This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 5
Since the Discovery first landed in the 32nd century, the ship and its crew has been searching for the missing Federation. This makes sense. Starfleet is a hierarchal structure, and its ships are part of a larger organization with a larger purpose. Without a Federation or Starfleet to report to, Discovery has been in survival mode (relatable). It’s painful for them to think about the past, which represents an immeasurable loss. Instead, Discovery has put all of its faith in this new future: in the belief that, once they find the Federation, everything will make sense again.
Like so much in this excellent Season 3, the Discovery’s hope is rewarded, but not without its nuances and complications. They find the Federation and it’s frankly in better shape than I expected, but it’s still not the organization they left behind. It’s much smaller—both in terms of number of ships and number of member planets. The Federation is in survival mode too, and arguably more exhausted than the crew of the Discovery—after all, they have been in survival mode for much longer, since the mysterious Burn more than a century ago. This isn’t a Federation of five-year missions of exploration; this is a Federation just trying to solve the latest crisis.
Much of the dramatic tension of the episode comes in the question of whether Discovery still fits inside of the Federation. Saru and Michael’s initial conversations with Admiral Vance are not as warm and welcoming as the Discovery might have hoped for, but it’s easy to understand given what we know of the state of this corner of the universe why the Federation is so damn cautious. It might have been tempting to make the Federation evil or compromised or an absolute mess here, but I’m glad Discovery didn’t go in that direction. This 32nd-century, post-Burn Federation isn’t bad; they’re just tired and forced to be smart about their resources. And, ultimately, yes, the Discovery believes they can find a place here, that they can be of use.
At first, Vance plans to separate the crew of the Discovery, which is a horrific idea from the viewpoint of the Discovery and us viewers. As Michael points out, it’s not simply that the ship and its various crew members will not be as effective apart, it’s that members of the crew might never recover from that separation. They have already lost everything they have ever known. To tear away the little piece of home they have left would damage everyone’s already fragile mental states even further. This wouldn’t be good for the Discovery crew and, frankly, it wouldn’t be good for the Federation. “Die Trying” is about the crew of Discovery working to prove to Admiral Vance that they are a much better asset together than apart not by pulling a Kirk and stealing the ship to make a point (as Burnham basically suggests), but by playing by Saru’s rules for now and going through the proper channels… because, you know, the proper channels still exist and, in a quasi-lawless future, that’s not nothing.
This test takes the form of a last-ditch effort to cure a group of alien refugees suffering from prion disease. Their only hope of survival lies in a Federation seed vault ship located too far away for any ship without a spore drive to make it there and back in time. Listen, it’s a MacGuffin crisis with a MacGuffin mission, but it does give our gang a chance to show the Federation what they’re made of—and a chance for us to get to know Commander Nhan a little bit better, before she leaves the ship for the foreseeable future.
While “Die Trying” cleverly uses the mission as an excuse to explore Nhan’s Barzan culture, there really isn’t enough time to do the narrative ambition justice. In the story of a Barzan father desperate to save his already-deceased family, kept in stasis on the seed fault ship, we learn that Barzans have a different cultural understanding of death than we do. While this is a thematically rich idea to explore, the episode never really explains what that means, instead leaning into a story about Nhan’s own regrets about having left her homeworld behind. While that’s also an interesting angle to explore, there are several moments during which it seems like “Die Trying” is trying to place the various Barzan characters’ decisions in the context of their culture, but never actually figures out how.
Then again, this episode was already clocking in at the 55-minute mark, much longer than your average length of network TV and the longest episode of the season so far. In just this episode, we get the Discovery’s arrival at the Federation’s new headquarters, a debrief sequence, the Discovery’s quest to a Federation seed vault ship, the solving of the seed vault’s familial mystery, a mini-character study of Nhan, and a compromise within the Federation hierarchy. It’s a lot, and the episode can’t quite pull it all together thematically, making for this strong season’s sloppiest episode so far. That being said, “Die Trying” gets its most important job done: transitioning Season 3 from a story about a lone Starfleet ship in a future without the Federation to a story about the Discovery starting the long process of building a new home within the Federation.
Because “Die Trying” makes clear that’s what the crew has really been looking for: a home. That is what Starfleet has been for all of them in the past: a place of belonging and purpose where nobody gets left behind. This isn’t the Federation they left behind almost a millennia ago and it’s going to take some time and some work before those feelings of belonging sink into their bones. For now, they’re going to have to settle for a sense of purpose and have it be enough. In Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, finding the Federation doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a start and, in a world and pop culture that skews so damn dark right now, I’ll gladly and unexpectedly take that hopeful beginning.
I’m sad to leave behind the story of the Discovery as a lone stranger in a strange land, though I recognize that we already had so much of that explored in Voyager. Also, this season has been so good so far that I am willing to see where this new phase of Season 3 brings us. I just… am a sucker for motley crew on a loner ship stories, you know?
In what was the most intriguing and also subtle subplots of the episode, Emperor Georgiou has a conversation with a bespectacled man (played by David Cronenberg) who gives her a history lesson on the Terran empire. Is this setting up the Michelle Yeoh’s spinoff? Is this a clue about The Burn? What did David Cronenberg do to or tell Georgiou that had her so shaken when Michael meets her in the hallway? And how is Michelle Yeoh/Georgiou so cool?
Season 3 is moving at a steady clip. In previous seasons of this show, Discovery would have been distracted by about 12 other storylines by now, not making it to the Federation hideout until the end of the season. Not Season 3, though! Season 3 is keeping its eye on the prize, steadily committing to even its minor subplots in a way this show rarely did before. If the show drops a narrative hint that Detmer has some kind of PTSD from the jump through the wormhole, then god dammit, she’s going to have some form of PTSD. If Detmer and Stamets get in a fight in one episode, Stamets is still going to be a bit sore about it in the next. This episode even manages to remember that Michael has a mom in this time and she might have some questions for the Federation about her whereabouts. This is good serialized storytelling, and it reinforces the world and these characters in a way that Discovery, with all of its behind-the-scenes issues in the first two seasons, has never quite managed before.
Admiral Vance is played by Oded Fehr, who was Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. You’re welcome.
We get several references to the Emerald Chain, which is not a club drug. Presumably, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this crime syndicate which is made up of an alliance of Andorians and Orions.
Commander Nhan, stop trying to make Airiam happen. I get it, though. This was one of your character’s few, big moments prior to this episode.
Hugh having to coach someone in this episode to tell someone else that they have to let go of their dead family is kind of ironic given his backstory.
Lieutenant Willa is a security officer and seems to be into the Discovery’s vibe. Could she replace Nhan? And will we see Nhan again? I hope so.
Saru’s even-keeled and patient leadership continues to be an asset in this new and strange time, and complements Michael’s brash creativity nicely. As long as they continue to communicate,
We didn’t get much Adira in this episode. I still have so many questions about Gray.
Although the Federation has shrunk, both the Barzans and the Kelpians are now members. That’s nice.