Star Trek Discovery realises that “There Is a Tide…”

Yeah, this review is two days late, since the powers that be at CBS All Access apparently believe that all their viewers have nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve than watch TV (or that they all have families who want to watch Star Trek Discovery, too). Still, here is 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!

Star Trek Discovery certainly celebrated New Year’s Eve with one hell of an episode. “There Is a Tide…” already starts out with a bang, when we see the Veridian pursuing the Discovery in an homage to the famous opening of Star Wars: A New Hope. I’ve said before that Discovery is mixing classic Star Trek tropes and themes with tropes and themes borrowed from other SFF works, including of course Star Wars. But when I saw the opening space chase shot just like the opening of A New Hope, I thought, “Okay, now you’re just trolling us.”

However, the opening scene is not as straightforward as it looks – after all, Discovery was hijacked by Osyra and the Emerald Chain last episode. Osyra and her people locked up the Discovery crew and fitted Stamets, the only crewmember without whom the ship cannot operate, with a brainwashing device. Though Osyra’s people find that they cannot delete a few files of what appears to be old movies in the Discovery‘s central computer. Keen-eyed viewers will remember that the infodump sphere persuaded Saru to hold movie nights in the shuttle bay to boost morale on board, so three guesses what that undeletable data is.

Osyra has also brought in help in the form of Aurelio, a wheelchair using scientist (more on him later), and Zaher, the villainous courier from “Far From Home”, who was last seem chased out into the parasitic ice of the nameless mining planet. To everybody’s surprise, Zaher did survive the parasitic ice, though he has a frostbitten hand now. He’s also not at all pleased to see Tilly again.

The initial space chase is a ruse to get Starfleet headquarters to open the forcefield and let Discovery in, allowing Osyra to infiltrate Starfleet headquarters. And indeed, Admiral Vance is extremely sceptical of the whole thing, especially since he can’t hail anybody aboard Discovery, but doesn’t want to loose his secret weapon Discovery either. So he orders the force-field opened.

However, Michael and Book arrive hot on Discovery‘s and Veridian‘s heels and make it back to Starfleet headquarters in record time thanks to a conveniently located Transwarp tunnel that couriers sometimes use. Michael tries to hail Starfleet headquarters to warn them of Osyra’s infiltration attempt, but unfortunately, the coms are down. And so Michael and Book give chase and crashland Book’s ship (which still doesn’t have a name) inside Discovery‘s shuttle bay. It’s not quite clear what this manoeuvre is supposed to accomplish, except place Book and Michael (and Grudge) back aboard the Discovery to mess with Osyra’s plans.

However, Book’s and Michael’s piloting stunt plus the fact that the Veridian just sits there and does nothing, once Discovery is inside the Federation headquarters forcefield persuade Admiral Vance that something is very definitely wrong. Vance deduces that Osyra is not on board of the Veridian at all, but on board of the Discovery, and order all other Starfleet ships inside the headquarters bubble to aim their weapons at Discovery. Now Osyra does hail Vance. She wants to destroy the Federation and Starfleet – no, to everybody’s surprise, she wants to negotiate.

Vance is willing to negotiate – provided Osyra lets the crew of the Discovery go, which Osyra is willing to do, though she does retain Tilly, Stamets and the bridge crew as leverage. And so we get a great confrontation/negotiation between Vance and Osyra with Eli, the lie detector hologram, as a kind of straight man.

Talking of Eli, Osyra asks why Starfleet uses lie detector holograms. “Because a face is friendlier than a light blinking red or green”, Vance replies. “And of course it’s a human face”, Osyra remarks in a little jab that even though the Federation is a multi-species organisation committed to equality, what we see of it is still remarkably human-centric.

Next, Osyra makes her proposal. She point blank admits that the Emerald Chain is running out of dilithium, since she assumes Ryn already told Starfleet anyway, and then proposes a union between the Federation and the Emerald Chain for the greater good of the galaxy. Because – so Osyra points out – the Emerald Chain may have dilithium issues, but they also have a lot of territory, a lot of people, a large network of mercantile exchanges, some of them operating in ex-Federation territory the Federation can no longer access since the Burn, and also a cadre of excellent scientists. In short, the Emerald Chain has a lot to offer. As Camestros Felapton says in his review, Osyra may be a supervillain, but she is a practical one.

Of course, the Emerald Chain are also criminals and slave traders, as Vance points out, so it’s not just a matter of the Federation accepting “a bit of capitalism” in its territory. However, Osyra is also willing to make a lot of concessions. She is willing to outlaw slavery (and remember that part of the reason why slavery was gradually outlawed throughout the 19th century is that states still practicing slavery suddenly faced political and trade difficulties*), willing to leave pre-warp planets like Kwejon alone and even willing to step back from her leadership role in favour of someone more palatable to the Federation such as a respected scientist. Osyra has even brought a draft treaty. Even better, according to Eli, the lie detector hologram, Osyra is telling the truth.

The whole thing sounds too good to be true and Vance is well aware of this. And since lie detectors don’t actually detect lies, but react to physiological changes, they can be outwitted even by humans in the real world (or give false positives), so it’s very likely that Osyra is somehow tricking Eli. In fact, Eli, the holographic lie detector, is another example of specifically American assumptions, because the US relies heavily on lie detectors in spite of their many documented weaknesses. Meanwhile, lie detectors play almost no role in many other countries – e.g. in Germany, they’re illegal for court use – and so are just considered “One of those weird US obsessions”. But Star Trek Discovery is still a US show and so they of course have lie detector holograms in the 32nd century.

But even though he knows that Osyra is likely lying – no matter what Eli says – Vance is sorely tempted, because her offer would solve a lot of his problems. However, he has one condition of his own, one he knows that Osyra won’t agree to. He demands that whoever will become her successor at the head of the Emerald Chain puts Osyra on trial for her crimes.

The negotiation sequences could easily have been boring “talking head” scenes, but instead they’re fantastic, largely because actors Oded Fehr and Janet Kidder (niece of former Lois Lane Margot Kidder, to whom she bears a certain resemblance) as well as Brendan Beiser as Eli, the deadpan hologram, give their all, as reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out. One moment I particularly liked is where Vance offers Osyra the rather unimpressive Starfleet equivalent of a charcuterie board. Osyra eats a slice of apple and remarks that it tastes almost like the real thing – apples apparently being rare in the 32nd century. Whereupon Vance informs her exactly what the “apple” and all other replicator food is made of – and yes, it’s exactly what you think. In short, Vance knows that Osyra is feeding him shit and so he is doing the same to her.

Since Osyra is obviously not going to let herself be arrested and stand trial, she beams back aboard Discovery, where things are very much not going as planned either. For after Michael and Book crashed into the shuttle bay, Michael slipped away and Book remained aboard the ship and let himself get arrested to throw the Emerald Chain Regulators off Michael’s scent. Michael and Book also exchange an “I love you” and share a kiss. Now those fatal three words have been said on screen, I hope that this doesn’t mean that Book will get killed off in the finale, if only because I like Book and would hate to lose him. Besides, Michael deserves someone.

As planned, Book is arrested and locked up with Tilly, Ryn and the bridge crew. Meanwhile, Michael sneaks around aboard Discovery, gets into a fight with a Regulator during which she gets stabbed into the leg and then proceeds to crawl through the Jeffreys Tubes.  When the Regulator Michael has taken out is found, Zareh – who was left in charge of Discovery during Osyra’s absence – can locate her via the Regulator’s com device and sends more Regulators into the Jeffreys Tubes to apprehend her. However, Michael ties herself to a rail, fires her phaser at a fire sensors and so causes the fire suppression system to kick in and flush the Regulators out into space. “Ahem, some of your Regulators seem to have taken a spacewalk without EV-equipment,” Vance informs Osyra, once he gets the news, while trying hard to suppress a smile. One of the Regulators clings to Michael’s boots, so Michael kicks off her boots and flushes the Regulator and boots out into space, which means that she is now barefoot.

If you think that all that sounds very reminiscent of Die Hard – a movie many of us will have watched during the holiday season (I certainly did) – you’re not alone. Camestros Felapton, Keith R.A. DeCandido and Zack Handlen of The AV-Club all make the Die Hard comparison. Of course, Die Hard type stories – or “Base under siege” tales, as we’ve taken to calling that particularly story type – are a staple of science fiction. They’re particular common in Doctor Who, but Star Trek has had its share of “Base under siege” stories, too, as io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out. Though I don’t think Star Trek ever had a story which so directly references Die Hard, but then some of Star Trek “Base under siege” stories actually predate Die Hard. But then, Die Hard didn’t invent the “Base under siege” trope either, it’s just an exceptionally good example thereof. And now I wonder whether the infodump sphere has a copy of Die Hard in its archives to show on Saru’s movie nights.

While Michael is letting out her inner Bruce Willis, Tilly and the bridge crew don’t sit idle either. Of course, they’re locked up and kept under constant guard and forbidden from speaking with each other. But luckily, Starfleet Academy teaches Morse code and so the crew are able to communicate with each other and coordinate an escape plan. Eventually, a Regulator catches on that there’s something up with all that tapping and hits Bryce, but the message has already been sent and so the crew overwhelm the Regulator guards. “Uhm, what just happened?” Book, who clearly doesn’t know Morse code, asks.

Ryn manages to hack into Discovery‘s systems, first to unlock the doors and then to project a lot of lifesigns to mask those of the crew. Then Tilly and the bridge crew escape, while Book and Ryn hole up with phasers to hold off the Regulators who are bound to come. They don’t do too badly, but are eventually overpowered and taken to Osyra, who has by now returned from her negotiations with Vance. Osyra unceremoniously shoots Ryn and is about to shoot Book, when Book tells her that he knows where to find dilithium, more than Osyra will ever need. It turns out that Osyra already knows about the dilithium deposits inside the Verubin nebula that Discovery discovered last episode, but can’t get to them. Book, however, insists that he knows how to get into the nebula. After all, he flew into the nebula last episode.

Meanwhile, Tilly and the bridge crew get unexpected help in the form of some of the repair bots seen in the title sequence and occasionally in the show. Because the repair bots have taken to following Tilly and the bridge crew around and project a Buster Keaton clip, when challenges. “Are you the sphere data?” Tilly asks. The bots confirm this. “Let’s take back our ship”, they say. So commenter Peer was right that the infodump sphere will find a way to save everybody. Coincidentally, this also means that Discovery has tackled another common space opera trope that Star Trek has previously ignored, namely that of the cute robot.

While all this is going on, Michael is on her way to engineering, because she has figured out that Osyra can’t jump anywhere without Stamets. Get Stamets off the ship and she’s stuck. But while Stamets was fitted with a brain control device towards the end of the previous episode, he’s now himself again, though chain up in the engine room and engaged in a confrontation of his own with Osyra’s pet scientist Aurelio. Aurelio has been tasked with figuring out how the spore drive works and how to replicate it. Stamets assures him that this is impossible, because they’d need a tardigrade and tardigrades happen to have gone extinct. And the tardigrade DNA spliced into Stamets’ genes cannot be removed. “You’d have to kill me”, Stamets says. Aurelio, however, is pretty certain that it can be done.

Stamets also tries to engage Aurelio in conversation and point out what they have in common. They’re both scientists, for starters, and both parents, since Aurelio wears three small rings in his ear, a sign among the Orions (apparently, Aurelio, though human, is married to an Orion) that one is a parent. Of course, it has been notable before that Stamets and Culber took on something of a parental role towards Adira (and Gray), but this episode is the first time that Stamets explicitly says that he considers Adira his child. So Paul Stamets just threw his hat in the ring for the Jonathan and Martha Kent Fictional Parent of the Year Award, though unfortunately a day too late. Maybe this year, Paul, though be warned, because the competition is stiff.

Aurelio also offers a different perspective on Osyra, for while she may be a supervillain and crime boss, she also saw something in the young disabled Aurelio and made sure that he got treatment and education. Indeed, this episode did a lot to flesh out Osyra and make her a more three-dimensional character rather than the one-note villain she was before. Regarding Aurelio, Kenneth Mitchell, the actor who plays him, has been in Star Trek Discovery before (and in lots of other things, which is why he looks so familiar), playing different Klingons in heavy make-up. As Keith R.A. DeCandido and James Whitbrook point out, Kenneth Mitchell was diagnosed with ALS in 2018 and is a wheelchair user in real life, so it’s great that the Discovery producers not only continued to cast him even after his diagnosis, but even found a way to integrate his wheelchair into the episode and show that disabled people will be a part of our future just as they are a part of our present.

Stamets’ confrontation with Aurelio is cut short, when Michael shows up, stuns Aurelio and the guards and frees Stamets. Stamets immediately wants to return to the Verubin nebula to save Hugh and Saru from certain death by radiation poisoning. He gets even more insistent, when Michael blurts out that Adira has beamed down to the surface of the dilithium planet as well. It’s easy to sympathise with Stamets, after all, his husband and his kid are in danger here.

However, Michael tells Stamets that they can’t return to the Nebula, while the ship is still in the hands of the Emerald Chain. And when Stamets objects, she nerve-pinches him out of commission. Then she sticks Stamets into a force-field capsule and blasts him out into space to get him off the ship, so Osyra can’t use him, over Stamets’ vehement objections. “We came to the future for you”, Stamets cries, “So you wouldn’t have to be alone.”

Much as I sympathise with Stamets’ plight here, Michael is right. Jumping to the nebula with the ship still in the hands of the Regulators is a seriously bad idea and Stamets is the one person without whom the Discovery can’t go anywhere. Though Stamets’ lament also highlights that the decision of much of the Discovery crew to jump into the future with Michael doesn’t make a whole lot of sense beyond the fact that the characters are needed for the plot. Though Stamets’ decision makes more sense than e.g. the decision of Dettmer or Owosegun or Nielsen (who is a brunette now), because Stamets was trying to get over Hugh at the time.

All in all, this was a cracking good episode of Star Trek Discovery, probably the best in a very good season so far. By Star Trek standards, this was a very action packed episode, which is made even more remarkable by the fact that the director was Jonathan Frakes, best known to Star Trek fans as Commander William Riker. Frakes has already directed several episodes of Discovery, Star Trek Picard and even The Orville (whatever happened to that show anyway?), but he’s usually called in to direct very typical Star Trek episodes, probably because no one knows better how to helm those than Commander Riker himself. “There Is a Tide…” is not a typical Star Trek episode, however (and it has a very high bodycount by Star Trek standards), even if the negotiation sequences are very Star Trek.

Discovery had a rough start, but it has really found its feet by now, mixing very typical Star Trek tropes with space opera tropes that Star Trek has rarely explored. The result is a lot of fun and also feels fresher than many of the other post-Next Generation Star Trek shows. Let’s see if the show will be able to maintain that standard in the season finale next week.

*A commenter somewhere pointed out that analogous to what happened in the US South after slavery was banned, Osyra may well be about to invent prison labour and convict leasing. Whereupon I thought, “She doesn’t have to invent that, since the Federation already did.”

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