This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers for the mid-season finale.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 9
In many ways, this early stretch of Star Trek: Discovery episodes has reminded me of the beginning of Agents of SHIELD‘s run.
Like SHIELD, Discovery is a show shoehorned somewhat awkwardly into a much larger fictional universe. Like SHIELD, Discovery‘s introduction has shown narrative potential, but has been wildly uneven, perhaps a side effect of a show that is treading narrative water until a big plot twist that sends it into warp drive. For SHIELD, that twist was the Hydra reveal and the reframing of Ward’s character that came with it. For Discovery, it may very well be the jump to a whole new universe.
Ostensibly, this entire season thus far has been about the Federation/Klingon conflict, but, if we Discovery viewers are being honest with ourselves, this show is not very interested in telling a war story. Not really. It’s always been much more specific and enthusiastic when it comes to the spore drive narrative — and the midseason finale is no different.
While the Discovery’s mission to sneak onto the Klingon Ship of Death, plant sensors to determine the nature of their cloaking device, and take it down was a suspenseful one, it was also a distraction from some of the larger things to come, one riddled with plot holes that distracted from the emotionality of the scenes. For example: Why would Lorca send Tyler, a crew member recently tortured by Klingons, onto a Klingon ship? Why is the Klingon ship so easy to destroy after the destruction of its cloaking device? And how does Lorca convince an entire crew of seemingly ethical, empathetic scientists to allow an obviously endangered Stamets back into the spore drive?
While “Into the Forest I Go” wraps up some major Klingon plot lines first raised in the two-part premiere, I’m not sure what any of it was for. We never got a complex interpretation of Kol and his Klingon followers past their representation as territorial warmongers. Burnham may have helped end the war she started and get Georgiou’s communicator back, but at what cost? Subscribing to Lorca’s view of the Federation as a place where turning “polite scientists” into “fierce warriors” is a worthwhile goal? Telling a half-hearted story about Tyler’s PTSD?
It’s that last subplot that gets the worst treatment here. While I think it’s interesting and important to show Tyler’s trauma, it’s unfortunate that his PTSD is temporarily cured when Cornwell mentions Burnham needing his help — that’s not how PTSD works. Later, Tyler’s recovery is seemingly conflated with his relationship with Burnham. As helpful as the relationship may be, a new romance will not erase the trauma of sexual assault and torture. (Even though Outlander seems to subscribe to this interpretation, too.)
Tyler has to be a secret Klingon, right? L’Rell’s comments that she wouldn’t let anything happen to Tyler and that something will happen “soon” imply that he is a sleeper agent who will be activated, most likely at the least convenient time. The torture he remembers is most likely the surgery that altered him so he could pass as human. When Tyler asks L’Rell, “What did you do to me?”, he’s not talking about torture or rape, but rather the transformation of his very body (a violation that, if handled articulately, could serve as an allegory for sexual violence).
I’m also still waiting for the other shoe to drop on Lorca’s military-minded agenda, this representation of a Starfleet that rewards Lorca for his insubordination rather than rebukes him, and a crew that blindly sends one of their own into an experimental transportation drive when its chief medical officer has serious reservations about its short-term safety and long-term effects. (Bones would not have let this sort of thing slide.)
I think the dropping of the other shoe is coming, but, with each passing episode, Discovery‘s lack of thematic focus becomes more apparent… and more problematic. I’m hoping the Winter Soldier turning point is now and that, with this second soft reboot of the show (yes, two soft reboots in nine episodes — oy vey), Discovery will finally be able to tell the story it wants to be telling: the story of a ship lost in the multiverse, trying to make its way home.
It’s a premise not unlike Voyager‘s initial set-up: A ship an impossible distance from the familiar, forced to work together, sometimes with only hope to keep them going, to not only survive, but get back to the people they love. If Discovery was always heading here, it would explain why the world it inhabits has been so poorly defined. (In the midseason finale, we never even see the Pahvans the Discovery is ostensibly doing this all to protect.)
It would seem that the show never meant to stay in this universe for very long. This multiverse setting would also explain the discrepancies in the world of Discovery from the world of the other Star Trek series. This doesn’t feel like the Federation or Starfleet we know and love because it isn’t. We’ve been in another universe altogether. Perhaps, with the final jump Stamets makes, Discovery is in the universe — the original one — we thought it had been all along. Or perhaps it landed in a much more nefarious universe altogether…
For me, the tension of Stamets’ role as an integral part of the spore drive remains the most emotionally-tense and engaging part of this story. If you are anything like me, you were screaming at the screen while Stamets and Culber made ill-fated plans to go to the opera after this final jump. (Do not get into that spore drive, you dolt.)
Lorca is a master manipulator, convincing Stamets to undertake the 133 micro-jumps necessary to take down the Klingon cloaking device. If, like me, you believe that Lorca is a serious sketchball with selfish motivations, then you don’t buy his quiet acquiescence of Stamets’ decision to stop jumping. It feels more like a calculated misdirect, not unlike the one Lorca seemingly orchestrated when he sent Cornwell into a Klingon trap.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Lorca said they were going “home” before ordering the final jump. Is Lorca from another universe, using Stamets and the crew of the Discovery in an attempt to return? And, if so, what kind of universe might that be? Any universe that would birth the trigger-happy Lorca as a captain, the kind of man who would blow up his entire ship (crew included) to keep it from falling into enemy hands, is a scary one.
If Discovery is heading where it seems to be heading: into a mirror universe where Lorca is revealed as the bad guy and Burnham must step up to bring her crew home, then I am fully on board with this show. After all, SHIELD may have taken a while to get going, but, once it kicked into high gear, it has given us some of the best ensemble-driven genre storytelling on TV. (I’ll fight you on this.)
Discovery is a show that is taking longer than I would like to find its footing, but I’ve waited much longer for far less interesting shows to get their narrative together and take me in bold, focused, new directions. We thought we were watching Deep Space Nine — a sociopolitical drama about occupation, terrorism, and the trauma of war — when, really, Discovery has been channeling Voyager all along: a story about how we survive when we’re isolated, lost, and so very far away from home.