STAR TREK DISCOVERY [Midseason Premiere Review]: Despite Yourself.
It took ten episodes, but it seems that Star Trek: Discovery has finally found itself, and delivered an episode that not only feels like it belongs, but actually connects this series to several of the other series. I won’t be able to go into it without some **HEAVY SPOILERS**, so consider this your last warning. And if you don’t want to go into spoiler territory but are still on the fence: “Despite Yourself” is genuinely the best so far, despite some heavy exposition, and has several great character moments.
They leave yet? Cool! Let’s get into this…
So when we last left the crew, they’d jumped to what they believed was Starbase 46, to deliver an algorithm that can effectively detect cloaked Klingon ships. However, they’d actually jumped to the location of a massive battle, several Klingon battleships littered across space. They had no idea where they were, despite all indications that they were at the right coordinates. I thought the same thing you did: SPACE PROSTITUTES. I mean, Mirror Universe. Yep! We’re at the Mirror Universe! Again!
While other series in the franchise visited and revisited the Mirror Universe, it was never more than a passing visit: a single episode here and there, although Enterprise managed to get into a bit of minutia about the start of the Terran Empire. Here, Discovery explores the inner workings of the Terran Empire even further, adding a much-needed richness that this alternate version sorely needed. And here, also, is where Discovery begins to explore its central theme: while the Prime Universe version of the Federation is much more militaristic, and “gritty” (ugh) compared to what we are accustomed from established canon, we can see the wrinkles getting worked out within humanity. The Terran Empire is expressly described as xenophobic, aggressive, and highly militaristic, concerned with the survival and expansion of the human race above all else. Species that would otherwise have nothing to do with each other (Klingons, Andorians, and Vulcans) are banding together to rebel against the expanding human threat. And the Empire is ever-expanding. Shutting out aliens. Putting up borders. A wall, even, you might say. Where have I heard that explicitly expressed before in no uncertain terms…?
Star Trek has always been a parable to current ills of society. It took half a season, but now that we’re in an alternate universe, the metaphor is loud and clear. Star Trek has always been a progressive reflection of current social trends and conflicts. Always. No, you’re wrong. Watch any episode of any series in the franchise’s 52 years. Any single one. Just watch them, and stop being so wrong and whiny; it’s very unflattering.
There is a lot of character work going on here as well, as we learn that socially awkward Ensign Tilly is captain of the Discovery in the Mirror Universe (and given the nickname “Captain Killy”, which even Doug Jones‘ Saru scoffs at). She plays up her role, and Mary Wiseman is clearly enjoying playing the overly aggressive version of her character. Both Sonequa Martin-Green, and Jason Isaacs, are able to transition easily to more aggressive versions of their characters, since theirs are much more conflicted and aggressive to begin with (which actually is a back-handed compliment, here), although Isaacs gets a fun bit where he pretends to be a Scottish engineer, and Martin-Green gets a pretty nifty hand-to-hand fight in a turbolift. And here we also get our biggest connection to both Enterprise and the Original Series, as well as a clear mission for at least the next episode: track down the marooned U.S.S. Defiant, which had disappeared from Kirk’s era and reappeared in the Mirror Universe’s Enterprise-era, and download its logs to figure out a way back home). It’s a clear-cut plot that is less fan-service and more expansion and exploration of a realm that only ever got hinted at in the prior shows.
But the two biggest character bits come from Shazad Latif‘s Ash Tyler, and Wilson Cruz‘s Dr. Culbert. First off: yes, Tyler is a Klingon sleeper agent, although his reactivation by the imprisoned L’Rell backfires. It’s unclear whether he is a fully transformed Voq, with implanted memories of a real Ash Tyler; or a human Ash Tyler with Voq’s personality and consciousness implanted. But in rather well-shot and visually dynamic sequence, it was refreshing to see that Tyler wasn’t successfully “reactivated”; a more conventional show would have Tyler re-assume the Voq personality, and most likely have him skulk around the ship, plotting. Here, the botched reactivation surprises both characters, making Tyler much more of an unsuspecting wild card and the story less committed to following predictable paths and narratives.
So, too, does this apply to the unfortunate Dr. Culbert. Being one half of Star Trek’s first openly gay couple (and played deftly and with an appropriately light touch by Wilson Cruz, of My So-Called Life fame), Dr. Culbert’s fate in this episode has noticeably and understandably rubbed some the wrong way. After deducing that something extremely problematic occurred to Tyler, Culbert confronts him, suggesting he allow himself to be restrained. Growing more agitated and upset by these revelations, Tyler snaps Culbert’s neck in a unceremonious way before running off. While this would feel like another running cliche in fiction of killing off prominent gay characters (while somehow forgetting Stamets is also part of the crew?) as well as a simultaneous extension of the “girlfriend in the fridge” trope in pop fiction writing, the framing of this scene suggests its blase approach is deliberate.
This is in the Mirror Universe, after all, so there’s AT LEAST one more Dr. Culbert running around; and, judging from the preview for next week’s episode, showing a crestfallen Stamets holding Culbert…and given Stamets’ new, as-yet-unexplored new abilities… and given Wilson Cruz’s repeated interviews and insistence that his character is not done with…the reaction might conceivably be premature. I think Culbert will be back in some way or form.
Jonathan Frakes directed this mid-season premiere, adding a few fun flourishes (Tyler’s workerbee digital interface looked cool as hell; Burnham’s aforementioned zero-g turbolift fight), as well as a necessary expansion of the history of the Mirror Universe. And, finally (FINALLY!) there is a sense of Discovery‘s place in the Star Trek universe, a much needed and welcome sense of continuity and connection to the prior series that feels less like fan service and more like a necessary development that better let’s us understand what this series is trying to say. And, this is less a make-or-break point, but does no one else feel like Discovery is lacking any real crew? Even in the Original Series we see a vast assortment of crew-members doing crew-member things; here, the ship seems sparsely populated until it suddenly needs to be full of people. Medical bay? Empty except for a nurse. Engineering? Mostly empty. The brig? Not even a guard. Hallways? One or two people milling about. The only instances in the series that felt like a real populated ship are during a party, and when Tilly and Burnham are going for a jog. Just saying, make that ship feel like more of a real place! Also…not enough goatees We’re in the Mirror Universe! Everyone should get one!
So, here’s what we’re left with: clear, mostly fun characterizations. A clearer sense of continuity. A very clear end-point for at least the next episode (get to the marooned Defiant, download its logs). Solid character work and development. Emotional, yet plot-driven twists that further develop characters. Some dicey plotting decisions (why keep putting Tyler into crucial situations if even Capt. Lorca thinks something is up with him?) Further exploration of the Mirror Universe. What I expect to be further development of biting social commentary. A strong indication that at least one theory of where this show is going to end will come to pass. Count me in for all of that. It was an oft-maddening, sometimes frustrating journey, but Discovery seems to know where it is, where it’s going, and what it’s trying to say. Finally! 4/5 Agonizer Booths at Full Power.
-Jose Caraballo Jr.