, right?
Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Riker, aka the director of many previous Star Trek episodes and films, did a great job directing this episode. The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) tilting of the shot’s frame in the episode’s opening scene was magnificent.
Tribble update: Still there! Hangs out for Lorca and Burnham’s quantum reality convo. He’s an important part of the meeting.
“What we have to do is figure out where we are and how to survive. Then, we can start looking for a way home.” Lorca claims Stamets brought them to the Mirror Universe “accidentally,” but it certainly seems like Lorca put in the Mirror Universe coordinates himself. Guys, it’s not just his accent work—this guy’s a great actor.
Speaking of the accent, Lorca uses a Scottish brogue as Discovery’s “chief engineer” to disguise his voice in what appears to be an homage to Scotty from The Original Series.
“It’s a palace. Stay close.” What is Stamets talking about? What is “the palace”?
Tilly tries to annoy Paul out of his alternately-catatonic state, which is very sweet.
“You didn’t do this.” Lorca walks into sick bay. “Speak of the devil.” Hugh finally gets to have a storyline in this episode, and it leads to this…
Lorca should have taken Hugh off of Paul’s case like a million years ago.
Vulcans, Andorians, and Klingons have an alliance against the Terran Empire—a rebellion of all non-human species. Humans suck in this universe.
Did anyone else get Battlestar Galactica/Sharon feels from Tyler’s storyline in this episode?
“Just get rid of them as quickly as possible, and talk as little as possible.” “That might be a little hard for me. Have you noticed I talk a lot?” “Defy your every instinct.”
Tilly’s Mirror Universe nicknames (so far): The Slayer of Sorna Prime, The Witch of Werner Minor, Captain Killy (Saru is not impressed with this one).
“Data from rebel intelligence suggests that we’re not the first ship from our universe to find ourselves here.” This episode mentions the USS Defiant as a previous ship that inadvertently ventured into the Mirror Universe. The Defiant was first mentioned in The Original Series’ “The Tholian Web” before having its Mirror Universe fate explored in Enterprise’s “In A Mirror, Darkly.”
“I meant the word practically, not perjoratively, as when one uses the imagination to picture what is not yet known or seen.” I love Hugh’s explanation here.
Seriously, does Tyler not have a therapist?
“Well, my mother would definitely approve.” Tilly, on her new Terran look.
“Terran strength is borne out of pure necessity because they live in constant fear, always looking for the next knife aimed at their back. Their strength is painted rust. It’s a facade.” — Burnham
“The only pleasure I take in from the blood of my enemy staining my uniform.” I love Tilly so much.
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re not you.” Why would you tell someone they have been experimented on and possibly are not themself without back-up, Hugh?!
“Whatever you do, whatever this place makes you do, whatever happens to you or me, however we change, I am here to protect you. Nothing will ever stand in the way of that.” It seems like Tyler has chosen his allegiance. It is Burnham.
In the promo, we see Stamets holding Hugh’s lifeless body. Could Hugh come back? I wouldn’t put it past Stamets’ basic superpowers right now. We might at least see another version of him. To be clear: none of this would make up for the scene of Tyler snapping his neck.