Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 Episode 5 Review: “Die Trying”

The first four episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season amount to something to an opening act to this new iteration of the series, in which the crew of the titular ship searches for the remnants of their beloved Starfleet and United Federation of Planets which has been shattered by a galactic disaster. With “Die Trying,” we’re now beginning a new chapter in the season, with the USS Discovery reunited with the fleet, such as it is, and once again part of a larger whole. As a result, there’s a lot of exposition and introductions and not much to chew on, thematically. And while we’re getting a lot of new toys to play with in this episode, it’s also the last hurrah for one member of the crew.

Fehr Warning

Discovery arrives at the new Federation headquarters, a space station surrounded by a massive cloaking field that obscures it and nearby Starfleet vessels from prying eyes, our first sign that the Federation is not totally immune to the sense of paranoia that we saw on Earth. They do find a marginally warmer welcome here, though — they’re not turned away or fired upon, but they’re not immediately trusted, either. Between the Temporal Wars and the Burn, the Starfleet we meet here, represented by Admiral Charles Vance (legend of schlock Oded Fehr), has been through some shit. Vance’s suspicion that the Discovery crew aren’t who they say they are and his doubt that a thousand-year-old crew could even be useful is understandable, and the script and performances walk the fine line of making Vance an obstacle for our heroes rather than an enemy.

This isn’t the first time in Trek history that our main crew has found themselves at odds with a dismissive Starfleet C-in-C — in fact the interactions between Vance, Saru, and Burnham are reminiscent of Kirk butting heads with Vance’s distant predecessor, Admiral Morrow, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. There, Kirk and his wounded Enterprise are deemed too old to be useful, and Kirk and company end up stealing the ship to go off on an unauthorized rescue mission, which is exactly what Michael suggests doing in order to prove Discovery’s worth. Like in The Search for Spock, Starfleet is threatening to take away the Discovery crew’s home and split up their family, leading the refreshingly assertive new Michael to say “to Hell with this.” Unlike Kirk, however, Michael is talked down by a level-headed captain, and Discovery embarks on their trial by fire under the consent and supervision of contemporary Starfleet.

With Saru kept at Federation HQ as collateral, Michael is left in command of Discovery. As the first officer of the Shenzhou for years before the start of the series, this is hardly her first time in the big chair, but it is the first time the audience gets to see Michael take charge for a mission, and it’s an exciting moment for the series. Despite her turning down the big promotion earlier this season, Michael seems totally comfortable in command of the ship, probably more confident than any previous incarnation of her character would have been. Her taking command is the kind of scene that is unexciting on paper but very rewarding on screen.

Star Trek: Discovery

Nhan Too Soon

Discovery’s mission is to rendezvous with the USS Tikhov, a seed bank whose purpose is to store and preserve seeds from plant life from across the galaxy. Tikhov may be the only source for a cure to an ailment that’s killing a group of refugees at Federation HQ, but since the ship’s been scuttled by an ion storm, Michael takes Dr. Culber and Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril, Killjoys) aboard to investigate. Nhan is the most recent permanent addition to the crew, having joined from the Enterprise last season. We’ve gotten glimpses into her character — she’s competent but laid back, she’s got a strong sense of honor and a dry sense of humor. Like most of the secondary cast of Discovery, Nhan appears very often but the audience has to fill in much of her inner life ourselves. (Even Rachael Ancheril seems to have difficulty discussing her character in depth on this episode’s aftershow.) We learn more about Nhan in “Die Trying” than we have up to this point, so naturally, this is the episode in which she leaves the crew and presumably the show.

Nhan is a Barzan, one of very few in Starfleet, and hasn’t seen another of her species since she left her impoverished home for the academy, so she’s excited to learn that the Tikhov is currently manned by a Barzan family. The family, unfortunately, is already dead when Discovery arrives, save for patriarch Dr. Attis (Brendan Beiser, The Boys), who’s been driven mad with grief as well as out of phase with our reality. Attis is dying of radiation poisoning and refuses treatment, so Nhan stays behind on the Tikhov to see it safely to Barzan. Based on her tearful goodbye with Burnham, this seems like the last we’ll see of her.

Nhan’s departure feels natural to the character as we know her, and after my disappointment with last week’s handling of the crew’s time travel trauma I’m glad we’re seeing a character confront their regret and homesickness head-on. (Happily, we are also not done with Detmer’s recovery, either.) It is, however, another unfortunate example of Discovery only developing a secondary character on their way out the door. Nhan joined the crew, after all, due to the death of Lt. Airiam, a cool-looking and ever-present background character who never got any real screen time until her final episode. Both Airiam and Nhan’s exits have emotional weight, but in both cases that weight is heavily back-loaded. I wish we’d gotten the opportunity to know Nhan better over time, and I hope this is the last time Discovery performs this particular trick.

If Anyone Tries to Attack Us, We Can Blink ‘em to Death

While Discovery is off on its mission, Philippa Georgiou (high-kicking goddess Michelle Yeoh) finds herself in a lengthy interrogation with two Starfleet holograms who bombard her with questions and accusations related to her being a time-displaced mass-murdering despot from another dimension. Having apparently doubled down on Star Trek’s icky alien essentialism, the holograms tell Georgiou that, as a Terran from the mirror universe, she is evil down to her genes. Insulted by the implication that her incredible wickedness is the result of heredity rather than decades of hard work, Georgiou de-resolves the holograms using strategically-timed blinking.

Georgiou’s foil for the rest of the episode is an unnamed interrogator (legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg) who seems mentally equipped to go toe-to-toe with Emperor Georgiou. The interrogator, who is a student of Terran history, describes Terrans as creatures of pure id, following whims to cruel ends without much motivation beyond amusement. That’s not really describing the Empire as we’ve seen it, it’s really just describing Georgiou, an elevator pitch for her character. With the foreknowledge that this season of Discovery was intended as the launchpad for a Georgiou spin-off, the scenes between Yeoh and Cronenberg give off serious “backdoor pilot” vibes, and for the moment, I’m not complaining.

Previously:

Star Trek: Discovery

And Now the Really Dorky Shit

When this season of Discovery began, I closed out my review of the first episode by expressing my desire to see some wild and innovative new technology show up, given that we’re seeing further into the future of Star Trek‘s world than ever before. We’ve had bits of new Treknology in previous episodes, but “Die Trying” drops the motherlode as the crew gets their first glimpse at the 32nd century’s Starfleet. We don’t get a close look at too many of the new ships yet, but characters in dialogue describe ships with organic or holographic hulls and detached, floating warp nacelles. We get a quick look at the USS Voyager-J. The part of me who’s still a kid flipping through concept art and faux-technical manuals started doing somersaults.

I find myself wondering about the state of holographic personage in the 32nd century. At the end of Star Trek: Voyager, the holographic Doctor has begun a quest towards the recognition of sentient holograms as persons under Federation law. In Picard, set decades later, synthetic life has been banned, but humanoid utility holograms are still commonplace, giving the impression that “virtual intelligence” (in Mass Effect parlance) is still a thing even if true A.I. is not. Now, centuries after Picard, we see holographic humanoids serving as doctors and interviewers, but upon close inspection, there are no notches in their combadges — no rank. Vance refers to “our A.I.s.” and Cronenberg’s character refers to “[his] holos.” Are they, like the Emergency Medical Hologram of the 24th century, sentient beings on demand, built for a purpose and discarded when obsolete? Starfleet now has holographic ships, but do they have holographic officers?

Now that we’re getting evidence of technological development, I’d like to see evidence of social development to go along with it. The Starfleet we see in “Die Trying” is still majority human, with human leadership. Is this a result of the Federation becoming detached from so many worlds for so long? Military hierarchy appears completely untouched for another thousand years; Is the same true for the civilian government? Is the Prime Directive still a thing? Are we still describing whole species as “a race of information traders,” “a race of warriors,” etc? Where are we on gender and sexuality?

Aspirational technology is an important part of Star Trek, and I’m excited to see more of it. But I also want to see aspirational humanity. What are the people of the year 3189 doing better than the people of 2399, apart from cool ships and programmable matter? That’s got to be on the wishlist, too.

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