Death, Here is Thy Sting — Star Trek: Discovery’s “The Red Angel”

Death is all over tonight’s incredibly intense episode of Discovery, from the very first scene to the very last.

It starts with something I would not have credited them doing with the death of so minor a character as Airiam: a funeral. Usually such pomp and circumstance is reserved for people in the opening credits, and the fact that they went to this trouble for a minor character was a welcome change from the norm, where the characters’ reactions to other characters’ deaths depends entirely upon their actors’ billing. It shows that the writers remember that, even though the viewers barely knew Airiam, the crew of Discovery knew her damn well.

I also love that they used Spock’s funeral at the end of The Wrath of Khan as a template for Airiam’s service here. But instead of just one eulogy, we get several—from Pike, from Tilly, from Stamets, from Detmer (my favorite of them, as Detmer explains how Airiam helped the pilot deal with her own cybernetic implants—”It made both of us new, and that there could be a future”), and finally from Burnham. We even have a musical coda, à la Scotty playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes—in this case, Saru singing a lovely Kelpien death dirge as they send out Airiam’s coffin through the torpedo tube.

The theme of death continues in a conversation between Leland and Burnham. Back in “Light and Shadows,” we found out that one bit of leverage Georgiou has on Leland is that Leland was responsible for the death of Burnham’s parents. Leland, rather sensibly, removes that leverage by telling Burnham the truth: her parents worked for Section 31. They were assigned to Doctari Alpha by 31, for a project supervised by Leland. The Klingons killed them because of that project, which was to create a suit that could travel in time, a response to the Klingons experimentation with time travel. (This dovetails rather nicely with Admiral Janeway acquiring time-travel tech from a Klingon more than a century hence in Voyager’s “Endgame.”) And 31’s suit is actually what the Red Angel is wearing.

More to the point, though, is that the information they downloaded from Airiam includes biological data indicating that the Red Angel is Burnham.

I love that they dropped this on us right at the beginning of the episode, seeing as how the most popular fan theory has been that Burnham is the Red Angel. So they don’t waste any more time in the episode titled after that particular persona to give credence to that very theory.

Screenshot: CBS

And then they totally screw with us, because in the end, it isn’t Burnham. Which is fine, as it being Burnham never made sense anyhow, especially given that the Red Angel saved Burnham’s life, which shouldn’t have been possible for her to do. While it’s true that the Red Angel’s MO fits Burnham’s particular neuroses—something Spock points out in a meeting, to Burnham’s chagrin—it also doesn’t quite track that it would be Burnham doing this.

No, the Red Angel is Burnham’s Mom. (And she’s played by Sonja Sohn! Who is magnificent and wonderful and great, and now we need more actors from The Wire on Star Trek please, beyond Sohn and Idris Elba. Maybe Lance Reddick as a starship captain? Michael K. Williams as a Klingon? Wood Harris as Burnham’s Dad?)

This is just brilliant, as it keeps the Burnham connection, but makes it much more complicated. And it makes much more sense. The common thread among most of the Angel’s appearances is saving Burnham’s life. Spock and Burnham come up with a rather ingenious yet totally insane plan to bait the Angel: put Burnham’s life in danger. Since they believe that the Red Angel is Burnham, she will, of course, not permit herself to die. Meanwhile, Stamets, Tilly, Leland, and Saru all work on ways to capture the Angel when she shows up to save Burnham. (Nobody brings up the rather salient point that letting Burnham in on the plan means she’ll know about it in the future and be able to plan against it, though that winds up being a moot point with the Mom reveal. Still, it’s a hole.)

Death permeates the episode elsewhere, as Burnham and Nhan discuss what happened on the 31 base last week. Burnham is prickly at first in Nhan’s presence, since the security chief is the one who actually killed Airiam (under Pike’s orders). But both officers come to a rapprochement—Nhan is grateful that Burnham was there to try to find a better way than killing their comrade, and Burnham is grateful that Nhan could follow the order when Burnham really really couldn’t.

Plus, we have the ongoing thread of Culber trying to figure out how to live his life after dying and coming back. He goes to Admiral Cornwell, who apparently has a past as a therapist. (As a fan of Sports Night, this amuses the crap out of me, as Jayne Brook rather brilliantly played a therapist in the second season of that show.)

The Culber-Cornwell talk is one of several superlative conversations in this episode. We’ve got Georgiou messing with Stamets, Culber, and Tilly’s heads, since they all know who she really is, and so she can tweak them on the subject of their counterparts in the Mirror Universe. (And much as I loved Stamets declaring his homosexuality with the same fervor that pretty much every other Star Trek character ever has declared his or her heterosexuality, I also loved Georgiou dismissively telling them not to be so binary.) We’ve got Saru telling Leland that he needs to see for himself that the 31 captain can be trusted. (That scene is the first time Saru has been out-and-out intimidating, without losing the character’s general serene calm, and it’s yet another bravura performance by the great Doug Jones.)

And then we have one of the absolute high points of the episode, the Spock-Burnham conversation in the gym. (I had thought the funeral would be the high point, and then we got this conversation, which supplanted it. It would later in turn be supplanted by the Red Angel reveal at the end.) Ethan Peck is almost frightening in how well he channels Leonard Nimoy in this scene. He’s aided and abetted by a script that is full of pretty much letter-perfect Spock dialogue. Much credit to writers Chris Silvestri (a writers assistant) and Anthony Maranville (the show’s researcher), who just nail it, especially in this scene. Peck, Silvestri, and Maranville absolutely capture Spock’s low-key snideness and his formal affect and his roundabout manner of showing affection through overly complex, mannered speech. It starts perfectly, with Burnham pounding a dummy in frustration shortly after having punched Leland twice in the nose following his revelation about her parents. Spock says, “I’m sure Captain Leland appreciates your choice of high-density urethane foam in lieu of his nasal cartilage.” From that moment, I was sold, and the rest of the scene did not let me down.

Screenshot: CBS

As good as Peck is, though, it’s Sonequa Martin-Green who makes this episode, as she has to go through a lot, starting with her eulogy of Airiam, continuing to her initially awkward conversation with Nhan, to finding out that she’s somehow the Red Angel (or so everyone thinks), to stumbling toward rekindling her relationship with Tyler (one good thing that did come from Airiam’s death is that Tyler has been freed from house arrest, as it was Airiam who sent the unauthorized signals), to finding out the truth about her parents, to volunteering to be temporarily killed.

Throughout it all, Martin-Green nails every emotional beat, from sadness at the funeral to shock at the revelation that she’s the Red Angel to anger at Leland’s revelation to being calmed by Spock—who knows just what buttons to push to make her feel better—to determination to go through with their crazy-ass plan. And then we have the gut-twisting anguish of her screams of agony as the crew exposes her to a violent atmosphere to endanger her life and lure the Red Angel.

Then, finally, the big moment, when she sounds for all the world like a five-year-old girl when she recognizes the Red Angel, and speaks the last line of the episode: “Mom?”

Oh yes, and we have one more bit of death. While 31’s base was destroyed and all the computers scrubbed, the Evil Future A.I. Of Doom is still out there somewhere, and it appears to kill Leland. Right when I was starting to almost respect the bastard, too. That particular twist will have its consequences next week, presumably. For now, it looks like next week is the Red Angel vs. the A.I. with Starfleet stuck in the middle. Plus, of course, a rather crazed family reunion. I must admit to being incredibly eager to meet Burnham’s Mom—admittedly, mostly because Sohn is playing her, but also in general. In a season full of emotional gut-punches, this may be the biggest one for Burnham.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Planet Comic-Con next weekend in Kansas City. Find him mostly at Bard’s Tower, Booth 803, alongside a bunch of other authors, among them Mercedes Lackey, Larry Dixon, Dan Wells, Mario Acevedo, and Brian Lee Durfee. Other guests of the con include Trek actors William Shatner, Jennifer Morrison, Lori Petty, Chris Sarandon, and Wallace Shawn, as well fellow Trek word-slingers Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, Chris Claremont, and Thom Zahler.

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