The first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery were promising, but showed some growing pains. The third episode still had some of that—whatever the writers were trying to accomplish by having Michael recite Lewis Carroll, I think it’s safe to say that it did not work—but on the whole, it made good on that promise. This was a really satisfying hour of TV.
The “previously on Discovery…” montage ended with Michael getting sentenced to life in prison. The episode proper begins with a smash cut to Michael on a prison transport six months later. The point of this little scene is to show us the utopia’s underbelly: sure, Starfleet is great. But if you go into the Federation’s prisons, you’ll find a bunch of people who are not so nice… and perhaps more alarmingly, you’ll find that the Federation treats its prisoners as chattel, and counts their lives as cheap. Michael’s shuttle is transferring her to a dilithium mine to work as a conscript, replacing the last bunch of convicts who got blown up in an industrial accident.
Michael is in this world, but not of it. She’s got a different-colored jumpsuit. The other convicts call her “Starfleet.” She still has all her Starfleet skills: look at her spouting technobabble like a champ, there, about how “that’s species GS-54, an organism that feeds on electricity.” And when the shuttle is disabled and facing certain destruction, she’s the only one who doesn’t start trying to save her own life. Which means that she sees herself the way the system sees the rest of the convicts: as expendable garbage. But of course then the titular Discovery swoops in with a tractor beam to pull Michael—and incidentally, the other convicts—out of the trash.
Conveniently enough, most of the non-Yeoh characters that we cared about from the Shenzhou have managed to find new berths on the Discovery. There’s Kayla, aka Commander Shaved-Side, who will probably be important later on (although so far she is less of a character and more of a fashion-forward head trauma). And then there’s Saru. I am very glad that we get to keep Saru, what with his crazy meat-cello of a face, his fussy little glass bowl of blueberries, and especially the fact that Doug Jones is basically just playing him as Niles from Frasier. Saru is both fond and terrified of Michael. He’s not pleased to learn that his captain has assigned this volatile ex-con to provide technical support on the ship’s top-secret military research project. Michael promises Saru that she won’t make trouble.
And then she reneges on this immediately. Like the first day that she’s there, she’s breaking into the ship’s top-secret fungus laboratory, apparently on the grounds that 1) they told her not to and 2) the specific guy who told her not to was kind of a dick.
This characterization feels a little inconsistent. What happened to not causing trouble? What happened to resigning herself to her fate? But I guess they had to burn through a lot of setup really quickly, because we still haven’t gotten to the actual plot of the episode. Here’s that, in a nutshell. The Discovery has a sister ship, the Glenn, which works on the same top-secret science project. By and large, the Glenn was winning, right up until they suffered a critical science failure that horribly killed everyone on board. The Discovery sends an away team to the Glenn to recover any top secret science stuff that’s been left behind. This doesn’t go smoothly: there’s some Klingons on board trying to salvage the same tech, and there’s also a creepy half-seen beast running around killing Klingons and chomping through double-reinforced bulkheads. The away team barely manage to escape with their lives (not including that of the redshirt).
That feels like it could be a standard episode of Trek, right? I’d almost swear that I saw this exact plot play out on TNG or DS9. But there are a few things that Discovery handles differently. For instance, we don’t really get to know what any of the top secret science stuff actually is (at least not yet). This means no back-and-forth between the first officer and the captain over whether this technology is morally acceptable or not. Similarly, the Klingons in the TNG version would probably have a whole act devoted to them, and there’d be some heavy-handed message about rivals becoming allies. Here, they literally show up just long enough for the beast to kill them. On TNG, you’d definitely find out where the beast came from, right? Here they’re like “no time for that, we got what we came for now bomb it from orbit.” (I mean, obviously it has something to do with the research that they were doing on the Glenn, but that’s hardly an explanation. We need at least two paragraphs of technobabble explaining exactly how the experiment spun out of control.)
Why strip the story down like this? Well, it’s partially because they need to make room for all the exposition. But the show also devotes a lot of time to a… well, a sort of melodramatic streak that runs through it. Not melodramatic in the sense of hammy acting. That would NOT separate this from regular Trek. But melodramatic in the sense that some of the character conflicts, and some of the ideological messages, are never stated outright—instead, they’re sort of worked out non-explicitly through the show’s visual rhetoric.
A great example is the scene where Michael walks into her new room and touches the Starfleet logo on her pillow. The show makes this something sensuous. Her finger lingers on the cheap looking fabric. This isn’t hard to decode: of course Michael would have some complex, embodied feelings about getting to sleep on Starfleet sheets again. But if earlier Trek shows wanted to explore these feelings, they would have done it verbally, with a nice little Avery Brooks monologue about the importance of thread count. Here, you just get Michael’s hand tracing the logo on her pillow. That strikes me as fundamentally different. Discovery doesn’t want Michael to read us a report on her feelings: it wants us to feel the things that she feels.
Other things are less tied to character, but still striking and time consuming (and still pretty un-Trek). Take the through-line about different levels of shadow and light. So the new captain, Gabriel Lorca, has an eye condition that means he can’t adjust to different lighting conditions quickly. If he stares into the inky void of space all day, this means he also needs to keep his room dimly lit. A couple of scenes later, Michael is trying to rest in her room—and suddenly her roommate walks in and raises the lights to high immediately. On its own this is a nice little lesson about who can and cannot choose how bright their rooms are. But it keeps on going. When Michael is breaking into the engineering lab, you see her skulking around the dimly-lit ship at night, but then when she steps into the lab it’s lit like it’s day. A few scenes later, on the derelict ship, we indulge in some X-Files style halogen-flashlight-in-a-dark-room chiaroscuro. And then right near the end we have this cool shot of Lorca walking up to a field of unbroken solid black…
…which is doubly interesting because, in the scene at the end where he’s convincing Michael to stay on the crew, he does it by putting her in a little box that he floods with light. You will never convince me that this was not done on purpose.
And it has something to do with the core intellectual idea that this episode is circling around, which has to do with the nature of the military-industrial complex. A normal Trek show would have had Picard and Riker laying out the argument explicitly, of course, but here we have to do a lot of the legwork. Here’s how I see it.
The most important speech in the episode is given to Commander Stametz, the astromycologist turned Engineering head. A former research scientist, Stametz was dragooned into service by Starfleet because his research had military potential: “not to further Starfleet’s mission statement of diplomacy and exploration, but for war.” Stametz does not like this. He calls Captain Lorca a warmonger, and distrusts Michael not because she’s a mutineer but simply because Lorca wanted her involved. If Lorca wants her there, she’s a creature of war, and cannot be trusted.
Michael is not really that kind of creature, though, which is why she initially turns down Lorca’s offer of a permanent berth on the Discovery. She thinks he’s involved in biological weapons research, and wants no part in that. But Lorca convinces her that his project is not so sinister, offering a kinder, gentler vision of the military-industrial complex. Stametz’s technology is just a new form of propulsion. It’ll still end up killing hella Klingons, of course, but only indirectly… and think of the commercial possibilities!
And of course, the military-industrial complex can sort of work like this, in small doses. Like, say you’re a beverage scientist. Since you were a little child, you always dreamed of inventing a groundbreaking new beverage technology. But then one day the government calls you up: they want to fund your research. “It’s nothing sinister,” they tell you. “Yes, technically this is part of the war effort. There is a conceivable world where the refreshing materiel that you create will end up giving an American GI the edge that he needs to kill a whole boatload of Russians. But how can anyone hold you culpable for a beverage? Plus, every breakthrough that you make will eventually feed back into pure science.” And so you swallow your misgivings and throw yourself into your research—and sure enough, fifty years later, the cold war is over and we’re all enjoying Tang with every meal.
More cynically minded types—the Michaels, the Stametzes—will tell you that this is a fantasy, not least because it turns out that Tang was not even developed for the space program in the first place. The fantasy version—the light version, if you will—is the version that Lorca sells Michael on in his glowing box. But there’s a darker possibility too. The government agent who calls you up might say “Tell me: could Tang be made… poisonous?” And of course you don’t always get a warning in advance. This is the thing that would keep me up at night, if I was a scientist and the military was putting money anywhere in the general vicinity of my research.
And this is the version on display at the end of the episode, when Lorca walks up to that inky portal. Inside, behind force screens, is the monster from the Glenn, which Lorca had beamed aboard before they blew up the ship. Turns out he is interested in weaponizing Stametz’s research after all. And I suspect that’s because, for Lorca, the idea of commercial applications after the war rests on a faulty assumption that there’s ever going to be an “after the war.” When he looks out into space, he sees only darkness… his eyes won’t adjust to the light.