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!
Now that Discovery has successfully rejoined Starfleet, the ship gets a technology update. The nacelles are detachable now, the consoles have been retrofitted with programmable matter and the crew get new badges, which double as communicators, personal transporters, tricorders and holographic emitters. Everybody geeks out about the cool new future science except for Dettmer, who’s still not herself, and Linus whose personal transporter keeps taking him to the wrong location. Poor Linus seems to be the designated comic relief in this crew. Not that Discovery doesn’t need the occasional comic relief, but maybe someone else could do the butt of the jokes once in a while?
Stamets is also not all that happy with his engine room being rearranged, though he does like the improvements Adira has made to the spore drive interface, which also allow him to ditch the implants he needed to operate the spore drive. Stamets also notes that Adira seems to be lonely and that they are talking to themselves. Though we know that Adira is really talking to their late boyfriend Gray whom they can see, even if no one else can. Stamets asks Adira what’s going on and actually gets them to open up to him, which leads to a sweet scene of Stamets and Adira bonding over the shared loss of a loved one who wasn’t fully gone after all. This is only the B-plot of this episode, but it’s very sweet one and gives Stamets, Culber and Adira some extra character development, too. And yes, I’d love to see Stamets and Culber adopting Adira (and Gray).
Even though Discovery has a lot of cool new tech and the only functioning drive in the galaxy that can cross large distances in the blink of an eye, Admiral Vance, who appears to be a new recurrent character, keeps them in reserve for emergencies, because Starfleet is having trouble with an Orion crime syndicate called the Emerald Chain.
More trouble is coming, when Discovery suddenly finds herself hailed by a ship from outside the Starfleet headquarters distortion field. When they answer the call, the bridge crew find themselves faced with none other than Grudge, Book’s very large and very fluffy cat.
It turns out that Book sent his ship and Grudge on autopilot to find Discovery, which begs the question how he knows where to find them, since the location of Starfleet headquarters is supposed to be secret and even Discovery herself took three episodes to find them. Also, with dilithium so rare and long range trips extremely difficult, how exactly did Book get enough dilithium to send his cat to Michael? It’s a question that’s never really adressed, because “Scavengers” has other things to do. Because the ship (Did it ever get a name?) carries not just Grudge, but also a holographic message from Book.
Book tells Michael that he found another black box – yes, flight recorders are still called black boxes in the 32nd century – of a Starfleet ship destroyed in the Burn on some planet and that he’ll get it for Michael. If he doesn’t come back in a week, he’s setting the ship on autopilot to bring Grudge to Michael. Since Book’s ship and Grudge are now here, Book obviously did not come back and is very likely in trouble.
Michael of course wants to go after him. For starters, she owes Book (and she also likes him, though she doesn’t want to admit it). And besides, Michael really needs that black box to find out what caused the Burn. Because if the Burn destroyed all dilithium using ships in the galaxy at the same time, all flight recorders should have stopped recording at the same time. However, the two surviving black boxes of Starfleet ships Michael found during her year in the wilderness both stopped recording at different times, which suggests that the Burn didn’t happen everywhere at once, but that it started somewhere and then spread. Michael believes that if she can find a third black box, she can triangulate that starting point and hopefully find out how the Burn happened.
Michael explains all this to Saru to convince him to let the Discovery go after Book. However, Saru responds that they are on call and have to be ready to take off anytime within 48 hours to deal with the Emerald Chain problem. Saru also thinks that a single holographic message and a cat won’t sway Admiral Vance, albeit without asking him first.
So Michael, being Michael, does what she always does and goes off to rescue Book and retrieve the black box anyway. Though she at least takes along Philippa Georgiou who tells her, “You had me at unsanctioned mission.” However, unbeknowst to Michael, Philippa is still suffering from occasional blackouts, which are accompanied by flashbacks (flash forwards/flash sideways?) of someone getting stabbed and someone screaming. Those visions are brief and there is some debate about what exactly Philippa is seeing here. Is it a traumatic memory of the mirror universe? Is it a premonition of things to come? Is she experiencing the death of her prime universe counterpart?
That said, when Philippa Georgiou is not having blackouts and weird visions, she is still the Empress Philippa the Merciless we all know and love. And so she and Michael borrow Book’s ship to fly to the planet where Book was last headed, posing as dilithium dealers. Meanwhile, Philippa teases Michael mercilessly about her feelings for Book (of course, Michael denies that she has any) and her questionable taste in men (Michael basically goes for hot bad boys, first the secret undercover Klingon Ash Tyler and now space outlaw Cleveland Booker). She also calls Book “the blob whisperer” and when Michael counters that transworms are not blobs, Georgiou replies that she was referring to Grudge.
Upon approaching the planet, Michael and Philippa are hailed by an Orion named Tolor who runs the local salvage operation (and is the nephew of an Orion crime boss, it turns out) who tries to keep them from beaming down and instead points them to the exchange where all deals are handled. Georgiou, however, bullies him into letting them beam down anyway and then continues to give her best Galactic tyrant cum crime lord impression. Michelle Yeoh is clearly having a lot of fun in these scenes.
The planet (if it ever gets a name, I don’t recall it) is a scavenging operation portrayed by some kind of quarry or sandpit. The actual work is done by slaves who are kept in line by an implant at the back of their necks which makes their heads explode (demonstrated quite gorily on an unfortunate Bajoran slave). The guy who is forced to install the implants is an Andorian named Ryn. Ryn is a former member of the crime syndicate. When he tried to incite a slave rebellion, he had his antennae chopped off for his trouble and was given the job of installing the discs, which makes all slaves hate him and thus reduces the chance of further rebellions.
Book, of course, has been captured and also turned into a slave. He and Michael cast longing looks at each other that thankfully escape Tolor, but not the antennaless Andorian Ryn. Georgiou sends her supposed employee Michael off to inspect some salvaged equipment with helpful slave Book, giving them some time to catch up. Book and Michael hug, Book tells Michael that she shouldn’t have come and should just forget about him, Michael tells him that she’ll free him and everybody else. Book tells her that he did manage to hide the black box away (they’re about the size of a ball pen in the 32nd century) and also that they’ll have to make whatever move they’re going to make in 45 minutes, before the shift ends and the slaves are sent back to their living quarters.
Georgiou figures out where Tolor is keeping the controller for the slave implants, namely in his pocket. She also manages to assemble a weapon from some scrap and then provokes Tolor to have her and Michael arrested, so they can get to the command centre. Meanwhile, Book and Ryn are rallying the slaves and telling them to be ready for the great escape.
At first, everything goes as planned. In the command centre, Georgiou and Michael show off their martial arts skills and take out the guards. But then, Philippa Georgiou experiences another blackout/flashback at the worst possible time and briefly passes out, while Michael is having an unexpectedly difficult time dealing with Tolor. Meanwhile, the slaves are trapped between a rock and a hard place, when the perimenter fence does not go down in time, while the Andorian guards are in hot pursuit. Tolor has his hands on Michael’s throat and all seems lost, when Georgiou finally recovers, knocks out Tolor, grabs the controller and switches off the perimeter fence. The slaves leg it for a convenient transport vessel, while Georgiou and Michael use Book’s ship to blast the slavers and their base to smithereens.
Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido is a bit bothered by this, because blowing up things and people is not the Star Trek way and who knows how many of the other guards were hapless conscripts like Ryn? I’m not a huge fan of the indiscriminate slaughtering of random guards and henchpeople myself and try to minimise it in my own fiction. However, I also am not particularly sorry about some slavers getting blown up (and in true Hollywood action movie style, we don’t actually know if they’re dead). Not to mention that the wholesale slaughter of Stormtroopers over in Star Wars, whom we know are either brainwashed and conditioned clones or forcibly conscripted and conditioned child soldiers, is much more problematic and yet attracts comparatively little criticism. So in short, occasionally it’s okay to blow up the bad guys, especially when they’re happily shooting at the good guys and are much better shots than Stormtroopers on average.
One of the Andorian guards takes aim at Book, but Ryn throws himself in front of book and takes the blast in the chest. He’s near death, when Michael beams Book and Ryn aboard the ship, but luckily Ryn gets better due to the miracles of 32nd century medicine. We don’t actually learn what happened to the liberated slaves, though I hope that Starfleet either sent them home, if they have one, or found a place for them to settle somewhere, if not.
In his review of the episode, Camestros Felapton points out that the whole slave liberation plot seems rather familiar, a story that has been told dozens of times before. And indeed, it is. However – and that’s the interesting thing – it’s not a story that Star Trek has told particularly often before and certainly not with lots of explosions and bad guys getting blown up. Indeed, “Scavengers” is Star Trek doing a 1940s Leigh Brackett style planetary romance. In fact, Leigh Brackett wrote several stories about evil corporations – including everybody’s favourite, the Terran Exploitation Company (Recruitment slogan: “Why work for the lesser evil, when you can work for us?”), and the barely more likeable Terro-Venusian Mining – kidnapping and enslaving people and aliens to work in mines. The 1945 Retro Hugo winnes for Best Novel Shadow Over Mars has a slave uprising and prison break scene, as does the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist for Best Novelette “Citadel of Lost Ships” and the 1949 Eric John Stark adventure “Enchantress of Venus”. All three stories feature depicable villains, heroic sacrifices and space rogues who are the distant granddaddies of Cleveland Booker.
Even though Leigh Brackett’s influence on today’s space opera genre is huge, it is far more notable in Star Wars and latter day works like Firefly or Guardians of the Galaxy than in Star Trek, probably because Gene Roddenberry still bought the old chestnut that “the space opera and planetary romance of the golden age was forgettable trash and just westerns in space” hook, line and sinker and so the original Star Trek was far more influenced by the sort of serious business science fiction found in mags like Astounding or Galaxy.
But even though season 3 of Discovery has been a lot more consistent than previous seasons, it does seem to alternate between episodes that are very typically Star Trek (“People of the Earth”, “Forget Me Not”, “Die Trying”) and those which draw on space opera tropes which have not been explored in Star Trek a whole lot (“That Hope Is You”, “Far From Home”, “Scavengers”). I for one like this approach, because it gives Star Trek Discovery a chance to spread its wings a little rather than rehashing plots that have already been done ad nauseam in the original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. “Scavengers” was Star Trek Discovery doing a Leigh Brackett type story and I for one enjoyed it a whole lot.
However, Michael is not a character in a Leigh Brackett story of the 1940s, but in a 21st century Star Trek series. And so there must be consequences for her behaviour, because we can’t possibly have Starfleet officers running around liberating slaves that Starfleet couldn’t be bothered to help (to be fair, Starfleet is busy and overstretched as it is). Therefore, Tilly goes to visit Michael in her quarters and finds only Grudge. After having ascertained that Grudge has not eaten Michael and being used by Grudge as a convenient cat toy/climbing aid in a delightful scene (and Tilly stresses that she is not a cat person), Tilly alerts Saru that Michael is missing. Saru is very disappointed, his trust in Michael as severely damaged as it hasn’t been since the last hours of the Shenzhou. Saru also wonders whether he should inform Admiral Vance and Tilly, who’s supposed to be Michael’s best friend after all, tells him that he should, because otherwise all of Discovery will be blamed for Michael being Michael.
I don’t blame Saru for being more cautious and rule-following, because that fits his character. And Saru is a very good captain, even if he is not James T. Kirk. However, Saru has known Michael for years. He should know by now what she’s like and that she’ll always do what she thinks is right, chain of command and consequences be damned. If that’s such a problem for him, then why the hell did he ask her to be his first officer in the first place? Also, Michael did come to Saru first and he turned her down, even though he should know her well enough to know that she’ll do it anyway, because that’s who she is. And in fact, if Saru or Tilly or Stamets or even Linus or any member of the bridge crew ever found themselves in trouble, Michael will move heaven and Earth to rescue them, consequences be damned, because that’s who she is. I would have thought that Saru knows this by now. I also wonder just why it’s such an issue that Discovery might have to go into action without a first officer, because Saru has handled Discovery without a first officer lots of times by now and he always pulled it off, because he is good at his job.
Anyway, once Michael gets back with Georgiou, Book and Ryn, she gets a dressing down courtesy of Admiral Vance, though at least she gets to snog Book in the turbolift first, even though they are briefly interrupted by Linus, who still hasn’t figured out how his transporter works. Though Vance is a fair person by the admittedly low standards of Starfleet admirals and so he tells off Saru, too, for not even bothering to tell him about Michael’s plan, but just assuming the Admiral would have said “no”. Though he makes it very clear that he would have said “no”, because Starfleet doesn’t have the resources to determine the reason for and source of the Burn. Michael points out – quite rightly – that if they don’t know what the hell happened and how to prevent it from happening again, they will never be able to rebuild the Federation, but Admiral Vance isn’t having any of that.
What follows is an awkward scene of Saru demoting Michael to science officer again, though he at least admits that Michael made it clear that she didn’t really want the job in the first place. AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen and io9 reviewer James Whitbrook, neither of whom are big Michael Burnham fans, both quite like this development and some of the commenters are pissing themselves with joy, because Michael finally experiences consequences for her actions. Meanwhile, I found the last ten minutes or so of the episode actively unpleasant, because I hate “military person gets dressed down by superior” scenes in general. And the one time I wrote one (in the final chapter of Honourable Enemies) I wrote it from the POV of the person getting dressed down and made it very clear that the superior doing the dressing down is an awful person.
There’s even a third “Michael gets dressed down/humiliated by an authority figure” scene in “Scavengers”, when Michael confronts Philippa Georgiou about her blackouts. Georgiou confesses that they have been happening with increasing frequency and when Michael asks her why she didn’t tell anybody, not even her, Philippa replies that there was another Michael Burnham in the mirror universe who asked Georgiou to trust her and then beytrayed her. Of course, Empress Philippa the Merciless not trusting anybody makes sense for the character. But why bring up the betrayal of Mirror Michael (if that’s what it was, since we have only Lorca’s word for what happened and he’s not exactly trustworthy), considering Mirror Michael is supposedly dead and Prime Michael a very different person? In fact, those parts of the episode feel very much like, “Hey, remember season 1. Cause we sure do.”
That said, Michael getting demoted is a much more reasonable response to her behaviour than throwing her in a slave prison (maybe that’s why the Federation isn’t particularly bothered by the Orions using slave labour, because they used to do it, too) for life. And unlike season 1, I sympathise with the POVs of Saru and Admiral Vance as well here. All of these people (and Kelpians) are just trying to do their best. And a large part of the problem here is that these people just don’t talk to each other, because a lot of trouble could have been avoided that way (and indeed note how much better the Stamets and Adira subplot went, because these two decided to trust each other and talk to each other). Discovery was only on call for 48 hours and Book and the other slaves would likely have survived another two days. Not to mention that Starfleet could have sent another ship to rescue Book, liberate the slaves and acquire the black box. Which is why this whole duty versus personal loyalty conflict feels a bit contrived, because it didn’t need to be a conflict.
Also, Star Trek does have a long history of maverick captains and officers, including Michael’s brother Spock, ignoring orders to do what they feel is right. And all of those maverick captains and officers have almost never gotten in trouble for their actions (and they did, e.g. “The Menagerie”, it was very clear that Starfleet was in the wrong), even if those actions were truly questionable or flat out wrong like Sisko’s in “In the Pale Moonlight”, an episode that is ironically beloved, though I always disliked it. So why the Michael hate in certain quarters, when she’s only doing what pretty much every other Star Trek captain or first officer before her has done as well? Not to mention that other filmic space operas like Star Wars or the original Battlestar Galactica (not to mention Raumpatrouille Orion) were full of characters who flat out ignored orders (in the case of Apollo and Starbuck in the original Galactica with the tacit approvement of Commander Adama and Colonel Tight) at times.
Now growing up in postwar (West) Germany, blindly following orders was never a good thing. Indeed, we saw plenty of elderly Nazis and not so elderly border shooters play the “But I was just following orders” card and largely not get away with it. Of course, there was also the underlying message of “Well, the Nazis and Communists gave evil orders, but our orders are good, because we are a democratic state, not that we allow you to vote, because you’re too young and can’t be trusted.” However, I and many others were sceptical and decided that nobody’s orders should be followed blindly.
People in the US and the UK don’t have that socialisation and they also grow up with a much stronger glorification of the military than we do. And in this light, it’s notable how many maverick heroes US pop culture has produced in spite of this. Though Star Trek has its roots in the 1960s, which were extremely critical of authority figures everywhere, while Star Wars has close ties to the anti-Vietnam War movement and the counterculture of the 1970s. Battlestar Galactica grew out of this same milieu, though it’s much more pro-military (and very much anti nuclear disarmament, which went completely over my head as a kid). However, as I’ve noted here, maverick heroes seem to be in decline and even General Leia Organa now insists on others following orders, when she never much bothered with that sort of thing herself.
I have said before that my ultimate yardstick for the moral behaviour of spaceship captains is not “What would Kirk do?” or “What would Picard do?”, but “What would Commander MacLane do?” And Michael’s actions in “Scavengers” absolutely pass that test.
That said, I am beginning to believe that Starfleet maybe isn’t the right place for Michael and probably never was in the first place, especially since it’s obvious that she only joined in the first place to impress Sarek. And season 3 does a good job of showing Michael’s ambivalence towards Starfleet, especially after a year of being free of orders and admirals.
However, I’m not sure where the series is going with this. Because even if Michael is probably better off outside Starfleet, i sincerely doubt that they’ll have her quit, since she’s the star (unless Sonequa Martin-Green, who just had a baby after all, wants out). Of course, Star Trek doesn’t necessarily have to tell only stories that involve Starfleet, just as Star Wars doesn’t only have to tell only stories that involve Jedi and people named Skywalker. But while Star Trek: The Adventures of Michael, Book and Grudge – Space Rogues and Star Trek Discovery would both be fun shows, a single show can’t really be both.