It’s time for this week’s episode by episode Star Trek Discovery review. For my takes on previous seasons and episodes, go here.
Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!
Whereas last week’s episode followed Michael’s explosive arrival 900 years in the future, this week’s episode follows the Discovery‘s equally explosive arrival.
“Far From Home” starts where season 2 left off, with the Discovery emerging from the wormhole and most of the crew knocked unconscious. This is a problem, because the Discovery is hurtling at full speed towards a planet. The bridge crew wakes up just in time to avert the worst, but the Discovery still crashes on the surface of an unknown planet that is definitely not Terralysium either (and once again portrayed by Iceland) in a thrilling scene. Is it me or has Discovery upped the ante with regard to effects heavy space scenes this season?
The combined efforts of the bridge crew manage to bring the Discovery down in one piece, but the ship is still badly damaged, rendering the sensors, much of the power supply as well as the internal and external comms useless, which means that the Discovery has no way of finding out where and when they have landed. Nor do they have any way of contacting Michael. Though the damaged scanners still function well enough for Tilly to find life, telling the Discovery crew that their mission to thwart the evil AI Control’s attempt to destroy all life in the universe was a success. Of course, the viewer already knows this from last episode, but the Discovery crew doesn’t.
However, several crewmembers have been injured, including the pilot Lieutenant Dettmer, who spends much of the episode wandering around in a daze, which might be PTSD or might be a sign that something is wrong with her cyber-implant (Shades of Control?). And while we’re on the subject of the bridge crew, which has been underserved by Discovery so far, it’s notable that those characters get more to do in this episode and are also fleshed out a little more. I can actually remember their names now rather than referring to them by monickers such as “cyborg woman” (Dettmer), “woman with awesome cornrows” (Owosegun), “cute black guy” (Bryce) or “cute Asian guy” (Rhys). And talking of underserved characters, Linus, the Reptilian crewmember with the sneezing problem, is back as well, as is the attractive black woman doctor. Though the only crewmember whose name is new in the credits is Rachael Ancheril as the security chief Commander Nhan. And come to think of it, the Discovery has gone through almost as many security chiefs as captains by now. First, there was that awful woman who was eaten by the tardigrade, then there was Ash Tyler, until he developed a split personality problem, and from season 2 on, there has been Commander Nhan. Since she’s in the credits now, I suspect she’s here to stay.
Meanwhile, Saru is still captain and is growing increasingly comfortable with his role. He tells the crew that before they can go out to explore the future and look for Michael, they must first repair the Discovery. And so the crew – those that are still able to walk, at any rate – go ahead to do just that. The repair efforts quickly run into a snag, when some gadget that is needed to restore the communication system is found to be broken and cannot be repaired without a mineral called rubidinum (not to be confused with rubidium, which is an alcalic metal and actual element of the periodic table). Luckily, there just happens to be a deposit of rubidinium on the planet. Even more luckily, there is a mining colony nearby.
Saru decides to head for that mining colony to trade for the Rubidinum and takes Tilly along, over the objections of Nhan and Georgiou. Because while Nhan and Georgiou might be a better choice to have on your side, in case there is a conflict, Saru isn’t looking for conflict. He wants to make a good first impression and, so he tells Tilly, Tilly is a wonderful first impression.
Can I take a moment to point out how awesome Saru has become? I know I was a bit hard on the character during season 1, largely because bad writing in the early episodes made Saru come across like a jerk. But by now Saru has been fleshed out and developed and is just a great character. Since his adventure in “An Obol for Charon” last season, his ever-present fear is gone, but Saru still retains his compassion and his understanding of others’ fear, e.g. Tilly’s, and will always seek a non-violent solution, if possible. However, Saru has also become a lot more confident, as evidenced by the fact that he stands up to Nhan and even Empress Philippa the Merciless herself – twice. Note, this is the same Philippa Georgiou who used to mainly view Saru as a tasty snack. And now she’s (reluctantly) taking orders from what to her is basically a piece of sushi. This is amazing character development. Saru is slowly but steadily creeping up in my personal ranking of favourite Star Trek captains. He is also – and this is something that gets overlooked a lot for some reason – pretty much the only non-human Starfleet captain we have ever seen. Cause for an organisation so committed to diversity, Starfleet is remarkably human led with the occasional high-ranking Vulcan admiral, who inevitably turns out to be a villain. See the Romulan pretending to be Vulcan admiral from Star Trek Picard or the Vulcan logic extremist admiral from season 2 of Discovery. What makes Saru even more amazing is how much character and emotion Doug Jones manages to bring to his role, even though he is covered in several kilos of prosthetic make-up, which shows once again what a huge injustice it was that Doug Jones was the only member of the main cast of The Shape of Water who did not get an Oscar nomination. In his review at Tor.com, Keith R.A. DeCandido agrees with me that Saru is awesome.
After a brisk walk through the beautiful Icelandic landscape (Discovery is really getting a lot of mileage out of that filming location), Saru and Tilly reach a very steampunky mining colony complete with a bucket-wheel excavator. But then bucket-wheel excavators look positively science fictional, especially if you’ve never seen one before. Saru and Tilly notice that they are being watched and follow the watcher, who leads them to a bar full of patrons who are not exactly happy to see them. Interestingly, given the revelations of last episode, the patrons in the bar are not only aware that the Discovery crashlanded on their planet (well, it’s kind of big and hard to miss), but also that the Discovery is a Starfleet ship.
Saru convinces the bar patrons that he and Tilly come in peace and persuades them to lower their weapons, but they’re still not particularly willing to help. That changes, when Tilly, who had detected warp-capable ships but no dilithium during her earlier scan, blurts out that they have dilithium. Considering how rare and valuable dilithium is in this brave new world of the 32nd century, the bar patrons are now willing to trade. A young man named Cal repairs the rubidinium doohickey and reveals his enthusiasm for Starfleet and his hope that one day, the Federation will come to help the beleaguered miners. He also takes a liking to Tilly, who almost gives herself away as a time traveller, when she is impressed by Cal’s nano repair technology.
The rest of the miners don’t share Cal’s faith in the Federation, though it also becomes clear that they are terrified not of Saru and Tilly, but of someone else. That someone else turns out to be a corrupt courier named Zaher, who brutally subjugates and exploits the miners. When an outraged Saru demands why the Federation doesn’t do anything about Zaher, he his met by derisive laughter and looks of “And where exactly have you been these past 150 years?”
No sooner is Zaher mentioned that he shows up in person, looking very much like a villain from a late 1960s Italian western. Just as “stranger(s) walk into a town beleagured by bandits/villains and help out” is a classic western plot that is the basis of The Magnificent Seven, Shane, For a Fistful of Dollars, Django and dozens of other classic westerns. Indeed, as Camestros Felapton also points out in his review, the mining colony scenes feel more like a Firefly type space western than Star Trek proper.
For even though Gene Roddenberry famously sold the original Star Trek to network executives as “Wagon Train to the Stars” and the word “Trek” in the franchise name hints at westerns, there aren’t a lot of western elements in Star Trek except for the occasional episode like “Spectre of the Gun”, where Kirk, Spock and the gang are forced to reenact the gunfight at the O.K. Coral as the losing side (coincidentally, this episode taught me, together with a long forgotten YA novel about the conflict between Sapin and England in the 16th century, that good guys and bad guys is often merely a matter of perspective, which is why I will always have a soft spot for it), and “The Paradise Syndrome”, where Kirks lands on a planet inhabited by indigenous stereotypes and falls in love with one of them. But otherwise, Star Trek dabbles a lot less in western tropes than many other SF TV series such as the original Battlestar Galactica, which had a lot of episodes shot on movie ranches and backlot western towns dressed up with Christmas lights (and of course, the original Commander Adama Lorne Greene was a western veteran best known for Bonanza, though he will always be the one and only true Adama to me), let alone Firefly or The Mandalorian. Of course, western and space opera mash-ups have a long history – Bat Durston notwithstanding – at least partly due to both genres developing around the same time and often being written by the same writers, but the space western is still a part of the larger science fiction genre that Star Trek has rarely explored, let alone successfully. In fact, it seems to me as if someone in the Discovery writers’ room is determined to explore all of those space opera tropes and subgenres that Star Trek has traditionally ignored. This is very good thing, because it allows Discovery to feel fresh even after 54 years of Star Trek.
Zaher wastes no time establishing himself as a villain. He shoots Cal, threatens Saru and harrasses Tilly. He also makes it very clear that he wants to Discovery for himself. Saru tries to negotiate and persuades Zaher to accept dilithium instead of taking the entire ship, but Zaher insists that Tilly goes out alone to get it. However, there is a catch, because night is about to fall. And the nameless planet, on which the Discovery crashlanded, is afflicted by an infestation of nocturnal parasitic ice, which devours and crushes everything in its path, including eventually the Discovery itself. On her own, Tilly has almost no chance against the substance.
Luckily for Saru and Tilly, Empress Philippa the Merciless has zero interest in following orders, let alone following orders from a tasty snack, and has followed Saru and Tilly. She confronts Zaher and points out correctly that the reason he is so eager to get the dilithium as well as Saru’s and Tilly’s equipment is that there is a bigger fish than Zaher who’s after the same thing. Meanwhile, Zaher has realised that Saru, Tilly and Georgiou are time travellers. Zaher shoots Georgiou with the same weapon he used to kill poor Cal, but Empress Philippa the Merciless is made of stronger stuff than that. She uses her mean martial arts skills to take out Zaher’s gang. Saru helps by shooting off some of the handy spikes that have grown where his danger-sensing ganglia used to be, while Tilly wisely hides behind the bar. Georgiou is about to kill Zaher, but Saru stops her, because they’re still Starfleet and killing random villains is not was Starfleet does. Grumblingly, Georgiou obeys. Evil mirror universe Empress or not, Michelle Yeoh continues to be a delight as Philippa Georgiou. It’s clear how much fun Michelle Yeoh is having. Also, Georgiou continues to hit on every sentient being in sight, including Nhan and Linus, the reptilian crewman. Part of me now wants to introduce Empress Philippa the Merciless to Captain Jack Harkness of Doctor Who and Torchwood fame, though I suspect the result would be too much even for HBO.
Saru tells the miner leader that Zaher is their problem and that it’s their place to decide what shall happen to him. The miner leader decides to chase Zaher out into the night and the parasitic ice, with exactly the same equipment he was going to give Tilly. Then the miner leader gives Saru a portable transporter to take him back to the Discovery, before she is devoured by the ice.
Meanwhile, aboard Discovery, the repairs are proceeding apace. Paul Stamets, who was injured in the season 2 finale (which I for one had completely forgotten) and in a medically induced coma, is woken up earlier than usual by his partner/husband Doctor Culber, because with all the crash casualties, the medical staff needs the bed. There is a kiss and a declaration of love and Culber also quickly fills in Stamets on what happened while he was out. Stamets, being Stamets, immediately wants to help with the repairs, but Culber tells him that he needs at least one cycle in a regeneration unit. But of course, Stamets – being Stamets – checks himself out of the sick bay and shows up in the engine room to help out Jet Reno, who was also injured during the crash, but is in better shape than Stamets.
Anthony Rapp as Paul Stamets and Tig Notaro as Jet Reno were a brilliant double act in season 2 and their banter continues to delight in this episode. There is a moment, where someone has to climb into a Jeffries tube to carry out a vital repair, but both Reno and Stamets are too injured to do the job. Stamets, being the stubborn sort, finally volunteers and climbs into the tube, when he almost passes out and his wound starts bleeding again. Reno and Culber, who is horrified to find Stamets gone, talk him through the repair job.
The sounds of the Discovery‘s hull straining under the pressure of the parasitic ice make a great ticking clock. But with Stamets repairing the doohickey in the Jeffries tube and Bryce replacing the rubidinium doohickey, the repairs are successful. The Discovery now has power and a functional communications system again and just in time, too, for the ice is about to devour the ship. Saru orders the still out of sorts Dettmer to take off, but the ice is too strong and the Discovery can’t get off the ground. A mystery vessel appears just in the nick of time and pulls out the Discovery with a tractor beam.
Saru suspects that this mystery vessel might be whoever Zaher was afraid of. But when the mystery vessel hails them and the bridge crew asks Saru what to do, fire or talk, Saru decides to talk. He answers the call and who appears on the bridge viewscreen other than Michael Burnham, rocking a great cornrow hairstyle that can give Owosegun’s a run for her money. Everybody is thrilled to see Michael, though Saru notes that her hair looks different (another great bit of acting here from Doug Jones, who perfectly conveys Saru’s mystification as a member of a hairless species what human hair is good for). Now Michael drops the bombshell. The Discovery arrived in the 32nd century a year after Michael did.
“Far From Home” is an all around great episode that gives the Discovery crew a chance to shine in a show that is all too often focussed mainly on Michael Burnham. The dialogue is a delight, whether it’s Tilly telling Georgiou that she has some Leland stuck to her shoe or an exasperated Doctor Culber telling Stamets that he wants him to live, so he can kill him himself, or an equally exasperated Reno replying to Stamets question why she just called him “bobcat”, “I don’t know. I’m on drugs.” The greatest strength of any Star Trek series have always been the characters and their interplay and Discovery has both in spades. I also want to give a shoutout to Gene, the young crewman who is tasked with what must be the worst job aboard the Discovery, cleaning up the remains of Leland from the spore drive chamber.
“Far From Home” is not a particularly complicated episode. It’s a simple story – the ship had crashed, vital components are needed and the crew walks into a standard western plot – that we have seen dozens of times before in other SF series. But Star Trek Discovery nonetheless manages to turn this simple and straightforward story into something memorable.
Two episodes in, it seems as if the overarching theme of this season is hope and the way that Starfleet and the Federation symbolise that hope to many inhabitants of a dystopian future, as James Whitbrook at io9 and Zack Handlen at the AV Club also point out in their reviews. Now I have always been sceptical of the Federation and saw it as a very flawed utopia at best. Nonetheless, after all the “dark Federation” and “evil Starfleet” subplots of earlier seasons of Discovery as well as Star Trek Picard, a universe which sees the Federation as the symbol of hope is a breath of fresh air.
Now the gang is back together, we will apparently visit Earth next episode. And I for one can’t wait.