SPOILERS AHEAD … AND PARASITE ICE! DON’T SWALLOW WHATEVER YOU DO…
One of the standout elements that has elevated Star Trek: Discovery beyond a mere addition to an increasingly (and welcomingly) crowded franchise is its resolute focus on finely-realised and fully-formed characterisation.
Whatever the merits of its narrative directions in seasons 1 & 2 – this reviewer has been a fan since the pilot but that doesn’t include everyone – Discovery has absolutely nailed vivid and affecting characterisation.
That is most noticeable, of course, in the show’s protagonist Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) but in the second episode of the show’s immensely promising third season, it is Commander/Acting Captain Saru (Doug Jones) and Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) who can hold the trophy of brilliantly good characterisation high.
Sent out from a crashed ship – it’s not fatally wounded, thanks to some deft, highly-skilled flying by Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) – who emerges from her feat of survival derring-do more than a little worse for psychic wear – it is Saru and Tilly who have to get help from a nearby settlement on an icy inhospitable planet which, rather delightfully this near to Halloween, has parasitic that will happily munch on anyone and anything when the sun goes down.
“I am aware that you all may feel an expedited need to see and understand what is out there. But our first priority is in here. The integrity of this ship, and this crew.” (Saru, about their unknown destination)
Thankfully, as Saru and Tilly begin their trek to the oxygen bubble in which fifty people are living, it is reasonably bright daytime but that doesn’t stop Tilly, who always wears her considerable, garrulous heart on her sleeve, from being more than a little scared.
And so, she babbles on, speculating as a theoretical engineer is wont to do, about the great big pieces of rock and ice hanging in the sky of a planet which is most definitely not Terre Elysium, all too mindful that with all their sensors down and the ship in a mostly unresponsive way that they no real idea of where, or importantly, when they are, and what awaits them in the settlement further down the glacier.
It’s here that Discovery‘s gift for shining characterisation comes brilliantly to the fore.
As Tilly becomes self-conscious about her fear-dampening chatter and apologises to her acting captain for not keeping a lid on things, Saru, who has demonstrated an affectingly-good gift to this point for staying calm, assigning priorities to an understandably rattled crew and remaining mindful of peoples’ humanity as much as the need to fix the ship, tells her to keep talking, mindful that that is what she needs right then and there to stay calm and focused.
“Sorry, sir. I’m- I’m talking because I’m scared.”
“I know. Keep talking, ensign.” (Tilly and Saru)
It is small moment in one sense in the greater scheme of a big “S” story of survival but it speaks to how beautifully and evocatively rendered these two pivotal characters are.
We have seen both Saru and Tilly grow immeasurably over the course of two seasons and now in Discovery‘s third season, where the crew are most assuredly strangers in a strange and future land, they are taking even more steps towards becoming, along with Michael, the emotional heart of a show that has always been relaxed about elevating the humanity in Star Trek.
Saru demonstrates again and again throughout the episode in which he and Tilly, and a gatecrashing Commander Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), must face down some pretty bad guys intent on stealing their highly-valuable now-antique tech, that he is one of the greatest captains to ever appear in a Star Trek show.
He may not officially have the rank but in every way that matters, and especially in a future where the Federation is a splintered sliver of its former glorious self, he is everything that the Federation stands for.
Throughout an episode where Tilly-type babbling is not only called for but almost indispensable, Saru remains calm, resolute, strong, caring, decisive and compassionate, taking an episode that is all about gritty survival into one where the humanity of the Federation (and from a Kelpian no less) is brought to the fore just when people most need to see it.
While Saru and Tilly are getting the nubindium needed to get the Discovery ship up and off the planet, the better to escape the parasitic ice and get in contact with Michael who is hopefully somewhere in the same space and time, the rest of the crew are racing against time, at great personal cost, to fix what has been mightily broken.
And when we say great cost, we mean great cost.
Case in point is the ship’s The Odd Couple-esque comedy double act, Lieutenant-Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Commander Jet Reno (Tig Notaro) who each have to work together against crippling pain, and in Stamets’ case a barely-recovered-from near-fatal injury to fix vital EPS relays in the ship.
Despite Stamets bleeding like crazy – he’s not supposed to be back at work on strict orders of the ship’s doctor, and his much-loved boyfriend Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) is none too pleased about his partner’s repair efforts once he finds out about them (but surely “needs must” and all that?) – and Reno’s badly-injured back, they work hard to get the ship going on, all while trading witty banter and vivacious repartee.
“Hugh, thanks. Jett, thanks for nothing.”
“Back at you, bobcat.”
“I don’t know, I’m on drugs.” (Stamets, Reno, and Culber)
Again, while there’s a great deal of humour at play – it makes sense that black humour would come to the fore when their survival is on the line – there’s also a great deal of immersive, affecting drama too.
We are also treated to a rousing reminder of why the Federation still matters so damn much.
Even though Starfleet is a mere shadow if its former self, the idea of it remains strong with one of the miners that Saru and Tilly befriend, Kal (Jonathan Koensgen), thrilled that the Federation have turned up, after years of assuring his friends like bartender Os/ir (Lindsay Owen Pierre) that the Starfleet cavalry would one day turn up and rescue them from hoodlums and thugs like Zareh (Jake Weber).
It’s inspiring, heartwarming stuff but it also comes with a hard-edge as Michael, who shows up in the final scene to everyone’s transcendent delight, states that she is not going to leave a future in this much pain and peril stay as it is.
“Far From Home” is a gem of a second episode, full to the dilithium-powered brim with heart and soul, vivid characterisation, a snappy, action-packed plotline and a sense of how important and life-affecting the Federation is to so many, not least to fans of Discovery who are being treated, thus far at least, to the best season of the show so far.