Okay, the ONLY way I can meaningfully discuss anything substantial about the latest Star Trek Discovery episode is to get this out of the way as soon as possible:
******STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD!!******
Star Trek Discovery S1.10 “Despite Yourself” is a prequel to The Original Series’ classic “Mirror, Mirror” episode, as well as a sequel to Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly” two-parter (arguably one of the best of that ST series as well) because it takes place in the savage, dagger & sash-wearing ‘mirror universe’ (also seen in several episodes of Deep Space Nine as well).
In S1.9, “Into the Forest I Go”’s final moments, Capt. Lorca mysteriously enters new coordinates into his keypad just as we saw Lt. Stamets spore-jump the USS Discovery. It arrives not at the assumed Starbase coordinates, but in a ‘mirror universe’ (see above) in a space battle debris field, surrounded by apparently hostile Vulcan resistance ships. The Vulcans and all other non-human species in the mirror universe oppose the “Terran Empire”, which is pretty much a humans-only version of the prime universe’s more diverse Federation).
Meanwhile, Lt. Stamets is unable to use his spore drive as he is still in sickbay recovering from the effects of its use from the previous episode. His eyes are milky-white (shades of Gary Mitchell from TOS’ 2nd pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and he’s prone to violent fits and seemingly nonsensical warnings about a ‘castle’ and that ‘the enemy is here.’ His lover Dr. Culber keeps a watchful vigil over him, even enduring a brief, violent assault. Lorca comes to visit in sickbay, immediately questions Culber’s objectivity and assigns another doctor to Lt. Stamets, an order that leaves Culber understandably seething.
In the debris field, Capt. Lorca sends Lt. Tyler out in a worker-bee spacecraft (think a deep-sea bathyscaph, with external arms/tools) to retrieve a data core from one of the wrecked ships in a better attempt to understand exactly where they are. With the core retrieved, a seemingly PTSD-suffering Tyler returns to the ship.
Once aboard, Tyler confronts Discovery’s Klingon prisoner L’Rell (captured in S1.9, “Into the Forest I Go”). L’Rell tries to clue Tyler into who he truly is, and to fans like myself, it was about as surprising as a sunrise in the east; Ash Tyler is the surgically altered Klingon Voq (the abino Klingon torchbearer who has been missing since earlier this year). Tyler, of course, resists the suggestion that he’s a Klingon (despite his own lapsing into the Klingon language). The scene has both “Manchurian Candidate” and “Silence of the Lambs”-vibes about it, and I only wish L’Rell were better able to get through to the Voq part of Tyler, because I can’t wait to see a full realized reunion between the two Klingon lovers. Tyler keeps his confrontations with L’Rell a dirty secret, even though they’re clearly screwing with his attention to his duties, as his punctuality suffers.
Using the recovered data core, the crew pieces together where they are (and Saru finds evidence that they’ve been replaced by the mirror-Discovery in their universe). They also realize that another Federation starship, the Constitution-class USS Defiant (seen in TOS’ “Tholian Web” and ENT’s “In a Mirror Darkly” episodes) wandered into this mirror universe through some kind of “temporal anomaly” a century earlier. With that knowledge, the crew decides to make the best of their situation till they can find a way to return home (with the out-of-action Lt. Stamets unable to do another spore jump).
Using the core’s visual files, they replicate mirror universe uniforms, logos, and even replace the U on the United Star Ship’s Discovery’s hull with an “I” for “Imperial” Starship Discovery.
They also discover that nervous, motormouthed, geeky Cadet Tilly is apparently a ruthless and brutal captain in the mirror universe; so Tilly changes both her hairstyle and her attitude to match (the scenes of the nervous, bubbly, genial cadet trying to be a sadistic, pirate-captain version of herself are easily the funniest moments of this episode). Their plan is to rendezvous with the mirror universe’s version of Burnham’s old ship, the ISS Shenzhou, where its missing-in-action captain was mirror-Burnham. Mirror universe Burnham was apparently lost trying to capture anti-Terran Empire rebel, mirror-Lorca. Burnham will gain access to the Shenzhou by pretending Lorca is her bounty and taking her ‘rightful’ place as its captain. Tyler is asked to join the mission (despite his bouts of PTSD) to protect Burnham, whom he genuinely seems to love and care for.
In Discovery’s sickbay, Tyler seems to have a bad case of the jitters about his upcoming mission to join Burnham and Lorca, and Dr. Culber’s latest scans of the lieutenant reveal massive Klingon surgical alteration and…
…. Culber’s neck is swiftly broken by Tyler!
This was a genuine DID-NOT-SEE-THAT-COMING moment. For me, at least.
So Tyler is once again tardy (this time due to his murder of the good doctor) as he rushes to join Burnham and Lorca in their mission to board the mirror-Shenzhou. Once aboard, Burnham proceeds to regain her mirror counterpart’s command; but first she is forced to kill the mirror-version of her former shipmate and helmsman (who’s ascended to captain in mirror-Burnham’s absence). Their fight in a confined turbolift elevator is both nail bitingly tense and profoundly conflicted for Burnham. After the former helmsman’s dead body is taken away (to the mirror-Shenzhou crew’s relief!), Burnham assumes command, and plans to locate the USS Defiant and see if there’s a way to get back to their universe.
… To Be Continued.
Discovery really comes back strong with this episode; easily the most passionate and balls-out fun episode of the series to date.
What I really enjoyed about “Despite Yourself”:
* Jonathan Frakes’ direction & Sean Cochran’s script.
As he did with the Next Gen movie “First Contact,” Frakes really amps things up with this relatively new Star Trek cast. Frakes has always been an actor’s director with his Star Treks, and he achieves a similar result here. In fact, the mirror universe setting is a perfect arena for this show to finally sink its teeth into a classic Star Trek situation, and presents an opportunity for the characters to kick things into overdrive a bit. Even the mirror universe’s color palette is a bit hotter and darker than usual (more use of reds and shadowy lighting, for example), and the darker, fascistic, almost gladiatorial mirror uniforms are terrific (even if they’re not quite consistent with TOS’ mirror universe…but who cares, right? They work).
Also kudos to Sean Cochran’s corker of a script. Mirror universe episodes are a lot of fun, and “Despite Yourself” is no exception. In fact, it might be the best one since ENT’s “Mirror Darkly” two-parter.
* Tyler/Voq’s big reveal scene with L’Rell.
Finally there was some payoff to the long-speculated true nature of Ash Tyler (not to say I told ya so, but…yeah, I told you so). Both Mary Chieffo (L’Rell) and Shazad Latif (Tyler) are terrific in a scene that is equal parts “Silence of the Lambs” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” There is even a bit of pathos to L’Rell as she sees Tyler believing her to be his ‘tormenter,’ as opposed to her co-conspirator/lover. I even felt a bit badly for her as Tyler regains his human ‘composure’ and puts the forcefield back up to her cell.
Most of the Klingon scenes earlier this season tended to be a bit slow-paced and talky, but this… this is more like it!
* Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), and her transformation into “Captain Killy” of the ISS Discovery.
This was a absolute riot. I already find Tilly adorable (she’s basically a geek girl in space; she’s one of us), and her initial attempts at being her mirror-self (“What the heck–hell?” “Assholes”) are on a par with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and its Shatner-delivered “Double dumbass on you!” cabbie moment. Mary Wiseman certainly has a way with ‘colorful metaphors.’
Cadet Tilly also fits into the command role surprisingly well by episode’s end, showing that she might truly have the ‘right stuff’ to be captain someday (her character’s admitted this ambition to Burnham earlier in S1). Quite a bit of humor is also mined from Tilly coming to learn of her mirror counterpart’s many nicknames (Captain Killy being the one that seems to stick, at least with Lorca).
* The talented Jason Isaacs’ Captain Lorca.
I loved the bit where Lorca faked a quite-convincing Scottish accent in an effort to disguise his voice as Discovery’s engineer in a ship-to-ship communique with a mirror vessel; I thought it was a nice nod to TOS’ Chief Engineer Scotty that Lorca would choose that particular accent. The British-born Jason Isaacs effortlessly switches from the thick Scottish brogue to his character’s slight US southern accent. Impressive.
More on Lorca in a bit…
* Doug Jones’ First officer Saru.
Didn’t have much to do in this episode (sadly), but I loved his little ‘panic fins’ involuntarily emerging from his neck yet again. His own version of *gulp! *
If it’s an emergent cliche, I can certainly live with it.
* Little nods to the greater lore of Star Trek
For the first time in Discovery, we see a schematic of a Constitution-class starship (the aforementioned USS Defiant) shown on a bridge monitor. We see mirror universe agony booths (used in both TOS and ENT’s mirror episodes). A reference to the planet Organia (seen in TOS’ first Klingon episode, “Errand of Mercy”). Tyler pilots a worker-bee one man spacecraft very similar to those seen in the orbiting drydock of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” These little touches serve to enhance the feeling of Discovery belonging to the greater Star Trek family of series & movies; a feeling that some fans have complained was lacking a bit earlier this season (arguably with some merit).
* A genuinely shocking surprise with the death of Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz).
Did. Not. See. That. Coming.
And it was genuinely heartbreaking, as the affable Cruz also (finally!) had his best episode to date. He goes toe-to-toe with Lorca (“Speak of the devil…”) over concern for the health of his lover Stamets, he confronts Tyler about his puzzling true nature and… his neck is promptly and swiftly broken. It’s going to be devastating when Stamets finally recovers enough to realize what happened, though on some level (even in his current near-catatonic state) he seems aware of it (“The enemy is here!”).
I’m somewhat consoled by the post-episode discussion show “After Trek” seeming to indicate that we’ve not seen the last of Culber (and Cruz). Let’s hope this is so, as I was really warming up to the character (who had relatively little screen time to date).
And a few minor nits about “Despite Yourself”:
* Too easy.
The USS Discovery all-too quickly and perfectly assimilated into the hostile Terran empire by easily replicating uniforms, logos and just about everything else they needed based on a single retrieved Klingon/Vulcan data core. A bit too convenient, IMO. Granted, we’re not sure how long this assimilation took (stage time was used) so it’s a small nit, but a nit nevertheless.
* Um, regarding Dr. Culber’s death…?
It was a bit too “Walking Dead”/“Game of Thrones” for me. Kind of wish Dr. Culber (and Wilson Cruz) got a slightly grander sendoff than an all-too quick, redshirt-style neck break. Oh well. Death doesn’t always make an appointment, right? Just a shame, as the character was really starting to click.
* Lt. Ash Tyler is on my s#!t list now.
Any sympathy I may have felt for the conflicted, traumatized Klingon-to-human sleeper agent Lt. Ash Tyler was pretty much dashed when he so casually broke Dr. Culber’s neck and then apologized for his tardiness to Lorca afterward. That seemed genuinely coldblooded, not conflicted. Too bad. I was kind of hoping that we’d be allowed to keep some sympathy for this surgically altered Klingon, and that perhaps he’d ultimately choose humanity and its code of behavior over his old ways. Now? I kinda hope Stamets recovers and shoves him into an opening airlock.
* Michael Burnham is still not quite the series’ true lead in my opinion, but that’s okay.
Despite Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) having a lot to do in this episode (including that nail-biter of a turbolift scene), she stills feels like part of the greater ensemble and not the series’ lead, as originally envisioned. It almost makes me wish that the show didn’t sidetrack with her arc so much in the beginning, but that’s water under the bridge now. It’s also a credit to Martin-Green’s cast mates that their characters have come to be a lot more than simply a Greek chorus to Michael Burnham (unlike some of the secondary characters in TOS). Star Trek always works best when it’s a fully functioning ensemble (see: the best episodes of Next Generation, or any episode of Deep Space Nine).
And finally, my big speculation for the episodes ahead…
Is Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) home at last?
With Lorca futzing with his keypad at the end of E9, something tells me this little detour into the mirror universe was not an accident. In fact, Lorca’s brusk, J.R. Ewing-ish personality seems more suited to the mirror universe than its prime counterpart. There’s a bit of fuel to this argument, as it’s reported that mirror-Lorca was MIA following his joining the rebellion against the Terran empire. He escaped… but to where, exactly? If I had to guess, I’d say he somehow found his way into the prime universe (or at least Discovery’s somewhat modernized version of it) and was looking for a way home. Perhaps that’s why he so desperately clings to his command of prime Discovery (despite admiral Cornwell’s objections); he NEEDS a second spore-driven vessel in a desperate attempt to combat its own top-of-the-line mirror version. He also seemed to instantly grasp that the USS Discovery was lost in a parallel universe… a concept that took considerably more time for other ST characters to realize in their respective trips to this forbidding dimension. It’s as if Lorca had been around this block before. He also seemed quite comfortable coaching his crewmen about how to act more barbaric and savage in their efforts to fit in.
Lorca’s plan to appear as “Captain” Burnham’s bounty may be just the key he needs to get control of a second ship (the ISS Shenzhou) to strengthen his own rebellion against the Terran Empire, manipulating their current situation to his cause. And if Lorca truly was a ‘rebel’ in the mirror universe, that could mean he’s one of the best of the bad guys, much like Deep Space Nine’s mirror-Miles O’Brien (DS9) or even mirror-Spock (TOS; yes, the one with the goatee).
I, for one, sincerely hope that the always-interesting/never-boring Lorca remains as commander of the USS Discovery, even if the ship makes it back to the Federation.
In summary, “Despite Yourself” has a lot more energy, emotion and a greater “Star Trek-feel” than most of Discovery to date. Director Frakes, writer Cochran, and the entire cast all brought their A-game to this outing, which bodes well for the rest of the season.
Here’s hoping they don’t find their way back from the mirror-universe too soon…