Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 Episode 9
“Terra Firma Part 1”
Star Trek: Discovery devotes time to finding a solution to Georgiou’s problem as death quickly approaches for her.
After all the posturing in the previous episode as to the cause of Georgiou’s issues it turns out the answer was nearby all along. All Culber had to do was ask the now named Kovich (David Cronenberg). According to Kovich, people can’t stray too far from their native universe and time period because their cells weren’t designed to cope with such drastic changes. Everyone on the Discovery has jumped nearly a thousand years into the future but since they haven’t changed universes apparently they can cope just fine. Georgiou has jumped universes and time periods so is literally falling apart because she is so far removed from her native environment.
This scene is incredibly clumsy with a lot of exposition thrown at the viewer including a reference to the alternate timeline introduced in Star Trek (2009) though the reference is so rapid and confusing that it’s difficult to understand what is even being said. If anyone can clarify then let me know on Twitter or in the comments because I’ve watched the scene a few times and still can’t figure it out. It’s unfortunate that an enigmatic character who seems to have the unique ability to get under Georgiou’s skin turns out to be a bland source of exposition. It’s possible there’s more to come from this character but his use in this episode was far from interesting.
The scene leads to Discovery’s next mission which involves jumping to an uninhabited planet near the Gamma Quadrant because the Sphere Data combined with all of Kovich’ information determined that there’s a very small chance Georgiou can be saved if she goes there. This leads into what the episode is actually about which is a possible riff on It’s A Wonderful Life by way of the classic Next Generation episode “Tapestry).
On the planet they encounter a mysterious entity known only as Carl (Paul Guilfoyle). He is introduced reading an Easter Egg filled newspaper that has Georgiou’s death as its headline as well as references to the Original Series classic “City on the Edge of Forever” among other things. Carl is reminiscent of other Godlike beings encountered in the franchise with a quirky personality and a less than clear way of expressing himself. When not telling cringeworthy jokes he’s being vague about what awaits Georgiou while making it clear that going through the free-standing door in the middle of nowhere is her only chance for survival. Georgiou’s attitude that whatever lies beyond that door is infinitely better than waiting for death so she walks through and finds herself in the past in her own universe prior to Discovery crossing over in the first season.
The point of this plot is clear; it is intended to offer an exploration of how much Georgiou has grown by having her revisit her own past with the perspective she has gained during her time in the Prime Universe. This is a familiar setup for science fiction stories as it allows characters to directly confront the person they used to be while comparing it to the person they’ve become. In Georgiou’s case the shift is a seismic one as she has gone from genocidal dictator ruling with an iron fist to being a helpful nuisance with a sadistic edge. The early part of the episode is focused on reminding the audience that she is an accepted part of the crew through meaningful moments she shares with other characters. Tilly reaches out to her and offers support even though Georgiou mocks her ability to be an effective First Officer and throws a bowl of food at her. Once again Georgiou exhibits hostile behaviour in response to people offering her emotional support. In her native universe it would be seen as a sign of weakness to both need and accept help so it’s a mindset that isn’t easy for her to break. She prides herself on being strong, confident and independent so the prospect of relying on others remains unthinkable.
Despite that there are some example of how that mentality is softening such as when Tilly and Saru see her off before she heads down to the planet and she expresses admiration for them in her own way while they acknowledge that her presence has been beneficial to them in terms of their own growth both personally and professionally. It’s a brief moment but a genuine one that does go some way towards highlighting that these characters have grown closer in spite of the wildly different backgrounds.
As expected the majority of these meaningful interactions are focused on the Georgiou/Burnham relationship. I’ve mentioned in prior reviews that the focus on Michael Burnham as a character doesn’t always fit with what the episode is presenting but in this case it makes sense for her to be central because the connection between her and both versions of Georgiou has been a significant fixture throughout the run of the show. They talk about how they relate to each other and the alternate version that they once knew. Georgiou calls Burnham out on her fixation on having to fix everything and believes that her desire to save her life is rooted in how she failed her own Georgiou. This comes after Burnham reminds Georgiou that she isn’t her Burnham so there’s a shared recognition that each of them are trying to make up for the way they failed the version of the other that they knew. It’s a fascinating dynamic as there are expectations the other will consistently fail to measure up to since they are a different person combined with an intellectual understanding that those expectations exist and can never be met. Emotion constantly gets in the way of what is factually understood and the way this relationship has played out is a great example of that.
Mirroring is a concept that exists within their connection. Each are trying to mirror the connection they had with another version of the version they know so both sides of the relationship have a missing piece. Georgiou feels a maternal connection to Burnham even though she knows that it’s not the same Michael Burnham that she knew while Burnham still sees Georgiou as the mentor that she failed and is looking to make up for the mistake that led to her death even though she knows that it’s not the same person. This comes across in their interactions as they acknowledge it and try to create a new relationship that works for them free of the baggage of the connection they had to what amounts to a different person. This is conveyed visually with their walk through the snow calling back to the first episode where they walked through the desert. In both cases they are discussing the future and reflecting on their relationship with the vastly different setting highlighting how different that relationship is despite the abundance of similarities. It’s also notable that the conversation in the desert was shortly before they would part ways forever which may also be the case here depending on how the next episode goes.
Georgiou’s return to the past whether that be real or an interactive scenario conjured by whatever Carl is might be an indication of her preparing to leave the show for the Section 31 spin-off. It certainly feels like the show is working towards some sort of conclusion that will lead into the spin-off. It’s not quite a backdoor pilot but it’s possibly better as it feels entirely relevant to the show that currently exists rather than being a diversion that builds towards something that may never exist.
The episode makes no attempt to answer whether Georgiou has really gone back in time and crossed over to another universe so it’s not clear if any changes she makes will be meaningful in terms of the timeline but for the purposes of the episode it’s beside the point as the focus is on Georgiou examining the decisions that led her to where she is in her life at this point. She returns to the time just before Lorca’s attempted coup when the Charon was christened so it’s right before her reign came to a very abrupt and definitive end. One of her instincts is to put things right so that her reign continues unimpeded but there is also a voice in her head that exists because of what she experienced in the Prime Universe. On some level she sees that as a weakness that needs to be hidden so she regards everyone she encounters suspiciously as if they can smell the weakness on her. Michelle Yeoh’s performance beautifully conveys a Georgiou trying to act like her old self while recognising that she has changed and feeling a little disgusted with herself that that change has happened.
One of the clearest examples of that change is the conversation she has with Saru after she recognises that a Kelpien has started to experience Vaha’ai. Saru -though he has no name in this universe at the time- is surprised that Georgiou is aware of it and even more surprised that she would have bothered to understand what it is given the natural Terran distaste of everything that isn’t them. Georgiou clearly respects this version of Saru because he doesn’t fear her and understands that complete honesty means that he has nothing to fear from her. She tests him using her future knowledge to figure out how honest he is being and test his loyalty to her. Changing the timeline means she will need others to be loyal to her so this exchange makes a great deal of strategic sense.
Instead of merely hearing about her relationship with Mirror Burnham we have an opportunity to see it and what is depicted is consistent with what has been previously revealed. The mention of Georgiou finding her on a rubbish heap and being impressed by her refusal to leave it when everyone else did is explored and further detail is added that provides a very natural reason for Mirror Burnham’s desire to overthrow Georgiou. She’s resentful of the position she will be in as long as Georgiou is alive. Her perspective is that she was completely in charge when on the rubbish heap but she will always be a follower of Georgiou and therefore completely unable to forge her own identity. Aligning with Lorca as a way to get her out from under Georgiou’s shadow is an understandable reaction to feeling constantly under the control of someone else and Sonequa Martin Green plays the anger combined with resentment brilliantly. There’s clearly a history to the relationship that comes across in the performances which makes it easy to invest in however temporary it may be.
The episode ending with Georgiou reverting to old instincts and looking to change her fate by altering events to play out in her favour makes sense as the mid point of a clear character arc. Presumably the next episode will lead her to the realisation that her life was better the way it was and she’ll find some way to choose the path already taken once again. For now it’s expected that she give into the temptation associated with creating a life where the coup fails and she remains in power but the most likely realisation is that she will never have uncontested dominion over the Terran Empire. With the episode building up to that realisation there wasn’t a lot of plot movement as such; this was very much a first part of a two part story though the lack of an engaging cliffhanger really counts against it. Seeing the alternate versions of characters like Tilly and Burnham was definitely a lot of fun as was the Mirror Universe in general but the plot itself would have benefited from a little more progression and less table setting.
Outside of the Georgiou plot there was some clumsy forward movement on The Burn mystery. Adira’s algorithm finally completes and they are able to see the distress call which gives them a location as well as an idea of who or what they might find there. The most significant reveal is that the ship sending the distress call is a Kelpien vessel which makes for a really poignant Saru moment as he sees tangible evidence of how far his people have come over the centuries. It’s a quiet reflective moment that Doug Jones completely nails. If the Burn is used as an excuse to have character beats like this then it is serving some purpose.
Another character beat it allows is another strong Stamets/Adira interaction. I mentioned in my review of the previous episode that there was a parental vibe starting to emerge from Stamets and Culber towards them. This continues here with Stamets giving Adira important advice about finding balance in life. Their focus on the algorithm as a distraction from Gray’s absence blinds them to an obvious mistake that was made that ends up making them feel worse about their ability to be a valuable addition to the team. Stamets talks about Gray’s absence possibly being in service of them forming important connections with those around them. Adira starts off in denial about how the impact his absence is having on them but with minimal prodding confesses that it’s not something they feel is beneficial. Stamets as the endlessly supportive father figure and Adira as the confused teenager in need of guidance is proving to be a really engaging dynamic that gets better as it progresses.
One further very strong thing the episode has to offer is Vance giving Saru advice on being an effective leader. When the possibility of saving Georgiou is suggested Saru only considers the big picture and doesn’t see the value in tasking Discovery with this for the sake of a single person when the Emerald Chain are growing more aggressive. Vance does what he does best and carefully considers the practicalities of the situation at hand before arriving at a decision. Saru still feels that protocol is dogmatic and doesn’t feel comfortable deviating from it but Vance has the experience and confidence to know that protocol only forms part of the answer rather than being the answer so he concludes that Discovery going on that mission is the best use of their time. The advice he gives to Saru is advice he wishes he’d been given at the start of his leadership career and it’s really insightful because it comes from a place of regret on the back of a hard lesson being learned. The details aren’t given but there’s a strong implication that Vance made a decision that caused a crew to lose faith in him and see the Federation differently so he’s eager to make sure that Saru doesn’t have to suffer the same loss of faith. Despite some issues it really feels like this show is hitting its stride.
A good episode that continues to play to the show’s strengths with well cultivated character moments spinning out of the stories at play. The Georgiou narrative is fairly standard for science fiction but also works very well as a vehicle for her to reflect on the person she used to be while examining how much she has changed during her time in the Prime Universe. There are several key moments during the early part of the episode that highlight this and extra focus is given to he relationship with Burnham which makes sense given the framework of the show. It’s a very complex relationship that is fascinating to watch and visual callback to the scene in the first episode where Burnham and Prime Georgiou were wandering the desert highlights that there are key similarities and major differences. Georgiou’s relationship with Mirror Burnham depicted here is also compelling and the justification given for Mirror Burnham betraying her makes sense. There are also examples of Georgiou’s growth given in these scenes such as her scene with Saru. Seeing the Mirror Universe again is certainly fun and framing it in this way works well. There is a little too much table setting rather than plot movement which very much marks this as the first part of a story so a lot rests on how this will be resolved.
The forward movement on The Burn plot is uninteresting though it is being used as a jumping off point for meaningful character beats. Stamets and Adira’s dynamic continues to be fascinating and their interactions here build on the parental vibe established in the previous episode. Adira is in denial about how much Gray’s absence is affecting them and Stamets is able to recognise this before giving important advice about how to deal with their feelings. He is understanding, insightful and compassionate which is something Adira appreciates. The reveal that the ship sending the distress call is Kelpien leads to a really strong Saru moment brilliantly played by Doug Jones. Vance giving advice to Saru around how being a Captain isn’t as simple as following protocol is another great moment that suggests Vance made some huge mistakes early in his career that he doesn’t want to see Saru making. His non standard approach to leadership feeds into this and the advice feels earned by experience.
- examples of how much Georgiou has grown in the early part of the episode
- further exploring that growth through her approach to being back in the Mirror Universe
- the complexity to the Georgiou/Burnham relationship
- the justification for Mirror Burnham’s betrayal of her
- the Mirror Universe being a fun place to spend time
- Stamets and Adira’s constantly evolving dynamic
- Saru’s quiet reflective moment when he sees how his people have developed
- the meaningful advice Vance gives Saru about leadership
- the Burn continuing to be uninteresting as an ongoing plot
- the clumsy Kovich scene with too much exposition
- not enough plot movement in the Georgiou narrative
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