The ninth episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is now available for streaming on CBS All Access, and it’s a return to a very familiar place for Star Trek fans, going all the way back to The Original Series. Written by Alan McElroy from a story by Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippolt, “Terra Firma Part 1” appears to be the swan song of the character of former Terran Empress-turned-Section 31 operative Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).
In a story right out of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Philippa is given a chance to revisit her own past in her native dimension known as “the Mirror Universe”, which was first visited in 1967’s classic TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror” (written by famed sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby), and later seen in episodes of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.
“Terra Firma, Part 1.”
The story opens in Discovery’s sickbay, as a frustrated Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) is trying to learn what is ailing Philippa, who’s been suffering blackouts and seizure-like anomalies since Discovery first arrived in the 32nd century. Consulting with the dry “Kovich” (filmmaker David Cronenberg), a Federation expert on time-travel and alternate timelines, Culber learns that Philippa’s displacement from both her native time is the problem. Kovich tells Culber about the “Temporal Cold Wars” (first referenced in Star Trek: Enterprise), and that the Federation long ago discovered that excessive time travel was harmful, which is one of the reasons it’s currently banned (per the Temporal Accords). Culber counters that assumption, noting that time travel hasn’t harmed any other members of Discovery’s crew. Kovich reminds him that Philippa is also a woman out of her native universe as well, which makes her far more susceptive to these effects.
When Culber suggests sending her back to her own time and universe, Kovich tells him that’d be a direct violation of the Temporal Accords, which strictly prohibit time travel. Not satisfied with Kovich’s dead ends, Culber consults Discovery’s AI/Sphere-augmented computer, which reports there is the possibility of a cure on the planet Dannus 5, an icy world near the Gamma Quadrant. Kovich admits he may have been wrong…
Note: A lot of Easter eggs in this admittedly exposition-heavy scene; the somewhat wry Kovich calls up a holographic image of a Temporal Cold Warrior named Vor, who infiltrated the late 24th century (wearing a slightly out of date uniform, but okay). Kovich states that the Betelguesian Vor came from a corrupted timeline which began with the arrival of a “Romulan mining ship”–a direct reference to the Narada, which arrived through a black hole from the 24th century into the 23rd, and was commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) in the 2009 quasi-reboot film, “Star Trek”. The other movies of that timeline were “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013) and “Star Trek Beyond”(2016). Whether or not the cinematic Kelvinverse (as it’s since been labelled) plays any further part in this story remains to be seen, but I kinda doubt it.
In the Discovery’s mess hall, newly-minted first officer Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green), along with other crew members, observe Georgiou acting strangely. The big-hearted Tilly offers to help, only to have a tray of food tossed at her as thanks from a hostile and defensive Philippa, who insists nothing is wrong.
Note: Tilly’s new role as First Officer, despite her low rank of ensign, might still strike some fans (and a scathingly hostile Philippa) as a poor choice on Saru’s part, but I’m starting to see the wisdom of it; instead of a stiff marionette, this traumatized and time-displaced crew needs someone with Tilly’s natural warmth to shepherd them under Saru’s leadership. Unless she seriously screws up down the road? I’m starting to get exactly why she got the job over more qualified officers…sometimes a crew just needs an ally over a superior officer.
With news of a possible five percent chance to ‘cure’ Philippa on the planet Dannus 5, Captain Saru (Doug Jones), Tilly and Michael make their case to Starfleet Admiral Vance (Ohed Fehr). Vance, surprisingly, grants Saru and Discovery permission to spore-jump to Dannus 5, despite the Emerald Chain’s conducting of “training exercises” in preparation for a possible move against the remnants of the Federation. Vance tells everyone present that the information is to remain compartmentalized, and they are dismissed. After the other officers leave, Saru is given permission to speak freely, and he questions the wisdom of Vance’s decision. Vance assures him that the remaining Starfleet can deal with the Emerald Chain situation. Saru, of course, agrees to the admiral’s wishes, despite his own misgivings.
Note: I have no idea why Admiral Vance was suddenly so cooperative about letting Discovery slip away at a critical time to help Philippa, but it sets up either a potential plot twist later on, or it’s just a red herring. Or maybe the admiral is just tired of arguing with the always-right Michael.
In a scene that’s a bit of a cliche these days, we see Philippa in the ship’s gym, trying to angrily kick-box her aggressions away. Michael intrudes upon her time, and a combative Philippa tries to force Michael to fight her. When Michael refuses, Philippa pulls her sword and raises it to Michael’s neck, but Michael refuse to yield, offering instead to accompany the reluctant ex-Empress to Dannus 5. A surly Philippa tells Michael how she isn’t so different from the abandoned girl she rescued from a trash heap in her native universe. When Michael asks why she rescued the mirror-version of herself, Philippa says it’s because she was the only child who wasn’t begging for her help–a quality that Philippa was instantly drawn to in the young girl…her self-reliance. Philippa reiterates how that Michael still betrayed her, nevertheless. Unable to defend her mirror-self’s actions, Michael gives Philippa a wrist monitor, courtesy of Dr. Culber, so that he can monitor her during their excursion. Disdainfully, Philippa straps on the device.
Discovery jumps to Dannus 5, as Philippa and Michael prepare to flash-beam down to the planet. Saru is there to say his goodbyes to Georgiou, despite their contentious relationship. Tilly is on the scene as well, giving Philippa an awkward hug, and thanking her for helping her in ways she may not have realized. Saru makes a comment about the Mirror universe, to which she corrects, “To us, you were the Mirror, and we were the Prime.”
Note: Kovich mentions earlier on that Philippa’s innate biological desire to return to her time and universe would make her increasingly hostile. This bit of character shading is well played by Michelle Yeoh, who delivers a little bit of extra venom in every scene she plays prior to her beaming down to Dannus 5; it feels like she’s really trying to push away the sentiment and attachments of her Prime ‘friends’ (if that word applies).
On the snowy surface Dannus 5, in a scene that recalls the first time we meet Georgiou and Michael in “The Vulcan Hello,” the two are traversing a hostile landscape together, chasing down the enigmatic energy readings and coordinates of the alleged ‘cure.’ They trudge through the snow together, following the energy signature…
Aboard Discovery, Adira (Blu del Barrio) is working themself exhausted, until a patient Stamets (Anthony Rapp) offers to relieve them. Adira no longer has visions of their late lover Gray, and it disturbs them. As Adira curses themself over a mistake, Stamets realizes they’ve decoded the distress call at the center of the Burn mystery (the Burn, of course, being the galaxy-wide calamity which rendered the galaxy’s dilithium inert). Meanwhile, Saru is met by Booker (David Ajala) who offers his services to Discovery’s captain in whatever way he can, including his many contacts in the region; Saru accepts the offer. Later, in his ready room, Saru, along with his officers, reviews the hologram of the distress call from the decoded data. The distress call is from a fellow Kelpien named Dr. Issa (Hannah Spear) from the KSF Khi’eth. Saru is mesmerized by the image of the fellow Kelpien…a sight he doesn’t see very often. He learns that the call is still being transmitted by the Khi’eth, and that the vessel had reported a “dilithium nursery” within the Verubian nebula, where the Burn somehow originated. Encouraged by this new piece of the Burn puzzle, a sentimental Saru replays the hologram of Dr. Issa after his officers leave…
Note: Hannah Spear also played Saru’s sister Siranna in the Short Trek “The Brightest Star“, as well as Discovery’s season 2 episodes “The Sounds of Thunder” and “Such Sweet Sorrow,” part 2. Spear was no doubt chosen for this new role since her endurance of the extreme Kelpien makeup made her a safe casting choice. Besides, all Kelpiens look alike to we poor dumb humans anyway, right?
Things quickly take a surreal twist on Dannus 5, as Michael and Philippa locate the source of the energy reading, and they see a man dressed in 1940s-era garb, reading a newspaper with a lit cigar, sitting in a chair next to a wooden doorway planted in the snow. The enigmatic man identifies himself only as “Carl” (Paul Guilfoyle), and the paper he’s reading (The Star Dispatch: “Tomorrow’s News Today”) reports of Philippa’s “horribly painful death” if she doesn’t go through the doorway. The nonchalant Carl seems to know all about Philippa’s circumstances, and tells her she can step right through the door, if she chooses. Michael, confused by Carl and his bizarre appearance, notices that he doesn’t register as a lifeform, and tells Philippa that the doorway might lead to some kind of some kind.
Note: A lot to unpack with Carl’s bizarre appearance in this episode. Is he a member of the Q Continuum, perhaps? Appearing in period garb is certainly a telltale sign of a Q, after all (see: TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint”), not to mention their seemingly magical ability to place characters in any time or dimension they please. It’s also remotely probable that Carl might be a “Guardian of Forever”, harkening back to Harlan Ellison’s original “City on the Edge of Forever” script’s concept of several humanoid “Guardians of Forever,” but I seriously doubt the writers would risk being sued by Ellison’s estate. Not to mention the Guardian was depicted in the canonical broadcast version of “City…” as a large, donut-shaped, living-machine portal. My gut feeling tells me that Carl is most likely a member of the Q Continuum–it fits with his awesome and surreal abilities, as well as his curiosity in human affairs. If Carl is a Q, then it could tie all of the Star Trek universes a bit closer together, suggesting the Q might have power over the entire Star Trek multiverse (including the Kelvinverse), and not just our “prime” universe.
As her appearance begins to phase briefly into bizarre manifestations (an effect of her increasing state of not-belonging in the prime future), a desperate Philippa prefers to enter Carl’s wooden doorway, saying she’d rather die facing a hostile foe in battle than self-destruct. Michael relents, and Philippa enters the wooden doorway…
… stepping back in time and space to her own 23rd century Mirror Universe! A momentarily disoriented Philippa is first arriving on the hangar deck of the ISS Discovery, the 32nd century vessel’s own mirror counterpart. She is greeted by a straight-haired Captain Sylvia “Killy” Tilly, the far more ambitious counterpart to the nervous, curly-locked ensign in the Prime universe. Within moments, Philippa’s disorientation fades, and she realizes she is back in time to the events around the christening of the Terran Empire’s newest flagship, the ISS Charon (her command ship, last seen in the final two episodes of season one).
Note: Philippa’s return to the Terran Empire of the 23rd century was not at all unexpected, of course, but it’s very interesting to revisit. The details are all there. A few ‘dead’ crew members are also seen again, such as a non-cybernetically enhanced Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) and Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) as well as the twice-killed Security Chief Ellen Landry (Rekha Sharma). I had the pleasure of interviewing actress Rekha Sharma for Trekcore.com last year in Las Vegas. We talked about her roles in Discovery, the 2009 reboot of “V” and her return to her expanded role of Ellen Landry in the Star Trek: Online video game, which fleshed out some of Landry’s backstory.
Knowing what lies in her immediate future during this time period, Philippa is well-prepared for the coup attempt on her life by her adopted daughter Michael, who is sleeping with Captain Gabriel Lorca (played by Jason Isaacs in season one), one of Philippa’s upstart rivals. Having spent the last two years in the Prime universe (or 932 years, if you look at it that way), Philippa no longer seems to be fully in synch with the attitudes of her Terran Empire.
Note: Philippa’s attitude towards her old stomping grounds is reminiscent of someone who grew up in a rough neighborhood, spent a few years away at college, only to return home and find their old haunts a little embarrassing and even distasteful. Philippa still knows the ropes, and she certainly how to defend herself, but Michelle Yeoh conveys a very subtle disdain for the habits of her old universe. It’s a very nuanced performance, which allows us to see and feel her character’s growth over the last two years.
Philippa meets with a returning mirror-Michael in the mess hall, fresh off a mission of plundering artwork from a ravaged planet (where she mutilated the local artists to increase the value of their work). A cocky Michael is unaware that Philippa knows of her pending betrayal. As Michael is clumsily attended by her nervous Kelpien slave, slave-Saru steps in to cover for the other Kelpien’s bumbling. A seething Michael wants to have the Kelpiens both killed (“a waste of evolution”), but Georgiou takes Saru back into her own service, over Michael’s objection. Later that evening, in Philippa’s quarters, a grateful Saru brushes Philippa’s hair, telling her of the plotting against her life by Michael and Lorca, which he’s overheard.
Michael and Philippa come across ISS Discovery crew members Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) and Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) fighting a bloody duel in a corridor for the prestigious position of security chief of the Charon. With a precognitive Philippa accepting Michael’s wager on the winner, Michael unwisely chooses Rhys, whom Owosekun beats to a bloody pulp.
During the christening ceremony, Philippa appears before her subjects, adorned in ceremonial garb as Paul Stamets poetically narrates a dance interpretation of the Empress’s rise to power from obscurity. During the presentation, the devious Stamets makes his way closer and closer to Philippa, slowly withdrawing a hidden dagger– until Philippa swiftly kills him with her ceremonial sword, easily anticipating the now-failed attempt on her life. Following the death of the would-be assassin, Michael immediately switches sides, suddenly feigning allegiance to Philippa. The rest of the christening proceeds normally, despite the attempt on Philippa’s life.
Note: With mirror-Stamets’ death occurring differently than it had in season one, as well as other minor differences, it’s safe to assume that Philippa is trying to affect changes in her universe’s timeline which might alter her dead-end relationship with Michael. Despite her adopted daughter’s betrayal, it’s clear that Philippa still cares for the self-reliant little girl she rescued from the garbage heap years before…
After the christening, Michael realizes that Philippa has already put two-and-two together, and that she will be her next target. Hurriedly trying to leave the ship, Michael is intercepted by Killy and a squad of armed loyalists to the Empress. Cornered and trapped, Philippa pulls out her sword to execute Michael on the spot, her Imperial regulations. Despite the urging of the bloodthirsty ISS Discovery crew, as well as Michael goading her on, Philippa can’t kill quite bring herself to kill Michael, merely grazing her neck. She then insists that Michael be taken away to spend some time in an agony booth.
Note: Prime Kirk similarly refused to execute a mutinous mirror-Chekov in TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror” as well, choosing to remand him to “the booth” as well. The biggest difference this time is that it’s a mirror character who is refusing to execute the prisoner. Has Philippa’s time in the prime universe changed her that much, or does she have something else in mind? We’ll find out next week….
End of Part One.
In the Rearview Mirror, Mirror.
Crisp direction by Omar Madhu ably assists an epic story which features callbacks not just to Discovery’s own first season sojourn into the Mirror universe, but to the entire Star Trek franchise as well. There are a few references which assist in the storytelling instead of simply offering Easter eggs for the fans, such as mention of the Kelvin timeline featured in the 2009-2016 trilogy of Star Trek films, and how it relates to inter-dimensional travel. We learn that inter-dimensional travel, especially when accompanied by long-distance time travel can be dangerous.
This notion of inter-dimensional travel being physically disruptive to the traveler was actually introduced in Jerome Bixby’s original outlines for TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror,” where a lone Captain Kirk began to realize the Mirror universe itself was attacking him much in the same way that a body’s immune system attacks an invading virus. However, this notion was not included in the final version of the script, which saw Kirk (and several of his officers) facing other dangers, such as a hostile ‘mirror’ crew and a ‘gateway’ between the universes which was rapidly shrinking. In “Terra Prime” we see Bixby’s original concept playing out with Philippa, whose extended stay in the Prime universe is further agitated by her arrival in the Prime universe’s far future, thus, killing her. As the enigmatic Federation interrogator and mirror-universe-specialist Kovich tells Dr. Culber, our cells prefer to stay in their native times and universes; in fact it’s one of the reasons time-travel is strictly forbidden in the 32nd century–it turns out time-travel, like smoking, is downright bad for you.
If there’s any downside to this otherwise exciting, intriguing episode, it’s that we’re clearly seeing Philippa’s exit from Discovery. I don’t yet know if Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa will be killed off, exiled to her now-changed universe permanently, or if she somehow makes her way back to the Prime 23rd century for that long-rumored Section 31 spinoff series. At any rate, it’s clear that this dramatic two-parter is the character’s (and actor’s) goodbye to this series, and that’s what breaks my heart. I’ve been a fan of Michelle Yeoh since 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and I hated to see Prime Philippa killed off so quickly in Discovery’s two-part premiere. That said, this first part of “Terra Prime” is, so far, a sendoff fit for royalty.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is around 290,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing by thousands daily. There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact rollout dates for the vaccines into the general population (frontline workers first, of course), so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. With the holiday season upon us, let’s all try to keep any get togethers safe-distanced, outdoors and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!