Intellectually, I want to hate half this episode because it uses every cliché in the book. Tilly and Adira are sent to run some cadets through a Training Cruise That Goes Horribly Horribly Wrong, complete with The Inevitable Shuttle Crash, and The Disparate Personality Types That Must Put Aside Their Differences To Work Together.
But it works, partly because it’s a good bit of development for Tilly, but mainly because it makes very specific use of the Burn-induced isolation that most of the galaxy was stuck with prior to last season.
Mind you, there are still elements of that storyline that rankle. While Tilly’s growth works nicely, Adira’s is pretty ham-handed. And the death of the lieutenant when the shuttle crashes is barely acknowledged, and in a show that has usually been really good about not falling into the redshirt trap, this episode stumbled right into it, as that death should’ve gotten much more play.
Tilly also is seemingly written out, as she decides to leave Discovery to teach at the Academy. The conversation between her and Burnham in the cabin that they used to share is a beautiful talk between two friends who have been through hell and back—and the reminiscing about Burnham’s early days on Discovery as a disgraced prisoner rooming with the green cadet is lovely—and is particularly enlightening with regard to Tilly’s issues that have been a running theme this season. We finally see that (surprise!) it goes back to her mother, as seen most notably in the very first Short Treks episode, “Runaway.” But her mother is nine hundred years dead, and Tilly needs to move past her influence on her decisions. Tilly also improves tremendously as a leader while under fire, as the disaster forces her not to try so hard to be a good teacher and to just rely on her instincts for interpersonal relations, which has always been her superpower.
I do like the dynamics among the surviving cadets: an Orion, who is not trusted because of that species’ involvement in the Emerald Chain, another alien who was a slave of the Chain, and a human from Titan who’d never met another alien until Discovery reopened the galaxy at the end of last season. Tilly’s attempts to get them to just talk to each other all mostly fail, though their bonding over the difficulties they have after crash-landing help get them to actually speak—first to air grievances (real or imagined), then finding out that the Orion is the child of a dissident who spoke out against the Chain and died for that sedition. It nicely shows the growing pains that this revived Federation will have.
As does the other plot, which is much more compelling. Just as Ni’Var is on the brink of rejoining the Federation, President T’Rina throws a curveball in the form of a last-minute addendum to the agreement: Ni’Var must have an “escape clause” that allows them to leave the Federation for any reason. President Rillak will have none of that, as it sets a precedent that has the potential to completely fracture the Federation at a time when it’s trying to put itself back together. Neither side is willing to negotiate this.
Burnham and Saru are present for the ceremony, last-minute substitutes for Vance, who is said to be ill. Burnham makes a last-ditch effort to convince Ni’Var to not walk away from this new alliance, using logic and everything, which nonetheless fails. Rillak then makes it clear that there’s nothing more she can do, so unless someone comes up with a way to get Ni’Var to compromise, they’re shit out of luck. Rillak does everything but wink at Burnham when she says this.
And so Burnham and Saru go to work, the latter using his friendship with T’Rina and the former presenting a proposal that makes use of her childhood growing up on The Planet Formerly Known As Vulcan: a committee that will keep an eye on things and hear grievances and deal with issues. It puts a process in play for member worlds to work through difficulties. And Burnham herself offers to be part of the committee, thus leveraging her own status on Ni’Var, both as a person who was raised on the world and as the sister of the great unifier Spock.
I like the fact that Rillak—having already bitched to Burnham about her shortcomings in “Kobayashi Maru“—is still perfectly fine with using those shortcomings for her own ends, going so far as to have Vance fake an illness so Burnham and Saru can replace his presence at the ceremony. Neither Rillak nor T’Rina wanted this out clause to be part of the agreement, nor a sticking point to kill negotiations, but both presidents’ hands were tied with regard to negotiating position because of the need to see to their constituencies. Burnham’s direct methods give them what they want while maintaining political cover.
The only part of that storyline I didn’t like was Burnham dictating terms to Rillak afterward, demanding that she be more transparent, which felt like a sop to Sonequa Martin-Green’s place atop the opening credits. But for all that she’s the star of the show, she’s not the leader of the Federation, Rillak is, and Burnham’s merely one cog in the wheel. I wouldn’t normally even complain about it, but one thing that the first three episodes have done such a good job with is showing that, while Burnham is our POV character and the star of the show, she’s still the first violin to Rillak’s conductor (to use Vance’s analogy from last week). Burnham demanding more transparency from Rillak—and, more to the point, Rillak’s nod of agreement—doesn’t ring particularly right.
Still, it’s a minor point, and overall that plotline resonates very nicely and brings Ni’Var back into the Federation, which can only be a good thing. Relations between Vulcans and humans have been a bedrock of Star Trek going back to the Kirk-Spock friendship on the original series, and continued through the Janeway-Tuvok friendship on Voyager and the post-first-contact years chronicled on all four seasons of Enterprise, not to mention Burnham’s entire backstory. It’s nice to see progress on that front, and also to note that—as established in last season’s “Unification III“—the unity between Vulcans and Romulans is still fraught and a tough road for T’Rina to navigate.
Culber’s new role as ship’s counselor continues, as we see him having actual therapy sessions with Tilly and especially Book. I like that Book’s mind-meld with T’Rina last week was only the start of solving his problems—grief is a process, after all—and I like that Culber’s own PTSD from coming back from the dead hasn’t been forgotten. Wilson Cruz is absolutely shining in the added role of therapist, and it’s a joy to see.
I hope that Mary Wiseman’s absence while Tilly is teaching at the Academy is a short one, or that they find reasons to bring her back—goodness knows there’s enough going on at Federation Headquarters to justify looking in on her, plus watching her as a teacher could be great fun. And while Adira’s growing ability to work with others is heartening to see, it’s looking like it’s a prelude to eventually losing Gray—after all, Gray has stated that his desire is to become a guardian back on Trill, and that means he won’t be staying on Discovery forever, thus leaving Adira alone again. One suspects that’s an issue that Culber is going to have to help them deal with also…
The anomaly takes a back seat again this week, which is fine, as dealing with Big! Major! Disasters! every week gets exhausting, and the anomaly is more effective as a threat than a menace. However, Ni’Var rejoining the Federation will ease Stamets using their scientists to study the anomaly and figure it out.
Everything comes together very nicely in this episode, but I’m especially impressed with the performances. Martin-Green and Doug Jones are particularly fantastic. In the alternate reality where the new show was about Captain Georgiou on the Shenzhou with Burnham and Saru as her first and second officers, there was a real chance for a great working dynamic between the emotionally logical Burnham and the endlessly curious and methodical Saru. (That is to say, the show that the first two episodes promised us, before switching it up to a completely different show in the third episode…) We’re finally getting that here with the two of them, and they work really well together, playing to both characters’ strengths.
Indeed, all the performances here are excellent. The cadet guest stars all do quite well with their minimal screen time, able to make their characters into people rather than types. Blu del Barrio does a great job with Adira’s nervousness, as does Wiseman with Tilly’s growth. Both Tara Rosling and Chelah Horsdal do superlative work as two politicians who are threading some very difficult needles, and Cruz and David Ajala play off each other magnificently. Ajala in particular is doing great work as a grieving Book.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is also reviving “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” for year’s end, looking back at Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Eternals. Look for it on Wednesdays here on Tor.com.