After a mixed bag of a fourth episode that had me wondering if this series would ever get its space bearings, Discovery conjures up an outing that elegantly balances scenes of character-building, technobabble, gobs of fan service, conflicted morality and dark secrets, and for once nothing gets shortchanged. The main meal is Lorca’s imprisonment by the Klingons with a nicely measured homage to Roger C. Carmel’s Harry Mudd by Rainn Wilson, but Kemp Powers, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts’ story also provides a moral dilemma in the form of the tardigrade creature being used for the spore drive’s jumps, Saru’s ambitions and his issues with Burnham, and Stanmets’ relationship with Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). What’s even more impressive here is we don’t get TNG, Voyager et al’s lame “A story, B story” format, but instead a solid script that weaves all these elements into a single, linear plot where every element has a bearing on the others.
The challenge that Discovery has set up for itself is a morally compromised universe necessitated by the war with the Klingons, one that forces agonizing choices, both micro and macro, on Starfleet officers who in any other Trek series (save some of TOS and DS9) would be leaving all the tough calls to civilians. It’s shocking to watch a series where a potentially intelligent alien creature is essentially enslaved for use in the ship’s drive, and where Starfleet officers unhesitatingly kill—or are killed—in confrontations with the Klingons. On the latter score, Discovery seems downright bloodthirsty as we see Lorca taken captive off a shuttlecraft, his pilot slaughtered in front of him, and the captain and his cellmate Harry Mudd watching another human prisoner mercilessly beaten by Klingon guards. But that’s nothing as we finally find out why the show’s producers hired Jason Isaacs to play Gabriel Lorca—SPOILER ALERT—Lorca might be the first mass murderer captain in Starfleet history. As Mudd himself relates to their fellow captive, Lorca escaped a battle with the Klingons only to see his ship and crew destroyed—but Lorca makes clear that he pulled the trigger on his ship and crew himself, knowing that they would be enslaved and brutalized by their Klingon captors. Heavy, man! Lorca makes TOS’s Ron Tracy, my favorite starship captain villain, look like an amateur, and we can only guess at what the thought process was in making him a captain again after this most unholy of transgressions. An interesting question is, does Starfleet even know? Since Lorca makes his confession in front of a prisoner who later joins him onboard the Discovery after their inevitable rescue, one has to assume they either do or will soon, but clearly, this is a character arc waiting to be explored further and a great one for Isaac’s particular talents.
The other moral quandary is the tardigrade, a concept, and situation that seemed frustratingly tossed off in the previous episode but which gets thoughtful consideration here in classic Star Trek manner. It’s Burnham presenting the idea that the tardigrade might be sentient and that using it for the Discovery’s drive could be tantamount to torture, an idea that gets surprising pushback from everyone, particularly from Saru, who’s impatient to get the Discovery back in gear to rescue Lorca. We’re used to seeing Starfleet’s alien bridge officers as morally superior to humans, so Saru’s resistance to Burnham’s sympathy for the creature seems at first off-putting, but it’s really a measure of the character’s depth (and Doug Jones’ equally measured performance) that Saru is simply weighing priorities, and as he notes to Burnham, he will hold himself responsible for the tardigrade’s treatment, after Lorca is rescued.
As for Lorca, Jason Isaacs not only gets a tense Starfleet strategy meeting scene but a juicy torture sequence, and it’s a relief to see his Klingon torturer (who apparently has been having a kinky thing with one of her human captives) speak English (although with what sounds a lot like a Russian accent). Add a surprising act of interspecies sacrifice by the seemingly self-centered Stamets, and a list of decorated starship captains that name-checks not only Georgiou but Robert April, Jonathan Archer, Matt Decker and Christopher Pike, and you’ve got an episode that should finally make fans feel like they’re watching Star Trek, yet still have plenty to argue about.
GEEK Grade: A
Teleplay by Kemp Powers
Story by Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts and Kemp Powers
Directed by Lee Rose