- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND UNLIKE ALADDIN, IT’S NOT SO MUCH A WHOLE NEW WORLD AS A WHOLE NEW UNIVERSE …
We’re not in galactic Kansas anymore Toto!
In “Despite Yourself”, an apt title for an episode where the issue of identity is a constant theme, the crew of the USS Discovery finds themselves in the good old Mirror Universe, a alternate dimension first visited by Captain Kirk and the crew of the Original series in “Mirror Mirror”.
The Star Trek franchise has visited this unnervingly familiar/not familiar realm many times since (Deep Space Nine made particularly good use of it) , an upside down land controlled by the fascist Terran Empire who bear no resemblance to the well-intentional noble folk of Starfleet.
In this unforgiving world of bloodshed, power by the sword and brutal putdowns by an omnipresent power – ruled over apparently by a faceless emperor, an interesting idea given how much dictators in our slice of the multiverse like to stick their face on everything from billboards to coffee cups (OK maybe not but it feels that way right?) – the Vulcans, Andorians and Klingons are not loyal allies but aggrieved, rebellious subjects who are doing everything they can to be free of the Terrans’ unyielding yoke.
It’s into this mess of a universe, albeit one run to very tight, exacting strictures, that the good crew of the Discovery arrive after the Spore Drive aka Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) malfunctions a tad and arrives at the right coordinates in the wrong universe.
Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and Stamets had discussed that entry to the multiverse could be a side project of the Federation’s revolutionary drive but until now it was all theory and no reality.
That’s the case no more, and with all that theory already on very snazzy three-dimensional drawing board, it didn’t take everyone long to figure out that they were a long way from home (although not at the same time, if you think about it) with no way of getting back, given that that last universe-busting leap put Stamets into la la la land, attended to by his doctor and husband Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz).
Well, he was anyway.
In an episode directed by Star Trek: Next Generation alum Jonathan Frakes (his first directorial outing in the franchise since Star Trek Voyager’s “Prototype” in 1995) that was all-go from the get-go, Culber was first demoted as Stamet’s caregiver by a newly protocol-adherent Lorca, and then unceremoniously killed by Klingon sleeper agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) who is messily slipping in and out of his new identity, remembering nothing of what he does while under the Klingon influence.
It was a shocking death, partly due to the fact that you simply didn’t see it coming – it was only when Culber noted how much has been done to Tyler mentally and physically that you thought “Uh-oh” and realised that Stamet’s ramblings about “the enemy is here” weren’t about the mirror universe but a threat much closer to hand – but also that it occurred so quickly, so quietly, an interlude on Tyler’s way to join a stealthy mission to infiltrate the Terran Empire ship, Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) beloved Shenzhou.
Only it isn’t really her old ship but a bad ass alternate version where killing your second-in-command, to be fair after he tried to do you in, is greeted by claps and cheers by your crew (yep, tough workplace, people. TOUGH).
So given that the ruling aesthetic is militaristic chic and the mindset is kill or be killed, having someone like Tyler, who is slipping in and out of his Manchurian Candidate persona, on the team is more great big liability than helping hand.
Not that Burnham, who in this universe is captain of the Shenzhou or Lorca, a renegade captain who tried to kill the emperor, know this.
Their only goal is to find out how the USS Defiant managed to get home without a funky Spore Drive to guide their way and to do that they have to go DEEP undercover, as do the rest of the crew with adorable Tilley (Mary Wiseman) the VERY hard-edged captain of the Discovery who sports a ton of weirdly-catchy monikers such as “The Slayer of Sorna Prime,” “The Witch of Wurna Minor” and yes even Captain Killy (yeah not an affectionate nickname now is it?).
With everyone having to switch positions, roles and play havoc with their identity just to stay alive, who you are was the major theme du jour with everyone rightly wondering who they might be at the end of this whole quite peculiar and highly-dangerous episode.
“Despite Yourself” explored the question of identity brilliantly well, with Tyler the emblematic face of what it’s like to have your sense of self royally screwed over.
In a number of key scenes, including a confronting one with his tormentor/lover L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), and a more tender, intimate one with Burnham who is the closest of anyone to know what’s really going on with Tyler (though he’s not telling her even close to everything), you got a profoundly emotionally-resonant sense of what’s going on in the security chief’s deeply-troubled mind (or what’s left of it anyway).
His anguish is writ large on his face, and as he walks with Lorca and Burnham into a situation where each has to trade off who they are vs. who the Mirror Universe will demand they be to survive, you have a feeling that he won’t be the last person to walk away with scars from all identity-finagling.
The episode, which had some lovely quiet character moments beautifully and elegantly slipped into its high-stakes, fraught narrative – the scene where Tilley tried to awaken Stamets with some gentle, affectionate teasing is a gem – and some humour believe it or not (again Tilley was the star performer here as the eminently sweet, nice cadet struggled to play a bad ass killer; spoiler alert; eerily well once she hit her stride), is the first entry in what CBS is styling as Chapter Two of Discovery’s story.
The war story that marked the first half of the show’s opening season is still a factor – they still need to the Klingon shield codes to Starfleet – but right now, Discovery has to stay in one piece if it is to stand any chance of accomplishing its mission.
The stakes have been well and truly raised and Star Trek Discovery looks set to become even more gripping as the next five episodes playing out in a universe where up is down, black is white and there are no guarantees of anything anymore.
- Next week on “The Wolf Inside”, Burnham muses, rather gravely we might add, on the corrosive effects of living in a universe where dog eat dog is the norm and human decency is a complete unknown …