It’s a little early in the season and a little disquieting for me to be already missing the Akiva Goldsman touch, but that’s where we are with episode four, which has Burnham assigned to research the aggressive tardigrade creature previously found on Discovery’s sister ship, the Glenn. Captain Lorca is in a rush to perfect the twitchy spore drive so he can get the Discovery to a dilithium mining facility under attack by the Klingons, who are still dividing up the spoils of the battle at the binary stars.
Despite a long-winded title that now vies with “For the World Is Hollow and I Must Touch the Sky” for the biggest titular mouthful in all of Trek, episode four feels a little undernourished, even though it continues with some promising story and character threads from “Context Is For Kings.” There are three problems for the crew here: understanding the tardigrade creature, fixing the spore drive, and rescuing the Federation miners, and they all get solved a little too quickly and dovetail a little too neatly, and the dialogue by Jesse Alexander and Aron Eli Coleite doesn’t have the sharp bite that we got from Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny in “Context.” What continues to work is Burnham’s shaky relationship with Doug Jones’ Saru. Burnham’s use of Saru’s “threat ganglia” response to prove that the tardigrade creature is not a natural predator is smart and interesting, as is Saru’s ganglial response to his discovery that Lorca has made Burnham an officer on the Discovery (he thought she would be sent back to prison where she belongs).
In fact, the best thing about episode four is Burnham’s determination to disobey Lorca’s directive to find a use for the tardigrade creature as a weapon. Her drive to truly understand a creature that everyone else on the crew assumes is a dangerous monster is classic Star Trek plotting that goes all the way back to “The Devil in the Dark.” And if the writers had spent enough time with this plot point, “The Butcher’s Knife…” might have been a great episode—instead they sell the idea short, having Burnham figure everything out regarding the creature (it actually interacts with the ship’s spores and was an integral part of the spore drive on the Glenn) in a couple of short scenes, so the creature can be plugged in to the Discovery spore drive and we can get the ship into a battle with the Klingons.
“The Butcher’s Knife…” provides a lot of fodder for critics decrying this new series as style over substance in its rush to get to the action and special effects razzle-dazzle. I’ve been a defender of the design of the Discovery starship, and there are some great shots of the vessel here, but the concept of having the saucer section rotate, and in fact having the whole ship seem to turn into some Rube Goldberg carnival ride when it goes into spore drive, seems designed to send the Trek fans who try to find a sensible function for every exterior detail of the ships in these shows screaming into the streets. The spore drive itself is an intriguing idea as an organic, “green” technology, but the clockwork look of the effect seems to have nothing to do with the spores. Maybe there’s a good explanation for it but it seems to boil down simply to, “it looks neat.” You could say the same thing about the radically redesigned Klingon ships, although the more I see them, the more the idea that this is an ancient race and that these are ancient Klingon ships that haven’t yet been brought into the modern era seems to make sense.
The Klingons, though, continue to be this show’s least compelling element, for all their obvious striving to be the Game of Thrones of Star Trek with their competing houses, ancient feuds, and honor. There’s even a throwaway line about cannibalism here, with the strong suggestion that the Klingons ate the captain of the Shenzou after the battle with Starfleet. Ew. We get a little more exploration of Klingon character, but for me these scenes just rob valuable time that should have been given over to fleshing out the plotlines on the Discovery more. We even get an unexpected crew death here, another Game of Thrones element broadly hinted at by the producers in pre-premiere P.R. for the show, but while yes, it is surprising, it also has no dramatic payoff here and leaves us with one less intriguing relationship on the Discovery to explore.
Next week Lorca gets thrown into jail with Harry Mudd, and after this week I’m looking forward to a nice bottle show. You’ve got a bunch of great actors and at least a few good writers—how about just throwing some of them into a cramped cell for an hour and letting them talk? That’s the kind of Star Trek I’m in the mood for right now.
GEEK Grade: C+
Written by Jesse Alexander and Aron Eli Coleite
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi