On Star Trek: Discovery, The Federation Takes Burnham’s Bad Decision And Makes It Worse

That was the theme of Discovery‘s latest episode: Michael Burnham’s struggle between wrong, emotional (her words) choices and right, principled ones is also the struggle of the United Federation of Planets. Her giving into temptation and selfishly rescuing Emperor Georgiou is much the same temptation faced by the Federation in this episode. But will the Federation make as bad a call as Burnham did?

There are many weird choices in season one of Discovery, but one is how it’s galloped through around stories that could have each filled up an entire season, leaving them feeling underdeveloped or unfinished. Both of those things are evident in “The War Without, the War Within,” which rushes through things that deserve a closer look, to see how they really affect the characters.

If you want an example of this problem, we get one right off the bat as Saru shows up to see Burnham and Emperor Georgiou, who, after spending last week as semi-noble because Lorca was strutting around being the worst, is back to being horrible. She points a weapon at Saru, calls him a slave, and tells him to get on his knees.

Remember how Burnham just lied to Saru about whether his people were around in the Mirror Universe even though he asked her about it directly? Yeah, that was lead-up to this scene. As was that dinner from hell a couple of episodes ago where Emperor Georgiou fed Burnham some freshly-murdered Kelpian.

Emperor Georgiou flat-out says she and Burnham ate Kelpian and then sneers at being asked to treat Saru, the current captain of the Discovery, with respect. It is immediately obvious that bringing her into this universe was a giant mistake on Burnham’s part.

Saru deserves a saner ship. And timeline.

Saru tells Burnham a) you lied to me and b) bringing Georgiou along is a grave error in judgment. He is very right, but there’s no time to really delve into any of this as we have to move along to Burnham’s other giant nightmare: Ash Tyler.

It turns out L’Rell’s brain surgery ended with the Tyler personality coming out on top, with Voq now relegated to being aware, but having no power. Oh, you thought there might be more about Voq versus Tyler? Nope, we’re on to just Tyler’s pain. (I am legitimately shocked L’Rell didn’t do the opposite — saving Voq and relegating Tyler.

I guess L’Rell had always understood that she would lose Voq, but it’s still a shame she seems to be pretty cool with what happened. But the important thing in this show is always the effect this stuff has on Burnham, not anyone else.)

Burnham refuses to see Tyler, which I think is fair since her last memory is of him trying to strangle him.

Tyler explains that he can access Voq’s memories, but they aren’t his, so he’s more than a bit lost. Saru – who has become the shining example of Starfleet competence – says that Tyler should focus on his recovery. Voq’s the one to blame for the murder of Culber, not him.

(I am on the record of saying that I hate the Voq/Tyler storyline, but I do like the way that Saru and Tilly’s reaction to him are contrasted with Burnham and Stamets’. Philosophically, it’s very easy to side with Saru.

Saru says “Voq is responsible for your crimes and see no semblance of him before me,” but also limits Tyler’s access to Discovery. And it’s nice that Tilly sits with an ostracised Tyler in the mess hall, in a small replay of what happened when Burnham the mutineer first appeared. And, instead of a brawl, the whole rest of the crew comes to the table. (This was a bit over the top, but, sure, ok).

But Voq as Tyler caused a lot more personal pain for Burnham and Stamets. They both may know, in the logical parts of their brains, that Tyler isn’t responsible. But they also have memories of him doing unforgivable things. Burnham saw the man she loved nearly kill her. Stamets saw Tyler murder Culber.

So Stamets saying, “You killed a good man, a man that I loved, do you remember that? Does it gut you, does it sicken you? Good. Maybe you are human,” is a pretty reasonable reaction, in that circumstance. He could have been violent, but he’s not; he’s just not able to forgive yet.

And the divide between what we believe, philosophically, and what we do, emotionally, drives the rest of this episode, on a larger scale.

Admiral Cornwell – you remember her, she was the one who figured out something was up with Lorca and then he sent her to be captured by Klingons, only she didn’t die? Yeah, she’s also got some emotional issues – and Sarek show up on the Discovery to give and receive infodumps.

Sarek mindmelds with Saru to make sure that this isn’t a ship of impostors. explaining he’s doing “What times require.” In retrospect, this is the first hint that things are going bad.

The newcomers don’t have the time to really deal with the Lorca reveal, save a bit of righteous anger from Cornwell and Sarek’s massive understatement that guessing that he was an evil twin from another universe was not the most logical assumption. We have to warp past that to get to the infodump:

In the months since the Disco‘s been gone, the Federation has been without the ability to get through the Klingon stealth tech and the ship with the magic spore drive. A third of the fleet has been destroyed, while cloaked Klingon ships running suicide missions have destroyed starbases. Klingons have attacked colonies and outposts, killing everyone except a few orphans. No one is in charge, so the 24 Klingon houses are just trying to establish dominance over the Empire by being the house that kills the most Federation citizens.

Dealing with the continuity issue of why alternate universes continue to be a surprise to Federation crews for centuries, Sarek and Cornwell order everything classified and explain that, what with all the death and destruction, knowing a version of your loved one is alive somewhere would be too great of a temptation.

That’s about when Burnham has to reveal that, yeah, it’s a huge temptation and she totally gave in to it. She will not be the only one to be tempted by Mirror Universe opportunities by the end of this episode.

Sarek and Cornwell meet with Emperor Georgiou, both commenting on how uncanny the likeness is. Emperor Georgiou does her usual haughtiness, but the basic move here is to hide her away. This is probably the moment the Emperor decides to do whatever she can to keep her freedom – Mirror Universe Terrans will do anything to advance their personal positions, that’s kind of their thing.

The Disco‘s Murphy’s Law Drive (guaranteed to get you from one thing going wrong to something worse in no time!) gets them to Starbase 1 just in time to discover that it’s been taken over by a Klingon house with no sign of the 80,000 Starfleet and Federation members that were on it. All that death and the imminent attack on Earth sends Cornwell – who had her life saved by L’Rell – to the Klingon prisoner’s cell. It does seem that the two of them have some respect for each other, L’Rell going so far as to say that T’Kuvma’s assessment of all humans lacking courage was wrong.

The development of the Klingons in this show is poor. It just is. I’d give more credence to L’Rell’s characterisation of the Federation as being “universal homogenisation and assimilation” if she didn’t follow it by saying, “Klingons have tasted your blood, conquer us or we will never relent.” L’Rell also stubbornly responds to Cornwell’s list of Klingon war crimes as “this is war, not a child’s game with rules.” Ah, I am so glad that we were told we’d get the Klingon side of the war.

While Cornwell’s meeting with L’Rell solidifies the former’s fear of the Klingons destroying Earth, Burnham is likewise seeking information from another prisoner who sneers at the Federation’s ideals: Emperor Georgiou. Georgiou has a lot of opinions. She thinks Burnham is weak for rescuing her just because she looks like her mentor. “Regret weakens you,” she says. She’s also got a lovely comparison of the Klingons as being like cancer, and the tumour that must be destroyed is Qo’noS.

A holographic meeting of what remains of Starfleet high command informs us that the spore drive will let the Disco jump into a cave on Qo’noS, and the ship will scan the whole planet and find all the Klingon defence batteries and all the military targets. Hidden in all the technobabble is this thudding signpost to the theme of these two episodes: “Starfleet tactics have failed us. We must adapt.”

The technobabble boils down to this: Stamets is going to terraform an uninhabited moon as a place to grow spores at an astronomical rate. Stamets has his original sample left to use for this, and a classic handwaving claims this was always possible, but his research partner Straal wanted to keep the spores captive. Sure, ok.

Sarek talks to Emperor Georgiou, and she signals pretty clearly that she’s not to be trusted by characterising this chat as her summoning him. She plays the serpent to Sarek’s Eve (…I’m sorry for this), by explaining that the plan they have will only knock the Klingons back, not end them as a threat forever.

She can “bring them to their knees once and for all,” which isn’t a very Federation-y, self-defence, empathetic, etc. view. But Sarek is clearly interested, signalled by him telling Burnham he’s leaving for Vulcan to deal with the “evolving details of the plan.” Burnham smartly keys into that, but Sarek deflects by asking about Tyler, saying”The irony here of course, the man you fell for was a Klingon,” which isn’t exactly what Tyler is, but sure.

Sarek, Vulcan logician and diplomat par excellence, then adds, “There is also grace, what greater source of peace exists but to love our enemy?” And I’ll just be over here setting myself on fire, the next time Sarek shows up, on the Original Series, the closest he’ll get to talking about love is to say that marrying a human was “logical.”All this scene needed was the “do not regret loving someone” bit after this, the rest was way too much and very out of character for Sarek.

Burnham then tells Tilly, “I just said goodbye to my father and it felt different, final. It won’t be, right?” Assuming this is the Prime universe and not another alternate one, Sarek survives all of this. And this show is coming back for a second season, so… if this is foreshadowing, what is it for? Burnham dying? Something else? Based on the end of this episode, I have a guess, but I’ll get to it in a minute.

Tilly joins in the chorus of saying that Burnham should see Tyler, and I am so rarely on Burnham’s side but I am here. She has every right to deal with the trauma of loving someone who turned out to be a Klingon double-agent who also tried to kill you and did kill another officer in whatever way she wants. At least for a few days.

Tyler himself, despite the uplifting scene where everyone rallied around him in the mess, is a self-pitying nightmare. Burnham points out that he didn’t come to her when things got to be too much, even though he promised he would.

And that was the Tyler side, not Voq. Tyler returns that she’s just making excuses to cut and run now that things are “complicated.” Dude. Complicated? “It’s complicated” is a Facebook status. What happened with you too was an emotional clusterfuck of immense proportions.

Tyler begs that he can’t find his way without her, that’s he broken. And I love Burnham for not falling for this kind of manipulative emotional bullshit. We’ve all had people in our lives that are bad for us, that we need to distance from, but who convince us they need us, so we stay, even if it causes us damage. But Burnham’s having none of this. She looks out on the beautiful planet of spores that Stamets has built here, and tells Tyler that she’s spent this whole season getting up from her lowest point.

“I had to crawl my way back. I’m still not there. but I’m trying. That kind of work it’s punishing. it’s relentless. And it’s solitary.” God, I wish this season had spent more time making it clear that this was what Burnham had been doing. And establishing that saving Georgiou was her sliding back into her old ways, trying to find an easy fix for her pain.

Speaking of taking the easy way out, Sarek contacts Cornwel to say, “All are agreed that we have no choice but to proceed.” And I think we all know this means they are, despite knowing that dipping into the Mirror Universe is a temptation to be avoided and despite the Federation being predicated on being better than bullies, going to accept Georgiou’s offer.

This is proved when Cornwell introduces Emperor Georgiou as Captain Georgiou, rescued from Klingons and not really dead. She’s going to lead the Discovery to Qo’noS and, presumably, destroy the whole planet, not just military targets.

Going back to the foreshadowing with Sarek, I think we’re in for another mutiny. While the show opened with Burnham’s mutiny against Georgiou being in opposition to the ideals of the Federation (Burnham wanted to attack Klingons first and negotiate later, remember), this time we’ll see one that has Burnham and the rest of the crew stand up against Georgiou for the ideals of the Federation.

It’s a neat parallel, but it feels like the writers had the idea of two bookending mutinees from the beginning and forced this whole season into a weird shape to make it happen.

And while I like the way the war is tempting the Federation to abandon its principles – and I even like the parallels between Burnham and Starfleet being drawn in this episode – this just doesn’t feel like it was earned. Burnham’s growth was never well-established. Too much time went to her relationship with Tyler.

This episode is one of the few I’ve liked more the more I think about it. There are a lot of parallels working here, and a lot of thought about how the Federation could slowly become the Empire if it doesn’t stick to its ideals. But it’s not a standalone episode, and the foundation the season gave it isn’t quite strong enough.

The theme was in charge of this episode, and that meant that things that don’t service it are shunted aside too quickly. And while I can pick out more and more instances of the theme repeating as I think it over, this isn’t a stand-out, standalone episode I’d watch again. It’s all set-up, so everything is explaining things that have happened, are happening, or will happen.

Assorted Musings:

  • Oh god, they called what happened to Tyler a “reassignment procedure” which made it seem like given that this was going to be a patented heavy-handed Star Trek tackling of an issue. I was really worried we were about to get some attempt to draw a parallel between Ash and the trans community. We did not, thankfully, so this was a just a bad language choice.
  • Voq was the test case for the procedure. Remember, all this drama is technically a prequel to “The Trouble With Tribbles” and the procedure that creates Arne Darvin.
  • Cornwell shooting that bowl of fortune cookies and calling Lorca “bastard” is my everything.
  • The Stamets line of the week is “Come on, kiddos.”
  • The Discovery will be the first ship to visit Qo’noS since Archer and the first Enterprise. Continuity is a drug to this show.
  • Cornwell briefly describes the Lorca she knew, and I wish we’d get to see him, if only to see Jason Isaacs play the steady, committed one.

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