“You had me at ‘unsanctioned mission'” — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Scavengers”

One of the issues with the setup of Discovery in its third season, which I haven’t really addressed in any of my reviews to date, is what, exactly, Philippa Georgiou, deposed emperor of the Terran Empire and erstwhile Section 31 operative, is doing on the ship. Or, more to the point, why Saru is letting her wander around the bridge and make snarky comments and such.

That issue is brought into sharp relief here, though it does provide “Scavengers” with a lot of what’s cool about it.

This episode has a plotline we’ve seen several times before in Trek, to wit, one or more of our heroes disobey orders in order to engage in a mission that matters to them personally. It was at least part of the plot of “Amok Time,” The Search for Spock, “Reunion,” “The Die is Cast,” “Blood Oath,” “Maneuvers,” and several others.

I will give credit to Discovery for one variation on this theme that is welcome: having gone off on an unauthorized mission to rescue Book from being slave labor in a junkyard, Burnham is demoted. No longer first officer on Discovery, she’s now the science officer, removed from the chain of command. And even there, it’s a light sentence, which Admiral Vance explicitly states is only because she saved lives.

The mission itself is pretty standard caper stuff. Burnham brings Georgiou along because she’s evil, and having someone evil along is useful when you’re performing a prison break. Their mission is to a junkyard planet owned by an Orion woman named Osira and run by her snotty nephew, whom Georgiou wastes no time intimidating.

The junkyard itself is fun, and I must confess to nerding out over the Easter eggs—commerce takes place in the Bajoran Exchange, and Burnham while pretending to be a salvager asks to look at the self-sealing stembolts (one of the sillier running gags on DS9). Georgiou and Burnham’s mission is to free Osira’s slave labor force, which includes Book. They even save the Andorian who has tried to rally the troops and got his antennae sliced off for his trouble—which, by the way, is another inversion of the cliché. The Andorian threw himself in the path of a shot meant for Book, and The Television Cliché Handbook states that the character then dies, but no, they actually get him back to Starfleet HQ and he’s saved by Discovery’s doctors.

That saving of a life (not to mention freeing all of Osira’s slave labor) is, unfortunately, not enough to make up for the fact that Burnham and Georgiou rather calmly blast the bad guys to smithereens. Yes, these are criminals and slavers, but that doesn’t mean they should just be blown up. Hell, given Osira’s business practices, it’s as likely as not that they weren’t working for Osira willingly, or were just hired muscle. Mind you, it makes sense that Georgiou wouldn’t care about killing them, but I have serious concerns with the fact that Burnham stood next to her and helped.

Star Trek: Discovery "Scavengers"

Screenshot: CBS

Burnham’s year in the 32nd century seems to have had an effect. At least, I hope that’s where they’re going with this, rather than just having our heroes casually killing people ’cause the FX are cool…

And certainly her time in the future is a factor in her behavior. She’s been either on her own or with Book the entire time in a place without much of Starfleet beyond a lonely guy in a space station, but with lots of places like this junkyard. It’s a brutal world that Discovery has found themselves in, and Burnham’s been in the middle of it for a year. It’s no surprise that she’s having trouble readjusting to being a Starfleet officer, and we’d already seen how much trouble she was having reintegrating into the team in “People of Earth.” What she does here, though, is several orders of magnitude worse, because she undermines all of Discovery—as Georgiou herself tells Burnham from the start, and as Saru and Tilly so eloquently discuss later on. Saru’s effectiveness as captain, the crew’s trustworthiness, they’re cast into doubt by Burnham haring off on a crazy-ass mission while the ship is supposed to be on standby for an emergency run.

Discovery’s role in the remnants of Starfleet is a good one. Something Saru learns to his horror in his first briefing with the other captains is that Starfleet is holding things together with both hands, and they’re having a hard time of it. Vance commented last time that they don’t do five-year missions anymore, and that’s mainly because set missions are a luxury they can’t afford—everything they’re doing is an emergency of some sort. Because they have the spore drive (which Vance is keeping classified), Discovery itself is being held in reserve for emergencies among the emergencies when they need someone to be somewhere immediately.

I do like the fact that Discovery has been given a thorough refit to bring it more in line with 32nd-century technology, and watching the bridge crew nerd out over the cool new tech is an absolute delight. (One of my favorite things about this show all along has been that the ship is populated by science nerds, which is one reason why Spock fit in so well last season.) And yes, it’s an old, tired joke, but I must confess to giggling every time Linus used his personal transporter and wound up in the wrong spot, especially the last one: when he interrupted Book and Burnham smooching in the turbolift. I’m actually a little disappointed in the smooching, as I liked the idea of the two of them just being friends and occasional adventure partners without the romantic element, as it just strikes me as lazy. Though I did love how Georgiou was teasing Burnham about it all along.

Star Trek: Discovery "Scavengers"

Screenshot: CBS

Speaking of Georgiou, her presence on Discovery is now, as I said at the start, extremely problematic. I actually had no issue with her being on board, and even being allowed to roam freely, when they first arrived in the future. There’s no use in antagonizing her, as it will just pit her against everyone on board, and she’s not someone you want on the opposite side of a fight. By giving her a certain amount of free rein, Saru is able to make use of her (e.g., to get rescued from being held at gunpoint) without pissing her off and setting her against him.

But it’s not clear why Vance is seemingly okay with the deposed fascist running around freely on a Starfleet ship. Saru not throwing her in the brig when they were timelost and alone made sense—a brig is a holding cell for when you bring someone to a proper authority, and they had no proper authority. Now that they’ve found Starfleet HQ, though, why is she still there?

The answer, I suspect, has something to do with David Cronenberg’s interrogator from last week, especially since we now know why Georgiou has been going into fugue states—she’s reliving bloody moments from her Terran Empire reign.

Another unanswered question: how did the Burn happen? Burnham has found a couple of black boxes of ships that went boom when the dilithium exploded, and she assumed that the timestamps of the destruction would be the same. But they’re not, which means it was something that radiated outward from a point of origin. So now we have a quest to find more black boxes so they can start triangulating to go with the rest of the stuff going on…

Star Trek: Discovery "Scavengers"

Screenshot: CBS

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best parts of this episode, which were back on Discovery. The first is Grudge. It’s awesome enough that the plot kicks off with Discovery being hailed by a cat. Book sent his ship on autopilot to find Burnham, with Grudge on board. Burnham then leaves Grudge on Discovery, where Tilly finds her, which leads to a hilarious scene of Grudge walking all over poor not-a-cat-person Tilly.

Then there’s Adira. She’s still seeing, and interacting with an image of Gray. Stamets sees her in the mess hall talking seemingly to herself, and the two of them bond over their semi-shared experiences. After all, Stamets also lost the love of his life and then unexpectedly got him back. The bonding between him and Adira is lovely, and Stamets’s determination to be a friend to Adira without judging her weird-ass behavior is so very Star Trek, and I love it.

Oh, and Adira also got rid of Stamets’s arm ports to operate the spore drive and made the interface for the drive much easier and less invasive. So yay that.

And hey, look, Vance is officially a recurring character now! Yay more Oded Fehr! Now he just needs a personality beyond “authority figure.” Though I did like the firm-but-fair way he dressed Burnham down. (“Commander Burnham, why don’t you tell me what I’m about to say?”)

I like the fact that each episode this season has stood on its own while moving the overall story forward in bits and pieces. Just in general, this season feels less chaotic than the first two, a reflection of the equivalent lack of chaos behind the scenes. May it continue…

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be one of the author guests at the virtual Philcon this weekend. He’ll be doing a reading, a panel, and a tribute to a friend. Read the full schedule on his blog.

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