Season 1, Episode 4
Written by Jesse Alexander and Aron Eli Coleite
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
“I saw your smile when you picked the meat from her smooth skull.”
I’m always surprised when people dismiss science fiction-based TV shows like Star Trek: Discovery as mere space opera undeserving of the attention of mature sentient beings. While that may be true in some cases, certainly Discovery tackles issues and themes difficult and sensitive enough to warrant treating the show like any other hard-hitting drama. The fact that Discovery devotes much money and care to producing a stunning portrayal of the science used to synthesize a uniform should not detract from the show’s reputation for intelligence. People close their minds. They believe only what they already believe. I have seen reviews of Discovery which contend that it just presents more of the same ray-gun fare as the least creditable entries in the genre. Yet I cannot think of any other show, of any type, which deals with racism, religious fundamentalism, sexism, and the ethics of doing harmful things to other species to further our own purposes. Discovery does all of this within one episode, and throws in pretty snappy dialogue like a cherry on top.
Klingons eat humans. Somehow this fact was never disclosed before in all of the prior series or any of the movies. The Klingons for Discovery look very different than in prior incarnations: they are all bald, they are all dark skinned except one, and their features resemble humans much less than the way they’ve been depicted before. This emphasizes their foreignness. The series is set during an early period of Federation history when actual war erupts from a long cold war, which makes the situation all the more alarming. Discovery doesn’t just embellish prior characterizations of the Klingon people and Empire. Here we witness the beginnings of a messianic cult focused upon a rebel outcast who tries to unite his people against an oppressive regime they believe threatens their very existence. Sound familiar? Christianity, anyone? That’s a pretty ballsy move for any TV show, particularly at a time in contemporary history when those who divide the population along religious lines have been gaining political traction.
That’s a heavy enough line to carry for any TV episode, but Discovery doesn’t stop there. The rebel outcast faces opposition from his own people because he is light-skinned. The man’s fellow Klingons hate him because he is white and comes from some low class non-family with no status or clout. In other words, they hate the white guy. They assume he must be inferior because of the color of his skin. In this case, the skin color at issue happens to be white. Discovery does not utilize the old scripted voiceover which talks about boldly going where no one has gone before, because it doesn’t need it. It just goes there.
In addition to religion and race, the third issue tackled by this week’s episode arises when Captain Lorca assigns Burnham to figure out how to weaponize the Triceratops bug. The creature has killed so many people already that it doesn’t seem to require any modification to be a weapon, but Lorca wants to figure out how to apply the creature’s adaptations to the construction of weapons for widespread usage, i.e., copy the creature’s claws in order to create blades that can slice through ship hulls. Demonstrating their pre-programed prejudiced thinking, the crew names the bug “Ripper”. Conversely, Burnham uses her lateral thinking and discovers that the bug is almost certainly vegetarian. Further, it appears that Ripper only becomes violent in self-defense.
Burnham observes that Ripper reacts when the ship engages its new spore drive. A Klingon attack group targets a mining colony which provides the dilithium required to propel every ship in the galaxy. Lorca needs to use the new spore drive to arrive instantly in the midst of this attack or else the entire dilithium supply will be claimed by the Klingons and they will win the war. Lorca’s unlikable security chief insists that Burnham speed up her research. Despite prior experience to the contrary, she assumes that she can sedate Ripper and cut off its claws to move the research forward. Ripper proves all of her theories wrong by shredding her despite being sedated and shot. Burnham asks Saru to enter the chamber where Ripper lives, peppering him with compliments. She notices that Saru’s highly developed threat detection mechanisms do not react to Ripper’s presence. Because Saru directed no aggression towards Ripper, Ripper showed no violence towards Saru. She also figures out that Ripper and the spores used in the new propulsion system coexist in a symbiotic relationship. Ripper and the spores seem to nourish each other as well as communicate.
Unfortunately for Ripper, Burnham realizes that some of the tech saved from the doomed science vessel comprise a system which attaches the ship’s navigation system to Ripper and the spores, thereby perfecting the ability to jump accurately and safely over long distances. This process of tying Ripper into the ship’s engines looks a lot like torture.
Before Ripper was attached to the propulsion drive, it seemed to thank Burnham for her offering of spores by licking her, kind of like a dog. However, after the ship successfully jumps to the mining colony at great physical pain to Ripper, that closeness disappears. These are very sad and disturbing scenes. Society during the era in which Discovery is set is supposed to be so advanced and evolved that at least within the Federation, war, hunger, and disease have been vanquished. Unfortunately, despite those advances, it appears that cruelty and disregard for the well-being of non-humanoid species still thrives. In a galaxy full of nonhuman species, that presents a rather compelling hypocrisy to explore. It also turns an uncomfortably clear mirror back on us in our own era.
Meanwhile, the Klingons must deal with their own hypocrisies and flaws. The Klingon culture is supposed to be based upon loyalty and honor. Though the white Klingon, Voq, was named by T’Kuvma as the Torchbearer, the head of one of the Klingon houses takes over his ship and flips his crew because the white kid from the wrong side of the tracks can’t possibly be a leader. The Klingons abandon Voq on the wreckage of Georgiou’s destroyed ship, leaving him to die.
Luckily, Voq’s second in command comes from an interesting family background. She offers to take Voq to her mother’s family, the Matriarchs. We know from all the prior collected history of the Klingons that its society is hugely sexist. She tells Voq that the price of being saved by the Matriarchs is that he must sacrifice everything. Since he has been left to die in disgrace, all he has left is what he knows, or what he thinks he knows. I think the male messiah of the testosterone-loaded Klingon Empire is about to be saved by a bunch of chicks.
The theme of betrayal runs throughout this episode. It appears in the Klingon portion of the show, and it also appears in Burnham’s personal story. A box and hologram containing Georgiou’s will and legacy arrive on the ship. When Burnham finally opens it, Georgiou’s prerecorded testament reveals that Georgiou thought of Burnham as a daughter. Burnham only mutinied because she feared for her captain’s life, but her captain died anyway. Now, Burnham must digest her feelings about receiving postmortem affection from the mother figure whose life she could not save. Discovery deals with emotions as well as issues. This is not just some intellectual debate about trendy topics of the day.
The only flaw I can find in the show is that somehow the Starfleet uniform seems to require everybody to wear Skechers. Those white soles really distract. Well, that and I cannot bring myself to abbreviate the show as ST:D.
This is not a show for people with closed minds. It may require the viewers to sacrifice what they think they know. It makes people think about what it means to share the galaxy ̶ and the planet. The show demands an introspective analysis of each and every component of who we are, even the unsavory bits. Isn’t that the highest calling of art, let alone mass entertainment?