Oct 9, 2020
Maps to the Starfleet HQ: Star Trek: Discovery “Die Trying”
Previously: Michael Burnham and friends travelled to the year 3188, where the Federation has fallen apart, but they did get a tantalizing message from Admiral Senna Tal. They learned Senna was a Trill and his symbiont is now hosted by the human Adira Tal, who knows the coordinates to the new Federation headquarters. Detmer got injured when the ship crash landed and this is installment #4 of There’s Something Wrong with Detmer. Nhan, former security chief on the Enterprise, joined the crew when they traveled into the future to honor the late Lt. Airiam, who I don’t think she knew for more than a few days.
We open with a captain’s log from Saru saying they’re about to reach both Starfleet and Federation headquarters. He’s staring out a window into space, and up walks Burnham, who he addresses as “Number One”. They both wonder what the new Federation will be like. Burnham also really wants to find out more about the Burn, and see if they know what happened to her mom.
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On the bridge (why is Adira here? Does she have some official function on the ship now?), Detmer says they’ve arrived, and all they see is a big black blob on the viewscreen. Saru says it’s a “distortion field” to keep their location secret, but Federation HQ is expecting them. So Discovery travels through the distortion field, complete with a ripping sound in space, and enters a wondrous fantasia of futuristic ships.
This is basically the high point of the show, as everyone basks in the literal glow of the dazzling Starship Porn that surrounds them. Tilly says some of these ships’ hulls are organic, while some are completely composed of holographic material. I sure hope they addressed most of the TNG-era holodeck design flaws in the preceding 900 years. Owo is astounded by a ship with a crew of 2,000, and they cruise past a giant donut that Tilly calls a “flying rainforest”. In the corridors, the whole crew gathers around the windows just in time to see a huge ship named the USS Voyager, with the registry NCC-74656-J. They’re all amazed by this, even though they wouldn’t have even heard of the original Voyager. Tilly says that the letter “J” means there’s been “ten generations of evolution” in Voyager’s history.
They also pass a ship called the “USS Nog”, though the name is barely readable, and I think this is just meant as a nice tribute to the late Aron Eisenberg; it’s hard to imagine Nog did anything that he’d be remembered for 900 years later. Discovery hails headquarters, which is a glowing egg-shaped structure in the center of it all. Starfleet immediately scans them, and with their highly advanced technology, they even take over the ship and dock it for them. They’re also able to detect not only a Trill symbiont on board, but who that symbiont is. They request the captain, first officer, and “Tal” beam over immediately. Cue the TOS fanfare to a nice shot of Discovery docking with HQ, and it’s all downhill from here.
As you’d expect, the design aesthetic of the Federation HQ interiors is very Apple Store with the brightness set to 200%, and it’s bustling with people wearing a variety of uniforms, including some that look like TNG-style onesies. Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) introduces himself as Commander in Chief of Starfleet, and alongside him is his Chief Security Officer, Lt. Willa, played by the poor man’s Michelle Rodriguez. Vance notices that Saru is Kelpien, and they don’t see many Kelpiens these days. He tells them that Kaminar eventually joined the Federation, and Saru swells up with pride.
Then while Vance is standing there talking to them, someone walks up and delivers a report that seems kind of confidential, about an intrusion by the “Emerald Chain”, which is apparently the name for the Orion-Andorian alliance we saw in the first episode of the season. Vance turns his attention to Adira Tal. It seems Senna Tal was close friends with Vance, and Adira tries to bring up some inside joke between them, but Vance is a hard-ass and having none of it. He says he knew Senna Tal, he was friends with Senna Tal, but Adira Tal is no Senna Tal. She’s then taken away for a “full diagnostic” (is she a cyborg?) and this is the last we see of her in the episode.
Then Vance gets another report about how the “Kili refugees” are deathly ill and “Sickbay is overflowing”. They all look down over a balcony, where a few bio-beds have been set up for aliens that look like they come straight out of that ‘90s alien autopsy special. Burnham butts in, saying that with Discovery’s spore drive, they can track down where the Kili have been and find a cure, but Vance shoots this down. First, she and Saru have to do a “debrief”.
Cut to Saru and Burnham being questioned by Vance, and being examined by the 32nd Century version of the EMH. They note that the medical hologram is super-advanced, but why does it talk with a mechanical echo to its voice? Voyager’s Doctor didn’t do that. Vance gets the rundown on the spore drive, the Red Angel suit, the time crystal, and the Sphere data. He declares, “Discovery is full of surprises, isn’t she?”
They ask Vance about the status of the Federation, and he says there are only 38 member worlds left out of 350, and with subspace relays down, they can’t communicate much with whoever’s left. Burnham asks about the Burn, but Vance says that info is classified. He’s not ready to trust them yet, because according to records of the time period Discovery left, the ship was destroyed and there’s nothing in the files about a spore drive. Hmm, I guess there was a downside to Pike and Spock deciding that Discovery should never be mentioned again under penalty of catapult.
Vance can’t corroborate anything they’re telling him. What’s more, the Federation spent most of the 30th Century fighting a war to “uphold the Temporal Accords” so that no one could change the past or future anymore. So technically, Discovery being here is now a crime. Burnham gets defensive, saying they saved all organic life in the universe and everything, and Vance appreciates that, but he has to put the security of the Federation first. To that end, they’re going to retrofit and analyze Discovery, and its crew will be reassigned.
The notion of the Discovery crew being split up gets them both all outraged. In Saru’s ready room, she wonders why Saru isn’t fighting to keep the crew together. Saru points out that they’re no longer out on their own anymore; they’re Starfleet and they have to follow Starfleet orders. And get ready for more of the tortured story logic this show is famous for. Burnham thinks they can keep the crew together by violating a direct order from Vance, and use the spore drive to visit the planet where the Kili got infected. Then they can find a cure for the Kili, and prove to Starfleet how useful they are, and then they can all stay together.
The dumbness of this scheme is sitcom-level, and Saru immediately rejects it. He says he thought by now Burnham would have learned her lesson about violating direct orders. Is this a not-so-subtle reference to the whole mutiny thing she went to prison for? Regardless, this whole nonsense about saving the Kili is still going to end up driving the main plot of the episode.
Cut to the crew meeting in the shuttlebay, and they’re all up in arms because they’re getting split up. Don’t people in Starfleet get reassigned to different ships all the time? Did this crew think they’d be together forever and all grow old on Discovery? Saru addresses them, saying for now that they need to “trust the process”. Security Chief Willa steps forward to say the whole crew will now be questioned by her security holograms.
And we basically get a repeat of the ending of last season, with a montage of crewmembers getting questioned by Starfleet brass and refusing to give straight answers. Instead, they blurt out all the absurd stuff that they went through, like Culber being dead and then making up with his murderer, and Tilly temporarily becoming a “Terran captain/dominatrix”. Nhan refuses to answer any questions at all, while Reno does more deadpan shtick, and she’s eating chips and salsa during the questioning. It’s funny, see?
Georgiou is being questioned too, but it’s a special debrief, being conducted by not one, but two holograms, along with a real human played by…. director David Cronenberg. I don’t know exactly how this guest appearance came about, but his scenes are one of the few highlights of the episode.
The holograms say that they’ve determined Georgiou is Terran, because centuries ago they found a “chimeric strain” in the “Terran stem cell” that explains their evilness. Is this the midichlorians of the Star Trek franchise? Georgiou doesn’t give any straight answers. She then starts blinking rapidly, which somehow deactivates the holograms. She even gives some technobabble explanation for it. So, these highly advanced 32nd Century holograms can be shut off… by blinking? Does this make sense to anyone?
Cronenberg says, “You broke my holos!” He knows he’s not going to get anywhere questioning Georgiou, so he lets her question him. She asks why he wears glasses, and he says it’s because they make him look smarter. She instantly takes a liking to him and allows the debrief.
Elsewhere, the Kili refugees are still dying, and Vance tells Saru and Burnham that they got ill on the planet “Urna” by eating a plant that was mutated by the planet’s toxic environment. The EMH says that to synthesize a cure, they’d need a sample of the plant they ate. But it would have to be the original, non-mutated version, and since Urna is hopelessly contaminated, that plant no longer exists. I don’t know if anyone’s following all this, but the whole point is, Discovery will have to go visit a Federation “seed vault” called the USS Tikhov that will have samples of that plant. Obviously, the inspiration here is the “doomsday vault” built into a mountain in Norway, which holds seed samples in case of a massive ecological disaster. But why would a society with replicators need something like this? Surely, they could just store the bio-pattern or whatever in a computer bank and replicate seeds as needed.
Burnham says with the spore drive, they can get to the seed vault instantly, but Vance says he wants his own crew to learn how to operate the spore drive ASAP so they can take Discovery there themselves. Burnham warns him that this will just waste precious time. Vance is tired of Burnham giving him lip and says, “Watch your tone, Commander. You’re not home yet.” Saru then says the same thing, but puts it much more nicely, so Vance allows the Discovery crew to take Discovery to the seed vault ship, with the only condition being that Burnham will command the ship while Saru stays behind. I guess in case they try to escape and not come back?
On the bridge of Discovery, Burnham calls for a Black Alert. Security Chief Willa is tagging along for unknown purposes, and she’s dismissive of this “fossil of a ship” until Discovery does a spore jump and her world gets rocked.
Discovery has jumped to the location of the USS Tikhov, and it’s trapped inside a giant ion storm, complete with the rumbling sounds of thunder in space. Burnham orders Detmer to take them in so they can engage the tractor beam. Discovery gets hit with random bursts of energy while Detmer experiences another PTSD episode where everyone’s voices are muffled and echoing, but she’s able to hold the ship steady long enough for them to lock onto the Tikhov and get it clear of the storm.
Burnham explains that every Federation world takes turns watching over the seed vault, and it looks like the Federation world currently overseeing the vault is Barzan. They all look to Nhan, who also swells up with pride over Barzan joining the Federation. And the current atmosphere on the Tikhov means Nhan won’t need her breathing devices (the two things on her face that look like wireless mics) for once, but everybody else will.
She and Burnham and Culber beam over and find the place overrun with plants like they just walked into an abandoned Rainforest Café. Nhan takes the breathing devices off her face, which have the effect of suddenly making her blue eyes brown. She declares, “Real air, real me!” Suggesting that the breathing devices somehow change Barzan eyes, but something tells me this was a cost-cutting move so the actress wouldn’t have to spend as much time in the makeup chair. They detect lifesigns and go off to investigate, but then an entity follows behind them which is cloaked Predator-style.
Meanwhile, David Cronenberg is still debriefing Georgiou, if it can be even be called a “debrief” at this point. Right now, Georgiou is fascinated by Cronenberg’s updated Starfleet badge, and wishes she could break it down for parts. He hands it over and she smashes it under her heel. Cronenberg says April 5 is his birthday, which also happens to be a big day in Mirror Universe history; as dramatized in the intro of the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly”, it’s the day in 2063 when a Vulcan scout ship landed on Earth and the Terrans slaughtered everyone inside. It turns out Cronenberg has had a lifelong fascination with Terrans, especially in the way they do things with no real motivation beyond “Because we feel like it.”
Georgiou says she enjoys being “fetishized”, but wants to ask him more questions. She wants to know what was responsible for the Burn, and Cronenberg establishes that it was no accident, and the work of an unknown “bad guy”, but they don’t know who. Then he tells her that as seen in the Deep Space Nine episode “Crossover”, the Terran Empire “fell centuries ago” and Georgiou looks crestfallen. He further informs her that “the distance between our two universes started expanding”—how is that even possible?—and no one has crossed over from the Mirror Universe in 500 years. “You’re all alone now.” Cronenberg at first asks why Georgiou didn’t just take over Discovery or kill everyone in the crew, but somehow, he’s figured it out: She fell in line and joined Starfleet because she cares about someone on the crew.
Back on the seed ship, they hear the sounds of someone singing a lullaby, but it’s really a holographic projection of a Barzan family, like when Lex Luthor breaks out of jail. Burnham notices the lullaby is the exact same one that Adira Tal played last episode—the one Senna Tal heard as a baby. She thinks this is quite odd, but Nhan is barely paying attention to her because this is the first time she’s seen another Barzan in years.
Burnham beams into the seed vault, which has different tiers of walls that spin in different directions and the walls are adorned with multiple nested honeycomb patterns. I mean, if you’re just looking to store some seed samples, this place seems a bit overengineered.
Meanwhile, Nhan watches the holographic logs of Attis, the Barzan dad who was watching over the seed vault. In a time-honored Trek tradition, the logs start out happy and then get more desperate. In the final entry, Attis is yelling about how he has to identify the “light” that hurt his family, and find “the cure”, and then he dissolves into a stream of glowing particles.
Culber says he’s detecting a mysterious source of power, and he and Nhan investigate and find the rest of the Barzan family in cryo-stasis tubes. Culber scans them and says they’re already dead, so preserving them in this way makes no sense, but Nhan knows that Attis must be still be alive and trying to find a cure.
Inside the seed vault, Burnham can’t get access to the seeds because she doesn’t know the password. Then Attis himself materializes inside the seed vault and fights Burnham. She tries to reason with him, but he once again dissolves into digital dust. Soon, Burnham and Nhan talk about how Attis experienced some sort of accident and now he’s “out of phase” with reality. Culber says the accident must have also driven him crazy, because he’s trying to save his clearly dead family. But Nhan defends him, saying Barzans look at death differently, but she never specifies exactly how.
They contact Discovery to see if they can find out what happened to Attis and his family. Cut to the Engineering department, where Stamets, Tilly, and Reno are doing their usual routine, being sarcastic and busting each other’s balls and so forth. Security Chief Willa observes them and calls them “not very professional”, but they take pride in their lack of professionalism. Eventually, they figure out Attis was in the middle of beaming into the seed vault when the ship was hit by a CME, or a coronal mass ejection. It killed his family, but since he was transporting, it destabilized him. Reno says, “And now his body’s in limbo, and may I never say the same about myself.” Huh?
They can use Discovery’s transporters to restabilize him, but they have to come up with a way to lure him back out of limbo. So they shut off his family’s cryo-stasis tubes and Attis appears right away, screaming about how they’re dying. They beam him into the seed vault, and now he’s whole again. Back in Engineering, Willa tells the Three Stooges that they make a “pretty good team” despite all the “dysfunction”, but Reno says, “Dysfunction is the team.” Along with stale jokes too, I think.
In the seed vault, they try to reason with Attis, but Nhan can’t reach him. Now comes more questionable story logic where Burnham is the only one who can save the day. Culber says that Nhan is Barzan, so this is “too personal for her”, and Burnham is the only one who can talk to Attis.
Burnham takes over from Nhan and tells Attis that his family is dead and he’s got to let go of them, but if he gives them those seeds, he can help a lot of other families. And just like that, he steps over to a control panel and says the passwords “Amma” and “Tolpra”. Nhan knows these are the “two most beautiful moons in our entire star system.” Attis says that these are also the names of his daughters. Okay, I know this is supposed to be super-poignant, but the moron used his kids’ names as passwords to a crucial vault of thousand-year-old seed samples? Why not “password” or “123456” while he’s at it? And worst of all, the dopes from Discovery didn’t even try using his kids’ names as passwords after watching his logs.
Nhan pushes some buttons and everything lights up, and walls start spinning, and a container of seeds comes flying out of the wall into her hands. Could they have made this seed vault any less practical? It’s time to go, but Attis says he’s not leaving. Culber tells him he needs medical treatment, or else he’s going to die within days, but he refuses to leave his family.
Outside the vault, Nhan defends him again, saying that the Barzan view these things differently, but once again she refuses to elaborate. But now it’s some cultural thing, so they can’t force him to leave. Culber says that he’ll be dead in days and they can’t just leave the seed vault unprotected. So Nhan says she’ll stay behind, with Airiam’s sacrifice being the primary motivating factor here.
And now it’s time for the score to swell and more tears to fall. Nhan and Burnhan hug and cry like they’re old friends, though to be honest, I’m not even sure the two of them had a one-on-one conversation before this episode. As far as I know, the only time they worked together was that time in Section 31 headquarters when Airiam almost killed them. But okay, they’re sisters from another mister now. Burnham beams out and Nhan stands at the window as Discovery spore-jumps away. But I’m assuming Nhan will be back later in the season; I can’t imagine they’d spend so much time explaining why this character came to the future if this is where her story ends.
Back at Federation HQ, Vance is mildly impressed by what Discovery was able to do. But he warns them that it’s a different sort of Starfleet now. They don’t do five-year missions and deep space exploration anymore, because they don’t have that luxury. Saru brings up the Renaissance painter Giotto, and Vance speaks for many of us with, “Where are you going with this?” Saru says that Earth was in the midst of its Dark Ages when Giotto sparked the Renaissance by inventing the three-point perspective, and for the first time, “humans looked up”. I’m not sure how much of this is true and how much is bullshit, but I’m no expert on Renaissance art, and plus there’s no reason a Kelpien would have his Earth history completely straight anyway. Saru says that the crew of Discovery also has a “different perspective” which will help the Federation to “look up”.
Vance thinks he might have a point, and Burnham pleads with him to allow the Discovery crew to stay together. Vance warns her that the crew has a lot of “trauma” to deal with, and he even calls out Detmer specifically, saying her “baselines are unsteady, to put it mildly.” But Burnham trusts her and everyone else on the ship. So Vance agrees to let them stay together, as long as they follow his orders.
Burnham asks again about the Burn, and it seems he can finally reveal what he couldn’t tell them before: Starfleet has lots of theories about the Burn, but nothing in particular stands out as a real possibility. Basically, they don’t know what caused the Burn, and they have nothing to go on. Wow. That’s what he couldn’t share with them earlier? Burnham says, “Challenge accepted,” and despite her relentless cockiness, Vance finally says “Welcome home” to them.
Cut to Culber curing the Kili. Remember them? That alien race that was dying? The whole point of this episode? Burnham and Willa watch this, and it seems Burnham asked Willa to investigate the lullaby she heard on the seed ship. Willa says plenty of people in Federation HQ have reported that they know the tune. Burnham finds it odd that all these people from different parts of the galaxy know the same song even though there’s no way they could even reach each other in these post-Burn days. Willa doesn’t think much of this, but it’s clear this melody is going to factor into the grand mystery of what—I mean, who caused the Burn.
On Discovery, Burnham finds Georgiou in the corridor, but she’s just standing there catatonic, staring, and not blinking. She eventually snaps out of it and says she’s fine and walks away, but there’s a look of concern on her face. I guess this is the first installment of the There’s Something Wrong with Georgiou story arc. What did Cronenberg do to her? Did he show her The Brood? Because it kind of has that effect on people.
Saru and Burnham are back looking out their favorite window, staring at Federation HQ. It doesn’t feel like home to them just yet, but they both say the Federation has saved their lives at one time or another. Saru admonishes Burnham to “choose your words more carefully” with Admiral Vance. He then says a lot is still uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: “We are both looking up.” The camera pulls back from Discovery’s window to show all of Federation HQ, and we get the TOS fanfare one last time.
The only interesting parts of this episode were the ship porn and David Cronenberg telling us about what happened to the Federation and the Mirror Universe in the last 900 years. I don’t know why the show doesn’t stick with the crew learning more about the future, instead of forcing in these bland, one-off Voyager-style plots where the crew solves some easy dilemma and then warps away, never to return.
A better show would have spent a lot more time with Attis, to help us sympathize with his plight, so that the loss of his family mattered to us. And instead of Nhan saying vague things like “the Barzan people view death differently” we might have seen exactly what that means. As it is, Attis just looks like a dumbass who can’t accept that his family is dead, and is committing suicide because he can’t live without them. But really, the whole concept of Discovery pulling off some random heroic act to prove their worth to future Starfleet was just DOA (dumb on arrival). Maybe it would have worked if there had been a genuine emergency that threatened Federation HQ or a member world, and Discovery was the only one who could ride to the rescue, but the way they did it here was just awkward and forced.
Next time: Cleveland “Book” Booker is back, and he’s up to something in Emerald Chain territory. Actually, this looks like a pretty rote prison break episode. Burnham and Georgiou get involved and Georgiou faints at some point, so maybe we’ll find out sooner rather than later what’s wrong with her.