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!
So far, the overarching plot of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery has been the search for what remains of the Federation and Starfleet. Thankfully, the writers are less determined to draw out that plot as long as the search for Spock in season 2, let alone the search for a direction for the show in season 1. And so the Discovery arrives at Starfleet headquarters at the beginning of “Die Trying”, since Adira finally remembered the coordinates now she has been reunited with the memories of the Tal symbiont.
If there has been one overarching theme this season, it’s that Discovery is never actually welcome wherever it goes. “Die Trying” does not break that trend, for when Discovery finally reaches the new cloaked Starfleet headquarters in deep space they’re not exactly given a warm welcome. Though at least no one is shooting at them this time, which is an improvement from Discovery‘s arrival in Earth orbit. Furthermore, the Discovery crew and the audience get to geek out over the various advanced Starfleet vessels, including a Constitution class vessel with detachable nacelles, a future Voyager, a USS Nog in a tribute to the late Aron Eisenberg who played Nog, the first Ferengi to join Starfleet, in Deep Space Nine, and a flying rain forest (shades of Silent Running, whose ship famously reappeared in the original Battlestar Galactica). Camestros Felapton calls this scene “starship porn” and that’s very much what it is. But we’re science fiction fans and we love ourselves some starship porn.
Saru, Michael and Adira (since she has Admiral Tal’s symbiont and memories) are beamed aboard the new Starfleet headquarters, where they are met by one Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr, looking very handsome indeed). Vance is harried and stressed out, trying to keep what’s left of Starfleet running. He tells Adira point-blank that while he was friends with Admiral Sanna Tal, he doesn’t know Adira from Adam and sends them to a medical evaluation. Vance listens to Michael and Saru’s story, but he doesn’t trust them. For starters, Starfleet records indicate that the Discovery was destroyed in the 23rd century and also make no mention of the spore drive. Saru and Michael explain that Starfleet likely erased all traces of the Discovery‘s time leap, the spore drive, the info dump sphere and Control from its archives. And indeed, the viewer knows that this is exactly what happened from the “We shall never speak of this again” scenes in the season 2 finale.
Another issue is that the Discovery and her crew are time travellers and that time travel has been outlawed in the 31st century following the Temporal Cold War we encountered (via one of its agents) in Star Trek: Enterprise. Now I would have understood, if they had never decided to mention that particular plot point again, considering Enterprise was not very good. Though it’s still nice to see it referenced here. However, since time travel is illegal now, Michael, Saru and the Discovery crew are theaoretically criminals. Saru points out that they had no way of knowing any of this (It seems Captain Archer really did never speak of his encounters with time agents a hundred years before Discovery again) and Michael also reminds Vance that she and the Discovery crew risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to save all life in the galaxy, but Vance is unmoved. After all, he has no way of knowing if Michael and Saru aren’t time agents after all.
And so Vance orders Michael, Saru and the Discovery crew to undergo an in-depth debriefing to make sure everybody’s stories match up. These debriefings are conducted by sophisticated holographic AIs (who shockingly do not turn out to be evil – yet) and lead to a lot of funny scenes. Tilly babbles, Jet Reno asks the hologram for nachos and Nhan just repeats her name, rank and serial number over and over again. When the hologram asks Stamets, if he considers himself essential personnel, he replies, “You haven’t been talking to Dettmer, have you?”
“You were dead?”, a hologram asks Hugh Culber, “Do you mean clinically?” “No, emotionally as well”, Culber, who gets a lot of great moments in this episode, replies, “Oh yes, and I was murdered. But I get along with my murderer now.” Honestly, I can’t even fault 32nd century Starfleet for being sceptical about the claims of the Discovery crew, because if you try to sum up the first two seasons of Discovery, the events really do sound insane.
However, the best holographic interrogation – pardon, debriefing – is that of Michelle Yeoh’s Empress Philippa Georgiou. The 32nd century medical scans quickly reveal that she’s from the Mirror Universe and so the holograms of course want to know what she’s doing aboard Discovery. However, Empress Philippa the Merciless is not talking to holograms, though she does reveal that she had an affair with Leland who eventually became the evil AI Control. And so she throws them off balance by blinking several times in rapid sequence and finally causes them to fizz out, whereupon the man behind the curtain (quite literally) reveals himself, a white-haired gentleman wearing thick-rimmed glasses who looks as if he wandered onto the set from a later season episode of Mad Men. Throughout the episode I kept wondering why the actor looked so familiar (Camestros Felapton initially suspected it was Ted Danson), until the end credits revealed the truth. That was David Cronenberg, legendary director of avantgarde horror films, who is about as unlikely to appear in an episode of Star Trek as Werner Herzog was to appear in Star Wars.
The verbal sparring between Philippa Georgiou and David Cronenberg’s character is a pure delight and Cronenberg’s character is probably the only person in two universes who ever won a verbal duel with Philippa Georgiou. For Cronenberg’s character, who knows a lot about the Mirror Universe, not only correctly deduces that Philippa the Merciless – the woman who cares about nothing and no one except power – clearly cares about someone aboard the Discovery, he also drops the bombshell that the Terran Empire fell centuries ago (well, Mirror Spock predicted that it would) and that the Mirror and the Prime Universe are drifting further apart and that crossings haven’t been possible in more than 500 years (which suggests that Deep Space Nine‘s Mirror Universe shenangigans may have been among the last contacts), so Philippa is all alone and cannot go back. This clearly affects Philippa much more than you’d think, as evidenced by the fact that she sort of zones out, when Michael wants to talk to her.
The question now is who is David Cronenberg’s shadowy character with a fashion sense that’s more than a thousand years out of date? Is he Section 31? Cause I bet that they’re still around in the 32nd century. Is he from the Mirror Universe himself and is that why he knows so much about it? Is a time traveller or time agents wandering around in front of Starfleet’s very noses? I really hope we’ll see him again and find out.
Admiral Vance eventually comes to the conclusion that while the Discovery and her spore drive are useful, the only person they need to operate it is Stamets. They don’t really need the rest of the crew, especially since they are all traumatised and not exactly trustworthy from Vance’s POV. And so Vance plans to reassign them to other duties. Both Saru and Michael are obviously not at all happy about this, though Michael is a lot more blunt about expressing her displeasure, much to Saru’s chagrin.
This leads to one of several conversation between Saru and Michael throughout the episode, where Saru berates Michael for her impulsiveness and her tendency to talk back to superior officers. Which makes me wonder why exactly is Saru surprised by Michael’s behaviour? After all, Michael has always been a maverick who does what she thinks is right, often without even informing others about her plans first, and for whom order are only optional suggestions. And no matter how often Michael gets in trouble for it – which Saru actually reminds her of – she’ll keep doing it. And Spock is exactly the same, someone who also does what he thinks is right, orders, regulations and laws be damned. I do wonder from which parents Michael and Spock got it, from Sarek or Amanda. Or did Spock copy Michael’s behaviour, because he privately idolises his older sister and wants to be just like her, even if he is no longer allowed to talk about her in public?
I always find it fascinating how different people – both in the show as well as viewers and critics – react to Spock and Michael, even though they’re very similar characters. But while everybody loves Spock, even those who find themselves at the receiving end of his behaviour, Michael gets a lot of criticism. See AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen who calls her an insensitive idiot for her behaviour towards Vance, while iO9 reviewer James Whitbrook wonders whether it’s Michael’s year in the wilderness that makes her behave as she does.
Personally, I think that while Michael’s year in the wilderness may have exacerbated her maverick tendencies, but they have always been part of the character from day one. After all, Michael had pretty much the same discussion with Saru and the Philippa Georgiou from our universe way back in the very first episode and we all know how that ended. However, what Michael’s year in the wilderness has done is cause her to loose some of her illusions about Starfleet. Because even though Starfleet never really lived up to its ideals and has personally screwed Michael over several times, Michael has always believed in the ideals of Starfleet. Now, however, she basically tells Saru that to her, Starfleet is the people and not so much abstract ideal, which actually matches how I view Star Trek in general. I’ve always viewed Starfleet and the Federation critically and the reason I keep watching Star Trek, unless it gets too bad (later seasons of Enterprise and Deep Space Nine), are the characters. Saru, on the other hand, still believes in Starfleet’s lofty ideals and uses a very simplified example of comparing the so-called “Dark Ages” (which we now know is a misnomer) to the Renaissance to explain why. Though I won’t quibble with Saru’s rather simplified view of history, because he’s after all an alien, the first and only of his species, who was rescued by humans representing Starfleet, and thus swallowed human and Starfleet propaganda hook, line and sinker. And indeed Saru’s joy on hearing that his homeworld joined the Federation (as did Nhan’s, who is similarly overjoyed about this) is touching.
That said, while I applaud Michael for finally viewing Starfleet a bit more critical, Admiral Vance is actually one of the most likeable Starfleet admirals we’ve ever met. Yes, he’s sceptical of Discovery, her crew and their motives, but then he has a good reason to be. And unlike most other high-ranking Starfleet officers we’ve met, he’s not an arsehole or an isolationist or xenophobic jerk or – heavens beware – a traitor, which is actually a refreshing change, as Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out.
Which brings us to the actual plot of the episode. And yes, there is one. For it turns out that the Discovery is not the only problem Starfleet headquarters are dealing with. They have also been hit by an influx of alien refugees, who are all infected with some kind of disease that’s slowly killing them. And because the refugees passed through many different planets on their way to Starfleet headquarters, no one knows where they picked up the disease, let alone how to cure it.
Michael is determined to solve this mystery and also show Vance what Discovery and her crew can do. And so she decides to pilfer the list of planets that the aliens visited, before Saru reminds her that maybe asking would be a better approach. Vance insists he doesn’t need help, though he does hand over the list. And indeed, Michael and Saru use their 23rd century knowledge to pick out on which planet the disease originated. For one of the worlds on that list has been flagged by Starfleet in the 23rd century as badly polluted, which caused the local plant and animal life to mutate. This knowledge was lost over the centuries and when the refugee aliens landed, they unwisely ate the plantlife and became ill.
In order to develop a cure, Starfleet needs an uncontaminated and unmutated sample of the plantlife from the plague planet. Luckily, the Federation created a flying seed vault (modelled after the real world Svalbard Global Seed Vault), which contains samples of all plantlike from all worlds in the Federation. Even more luckily, that seed vault was not destroyed by the burn, but is still around, though inaccessible to Starfleet, because it’s too far away. However, Discovery can travel anywhere in the universe nigh instantly due to its spore drive. And so Michael takes Discovery – with the entire crew plus two of Vance’s security officers as watchdogs – to the seed vault, while Saru stays behind as a hostage. I wonder what Vance was going to do with him, if Michael had not reappeared with Discovery? Fed him to Georgiou?
The seed vault ship is trapped inside an ion storm, so Discovery has to fly in and pull it out with her tractor beam. Dettmer’s PTSD flares up, but gets under control soon quickly enough to allow her to pull off that dangerous operation. Meanwhile, Vance’s aide, one Lieutenant Willa, gets a first hand example that though Discovery‘s methods are very unorthodox (“Your relationship is not very professional”, Willa remarks, when faced with Stamets, Jet Reno and Tilly bickering, while solving problems), they get things done.
Now “Red-blooded person/people from the past end up in a bloodless future and show them how things are done and rejuvenate said bloodless future” is a very old science fiction trope that goes back at least to Buck Rogers and Philip Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. in 1928. The 1993 movie Demolition Man is a latter day example. Again, this is a trope which Star Trek has never really done. It will be interesting to see how they handle it.
The seed vault has caretakers, which rotate at regular intervals. And the current caretakers just happen to be a scientist and his family from Nhan’s homeworld, which wasn’t even part of the Federation when Discovery left – Nhan was the first and only one of her kind to join Starfleet. So Michael, Doctor Culber (in case someone needs medical attention) and Nhan beam aboard the seed vault, where Nhan can finally ditch her breathing apparatus. Aboard the seed vault ship, they find a jungle, which suggests that some of the seeds got out and sprouted, but otherwise the place seems deserted. They finally find the family enjoying some quality time, but they’re only holographic projections. And when they finally find the real family, the mother and the two children are in cryostasis, though Hugh Culber determines that they’re already dead. The father is missing, though he does show up when Michael beams into the seed vault and attacks her. He also seems to be having problems, because he phases in and out of existence.
Aboard Discovery, Stamets, Reno and Tilly determine that the seed vault ship was hit by a coronal mass ejection – or a solar burp, as Tilly calls it – and that the resulting radiation killed the mother and the children. The father survived, because he was in mid-transport, when it happened, but was knocked out of phase. I can’t be the only one who wonders what the radiation did to the seeds and the plants and if the seeds are even still usable, but the episode never adresses it. The Discovery crew manage to put the grieving father back together, but he’s basically catatonic and unable to help. Too bad that his voice print is needed to retrieve the seeds. Nhan and Michael try to comfort him and Nhan explains that her culture values family extremely highly and would basically do everything for their children. Meanwhile, Culber points that there is nothing that can be done for the man’s family – they’re dead. Which makes me wonder how he can know that 32nd century medical technology can’t revive those people. Especially considering that Doctor Culber himself was very definitely dead and still got better.
Michael eventually does get through to the grieving father by telling him that the antidote synthesised from the seeds will save other families. Culber wants to beam the man aboard Discovery for treatment, but he refuses. He’ll stay with his family, even if that means death by radiation sickness. Michael and Nhan want to honour his wish, but there is one problem. With the caretakers dead, who will watch over the seed vault? And so Nhan volunteers to stay behind to take the caretaker’s place. It’s a decision that literally comes out of nowhere, because until this episode, we knew next to nothing about Nhan. Which is very reminiscent about the way Airiam was written out last season – in an episode which also featured Nhan more than usual – where we also only learned more about the character in the episode she was killed off. And now that we finally learn a bit more about Nhan and her background, she is written out as well, which is even more of a surprise, since actress Rachel Ancheril has only been promoted to the opening credits this season. Of course, Wilson Cruz was only promoted to the opening credits after his character was already dead, so we may see Nhan again. Though I am very worried about Kayla Dettmer now, because finally getting some character development is apparently dangerous to your health in Star Trek Discovery. As is being promoted to security chief, because Discovery has gone through three of them already (that horrible woman who was eaten by the tardigrade, Ash Tyler and now Nhan).
The Discovery returns to Starfleet headquarters in triumph – and sans Nhan. The aliens are cured and Admiral Vance finally accepts that yes, Discovery can help him put Starfleet and the Federation back together. And so things end on an optimistic note – or do they? For Michael has noticed a mystery. Cause Adira played the very same melody on her cello that the caretaker family sang aboard the seed vault ship, even though the characters lived in different sectors of space and should never have encountered each other, let alone the same melody. Even more intriguing is that everybody in the future seems to know that song. Of course, there are plenty of melodies in our world that almost everybody around the world knows – “Happy Birthday”, “Ode to Joy”, “Silent Night”, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “The Blue Danube”, “Yesterday”, etc… – that a time traveller from nine hundred years in the past would not recognise. Maybe the mystery song was simply the hottest viral pop hit in the galaxy just before the burn. Still, it does plant a new mystery for the Discovery crew to resolve.
This is another episode of Discovery that’s perfectly fine and entertaining (and gorgeous to look at), even though it’s not exactly a standout. As Camestros Felapton points out in his review, the quality of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery has been consistently good with not a bad episode among them. It seems Discovery has finally found its feet after one and a half seasons, which is a very good thing. And next week, we apparently meet Book again, who is my favourite of the new characters introduced this season (sorry, Adira and Gray).