Star Trek: Discovery's Georgiou Experiment Has Reached a Fascinating Place

Emperor Georgiou is given a chance to see if her years in a brighter world have really changed her.
Emperor Georgiou is given a chance to see if her years in a brighter world have really changed her.
Image: CBS

Since the final episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s first season, a ticking time bomb has lurked in the show’s background, a time bomb that began to tick faster when talk of series spinoffs emerged. Whatever can we do about Emperor Georgiou? The show’s decided that it’s time to answer and see if it and Michael’s experiment has paid off.

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Discovery has vacillated wildly between what it’s wanted to do with the Terran Empire’s most sinister leader ever since Michael decided she just couldn’t let her go back in the show’s messy, messy Mirror Universe arc. The second season initially went with perhaps the easy options: this Georgiou is monstrously evil, so of course, she’s right at home in the dark heart of Section 31, where her eventual spinoff series will root her as well. But as Phillipa found herself redrawn into Michael Burnham’s orbit, the show has laid the groundwork for an alternate path: in some ways, this Georgiou has come to care about Michael as much as her prime self did, albeit preferring to show it in that somehow loveably curmudgeonly way.

The Georgiou we began to see emerge as she stayed aboard the Discovery—there for Michael as she was rocked by the reveal of her mother’s survival, there for her once more as the ship set sail for the far future—was still prickly and pernicious, with everyone at arm’s length as she mocked them. Yet, beneath that masquerade of camp cruelty, there always felt like there was the promise of something more. After all, she stayed with the crew instead of immediately peace-ing out the second the ship reached the 32nd century—and Phillipa stayed for Michael, even as she reveled in chances to get used to her old self in the future’s harsh landscapes. Even as she has learned, over the course of this third season, that her time is running out thanks to a seemingly incurable terminal illness, Georgiou has continued to play this game of lashing out in earnest anger and wanting to be there for the Michael she has come to...if not love, at the very least admire, in some way.

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Image: CBS

It is at this crossroads we find her once more in “Terra Firma, Part 1” after a little help from Kovich (up and coming young actor David Cronenberg) sees Doctor Culber discover just what’s really up with Georgiou’s brain. She’s dying, yes, we knew that already, but the reason Kovich provides? Her molecules are wresting her apart in an attempt to return her body to her own time and place. As the mysterious Starfleet figure intones, a grave lesson learned from the Temporal Wars (that outlawed time travel in the first place) is that bodies don’t like being zapped around through time. Time travel itself is not necessarily the problem, but time travel and interdimensional travel are apparently a tragic combo. Georgiou’s body no longer knows what to do with itself having been pulled out of the Mirror Universe and into the 32nd century, so it’s just...decided she can no longer exist.

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This is a revelation that devastates Michael, of course—who promptly sets about using the Sphere Data to see if there is some impossible chance to cure Georgiou of a universe that just cannot comprehend her existence. But it’s one that, in ways, devastates Georgiou just as much. She lashes out at Michael and Tilly’s offers to help her, her villainy no longer played for laughs but with a deep, vindictive cruelty. At the same time, it’s an empty cruelty, one that clearly is intended to push people she does actually care about as far away from her as possible, so she can die alone and with honor, but without the grief that would come from being surrounded by those close to her. This Georgiou has never been as vulnerable as we see her in the opening scenes of “Terra Firma, Part 1.”

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Screenshot: CBS
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This is why, when Michael does find a chance to save her, what follows is a fascinating thought experiment. After an earnest farewell to Tilly and Saru, Georgiou and Burnham head off to a mysterious world pointed to by the Sphere Data, increasingly connecting itself to Discovery’s systems as an almost technological guardian for the crew that wanted to protect it. There, amid snowy tundras, they are presented with a strange man, and a stranger door: one that, it turns out, leads Georgiou back in time and across dimensions into the Mirror Universe. The Emperor is returned: long live the Emperor?

But that shift causes confusion at first since it’s not the Mirror Universe’s present Georgiou finds herself in. It’s not even the moment she was wrenched from it, with Gabriel Lorca’s coup in ashes aboard the I.S.S. Charon, long after the Emperor had found herself betrayed by those she thought closest to her. Instead, she’s flung back to an inflection point: Lorca and Michael have begun their revolution and made clear their intent to move against her rule of the Terran Empire. But there is still a chance, as she fiercely declares, for Michael to take the path back to her side. After years of our Michael wishing for Phillipa to do just that, she now must hope that she has the chance to redeem her Michael.

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Screenshot: CBS

It all creates a fascinating tension. As Mirror Michael has to balance a now-faked loyalty to Georgiou as Georgiou, in turn, has to wrestle with not letting on that she knows what is about to go down—Michael’s betrayal and her eventual execution at Phillipa’s hands—leads to terse talks and uneasy glances between the two. The Mirror Universe’s penchant for treachery and backstabbing lingers in scene after scene. There’s more than just the “Does she know I know?” tension here, there’s also tension for us as the audience: has Phillipa Georgiou’s time in the Prime Universe actually done enough for her to have changed as a person? Has this nearly two-year experiment been worth it?

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It’s easy to read Georgiou’s angry declaration that she will lead Michael back to the fold as arrogance, that she is who she originally was; now she just has the benefit of time-travel hindsight to help aid her cruel machinations. But there’s also the chance to see her as we would hope. She doesn’t want to lose Michael. She doesn’t want to have to execute someone she loved, even if she’s been hurt by her, to maintain her grip. She wants to change Michael’s mind, to help her see through Lorca’s desire for rule and redeem her, a twisted, suitably mirrored flip on our Michael’s desire to seek redemption for Prime Georgiou by changing the heart of a Terran Emperor.

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Screenshot: CBS
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But we don’t quite get an answer as to whether or not the Phillipa Georgiou Experiment has been a success here. After all, this is “Terra Firma, Part 1,” and there’s more to this story. But the episode does end with a fleeting glimmer of hope; after Michael’s assassination attempt on Georgiou during the unveiling of the Charon (well, Stamets’, on Michael’s behalf) is foiled by a well-timed knife to the neck, Michael finds herself confronted by Georgiou, as she presumably once was in a past that now feels long ago to the Emperor. In a moment of seizing destiny, of claiming an unwritten future even as the defeated Michael goads her seemingly newfound weakness, Georgiou cannot kill her.

She demands to see a new story unfold, and we are in turn set a stage for an unknown future that hangs on whether or not this moment of leniency is one more extended cruelty in Emperor Georgiou’s uneven history, or the sign that maybe our Michael really did earn her redemption.

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Image: CBS

Assorted Musings

  • Star Trek: Picard dealt directly with the fallout of what the Prime Trek universe dealt with in the Star Trek movie reboots, but here we are: open references to the parallel universe created by the Nerada’s incursion in Kovich’s mystery Kelvin-TNG-era Temporal officer. Short, sweet, and very cool.
  • So...that was totally a Q guarding that random door to the Mirror Universe, right? Weirdo eccentric alien with a grasp of powers that seem godlike with a penchant for wanting to muck about with mortal lives?
  • It’s interesting that the episode puts so much weight on Georgiou choosing the inflection point of her alteration of the timeline in sparing Mirror Michael, when really, it’s in her killing Stamets during the Charon’s unveiling, right? He was simply punished for insurrection in the “old” Mirror Universe timeline.
  • All hail the return of Captain Killy, and her glorious, glorious hairdo. Love to see it.
  • While we’re hailing: letting Sonequa Martin-Green just unleash herself as Mirror Michael this episode was a delight, just grade-A hamming it up and living her best life. She didn’t really get to do that in season one as that was our Michael, but this is just her raging and vamping and it’s joyful to watch.
  • Gabriel Lorca is danced around a lot this episode, a heavy presence but in namedrops only. Jason Isaacs has touched upon a desire to return to Discovery, but as Prime Lorca rather than his usual Mirror self. But...what if we actually get him next episode for a little while? That’d be fun.
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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

DISCUSSION

So many thoughts and musings on this episode:

  • More Cronenberg!
  • They acknowledged the Kelvinverse as a parallel universe. Neat!
  • Georgiou’s trip through the door and mysterious Carl guy had a strong TNG “Tapestry” vibe to it. The kind of not-quite-reliving-the-past sort of thing because what happens next doesn’t quite jive with what we’ve seen in Disco’s last trip to the MU (Mirror Stamets’ demise, notably)
  • BUT... Then again Carl is reading the Star Dispatch, a Trek universe newspaper last seen in City on the Edge of Forever, so is this just a little nod to that episode or is Carl somehow related to the Guardian of Forever?
  • Either way, I like the Q-ness of Carl just appearing in the snow, hat and cigar, with a door to somewhere/nowhere.
  • I kinda love Discovery’s Mirror Universe, it’s all so silly and serious at the same time. Killy is back and we see Mirror versions of all the current crew. Even brought back Mirror Landry for a bit.
  • Mirror Burnham has a serious case of crazy eyes.
  • The Mirror Universe loves Cirque du Soleil
  • Don’t keep teasing us with Lorca’s name, show the man!
  • Georgiou has spent too much time in the “Prime Universe” - or what would be the Mirror Universe to her - because she’s gotten soft.  She even let Tilly hug her.