SPOILERS AHEAD … AND TENSION! OH, THE TENSION!
Those deep indentations you might have noticed on the arm of my favourite streaming viewing chair – frankly, if you did notice them, that’s kind of creepy and I’d prefer you don’t sneak into my home unannounced, or frankly, at all (unless you have chocolate in which case, have at it) – are the result of 40-something minutes of epically-tense Star Trek: Discovery watching.
Despite living in an age where the prevalence of viral-baiting cliffhangers and character deaths is so ubiquitous as to be almost unremarked upon, “Such Sweet Sorrow Pt. 1” managed to pack an tension-building wallop that was duly commensurate with what was at stake.
In fact, so well did it do that while managing to be heart-on-the-sleeve emotionally intimate too, that it really felt like the fate of the sentient universe was at stake.
“Personal log, Stardate 1051.8. We’re in the process of abandoning our ship in order to destroy it. This is actually happening, yet somehow I still can’t believe it. Long-range sensors show Control is on the move and gaining quickly. Its infiltrated our subspace radio relays, so we can’t reach Starfleet for backup. Ship-to-ship communication is all we’ve got. Discovery contains the one thing in all the galaxy that Control needs, the data to become fully conscious. My mother sacrificed everything to stop Control from getting that data, and now she’s counting on us to finish the job. But is this really the only solution? I look in the mirror and can hardly recognize myself anymore. All these questions without answers. There are seven signals, but we’ve only seen four. We have a time crystal that we don’t know how to use. Captain Pike has always had faith that they play a part in some grand design. Now… more than ever… I wish I had his certainty.” (opening monologue / Memory Alpha wiki)
That’s not always the case, even in Star Trek shows where great, massive, HUUUUUUUGE buildups feel as exciting, in their eventual execution, like someone making a quick trip to the shops to pick up the corn chips and salsa.
After all the adding on of anticipatory layer after anticipatory layer, such that you’re so far out on the edge of your chair that you’re somehow seamlessly hovering over the floor, gravity defied by narrative adrenaline alone, events are resolved so quickly and with so little consequence that you feel more than a little let down.
Now, Star Trek: Discovery‘s second season could still falter at the final barrier next week in what I expect will be a thrilling, edgy excursion into a do-or-die effort to stop Control/Leland (Alan van Sprang) but somehow I doubt it with the penultimate episode managing to accurately channel that sense of doom descending and good women and men fighting back.
In the very best of storytelling, and the episode was right up there, the narrative elements need to be matched by a concomitant emotional impact or any sense of Big Things Being at Stake is lost, something “Such Sweet Sorrow Pt. 1” managed with aplomb.
Now granted, I have never faced down against a fleet of purloined Section 31 ships, all controlled by an insidious AI who may or may have turned all the crews into nanobot-filled proto-Borgs. (The debate is still on about whether this is an origin story or not but damn if it isn’t, something is missing a golden opportunity.)
But if I was to imagine what that would be like, it would surely involve the kind of tensions, hard decisions, emotional tug-of-wars and heartbreaking farewells that this episode involved.
It was TENSE and it was infinitely heartbreaking, especially when Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) realised that with the sphere’s data preventing the auto-destruct of Discovery – in and of itself, the evacuation of the ship felt like a thousand diabolically nerve-wracking decisions merging into desperate, sad, clock-counting-down loss – she would have to go into the future dragging the ship behind her to a point far enough removed from the present that Control/Leland couldn’t reach it … and NEVER RETURN. (Technobabble was employed to explain why she couldn’t come back but essentially the power to get her there would ultimately weaken any means of returning such that could die trying; so one-way trip it is.)
It’s that data that Control/Leland wants more than anything, and getting it out of harm’s way, especially now it won’t helpfully blow itself to kingdom come, is priority #1.
But oh the high cost of that mission, especially when it means Michael having to say goodbye to everyone she loves, including the crew of Discovery, mum and dad, Amanda and Sarek (Mia Kirshner and James Frain respectively) and Ash (Shazad Latif).
“It is the secret wish of every parent that our children make right the mistakes we ourselves have made. I know I have not always been the ideal father. Or husband, Amanda. I am…”
“I will accept ‘improbable’.”
“Well, that’s big of you, father.” (Sarek, Amanda, and Burnham / Memory Alpha wiki)
It was those two last goodbyes that really hit you in the feels.
After some tense moments where you wondered if Sarek and Amanda and their adopted daughter would ever look and feel like family again, their goodbye to each other was the deeply-heartfelt stuff of laying every single card, past and present, on the table.
All those unsaid things, mostly very good and profoundly moving were said, and if you had a dry eye after that, well then, I call you Control/Leland.
Just as impacting but in a wholly way because SEX, lust and rampant desire, was Michael’s farewell to Ash which was tentative at first, almost diffident in its awkwardness until, well, it was most definitely wasn’t and you really understood, I mean, REALLY, understood how much these two matter to each other and how great a sacrifice for both of them it is.
(Speaking of goodbyes, watching Stamets and Culber, played by Wilson Cruz) decide to go their separate ways once the battle for sentience is over was one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed, packed full of finality, loss but also the sobering realisation that some things just can’t be saved, no matter how much we might want them to be.)
The farewells to her crewmates was a whole other thing because it is actually didn’t happen.
In a scene that could’ve been as cheesy as a Gorgonzola factory during peak production, but completely and utterly wasn’t, the entire bridge crew including darling Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Spock (Ethan Peck), Saru (Doug Jones), and Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) all volunteered to go with her.
Yes, on a ONE WAY trip to the future, which means no coming back for them either.
It was a magnificent gesture that punched a heart-shaped hole of epic size and proportions in the narrative, and which led to a montage of a number of those gallant people recording farewells to their loved ones.
It spoke of the bonds of family, in this case a created but no less substantial or enduring one, of the way people you might not otherwise have ever come into contact with become willing to lay down who they might be in the present so one of their number doesn’t have to carry the spirit of sacrifice alone.
“Commander, our families accepted the possibility of this moment when we joined Starfleet. Committing to a life amongst the stars is, in itself, a resolution to leave some things behind.” (Saru, to Burnham, speaking for the crew / Memory Alpha wiki)
As moments go that truly embody the spirit of humanity that Star Trek wears so well, no matter its iteration, it was a beautiful piece of storytelling that underscored how much Michael means to them but also how much is at stake that they would be willing to deny all kinds of possible futures for a shared one that may or may not play out as hoped.
In the middle of all this incredibly intimate, touching storytelling, we also had the joy of going aboard Enterprise to which the crew of Discovery evacuated in a pretty thrilling sequence that involved some impressive rolling out of forcefield-buttressed ship-to-ship tunnels.
And we also saw a possible future scenario which involved the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Discovery’s bridge crew; it’s not made clear whether it a possible one or definitely like Pike’s descent into radiation melting-ness but grabbing that time crystal gave Michael and Jet Reno (Tog Notaro) in sparklingly-fine form yet again, some nasty insights into what might come to pass, and while they likely didn’t need any more encouragement to go into battle, these flashes of Future Possible gave it to them.
(On a lighter side, we saw the return of Po (Yadira Guevara-Prip), the mischievously-fun and incredibly intelligent and empathetic ruler of Zahea (first seen in the Short trek episode “Runaway”), who swung into action to make Michael’s trip to the future possible after the fifth red signal appeared above her planet – hello dark matter energy! – who added some brevity and light to a very heavy, intense episode.)
Here then was an episode which in every way possible lived out the wretchedly-melancholic sadness of Shakespeare’s lines from Romeo and Juliet – “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” – and which underscored the deep and abiding truth of two things – family, real or created, is stronger than just about anything else, and that so many good, noble and true things only exist because someone (or some people, or many) somewhere chose to stand up and do the right thing, regardless of the great and lasting sacrifices involved.
Next week in “Such Sweet Sorrow Pt. 2” the season 2 finale of Star Trek: Discovery … the proverbial really hits the you-know-what …