Moving Forward — Star Trek Discovery’s “The War Without, the War Within”

One of the constant complaints about Discovery that I have seen online is that it isn’t “real” Star Trek. We’ve been down this road before, of course. In 1979, people wrote letters to magazines about how they had “Star Wars“-ified Star Trek and how this couldn’t be the same universe as the beloved TV show. Gene Roddenberry spent much of 1982 telling fans to boycott The Wrath of Khan because it wasn’t “real” Star Trek and it violated his vision. Fans howled in 1987 at the notion of a Star Trek TV show that didn’t have Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and how it would never work and it wasn’t “real” Star Trek, and then again in 1993 at the notion of a Star Trek TV show that wasn’t on a starship. And many of the complaints levied against Discovery now were also levied against Enterprise seventeen-and-a-half years ago.

To all those people, I say this: watch “The War Without, the War Within,” and if you don’t think this is real Star Trek, then your definition of real Star Trek is radically different from mine. (Please note that this is independent of whether or not you think the episode is any good.) Because everything that makes Trek special is on display here: hope, forgiveness, acceptance, finding a solution to a problem rather than giving up, love, compassion.

I had only two real disappointments with the episode. One was that the I.S.S. Discovery was apparently destroyed by Klingons very soon after arriving in the mainline universe. Rest in peace, Captain Killy.

We find that out from Cornwell and Sarek, who board the ship in a hostile manner. The former asks the latter to engage in a forced mind-meld with Saru to find out where this doppelgänger came from—and it turns out that they’re the real one. While I appreciate the use of a mind-meld to move the story along, this is a pretty appalling violation. I mean, yeah, there’s a war on, and yeah, they think this is some kind of weird imposter or something, but still. (Then again, like father, like son…)

Cornwell immediately classifies the concept of the Mirror Universe, which explains both why Kirk and Co. knew nothing about it in “Mirror, Mirror,” but also why the notion of parallel universes wasn’t completely unfamiliar to them in the episode, either. (The computer knew all about the notion and they were talking about field densities between universes in the TOS episode, so the general concept was obviously known, just not the specifics of the MU.)

The Discovery has several issues to deal with. Tyler is recovering from his experiences, trying to figure out who he is—he has Voq’s memories, but no longer his personality, and he’s having a major identity crisis. Emperor Georgiou is confined to guest quarters and nobody’s quite sure what to do with her. The Klingons are winning the war—but they’re not a unified front. All the major Houses are running their own offensives, so the Federation isn’t so much losing one war as it’s losing twenty-four simultaneous wars. Cornwell shares this with L’Rell in a wonderful conversation between two enemies who actually have respect for each other after what they went through as Kol’s prisoners. L’Rell parrots a line Worf had in “The Way of the Warrior,” that in war, victory is always honorable, and also answers Cornwell’s plaintive query as to how the war ends with a very blunt, “It doesn’t.”

Saru’s line from last week about this isn’t Lorca’s ship, it’s theirs is perfectly exemplified by the mess hall scene. First off, prior to that, Saru tells Tyler that he won’t put him in the brig. He isn’t an officer anymore, and his movements are now restricted, but Voq is responsible for the horrible things he did, and Saru won’t imprison Tyler for Voq’s crimes. And then Tyler goes to the mess hall. On Lorca’s ship, Burnham was a pariah, treated with utter disdain; on Saru’s ship, Tilly gets up and sits with Tyler. When Tyler tries to give her an out, saying she doesn’t have to do that, a) Tilly doesn’t move and instead says encouraging things (without belittling what he’s been through), and b) Detmer and several other crew members follow Tilly to the table to join him for lunch. It was an absolutely beautiful moment, putting a stake through the heart of a ship run by a guy who leaves people behind, enslaves sentient beings, and was just generally a shit, and instead making it recognizably a Starfleet ship again.

Star Trek Discovery The War Without the War Within mess hall

James Frain hasn’t always been a perfect Sarek, but holy cow, was he channeling Mark Lenard in this episode, most especially in his my-kid’s-better-than-your-kid scene with Georgiou. The conversation between the two of them is one of several beautifully written two-person dialogues in this episode, starting with Saru and Tyler, continuing to Tyler and Stamets (the former apologizing to the latter for killing his boyfriend, and the latter showing an interesting mix of the old snotty Stamets and the hippy-dippy Stamets, all without actually accepting the apology), Saru and Burnham, Tilly and Burnham, Burnham and Tyler (and brava to Burnham for not giving in to Tyler’s attempt to guilt her into helping him, as if his trauma was somehow more important than hers), and, as stated above, Cornwell and L’Rell.

Star Trek Discovery The War Without the War Within Tyler and Burnham gaslighting

Meanwhile, we have our movement toward the endgame of the war with the Klingons. Stamets figures out a way to grow new spores super-duper-fast (with a nice callback to Straal, Stamets’s counterpart on the Glenn from “Context is for Kings“), and Georgiou provides intelligence to Burnham about Qo’noS that the Federation doesn’t have. (Georgiou conquered the Klingon Empire; nobody from the Federation has set foot on the Klingon homeworld since Archer, another nice callback to “Broken Bow” and “Judgment.”) The plan is to use the spore drive to appear in one of the large caverns beneath the surface of Qo’noS, then map it so that Starfleet can engage in a surgical strike on the planet.

At the end we have a third disappointment—Sarek and Cornwell have made a deal with Georgiou for further intel on Qo’noS, in exchange for which Cornwell will allow Georgiou to pose as her mainline counterpart, miraculously rescued from the sarcophagus ship. My disappointment is not so much with the action—which is questionable to say the least, but justifiable from Cornwell’s perspective—but the fact that Saru and Burnham were surprised by it when Cornwell brought Georgiou onto the bridge. It makes no sense, none, that Saru and Burnham would not have been briefed on this ahead of time, if for no other reason than to minimize the risk of either of them blowing Georgiou’s cover.

Star Trek Discovery The War Without the War Within Georgiou assumes command

This is an excellent episode on its own, one that moves several of the characters forward—Tyler’s identity crisis, the war effort, Georgiou’s attempt to assimilate into the new universe, and Burnham’s multifaceted problems—and sets everything up nicely for the finale next week. In particular all of Burnham’s issues are brought to light here. She’s completely forthright with Saru as to why she rescued Georgiou, and it’s to Saru’s credit that he doesn’t really give her a pass for it, but doesn’t really ding her for it, either. Tilly spells out to Burnham the lesson of the MU in facing your own darkness. Then Burnham manages to help Tyler by giving him brutally honest advice on how to get through trauma—in particular that it’s solitary—without forcing herself to still be in any way involved with the person who tried to strangle her a couple episodes ago. Even with all that, though, she’s still doing what Lorca challenged her to do when she first came on board in “Context is for Kings,” for all that Lorca had a completely different agenda: stopping the war. So she mines Georgiou for information, trying to find a way to end the war.

This is definitely real Star Trek. You may not like it—and it’s not perfect, by any means, and I’m not blind to its many flaws—and you may not enjoy it, but it’s definitely Star Trek. And from the looks of the trailer to next week, those ideals will continue to be challenged, but our main character will be the one who stands by them, and you just know that Saru and Tilly, at the very least, will be right behind her.

Really looking forward to it.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be an author and musical guest at Farpoint 25 in Cockeysville, Maryland this weekend, alongside Star Trek actors Nana Visitor and Matt Frewer, and fellow authors Timothy Zahn, Peter David, Robert Greenberger, David Mack, Marc Okrand, Aaron Rosenberg, Howard Weinstein, and tons and tons more. Check out his schedule here.

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