Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 Episode 10 Review: “Terra Firma, Part 2”

Last week’s Discovery took a sharp right turn into the Mirror Universe, as we followed Emperor Philippa Georgiou back into her home domain for a chance to change her past and keep from turning to dust. In this week’s conclusion, we wrap up not just Discovery’s take on the Mirror Universe, but on Philippa herself, as she disembarks for the next chapter of the Star Trek franchise.

They’ll Probably Have Her on Dancing with the Stars Next Season

“Terra Firma, Part 2” documents Emperor Georgiou’s attempt to alter the outcome of her treacherous daughter Michael’s attempted coup so that neither of them has to die. While tradition mandates that she execute Michael for treason, Georgiou merely has her tortured for weeks until she agrees to give up her co-conspirators and return to her side. Through narration, Georgiou insists that this is the only way to get through to Michael in this world “where strength is power and terror is love,” and for a time, it appears to work, as Michael eventually bows to Georgiou and executes everyone else involved in the plot to kill her and put Captain Gabriel Lorca on the throne. (Lorca, again, does not appear, which is a bit of a letdown.)

In an effort to apply some of what she’s learned in the Prime Universe, Georgiou continues to make policy decisions that are unconventional in that they involve the tiniest morsel of compassion. She plans to loosen the Empire’s grip on their subjects somewhat, hoping to douse the sparks of open revolution against the throne. No further details are given to clarify what this means, but it enrages Evil Michael, which is enough to frame it as Good or at least marginally less cruel. While in the previous timeline, Georgiou thwarted a rebellion of subject species by carpet-bombing their headquarters from orbit, this time she uses counterintelligence back-channels to seed discontent and allow the nascent Coalition to collapse in on itself. (Emperor Philippa COINTELPRO, is this anything?)

For the most part, the new Georgiou is merely a lesser evil from her previous self, but her change of heart is far more significant when it comes to the treatment of the Kelpiens, a slave species who is routinely killed and eaten upon reaching Vahar’ai, which they have been taught is the end of their life cycle. Georgiou rescues this universe’s Saru (though here, Kelpiens are denied names) and shares with him the secret that Discovery learned last season — that Vahar’ai is not the end but actually a second adolescence through which Kelpiens shed their fear and find new strength. While she doesn’t free the Kelpiens (a move radical enough to lose her the throne outright), she does give them the means to resist, which could prove her only lasting action.

Star Trek: Discovery

Tomorrow Never Dies

That is, if any of this really happens. Michael once again betrays Georgiou, leading to a battle that claims both their lives, as well as most of the surviving counterparts to the Discovery cast. A paradox has been created, such that the Mirror Universe arc from the first season of Discovery could not possibly take place in the same timeline as “Terra Firma.” At most, this is a new branch of reality. This entire exercise is a test, and while the consequences may not have been real for Mirror Michael, or Saru, or any of the other characters we’ve revisited over this two-parter, they are crucial for Philippa Georgiou.

Upon her death in the revised Mirror Universe, Georgiou finds herself back in the Prime Universe, on the deserted planet with our Michael and the mysterious Carl (Paul Guilfoyle), only moments after she walked through his mysterious door to nowhere. Georgiou’s trip to her own past is Carl’s way of determining whether or not she should be saved from being torn apart by dimensional drift, and her attempts to save the lives of Michael and the Kelpiens — failed though they were — are enough to demonstrate that she would not necessarily be a threat to her next home. She is offered the chance to live by traveling back to an earlier century in the Prime timeline, where she can continue her character growth with her molecules intact. (It’s not revealed when exactly, leaving the setting of her spin-off ambiguous.)

Carl reveals himself to be the Guardian of Forever, the famous talking time portal from 1967’s “The City on the Edge of Forever.” He is here a radically different character from his previous appearances on The Original Series and The Animated Series, in which he is a cold and mechanical disembodied voice, but in fairness, he’s had about 900 years to interact with people and lighten up. Revisiting the Guardian at all will surely be a controversial decision among fans — the idea was considered and rejected by both the TNG and DS9 writing staffs in the past — but tying in its history with the Temporal Wars helps to ground it enough in Discovery’s current mythology that I personally don’t mind it. It also gives this two-parter an appropriate sense of scale, given that it’s a send-off for a major character from one series onto another.

Star Trek: Discovery

They Tried to Make Her Go to Rehab, (She’s Georgiou, -giou, -giou)

An unfortunate outcome of our culture covering entertainment news as intently and exhaustively as things that actually matter (and thank you very much for your business) is that audiences are often watching a work with foreknowledge of what’s coming next. News of sequels, spin-offs, and renewals break years in advance, which can lead a certain kind of viewer to watch scripted works like they’re trying to predict the card for the next WrestleMania. This kind of metatextual dramatic irony rarely does anyone any favors. I can only speculate on how I might have felt about the first season of Star Trek: Picard, for example, if I hadn’t known that Season Two had already been ordered. On the other hand, walking into John Wick: Chapter Three mistakenly assuming it was the final film in a trilogy gave that whole viewing experience an extra kick.

Variety broke the news that CBS was developing a Star Trek spin-off for Michelle Yeoh’s Emperor Philippa Georgiou in January 2019, days before the debut of Discovery’s second season. The majority of Georgiou’s appearances on Discovery have been released with the foreknowledge that the character would be getting The Rub, so to speak, and that makes it hard to view her progression through any other lens. Complicating this is the fact that, at the time the spin-off announcement was made, viewers knew Georgiou — or rather, the Mirror Universe version of the character who would feature in the new series — as a mass-murdering, slave-holding dictator, hardly a typical Star Trek lead. Whatever was going to happen with the character from that point on was going to have the end goal of making her someone to root for, as opposed to an entertaining villain.

“Terra Firma” (whose story is credited to Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippolt, co-creators of the upcoming spin-off) is Georgiou’s crucible, the test she must pass to prove that she is worthy to move on and become a Star Trek hero. And while she does ultimately survive, I think the bravest thing about this episode is that, even at its end, Philippa Georgiou is still closer to the character she was when we met her than she is to being her saintly Prime Universe counterpart. She’s still not a very good person, she simply meets the barest criteria for being worth saving — she wants to be better. On Star Trek, that counts for a lot. 

Previously:

Star Trek: Discovery

Funeral for a Fiend

Philippa and Michael get an appropriately emotional goodbye in front of the Guardian of Forever in which they each finally admit what they mean to each other, not as ghosts of the people they loved, but as people they love themselves. “You are my Philippa,” says Michael, “What I feel for you belongs to you, no one else.” And the feeling is mutual. It’s a touching, well-earned moment between the two characters, and like the best scenes with Georgiou, helps you forget what an absolute bastard she is. 

A wake follows, in which members of the crew toast their reluctant shipmate who has returned to the past, and therefore almost certainly long dead. They speak of Georgiou the way you might a stubborn older relative who you loved despite how awful they may have been to you, or to others. This, again, feels appropriate to the tone of the show (even if Georgiou did little but abuse most of the crew), but most people’s crotchety aunts are more steps removed from acts of genocide or chattel slavery than Philippa Georgiou. But as discussed last week, the presumably better humans of the Star Trek future have a greater capacity for forgiveness than some of us have, for better or worse. 

Certainly I can’t deny a fondness for Philippa Georgiou as a fictional character. The mean, Machiavellian, judgemental mom from Hell has been a solid addition to the supporting cast, a fun contrast against the earnest and idealistic Starfleet officers around her. She has brought out new dimension in our leading lady Michael Burnham, and vice-versa. And, crucially, she is the only member of the Discovery cast who can high-kick a guy in the face while he’s standing behind her. She will be missed from this show, and I’m glad that she will begin her spin-off as a character who has accepted a need to grow, but still has a lot to answer for.

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