*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
This week’s episode, written by Terry Hughes Burton and directed by Christopher J. Byrne, sees Discovery and her crew return to Ni’Var, the planet once known as Vulcan (and childhood home to Michael Burnham) to investigate an ongoing space anomaly and chase down rogue space pirate nuns. While I enjoyed the episode for its character moments and Star Trekkian use of metaphor and allegory (Adira & Gray’s story), I had major issues with the characterization of the Qowat Milat cult–er, order and it’s ‘absolute candor.’
“Choose To Live.”
The USS Credence is delivering a free shipment of dilithium to Ni’Var (visited in last year’s “Unification III”). Aboard the Credence, the transfer is interrupted by several sword-wielding Romulan nuns from the order known as the Qowat Milat; a quasi-religious sect who believe in ‘absolute candor’ at all times. They’ve been hijacking dilithium shipments under the guidance of a nun named J’Vini (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves), who’s apparently gone rogue. Armed only with swords, J’Vini steals the dilithium and slays the first officer of the Credence (Khalil Abdul Malik).
The act of piracy, the 4th in a line of such dilithium thefts, prompts an emergency meeting between Ni’Var’s president, T’Rina (Tara Rosling), Federation president Rillik (Chelah Horsdal), Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) and Discovery’s Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) at Starfleet Headquarters. Also present at the meeting, representing the Qowat Milat order, is Michael’s mother Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn), who’s become a devout member of the sect since she arrived in the 32nd century well over a year ago. Ni’Var’s official position is to respect the Qowat Milat’s handling of the situation, while Rillik and Vance advocate for a joint mission with Starfleet. The joint mission is approved, though Burnham will use Book’s ship while Discovery remains at Ni’Var, studying the dangerous gravitational anomaly which threatens the galaxy.
In Discovery’s engine room, Book (David Ajala) is keeping busy helping Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) to identify the anomaly. Book appreciates Stamets giving him the work to shut out his grief following the loss of his home planet Kwejian. Stamets tells a visiting Burnham that he’s calling the anomaly a DMA (“Dark Matter Anomaly”) and that it meets four of the five criteria of an emergent wormhole–save for a lack of tachyons, which annoys Stamets no end. After Burnham teasingly “appropriates” Book’s ship (“I promise I’ll return it washed and waxed”) and leaves, Book volunteers to go with Stamets to Ni’Var and make his case for their Science Council’s assistance. Stamets warns him that he will have to discuss the loss of Kwejian clinically and dispassionately; Book insists he’ll be alright.
Meanwhile, Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) still feeling unsettled of late, asks the kindly First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) for tasks that will take her out of her comfort zone, since her comfort zone isn’t so comfortable these days. He assigns her the task of watering his plants, but advises her to be careful with a particular species that is dangerous while blooming…and leaves it at that (“Feed me, Seymour!”). He also recommends to Burnham that she take Tilly along on her pursuit of J’Vini–another task that is outside of Tilly’s comfort zone, but one in which both Tilly and Burnham might benefit. Tilly meets a Qowat Milat nun (Mimi Cote), who is going on the mission, and Tilly begins her usual nervous babbling, which doesn’t offend or bother the stoic, but agreeable nun. Tilly remarks on their policy of ‘absolute candor’ at all times, saying, “I dig that.”
Note: The idea of the Qowat Milat binding themselves to “lost causes” was first established in Star Trek: Picard’s “Absolute Candor”. While Vulcans would no doubt dismiss this idea as little more than a sentimental martyr complex, their more passionate cousins, the Romulans, clearly feel differently. We see traces of the Vulcans’ famed stoicism seeping into the Qowat Milat nuns, as well as Michael’s own mother, who seem trained at keeping their emotions in check as well.
Burnham, Gabrielle, Tilly and the Qowat Milat nuns get underway on Book’s ship; a tracking device placed discretely on the stolen dilithium shipment reveals that the shipment is beneath the surface of the rocky moon, within a chamber of breathable atmosphere. Gabrielle insists they not bring their phasers on this mission; opting instead for Qowat Milat swords–Tilly is fascinated by the prospect of wielding the ancient weapons; something else outside of her comfort zone…
During the journey, Burnham asks her mother why she is going out of her way to defend J’Vini, who’s killed a Starfleet officer. Gabrielle explains that when she first arrived in the 32nd century, she was lost and disoriented–until J’Vini took her as her own personal “lost cause,” and helped her. It was J’Vini who also gave Gabrielle a purpose in this time as a member of the Qowat Milat–a rare privilege for a human.
Note: Gabrielle’s closeness with J’Vini is one of the things about this otherwise solid episode that really bothered me; wouldn’t Gabrielle’s relationship with J’Vini be grounds for her being emotionally compromised as well? Granted, she understands J’Vini better than most, but that’s also grounds for Starfleet and the Ni’Varans to be suspicious of her motives. It would’ve been more honest of Gabrielle (some of that “absolute candor”) if she’s told these things to Starfleet at the beginning of the episode when she was at Starfleet Headquarters, and not discretely to her daughter after the mission was underway…
Without warning (though not unexpectedly), J’Vini and a squad of sword-wielding nuns beam aboard Book’s ship and violently attack. J’Vini warns the others to stay away. When they beam off the ship, Tilly realizes J’Vini has killed the kindly nun she meet just before they got underway…
Note: They’ve established that the Qowat Milat, a sect of the warlike Romulans, are a violent but honorable people, but just how much bloodshed is considered ‘honorable’ for their “lost causes”? This is also something I had issues with–if the nuns simply wounded their attackers enough to prevent pursuit, wouldn’t that achieve the same result? I wonder how the pacifist Vulcans dealt with this aspect of Romulan culture when they were reintegrated back into Vulcan/Ni’Var society following the supernova of the Romulan sun.
Once Burnham and the others beam beneath the moon’s surface, they see a deserted subterranean dwelling with what appears to be crypts and grave robbers. Tilly and Burnham find the dilithium, which is being used to power the moon…but, as Obi Wan Kenobi might say; “That’s no moon…it’s a space(ship)”. This moonship left an obliterated home world with its surviving population, called Abronians, kept in cryogenic stasis. Gabrielle realizes that this was J’Vini’s “lost cause” to which she was bound; helping the Abronians reach their new home world by keeping their moon-ship powered with dilithium.
Note: The concept of a hollowed out moon (or asteroid) being used as a spaceship, or ‘worldship’, was first seen in TOS Star Trek’s “For the World Is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky,” although the Abronians never attempted to deceive their population into thinking they’re on an actual planet.
Needing to lure J’Vini back, they decide to use Tilly as bait. With Tilly working alone on the moon-ship’s massive reactor, J’Vini beams to her location with her Qowat Milat sisters–but Michael and Gabrielle beam in right behind them. Tilly’s ‘bait’ worked. J’Vini and Gabby get into a duel, and Gabrielle’s throat is held to J’Vini’s blade. Michael relaxes her posture, and promises to hear J’Vini out. J’Vini is indeed protecting the Abronians, the last of their kind. Their cryogenically-stored bodies contains high concentrations of latinum; that’s what the long-dead grave robbers sought. The Abronians sent a telepathic distress call, and J’Vini answered; accepting their “hopeless cause” as her own. On her own, J’Vini asked for dilithium, but was refused, since the newfound Starfleet/Federation doesn’t give dilithium to individuals, only governments. Michael reactivates the Abronian cryostasis units, which releases J’Vini from her bond to them. Tilly fixes the engine of the moon-ship so that the Abronians can escape any danger from the random course of the anomaly.
Note: I have so many issues with J’Vini’s weak motivations for her actions. Did she ever explain to whomever she contacted for the dilithium that a nearly extinct species’ survival was at stake? Why didn’t she take the Abronians’ case directly to the Ni’Varan government and add their voice to her own? I can’t believe that the Ni’Varan government, who seem openminded enough to partner with the Qowat Milat, would simply reject J’Vini’s offer without a proper hearing. J’Vini’s ruthless acts of murder feel unjustified; particularly since the frozen Abronians were in no greater danger than any other planet or culture in the galaxy right now, thanks to the anomaly (see: Kwejian).
Meanwhile, in Discovery’s sickbay, the new android body for Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) is being readied by Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) as a fleet of micro finishing machines rove over the new body–filling in missing bits to the artificial (yet lifelike) form that will house Gray’s consciousness. Culber cautions his anxious ward Adira (Blu del Barrio) that the transfer of mind-to-android-body will take time. Guardian Xi (Andreas Apergis) of the Trill arrives in sickbay as a long-distance hologram to consultant for the transfer of Gray’s essence into the new body. Xi warns that there may some loss of identity and personality in the transfer, and that it could take time to know for certain. The transfer is made, and Adira suddenly feels the loss of Gray’s persona within themself–a disorienting sensation, almost like experiencing Gray’s death again.
Note: As I said in last week’s review of “Anomaly”, the idea of Gray finally getting a new android body should’ve been the subject of its own whole episode. Imagine if Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Offspring” featured Data’s daughter Lal as a subplot? That’s how this important story feels–shoehorned.
Rather than wait for the android body to slowly regain consciousness, Dr. Culber takes the anxious Adira to the ship’s bar (which reminded me of Quark’s on “Deep Space Nine”). Once there, Saru & Culber, two of the kindest and most empathic souls on the ship, share a nice heart-to-heart about being available for others, with both acting in vital counseling roles this week–Saru with Tilly, and Culber with Adira and Gray.
Note: Both Saru and Culber make far better ‘ship’s counselors’ than we ever saw with the unfortunately written Counselor Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who only had a handful of decent episodes in which to show her value in that role. This is not intended as a slur to Marina Sirtis, a fine performer (and life of the party at Star Trek conventions) who was all-too-aware of the limitations of how badly Troi was written, especially in earlier seasons of her series.
Gray awakens in his new body. As his eyes open, he sees his lover Adira at his side. It was a success. The two are now separate beings! Metaphor for gender reassignment surgery—a la Star Trek. Upon ‘awakening’, Gray is in tears as he says, “I’m whole and I’m home.” Guardian Xi is pleased by the success of the transfer, and hopes that Gray might resume his dream of being a Trill guardian–a dream interrupted by his unfortunate demise.
Note: The subplot of Gray’s “new body” is an elegant and wonderfully Star Trek-style metaphor for gender-affirming surgery (or for any emergent trans-person who ‘finds’ their true identity through other means). Once again, I really wish that this plot thread had been the A-story of this episode, as it’s a lot more compelling than the flawed Qowat Milat main story.
On the planet-formerly-known-as-Vulcan, Stamets continues to make his case to the science council that the anomaly is a proto-wormhole of some kind. They reject his theory, after meditating on the matter–noting the missing element of tachyons, which would fit his theory. Cherenkov radiation, a bluish glow which would’ve been noticeable in the atmosphere of Kwejian just before its destruction, would be a telltale side-effect of tachyon radiation. Unfortunately, Book would have to relive the destruction of Kwejian, via a Vulcan mind meld, in order to conclusively prove this.
Note: Loved the bit when Stamets assumes the meditating Vulcans have fallen asleep during his presentation… another Felix Unger-like reaction from Anthony Rapp!
President T’Rina offers to use the mind meld to also help ease Book’s suffering… a freedom from his own guilt. Cautiously, T’Rina melds with Book, and Book is actively reliving his last moments on Kwejian, with his brother and his young nephew, Leto. After T’Rina gets the information needed, Book chooses to remain in the memory for one last thing–he needed to see Leto look back and know just how much Leto loved him before he died. The mind-meld becomes a means for Book to find some measure of peace with the lost of his family on Kwejian…
Note: Of course, one mind-meld will not be enough to ease Book’s trauma over the loss of his home planet, but that’s one of the things I very much enjoy about this series; traumas and loss are not simply glossed over and ignored by the next episode.
As Gabrielle holds a memorial for her slain Qowat Milat sister aboard Book’s ship, the revived Abronians begin their mass exodus for their new home world. After giving parting words of advice to Tilly, Gabrielle takes a moment to speak to her daughter Michael. Gabrielle confesses her own lack of objectivity when she tells Michael she needed her to keep her own moral compass true; she wasn’t sure she could bring J’Vini in without her daughter’s Starfleet objectivity.
Note: Guess I’m not the only one who thought Gabrielle was the wrong choice to bring J’Vini to justice…even Gabrielle thought so, yet she failed to tell this to Starfleet or President T’Rina; so much for that “absolute candor” we’ve heard her crow on about. Gabrielle’s counseling of Tilly was also a bit too much; Tilly already has Saru and Culber as her de facto therapists–she’s got it covered, thanks.
Starfleet reluctantly but willfully remands J’Vini to Ni’Var custody, despite her murder of a Starfleet officer. Alone with Admiral Vance, Burnham reminds him that the slain First Officer of the USS Credence, including his partner and children, deserve justice through Starfleet. A resigned Vance gives Michael the metaphor of a symphony orchestra…they each play their part, and have to trust that ‘conductor’, President Rillik, knows the symphony.
Note: Vance’s symphony metaphor was eloquence incarnate, even if it arguably went a step too far in acknowledging the metaphor.
The final moments see Book reliving holographic image of Kwejian in his cabin. Michael comes to see him, and cozies up beside him, both enraptured by the serenity of the former sanctuary world. Seeing his lost Kwejian, even only as a hologram, offers Book a moment of peace. Michael smiles and says, “Sometimes that’s all we get.”
Note: Great final line. Peace, like joy and happiness, remain forever transitory states. If they weren’t, we could never fully appreciate them as we experience them.
Summing It Up.
While I enjoyed the many character moments of “Choose to Live”, I did have some issues with the contradictory methods and motives of the Qowat Milat. Their policy of “absolute candor” seems terribly selective at times–perhaps they fail to realize that a lie of omission is still a lie? Gabrielle failed to tell Starfleet the truth on just why she was the right person to seek out J’Vini, perhaps because she knew that they would realize her objectivity was compromised. J’Vini also claims to have presented her case for the Abronians’ need for dilithium to the authorities, but just who was that exactly? Starfleet Command? I’m sure if she just told Starfleet (with “absolute candor”) that she needed the dilithium to save a race on the edge of extinction, they would’ve bent over backwards to help her. The violence, piracy and bloodshed seemed not only excessive, but entirely unnecessary, since the cryogenically stored Abronians were in no more immediate danger from the space anomaly (DMA) than anyone else in the galaxy. J’Vini strikes me as a bloodthirsty pirate, not a heroic Robin Hood helping a poor race of friendly aliens…
Despite my issues with the main story, the saving grace of the episode is from its B-story (which should’ve been the A-story) as Adira and Gray separated so that Gray could finally settle into his new artificial body. Gray’s becoming whole and seen again was an elegant Star Trek-style metaphor for persons suffering from acute gender dysphoria, who are finally able to realize their true selves–either through surgical or non-surgical means. This was the real “Choose to Live” story; not some melodramatic blood oath to a bunch of nameless aliens that we’ll probably never see again. I also liked the compassionate Dr. Culber putting compassion into action. It’s nice to see Wilson Cruz’s character becoming an increasingly key member of the Discovery family.
I also appreciated Book working out his grief through Vulcan mind-meld ‘therapy’, yet doing so within a helpful investigation; this is also something Star Trek does well–using techie talk as a means to better understand our main characters. This is something that the late TNG producer Michael Piller understood when he took over the series and steered it away from plots involving outside characters’ stories. It’s also something that current Discovery showrunner Michelle Paradise also seems to intuitively understand as well, as the Disco family has really come alive under her guidance.
While I had issues with the characterization of the Qowat Milat space pirate nuns, there were still plenty of other classically Star Trek elements & character-driven moments to make “Choose to Live” a worthy episode of a promising new season.
Where To Watch.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is now available for streaming on Paramount+ in many more markets, as well as on PlutoTV’s free streaming service and other participating streaming services (Star Trek: Discovery’s international plan revealed/Trekcore.com). 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 over 780,000 (and over 5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available as well). I am attending a funeral this week for a friend lost to COVID, so it’s very real for me. With a bit of Star Trek optimism and medical science, we can persevere through this pandemic.
Live long and prosper!