With the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery, we’re finally aboard the titular ship. But this is no average starship. It seems to be a science vessel, but black-badged security personnel patrol the decks. Everyone seems on edge and the usual morale one finds aboard a Federation vessel appears to be missing. Just the place for Burnham to end up and continue to stuff down her feelings of guilt.
But first, let’s talk about Tribbles.
There’s one of the desk of Discovery‘s captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). And for those sensitive to the cooing sound of the infamous balls of fur, it’s presence was hard to ignore. For one: it liked Burnham — one of two lifeforms aboard with that characteristic. But it is also notable for a certain lack of breeding. The creatures are essentially born pregnant and if Lorca keeps one as a pet, you have to presume he somehow had it neutered. I could be overthinking this, but if Lorca has chosen some sort of invasive family planning for the creature, it’s a subtle nod to the man we glimpsed in this episode.
Lorca is a seeming contradiction. He is a Starfleet captain, but very comfortable with the current war. He arranged for Burnham’s shuttlecraft to end up on his ship, which is a very questionable tactic from the standpoint of Starfleet Command. But then again, the Starfleet Command we once knew in previous series no longer seems to exist.
Just as a point of comparison, in an episode of Star Trek called “The Menagerie,” Spock establishes he was aboard the Enterprise thirteen years prior to the events of that episode. Which means, from Discovery’s point of view, he is currently serving on the Enterprise. Thanks to “The Menagerie,” we know Captain Pike’s Enterprise resembled the warm and familiar air of Captain Kirk’s command. But Lorca’s Discovery is a ship full of tension, mysterious intent and “Black Alerts.”
As the episode begins, we’re told six months have elapsed since Burnham’s mutiny and the failure in the binary star system near Klingon space. The incident led to an all-out war between the Empire and the Federation. The passing days also saw Burnham become a legend: the first Starfleet officer ever to mutiny. I’m sure Star Trek: Enterprise fans can cite instances in which Captain Archer or T’Pol also mutinied, but I those incidents can be handwaved as they predate the Federation itself. No matter how historically accurate her claim to fame might be, Burnham faces regular persecution for her actions. The other prisoners on the shuttlecraft express disdain for her. And once she’s aboard Discovery, the crew are also quick to reveal their displeasure at her presence. Well, all except one, but we’ll get to her in a moment.
An incident in the crew mess hall leads her to meeting Lorca, who has a plan for her. He wants her to aid a top secret project in Engineering. She has 48 hours to accomplish her task while the prison shuttlecraft gets deloused. Which, when you think about, the notion that the shuttlecraft needs to be sprayed for lice resistant to the vacuum of space is both dumb, great and high Star Trek all at once. It’s also a clue to what Discovery is trying to accomplish, come to think of it.
Lorca gives her a cabin assignment with a cadet named Tilly (Mary Wiseman). She’s the first person we’ve met on this show who seems excited to be in Starfleet. But since she has enthusiasm, she is also painted as overeager, a little ditzy and racked with “special needs” that amount to little more than allergies to the standard issue bedding. Despite the attempt to code her as a classic nerd, her openness is a welcome respite from the gritted teeth throughout the rest of the ship and the crew of the Shenzhou. Yeah, I’ll say it, I liked Cadet Tilly immediately.
Also, if Starfleet hasn’t cured allergic reactions to common fabrics by 2256, what the hell good are they? Shouldn’t a post-scarcity economy have the scientific bandwidth to give allergy suffers some real damned relief?
Anyway, the engineering project is a mix biology, physics and those mysterious black alerts. When Burnham experiences her first one, she noticed the walls of her cabin suddenly develop moisture. But there’s hardly time to think about it as she’s tasked by Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp), the project manager, to debug some code. She uses her smarts to work her way into the project’s strange greenhouse. Before she can investigate further, she, Tilly, Stamets and Security Chief Landry (Rekha Sharma) are sent to Discovery‘s sister ship, the U.S.S. John Glen (at least, I’m assuming that’s its proper name. It’s only ever referred to as “the Glen“), where they find the crew contorted into hideous shapes and the remains of a Klingon raiding party. Their assailant: A large angry predator. The Discovery away team runs in terror.
I’m not sure if laughter was the desired effect of the scene, but I cackled as they ran from the lifeform. I hope it was as it would endear me more to the show.
While the animal attempts to break down the door to Engineering, Tilly finds a device in the lab. I’m guessing this was the item Lorca expected the away team to recover. Or, at least, the item he told Stamets to find. The real prize may be something else.
To give the rest of the group a chance to get back to the shuttlecraft, Burnham volunteers to lead the creature through the Glen‘s jeffries tubes. She recites a bit of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to time her crawl through the tube system and her leap into the shuttlecraft. For her efforts in debugging Stamets’ code and saving the away team, Lorca offers Burnham a permanent place on the ship. She tries to decline, believing she deserves her sentence, and even suggests Lorca is setting her up to be the fall guy for his bio-weapon experiments. Lorca reveals the Discovery‘s real purpose: to perfect a near-instantaneous FTL propulsion system based on biomass.
Like the cosmic lice earlier, this idea is so freaking Star Trek, it’s up there with the Holodeck and transporters.
Burnham accepts the offer and stays bunkmates with Tilly. Landry, meanwhile, tells Lorca his real quarry from the Glen has been transported to the menagerie: that creature from the chase scene!
While still finding its footing, this third episode of Discovery offers a better sense of what the show wants to be. It’s not the sort of external drama we’re use to with Star Trek. Lorca sets the tone as an unpredictable commanding officer. Their mission seems to break several Federation laws and the mood of the crew — Stamets for example — suggests no one but Tilly is there voluntarily. Unlike the cosmic lice or the bio-warp, it’s the opposite of Star Trek. I’m not sure I like it, but I am intrigued for now. Also, we’re finally given a welcome crack in Burnham’s facade when Tilly’s reacts to seeing an actual paper book. I hope the two continue to get friendly and offer us a new shading to Starfleet’s infamous mutineer.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays on CBS All Access.