- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND ENOUGH EXISTENTIAL ANGST TO KEEP FRENCH PHILOSOPHERS BUSY FOR DECADES … POSSIBLY CENTURIES …
There are monsters lurking inside all of us.
That deeply unpalatable truth is narratively front and centre in Star Trek Discovery‘s latest tour de force offering with Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) wrestling with the corrosive effects of immersing yourself in a cruel, vicious culture utterly alien to your own (despite looking distressingly and alarmingly similar), Stamets (Anthony Rapp) struggling to emerge from a monstrous world made of spores and multiple dimensions and Tyler (Shazad Latif) losing the battle to stop his inner Klingon (an actual Klingon yessirree; wonder where Voq went? Wonder no more) from taking over.
Monsters, monsters everywhere and not a moment to philosophically ruminate on any of them (although god knows Burnham gave it a red hot go with her opening voiceover musing, rather ruefully and with great trepidation, about how you survive being someone you’re not when day-by-day the real you is under continual assault).
“Can you bury your heart? Can you hide your decency?”
After all, we’re in the Mirror Universe when up may not be so much down as twisted into all sorts of unrecognisable shapes and known as yellow.
Still, confronting though this upended version of her own reality is – how upended? Good old Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is the Emperor of the Terran Empire and nowhere as cuddly and mentor-ish as she was in the Starfleet universe – Burnham found her own way to fight back in ways small and big.
Take her orders to bomb the living hell out of the rebel planet where the Firewolf aka Voq (Shazad Latif … but hey, you knew that, right?) leads a resistance force of Andorians, Tellurites, Vulcans and Klingons, all of whom subscribe to the eternally-appealing and fantastically-pragmatic idea that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Rather than pounding the rebel encampment with photon torpedoes from on high, Burnham, seeking answers to their own unresolved conflict back home as well wanting to keep her fraying humanity intact (admittedly it’s not too frayed two days in but Burnham is a little anxious and can see the existential writing on the wall) beams down to parley with the motley crew of resistors.
As an exercise in resisting the corrosive effects of viciously-unyielding self interest and brutally nihilistic politics it’s a triumph with Voq, advised by the wisdom of an uncharacteristically battle-hardened but still serene Sarek (James Frain) coming around to the fact that Burnham means well.
He’s convinced of this by Sarek’s mind meld with Burnham which confirms she’s on the diplomatic level – although he’s thrown by her alternate dimensional images which naturally enough don’t mesh one damn iota with his own Mirror Universe life – and everything looks to be going swimmingly well until Tyler/Voq flips out at seeing his doppelgänger self and tries to, ahem, kill himself (as you do).
That, as you might imagine almost derails the peaceful tête-à-tête with Voq not taking too well to having his life almost taken from him.
Burnham is none too happy too since she’s managed to keep her imagined inner wolf at bay and get some insight into how to play galactic happy families only to have Tyler go all rogue, speaking-Klingon brainwashed, or is that bodywashed, on her.
There’s a lot at stake and frankly Tyler/Voq doesn’t help matters with Burnham and Sarek having to do some fast talking to recover the situation.
Alas while Burnham’s humanity may be temporarily fine and dandy, her relationship with Tyler isn’t so much with his admission that he is Voq, and may or may not have been a real human being in the first place, proving that the old Beatles adage, “All You Need is Love” proving to be a tad insufficient in the fact of Klingon games of genetic mucking around and mind-scrambling.
Oh, and the small teensy-weensy matter of him trying to kill her back on the ISS Shenzhou, a gambit that gets him instantly sentenced under Terran Empire law (not so much the rule of law as “off with your head!” being the guiding principle du jour) to being blasted into space which Burnham instantly agrees to.
At this point you may be thinking “Oh no! She has managed to hang onto her frazzled humanity with the Firewolf but has instantly lost it after Tyler done her wrong! So much for all that Emperor-defying effort dammit!”
To which I’d reply, and honestly this is an oddly entertaining discussion on many levels, “Not so fast! Turns out Tyler/Voq didn’t end up in space but he didn’t die and in fact got the info on how the USS Defiant got back home to a waiting acting Captain Saru (Doug Jones). Take that Burnham doubters!”
One person who probably wishes he was dead is Lorca (Jason Isaacs) who got a brief respite from the Torture Tube o’ Claustrophobia and Pain (should totally be its real name) when he and Burnham had a heart-to-heart about having someone to tether you to who you really are and what really matters.
Tyler, ahem cough, was supposed to be that person but that didn’t work out so well so Lorca it is and naturally vice versa.
Back at Discovery where Tilly (Mary Wiseman) seems rather fond of dressing as a bad ass Mirror Universe captain, and why wouldn’t you, work was progressing or rather not on getting Stamets back to the land of the non-sporal living.
With all evidence pointing to him having murdered his partner Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz) – Guys! Guys! It wasn’t him … honestly! – and his grip on reality spurious at best, Tilly tried to get him out of his comatic funk.
It looked like it was working and then it didn’t with Stamets caught in a weird netherworld where evil and good Stamets appeared to be having a SporeFest; there was no sign of souvenir T-shirts or the like but Evil Stamets was there and given how deep he is in this weirdass world, getting him back might be quite the thing.
“The Wolf Inside” provided us with a brilliantly-nuanced, tense and exquisitely well-wrought exploration of identity and sense of self, that managed with a minimum of fuss and little to no artifice to be confrontingly real about what it is like to face the loss, or potential loss of your true self.
We all like to think we’re good or capable people, the survivors, the overcomers, the triumphant but I like the fact that Burnham, in common with the rest of us if we’re truly honest with ourselves, wonders if she’s truly up to that particular all-conquering task.
Tyler and Lorca are facing different battles but the struggle is essentially the same – how to hang onto the essence of who you are, of what makes you tick when the environment you’re in is quite possibly inimical to that or is changing beyond your recognition?
It’s a fascinating piece of philosophising that Star Trek Discovery is making intensely watchable and engrossing, expanding the fabric of the Mirror Universe as they do so, but more importantly continuing Star Trek‘s brilliantly-realised examination of the very essence of humanity in a galaxy not always inclined to understand or respect it.
- In the next episode, “Vaulting Ambition” identity and connection issues once again come into play with Burnham once again grappling with what it means when who you are and who you care about has been turned royally on its alternative dimensional head …