This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 6
If you want to understand how Star Trek has evolved as a franchise, look no further than “Scavengers.” The Star Trek: Discovery episode sees its main character, Michael Burnham, disobeying a direct order from her commanding officer (again) in order to go on a rogue mission with Emperor Georgiou to save her, ahem, friend Book and secure a pre-Burn Starfleet black box. It’s the sort of stunt Kirk pulled on the regular (and, yes, this includes Kelvin Kirk), and it’s the kind of stunt Kirk would have been celebrated for it—both within the world of the TV show or film and, more importantly, by the viewer. Here, the context is much more complicated. We viewers are encouraged to understand why Michael did it and to see the goodness of her motivations, while also being encouraged to see how and why Burnham’s actions negatively impacted her crew and could have led to some devastating consequences. Frankly, it’s a radical and deeply interesting subversion of the myth of American individualism, and it’s one that the Star Trek universe is well-equipped to make.
American pop culture has a relative dearth of good stories about institution, especially for a culture currently struggling with the failure of so many and a deep distrust in the ones that remain. Star Trek has, generally, been an outlier to that rule. From the beginning, it has been a story that is not so much interested in depicting a utopian future as it is depicting a future with a utopian institution: the Federation. The world of Star Trek has never been one without its problems. This is a universe that still knows wars, famine, and systemic inequality. But it is also a universe that has an institution that works, one that our heroes are not only a part of, but believe in. Though this is challenged as Trek goes on, especially in a show like Deep Space Nine, it is rarely completely undermined as a possible ideal. In Trek, the dream of an institution that works for the many is not a pipe dream; it’s a pragmatic one.
How does this all relate to Star Trek: Discovery? Well, unlike the first two seasons of this show, Season 3 is deeply interested in exploring this idea of the possibility of a good and functional institution. The Burn may have destroyed what the Federation once was, but it still exists in some form. Much of Season 3’s tension has been the question of whether that pragmatic dream of putting one’s trust, work, and time into this collective organization is a worthwhile one or rather, like so many modern TV series tell us, that believing in something larger than yourself is for suckers.
In “Scavengers,” Michael demonstrates how she has lost patience with that dream. For her, for a no doubt very long year, it was for suckers. The Federation wasn’t coming to save her, so she had to learn how to save herself, and that is a hard habit to break. In that time without her crew of her Federation, Michael did have someone. She had Book and it’s understandable that she wants to save him here. When his life is put in jeopardy, Michael is forced to choose between the status quo she once had (which fostered a belief in the Federation) and the status quo she has been forced to live with for the past year (which fostered a belief that she could only trust herself and Book).
In Michael’s mission into Emerald Chain territory, not only is she trying to find information that she believes will help the entire Federation, but she is also trying to save someone she cares deeply about. Her motives fit well into Federation values, but her actions chafe against them. Part of being part of a collective (no Borg allowed) means making decisions together and, in a hierarchal institution like Starfleet, it means sometimes having to go along with a choice that you think is the wrong one. It’s an experience that a deeply individualistic American culture is not often encouraged to accept as a valuable one. And it’s a part of my culture I have been thinking a lot about during the COVID crisis, as we watch the United States failure to embrace a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few” ethos.
Interestingly, “Scavengers” puts a decent amount of narrative time into looking at why Michael’s choice was perhaps the wrong one, and it’s a thematic thread that picks up on characterization from earlier in the season, and earlier in this series. Since her reunion with the Discovery, Michael has been trying to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to be part of the crew and the Federation, but she only wants to follow the rules when they align with her personal priorities. We saw her go behind Saru’s back in “People of Earth,” planning a rogue mission with Book that relied on Saru blindly trusting her, which he did. But, after this latest stunt, that trust is seriously frayed. Saru can’t rely on Michael and, perhaps, vice versa. If Michael tried the “People of Earth” stunt now, it might go very differently. Saru is smart to recognize how that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed now, when the stakes are relatively low.
Of course the stakes aren’t low emotionally. The weight of how he should respond to Michael’s insubordination obviously weighs heavily on Saru’s shoulders. He goes to Tilly for advice, and she tells him what he needs to hear: Michael’s decision puts the entire crew’s future in the Federation in jeopardy. It must be met with consequence. And it is. In the final, best scene in the episode, we see Saru strip Michael of her first officer duties. It’s the right decision—even Michael thinks so—but that doesn’t make it any easier for Saru to accept. This willingness to lean into the difficult questions is, more than anything else, what makes Saru a good captain.
Interestingly, Vance also rebukes Saru before giving Michael a bigger dressing-down. He thinks Saru should have come to him with Michael’s intel about the black boxes and the opportunity of securing another. Like Michael, Saru has perhaps become somewhat used to not having a commanding officer to check in with. And he really hasn’t been a captain for very long.
Is Vance hiding something about The Burn? Perhaps. Vance continues to dismiss Michael’s valid point that, without solving the mystery of The Burn, the Federation will never be able to properly move on. Vance’s reluctance to invest resources in solving this mystery could simply be a very understandable attempt to prioritize saving lives rather than investing in the long-term health of the Federation as an institution, or it could be that he is trying to hide something ugly about the Federation’s potential role in the disaster. Only time will tell. For now, the crew of the Discovery continues to move forward, with the belief that the dream of the institution is something worth investing in. What a statement.
If you’re a fan of Big Plot Development, the beginning of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 was like Grudge-nip. The first three episodes of the season dealt with the major repercussions of Michael and the Discovery, respectively, jumping through time and then, eventually, coming back together—with an additional one-year time-jump for Michael thrown in for good measure. While the fourth episode leaned into the character repercussions of it all, last week saw another major plot development when the Discovery found the 32nd-century version of the Federation. This week’s episode, “Scavengers,” like that other Season 3 outlier “Forget Me Not,” was another episode that was more about moving the chess pieces than taking any pieces. This is the kind of transitionary installment that is all about following up on lingering character moments and minor plot threads, which is not to say that it didn’t have its excellent moments, just that it very much felt like an episode that comes in the middle of the season. I have a feeling that, looking back on “Scavengers,” we will see the many major plot developments it is setting up for the second half of the season.
One of the captains who takes part in Vance’s meeting is an older woman and I know this is not the first time we have seen an older woman in a position of authority in Star Trek or pop culture in general, but it still feels rare enough to both give me a thrill when it happens and to be commented upon.
I can’t help comparing the Discovery this season to the experience of living in a quaranteam. This episode, Michael made a decision to increase the quaranteam’s risk level without getting the pod’s approval. Not cool, Michael. (But also: good job saving lives.)
I am Team Healthy Institution, generally, but working within bureaucracy takes time. Being a lone wolf is definitely faster and more flexible. I do get Michael’s frustrations here.
Do we think Georgiou likes Saru? When Michael asks her to go rogue with her, Georgiou immediately points out how it will screw over Saru, which is kind of cool and unexpected.
Michael “I’d rather regret something I did than something I didn’t” Burnham.
I love how, within weeks of getting captured into this forced labor camp, Book knows like the whole history of the place, including the failed revolutions.
We get an Adira/Stamets plotline this episode that is both sweet and somewhat frustrating. Like, I get that Stamets is being supportive here and I love that, but also life-death does work in a linear fashion in almost all cases. Rather than Star Trek: Discovery having to give queer characters a Get Out of Death Free card, I’d rather they, you know, just not kill them in the first place.
Michael and Georgiou’s rescue mission has got to be one of the most obvious rescue missions in history. This isn’t a critique. I love how big they go here. Georgiou is obviously loving it.
In the great dogs v. cats debate, Star Trek seems to come down on the side of the cats. Porthos aside, from “Catspaw” to Grudge, the cat energy in this show has always been stronger than the dog energy. And I say this as someone who has neither a metaphorical dog nor a literal dog in this fight. (But Tilly doesn’t like cats, which I love for her as a character trait. Just when you think she’s gonna zig, she zags…)
But is there more to Grudge than meets the eye? Almost definitely.
For the record, a cat in a spaceship would probably convince me.
Do we think Linus will ever get a proper storyline? Do we want Linus to get a proper storyline?
Um… I feel like this black box information is something Michael should have already mentioned to Saru. Or is this a symptom of how deep her inability to trust right now goes?
We get more information about the Emerald Chain here, mostly about the character of Osira. While we don’t get to meet her in person, we do meet her meathead nephew. Presumably, this means that she is an Orion and also that she is the worst.
“I love me.” I love you too, Michelle Yeoh.
We don’t get a lot of answers regarding Georgiou’s apparent PTSD here. She seems to be remembering something from her Mirror Universe past, and it was not fun. Is this a result of her conversation with Kovich? Probably. Is it something that will lead to her Section 31-centric spinoff? Most definitely. Read some of our speculation on that here.
“Let me just say, there’s no head injuries…” I love this as a conversation opener.
“We always find each other.” If you were wondering, yes, I am 100% into the Michael/Book thing. Thank you, show, for giving Michael a healthy love interest storyline this time.
Bonus!: We get another “toothbrushing” scene with Stamets and Hugh this episode, which is to say: a scene of them being domestic and sweet together. In general, I am for more domestic scenes for this entire ensemble. After all, the Discovery is not only their workplace but also their home. #relatable
I want bocci on my spaceship.
“One day, we will find the answers we are all looking for.” Yes, Saru is my favorite character. Yes, I am so happy he is getting so much to do this season.