Sep 11, 2020
Star Trek: Discovery “Despite Yourself”
Last half-season on Star Trek: Discovery: The USS Discovery became the Federation’s secret weapon in the war against the Klingons, thanks to a spore-powered drive that allows them to be anywhere in the galaxy in an instant. Captain Lorca offered a bridge post to disgraced mutineer Michael Burnham, as well as former Klingon POW Ash Tyler, who’s now having PTSD flashbacks due to encountering his former captor L’Rell. After cracking the code of Klingon cloaking devices, Lt. Stamets agreed to one more spore-powered jump, but he lost his mind (and his pupils) and Discovery ended up in parts unknown.
But enough of that, what I really need to say is: Welcome back to the Agony Booth’s ongoing look at the Mirror Universe episodes that gave the site its name! I’m not kidding, by the way. I wish I was.
At the end of the previous episode, it was obvious that the Discovery had inadvertently crossed over into a parallel universe. And in this episode, it’s revealed that that parallel universe is… the Mirror Universe.
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As you might be able to tell by what I named this website, I’m a big fan of the original series episode “Mirror, Mirror” (the sequel episodes on the later shows? Not so much). And while on some level I appreciate another tribute to that episode, even I have to admit that an excursion to the Mirror Universe feels all wrong for this show, especially right now. For one thing, none of the previews or previous episodes even hinted at a Mirror Universe connection, and the Mirror Universe is definitely not something you just spring on people.
But there’s a deeper issue here, which is that despite some of the ludicrous plot turns seen on Discovery so far, it still feels like a more grounded Star Trek than what’s come before, at least in the sense that the characters generally talk and behave like mature adults. The mostly cartoonish Mirror Universe, on the other hand, with its mustache-twirling villainy, constant assassination plots, and blatant trading of sexual favors for career advancement seems directly at odds with what they’re trying to do here.
At the very least, you’d expect Discovery not to even attempt a Mirror Universe episode until much later on, perhaps in future seasons, when the cast of the show has been fleshed out a lot more. Or, well, fleshed out at all. I mean, I defy you to name any members of the bridge crew beyond Lorca, Saru, Burnham, and Tyler without looking them up. Also, what’s the name of Discovery’s Chief Medical Officer? Does it have a Chief Medical Officer? This isn’t rhetorical; I actually want to know! You’d expect key questions like these to be answered before we’re suddenly presented with evil funhouse-mirror versions of characters we still barely know.
And the worst part (with the caveat that the Mirror Universe plot isn’t wrapped up this week, and we don’t know how things will end yet) is that all of the characters are fully briefed on the Mirror Universe by the end of the episode. And yet, this is still ostensibly a prequel to TOS and happening years before “Mirror, Mirror”. Even Enterprise was careful enough not to show any “prime” universe characters interacting with Mirror Universe characters prior to “first contact” in TOS. The next episode may prove me wrong, but it would seem Discovery has just pissed all over continuity. There’s basically no possible way that Kirk and McCoy and the others could have been completely unaware of the Mirror Universe before crossing over.
One last thing before I get to the recap: This episode is directed by Jonathan Frakes, who’s a pretty prolific TV director these days. As an “old school” Trek guy, he wouldn’t have been my first choice to direct an episode of Discovery, but I do have to say his direction here is mostly indistinguishable from what we’ve seen so far on this series.
We open on the Discovery still surrounded by Klingon wreckage. Saru says they’re in the correct spot, relative to the galactic center, but nothing else is where it’s supposed to be. Then his threat ganglia descend as Ash Tyler walks onto the bridge, hint hint. Actually, I’m starting to think that instead of the threat ganglia, two big signs reading “HINT HINT” should pop out of the back of his head instead.
A Vulcan cruiser shows up, and Discovery tries to hail the ship. Instead, the Vulcans start firing on the Discovery. Then the Vulcan ship gets fired on by another Starfleet ship, which we never see for some reason, but dialogue identifies it as the USS Cooper. Lorca is confused because the Cooper is supposedly out of commission, and then the Cooper hails Discovery to say they’ll take care of the “rebels”. Naturally, everyone is mystified by the concept of “Vulcan rebels”.
Then Saru examines the “quantum signature” of the Cooper and says it’s not consistent what he would expect to see, and I guess the “quantum signature” of starships is some sort of cosmological constant that’s the same throughout the universe. Finally, Lorca puts all the technobabble together and figures out they’re in a different universe.
In his ready room, Lorca explains his theory to Saru and Burnham, developed after making those 133 jumps in the previous episode, which is that the spore drive could allow them to reach a parallel universe. Unfortunately, they crossed over before they could transmit the Klingon cloak-breaking algorithm to Starfleet, meaning they need to get back there before the war is lost.
In Sickbay, Tilly and Culber are trying to get through to Stamets. His pupils are still white and now he’s babbling about a “palace”, to go along with the “forest” he was babbling about last time around. He even uses his crazy-man strength to fling Culber across the room, so they put a forcefield around his bed for his own safety.
Lorca shows up and accepts the blame for Stamets’ current condition. And then he wants another doctor to take over Stamets’ care, because Culber is too emotionally invested to be “objective”. And Culber just laughs at Lorca suddenly caring about “protocol” after all the crap he pulled in previous episodes. Regardless, none of this ever becomes important.
Now Ash Tyler is flying a small ship that’s apparently one of those “worker bees” referenced by Captain Georgiou all the way back in the pilot. And a “worker bee” turns out to be a tiny ship with robotic arms, and it in fact looks a lot like the shuttle pods from that other Discovery, the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Tyler’s going out to extract the “data core” from a wrecked Klingon ship, but when he sees dead bodies in the wreckage he starts to have more PTSD flashbacks to being tortured. He’s panicking, but Burnham speaks to him and helps him regain focus and he’s able to pull himself together before anyone notices.
He notes that the bodies on the ship are Vulcan and Andorian, and everyone gets confused again about why a Vulcan and Andorian were in command of a Klingon ship.
Then Ash goes to see L’Rell, still being held prisoner in the brig. He once again asks, “What did you do to me?” and says he’s now having flashbacks to operations he didn’t remember before. She tells him to release her, and he lowers the force field, but it’s really so he can start choking her. But then L’Rell says, “Whom do we seek?” in Klingon, which seems to trigger something in Ash’s mind, and he calmly recites a prayer in Klingon about finding Kahless, who will show them the light.
Then L’Rell asks, “What is your name?” Which snaps Ash out of it, but it seems this wasn’t the desired result, because L’Rell continues to say he has “another name” and the prayer should have made him remember it. Instead, he locks her back up and runs out. So Ash seems to be some sort of brainwashed mole, after all, and the “other name” is his true identity, maybe?
And then the episode further delays telling us what universe we’re in so we can cut to Tyler brooding over a glass of coffee in the mess hall. Burnham sits with him and Tyler says he had another PTSD episode in the worker bee, but he can’t tell anyone about it because he’ll be “grounded” and he needs to be functioning at full capacity long enough to help them get back home. Burnham leaves and Tyler has another blackout moment and finds his glass of coffee shattered, and blood all over his hands.
In Engineering, Tilly has cracked open the Klingon data core, and Burnham notes that it’s peculiarly full of data chips of Vulcan design. And it starts to dawn on them that the Klingons and the Vulcans and the Andorians in this universe have possibly joined together in some sort of “alliance” against the Federation. Hmm. And 80 years from now, could this “alliance” possibly include Cardassians, as well? I wonder.
Cut to a screen displaying a logo with a spinning globe inside of a bladed weapon, as Burnham briefs Lorca and the others about what she discovered in the Klingon data core. In this universe, there’s no Federation, but rather a fascist human-only “Terran Empire”, an oppressive and violent regime ruled by a shadowy emperor. Also, the other non-human species in the quadrant have banded together in rebellion against the Empire. And of course, nearly everyone in their home universe has a counterpart here in this universe.
Okay, but what’s up with the Terran Empire logo? It looks nothing like the logo seen in basically every other Mirror Universe episode. I guess it’s the same deal with the Klingons and the Starfleet uniforms, where this show feels obligated to redesign everything from previous Trek shows whether it needs it or not.
They all run to the bridge when they get hailed by a ship that thinks they’re this universe’s Discovery. While figuring out how to respond, Saru determines via technobabble that the Discovery switched places with the Mirror Discovery when they transported over, meaning they don’t have to worry about the whereabouts of their own counterparts.
Lorca is about to respond to the hail, until Burnham figures out that in this universe, Lorca’s not the captain of the Discovery. She pulls up a graphic of the actual captain, and it’s… Tilly.
And yeah, it’s sort of funny, and yet, still kind of jarring in context of the dark, downbeat nature of this series, which also includes plot threads like a captain murdering his entire crew and a POW being raped for months on end.
The other ship is about to fire on them if they don’t respond, but thankfully, Tilly just happens to be on the bridge to answer the hail. After an eternity of being prompted by Lorca to reply, she finally nervously spits out, “Hello, this is Captain Tilly! What the he-heck… hell? What the hell? Hold your horses!”
The captain of the other ship wonders why the Discovery is still hanging around the area. Tilly claims they’re having mechanical problems, and turns things over to Lorca, calling him her Chief Engineer. Burnham warns Lorca that she doesn’t know anything about his mirror counterpart, so he should disguise his voice for now. And so, Jason Isaacs puts on a Scottish accent (I guess as an in-joke tribute to Scotty) to respond that they’re having problems with their warp drive and visual communications. The other ship accepts this explanation and warps away.
Lorca says that if they want to survive, they’ll have to make themselves look like the other Discovery. To that end, we get a montage of people exchanging their Starfleet badges for Imperial badges, and putting on Imperial uniforms. This includes Tilly, who’s got on the Mirror Universe captain’s outfit, which in this incarnation consists of a a gold chest piece, and lots of gold accessories.
Burnham briefs Tilly about her Mirror Universe counterpart, saying she’s known as “The Slayer of Sorna Prime” as well as “The Witch of Wurna Minor”, and also, “Captain Killy”. Are they serious with this?
Also in this montage, we get shots of robots on the hull of the ship, changing the “U” in “USS” to an “I”. Which means, as Lorca’s VO says, the entire ship has now been disguised as the “ISS Discovery”. Are they serious with this?
In Lorca’s ready room, Burnham breaks the news to Lorca that his counterpart and hers are presumed dead in this universe. Mirror Burnham was the captain of the Shenzhou, while Mirror Lorca was captain of the Buran. It seems Mirror Lorca attempted a “coup” against the Emperor, and Burnham was sent to apprehend him, but she was killed in the attempt and Mirror Lorca escaped.
Lorca then ruminates on the strange way that people in different universes still seem to find each other, and calls it evidence of the “existence of destiny”. Sure, let’s go with that. It’s actually the best explanation for the improbabilities of the Mirror Universe presented so far in this franchise.
Lorca asks about the Emperor, but all Burnham knows is that the Emperor is “savage”. Then Lorca formulates a plan based around the convenient fact that they’re both dead in this universe, and it seems he’s also found a potential way home.
And that way home delves even more into shameless fan-wankery than I ever thought possible, as Lorca explains how another starship previously crossed over into this universe, and that ship was the USS Defiant. Yes, this entire plot hinges on something that happened in the fourth season Enterprise two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly”.
This leads to more confusion among the Discovery crew, because as far as any of them know, the Defiant is still out patrolling space in their home universe. But somehow, Lorca and Burnham have figured out that something will happen in the future that will send the Defiant back to the Mirror Universe’s past. And if they figure out how the Defiant got here, they can use the same method to get back to their own universe.
So, not only do they know about the Mirror Universe roughly a decade before Kirk crossed over, they also have advance knowledge of the Defiant being lost during the events of “The Tholian Web”. And this advance knowledge somehow never gets passed along to the actual crew of the Defiant. At this point, the only way the events of Discovery are going to sync up with the other shows is if they never return from the Mirror Universe. And frankly, if the show decided to go in that direction, I wouldn’t be all that shocked.
To find out what happened to the Defiant, Burnham and Lorca are going to pretend to be their Mirror Universe counterparts and sneak aboard the ISS Shenzhou to get access to classified data. Burnham is going to claim she faked her death so that she could apprehend Lorca the fugitive. Also, Tyler is going along with her to act as her “personal guard” that all captains in this universe have.
Cut to Ash in Sickbay, asking Dr. Culber to examine him prior to this mission, to make sure the Klingons didn’t do anything him. Culber says Tyler was already scanned for that sort of thing and they found nothing. Culber also points out they checked him for signs of brainwashing, which is apparently called the “Manchurian Test” in the future.
Culber agrees to run some more scans, and that’s when Stamets, who’s still being treated in Sickbay, yells out, “Stay out of the palace!” Culber goes over to comfort him, and kisses him. What made Lorca think Culber can’t be objective in his treatments, again? Stamets’ eyes briefly turn normal again as he tells Culber, “Be careful. The enemy is here!” Which is, of course, more foreshadowing, but they all write it off as Stamets being crazy.
Cut to Burnham and Tilly both decked out in gold flair as ISS captains. Tilly checks herself out in a holographic “mirror” and declares, “Well, my mother would definitely approve!” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but her mom sounds delightful.
Tilly is terrified about trying to pretend to be this “twisted” version of herself, but Burnham coaches her, saying that all humans in this universe live in “constant fear”, and that their overt wickedness is really just a façade. Lorca enters and Tilly slips into character and declares, “Well, let’s not keep these assholes waiting!” Wow, she has quite the mouth on her, doesn’t she? I wonder if her mother approves of that? Nevertheless, Lorca definitely approves.
On the bridge, “Captain Tilly” hails the ISS Shenzhou, and responding via holographic communicator is Captain Connor. Since there’s really no way anyone watching this is going to make the connection, in the ready room Burnham notes that Connor was her “ops officer” on the Shenzhou, and we even get a flashback to his prime universe version. Ah, yes. Remember the guy that I correctly guessed would be killed in under two episodes? That’s the one. And for some drama, Burnham succumbs to the Jennifer Sisko Effect and gets spooked at seeing a dead guy alive again.
Tilly tells Connor that she found something in an abandoned shuttle that he’ll be interested in, and Burnham enters with Lorca as her “prisoner”. And all throughout this, the three of them perfectly play their roles as evil versions of themselves, despite having no prior exposure to any actual members of the Terran Empire until just now. Tilly is even telling Connor about how she might “cut out your tongue and use it to lick my boots”, when like 12 hours ago she was all stuttering and flustered with the captain of the Cooper.
In Sickbay, Culber is revealing the results of the tests he’s run on Tyler. He’s determined that the Klingons actually opened up Tyler’s limbs, and did “bone-crushing” procedures on him, shortening his arms and legs and even his spinal cord. Meaning that Ash used to be a Klingon, I guess? Or at least, someone much taller. Culber also notes that they gave him an additional personality, overlaid on top of his existing personality, adding, “As far as I’m concerned… you’re not you.”
Ash hears the sounds of someone speaking in Klingon in his head. He then gets behind Culber… and snaps his neck. No! Not Dr. Culber! He was one of the few people on this miserable crew I almost liked! And he was this close to telling us the name of the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Stamets, still in his bed, doesn’t look the least bit fazed as he repeats that “The enemy is here.”
The ISS Shenzhou shows up to rendezvous with the Discovery and Burnham is taken aback once again at the sight of her former ship. She and Lorca and Tyler prepare to beam over, with Lorca jokingly leaving “Captain Killy” in charge. On the transporter pad, Lorca advises Burnham and Tyler to do whatever they have to do in this universe to blend in, no matter how terrible.
On the Shenzhou, Connor gives them the imperial salute, and somehow they all immediately know to return the gesture.
Burnham says she wants to take her prisoner Lorca to the brig personally, and once they get there, they find people inside clear glass booths, experiencing extreme agony. I wonder what they call these things? Haha, joke’s on me: Connor refers to them as “agonizer booths”. Huh? Am I going to have to change the name of the site?
Burnham refuses to allow Lorca to be put into a booth, coming up with a cover story about how he might get killed by overzealous guards. She then for no particular reason has Connor escort her to the bridge.
In a turbolift, Connor talks about how hard it was for him to make captain after Burnham disappeared. Unsurprisingly, he pulls a knife on her and the two fight it out on the turbolift. Just as in previous episodes, Burnham makes good use of her Vulcan Fu to defeat her enemy, including a weird moment where she kicks a random piece of equipment that seems to knock out the gravity for a few seconds.
She stabs Connor to death, and he collapses just as the turbolift doors open. On the bridge, everyone gives Burnham the slow clap for killing Connor.
Burnham takes the captain’s chair while everyone chants, “Long live the Empire!” and the Shenzhou goes to warp.
Burnham returns to her quarters, where Ash is hanging around. Too bad her “personal guard” wasn’t there to save her from that attempt on her life in the turbolift, huh? Burnham says she hasn’t had a chance to access the info about the Defiant, because everyone’s been surrounding her and constantly trying to “curry favor” with her. Ash knows that she had to kill Connor, and he promises that no matter what this universe does to them, he’s here to “protect” her. Except, of course, when a subordinate tries to assassinate her.
Burnham promises him the same thing, and that apparently means it’s time for them to bone. Clearly, there’s no time to research the Defiant when there’s boning to be done!
As they go at it, we return to Lorca in the brig, and he’s being subjected to one of those “agonizer booths” after all. But given this character’s general nuttiness, I wouldn’t be surprised if he volunteered for the agony booth. The end.
This wasn’t a terrible episode; it just feels all wrong and too soon for a show that’s still trying to find its footing. And that’s not even getting into all the ways this episode abuses previous franchise continuity. It’s possible that next week will provide a satisfactory explanation as to why nobody knows about the Mirror Universe less than ten years later, but I’m not holding my breath.
Next week: More Mirror Universe shenanigans! Mirror Sarek has a beard, of course. Also, some planet gets obliterated. Maybe the Halkans finally get what’s coming to them?