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Monday, 5 February 2018

Star Trek: Discovery 1-13: What's Past is Prologue (Quick Review)

Episode:13|Writer:Ted Sullivan|Air Date:28-Jan-2018

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm watching Discovery season one's antepenultimate episode What's Past is Prologue. Wait, hang on, Trek already had a story called Past Prologue! It was the second episode of Deep Space Nine. Though now that I think about it the first episode of DS9 stole its name from a Next Gen story called The Emissary, so it's only fair.

The title comes from The Tempest, which means this is the second Discovery episode in a row to take its name from a line in a Shakespeare play. The phrase 'vaulting ambition' appears in Macbeth, and is spoken by a character trying to talk himself out of committing regicide, while in The Tempest 'what's past is prologue' is said by a character talking someone else into it. So I'm spotting a bit of a theme there. I don't know if that was deliberate though, as this one's by a different writer.

With this Ted Sullivan becomes part of the elite group of writers who've written more than one episode, and Olatunde Osunsanmi becomes the only director so far to return. So if you were ever curious about what would happen if the writer of the episode with the shortest title (Lethe) teamed up with the director of the episode with the longest title (The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry), now you know: they made an episode with the most average length title. Organise the episodes by the length of their name and you'll find this in the exact centre of the list; it's spooky is what it is. I thought both of their previous stories were decent enough though, so no warning signs there. In fact, I've actually been pretty hyped for this one, mostly because the title maybe possibly hints that we're getting some backstory and explanations at last.

This is going to be one of my relatively quick reviews, meaning I won't be going through the episode scene by scene, but you'll still find massive SPOILERS for this story and the ones that preceded it below. In fact, I'll throw in some spoilers for other Trek series like Deep Space Nine for you as well, plus Return of the Jedi and Alice in Wonderland.

Man, Saru didn't waste any time getting the ship redecorated after taking over. Right after his speech was done the crew were back in their uniforms, Tilly had lost the wig, the logo was off the bridge floor and if you look close you can see that he even sent people out to change the 'I' back to a 'U'. I guess it kept the crew busy and helped take their mind off their impending suicide run, but I wouldn't want to be the guy out there in a work bee, repainting the hull at warp speed.

We had to wait until the third episode of the season before we were finally introduced to the eponymous USS Discovery and its sinister commander Captain Lorca, and now in the third episode from the end we've gotten the ship's 'maiden voyage' under Captan Saru and we're saying goodbye to Emperor Lorca. In hindsight, I should've probably expected to see symmetry in our glimpse into the Mirror Universe.

Well, it's been more than a glimpse really, as the series has spent four and a bit episodes trapped in the bastard dimension, beating DS9's four trips through the looking glass. It seems like a pretty long detour from the Klingon War plot, but the more I think about it, the more this seems like the resolution to an eleven episode Lorca arc. We haven't seen a whole lot of the Klingon War so far even in the Prime Universe episodes, but after this the focus should swing right back to the characters and events set up in the pilot. We even got Georgiou back, kind of!

This Georgiou is basically a Space Hitler who annihilates planets, murders her own lieutenants and eats people, but the episode's sympathies definitely lie more with her than with her rival Lorca, mostly because she's the one that Burnham instinctively sides with. That screencap up there shows the fantastic looking scene where the two characters sit across a table with their weapons down and the dog tag from their mirror counterparts in their hands. They know they're not sitting opposite the people they lost, but the emotional bond's still there.

One big difference with this Georgiou is that she seems to be much better in a fight. Sure she didn't beat Lorca army in the hallway battle, but it wasn't because she held back with her toys. We finally got to see phaser turrets, forcefields and the transporter used together in a Star Trek firefight, it's amazing! I also loved seeing Saru bring a starship to a fist fight later, though I admit I missed Burnham giving him the 'this is my place' signal on my first viewing so I didn't initially get how she knew he was going to start shooting. Incidentally, Burnham pulling the exact same trick on Lorca that she inadvertently did on Georgiou, bringing their enemy into their lair as a prisoner so that they can kick everyone's ass and take over, was a real smart-ass move. Poetic, even.

The big throne room fight at the end was as over the top as throne room fights generally are, but it had some cool moments to set it apart, like Georgiou kicking a knife away and phasering someone through the head, and Lorca cutting Landry to presumably protect Burnham. The choreography didn't exactly rival series like Daredevil, Arrow or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the top of their game, but it wasn't an anticlimax like the last time Georgiou and Burnham stormed the bridge of a super ship like this. Now that I think about it, this is the third time Burnham's had to do this now this season, so it's no wonder she's gotten good at it now. She even manages to save Georgiou and stop herself from executing the enemy leader this time around! Poor Saru's not so lucky though, as despite telling Burnham "I intend to do a better job protecting my captain than you did yours," back in Context is for Kings, he ultimately lost Lorca the exact same way as they lost Captain Georgiou: he got stabbed through the heart on the bridge of a giant 'ship of the dead'. I'm sure Saru will get over it though.

Was it a smart move for Burnham to rescue Mirror Georgiou from certain death afterwards? Well I didn't see it coming at the time, but she's a (former) Starfleet officer and a good person who's been suffering immense guilt for letting Captain Georgiou die and then killing T'Kuvma in revenge, so in retrospect, there was no way she was going to pass up a chance to save her. She's not Action Movie Picard. Evil Georgiou on board Discovery will sure make things complicated later on though.

Something that's gotten a lot less complicated this episode is Lorca, as his secret backstory and mysterious agenda has finally been revealed and it's about as basic as it could possibly be. He ended up in our universe after a Mirror, Mirror ion storm transporter mishap, he cleverly manipulated everyone to get himself back to the 'real world' because he was power hungry and wanted the throne, and that's it. That's all there was to him, besides his obsession with Burnham; there were no additional layers to his motivations and he wasn't even slightly conflicted or softened after all those months working alongside aliens in Starfleet.

Lorca was basically Gul Dukat from DS9: for most of his screen time he's been a fascinating, charismatic, morally grey character with a strange interest in the female lead, but then the writers turned him full-on unambiguous evil and shoved him off a cliff into fire. He was so evil in fact, that he even had a speech to the crew where he accused Space Hitler Georgiou of not being evil enough and literally said he wanted to "Make the Empire Glorious Again". I doubt he had strong feelings either way about the aliens spilling over the borders, it was just a better line to rally the crowd than 'follow me, I want a bigger chair', and a chance for the writer to throw in a shamelessly obvious Trump reference. I was half-expecting him to follow it up by rubbing off his facepaint to reveal his orange skin underneath. But the point was made: the dude was a charming liar, convinced of his own philosophy, superiority and destiny, who only ever acted in his own self-interest.

He was a pretty good leader though and it's not hard to see why so many people followed him with cult-like devotion, but the episode's not really interested in examining that subject. Or any other subject. Still, at least we got Landry back for a bit and she was basically the same as her Prime Universe counterpart! Shame no one told actress Rekha Sharma that spending time in the agony booth leaves you as a shaken wreck who can barely talk, at least according to Jason Isaac's performance a couple of episodes back. And these guys didn't just spend a few hours in there, they suffered almost 20 months of torture, with the occasional break for them to go the bathroom, do some exercise or get their hair and makeup done. The Empire don't want scruffy emaciated Robinson Crueso looking folks stinking up their agony booths I guess.

In fact, the Empire are so nice to their prisoners that Mirror Georgiou even gave the defeated Lorca the mercy of a quick death, despite saying last episode that she'd never grant that to anyone but Burnham. Lorca was so obsessed with his fate that he kept a bowl of fortune cookies on his desk, but he didn't quite realise that unlike every other Star Trek series, the captain's not the hero of this story, and when you take the role of Emperor you're liable to get dropped into a power core when the protagonist brings Darth Vader over to their side. I'm sure there's probably a famous Shakespeare play you could compare this to, but when the protagonist is trying to shut down a shield so that the hero ship can fly through the giant doomsday weapon and detonate the reactor, my brain goes straight to Return of the Jedi.

But Lorca's fatal flaw in the end wasn't underestimating Burnham, because he didn't. Even though she willingly brought him the Emperor, even though she had nothing to look forward back home but a cell and he was offering her a place at his side, he still took her gun off her and kept her under guard just in case. Nope, his fatal flaw was that he never quite got Starfleet. If he'd given more of a damn when Saru told him that they needed to rescue the space whale in the middle of a war a few eps back he might have given a thought to how Saru would react to discovering his flagship was a major ecological threat. Instead, he was utterly blindsided when the timid friendly alien gave him a Vulcan hello and inadvertently got revenge for all those Kelpian slaves Burnham didn't tell him about. And if that wasn't poetic enough, he went and fell into the hole he pretended he was going to throw Stamets into. The poor guy was beset by poetry on all sides in the end.

I was expecting the episode to wring some drama out of the crew being torn between Saru and Lorca, or at least show them struggling to process the revelation that he's an imposter, but nope they turned on the guy almost immediately! The loyalty they had to their former captain is astounding. Though after hearing Saru's super-chill captain's log and his speech to the crew in Stamets' lab I can see why he'd have their full support as I'm behind him all the way now too. He was never a particularly impressive first officer, but he's grown into a convincing captain and it's nice to finally have a proper Starfleet officer in command again! It's also nice that Owosekun, Rhys and Detmer actually got lines other than 'Yes, sir!' even if they're not exactly characters yet. Plus it turns out that Owosekun's actually wearing a classic Trek miniskirt in the Mirror Universe, so that's something else that's properly Starfleet.

It's kind of funny though that despite this being Discovery 'maiden voyage' as a truly Starfleet ship following Federation ethics, the very first thing they do is interfere with the internal affairs of an alien society by launching an unprovoked attack against a non-hostile ship with the intent to destroy it (and wipe out their government) in order to get back home. Granted they had a really really good reason for doing it, but that just means that it's another giant 'ends justify the means' moral dilemma. The only difference is that this time no one questions what they're doing. There are no scenes of Burnham saying 'maybe there's a way of doing this that doesn't kill all the slaves on board the Charon'.

R.I.P. these two and any other Kelpians on board. Saru just pulled the trigger on them without hesitation or regret. Or knowledge.

Plus another way in that the content kind of contradicts the themes, is that we're supposedly supposed to agree with Burnham that she doesn't have a destiny and she chooses her own future. But the events of the season just happened to put the right people in the exact right places at the exact right time with the exact number of spores needed for them to prevent the destruction of all life in the multiverse and simultaneously get themselves home in the blast. This is not a good argument against the existence of fate, especially when you've got Saru and his precognitive ganglia straight up telling us that it'll all work out fine.

There's also a bit of an environmental message in the episode, delivered with about as much subtlety as the 'make the Empire glorious again' line, and the moral of that part of the story seems to be 'when assholes are being irresponsible and damaging the environment in a way that threatens everyone else you have to blow them up'. It's hard to fault the decision to destroy the Charon though as the stakes were about as high as they could possibly be without going full Doctor Who and threatening to wipe out time or reality itself. An orb that's destroying all life in all multiverses is The Flash levels of bullshit though and no one should ever try to outdo The Flash when it comes to bullshit. Wait... the mycelium network is The Flash's Speed Force, how did I not realise that until now? Though there's also a bit of Star Wars in there, as the ghost of Culber gets them home by saying "Use the Spores, Paul". Well, actually he tells him to follow the music, which is more like Battlestar Galactica...

I could go on listing flaws I spotted and things that annoyed me, but I don't really want to, because to be honest I kind of liked the episode. In fact, it'd be fair to say I absolutely loved the episode, and I'd rank it up amongst the most entertaining Star Trek episodes I've ever seen.  A couple more flashbacks would've been nice, as I still want to know more about Lorca, but it's hard to complain when it already feels like an epic two-parter squeezed into one episode. Sure it's ridiculous and contrived, and it's more interested in fight scenes than actually giving a moment to any of its themes, but it turns out that the films Die Hard and Return of the Jedi mix together really well. The episode also strongly mirrors the story that got them into the Mirror Universe, Into the Forest I Go, but it's an exciting story with an explosion at the end, so they could've chosen worse episodes to remix.

The ending reminded me a little of Enterprise's Zero Hour, where the crew finally saves the day after a season-long arc only to find that the bad guys have taken over in their absence, but it wasn't literal Nazis this time so it's a definite step up. Also that two minute action scene before the end, where the Discovery beams Burnham aboard, blows up the Charon and escapes into the network, is crazy cinematic, with the music, visuals and sound effects all coming together in a way that puts some of the movies to shame. Seriously, I rewatched the sequence by itself to confirm my assessment, then a few more times to double check. Then I watched it again just to be thorough.

Though the episode does jam a wrench into some of my theories about where the series is going. I figured that the season would end with Burnham placed in a situation where she'd have to betray her captain again for the right reasons or make a choice to let her enemy live and redeem herself, but that happened in this story already so now I don't even know! I also suspected that they'd use Harry Mudd's time crystal or the spore drive to go back in time so that Burnham and Tyler could prevent the war from starting, giving us an Alice in Wonderland 'it was all a dream' ending, but that would prevent them from destroying the Charon so that can't happen now.

I'm not even sure about the next episode being about the war within Tyler's head anymore, as with Georgiou on board and things looking bleak it could be a war within the ship between Starfleet principals vs. Terran pragmatism. Or she could try pulling a Khan on them; she is super competent and incredibly evil after all.

Remember that shuttle from that last episode that got Burnham to the Charon without incident? Well it's dead now, atomised by an exploding mycelium power core, and if Burnham had still been on it then she'd be dead too! Just goes to show that you can never trust shuttles, in this universe or any other.

Next time on Discovery: Saru, Tyler and Mirror Georgiou share a really awkward dinner scene. Maybe.

Discovery will return with The War Without, The War Within. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, it'll be something different. Maybe it'll even be that Deep Space Nine episode Rivals that I promised last time, I'm not even sure! What I plan to do and what actually happens aren't always similar things.

I don't believe in fate, but if I did then I'd say that it is your destiny to leave me some great comments.


  1. Burham's phaser is the wrong way around, and I don't even care, because I'm loving this series.

    1. Burham's phaser is the wrong way around

      Holy crap.

    2. When I first watched the episode I thought she picked it up backwards and then quickly flipped it around. But after careful frame-by-frame analysis I can report that she in fact picks it up the right way, then there's a shot of her holding it backwards, then in the next shot it's pointing forwards again.

      Still, it's better than the hilarious flub she made last time she went on a mission with Georgiou, when she got her captain killed and then intentionally murdered the person she was there to capture. That's definitely one for the blooper reel.