Star Trek: Discovery – Season 5 Episode 8

May 16, 2024 | Posted by in TV


Star Trek: Discovery unveils the final puzzle leading to the final crew as the Breen make themselves a bigger threat.

Mindscapes are very common in modern storytelling. The Flash featured them so often that they became a crutch on that show and many other shows use them to explore the innermost thoughts and feelings of characters. They’re popular because they can be an inexpensive way to deliver an episode as the standing sets can represent the character’s mind in some way and it’s an easy excuse to force them to explore a particular emotional or mental hangup that they have been unable to resolve. Discovery does this on a new set -at least in the way it is dressed- but the space is utilised in full to enable Michael Burnham’s introspection.


All alone in the universe

This is a great idea in theory as the Captain has to always be confident, decisive and detached so that the crew will look to them for an indication of how to behave in a crisis. If the Captain is resolute then the crew can feel confident that they will be led in the right direction and weather any situation that comes their way. This can put the Captain in a box where limited insight into their thoughts and feelings is gained in a given episode. Discovery is a far more emotionally driven show than any other in the franchise but Burnham consistently projects this air of unwavering confidence, particularly since she became Captain. She understands what is expected of her in that role and constantly works to deliver that. Book was an important relationship for her because he was outside her chain of command so he was someone she could be vulnerable with and lean on for support when she needed it. Saru held the same rank so she could have more open conversations with him about any pressure she was feeling but beyond that everyone else is her subordinate. She has to be their leader rather than allow herself to become an emotional wreck, even if she wants to.

Previous Star Trek shows found ways to dig into the Captain’s mindset. Picard fighting with and confiding with his brother in The Next Generation‘s “Family” is a particular highlight or going over his life choices with Q and wondering if he could have made better ones in “Tapestry”. Sisko used his personal log as a confession in Deep Space Nine‘s “In The Pale Moonlight” or would often talk to Dax by invoking her advice as his mentor in the Dax symbiont’s previous life rather than his subordinate in her current life. He also had Cassidy Yates who wasn’t in Starfleet as a sounding board for his emotions. Other examples exist where writers have found a way to explore the Captain’s thoughts and feelings despite their necessary professional distance from their crew.

Burnham is pulled into a Mindscape that presents her with a test to pass in order to obtain the final piece of the puzzle that will lead her to the Progenitor technology. Figuring out the mechanics of the test is part of it but she isn’t entirely without help. The Mindscape creates a manifestation of Book – a GuideBook if you will- to answer questions she may have and offer pointers where appropriate. She starts approaching it from the angle of it being a puzzle that needs to be solved and a mission to be completed so goes straight to figuring out how the scientist who created the program may have hidden the answer. This leads her down the wrong road and wastes some of her limited time. GuideBook didn’t tell her that she was looking in the wrong place simply because she didn’t ask which creates a great deal of frustration for Burnham but it also helps her gain a greater understanding of how the program works even if a lot of time was wasted to provide that.


This is going to hurt!

The early scenes in the Mindscape are less effective than the later scenes as they are more mechanical with little in the way of compelling revelations. The structure is a problem here as these scenes don’t seem to be building towards something until they suddenly deliver on what they were building to. A series of problems that Burnham can only solve by opening up in some way before progressing to the next may have been more thematically appropriate rather than making misguided assumptions that lead her down the wrong path before realising that she needs to alter her thinking. It makes sense for Burnham to approach it as a puzzle because that’s how her mind works. She sees it as a problem to be analysed and beaten through logic but it’s repetitive to have her learn that lesson more than once before stumbling onto the emotional angle. Abandoning the logical should have been the first hurdle followed by a different challenge for the second and so on.

There is a sense that this was the intent but it’s marred by the execution. Burnham trying to game the test by deliberately second guessing herself in an attempt to determine if the test requires her to admit certain things about herself. She cycles through declaring that she fears not being loved or not being appreciated if she fails but it doesn’t work because she isn’t being genuine. Once again, this may have been stronger if she unlocks further stages of the test by following the right path. The Archive set is already multiple levels so it seems to lend itself naturally to progression in that way.

Once the introspection comes it’s very strong and a rare opportunity for Sonequa Martin-Green to be truly vulnerable as Michael Burnham. Her performance is brilliantly layered as Burnham slowly comes around to the idea of opening up. GuideBook points out that the face of her guide was selected by her subconscious so it’s very quickly evident that there will be major significance to it taking the form of Book. Her conversation with him early in the episode reinforces their communication and her eventual introspection explains why she found it so difficult to communicate with him after the events of the previous season.


Enter GuideBook!

She admits that she is sometimes driven by fear and hates that about herself. The fear takes many forms but the one she identifies as being most prominent is the fear of failure. Where Book’s concerned she was afraid of failing him as a partner so found it easier to pull back and break contact. It’s a defence mechanism and Book also pulling back shows that he was in a similar headspace though perhaps didn’t maintain contact for different reasons.

Burnham’s fear of failure extends far beyond her relationship with Book. She talks about being afraid of failing in every aspect of life with more attention given to her role as Captain. The pressure of constantly feeling like she has to prove herself worthy of her position is getting to her and her emotional outburst indicates that this is the first chance she’s had to articulate this, or at least the first time she’s felt compelled to articulate her feelings since taking command of Discovery.

Her words can be interpreted on a meta-level as this show and Michael Burnham specifically have been criticised by viewers since the show began for a variety of reasons. Much of this criticism is in bad faith as Burnham’s gender and race are often raised as problems and Discovery is defined by some as not being real Star Trek. The writers may feel that they are constantly trying to prove that they are worthy of writing Star Trek to a section of the audience that likely will never accept them and are using Burnham to express that frustration in a way that also fits neatly with her characterisation. Burnham’s feelings could also be read as an acknowledgement of missteps taken with the character from a writing perspective. She has often been written as hypercompetent with a flawless approach to given situations. This had a tendency to make her inaccessible and didn’t allow her to be a real person whom people could connect with. Reworking that into a character flaw that has its roots in imposter syndrome works brilliantly because it prevents the meta-commentary from overpowering the power of Burnham’s self-reflection. It’s something that could easily be true in universe and happens to align with sentiments that have been expressed outside of the show.


Time for honesty

One notable thing about Burnham’s self-doubt is that there is no evidence that anyone doubts her competence or questions her worth as Captain of Discovery. The last person to demand that she prove herself was President Rillak and she quickly backed down after seeing Burnham in action. Burnham’s imposter syndrome isn’t prompted by any negative reactions to her that she has experienced but it doesn’t have to be as often that kind of doubt comes from within. Regardless of how much praise she receives or what she accomplishes, part of her still feels that she doesn’t belong and doesn’t deserve what she has. She is aware of it but doesn’t like that about herself so tries not to dwell on it.

This is in keeping with Burnham’s characterisation throughout the series. Being raised by a Vulcan among Vulcans, she was in the company of perfectionists and was always fighting an uphill battle to be recognised as being in the same league as those around her. Sarek even consciously favoured Spock over her so it’s easy to see where her drive to prove her worth originated. In a way, this episode is the culmination of characterisation that began in the first episode of the show with an admission that those anxieties haven’t left her even as she achieves the goals that she had set for herself. The beauty of it is that she only admits that these emotional issues exist but they remain unresolved. It’s the first step towards better mental health where those issues are concerned as she has expressed them and admitted to herself that there are things she doesn’t like about herself. It’s poignant, powerful, real and excellently performed by Sonequa Martin-Green.

Her admission is what is needed to pass the test. GuideBook explains that the key to being worthy of the Progenitor tech is to know yourself, be honest with yourself and know your weaknesses and vulnerabilities rather than deny them. That level of emotional honesty is essential as the potential of the technology is so great that the scientists who discovered it decided that only the most honest of people could be trusted to use it. That especially means that they must be honest with themselves because there is no room for anyone to be even the least bit disingenuous when it comes to having control of that kind of power. This makes sense in theory and it’s very typical of Discovery to make the final hurdle before gaining the location an emotional one but there is also a lack of context as the only representative of the scientists prior to the GuideBook program was Janaal. Flashbacks to the scientists creating the quest and exploring their morality may have enhanced this rather than having to accept them as an unassailable moral barometer without any evidence of this.



Regardless, Burnham has proven herself worthy of the technology and is told the location of the final clue which completes the device that projects the coordinates. Celebrations are short-lived as the Breen threaten the Archive, forcing her to exchange the assembled clues for the lives of over 1,000 people. This heightens the urgency as the Breen have the same information they do and have far less peaceful plans for the coveted technology. Discovery facing damage and jumping a fair distance away from the location while having to make repairs before completing the journey increases the stakes further as they won’t have much time to before being threatened by far superior firepower.

There is a disconnect between Burnham in the Mindscape and the others dealing with the Breen threat. The Mindscape has lights going out the longer Burnham spends in there to signify her running out of time but the urgency never quite comes across. Similarly, the Breen’s attack on the Archive feels detached from the Mindscape plot as there is very little overlap and it never comes across that they are as close to reaching Burnham as the dialogue states. Rayner and Book fighting them is barely depicted and the Breen generally come across as an absent threat that everyone is worried about for reasons the episode never actually shows.

Another wasted opportunity comes from Rayner being on the Archive rather than Discovery. I’ve stated in previous reviews that Rayner needs an episode where he commands Discovery on an actual mission rather than waiting around for Burnham to return and offering support remotely. This was a natural opportunity for him to be in command of Discovery dealing with the Breen ship and figuring out how to keep everyone alive while outmatched in every way. It does end up being a good showcase for Rees who proves himself when in command by managing the situation but this should have been Rayner’s plot. If he and Rees had swapped places then Rees could have shown his skill by working with Book to repel the Breen invaders and everyone could have been well served by the opportunities the scenario presented.


Play dead

This ending goes a long way towards making the Breen more threatening by leaning into their resources being what makes this formidable. This somewhat offsets that they aren’t all that threatening as characterised. The Primarch is a thinly written cartoon villain who comes across as stroppy and childish. He’s certainly unpredictable but not in an engaging way. The writing hints that he is supposed to be a foil for Moll but she is obviously far more intelligent than he is so it’s never believable that she has to work to outsmart him in any way. Despite this, it’s a good episode for Moll who conducts herself well and is unflinchingly focused on her goal. Her comments on the Primarch’s attitude show that she is analysing everything she observes and building up a mental profile of him that she will use to her advantage.

One major aspect of him that she comes to understand is that he doesn’t care about tradition or the preservation of Breen culture. It’s established that the archive contains several historical Breen artefacts that would be irreplaceable if lost. The Primarch has no respect for this but his crew do and Moll is able to take advantage of this by uniting them against him when he crosses a line that would mean the loss of these artefacts. Added to this is his casual dismissal of the honourable promise he makes to Burnham in exchange for the assembled clues. Once Discovery is believed destroyed he orders the Archive destroyed and Moll encourages the crew to not stand for this. He is killed for his blatant disregard and Moll takes command by proxy as the wife of L’ak. She will take charge in his stead until they can resurrect him.

The Primarch’s disrespect is shown in the handling of L’ak’s funeral though it’s along different lines. In this instance, he is honouring Breen tradition by giving L’ak a state funeral but based on later behaviour it’s likely he was doing this because it’s what is expected rather than out of actual respect for his fallen nephew. Notably L’ak is put in a helmet for the funeral which is actually a mark of disrespect as the Primarch isn’t honouring the person he actually was. It was previously established that he doesn’t approve of L’ak’s life choices and considers shedding his helmet an insult to both his bloodline and Breen culture. Moll can tolerate this for now as she is playing a long game.

There is a lot to cover in the last two episodes as both Discovery and the Breen have the location of the Progenitor technology. The season has set up several character arcs related to the technology. Culber’s spiritual awakening is perhaps the more interesting as it opens the narrative up to the idea that science can’t provide full understanding and that embracing faith doesn’t diminish the scientific as there’s room for both. Burnham’s search for belonging and purpose has been established as an internal struggle for her, Stamets wants a legacy that will endure, Moll wants the love of her life back and so on. Two episodes isn’t a lot of time to resolve these in a satisfying way and wrap up the show completely but time will tell if Discovery can stick the line after a good run of episodes.


The long game pays off


An engaging episode that provides a rare opportunity for deep insight into Burnham’s thoughts and feelings while continuing to show how intelligent and adaptable Moll is.

  • 7/10
    "Labyrinths" - 7/10


Kneel Before…

  • using the Mindscape to give Burnham an outlet for her fears and anxieties
  • the manifestation of Book directly encouraging Burnham to confront the things she has been avoiding
  • Burnham approaching the test logically and being forced to abandon that to understand the true requirement of the test
  • Sonequa Martin-Green’s excellent performance when Burnham opens up
  • Burnham’s fears and anxieties acting as a meta-commentary on the external reaction to both her and the show
  • the realness of Burnham’s imposter syndrome coming from within rather than anyone doubting her ability
  • a strong ending that makes the Breen more threatening by creating urgency through the tight timescale and leaning into the formidable resources of the Breen
  • Moll expertly playing the long game to discredit the Primarch and unite his crew against him


Rise Against…

  • the inconsistent execution of the Mindscape test due to the mechanical early scenes
  • the Breen’s attack on the archive feeling disconnected from the Mindscape plot
  • the Breen coming across as an absent threat that rarely interacts with the Mindscape plot
  • wasting the opportunity for Rayner to show his skills in command of Discovery dealing with the Breen ship
  • the Breen Primarch being written as a stroppy, childish cartoon villain


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