Would you believe it took eight episodes for Star Trek: Discovery to feature an away mission?
As the show is constructed around a largely unseen war with the Klingons, Discovery‘s premise actually precludes one of the key exploration aspects of Star Trek shows. Well, at least in the sense that starships “seek out new life and new civilizations.” It’s tough to do when all of your territory must be defended from an adversary which views peace as an ulterior motive. Nonetheless, much of Discovery‘s, um, well, “discoveries” have revolved around the internal. Burnham’s trauma, Stamet’s reticence to see his breakthrough used for war, Lorca’s sociopathy. Granted, none of these have been explored in any great detail, but they reveal the show’s wish to be a character drama first with Star Trek trappings when they’re convenient.
That’s certainly true of this week’s episode, in which Burnham, Saru and Tyler beam down to the planet Pahvo to determine if a naturally occurring sonic emission can help the Federation detect cloaked Klingon vessels. After wandering the forest for several hours, the away team comes across an unusual form of life which takes an immediate liking to Saru. Over the course of a night, the Pahvans learn about the Federation conflict and Saru learns about a life without fear.
And after being sidelined for a number of episodes, Doug Jones had a moment to shine as Saru. This was truly his best episode and I half expected the character to lose his life for the amount of screentime he received. Jones is a master of working under prosthetics and here he gets to reveal a new side of Saru previously unseen (though certainly stated). Saru’s genuine fear about leaving Pavoh becomes overwhelming and leads him to a manic episode in which even his benevolent manner was twisted toward protecting his newfound peace. It was a striking departure for the character and revealed a little bit more about him. Although he still feels like a cipher in a number of ways, we know he can be overwhelmed given the right stimuli.
To me, that’s the most interesting element of the episode as it means, going forward, Saru can be compromised by way of his fear response. What this means for Burnham’s possible second mutiny remains to be seen, but it’s clear she will have to get Saru on board should Lorca turn out to be complete unhinged. But will the fear of imprisonment or Lorca’s personality sway Saru in the same powerful way the Pahvans did this week? Time, of course, will tell.
Meanwhile, L’Rell’s (Mary Chieffo) attempt to gain Kol’s favor led to another interesting anachronism for Star Trek as a whole. According to Admiral Cornwell, Starfleet has no death penalty level offense on its books. This is incorrect as the events of Star Trek‘s original pilot are said to have occurred three years prior to the events of Discovery. The result of the Enterprise‘s visit to Talos IV led to General Order Four (though referred to by different numbers in other instances): any captain directing a ship to that planet would merit execution. I suppose it’s possible that order has yet to appear on the books, but Discovery‘s relationship with the current whereabouts of the Enterprise and its crew compliment are always fuzzy things.
L’Rell’s apparent defection was an interesting idea. But as she is known to be deceitful, it was impossible to tell her true motivation in speaking with Cornwell. Her tendency to play with four or five countermoves already planned out made it difficult to care one way or the other. If Cornwell was a casualty of L’Ress’s gambit with Kol, then it was a waste of a character. If she actually wanted to defect as a means of defeating Kol on a grander scale, it becomes a double beat as it resembles Lorca’s escape from her ship and the probable identity of Voq. Either way, it all seems for not as Kol appears to be a better player in the game of whispers and sets course for Pahvo and a showdown with the Discovery.
I suppose if Kol was a more concrete character himself — or L’Rell for that matter — then the Klingon storyline would have greater impact.
Which brings us back to Discovery‘s desire to be a character drama while limiting meaningful character interaction. While characters have “bullet point” things we know about them, they don’t really share things with one another and become stronger characters in the viewers mind for that sharing. That said, there is a “characterness” about the crew at this point. We know how Tilly or Stamets will react in certain situations, for example.
That was certainly important this week as Stamets returned to his earlier short-fused persona. It set something in motion for next week, and it led to one of the more genuine character building moments so far: Stamets explaining that he will hurt Dr. Culbert if he reveals the severity of his eugenic experiment on himself. Hopefully, that sort of specificity will bleed to other characters as the war rages on.
Well, presuming next week’s mid-season finale doesn’t end the war as well.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays on CBS All Access.