[Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery. Black alert!]
We’ve arrived at the penultimate episode of Discovery‘s first season, and I feel buffeted around by strong solar winds.
As with so many things Discovery, people seem divided about episode 14, “The War Without, The War Within.” Den of Geek thinks it’s the best episode yet, while Trekmovie says the episode “loses the battle” and feels “more like a series of memes, in search of a theme.” And on and on the critics go, squabbling amongst themselves like so many Klingons trying to carve up the Federation or fighting over the last plate of gagh.
Over the weekend, I struggled with Discovery‘s decisions myself, writing that I thought the show has lost three of the best things about it: Culber/Stamets, Ash Tyler-as-survivor, and Captain Lorca’s moral ambiguity. I stand by my assertion that three of the more emotionally important and intriguing elements were made to vanish in the mirror universe much too soon. But last night I was also made cautiously optimistic that Discovery can still find a pretty solid way forward—because that’s what “The War Without, The War Within” felt like to me: pretty solid. It was a lot of set up for next week’s finale, but it did its job.
This episode had a ton of ground to cover, and it managed to do so without resorting to too much ham-handed exposition or future-tech gobbledygook. The best moments were all character-driven: Burnham reconnecting with Sarek; Tilly sitting down at Tyler’s lonely table; Sarek and the Emperor finding common ground through their “daughter”; Tyler and Burnham’s confrontation; everything Captain Saru does; Admiral Cornwell and L’Rell’s chat; Cornwell blasting the hell out of Lorca’s bowl of fortune cookies.
The worst moments, for me, all tie back to my initial criticism about what we lost in the mirror universe. Stamets gets to be upset about the loss of his partner as though it’s a mild inconvenience—let him grieve for the man he loved. Tyler is struggling with his identity, but it’s all outward-focused on what he’s done to others, no longer a personal exploration of himself and his trauma. And Lorca seems to have been made as forgettable as a melted bowl of fortune cookies, as though the absence of a man who captained and deceived discovery means nothing now that he’s been dealt with.
Discovery is always at its best when it showcases the crew’s personalities and their relationships, less so when undertaking big-picture arcs. I don’t think that I could care less about the war with the Klingons if I tried: the Klingons and their houses and their messiahs and their marauding are boring as hell because we’re not invested in their greater purpose or see anything honorable therein. We rarely even see them, just the destruction that they have wrought. They don’t look or feel much like the Klingons we’ve come to know over decades of Trek, and every time someone says “Klingon” I get thrown for a loop and wish the show had just invented a new alien race antagonist. I hate, hate, hate Discovery‘s Klingon war and wish for it to die. Today? Today is a good day to die.
But it’s possible that we’re drawing close to ending that war, right? The showrunners have said it won’t drag on forever, and now Discovery is on a mission to, OK, jump inside the caverns of the Klingon homeworld Kronos (or Qo’noS if you’ve been brushing up on your Klingon) and map it from the inside, with the ultimate goal of … raining massive destruction down upon it?
The plan to end the war with the Klingons through scorched-Kronos tactics makes sense, I guess, but since it’s coming from evil Emperor Georgiou, are we really okay with this? Really? Many of you have argued with me (often rightfully!) re: my Lorca apologism by pointing out that he violates pretty much everything Starfleet and the Federation stand for. But suddenly we’re going to let a vicious and bloodthirsty Emperor who crushed all species to her will draw up our Federation battle plans? This can’t possibly go sideways. By which I mean it will. Probably quickly. At warp five.
Other than the highly doubtful judgments made by Cornwell and Sarek at the end by “promoting” the Emperor into the Captain’s chair, I was on board with a lot of this episode, especially its quiet, more introverted moments. The emotional scene with Burnham and Tyler was handled well by both actors, and I liked how Burnham was nudged into this by a Sarek, in the softest we’ve ever seen him. While it would have been too easy for Burnham to simply forgive Tyler after everything that’s happened, the way she shut him down doesn’t bode well for either of them going forward—which would seem to be the point.
Discovery really shines when its characters get to talk to each other, whether in a war council, a brig, the dining hall, or within a magical mushroom-generated landscape. More talk, please, less intergalactic warfare. Remember, we’re the sort of fans who like to have a drink at Quark’s and a friendly poker game alongside our final frontiers.
What did you think of “The War Without, The War Within”?
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