Sunday 15 November 2020

TREK REVIEW: DIS 3-5 - "Die Trying"


It's surprising that Discovery's latest season has pushed ahead so quickly. I had fully expected a year of tracking down Starfleet and the Federation, yet here we are, at episode five and already we've met the Commander-in-Chief. You've got to wonder exactly what Saru and Burnham thought they were going to find when they got to Starfleet Command. Given free reign to fly around the galaxy on whatever mission they see fit, they seek out a command structure and then act all surprised when they're given orders. They even object to the Discovery being retrofit, which isn't a bad idea seeing that their technology is 900 years out of date.

The episode gets off to a gorgeous start as Discovery enters a sort of warp bubble in space, inside which is the new Starfleet Command and a gigantic shipyard. It's five minutes of pure fan-pleasing geekery, with the bridge crew geeking out just as much as the viewers. After four episodes on the fringes of society and on self-isolated planets (albeit with bits of hyper-advanced tech), it's pleasing to see the series embrace the futuristic in a big way. The new shipyard is an immense playground of starships both recognisably Starfleet and truly out there, up to and including a self-enclosed rainforest. There are plenty of references for fans, too, (more on them below).

Of course, we can't hang around looking at pretty ships forever, so on with the plot. Starfleet Command is just as futuristic as the outside would suggest, with artificial intelligences everywhere (including an umpteenth generation EMH) working alongside the organic officers. There's a fine line between making it impressively futuristic and recognisably Starfleet, and they get it pretty spot on here. Allegedly the civilian government of the Federation is here too, but we don't see any evidence of that. Starfleet and the Federation have often been presented as interchangeable and it's always uncomfortable when they are. More than ever it looks like the UFP is under military aegis here (seemingly backed up by a line from Saru), but that makes sense in an era where everything has been knocked back by a massive catastrophe.

Oded Fehr - so often a shifty villain - is very good as the C-in-C, Admiral Vance. Thankfully, the writers have avoided the cliched "badmiral" route and given us a commanding officer who isn't cuddly and trusting but isn't a villain either. Vance, although a bit of a dick when he's dealing with the Disconauts, is right not to trust them from the off, having only their word for their identity and origins. Amusingly, the super-secrecy around Discovery and the spore drive comes back to bite them, since there are no records whatsoever of their mission to the future and the ship is listed as destroyed. (Not that we should necessarily expect any records on them to have survived from over nine centuries earlier, however good the tech is.) 

The resulting debrief is one of the most entertaining parts of the episode, with each crewmember giving a rundown of their highly improbable adventures (Hugh's recount of his murder and Reno's whole so-what? approach being highlights). Surprisingly, though, it's Georgiou who turns out to have the most interesting part of this story. After owning the various holograms with some ingenious low-tech hacking, she finds herself face-to-face with a mysterious individual in big glasses who's played by none other than David ruddy Cronenberg. It's a wonderful sequence, with Cronenberg's character voicing the legitimate question of what the hell Georgiou is even doing here in the future on Discovery. We get no answers, beyond the already obvious "because of Michael," but it's worth it just to see the Emperor rattled. Cronenberg (I don't care what his character's name is, I'm inevitably going to call him Cronenberg anyway) reveals to her that the Empire fell (which, as DS9 viewers, we already knew) and that the two universes have drifted so far apart that no contact has been made between the two in five hundred years. It's hard to tell, but there's a hint that he's speaking from personal knowledge rather than reeling off historical data. It's very intriguing. It ends with Georgiou completely unsettled, possibly even controlled, although it's impossible to say for sure what's going on with her yet. (She's not wearing the big glasses, which poo-poo'd our theory that they were the controlling intelligence.)

Alongside all this is Burnham's mission to prove that a) Discovery and the Disconauts still have a place in Starfleet in 3189 and b) she's actually capable of showing respect to her seniors occasionally. Permitted to take Dsicovery on a voyage to find a cure to a prion plague that's killing a bunch of Kili refugees (a pleasantly retro grey-type alien), she's joined by Lt. Nhan and Dr. Culber on a mission to the USS Tikhov (now known forever as the USS Teacup because we weren't listening properly to begin with), an ancient seed bank now run by members of Nhan's own race, the Barzans. 32nd century officer Lt. Willa (Audrey Jackson) is along to keep an eye on things, coming round quickly to the Disco way of doing things and blatantly being set up as a new recurring character.

But there are a lot of characters now, and it's getting very heavy, so to make room, someone has to go... and they write out Nhan. Gorgeous, bad-ass, mysterious Nhan, after three episodes as a main character, gets dumped before we really get a chance to know her. Thankfully, this episode goes a long way to fleshing out her character, allowing Rachael Ancheril the chance to show off her acting chops a bit before she stays behind to look after the seed bank, but still, it seems a waste. She keeps mentioning Airiam, and that just drives home that the writers are doing the same thing: giving us a strong episode for a character we've been waiting to see more of before writing them out. At least Nhan can (and probably will) show up again.

Naturally, the Disconauts show this futuristic fleet the Starfleet way of doing things, with compassion, risk-taking and teamwork. It's cheesy but it works, and Discovery is assured of its place in the 32nd century (a quick retrofit might help though, guys - remember how your shields were knocked out in one shot a couple of episodes ago?) Saru gets a nice speech about the Renaissance (the artist he talks about, Giotto di Bondone, died in 1337, which amusingly makes him ten years closer to Discovery's own time than their new home). Plus, he knocks Burnham down for shooting her mouth off every chance she gets and seriously jeopardising their relationship with Starfleet, which is harsh but very, very fair. 

It's a good, solid episode, leaving us with two mysteries: the cause of the Burn, and the nature of this piece of music which has Burnham so bothered as it follows her around. It's quite Doctor Who-y. Hopefully they don't drag the mystery out too long...

Starship porn:

The shipyard includes starships with organic hulls and entirely projected holo-ships (please call one the Enlightenment - one of you guys must be a Red Dwarf fan). Among the ships we see are a new USS Constitution and the USS Voyager NCC-74656-J, which looks like an updated Intrepid-class design. Tilly says that makes it tenth generation, but is corrected to say it's eleventh, presumably having forgotten the original letter-less one, but I dispute that - most registration systems wouldn't include the letter I because it's easily mistaken for the number 1.

The best of all is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it USS Nog, a huge ship named for the first Ferengi in Starfleet, confirmed behind-the-scenes as an Eisenberg-class vessel, in honour of the late Aron Eisenberg. I could cry.

A tenner says we'll see a new USS Enterprise by the end of the season.

Future history: 

Vance points out that since the Federation spent the 30th century fighting to uphold the Temporal Accords, and that time travel is now outlawed, the Discovery crew's presence is a crime. Which just shows how futile and illogical it would be to outlaw time travel once it's been developed, since people will inevitably arrive from before it was banned.

Barzan joined the Federation in the 25th century; Kaminar at a point unknown. We don't know if they're still members in 3189. At its height, the UFP had 350 member worlds (up from around 150 in 2373, and speaking of full members, not the undoubtedly thousands of colonies). It's now down to thirty-eight.

The Burn is confirmed as having occurred 120 years previously, so c. 3069.

The Andorian-Orion alliance is called the Emrald Chain and is a major threat to the Federation. It's just annexed Sigma Draconis (home to three inhabited planets in the Trekverse and uncomfortably close to Earth at a mere nineteen light years away).

Crew roster:

Detmer's debrief shows she's in no shape to be on active duty yet she's still sent to pilot Discovery to the Tikhov and then straight out again on the new mission. Give the poor woman a week off.

Tal gets taken to Command with Saru and Burnham... and then completely disappears for the remainder of the episode.

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