Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 3
“Choose to Live”
Star Trek: Discovery pushes the threat of the anomaly into the background to explore the complexities around the Federation’s approach to sharing Dilithium.
As I frequently mention in reviews, I find high stakes universe ending plots to be tiresome because of how difficult they are to relate to. The early part of this season is doing a great job of getting around the pitfalls of that by pushing it into the background and focusing on the knock on impact the threat has rather than ramping up the threat itself. This may all fall by the wayside later in the season but for now the focus is in the right place. The anomaly is mentioned to be out there but currently not an immediate threat to anything. That can change at any time but for now there is some time to breathe and work on understanding the threat. The anomaly fuels the drama without actually being the drama itself which allows for character development associated with it.
Book has the strongest emotional connection to the anomaly and is a tangible example of how significant the threat it. It took his family and planet from him so Book’s grief is the emotional core of the show at this time. The previous episode delivered a wonderful account of the very early stages of the grieving process with this episode picking that up and making it very clear that he is in the midst of a long process that may never end. His approach is to try to make himself useful by working with Stamets because he sees that as a way to help solve this problem and prevent others from experiencing the kind of loss he has.
Stamets feels uneasy having Book working with him because it exposes him to casual discussions about the destruction of his planet. He voices concerns around Book accompanying him to Ni’Var because they will be having frank discussions about what he has lost. Book claims to be willing to accept that if it helps find the answer that will bring and end to this threat but it doesn’t make it any easier to cope with it. The problem for Book at this point is that he feels useless because his skill set isn’t conducive to solving the problem at hand so he has a lot of time to dwell on his loss. This comes into play on Ni’Var around the technobabble chatter around what the anomaly might be. Emotional stakes come into play significantly when Book’s memories hold important information that will tell them if they are on the right track or not. The problem being accessing that information means Book reliving that memory; something he does every waking moment anyway but a Mind Meld makes that experience far more visceral.
He consents to it out of a desire to help solve the problem and the experience is obviously difficult for him but he gains something positive out of it. One thing he is able to do is revisit the memory of being with his brother and nephew shortly before losing them so he can really take in the detail of the moment and get an answer to a question that has been on his mind. He comes out of the Mind Meld convinced that his nephew knew how he felt and that’s enough to offer a major comfort to him. Book ends the episode more hopeful than he was at the beginning. He accepts that he needs to be open to the full extent of his memories whether they be good or bad in order to honour his family. It could be argued that these steps are happening quickly and that’s a fair criticism but it’s also worth noting that Book has access to resources to help with the healing process that don’t exist in our world. It’s internally consistent and there is still the sense that Book is very much at the beginning of the grieving process. If this continues to be a fixture of his character then it will be an excellent portrayal of grief as it has been so far. David Ajala’s performance is certainly to be commended.
The main plot feeds into the anomaly story through showing knock on consequences of it to an extent. Knowledge of the threat the anomaly represents has intensified the need for Dilithium which has resulted in thefts happening. It also comes from the Federation’s policy of doing business with planetary bodies or organisations rather than individuals which is an imperfect approach as it leaves a lot of people out. Nobody should expect them to get it right first time and the idea that their initial approach has a major blind spot highlights the recovery process the Federation is engaged in as an organisation. People need help and the Federation aren’t entirely equipped to offer it to those who need it.
In a way the actions of J’Vini (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) shine a light on what the Federation have failed to notice. Her actions are unquestionably wrong as she is stealing Dilithium and is directly responsible for the death of a Starfleet officer but it isn’t as simple as her being an irredeemable criminal because her motivation is understandable. It comes from the Qowat Milat’s custom of committing to a hopeless cause with J’Vini charging herself with the protection of an alien species in stasis travelling to a new home. The Dilithium is to keep the ship running and it can’t be removed because they need a way to escape should the anomaly come their way.
The best part of this plot is how it is recognised as a complicated diplomatic situation with no easy answers. Once Burnham understands what is at stake she sympathises with J’Vini’s point of view and recognises that they can’t reclaim the Dilithium because it would directly put an entire species in danger. Ultimately she decides to compromise because the aliens are important and she is able to appeal to J’Vini’s sense of honour by convincing her to stand down because Burnham offering to help fix the ship completes the oath and frees her of her obligation. This means she can be brought to justice so it’s a solution that allows a species to prosper, avenges the murdered Starfleet officer by bringing J’Vini to justice and respects the Qowat Milat’s customs. It’s fair to argue that this all wraps up neatly with everything falling into place but it is a solid showcase of how Captain’s have to navigate complicated situations in order to arrive at decisions that benefit everyone in some way.
Political sensitivity is set up very early on with President Rillak telling Burnham that she has to be very careful with what she does on this mission as it is so much more than the hunt for a criminal. President Rillak sees this as a chance to prove to Ni’Var how valuable it would be to rejoin the Federation. She reminds Burnham that the Federation is on a long road to recovery and Ni’Var will be instrumental in achieving that so there is a standing order to take great care in any action taken during this mission. She also reminds Burnham that she’s in charge and shouldn’t blindly accept whatever the Qowat Milat demand. Burnham is certainly the perfect person to lead such a mission as her nature prevents her from being walked over though she does have to be reminded of how destructive her natural tendencies could be.
Burnham confides in Saru that she is frustrated by the politics because she would rather take whatever action she feels is right without worrying about what political upset it may cause. Her frustration is justifiable but she is also failing to consider how delicate relations are. This is a lesson that she has to learn especially if she is to be on the front line as she and Discovery definitely will be. Saru hears her out and doesn’t offer an opinion of his own possibly because he trusts that Burnham will eventually wake up to the necessity of walking that very fine line.
Political complications come into play towards the end of the episode when President Rillak agrees to turn J’Vini over to Ni’Var to face trial under their rules. It’s a political gesture that will hopefully lesson the time before Ni’Var rejoins the Federation. It doesn’t sit well with Burnham and Vance admits that he isn’t comfortable with it either but he uses the excellent analogy of an orchestra to illustrate to Burnham that they each have a part to play and have to let President Rillak conduct things the way she sees fit. Their job is to put her decisions into place and have them work which certainly won’t be easy but that’s their responsibility. Vance comes from a position of having learned that lesson while Burnham still has ways to go.
Added to this plot is personal complications brought on by the presence of Burnham’s mother who has a strong connection to J’Vini. She feels that connection because J’Vini was the one who nursed her back to health when she arrived in the future and inducted her into the Qowat Milat. There was definitely more that could have been done with this particularly with President Rillak warning Burnham not to let her relationship with her mother complicate the mission. Gabrielle talks about feeling indebted to Javini which sets up a potential turning point where she will be torn between her loyalty to J’Vini and the needs of the mission but it never comes to anything significant. There is a conversation where Burnham is urged to see beyond the details she currently has access to just as she did with Spock but J’Vini committing murder isn’t in doubt so the comparison doesn’t work.
Another issue comes from J’Vini and the aliens she protects. The aliens spend the episode in stasis and are never fleshed out in any way so they act as the subject of the plot rather than being something the viewer can tangibly relate to. J’Vini isn’t a strong enough character in her own right to make up for that with her being a mouthpiece for the political complexity rather than someone with depth. Dialogue establishes her relationship to Gabrielle as well as her quest but there isn’t enough time spent developing her beyond her beliefs. In a lot of ways she becomes the embodiment of Qowat Milat tradition and takes action in line with that. This functions within the tense political framework but lacks in actual character despite all the ingredients being present for there to be evolving compelling character drama.
A more interesting aspect of this plot was Tilly’s inclusion. It was established in the previous two episodes that she is feeling out of sorts with it being further fleshed out here. Her trip to this time and the pace of change that occurred in the wake of that have caused her to feel a lack of belonging so she’s looking to shake herself out of her comfort zone in the hope of adjusting and feeling more sure of herself again. She talks about trying to sleep differently, trying different foods, trying different activities and generally shaking herself out of the rut she fears she has dug herself into. Saru recommends her for the mission because her perspective might benefit it while providing her a change of pace to aid in her reassessment of herself.
In a lot of ways it does as she gains some fascinating insight from Gabrielle while generally considering the Qowat Milat ethos. “Choose to Live” is the name of the episode and through Tilly a significant exploration of what that can mean is offered. It doesn’t have to mean literal death; it can mean change and their philosophy allows for constant changes that need to be adapted to. Choosing to live can mean accepting those changes and altering the life you lead in order to accommodate them. Tilly receives guidance around people being in constant flux and begins to accept that she is facing a period of adjusting that she needs to work on. Admitting that things aren’t right is living a truth and it’s the first step towards progressing onto something that works. It ties into the principle of “Absolute Candor”; something that needs to be turned inward as well as outward. It certainly gives her something to think about and her emotional journey is a relatable one given all the change she has experienced over a short period of time.
Another character who has to “choose to live” is Gray. He is installed in his new body but doesn’t wake up immediately. The risks associated with this process are outlined early on and tension is created through Adira worrying that Gray might be lost forever. Most of their scenes detail them feeling like they have lost a part of themselves with Gray no longer being present to interact with. The advice is to be patient as it may just take time to happen but Adira jumps straight to fearing the worst. This is likely fuelled by the emptiness felt due to Gray no longer being present. Similar complications were detailed in the Deep Space 9 episode “Facets” where Jadzia had her previous hosts temporarily removed. In this case the removal is permanent whether the process works or not and Adira struggles to adjust to that idea. It’s unclear whether they will continue to struggle with the absence now that Gray is a fully external presence but it works to heighten their concern.
As always the Adira/Gray relationship is really endearing. Adira sitting with the synthetic body and refusing to leave Gray’s side until something happens was a really sweet moment that highlights the strength of their connection. A lot gets done with very little screen time for these characters and it builds up to the truly joyful awakening with Gray now able to interact with the external world along with the people in it.
On the side of this plot is Saru’s recognition of the toll that Culber’s self appointed role managing the well-being of the crew takes on him. He commends Culber on his efforts and a crack in the armour appears when Culber admits that it’s far from easy to deal with all that he has chosen to take on. Despite this he remains strong and committed to being there for others in that way though this sets up the idea that Culber may need help eventually. Saru is certainly keeping an eye on him which makes for an excellent reminder of his ability to weave in and out of different character relationships making insightful observations while offering his unique brand of wisdom. So far the character work this season has been very strong.
A strong episode that continues the excellent exploration of Book’s grief, gives Tilly important perspective on her own struggles and generally frontloads character over impossibly high stakes. Leaving the anomaly as a background element that fuels the drama rather than being the drama itself is the right choice for this part of the season as it allows for character work to play out and be more important. Book’s desire to be useful despite his lack of expertise is entirely relatable as he wants to distract himself as well as do everything possible to ensure that others don’t suffer the same kind of loss he did. He has the strongest emotional connection to the anomaly and the investigation constantly comes back to that. In order to determine whether Stamets’ theory is worth pursuing he is faced with the prospect of reliving his loss; something he is willing to do if it means ending this threat. It’s obviously difficult but he gains something positive out of it as he gets the answer to the question of whether his family knew how he felt about them. It allows for an important step forward and gives him the clarity to realise that he has to be open to both good and bad memories in order to honour his family Arguably he is taking important strides quickly but David Ajala’s performance sells it and he has access to resources such as Mind Melds that don’t exist in our world.
The main plot involving tracking down a Qowat Milat murderer brings in political sensitivity as well as highlighting the Federation’s imperfect approach while distributing Dilithium. Both contribute to the Federation being on the road to recovery and the fine line that needs to be walked in order to achieve that. Getting Ni’Var on side means being accommodating and respectful though Burnham is also encouraged not to simply give into everything they demand. It’s a tense situation and works really well as a setup. There are missteps in failing to fully characterise J’Vini beyond her ideals and doing very little with her connection to Gabrielle despite setting that up as a potential complication. The aliens J’Vini is protecting fail to be any more than a function of the plot so there was a lot of potential within this that went unused. Vance’s orchestra analogy was a really nice touch that outlined how he sees the framework he and Burnham are a part of with the politics acting as a source of tension for Burnham personally throughout. Tilly’s addition to the mission was far more interesting. It builds on her ongoing issue of feeling out of sorts with the Qowat Milat mantra’s giving her plenty to think about. She is encouraged to be honest with herself and go from there and recognise that change is something she has to accept. It’s an important lesson that she can work with. Adira’s reaction to the delay in Gray waking up after being installed in the new body is really strong material. They feel as if they have lost a part of themselves which dials up the anxiety around not having instant results. It leads to really sweet moments where Adira sits with Gray until something happens and the joyful awakening. There isn’t a lot of screen time for these character but it’s used well. Saru’s recognition of the toll Culber’s self appointed role in managing the well-being of the crew allows for a crack in his armour to appear along with a reaffirmation of his motivation to take on this role. Whether this will lead to him needing help of his own remains to be seen but it’s great to see this recognised and feeds into Saru’s ability to weave in and out of character relationships offering wisdom. So far the character work this season has been very strong.
- the anomaly threat fuelling the plot rather than being the plot itself
- constantly looping back to Book’s emotional connection to is
- Book progressing through his grief
- the moving step forward he takes with the realisation that his family knew how they felt
- the political complexity of the main plot
- Burnham’s frustration and having to tow a very fine line
- adding texture to the rebuilding of the Federation through the politics and their imperfect approach to distributing Dilithium
- Burnham finding a compromise after recognising that the aliens need help
- Vance’s orchestra analogy
- Tilly gaining fascinating perspective on what she needs to do to work through her issues
- Adira dealing with losing a part of themself
- the tension associated with Gray being absent
- sweet and joyful moments associated with Gray
- J’Vini never becoming a fully fledged character in her own right
- failing to make use of Gabrielle and J’Vini’s pre-existing relationship
- the aliens being nothing more than a plot function
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