Star Trek Discovery lands on “Terra Firma, Part I”

It’s time for the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

Of all the places I would have expected Star Trek Discovery to go this season, a return to the mirror universe was pretty far down the list. Nonetheless, that’s what we get in part I of “Terra Firma”.

But first things first. Georgiou’s condition is deteriorating noticeably, as she keeps literally phasing out of reality at times. Though otherwise, she still seems largely unchanged. And so she calls Tilly “Saru’s command blunder” who’ll just get the whole crew killed, which is frankly a mean thing to say to someone who just wants to help. She also attacks Michael and tries to goad her into killing her, but Michael won’t have any of that. She, too, is only trying to help.

Dr. Culber also just wants to help, even though Georgiou is the worst patient ever, as we’ve seen last episode. And so he goes to see David Cronenberg’s character – apparently his name is Kovich. Kovich has bad news. Because it turns out that bodies can only tolerate either time or transdimensional travel, but not both. Should someone travel both from one universe to another as well as through time, they will die horribly. Of course, there was only one precedent, an alien soldier who fought in the time wars, but the data Dr. Culber gathered shows that Georgiou is on the same path. “Well, why didn’t you send that time soldier back either to his own universe or his own time?” Dr. Culber asks. Kovich points out that both time and interdimensional travel are forbidden by the time accords. Letting people die horribly is apparently not forbidden, but that’s the Federation for you.

But even though Kovich knows no solution to Georgiou’s dilemma, the infodump sphere does. And so it points the Discovery to the planet Dannus V. If they take Georgiou there, she has a five percent chance of survival rather than zero percent. It’s not a lot, but five percent is better than nothing and so Michael, Culber and Saru petition Admiral Vance to allow them to take Georgiou to Dannus V. However, the Emerald Chain is holding “training exercises” again (which Book points out are anything but) and so all Starfleet ships are on alert. Saru agrees to stay and sacrifice Georgiou (well, she did want to eat him), but Admiral Vance surprises everybody by allowing Discovery to go anyway. He also encourages Saru to be a bit more maverick in the future. I honestly like Vance and not just because Oded Fehr is easy on the eyes.

And so the Discovery is off the Dannus V. There is an awkward good-bye, as Georgiou and Saru shake hands and address each other as “Captain” and “Emperor”, which is quite a development, considering that Saru was initially just a tasty snack for Georgiou. Tilly, meanwhile, hugs Georgiou, much to the latter’s confusion.

Finally, Michael and Georgiou beam down and find themselves strutting through some kind of snowy winter wonderland landscape, Georgiou bitching all the way. She wants her own Michael back, she tells our Michael, because Mirror Michael would already have found a solution.

Eventually, Michael detects something that is “not exactly a lifesign” and then things get weird. For suddenly, Michael and Georgiou comes across a door in the snow and a cigar-smoking man in roughly 1940s clothing who’s wearing a bowler hat and reading a newspaper. The man introduces himself as Carl and is played by Paul Guilfoyle, best known for playing Captain Jim Brass in the original CSI. My first reaction upon seeing Carl was “Okay, he’s obviously a Time Lord, except that that’s the wrong franchise and wrong universe.” Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido and io9 reviewer James Whitbrook both believe that Carl is a member of the Q Continuum and that theory has a lot of merit. Never mind that the Q Continuum is Gallifrey by another name to avoid legal issues.

Carl shows Georgiou a newspaper headline that announces her horrible death and tells her that she can avoid that fate if she steps through the door in the snow. Though he also warns her that even if she won’t die of molecular degeneration, she may still die on the other side of that door. Not know what else to do, Georgiou goes through the door and finds herself back in in the 23rd century in the mirror universe, aboard the mirror Discovery, faced by Captain “Killy” and her command crew.

The rest of the episode now takes place entirely in the mirror universe back in the 23rd century. Georgiou is Empress Philippa the Merciless again, ruler of the universe. She also realises that she has arrived on exactly the same day that mirror Michael and Lorca (not mirror Lorca, since we only ever met one of him) tried to kill her. Georgiou decides to take this as an invitation to change history and bring mirror Michael back into the fold, so she won’t have to execute her. This goes about as well as you’d imagine.

The second half of the episode consists basically Empress Philippa the No Longer Quite So Merciless (and the viewer) being reminded that the mirror universe is a really awful place full of really awful people. And so Philippa the No Longer Quite So Merciless realises that her time with Starfleet has changed her. She saves mirror Saru from being turned into sushi, reveals that she knows more about his species and their lifecycle than Saru expected and then pumps Saru for information. She also repeatedly gives mirror Michael the chance to confess that she has been plotting with Lorca, a chance that mirror Michael steadfastly refuses to take.

Things come to a head at the dedication ceremony of the Charon, Philippa’s huge flagship we saw back in season 1. Since the mirror universe is a whole parallel universe full of drama queens that makes Romulans look reasonable by comparison, the dedication ceremony comes with a Cirque de Soleil type stage production of the greatest deeds of Empress Philippa the Merciless narrated by none other than mirror Stamets himself. The climax of the production is supposed to be Stamets stabbing Philippa, but Philippa turns the tables on him and stabs him in the neck. Since mirror Stamets was still alive in season 1 of Discovery, which is set after “Terra Firma, Part I”, Philippa did success in changing history, though not exactly in the way she wanted.

Cause even when Philippa confronts Michael point blank about her conspiring with Lorca, mirror Michael is utterly unrepentant. She tells Philippa that she resents her and always has, for even though Philippa thinks that she saved Michael from a life of poverty atop a trash heap, mirror Michael would rather be the queen of the trash heap than crown princess of the Terran Empire. Yes, mirror Michael is an ungrateful little bitch. Philippa makes a great show of beheading mirror Michael, but then stops after drawing blood, but short of doing any real damage. Instead of executing Michael, she orders her taken to an agony booth. Cue credits.

Yes, this is a two-part episode, which is part of the problem with it. True, the mirror universe was fun in season 1 and the set and costume design are gorgeous to look at (and Philippa gave me tiara envy, cause I really want a tiara like hers now). Camestros Felapton calls it “the universe in which every shot looks like a Baen book cover”, though personally I find the mirror universe designs more reminiscent of Flash Gordon comics and the covers of the more disreputable science fiction pulps like Planet Stories or Startling Stories. The prime universe in Star Trek tends to have a bit of a sterile office park look, so I’m always happy to see mirror universe go full Art Deco gothic. Cause whatever else you can say about the mirror universe, they sure have style.

It was also fun seeing alternate versions of regular characters past and present. We finally get to see the real mirror Michael and the real Captain Killy rather than our Michael and our Tilly posing as them. We also get a glimpse of mirror Culber (whom we didn’t see in the season 1 mirror universe episodes, probably because his prime counterpart was dead at that point) in a blood red uniform. It was also nice seeing a version of Dettmer sans cybernetic implant, a fully human Airiam (played by Hannah Cheeseman, the actress who played Airiam in season 2) and the horrible woman security chief from season 1 (apparently that character’s name was Commander Landry) who was eaten by the tardigrade. Considering how deadly the mirror universe is, at least the core cast seems to live longer and healthier lives there.

The regular cast, particularly Sonequa Martin-Green and Mary Wiseman, clearly have a lot of fun playing their evil counterparts. However, a large part of the problem I had with this episode is that the mirror universe counterparts of the Discovery crew are simply horrible people with really heavy eyeshadow and dark lipstick (goth make-up seems to be the female equivalent of Spock’s goatee of evil in the original “Mirror, Mirror” episode). And indeed what makes the mirror universe work is the juxtaposition between our favourite characters and their evil twins and how the prime characters have to pretend to be evil to fit in,. However, “Terra Firma” has none of that. All we get is a bunch of horrible people played by actors we like and Philippa Georgiou of all people serving as the moral linchpin. And much as I like Michelle Yeoh, watching a bunch of evil people and one not quite so evil person running about is not all that thrilling. To quote AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen:

The Terrans are boring. They don’t even have the novelty of Klingon face ridges. They’re comically selfish and comically sadistic, like if the legions of Cobra (or S.P.H.I.N.X.) suddenly went live action and flew space missions.

One person we don’t get to see is Gabriel Lorca, even though his name is mentioned more often in this episode than it has been mentioned in all of season 2 and 3 to date. I do hope we get to see Jason Isaacs reprising his role as Lorca in part II, if only because full on evil Lorca is a lot of fun. Though even he was changed by his time in the prime universe, just like Philippa. After all, Lorca did seem to care about various crewmembers, even as he manipulated them. Besides, even though Lorca was a lying psychopath from the mirror universe, he was a fascinating character and he’s not at the bottom of my personal ranking of Star Trek captains. Lorca my have been evil, but at least he wasn’t dull or bland.

Another problem I had with this episode was that I don’t quite see the point of it all. Okay, so I understand that the main purpose of this episode is to get Philippa Georgiou from the 32nd century back into the 23rd, where she’s supposed to star in the Section 31 spin-off show. However, they could have accomplished this by just sending Philippa through the magical doorway into the Section 31 headquarters and having her announce, “Hell, I’m back and ready to take over the place. No, Mr. Tyler, Michael does not send her regards. She’s found someone else, someone who hasn’t yet killed anybody, is not a Klingon in a human body and does not have a Klingon secret baby either.” There’s absolutely no need to spend two episodes in the mirror universe, watching Philippa dodge horrible people with familiar faces, only to end up where we know she’ll end up anyway, back with Section 31. Especially since the mystery of the Burn and the danger posed by the Emerald Chain are rather more pressing issues at the moment.

Talking of which, Stamets and Adira have managed to decode the Starfleet distress signal that Michael and Tilly found emanating from a nebula that was also the source of the Burn. They show Saru and Tilly the decoded signal and find that it is a distress message from a female Kelpian scientist. Saru is fascinated by that signal and not just because he’s thrilled to have finally found another Kelpian in the future.

The scene between Stamets and Adira is brief, but I still love the relationship that’s developing between these two. Grumpy men suddenly finding themselves thrust into the parent role for a very special young person seems to be something of a pop culture trend right now and Stamets, Din Djarin, Geralt of Rivia and Jean-Luc Picard could form an “Unexpected fatherhood” support group.

There’s another mini B-plot in which Book seeks out Saru and basically applies for a job aboard Discovery. Saru still isn’t all that certain about Book, not to mention jealous, because Saru has been nursing a crush of sorts on Michael since the very first episode, though it took me a few episodes to catch on (and Michael still hasn’t caught on yet), so he blows him off with “Wait for your turn.”

And that’s it. Next week, it looks as if we’ll spend yet more time in the mirror universe and maybe get a few breadcrumbs regarding the mystery of the Burn and the nefarious plans of the Emerald Chain.

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3 Responses to Star Trek Discovery lands on “Terra Firma, Part I”

  1. Mark H says:

    Another good summary! Thanks!

    I enjoyed this season so far, but I really don’t like this particular 70s-style Nazi mirror universe. Maybe being German makes this particularly uncomfortable. I don’t know.

    I personally like characters with depth, which maybe are a little morally ambiguos. While I enjoyed this season so far, some of the characters turned a little too good and policitically correct for me during the last episodes. Now you have the mirror universe where everybody is just the evil and ugly version of themselves. I don’t think this intended, but these exaggarations overall flatten the characters for me – there are then just binary, either very good or very bad. So please Discovery, get out of there and concentrate on characterization and other more promising story lines again. Thank you!

    • Cora says:

      I’m not too keen on spending more time in the mirror universe either, especially since you’re right that they’re basically Nazis with a better dress sense (whereas the Empire in Star Wars are Nazis with just as bad a dress sense).

      I also agree that some shades of grey would be nice, since everybody in the prime universe except for the designated villains is good and noble and everybody in the mirror universe is evil.

      Anyway, glad you like my episode by episode posts.

  2. Pingback: Star Trek Discovery mounts a rescue mission and meets “Su’Kal” | Cora Buhlert

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