On Star Trek: Discovery, Burnham Is Torn Between the Two Tenets of Starfleet

All images: CBS
All images: CBS

Captain Lorca doesn’t have a lot of dimension, but it turns out that’s a good thing. Lorca is best when he is merely an archetype of a certain set of militaristic beliefs, set in opposition to scientist Stamets, who’s devoted to the pursuit of knowledge only. And of course, Burnham’s journey is about trying to navigate a path between them.

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This episode was split between the goings on of the Discovery and of the remains of T’Kuvma’s followers from the first two episodes. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to discuss all the Discovery bits together and all the Klingons bits together, even though they alternated time onscreen.

Illustration for article titled On iStar Trek: Discovery/i, Burnham Is Torn Between the Two Tenets of Starfleetem/em
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Illustration for article titled On iStar Trek: Discovery/i, Burnham Is Torn Between the Two Tenets of Starfleetem/em

Klingons

There’s less to delve into here, so we’ll be quick. We join Voq, the albino Klingon that T’Kuvma made the Torchbearer in the premiere, and find out that after the big battle, the Klingons left T’Kuvma’s ship to just... drift out there. Therefore, T’Kuvma’s house is running out of food and is trying to salvage parts from the ships left behind to repair their ship. L’Rell, another Klingon, tells Voq that they need a dilithium processor and that there’s one on the remains of the Shenzhou.

Voq thinks that’s blasphemy, since melding Klingon technology with Starfleet tech would be akin to the gross melding of beings that the Federation represents, and T’Kuvma’s teachings are all about resisting “assimilation,” which is an interesting word choice. “Assimilation” has more negative connotations in Star Trek’s universe than perhaps any other, since it’s the word the Borg use to describe how they absorb whole worlds into their own, eliminating all individuality and free will.

L’Rell explains that her parents were from two different houses. Her father shared T’Kuvma’s house, while her mother was from the house of “Mokai, the watcher clan, the deceivers, weavers of lies.” She chose to “build a bridge” between the two houses, rather than choose just one. She’s content not to be the leader, because she can act in the shadows to support Voq. This, the show practically screams, is foreshadowing.

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Another Klingon arrives—the one from the premiere who spoke so dismissively of T’Kuvma—saying he’s contrite. Voq lets him know about the supplies he’s run low on. Then, Voq and L’Rell head to the Shenzhou to get the dilithium processor. When they return to the ship, the Klingon that had apparently appeared to repent, has brought food and everyone on T’Kuvma’s ship with cloaking technology has fallen in behind him. L’Rell appears to betray Voq, and suggests leaving him to die on the Shenzhou. But of course, she’s just acting in the shadows to support Voq. She tells him he needs to win the war to get everyone to follow the teachings of T’Kuvma, and to do that she needs to meet with the matriarchs of her mother’s house, which will teach him things he never imagined. She stole a raider to take him to them. But it will also have a cost. What cost? Unhelpfully and unspecifically, her answer to Voq is “everything.”

Illustration for article titled On iStar Trek: Discovery/i, Burnham Is Torn Between the Two Tenets of Starfleetem/em
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The Discovery

On the Discovery, Burnham has received a delivery: a bequest from the late Captain Philippa Georgiou, which chimes over and over again asking her to open it. Which she doesn’t, because she feels pain, I guess.

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Burnham is also summoned to the bridge, where the Discovery is being hammered in a simulated fight against Klingons, much to the annoyance of Captain Lorca. He orders Saru to run the drill again and again, since the destruction of the Glenn means that the Discovery is the only ship with the spore-based drive left. Once it works, the ship will be able to jump anywhere, but it will jump alone, without any reinforcements, to fight Klingons. And Lorca is disgusted with how bad his crew is at fighting.

Taking Burnham to the lab we saw at the end of the last episode, he laments being the “tip of the spear in a science vessel filled with wide-eyed explorers.” He tasks Burnham with figuring out how the creature that they took off the Glenn could withstand bat’leths and phasers and tear Klingons apart. He pairs her with his security chief, Landry, to make sure Burnham’s “curiosity” doesn’t get in the way of her job.

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Burnham tells Landry that they can’t judge the creature based on the single incident in its past—a parallel to Burnham so huge, it’s like being hit in the face with a two-by-four. “It can only be what it is, not what you want it to be,” says Burnham. “Lorca isn’t interested in what you are, he is interested in what you can do for him. And if he needs us to make that thing useful in his war effort, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Meanwhile, Lorca also gets a call from Starfleet saying that a major dilithium mine is under attack from Klingons and its shields will fail in six hours. (Oh, dilithium, Star Trek’s wonder material that is also non-replicable. I have so missed your place as the cross between a MacGuffin and a deus ex machina, all rolled into one. And it’s that in both the Starfleet and Klingon plots this week.) Only the spore drive can get them help in time. Lorca promises he will get there in time.

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Stamets makes clear that this is impossible. They’d need a supercomputer to do a jump that great and control where they end up. Apparently, they can control where they end up in small jumps, but doing navigation for long jumps requires a supercomputer the Discovery does not have. Also, the Glenn was destroyed when the ship hit a “Hawking radiation firewall,” which Stamets can avoid, but he can’t replicate the giant jumps the Glenn was doing. When Lorca asks if Stamets missed a supercomputer they were using, Stamets snarks, “Sir, being chased by a lethal monster in a death trap is distracting, but, no, I would have noticed an extra supercomputer. That’s just me.”

See? Saru thinks it’s funny
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Lorca pushes for a jump anyway, which nearly puts the Discovery in a star, and causes my absolutely favorite moment of the episode:

This isn’t supposed to be funny, it’s a serious injury. But I love Anthony Rapp’s expression so much.
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Stamets and Lorca have a fight in the middle of medical, where Stamets opines that the frontal lobe is “overrated. It only contains memory and emotional expression. It’s completely unnecessary.” Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) shoots back, “Well, I’ll save it. Just in case you might want to have a feeling one day.” Once again, I’m embarrassed by how easily won over I am by snark.

Lorca says they need to get to the colony. Stamets says he warned him, that time is an essential factor in good science. Lorca says they’re not a science vessel anymore, and that if Stamets doesn’t want to be a soldier, he should get off. And that all his work will stay behind, the property of Starfleet. After Stamets storms out, Lorca plays the cries for help from the mining colony not just for Stamets, but over the ship-wide PA.

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Right before the jump, Burnham noted that the creature’s brain lights up. Burnham’s figured out the thing is basically a giant tardigrade, which we at io9 noted in our very own livestream last week. Burnham’s research is too slow for Landry, so she decides to speed it up by chopping off a claw, inspired by the transmission of the dying people on the colony Lorca just played. The sedation fails, Landry is killed by the creature in self-defense, and Landry has been such a “ends justify the means” dick about everything, it’s actually hard to mourn her properly.

The creature has, it turns out, a symbiotic relationship with the the spores and it can navigate the mycological branches for the Discovery. That’s what the Glenn was experimenting with. The Discovery jumps to the mining colony and is able to save it. After, Burnham is able to get the strength to open the gift from Georgiou, who says she is as proud of Burnham as if she were her daughter, and that she’s leaving her something she hopes will help guide Burnham to examine the mysteries of the universe “inside and out”: a telescope.

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I know it’s a telescope because it’s been helpfully labeled by Starfleet
I know it’s a telescope because it’s been helpfully labeled by Starfleet

Stamets and Lorca are clearly representing different extremes. Lorca is all military, all the time. He cares about results, not the journey. Yet, he’s still charismatic and he knows how to play to people’s emotion. For example: the trick with the PA, which basically makes Stamets look like the bad guy, when Lorca is the one trying to rush things that can’t be rushed.

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Stamets is what we would more commonly associate with Starfleet. He’s a scientist who joined for the “wonder” of exploration. But he’s also more cautious and less able to give the stirring speeches of, Kirk, Picard, or even Lorca. He’s prickly and sarcastic. Lorca’s a better leader, but Stamets might be the better man.

Both are basically extremists in their own way, and we know Stamets’ backstory. There’s no trauma there, he’s simply a scientist inspired by the grandeur of the universe. Lorca, I hope, will be similarly just a man who believes in defense above all else. I don’t want to learn about whatever horrible calamity gave him this outlet. It works better that he merely represents defense above all else, a more reasonable outlook during a war than normally. Whereas what Stamets stands for is more reasonable in peacetime, and jettisoning wonder and exploration in the face of war seems like a reasonable position. Unless, of course, you win the war but lose the thing that made it worth winning.

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Burnham is being courted by both sides of this conflict. She’s manipulative, like Lorca. In this episode, she calls Saru down to “apologize,” but what she really wants is to see how his “threat ganglia” respond to the tardigrade. He finds her lack of sincerity and her use of him for her own ends gross, and flat out says she’s a good match for Lorca.

But she’s also a scientist, and refuses to examine the tardigrade with the lens Lorca wants. The telescope left by Georgiou is a reminder about looking to the stars for inspiration, not just for what they can do or what they literally are. And she says she’s “sorry” to the tardigrade for what it’s been put through.

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Of course, the major problem is that Burnham still isn’t quite established enough as a character for me to care about this journey. I don’t actually see her struggling with the middle path or any path. She’s sad about Georgiou, but she’s still a dick to Saru. I don’t know what her character is and the show still tells us things, rather than saying them. Landry and Georgiou say that she is “curiosity” but that’s an informed assessment, not one we’ve seen built. Mostly, it seems that every other character has just one setting (Lorca: war, Stamets: science, Saru: fear, Tilly: talkative) and Burnham has too many (gung-ho, do what it takes, emotional, gut instinct, smarter, quieter, scientific method, evaluate all things).

Illustration for article titled On iStar Trek: Discovery/i, Burnham Is Torn Between the Two Tenets of Starfleetem/em
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Assorted Musings:

  • Stamets saying that he’s always wanted to talk to his mushrooms when they see the tardigrade communing with them is my favorite thing in the episode.
  • Having the Klingons talk about eating Georgiou does nothing to counter the accusations that Discovery portrays Klingons using the most reviled of tropes about “savages” and “outsiders.” Tropes traditionally ascribed by white explorers to the cultures they encountered, to justify the way they would end up treating them.
  • I laughed out loud at the idea that the only names Lorca could come up with, for the entire history of flight on Earth, were the Wright Brothers, Zephram Cochrane, and Elon Musk.
  • Also, we know Stamets isn’t going to join their ranks, because he’s never mentioned in the other shows.
  • Every so often, the way people say “Saru” sounds a lot like “Sulu” and it throws me for a second.
  • Contrary to everything I’ve said in this recap, it appears that next week the Klingons capture Lorca and we’ll get treated to some deep analysis of his character. I am not looking forward to it.
  • Does... the mining colony just have to wonder what happened forever?
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Katharine is the former managing editor of io9.

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DISCUSSION

What a mess. I’m not even going to complain about the stuff that doesn’t fit with past Trek canon on tech, size of the Federation, Klingon culture, etc. This show doesn’t even try to be internally consistent, much less consistent with previous Trek.

The Federation won that battle with the Klingons - it was a Phyrric victory, for sure, but they did win. The Klingons fled and Burnham killed T’Kuvma. So how does Captain Georgiou’s body get left behind on the Klingon ship to be eaten by them (which: gross - did they really need to add that gruesome detail to Klingons?). And why did they leave the Shenzhou intact? The Glenn was scuttled, why wouldn’t they do that to the Shenzhou (or, like you said, strip it of useful tech). And if the Klingon mothership has just been sitting there disabled for 6 months, why didn’t they just, you know... blow it up?

Landry dies because that’s what Game of Thrones would have done. It was supposed to provide shock value, that’s the whole purpose of it. Same for ramming the Admiral’s ship, for the nerve pinch, etc. The show is more interested in turning Trek into a dark, cynical shock-driven show than catering to “old” ideas like characters you actually like (everyone on this show besides Georgiou is annoying or an outright jerk - Burnham included), deliberate pacing and character development.

The tardigrade thing was the only good, Trek-like element of this episode. I agree, that could have been a good episode in its own right.

The Klingon slow, stutter-talk is super annoying. I don’t remember Klingons in previous Treks talking so damn slowly. Of course, I don’t remember them eating humans either (additional insult to injury for the only likable character Discovery has given us).

The ship looks absolutely ridiculous spinning as it does when it spore-jumps.

And I agree, the girl asking daddy who saved them was so cheesy. And the telescope was a pretty disappointing payoff. Clearly missed the emotional manipulation mark it was supposed to hit.

And I’m really hating the hyper-militarized Starfleet and Lorca and his “we’re a warship, screw science” crap. Dramatic, yes, but very un-Treklike.

Up until now, I felt like Discovery wasn’t a Star Trekshow, but at least it was well made. But I’m starting to question even that one virtue it had.

Side note: every time I hear the Discovery theme, I can literally hear the exec telling the composer “make it more Game of Thrones, and throw a little Westworld in there, too.”