Star Trek Discovery – Season 1 Episode 14
“The War Without, The War Within”
Star Trek: Discovery resumes the Klingon War arc while dealing with the fallout of the drama caused by recent events.
Putting the Klingon War on hold while the Discovery goes on a jaunt to the Mirror Universe seems like an odd decision on the surface but when considering that this entire season has been the story of Michael Burnham’s redemption from the decision she made way back in the first episode then it starts to make a lot of sense. The Klingon War has very much been the backdrop to her journey and has been the mechanism affording her the opportunity to redeem herself. An entire season of Burnham in prison working up to the point where she might have a chance to redeem herself wouldn’t necessarily have been that interesting but being part of a crew while not being part of one has provided interesting story opportunities.
The Mirror Universe was very much a test of Burnham as a character. She catches a glimpse of other possibilities and a version of herself that did achieve something resembling her full potential. Coming face to face with an alternate Georgiou gave her the opportunity to confront the decision she made in some way and her decision to bring her back to Discovery last week allowed her to correct the mistake she made that resulted in her Georgiou’s death.
Obviously the Mirror Georgiou is a very different person and that’s something the show largely failed to bear in mind last week but from an emotional point of view Burnham feels that connection even though she is rationally aware of the differences. It’s really complex and fascinating from a characterisation standpoint as there is no easy answer to the problem. Burnham knows that she should treat Mirror Georgiou differently but struggles to do so because there are enough similarities to make her hesitate.
Having Mirror Georgiou aboard the Discovery is problematic for all sorts of reasons though not in ways that hurt the story or make the decision to bring her back a bad one. From a character development standpoint it’s a very good decision as it allows Burnham’s guilt over deciding to betray her Georgiou to be further explored. It isn’t explicitly stated but it’s possible that she sees this as a form of redemption for herself. She even bypasses the excuses when talking to Saru and honestly states that she couldn’t watch Georgiou die again. There’s nothing rational about that and there’s no problem admitting that as long as it continues to inform Burnham’s character development.
Mirror Georgiou is put in command of Discovery at the end of the episode because the situation with the Klingons is desperate enough to make it seem like a good idea; or at least the best of the bad ideas. I suspect that this is setting up a scenario where Emperor Georgiou’s cruel Terran Empire ways will force Burnham to betray her like she did her former Captain. The main difference is that this betrayal will likely be for the right reasons in an effort to preserve the Federation idealism and not cross a line that will be impossible to come back from. Putting Mirror Georgiou in the Captain’s chair is an obvious attempt to draw comparisons with the very beginning of the series where Georgiou was in command as Saru and Burnham stood at her side. The parallel is clear and it’s an effective way to show what Sara and Burnham have learned since then.
The situation is really dire for Starfleet. Since the Discovery disappeared before giving over the algorithm that will make cloaked ships visible. Without that advantage the Klingons have been able to do massive damage to the Federation and leave them very much on the defensive. The focus for the crew of Discovery as well as Admiral Cornwell is to turn the tide using the Spore Drive. This is where I start to have problems with this narrative. I still fully suspect this season to end with the Discovery travelling back in time to prevent the Klingons winning the War which would fix a lot of my personal issues but create other ones.
As a Star Trek fan I find myself in a difficult position with this particular arc. This is supposed to be a prequel to the Original Series in the sense it is set a number of years before and if the production team are still intent on this show being a prequel that ties into the previously established universe then certain things need to be maintained. Chief among them is that the Klingons can’t win the war because the Federation and Klingons were on reasonable yet rocky terms with the odd provoked skirmish here and there. The Federation were also a firmly established power in the Galaxy as were the Klingons. There was no mention anywhere of the Klingons dealing crippling blows to the Federation in this way so in order to preserve canon these events have to be reset in some way.
The problem with that is it means that nothing that happens externally in either this episode or the next episode actually matters. If the endgame is for the writers to press that reset button then any tension or jeopardy has no real value. It’s not clear if that is what’s going to happen but if these events are to be preserved and have actual consequences in the universe going into next season then this show has to be a reboot unless there is some form of catch all explanation that proves satisfying enough.
I actually have no problem with the concept of a reboot, I accepted the previous one and I’m more interested in seeing stories told that can go in different directions rather than bending over backwards to fit into established events. This was one problem Enterprise had and it’s fairly limiting as far as storytelling goes. Of course the production team chose this era deliberately so there must be some plan as to where this show fits in with Star Trek canon and what the plans are to progress it.
My misgivings are nothing to do with the episode as a piece of work as they all stem from my expectations as fan who has spent a lot of time trying to rationalise inconsistencies in this particular franchise. Taken on its own merits this episode is a compelling exploration of the psychological effects of dealing with a conflict that is being lost and that does deserve to continue. Resetting the timeline brings its own problems with it such as having to wrap up the Klingon War all over again. It’s possible that knowledge of when the attacks will occur brings the War to a quicker end but even at that it’s far too quick to be satisfying.
Admiral Cornwell and Sarek are on hand to catch the Discovery crew up on 9 months of wartime horror stories. Amusingly the Klingon Empire is fractured by the conflict without a guiding voice to unite them. The Federation are actually fighting all of the individual houses who are attacking completely at random. There’s no way to predict what the enemy will do because each faction are acting alone and working to do as much damage to the Federation as they can out of some very violent sense of competition. It’s an interesting problem and it’s easy to see why Starfleet would be so overwhelmed. The advantage to that is the tactics aren’t focused so they haven’t been able to cripple the Federation as of yet which does give them a chance to fight back.
There is some disappointment to be had such as the reveal that the Mirror Discovery was destroyed by the Klingons -or so we’re told- and that there’s very little chance that the Prime Universe Lorca survived for long in the Mirror Universe. Since we see no evidence of either of these facts I’m inclined to believe that the Mirror Discovery will be seen at some point as will Mirror Lorca and Mirror Burnham. Perhaps if the next episode features travel into the past the Discovery will find itself squaring up against its Mirror counterpart.
Cornwell takes advantage of the return of Discovery and comes up with the plan of using the Spore Drive to jump beneath the surface of the Klingon home world and map out the military targets before performing a series of sneak attacks. Once enough damage is done the Klingons will retreat to defend their home. Discounting the massive damage inflicted on the Federation by the Klingons this would be one way of establishing the canonical neutral zone and giving the Klingon Empire the sense of unity that we’re used to in later seasons. Of course it could all go horribly wrong and serve as no resolution at all.
One thing is clear, Cornwell is desperate and Jayne Brook does a great job playing someone wearied by constant loss. At this point she’ll take any advantage and try anything to gain something resembling a victory. She’s an Admiral who has lost much of her hope and only really has the fact that she’s still alive to be grateful for.
Cornwell takes command of Discovery but it’s almost immediately clear that it isn’t the best place for her. She commands respect from the crew who are happy to take orders from her but her command style is severely lacking. One such example is when Discovery drops out of warp at Starbase 1 and finds it to be under Klingon control. She reacts by looking on in horror leaving the ship vulnerable every second she spends not acting. Saru is the one to give the order to leave despite being affected by what he sees. This scene serves a simple yet clear message about who is better suited to command.
She still manages to be useful in other ways. The scene with L’Rell is particularly good because it plays to Cornwell’s strengths. It has been mentioned on multiple occasions that she was a counsellor so she should be much better with those. Her approach to dealing with L’Rell is by treating her like an equal and appealing to her sense of honour. She is upfront about the Klingons winning the War but also mentions that the Klingon houses are far from united which means that L’Rell might see her people win without getting what she wants. It’s an interesting paradox because as far as L’Rell is concerned if the Klingon Empire doesn’t stand united then nothing has really been won. She mentions T’Kuvma’s isolationist ideals to be met with Cornwell calling him an “ignorant fool” for not understanding the fundamentals of what the Federation stands for.
Once again this harkens back to the idea of isolationism being a bad thing. In this case it is expanded beyond the Federation as the Klingon Empire is in chaos because the houses are acting unilaterally which does nothing but create chaos. L’Rell’s realisation that there is no shared goal or objective that the Empire is working towards so that means the War will endure as long as there are people to fight. It’s not what Cornwell wants and it’s clearly not what L’Rell wants either.
Sarek is far more practical as you might expect. He plainly states what has been happening and delivers his dry assessment of the situation. As a Vulcan he is far more detached than Cornwell is by nature and the duality of their interactions with the Discovery crew outline the facts as well as the emotional effect the situation has. It’s cleverly handled and a good use of the characters.
The scene he shares with Mirror Georgiou is important for the plot as she imparts information to him that he needs to return to Vulcan in order to consider it carefully. It’s far more important from a characterisation perspective as it is the meeting of two parent figures of two different Michael Burnham’s. Their conversation is a battle of wits over who is the better parent and Sarek feels secure that his Burnham is the better version because she has learned from her decisions and used what she learned to bring down the man who overthrew Georgiou’s Empire. Georgiou’s pride has to give way to the facts though it doesn’t mean she’s any less proud of her own Burnham. Seeing the two mentor figures face off is excellent and the acting sells the moment wonderfully.
He’s also useful as a sounding board for Burnham who feels very conflicted over every decision she has made. She talks about her regrets and the emotional approach she took to decision making which ultimately led her to where she is. Sarek helps put what has happened into context for her and points out that at the most basic level she fell in love with an enemy therefore showing that it’s possible to look past the hatred and forge some kind of bond. Of course Burnham didn’t know the truth at the time but the sentiment remains the same. He sees it as something she should learn from and outright tells her never to regret loving someone. It’s an oddly sentimental phrase for a Vulcan but considering he married a Human it makes a lot of sense that he would embrace emotion as well as logic for a more complete outlook on life. There seems to be some foreshadowing in the apparent finality to Sarek’s goodbye to Burnham but if canon is to be upheld there’s no way Sarek can die.
Burnham spends much of the episode struggling to comprehend her feelings for Ash Tyler. At first she refuses to see him because she has no idea what to say but eventually after some sage advice from Tilly about saying something to him even if that happens to be goodbye. Burnham eventually confronts him and they have an emotionally raw conversation about what they mean to one another. It’s another example of rational thought against emotion as Burnham knows that the Klingon personality within Tyler is gone but can’t see past it because all she sees when she looks at him is his hands around her through with the murderous look in his eyes. This has her terrified and she can’t see herself coping with this.
Tyler is suffering from a misconception around dealing with his issues of identity. He thinks that he needs Burnham to be the one to anchor him to his life as Ash Tyler and help him through his issues but Burnham disagrees and is unwilling to be the tether he thinks he needs. She tells him about all of the decisions she has made and how she has had to fight to deal with those issues by herself with no help from anyone else. According to Burnham he has to do the same and can’t rely on anyone else to do the heavy lifting for her. This scene is really well acted with both characters feeling deep anguish and it’s also really well written as they are both misguided. Burnham doesn’t realise that being part of a crew means having them support you despite giving Tilly that advice a few episodes ago and Tyler needs to realise that he also has to do some of the heavy lifting himself so the truth eludes both of them and lies in between.
The approach taken to Tyler is an interesting one. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that it’ll be difficult to redeem him as a character after what he has done and it’s good to see that the writers aren’t taking the easy way out with him. A line has been drawn between the Voq and Tyler personalities but the fact that he was Voq hasn’t been forgotten. There are four key scenes that explore this, one of which I’ve just explore. The first scene is where Saru decides to give him the benefit of the doubt before giving him an armband and allowing him to be free to wander the ship. It doesn’t seem like a great idea but we don’t actually know what the armband does so it works to an extent especially since the aim is to show Saru’s compassion and capacity for forgiveness.
Another key scene is the one he shares with Stamets where he apologises for what he did without blaming it on Voq or the circumstances surrounding that. He takes full responsibility and Stamets’ reaction is about as measured as it can be given the circumstances. The rational part of him knows that Tyler isn’t responsible for what happened but the emotional side feels that he is. It’s also unclear what Tyler really is at this point so there are issues of identity to be explored. Stamets takes a little comfort in the fact that Tyler feels guilty for what he did though isn’t willing to see much beyond that. It’s a reasonable reaction considering Tyler killed the man he loved.
The next key scene is a really touching one. Tyler enters the Mess Hall to find that everyone is looking at him which makes it clear that he no longer belongs; at least in his eyes. He grabs some food and sits alone only for Tilly to join him indicating that she is willing to forgive and show her support. Other members of the crew follow suit and the idea of a crew who stick together is furthered from the previous episode. Star Trek: Discovery may be a different beast but the Star Trek idealism is there to see.
This episode features an excellent sequence that embodies much of what the Star Trek franchise stands for. The scene where a lifeless moon is terraformed to produce more spores is visually wonderful and enhanced by the almost giddy reactions of Stamets, Burnham and Tilly who are excited to be part of something creative. Using this show’s considerable budget to produce an awe inspiring sequence depicting the creation of spore producing plants is really encouraging and further cements that at its heart this show is very much a Star Trek show.
An excellent episode that develops the characters wonderfully while delivering real complexity to the way it handles its subject matter. The idea that a divided Klingon Empire are defeating the Federation because of the disorganised nature of their attacks is compelling and affects L’Rell by her not getting what she wants out of the War. The long term effects of War are shown through Cornwell who is desperate and at breaking point. She’s willing to try anything at this point and the return of Discovery brings some sense of hope provided they can find more spores. Sarek offers a more measured approach to the facts as well as giving Burnham much needed context to her feelings and offering advice that embraces both logic and emotion.
Burnham dealing with the Mirror Georgiou is compelling as well because it eventually creates a parallel between this episode and the first one with the suggestion that this will build up to Burnham betraying Georgiou for the right reasons in order to preserve Federation ideals. The scene she shares with Tyler is also a great showcase for her character as well as his because it highlights how misguided they both are when it comes to dealing with their issues. Tyler’s conflicted nature comes through in several key scenes showing that redemption might be possible in the eyes of a crew willing to support him except from Stamets for obvious reasons. The sequence depicting the terraforming is incredible on a visual and conceptual level. This digs into what Star Trek is supposed to be about and proves just how steeped in those ideals this show is.
- complex and fascinating characterisation
- furthering the idea of a crew that sticks together
- exploring the psychology of constant defeat
- the stunning terraforming sequence
- adhering to the Star Trek idealism
- a tendency to move plot along a little too quickly
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