If You Want Peace, Prepare for War — Star Trek Discovery’s “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

Discovery barrels toward its slightly-more-than-midway point, as this eighth episode moves things forward and sets up for the ninth, which will also be the “fall finale” before we get a hiatus during which lots of people will try CBS All Access for a trial period and binge the nine episodes.

The episode has a lot of story ground to cover, and it does so in a particularly impressive fashion, moving both the Federation and Klingon plots forward. We get strong moments for pretty much the entire cast, but most notably for Saru, who has been a bit underused lately. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” gives Doug Jones a chance to shine.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This episode was written by Kirsten Beyer. A fellow Star Trek novelist, Kirsten has been a friend and colleague of your humble reviewer for many years. She helped roast me at Shore Leave in 2009, and that same year my novel A Singular Destiny laid some groundwork for her still-ongoing series of Voyager novels that take place post-“Endgame.”

However, I’d like this episode no matter who wrote it, because it very nicely balances all its storylines, telling a good standalone story while moving things in an interesting direction, culminating in a cliffhanger that sets up the first confrontation between Discovery and T’Kuvma’s sarcophagus ship, now under Kol’s command.

The Klingon part of the story has two issues, one of which is the ongoing language issue, as the episode once again grinds to halt while we watch Mary Chieffo and Kenneth Mitchell I-think-I-can their way through endless Klingon sentences. On top of the length of time it takes, this week I finally figured out my biggest problem: the inflections are all even, so it all comes out in a somnabulent sing-songy rhythm. Now other languages have even inflections—Japanese, e.g.—but it’s usually spoken quickly enough that the rhythm of the sentences flows better.

The other issue is the sudden death of Cornwell. It’s a very anticlimactic end to the makeshift alliance that L’Rell and Cornwell form, which actually looked kinda promising.

Having said that, the machinations here are interesting, made more so by external factors. As we’ve discussed here before (and the Internet has run with pretty far), it seems that the actor who plays Tyler also played Voq. This has raised the question as to whether or not Tyler is a surgically altered Klingon agent (something already seen ten years ahead in the timeline with “Arne Darvin” in “The Trouble with Tribbles“). That, in turn, raises questions about L’Rell. Tyler’s escape involved beating the crap out of L’Rell and her being wounded. Was that part of the cover? Was that Voq taking out his frustrations on his only friend? Is Tyler a sleeper agent who doesn’t know he’s Voq? Is L’Rell telling Cornwell she wants to defect, not because she’s disenchanted with how her life in the Klingon Empire has gone as she says, but because “Tyler” hasn’t checked in, and she needs to find out what’s happened to him? Or is something else going on?

What’s great is, we’re not sure. Chieffo is doing a fine job of playing L’Rell’s plan close to the vest while still showing her strength and conflict through the Klingon makeup. (It helps that she actually speaks a familiar language with Cornwell.) I also like that Kol is not being fooled by L’Rell in the least. I’m genuinely curious as to which way this will go.

Meanwhile, back in the Federation, we’ve got three different things going on. Stamets is starting to suffer some serious ill effects from being the engine of the spore drive, including possible hallucinations (he addresses Tilly as the captain when he comes out of the drive). But he can’t report these problems to Culber or anyone else in sickbay because then they will have to report it and Stamets will be removed from duty and they don’t have the spore drive anymore. If he does report it and Culber doesn’t share it with Starfleet, it could cost the doctor his career. So Tilly and Stamets agree to monitor his condition on their own without any medical assistance. That will totally end well.

We also open the episode with something we haven’t actually seen much: bridge action! We’ve been told that Discovery is vital to the war effort, but we’ve seen very little of them fighting in the war. This is mostly a feature, not a bug (such scenes can be repetitive if one isn’t careful), but it’s still good to actually see some combat once in a while. In particular, it’s fun to see the bridge crew in action, with Lorca barking orders to Detmer, Owosekun, and Airiam, as well as new guy Rhys, who’s running tactical. (My favorite line of the episode was Lorca’s aggrieved, “Mr. Rhys, could I trouble you to fire on something?” which is a nice riff on the numerous Trek battles over the years where ships have been in the midst of hostile ships and not fired hardly at all, e.g. “Rascals.”) Sadly, all the Discovery is able to accomplish is to take out more of the enemy than the Gagarin would have by itself, as the other ship is lost. But it’s important from a story perspective to put a face on the losses, in this case Captain Kovil and his crew on the Gagarin.

And then we have the reason why Rhys is running tactical, and also the meat of the episode: Tyler has accompanied Saru and Burnham to Pahvo, a planet where all the flora is in harmony, creating constant music. There’s an organic transmitter on the planet that sends the music out into space, and Starfleet’s hope is to be able to modify that transmitter as a kind of sonar to detect cloaked Klingon ships.

That mission hits a snag when it turns out that there is life on the planet, it just takes the form of energy. Saru works to communicate with them, and he learns that the transmitter serves a similar function to probes that NASA sent out in the hopes of contacting alien life in the late 20th century, to wit, contacting alien life.

The Pahvans live in perfect harmony with their world, which proves to be the best thing ever for Saru. After spending most of the episode in agony, because he’s far more sensitive to the constant song of Pahvo than the humans, he finally communicates with the Pahvans, and it’s nirvana for him. Kelpiens like him are prey, which means he lives in a constant state of fear. When he communes with the Pahvans, for the first time in his life, he’s not afraid. It’s a heady feeling, one that leads to him destroying Burnham and Tyler’s (and presumably his own) communicators and lying to the rest of the landing party, saying that the Pahvans will help them against the Klingons—necessary, as the presence of sentient life means they need their permission to modify their stuff.

When it becomes clear that Saru is compromised, Tyler takes matters into his own hands, ordering Burnham to modify the transmitter anyhow, while Tyler distracts Saru with his total lack of harmony. Again, the rumors about who Tyler is come into play here, as Tyler expresses a particular loathing for Klingons, but is it a legit issue due to his imprisonment? Is it part of his cover? Is it Voq’s own loathing for his fellow Klingons, who (T’Kuvma and L’Rell excepted) treated him poorly due his being an albino? Or is it all just a cover to distract Saru so Burnham can complete the mission?

The episode in general has been described by many as the most Star Trek-ish episode the show has done so far—fitting, given the pedigree of its scripter—and it certainly is. We’ve got an actual honest-to-goodness landing party, we’ve got a first contact complete with many complications, and we’ve got beings of pure energy who are more than they seem.

But the best thing we get is a good look at Discovery‘s first officer. Saru is a fascinating character, an alien of a type we haven’t really seen on Trek before, and while he has indeed been underused, the ways he has been used have been superb, particularly in “Choose Your Pain,” which explained his issues with Burnham and had him figuring out that Lorca and Tyler were on the shuttle due to how they were being chased. Here we see the tragedy of his existence, and Doug Jones knocks it out of the park, showing how wonderful this is for him, to the point that he’d violate his oath and assault Burnham to keep from losing it.

One wonders how this will affect Saru’s view of Burnham, since he, too, has turned traitor, though one suspects that both Tyler and Burnham’s reports won’t throw Saru under the bus, or at the very least it will be decided that he was under an alien influence. We shall see. But will this make Saru more pleasantly inclined toward Burnham or will he resent that she took something else valuable away from him the way she took away his chance to be Georgiou’s first officer? (Something he mentioned while trying to stop her on Pahvo, but he was not himself there. We’ll see if they pick up on it.)

It’s also nice to get the reminder in Tyler and Burnham’s conversation that for Burnham, the end of the war doesn’t mean the vacation that it will probably mean for most Starfleet folks who survive it. (Tyler’s dream is to go sailing.) For her, it means going back to prison—not exactly something to look forward to, and it’s to her credit that she’s still fighting hard to end the war anyhow.

Of course, another way this episode is Trek-ish is that it is reminiscent of more than one TOS story, particularly “This Side of Paradise,” in how Saru was affected by the Pahvans, and “Arena,” in how the Pahvans are interpolating themselves into the Federation-Klingon conflict. (One could argue it’s more “Errand of Mercy,” but the Organians tried to stay out of the war, and only interfered at the very end when Kor and Kirk got too annoying. The Pahvans are jumping into the conflict unbidden much the way the Metrons did.)

Still, this is a strong episode on its own and as part of the ongoing story arc and setting up the “fall finale.”

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be one of the author guests at Philcon 2017 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey this weekend, alongside guests of honor Seanan McGuire (a.k.a. Mira Grant), Bed & Breakfast, Don Maitz, and Janny Wurtz. You can find him sometimes at the eSpec Books table in the dealer room, and he’ll also be doing programming; his full schedule is here.

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