All images: CBS.

The midseason finale of Star Trek: Discovery, “Into the Forest I Go,” finally got this show to the place it should have been all season. Of course, in the process, it had to jettison a lot of character development it has been working on—but since it was mostly stuff that was bad, I’m perfectly happy letting them get away with it. This episode was the climax to a season that never existed, a season where the plot and characterization was better. You can see that potential here.

A lot of this first half of Discovery’s premiere season—confusingly called “Chapter One,” since they’ve split it into two chunks (why not just have two seasons, close together?)—has been a show on the run from the weighty legacy of its name. Often, it felt like the writers felt smarter than Star Trek, and so we focused on a Starfleet mutineer, on an experimental ship, captained by a very bad man, with occasional leaps over to see how things were faring in the Klingon Empire. Basically, it focused on a lot of changes to the typical Star Trek formula.

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Previous series in this franchise have made do with substantially fewer changes. The Next Generation’s premise was basically the same as Star Trek’s, and the difference between the two was mostly in the temperament of crew, particularly the captain. Deep Space Nine, probably the biggest rebel of the family, decided to eschew the ship on a mission of exploration and seated itself on a space station, and the rest of the major differences flowed from that choice. Voyager sent its crew into the unknown accidentally with a mission of getting back, instead of looking for adventure on purpose. Enterprise was a prequel set before there was a Starfleet, but still set on the most recognizable starship name in fiction.

And yet, all of those shows still kept to the foundation established by the original series. An important ensemble, anchored and mostly driven by the choices of its captain. Crews that spend time together, that are a team. Bridge scenes, the Kirk Summation, arguing over the best course of action, color-coded uniforms, disobeying the brass (in Star Trek, Captains are perfect, admirals are interfering busybodies who don’t know of what they speak), the Patrick Stewart Speech, technobabble, angry supercomputers/malfunctioning holodecks/capricious god-like beings, red shirts, the Captain’s log, and so on.

Discovery had all the trappings of Star Trek show, but didn’t seem to understand that the tropes were tools and not an unsavory heirloom from an eccentric great-aunt. The only thing that seemed to operate the same was the technobabble. (Apparently technobabble is the glue that holds the universe together.)

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It was when “Into the Forest I Go” embraced those things that make Trek Trek that the episode sang. And it was when it deviated that it was at its worst. But mostly, it was good.

In the face of last week’s cliffhanger, the Discovery is ordered back to Federation space as it’s too valuable to lose. Lorca is indignant, saying, “You want me to run from a fight and leave a peaceful species to face extinction?” Which, given the way his character has been presented thus far, could come off as just him trying to manipulate the situation to stay and fight. But if it’s sincere, it’s exactly what we want our Starfleet captains to say. This is a running theme through the entire episod;: Lorca has finally become the captain we all want him to be, but there’s been no character development to make us believe him so we either have to ignore the past or just pretend he was always this way. I choose the latter, since it makes the show better.

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Lorca decides to... reinterpret his orders and has the Discovery take a more leisurely route away from Pahvo, so they’ll still be in range when the Klingons attack. He and Stamets mutually agree to say there’s something wrong with Stamets’ new navigation pod implants, so they have an excuse to only use the warp drive instead of the instantaneous travel of the spore drive. Lorca also orders Stamets to get a full medical work-up so there’s a paper trail for their lie. Which worries Stamets since, you know, he’s had those side effects he’s told no one about.

Lorca, Tyler, and Burnham technobabble about the Klingon invisibility shields, saying basically that if they can plant sensors on the ship, they can get data to break it. Tyler asks to take Burnham, there’s some token resistance by Lorca, but that’s who goes.

Culber notes that something is very wrong with Stamets’ brain, but Stamets lies and says he hasn’t noticed any side effects. Great, says Lorca, I need you to make 133 microjumps around the Klingon ship—sort of like a 3D full-body scan—so we can gather the data on the invisibility shields in four minutes instead of waiting days.

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And then Lorca gives a classic Trek speech about the grand and improving nature of exploration. “I know what drives you, Lieutenant. You’re not just a scientist, you’re an explorer. You could have stayed in a lab on Earth. But you chose to go where no one has gone before.” As opposed to last week’s use of “the needs of the many,” this use of the famous Trek staple feels earned. This is what Starfleet is.

Stamets, a scientist who has always been this show’s stand-in for the glory of it, says to Lorca, the man who has always been a hardline hawk, “Captain, I didn’t know you cared.”

Lorca, Lorca, responds, “We have to win this war, but then... then our journey continues.” I don’t care that this might just be manipulation—although gathering the data says it’s not—or that Lorca’s character development is unearned. THIS moment is the one I’ve been dying for. Some indication that the spirit of Starfleet isn’t dead in this man.

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Stamets agrees to the jumps, and, while he’s prepping with Culber, Tilly does the classic “I’m so glad he told you about [secret he definitely didn’t tell you about].” Culber says they don’t have time to get into it, because the other great thing about these two is that they are professionals even if they also clearly love each other. (This gets even clearer when they say it aloud in this episode, a moment my black heart opened up for and also knew meant Stamets was in serious trouble.)

I almost wanted to do a separate post just of the faces Anthony Rapp gives this episode, as they are each a gem. Here we have “You have accidentally revealed my secret health problem to my doctor boyfriend”

As they prep, Lorca gives a speech which is, once again, lovely but unearned: “When I took command of this vessel, you were a crew of polite scientists, now I look at you. You are fierce warriors, all.” I wish we’d seen any of that journey this season. It must have happened in all those chunks of time we only know about because Burnham mentioned them. Man, I wish this season had been about a science ship press-ganged into a war effort with a new hawkish captain and about both sides learning the value of each other. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? This finale would have been even better if it’d been earned.

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Tyler and Burnham beam onto the Ship of the Dead to place the sensors, but they also pick up the Admiral’s lifesign. (I knew she wasn’t dead.) Tyler and Burnham break into the room, and there is Admiral Cornwell, paralyzed, and L’Rell. Tyler sees L’Rell and flashes back to what could be torture but could easily actually be him as a Klingon being altered to look human. Burnham stuns L’Rell while Tyler has a PTSD reaction. Cornwell says Tyler is in shock, Burnham goes to put the sensors up. “Everyone comes home” is her watchword.

While Burnham places the sensors, Cornwell talks Tyler through his meltdown. This was a great use of the established fact that Cornwell is a psychologist and makes me wonder if this is one of those things that led to counselors, etc. getting assigned high positions on capital ships. This would have been a great use of, say, Troi in an episode of The Next Generation.

Burnham overhears Kol saying they’re going to jump and, to delay them, Burnham starts shooting. She shows the Universal Translator to Kol, which he says is proof of humans trying to take their identity and she says is proof of their desire to communicate. All of which would be a nice contrast of the two cultures if Burnham didn’t follow that up by immediately challenging him to a fight.

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Back in things I hate: the memory of Burnham, a.k.a. the power of lurve, snaps Tyler out of his flashback. While I fully believe he’s a spy, I’m starting to wonder if the “everything” L’Rell said Voq would have to lose is also his sense of self and if he’s actually a sleeper agent. A lot of what happens in this episode would make sense if that’s the case—if operational security also meant when the Klingons transformed him they gave him no memories of not being Tyler.

Anyway, Stamets, looking really not okay, completes the jumps, the analysis allows the Discovery to break the cloak, beam their people back (with L’Rell hitching a ride on Tyler), and destroy the Ship of the Dead.

Burnham has a heart to heart with Tyler, who says that he encouraged L’Rell’s “interest” in him in order to survive. He’s incredibly broken up about it, and it’s his reaction here that convinced me that he might be a sleeper, because his pain doesn’t seem faked. There’s also the fact that I’d like to think this show isn’t going to go into the trauma of trading sex for life and then have it be a straight-up lie. Dramatic or no, it perpetuates a nasty perception of sexual assault as lie.

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Lorca is offered the Legion of Honor, which he tells Starfleet to give to Stamets for what he risked. Again, I wish this show had included a plot of the two of them, opposite poles on the science versus military debate, gradually learning to respect each other. This was a... leap.

And then Stamets makes a huge mistake. Even though Lorca says they’ll just use warp to get away from the Klingons chasing them, Stamets says he’ll do one more jump to get the crew back to safety. “I’ve seen these stars through a lens no one else has and that has to be enough for me,” he says, adding he needs Starfleet’s best doctors to figure out what’s happening to him. “I’ll always have you to thank for the view,” he says to Lorca.

Tyler has a series of nightmares about the ship, which include some frontal Klingon nudity, because I guess that’s this week’s reminder that this is on streaming and not network TV. It was gratuitous and pointless and I hated it. It was absolutely one of those only on Discovery flourishes that shows that these writers can’t be trusted with the freedom offered by not being on TV.

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Tyler stumbles to his knees in front of L’Rell’s cell and asks, “What did you do to me?”

“Don’t worry, I would never let them hurt you,” she responds. Which is weird for the person in the cell to say, and further proof he’s definitely something more than just a man suffering PTSD from being held captive by Klingons.

Your face when you have absolutely fucked up.

No time for that, though, because Stamets should not have volunteered for this jump—a fact reinforced by him saying he’ll suffer through La Bohème on a date with Culber when they get to the starbase—as he collapses and the ship emerges in unknown space. This would have been more surprising if CBS hadn’t, for no reason at all, already spoiled this ending in a press release earlier this week.

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This episode worked. This is what we want a big Trek episode to look like, these are the characters being their best selves. The problem, as I’ve noted, is that you have to make up character development the show didn’t do to embrace it. Lorca sent Cornwell to the Klingons; his noble turn here came from nowhere. This episode was a look into a universe where the promised premise of the early episodes—science versus the military—had been actually explored and built to this crew united in one mission. I will happily ignore huge chunks of the rest of this season if the writers actually decide that this is the show they meant to make from here on out. This is the show we didn’t get that we should have.

Assorted Musings:

  • I was uncomfortable with the way this show veered into bury your gays territory with Stamets. Did he need to have that moment with Culber right before his collapse?
  • We saw a map created from the data of the Discovery’s jumps throughout the season and it has voids that could indicate parallel universes attached to the mycelium network. We know a Mirror Universe episode is coming; the question is now if the Discovery has just been transported there or if this is a set-up for later.
  • The choice of La Bohème was a definitely a Rent shout-out and not a particularly subtle one.
  • An unfortunate by-product of Lorca being a cipher this week is that I almost think he sabotaged the jump on purpose because when he gets back Cornwell is going to have him removed. And that the whole Stamets scene was reverse psychology. Who knows? Could be, a shot of navigation control later on shows a Lorca override before the 133rd jump, which was the last jump gathering sensor data on the Ship of the Dead. Which makes no sense at all. I get him overriding the jump to the starbase, that’s in line with his character all season, if not this finale (which, ugh, don’t go back to Lorca as evil) but why was he overriding the last jump of the sensor data? Did they get their own numbers wrong on screen?
  • The effects on the jumping and battle scene were great.
  • Always, always, watch Anthony Rapp when he is on screen. No matter what else is going on, he is giving 110 percent. I almost did a recap of just his face alone. I put a few in here, but a selection of the unspoilery ones can be found here.