Star Trek Discovery “Despite Yourself” Review
Sleeper agent is awakened.
We've only recently started to see pop culture fold into the real-life, left-field political surprises that occurred in 2017. BoJack Horseman dedicated a season-length subplot to an election fraught with bad populist choices. Twin Peaks connected Trump to the Black Lodge by making him a previous owner of the mysterious Owl Cave ring. And even Mr. Robot dedicated airtime to Donnie's candidacy and the potential recognised in him by one-percenter puppet-master, Whiterose (after she bitched about his awful décor decisions at the Mar-A-Lago). In this season-return episode, Star Trek Discovery sets its phasers to topical as well.
So our question for today is: What if fascism and racism had been allowed to take root in the Star Trek universe, instead of the peace-love-and-mung beans spread by the ludicrously all-inclusive Federation? Yes, the time-and-space-bending antics of the U.S.S. Discovery have finally caught up with its crew, as we knew they would eventually. A navigational hiccup has forced the voyagers to take a detour into Dopplegangerville.
To his credit, Captain Lorca whips out his starmap and connects the dots quickly. The ship's position is correct and relative to the galactic centre, but this Starbase 46 clearly isn't their intended destination. Case in point: the place is a graveyard of friendly ships that have somehow been melted with Federation weapons, plus a Vulcan ship attacks the Discovery without provocation before being destroyed by the U.S.S. Cooper (a vessel Lorca knows shouldn't be in operation). The final confirmation of their predicament comes from Lt. Saru – impossibly, the Discovery's quantum signatures don't match anything else here. The math is clear, folks, and you won't need a set square and ruler to draw this conclusion: parallel universe.
Though exploration and discovery are well within the ship's parameters (something in the name, I think), Lorca needs to return them to the right side of reality. The Discovery never delivered the algorithm to break Klingon cloaking technology. Without it, the Federation will lose the war. Best of luck hitching a ride home, however, when Lt. Stamets – a key component in the spore drive tech – is in a state of neurological distress. Dude's literally seeing stars. While being alternately catatonic and jabbering about “a palace”, he tells Dr. Culber that “the enemy is here” in a moment of lucidity.
Hoping to understand this place better, Lt. Tyler and Specialist Burnham locate a data core from the curious mix of Vulcan and Andorian wreckage floating about. As Tyler is piloting an EVA over to this space-Wikipedia, he has a private PTSD moment, reminding us that he's still very much in the thrall of L'Rell. She's the seductive Klingon spymaster who's sitting in the brig of the Discovery, and when Tyler returns to confront her about his outburst, she triggers something more in him. A series of code phrases momentarily turns him into a devoted Kahless cultist. L'Rell's brainwashing isn't absolute, however, and Tyler manages to flee.
Tyler's reluctant to get his head unscrambled, too. Captain Lorca has gone uncharacteristically by the book of late, and Tyler fears that he'll follow standard procedure: all PTSD-suffering crew members are to be locked down, pending a full evaluation at a Starfleet facility. Problem is we don't even know if such a thing exists in this plane of existence. Fading fast, Tyler still tells a concerned Burnham that he's holding it together, however, in a later scene the extent of his issues are discovered in a medical examination done under cover by Dr. Culber.
There's no good answer to Tyler's mood swings, fugue states and lost time. Closer inspection reveals he's been fundamentally altered both physically and mentally by L'Rell and her team of Klingon quacks. His skeletal structure and organs have been surgically altered, and Tyler's personality has been overlaid onto someone else's. Without warning, and in one of the most shocking moments in the series, the Lt. snaps. Literally. The good doctor's neck gets savagely twisted, and right in front of his catatonic lover no less. Ice cold stuff.
Elsewhere, the core has been deciphered by Tilly and Burnham, even though it's a weird mix of Klingon and Vulcan tech. Apparently, a fascistic, human-only organisation known as the “Terran Empire” is running the show in this universe. They're the antithesis of Starfleet – an oppressive, xenophobic bunch of jerks who most likely got to power by saying they'd make space great again. Furthermore, every person, place and thing from the previous universe exists here as well, in some twisted form or another. The forecast: some Back To The Future moments where you could potentially meet yourself. Great Scott. That sounds heavy.
Burnham's theory also states that the anomaly has effectively swapped the U.S.S. Discovery with its I.S.S. Discovery twin (so who knows what trouble their evil counterparts are now engaged in back home). In order to keep off the Empire's radar, Lorca decides to pour through the data files and mimic the I.S.S. Discovery as closely as possible. Hilariously, this involves having the meek and mild Tilly co-play both the Captain and a brutal warlord. She must inhabit the role of the “Witch of Wurna Minor”, “The Slayer of Sorna Prime”...Captain...uh, Killy.
Interestingly, Burnham's counterpart was the Captain of the Shenzhou and is presumed dead. She was offed by Lorca, now a fugitive, who attempted an Empire coup using the I.S.S. Buran. The rebels (and, worryingly, we're getting into Star Wars territory here) don't know who the Emperor is as he or she is a faceless, ruthless ruler. Personally – and I'm basing this on nothing but pure instinct here – my money is on Evil Stamets to be Palpatine.
Further analysis of quantum signatures reveals that the U.S.S Defiant, from the original universe, somehow crossed over here as well. Discovering the means of how that spore-drive-less vessel achieved this could unlock the key to getting home. More intel is required – classified information that Lorca knows will be on the I.S.S. Shenzhou. And so a boarding is planned that involves select crew members posing as their Terran counterparts, plus a manufactured cover story to get them over. It goes something like this: “Surprise, fellow Terrans! Evil Burnham survived Evil Lorca's attack and used her presumed death as a means to hunt and capture him.”
Captain Killy sells the improbable ruse magnificently in a tense communication with the Shenzhou's acting Captain, and the away team bluff their way aboard the ship. It's a charming place – filled with Nazi-esque salutes and torture facilities that make the Klingon's Ship of the Dead look like a daycare facility. Burnham's barely in the turbolift when her second officer decides to make an aggressive career move. He gets a shanking for his trouble, and when his corpse slumps out onto the bridge, the crew gives a round of applause. Brunham nonchalantly takes a seat at the helm of the Shenzhou, a ship she once desperately wanted to helm. Hmmm. Strap yourselves in, fellow Trekkies, because that Captain's chair looks pretty comfy. The course we plot from here could be pretty warped...