Star Trek Discovery a.k.a. the Adventures of Empress Philippa the No Longer Quite So Merciless on “Terra Firma, Part II”

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!

Part II of “Terra Firma” continues where Part I left off. Philippa Georgiou is back in the mirror universe (even the title credits are upside down and in a different colour this time around, which is a nice touch), only to find that she no longer fits in, because her time aboard Discovery has changed her irrevocably. And so, once she gets wind of Mirror Michael conspiring with Lorca to depose the Empress, she does not execute Michael, but has her taken to an agonizer booth instead.

When Mirror Tilly a.k.a. Captain Killy asks why the traitor Michael Burnham is still wasting oxygen on her ship, Georgiou responds that she intends to break Michael as an example to the other conspirators among the ranks. Not that those conspirators will have much time to learn whatever lesson Georgiou decides to impart, because Georgiou is fully confident that Michael will give up her con-conspirators, so they can be executed.

And so almost half of the episode consists solely of scenes of Michael in a cell and Michael getting tortured over and over again, while Georgiou watches regretfully from her private chambers. However, Michael has been naughty and therefore must be taught a lesson for her own good.

Those who’ve read my fiction will be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan of extended torture scenes. I have no issue with the torture scenes I write myself, but I don’t really like watching or reading most torture scenes written by others. And for some reason, I really, really dislike it when Star Trek does torture scenes, because that’s not what I watch Star Trek for. For example, I intensely dislike the famous Next Generation episode “Chain of Command” a.ka. the one where Picard gets tortured a lot. And the first half of part II of “Terra Firma” basically is “Chain of Command” all over again, except that we don’t particularly care what happens to Mirror Michael, because Mirror Michael is fucking evil. Never mind that, as Camestros Felapton points out in his review, brutally torturing someone to break them and turn them into a loyal supporter is completely fucked up, even if it doesn’t work out in the end.

Eventually, Mirror Michael gives in or at least pretends to. She falls to her knees infront of the Empress and begs her forgiveness. And Georgiou grants her forgiveness, though she does insists that Michael execute all her co-conspirators aboard the Mirror Discovery by her own hand. Mirror Michael does get to keep Mirror Dettmer, though. And for that matter, am I the only one who was getting some lesbian vibes from Mirror Michael and Mirror Dettmer? After all, we know that everybody in the Mirror Universe is apparently bisexual. Though I don’t like the implications of equating bisexuality with evil at all.

We are now treated to one of the few satisfying scenes in this episode, as Mirror Michael and Mirror Dettmer proceed to take out Commander Landry, former security chief of the Discovery, whose equally unpleasant prime universe counterpart was eaten by the tardigrade. Though considering how awful Prime Landry was, maybe Mirror Universe Landry was actually not evil or at least slightly less evil.

Meanwhile, Philippa is turning out to be slightly less evil herself. For starters, she deals with an alliance of non-human races against the Terran Empire by intrigue rather than brute force. Furthermore, she has banned the eating of Kelpian meat, supposedly because it’s unhealthy. She’s also made Mirror Saru, probably the only Mirror Universe character who is not evil, her personal servant and actually takes an interest in him. When Mirror Saru experiences the first symptoms of the vaharai, Georgiou informs him that no, he is not dying, but will emerge stronger than before. She also tells him that she saw another Kelpian go through the vaharai and survive to become the captain of a starship. Saru, who’s smart in any universe, figures out that Georgiou is not from around here and tells her to go back to where she came from, lest she be killed. However, Georgiou is confident that she has everything in hand and that she will yet triumph. She’s wrong.

Once Michael has taken out all her former co-conspirators, including the faithful Dettmer, whom she stabs, while at the dinner table with Georgiou, only Lorca remains still at large. And if you thought that we’d actually see Lorca, well, then you thought wrong. Because we don’t get to see Lorca, but only one of his associates, a never before seen or mentioned character. The Discovery tracks this associate to Riesa, that infamous pleasure planet from several Next Generation episodes, and beams him straight into the brig.

Now Mirror Michael shows her true colours. For you see, she only pretended to come around to Georgiou’s point of view to give the Empress a false sense of security. And the co-conspirators Michael killed were not all of them. For Michael has been conspiring with Mirror Culber, Mirror Rhys, Mirror Nielsen and Mirror Airiam (who is not a cyborg) to depose Georgiou. When Georgiou heads to the brig to oversee the interrogation of Lorca’s associate herself, Michael’s co-conspirators attack. Georgiou is defended by Mirror Tilly a.k.a. Killy and Mirror Owosegun, who appear to be the only people aboard the Mirror Discovery who are actually loyal to Georgiou. They are joined by the unexpected arrival of Saru and some of the other Kelpian slaves. It turns out when you treat people semi-decently, they’re actually willing to support you.

In fact, this is one of the many problems I have with the Mirror Universe as it has been depicted in Star Trek since 1967. The fact that everybody is constantly backstabbing everybody else makes no sense, as Zack Handlen points out in his review at the AV-Club. Cause a society where everybody is constantly backstabbing everybody else would have zero cohesion and simply not be functional. It would descend into chaos and civil war within a short matter of time. Even in authoritarian regimes where power is backed up by fear, there is always a sizeable number of true believers who support the regime no matter what. Without those true believers, the regime would quickly collapse, even if everybody was afraid of the people in charge.

Viewed in this light, the Empire from Star Wars makes at least modicum of sense, because there are plenty of true believers, whether the brainwashed and conditioned Stormtroopers or those who joined the Empire of their own free will like Captain/Admiral Piett, Moff Gideon, Werner Herzog’s unnamed character or Commander Hess from last week’s episode of The Mandalorian. Sure, the main way to get promoted in the Imperial military is because Darth Vader just Force-choked your superior and the main reward for joining the Imperial forces seems to be getting to hang out in bases and aboard ships with utilitarian grey corridors. But apparently, enough people genuinely believe in the Empire and think that joining up is worth the risk, though I can’t for the life of me see why. However, a position in the Terran Empire from Star Trek is not worth the risk, because someone will always try to kill you and stab you in the back and chances are very good it’s a lover, sibling or child. It is possible to survive the Empire in Star Wars – just ask Admiral Piett, who survives several “He’ll get force-choked now for sure” moments. It’s not possible to survive the Terran Empire, cause someone is always trying to kill you and will eventually succeed. Even the Empress herself is not safe from plots and assassination attempts.

In the end, Lorca’s and Michael’s attempted coup comes down to Georgiou and Mirror Michael having a one on one duel in the brig of the Discovery. It ends on what is basically a draw, when Mirror Michael stabs Georgiou in the jugular, while Georgiou runs her through with her sword. The fact that Sonequa Martin-Green very likely was already pregnant in real life, when she was forced to shoot a scene where she is stabbed in the stomach (and she receives several kicks in the abdomen earlier in the episode), makes the whole thing even more disturbing. Sadly, as I argued in this old post, pregnant actresses being forced to shoot torture scenes and specifically scenes that involve violence against their abdomen, is depressingly common. It’s almost as if filmmakers were trying to punish actresses for daring to get pregnant.

Empress Philippa the Merciless ends her reign by expiring in the arms of Mirror Saru. We don’t know what will happen to the Mirror Universe now (Ruled by Lorca? Ruled by Tilly – pardon – Killy? Ruled by Mirror Saru? Ruled by Owosegun?), because suddenly, Philippa Georgiou opens her eyes and is back on the snow-covered planet we saw last episode, with Michael – the real Michael – looking down at her with a worried look on her face.

It turns out that even though Philippa spent three months in the Mirror Universe, only a minute or so has passed in the Prime Universe. The bowler-hatted gentleman named Carl (delightfully played by Paul Guilfoyle, whose character I never much liked on CSI) explains that Philippa’s sojourn in the Mirror Universe was a test to see if she has changed sufficiently to give her another chance and let her loose on the Prime Universe of the past. Okay, so Philippa’s attempts to save Mirror Michael and prevent the coup against her failed – who would have guessed that torturing people into submission doesn’t actually make them love you? But nonetheless, Carl tells Philippa that she passed his test and can now travel back to the 23rd century and the Section 31 spin-off show.

Carl also reveals his true identity. And no, he’s not Q, as many had assumed. Instead, Carl is the Guardian of Forever from the legendary original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (somewhere, the ghost of Harlan Ellison is preparing to sue the Discovery producers), though for reasons best known to himself, the Guardian has decided to appear not as a booming voice, like in the originsel series, but in the form of Paul Guilfoyle. Though once the Guardian reveals himself (time portals have no gender, but since the Guardian of Forever appears in male form and uses a male voice, I am using male pronouns), the time portal reverts from the doorway we saw earlier to the familiar torus-shaped form from “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Though the Guardian has switched planets, upset that the portal was being abused during the temporal wars.  Because as we know, the Guardian is strictly opposed to changing history.

Too bad that the Guardian did change the history of the Mirror Universe and the Prime Universe as well by sending Georgiou back to the day of the attempted coup against her. Because as a result of Georgiou’s action, a lot of people died who were still alive in the Mirror Universe episodes of season 1 (and the Kelpians figured out the truth about the vaharai). And while the premature deaths of Mirror Landry or Mirror Dettmer probably don’t impact the timeline all that much, Mirror Stamets was instrumental in letting our Stamets know how to escape from the Mirror Universe. Also, with the timeline of the Mirror Universe altered, will Lorca ever travel to the Prime Universe and will the Mirror Discovery under the command of Captain Killy ever switch places with her Prime Universe counterpart? It’s quite possible that the Guardian of Forever just undid most of season 1 (not that I’d blame him, because season 1 was a mess) and completely messed up the timeline.

Though the show never addresses these questions, because it’s too busy with staging a tearful farewell between Michael and Georgiou. And it is a great scene with both Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh giving their all. Philippa once more tells Michael that she was like a daughter to her (a daughter she had brutally tortured only minutes before), while Michelle tells Philippa that she is her Georgiou now (Uhm no, Michael, this Georgiou may be slightly less evil than before, but she’s still a nasty person who had your counterpart brutally tortured). However, as io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out, the show never really earns the tearful goodbye.

Not to mention that it’s painfully obvious that the entire point of the “Terra Firma” two-parter was to take Philippa Georgiou back into the past to the Section 31 spin-off. As a result, there is never any real tension, because we know that Georgiou will survive. Besides, as reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out, the presence of Empress Philippa the Merciless in the show was only due to the showrunners desperately trying to undo the mistake of killing off one of their best characters in the second episode. Just as a lot of season 2 and season 3 were clearly attempts to undo the many mistakes of season 1.   Keith R.A. DeCandido also remarks that he’d much rather have watched the adventures of Captain Philippa Georgiou, first officer Michael Burnham and science officer Saru aboard the Shenzhou than the actual season 1 we got.

But even though the departure of Philippa Georgiou was necessitated by the Section 31 spin-off, I still don’t see why we needed to waste two episodes on this necessity, most of which are set in a horrible universe full of horrible people and feature events that don’t impact the overall storyline at all. If you cut out the entire Mirror Universe plot, everything that happens in these two episode could have been inserted into another episode as a B-plot. As storytelling choices go, spending so much time on an ultimately inconsequential Mirror Universe plot is just bizarre.

Once Michael is beamed back aboard sans Georgiou, she has issues explaining to Saru what exactly happened, though she assures him that Georgiou will not be coming back. Saru knows that Michael isn’t telling him the full truth, but decides to list Georgiou as “deceased” in his report.

The episode ends with everybody drinking to Philippa Georgiou at some kind of wake, while Jett Reno (cause this episode also marks the welcome return of Tig Notaro’s ascerbic engineer) looking very much, as if she wouldn’t have minded some woman on woman action with Georgiou at all.

The B-plot – yes, there is one – concerns Stamets and Adira still trying to hack into the systems of the Kelpian vessel whose distress signal may or may not be connected to the origin of the Burn. Unfortunately, they’re not making any headway. Jett Reno, who has spent the past few episodes updating the Discovery‘s systems with 32nd century technology and eating black licorice, isn’t able to help either. Unexpected help finally comes from Book, who is still trying to prove himself as a valuable addition to the Discovery crew. The problem is that the signal is too weak, so Book hands Stamets and Adira a signal boosting device that’s unfortunately Emerald Chain technology. No one is all that happy with using Emerald Chain technology, even if it is safe according to Booker, but they finally agree. Admiral Vance isn’t happy about all that either and also can’t help but notice that Michael’s marverick tendencies seem to have rubbed off on Saru. But since the Discovery and her crew get the job done, he’ll let it slide – for now.

So far, I largely enjoyed season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. However, much as I like Michelle Yeoh, the “Terra Firma” two-parter was inconsequential, overlong and just dull. Let’s hope that the next episode – which will apparently be airing on Christmas Eve, since obviously no one at CBS All Access has any family – is back on track.

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5 Responses to Star Trek Discovery a.k.a. the Adventures of Empress Philippa the No Longer Quite So Merciless on “Terra Firma, Part II”

  1. Pingback: Star Trek Discovery: Terra Firma Part 2 (S3E10) – Camestros Felapton

  2. Peer says:

    To be honest I skipped big chunks of part I and some smaller scenes from part II – the episode was too predictable in its outcome. Im not even sure why they bothered with torturing, considering Lorca spend days in the painstation without breaking. I also aksed myself: “That killing spree is a good chance for Michael to kill everyone loyal to the empress”. So yeah, it was pretty unsatisfactory.

    I was thinking when Georgiou will come out of the tunnel (the only surprising if pretty inconsequential reveal) and I hope they wont repeat the mistake of letting her come out in Disco-Times again, because of the continuity issues. TNG is a possibility but since all the actors have aged it would make more sense to let her into the timeline of Picard – because that would lead to crossover possibilities, that CBS seems to like so much.
    Unless… Is the Pike-spinoff still on the table?

    • Cora says:

      I do think the Pike spin-off is still ago, though filming has been delayed by the pandemic like everything else. And Georgiou ending up in the same timeline as Picard would be interesting. She’d fit right into the darker Federation of that era, plus there is a possibility of crossovers with Picard.

      I also sympathise with skimming/skipping chunks of this two-parter, because much of it is predictable. I didn’t skim/skip, but I got my crochet, because that way, I could do something useful while watching two not very good Discovery episodes.

  3. Steve Wright says:

    With regard to the continuity, my guess would be that the Guardian did something like dropping her back in time, watching her for a few months, then pulling her back out a microsecond or so after she first arrived (and perhaps doing something funky to preserve her memories of the alternate timeline), so that the overall pattern of history isn’t disrupted. After all, she comes back without the fatal injury mirror-Michael gave her.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t see how the Terran Empire can possibly function as a society. If everyone is constantly plotting and undermining everyone else, how on Earth does anything ever get done? The human species’s basic evolutionary advantage is the ability to work intelligently together for the common good, after all. How did humans even become sapient in this setting?

    • Cora says:

      It makes sense that the Guardian did pluck Georgiou out of the Mirror Universe again a microsecond after she arrived, so the timeline is still intact.

      As for the Terrans, I suspect that the real work in the Terran Empire is done by the Kelpians and the various other slave races. Which begets the question why they put up with the humans for so long. After all, they’re so busy stabbing each other in the back that they wouldn’t even notice a coup, until it was too late.

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