You Can’t Go Back to the Way Things Were — Star Trek Discovery’s “Vaulting Ambition”

There are three separate-but-connected things going on in this week’s Star Trek: Discovery, and the heart of each and every one of them is embodied by the line of dialogue I borrowed for the headline, a line spoken directly by both Emperor Georgiou and by Lieutenant Stamets. Everyone wants to go back to the way things were. Stamets wants Culber to be alive and the two of them to be happy. L’Rell wants Voq not to suffer (for all that she insists that Voq’s sacrifice was voluntary and necessary). Georgiou wants her foster daughter back. And everyone on the U.S.S. Discovery just wants to get home.

The one person who does get things back the way they were? Lorca. Go fig’.

Lots of things are pulled into focus this week, which is good, as we’re running out of episodes.

First off, we find out why Stamets has been predicting the future—he hasn’t, he’s been getting flashes from mirror-Stamets, who got himself stuck in the mycelial network, and reached out to his counterpart, showing him flashes of the MU. That’s why he called Tilly “Captain,” and why he kept babbling about forests and palaces.

We also find out why Stamets’s reflection was off way back in “Choose Your Pain“: it was Stamets in the mycelial network in this episode, trying to go back to a moment of happiness. That night, when they were brushing their teeth together, was one of the last times he was truly content.

While it’s good to see Culber again, he seems to confirm that he’s dead—yet there he is talking to Stamets and giving him useful information, and saying he remembers being held by Stamets after Voq/Tyler broke his neck. There would seem to be more going on here than meets the eye—at least I hope so, partly because the death of Culber still is a sore point, partly because I have a real problem with Culber being dead yet also being a source of useful plot-moving exposition. But I’m willing to wait and see on that.

Star Trek: Discovery Vaulting Ambition Stamets Culber kiss

In any case, things are going poorly in mycelial-land. Mirror-Stamets has apparently mucked about with things, and he’s trapped in the network, too—he needs the mainline Stamets’s help to get out. (Watching Anthony Rapp acting across from himself is a delight, especially since mirror-Stamets is pretty much the same snarky jerk as the mainline Stamets was before he got spored.) And when he does manage to find the way out of the network, the two Stametses wind up switched, with mirror-Stamets now on Discovery, and the mainline one on the imperial flagship in mirror-Stamets’s lab. Oops. (EDITED TO ADD: It appears I was wrong about that. I’m not the only one who thought it, but Anthony Rapp his own self has confirmed that each Stamets is in the right place. Oops again.)

Speaking of the imperial flagship, Burnham’s bluff gets called because there’s a piece of information she doesn’t have. While the official record states that Burnham was killed by Lorca, it turns out that Emperor Georgiou believed Burnham and Lorca to be in cahoots. Faced with execution, Burnham goes for broke and tells the truth, using the mainline Georgiou’s insignia as proof that she’s not Georgiou’s Burnham, but rather one from another universe.

When the emperor scans the insignia and realizes it’s from the same universe as the Defiant, her response is immediate—she kills her entire court of advisors, with the exception of the one she tasks with disposing of the bodies (in exchange for which, he gets to be governor of Andor). The very existence of the mainline universe is a closely guarded secret (the data Burnham smuggled to Discovery is mostly redacted even after Saru decrypts it), so much so that Georgiou would sooner kill her closest advisors than risk them knowing anything about it. (This, by the way, also tracks with Intendant Kira’s impromptu history lesson in DS9‘s “Crossover,” talking about how the Terran Empire modified all transporters to avoid more travel between universes after “Mirror, Mirror,” an extreme reaction that makes much more sense in light of the presence of the Defiant in Enterprise‘s “In a Mirror, Darkly” and this here story arc.) We also learn that the mentor/student relationship that Georgiou and Burnham had in the mainline universe was even more intense here, as in the MU it was Georgiou, not Sarek, who raised Burnham after her parents were killed. Michelle Yeoh, as ever, just kills it here, as she has Georgiou’s calm leadership leavened with a healthy dose of cruelty—yet the affection she has for Burnham is just as strong, in its own twisted way, as it was in “The Vulcan Hello.”

Star Trek Discovery Vaulting Ambition Emperor Georgiou and Burnham

My favorite part of this episode, though, is the thread with Saru, L’Rell, and Voq/Tyler. This part of the story just solidified my love of Doug Jones and of the Kelpian he plays. Saru pleads with L’Rell for help with this creature who is both Voq and Tyler and yet who is neither one—mostly he’s just a sentient being who is in a billion kinds of pain, screaming in sickbay. Sedation only goes so far. So Saru appeals to L’Rell, who just says that Voq chose this sacrifice, and if he is now suffering, then that is war.

Saru’s response is to beam Voq/Tyler into her cell and show her up close and personal what he’s going through, the human and Klingon each fighting for dominance. “This,” Saru says with that intense calm that Jones does so well, “is war.” L’Rell finally agrees to help him, and it appears that she removes Voq’s psyche, leaving only Tyler—she does the death scream (first introduced way back in TNG‘s “Heart of Glory“), which she wouldn’t do for Tyler. But again, this is something that is not 100% resolved quite yet. What I love is how Saru works here. He comes from the place that Starfleet officers are supposed to come from: compassion. He simply wants to help a fellow being. It doesn’t matter that said fellow being is a sleeper agent from an enemy nation, it doesn’t matter that he killed a member of the medical staff—he’s still a person who is suffering. And he knows that L’Rell has feelings for Voq, even if she hides it behind her protestations of duty and honor, and he counts on that affection ruling the day.

Finally, of course, we have the big revelation, something that many have speculated to be the case since the moment we first met Gabriel Lorca in “Context is for Kings“: the Lorca who has been in command of Discovery is not the one from the mainline universe. I’m guessing that the mainline Lorca died with the Buran, and mirror-Lorca took his place. He’s been working a long game, pushing the use of the mycelial network, cultivating Burnham, so he can get back to his home universe and finish his coup d’état.

I like this revelation. It nicely explains everything that’s been off about Lorca, from his lack of caring about the tardigrade’s welfare in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” to his leaving Mudd behind in “Choose Your Pain” to his unwillingness to rescue Cornwell in “Lethe” to his manipulation of the coordinates in “Into the Forest I Go.”

Of course, fans have been speculating on Lorca being from the MU since “Context is for Kings” aired back in early October. This has resulted in a lot of people complaining about predictability, and I just want to bash my head into the wall. People have become so fond of twists and turns and revelations, that they’re disappointed when things progress as is logical from the plot. I viewed those odd things about Lorca as foreshadowing, which is how they were intended. Would people have preferred the revelation to be completely out of left field, with no hints of it, and instead have Lorca’s impersonation be flawless? That doesn’t work on several levels, not least being Spock’s comment in “Mirror, Mirror” about how hard it is for a barbarian to act like a civilized person. Lorca was managing it, but just barely, and the masquerade wasn’t going to last forever. The only way for the revelation to have meaning is to do the foreshadowing.

Given the heavily serialized nature of the show, I’m thinking that this all would have worked much better—the revelations about Voq and Tyler and Lorca in particular—if the show had been released all at once for binge-watching in smaller doses, instead of stretched out over five months. Part of that is the nature of speculation on the Internet that hyper-examines everything, which would be less of an issue if it all came out at once.

Still, I only have one problem with the revelation about Lorca, and it’s not the revelation’s existence, it’s how Burnham figures it out. Apparently, humans in the MU are more sensitive to light than humans in the mainline universe. Seeing that feature in Georgiou is what clicks everything in Burnham’s head about Lorca. But I find it simply impossible to credit that this major difference between the humans of the two universes was never mentioned in any of the previous MU episodes on three other TV shows. (The MU versions of Kirk, Scotty, Uhura, and McCoy should’ve been squinting as soon as they switched places in “Mirror, Mirror.” Archer and the gang should’ve been blinded by the bright lights on the Defiant in “In a Mirror, Darkly.” Not to mention Bashir and Sisko and Jake in the MU in the DS9 episodes.)

The best news about all this for me? Saru’s now the captain of Discovery. Let’s just hope he doesn’t find out that Kelpians are a delicacy in the MU…

Star Trek Discovery Vaulting Ambition eating Saru

If you like Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s TV and movie reviews here on Tor.com, he also writes weekly TV reviews and monthly movie reviews on his Patreon, which he started in early December. He’s reviewed Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., MacGyver, The Librarians, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, Major Crimes, and Black Lightning, as well as looks back at older shows Feed the Beast and Breakout Kings, with reviews of The Alienist and Proud Mary to come this week. Plus there are bits from his works in progress, cat pictures, and more!

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