Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 Episode 5
Star Trek: Discovery connects with the Federation and gets a sense of what has changed about the organisation since their native time.
The structure of this season remains what I anticipated it would be when I reviewed the third episode; self contained stories that feed into each other but remain their own distinct entity. Ongoing threads such as The Burn and the general difficulties the crew has coping with their current surroundings will continue to be referenced but each episode is a story that begins and ends within the running time. We’re in an era of serialised television where plots slowly develop over the course of several episodes and Discovery very much belongs to that era with two previous seasons that bought into the more modern structure. Star Trek as a franchise has its roots in episodic storytelling with Deep Space Nine dipping its toe into serialisation while still retaining enough of an episodic structure to distinguish given episodes. To my mind a more episodic approach suits Star Trek better than a serialised one though that may be because the attempts to adopt that haven’t been all that successful so far. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s more that so far it hasn’t really worked.
This episode has Discovery find the Federation and deal with everything that comes from it. The reunion is a complicated one as their arrival invites a lot of questions. Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) is the main representative of the Federation and Starfleet who deals with them on a personal level. His attitude is in keeping with the cynical outlook that has been routinely encountered by the Discovery crew up until this point. This time period is divided and uncertain with this being reflected in pretty much everyone the crew encounter. The Federation hasn’t turned away from the values that define it but a cautious approach is taken with everything and the way the Discovery crew are treated is a good example of that. Vance refuses to give them much information until after they have been debriefed probably because he’s not sure how much they can be trusted and needs to resolve the inconsistencies between what he’s looking at and what the historical records tell him.
Vance serves a particular function in the plot which is both a good and bad thing. The good is that he can answer necessary questions and provides a flavour of the common attitude within Starfleet at this point. Everything is regarded with suspicion and protocol is used as mask that. The fact that Federation Headquarters are hidden behind an artificially generated distortion field designed to keep others out while the ships inside all work together to power it. This runs counter to the Federation values of openness and inclusivity as the distortion field is very much the opposite of welcoming. It’s consistent with everything else that Discovery has encountered in this time and further reflects the idea that there’s a lot of work to be done to restore the optimism that was once associated with the Federation.
The problem with Vance is that he isn’t really a character so far. Within this episode he exists to answer questions and be an obstacle to be overcome but doesn’t ever take on a life of his own. Oded Fehr plays him with believable authority and his performance suggests that there’s more to him than is displayed here but the writing isn’t slick enough to compliment it. This makes his reversal on splitting up the crew feel unearned because the arc he goes through is completely unseen. Since he is little more than his rank and plot purpose that he serves it’s difficult to invest in him and accept that he would change his mind. It makes sense that he would want to maintain a professional distance from the new arrivals but the episode requires that the viewer accepts that his mind is changed after the crew prove their unique worth and such a seismic shift in outlook simply isn’t justified.
Another issue the episode has is the fetch quest that Discovery goes on. The episodic storytelling does this plot no favours as there isn’t enough time to develop it properly. This episode has a general issue of trying to pack too much into the running time and this aspect suffers most. There was a lot of potential in the Dr. Attis (Jake Epstein) character story but it receives nothing more than surface level attention. His family have died while he’s stuck in a sort of limbo where he phases in and out of reality which makes for a compelling tragedy to explore. He’s stuck in emotional limbo because he refuses to accept the fact that his family have died and he takes on an antagonistic role because his cooperation is needed to access the life saving seeds that can be used to cure a large number of dying aliens.
The challenge laid out before Burnham and the rest of the team is how to reason with him and to help him accept such a profound loss. He has placed his dead family in stasis which makes for a particularly visceral example of being unable to accept what has happened. They are preserved soon after the point of death and Dr. Attis hold onto the futile hope that he will be able to bring them back.
Dr. Attis is Barzan just like Commander Nhan so this provides the perfect opportunity to develop her by having her encounter her people and reflect on her decision to leave the 23rd century behind. There are periodic facts about her people sprinkled in such as them being known for “diligence and poverty” with the majority of their resources going towards ensuring their children prosper. Dr. Attis lost his two children so it really hammers home how profound this would be for him or for any other member of his race. There’s also the fact that anyone watching can relate to how tragic it must be to lose a child so as emotional beats go it absolutely lands. This season has focused on grief and acceptance before this point so Dr. Attis’ experience is an extension of that and being faced with what he’s refusing to accept forces her to consider what she has left behind. She talks about regretting not returning home to say goodbye before coming to the future and reflects on what she misses about her home while also taking comfort in the knowledge that her home is still there and that her people became members of the Federation.
Where this falls down is that the episode fails to follow through with this in any meaningful way. Nhan talks to Dr. Attis and is beginning to connect with him through their shared cultural experience. It’s a pairing that makes sense because she understands what death means in her culture and has an idea of what emotional turmoil he’s dealing with but this is stopped by Culber who takes Burnham aside and tells her that she needs to take over because Nhan is too close to this and isn’t the right person to have that conversation. Culber also did this in the previous episode when he told Burnham she was the best candidate to accompany Adira to Trill. Once again, Burnham is the lead and the writers are always going to give her greater focus than the other characters but this pattern of a character about to engage in some sort of profound development only for Culber to arrange for Burnham to take over is becoming tiresome. If this is an indication of how the rest of the season will play out then the show has a real problem that it’ll struggle to recover from. I’m all for meaningful character development and for Burnham to take on an emotionally supportive role but shoehorning her into situations that have nothing to do with her does a disservice to the other characters while making the overall experience feel clumsy.
Nhan receiving a measure of meaningful development right before she decides to leave the crew feels manipulative as it draws attention to her in an effort to manufacture investment before she leaves. Without the attention given to her there would have no real reason to care about her staying behind. A similar tactic was employed with Airiam -who is mentioned in this episode- last season and it speaks to a larger problem this show has developing characters outwith the small inner circle that has been created. There does seem to be a mission statement around fixing that this season but the Nhan example shows that there is still a lot of work to be done on this. There was actually nothing wrong with the content that the episode provided but the writers really needed to dig deeper to produce the entirety of the desired impact.
The episode excels in showing how well the crew work together which is good as that’s the point of the mission being led by Burnham. It’s a fetch quest built around proving how useful Discovery can be to the Federation with the current crew configuration. Saru continues to shine as a Captain when he offers himself as collateral because he has absolute faith in his crew to carry out the mission as intended and return having proven Discovery’s worth. There are excellent small moments such as Stamets, Tilly and Reno working the problem with their casually dysfunctional dynamic helping them to arrive at a solution and Owosekun offering unconditional support to Detmer following her moment of hesitation when flying Discovery into the Ion Storm. They are starting to feel like an effective team who care for and trust each other so long may this continue.
Burnham’s difficulty adjusting to being part of a hierarchical organisation after a year of doing her own thing causes a few problems in this episode. Saru tempering her tendency to overstep is making for a compelling dynamic that is complimenting the stories happening around them well. Having him point out that her idea of stealing the information they need to go after the cure and taking it upon themselves to carry out the mission is her proposing mutiny is a powerful way to get her to stop in her tracks given her history and allows her to pay attention to the flaws she needs to iron out within herself. The inclination to take action that she believes to be right regardless of protocol was essentially the start of her character journey when the show began so to see this trait linger while being utilised in a slightly different way is interesting and gets around the trap of making Burnham too perfect. She’s already incredibly intelligent, capable and massively skilled so having some personality quirks that get in the way of her living up to her full potential is great. It provides something for her to work on and the audience to latch onto while also informing her interactions. Saru’s measured and patient approach makes for a great foil to this and his rank meaning he has the last word that she has to accept keeps her more rebellious tendencies in line. It’s also great that Saru isn’t shy about pointing out when she’s overstepping just as he does with the Admiral.
Naturally, Saru is proven right and Discovery is allowed to continue on with the crew they currently have because they collectively prove themselves to be a useful asset to the Federation. Saru’s speech about the Renaissance Painter Giotto helping to lift Humanity out of the Dark Ages by opening their minds to a whole new perspective and encouraging people to have hope again is a little over the top because it blatantly outlines the intention to have Discovery lift the Federation out of a variant of the Dark Ages and get them back on course to being the hopeful organisation they once were. There’s something of a disconnect between the crew being treated as a cog in a very large -yet not as large as it used to be- machine and Saru preaching about them being the saviours of the Federation. It wasn’t a necessary speech as the crew proving their worth through some old school thinking and their unique propulsion method made the point perfectly well.
The crew’s reintroduction to the Federation nearly 1000 years distant from the one they left provided some excellent moments. Their observations around how technology has advanced and the excitement on display as they approach the facility is infections. This is presented as a homecoming albeit a home that’s unfamiliar and the excitement combined with relief matches that idea perfectly. The sequence also contains some fun fan service such as the U.S.S. Voyager NCC 74656-J though I would have liked to get a better look at the futuristic ships as the visual landscape was a little bit too busy to really get a sense of what some of the ships actually looked at. A closer and more detailed look will hopefully follow.
A particularly strong set of interactions were the crew being debriefed where they talked about the strange things that have happened to them prior to this point. Culber’s account of being murdered, resurrected and being on good terms with his murderer was a particular highlight as was Stamets taking a jab at his usefulness personally. It was an impressively amusing montage that made great use of the characters in terms of their personality and individual experiences.
Taking on a more sinister edge was Georgiou’s interaction with a nameless man wearing glasses that he doesn’t need (David Cronenberg). He’s an expert on the mirror universe and matches wits with her every step of the way. He goes out of her way to draw out her sense of inadequacy and the fact that she cares about someone on Discovery while also telling her that the regime she once led fell. His commentary on the Terrans being a species who are motivated by taking action simply because they feel like it is fascinating and Georgiou adding depth to that simplistic observation by highlighting her personal reasons for the things that she has done was a really nice touch. Adding mystery to this through Georgiou being eerily distant at the end of the episode was great as well and sets up this mysterious figure as a formidable presence.
A strong episode that provides an imaginative look at the future Federation and has a clear focus on what makes the crew work well together. The introduction of the Federation is in line with every other encounter this season with isolationist tendencies being at the forefront though there is plenty of nuance associated with this particular encounter as the ideals are still present but suppressed in various ways. Admiral Vance acts as the representative for the Federation and Starfleet and is mixed in his usage. On one hand he’s a good source of information but on the other there is very little character to him which means that his arc that concludes is completely unseen. Unfortunately the writing for the character doesn’t match the layered performance Oded Fehr delivers which makes his supposed journey difficult to invest in. The fetch quest mission Burnham leads is also problematic as there isn’t enough time in the episode to develop it properly. Dr. Attis had a lot of potential as a character but there wasn’t enough time to give him the attention he deserved. His grief was a natural fit with what the season has been exploring so far but the coverage doesn’t manage to be anything beyond surface level. Using this as a development opportunity for Nhan was a great idea in theory but Culber suggesting that Burnham take over was a questionable choice as it diverted attention away from where it should have been. Giving Nhan some attention in the episode she leaves is indicative of a larger characterisation problem that the show still needs to solve.
The crew dynamic is developing nicely through various examples. Tilly, Stamets and Reno working the problem with their dysfunctional dynamic helping them find a solution was great to see and Owosekun offering Detmer support after she hesitates when navigating the Ion Storm was also very strong. Their excitement as they made observations about how technology has advanced following their arrival at Federation Headquarters was incredibly infectious. The debriefing montage was another excellent example of characterisation with the unique personalities and experiences enhancing the scene. Georgiou’s interaction with the mysterious man who needlessly wears glasses made for excellent viewing and was significant because Georgiou so rarely encounters someone who can match wits with her. His observations on Terrans combined with her passing comment through her own experiences added real depth to the Terran culture and the mystery associated with Georgiou’s distant state at the end of the episode was a great addition. Saru and Burnham’s dynamic continues to be compelling with Burnham still struggling to adapt to following protocol and Saru continually working to keep her in line. Having him point out that she was proposing mutiny was a poignant observation that would hit Burnham on a really deep personal level given her history. Burnham working through this character flaw with Saru helping her along is being used well within the context of the episodes and counters the otherwise flawless capability she typically has.
- the infectious excitement when the crew made observations about the advances in technology
- a natural development point for Commander Nhan
- the fetch quest plot connecting with what the season has been exploring
- really strong examples of how effectively the crew work together
- Georgiou’s layered interaction with the mysterious man needlessly wearing glasses
- Burnham and Saru’s dynamic
- Burnham’s character flaw providing a believable counter to her otherwise flawless capability
- the Dr. Attis plot not having enough time to develop beyond the surface level
- Burnham being drafted in to deal with the situation despite having no reason to be a part of it
- Admiral Vance completing an arc that the audience never see
- Saru’s overblown speech about Discovery lifting the Federation out of the Dark Ages
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