Tonight’s episode of Star Trek Discovery, “Vaulting Ambition,” has a Shakespearean “MacBeth” quality to it (hence the title, lifted from ’that Scottish play’), as well as a few major reveals, so before we go any further…
****** IMPERIAL PALACE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
After last week’s cliffhanger (Star Trek: Discovery 1.11, “The Wolf Inside”), Michael Burnham takes a shuttle to Emperor Georgiou’s “Imperial Palace” starship. Once aboard, she takes a medically-fortified-for-torture Captain Lorca and offers him as bounty to Terran Emperor Philippa Georgiou. Captain Lorca is then dragged off for a prolonged session in the ‘agony booth’ (as he’d assumed, given his previous fortification…).
It’s soon revealed that in the mirror universe, Emperor Georgiou raised mirror-Burnham (also orphaned) from childhood; assuming the role Sarek undertook in the prime universe, and she feels a similar maternal bond towards her.
The two share a dinner (apparently Kelpian is on the menu…if only poor Saru knew!). It’s here that Michael learns the Emperor is still plenty pissed at her for her ‘betrayal,’ when Burnham ran off in pursuit of Lorca, and when Burnham failed to fire on the rebel planet in the previous episode. Mirror-Georgiou assumes Lorca and Burnham were collaborating to assassinate her (and she may be right, it turns out…).
Meanwhile on Discovery, Saru and Tilly are still tending to the catatonic Lt. Paul Stamets, whose mind is deep within a spore-induced hallucination. There, he meets his mirror-universe counterpart, also lost within the mycelium network. Together they join forces to try to find their way back to consciousness. Their cooperation takes a bit of a left turn when Stamets sees the image of his recently deceased lover, Dr. Hugh Culber. Mirror-Stamets warns his other self about getting ‘lost’ within the mycelium network, but Stamets goes off in pursuit of the image of Hugh.
Back at the Imperial Palace, Michael avoids execution at mirror-Georgiou’s hand by revealing that she is, in fact, from a parallel universe and that she is not the Michael Burnham the Emperor knows. To prevent spreading word of the existence of Burnham’s universe, the Emperor swiftly and mercilessly kills all but one of her personal guards (whom she offers governorship of a planet for his silence). Turns out, the Emperor knows all about Burnham’s prime universe, thanks to her access to classified intel regarding the lost starship Defiant (see: TOS’ “Tholian Web”, ENT’s “In a Mirror, Darkly” parts 1, 2). Burnham’s Federation and its inclusive ideology was long ago deemed a threat to the Terran Empire. Michael and mirror-Georgiou reach a bargain; Burnham will be set free, in exchange for information on the Discovery’s spore drive which brought them into the mirror-universe.
A deal with the devil.
Speaking of devils…
Back on Discovery, Voq/Tyler is awakened in sickbay, screaming and ranting in Klingon. Saru and the medical staff try to calm him, and for a fleeting moment Voq/Tyler’s humanity seems to reassert itself enough to reach out to Saru. Apparently he is two beings within one body, changing things a bit from last week (where we assumed he was just a surgically altered Klingon). Apparently there really was a Lt. Ash Tyler (a POW from the battle of the binary stars), and that the Klingons used his genetic template (and complex surgeries) to graft the mind of Voq onto Ash Tyler’s form.
Saru appeals to Discovery’s resident Klingon prisoner (and Voq’s lover) L’Rell to reach out and help the increasingly agonized Voq/Tyler. She refuses, insisting that a noble Klingon warrior should suffer, and meet his fate with honor. Saru then smartly chooses to beam Voq/Tyler directly into her security cell (clever move on Saru’s part!), so that she may live with the consequences of her refusal. Ultimately L’Rell chooses to help; and later in sickbay, she seems to quell the Klingon part of Voq/Tyler’s mind. She then performs the renowned Klingon death howl (first heard in Next Generation), thus implying that L’Rell has ‘released’ her former Klingon lover from his pain, but left Ash Tyler alive (or so it seems…?).
Meanwhile Stamets, in his mycelium-hallucinatory state, is spending some quality time with the image of his late lover Hugh. Reliving their most cherished moments together, Hugh reveals to Paul that he needs to come out of his catatonia and deal with the reality of the infection of his spore network; the same network that may be their key to returning to their own universe. He urges Paul to “go…now!” and Stamets is awakened from his catatonia (both versions). Prime universe Stamets discovers, to his dismay, that the cultivated spores near engineering are dying…apparently from an infection that was brought on by his mirror-self, corrupting the entire spore network…
Meanwhile, tortured Lorca is goaded on by a guard whose sister Lorca apparently betrayed before his disappearance. Since Lorca was medically fortified for the agony booth’s effects, he manages to retain enough strength after the torture to seize an opportunity to escape. Lorca disables the guard, says the girl’s name…and by doing so reveals that he is, and has always been, native to the mirror universe!
Okay, another ambitious (forgive the pun) episode in Discovery’s mirror-universe saga. This one was a bit more exposition-heavy, but still very enjoyable.
What I liked about “Vaulting Ambition”:
* More Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh); always a good thing…
While her return from the dead last weekend was the big ‘I am your father’ moment of last week, this week we got to know Emperor Georgiou a bit better. And while she’s strikingly contrasting to her prime counterpart, there are similarities as well; the maternal bond she shares towards Michael, as well as her fierce intelligence and regal bearing (even Captain Georgiou had that quality). With two more episodes remaining in the season, it’s nice to have fan-favorite Yeoh back, even if she’s not quite the same beloved character we saw in “Vulcan Hello” and “Battle of the Binary Stars.” Michelle Yeoh is clearly having a great time playing Emperor Georgiou…
* More in-depth explanation of Voq/Tyler (Shazad Latif)
L’Rell finally spill the beans on what was done to Ash Tyler. It was interesting to know that Ash Tyler really was a Starfleet officer once. Yes, we’d speculated on Voq/Tyler’s dual nature from his first episode (“Choose Your Pain”), and it wasn’t exactly a surprise when his Klingon self was outed last week, but to understand that he wasn’t entirely a Klingon Konstruct (sorry…couldn’t resist) was an interesting twist. His story changes from a Klingon sleeper-agent/lab-experiment to something a bit more sympathetic. The situation is now more akin to 12-year old Regan McNeill in “The Exorcist”; harboring a violent demon inside that forces its host to say/do horrible things (like the cold-blooded murder of Dr. Culber). And in another interesting twist, L’Rell seemed to ‘release’ her former lover Voq from his pain inside of his surgically altered human host. L’Rell did the Klingon death howl… perhaps was she freeing him. That begs the question: is Ash Tyler only Ash Tyler now?
* Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and his true nature, revealed at last.
Most Discovery fans, I think (at least judging from message boards), already figured out ‘the big twist’ regarding Captain Lorca. His sensitivity to bright light (mirror-universe natives are more accustomed to a lower light level), his seemingly miraculous ‘rescue’ of Burnham’s prison shuttle (“Context Is For Kings”), and his need to keep Burnham safe at all costs (Burnham’s access to mirror-Georgiou was his ticket back inside the Imperial Palace). Even that mysterious squid-like dish he was seen chowing down on once…turns out it was a piece of Kelpian (once again, if only poor Saru knew…yikes!). The clues were all there, and many of us fans put them together ages ago, but it was still a nice reveal (much of that is due to Isaacs, who is terrific).
Isaacs is so enjoyable that a part of me is really hoping that they find a need/reason to keep Lorca aboard Discovery even after the reveal. If for no other reason, I just love the wily bastard…he’s J.R. Ewing in Space. Not to mention he is formidably clever to have masked his mirror-self’s nature within the pacifistic prime universe (something Spock once speculated was nigh impossible in TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror”). Something tells me that might be a very useful guy to keep around…
* Saru (Doug Jones) finally getting to show his command stripes a bit…
Left in charge of Discovery (and perhaps permanently, with Lorca outed as mirror-universe native), Saru (the amazing Doug Jones) got to show some real command aptitude; from overseeing Paul Stamets’ catatonic state to his decision to force prisoner L’Rell’s hand by beaming her former agonized lover Voq/Tyler directly into her cell, Saru coolly took charge this week. He didn’t seem nearly as nervous or awkward as he did when he first assumed command during Lorca’s capture earlier this season (“Choose Your Pain”). Despite his species’ heightened flight instinct in times of danger, the Kelpian exec was cool as a cucumber and reminded me a bit more of TOS’ Mr. Spock. And Jones always manages to show much expression, despite the prohibitive (and formidable) makeup appliances.
* The scenes within Stamets’ (and mirror-Stamets’) mind
The surreal journey within both Stamets’ minds may have been somewhat familiar to Star Trek fans (we’ve seen such subconscious journeys on various Star Trek series many times) yet this old sci-fi cliche really worked well this time; due in large part to absolutely perfect motion control work that allowed Anthony Rapp to seamlessly act with his ‘double’ (with zero trace of FX giveaways anywhere to be seen). It made earlier doubled-character moments in Star Trek lore (TOS’ “Enemy Within,” TNG’s “Datalore” & “Second Chances” etc) seem downright crude by comparison. And Anthony Rapp seemed to have a good time playing mirror-Stamets; a character with little patience for fools, as well as a decidedly darker sense of humor (“Yes, there is a god…and she is quite upset with you”).
* Nice, if very sad bit of closure for Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz).
While I still abhor this character’s needless murder (we were just getting to know him, for goodness’ sake), his nexus-like scenes within the consciousness of his catatonic lover Paul Stamets were done with a lot of heart, and very well-acted by both Cruz and Anthony Rapp. From the deliberate conjuring of Hugh’s favorite opera (which Paul isn’t a fan of), to their toothbrushing, their scenes tougher were a nice sendoff for Hugh Culber that I sincerely wish we’d gotten to know a bit better. Here’s hoping (in some Star Trek-ish way) that maybe this isn’t truly the end for the character… ?
* Mary Chieffo’s L’Rell
Like Doug Jones’ Saru, actress Mary Chieffo plays Klingon prisoner L’Rell under a ton of prosthetics, and in this episode both she and Jones were exceptional. Their scene together in her cell was a solid moment for both characters. Also loved her performing the Klingon ‘death howl’ when she seemed to finally free Voq from Ash Tyler’s body. L’Rell has become a character out of Shakespearean tragedy, saying goodbye to her beloved Voq (in her own Klingon way), just as Stamets said his goodbyes to Hugh. That sadness and tragedy of L’Rell’s took a while for me to appreciate.
Hail to the Chieffo on a job well done.
And a couple of minor nits about “Vaulting Ambition”:
* It’s a very exposition-heavy episode.
By necessity I realize, but there were moments of the episode where it felt like we were getting large data dumps. And that’s fine when it is cleverly woven into dialogue, but there were many moments here where it felt a bit…heavy. This is a minor nit, because sometimes the story simply has to convey information to the audience. And there are only so many ways to do that within the grind of television series production. A minor nit, but ultimately I give it a pass because, hey, sometimes a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s got to do...
* The ending was predicated on a surprise most of us have long seen coming
Lorca’s reveal had been so heavily hinted at all season that its reveal felt more like ‘about time’ rather than ‘gasp!’ This was a nit I’d had last week as well. And I’m coming to accept these non-surprise surprises as unavoidable sometimes. Sometimes you just have to accept that we (the audience) will be a few steps ahead of the characters, and we have to get our ‘surprise fix’ from the their reactions, and not ours. I guess I’d gotten a bit too used to the genuine shockers from my earlier favorite series of this millennium; including the brilliant newer version of “Battlestar Galactica,” or the sensational “Breaking Bad” (or even the earlier seasons of “Walking Dead”). Not every series is going to have those giant audience-reveal fireworks, and it’s hardly the end of the world if they don’t. I’m still enjoying Discovery. But there are times when I really miss the mouth-agape surprises of some of those earlier serialized television dramas.
That said? There was one REALLY cool surprise tonight, as Georgiou dispatched all but one of her guards with what appeared to be some kind of ninja-star boomerang device. Genuinely surprising, and cold-blooded as hell too.
In fact, I’ll go ahead and withdraw some of this nit for that moment alone. Michelle Yeoh is such a badass; a rep she’s held since 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”…
And once again, these were relatively minor nits that didn’t really hinder my overall enjoyment for this episode.
The series’ foray into the mirror-universe is continuing to yield a lot of great moments, and it may ultimately be this series’ signature arc; like the Dominion War and Klingon arcs of Deep Space Nine, or the Borg with Voyager.
With only a few more episodes till the end of the first season, will the Discovery crew finally make it to the Constitution-class USS Defiant and access the inter-dimensional gateway (see: TOS’ “The Tholian Web”)? Or will they find their own way back by resuscitating the seemingly dead spores and getting their own jump drive back online? Or will they ever return to the prime universe at all?
But with the mirror universe fitting this series like the crew’s skintight uniforms? Here’s hoping they aren’t in a terrible rush to get home…