Last week’s Star Trek: Discovery introduced what appeared to be a new status quo for the series and for the characters, as they were welcomed into the ranks of the struggling 32nd century Starfleet. The latest chapter, “Scavengers,” demonstrates that the show is still not done shaking things up, progressing characters and even the ship itself to pay off much of what’s been building in the season so far. While the episode’s action plot is unremarkable, one thing is for certain — the storytellers and star Sonequa Martin-Green know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to Commander Michael Burnham.
They should call it the “USS Recovery”
“Scavengers” opens up with the surprise reveal of a refitted USS Discovery, upgraded with all the trimmings of the 32nd century Starfleet. While still technically the same craft, the show now continues on with the Discovery-A, which is sure to find a place on collectors’ shelves just as soon as the folks at Eaglemoss figure out how to make the “detached nacelles” gimmick work on a die-cast model. We don’t see the ship herself in action this week, but we do get introduced to some new gadgetry for the crew. One of the oldest rules in the Star Trek writers’ room is to avoid characters ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the technology, since it should be totally normal to the characters, but the circumstances of this season create a unique opportunity for them to delight in their cool new toys, which is a nice vicarious experience.
Since Discovery is the only Starfleet vessel capable of responding quickly to a crisis, the ship and crew are essentially grounded from any but the most important missions, which makes room for some peaceful or silly subplots this week. Lt. Stamets and Adira continue to bond, enough that Adira reveals that they’re still hanging out with their dead boyfriend Gray. That Stamets believes them immediately is refreshing — they get to bond over the experience of having lost loved ones who returned under strange circumstances, and we get to skip past the tired “secret invisible friend” phase of Adira and Gray’s story.
Between this plot, Tilly wrangling Book’s gigantic cat Grudge, and Saurian science officer Linus accidentally insta-beaming into multiple scenes, “Scavengers” gives the sense that the crew of Discovery is no longer pretending to be okay and is actually feeling better. For much of the crew, reuniting with Starfleet has had the stabilizing effect that they hoped it would. This cannot be said, unfortunately, for Commander Michael Burnham.
The Very Latest in Head-Exploding Technology
On last week’s episode, Michael suggested taking Discovery on an unsanctioned rescue mission to prove the worth of her ship and crew to a skeptical Starfleet. Instead, Captain Saru brought the plan to Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr, The Mummy), gets it endorsed, and everybody wins. Michael commanded the mission, lives were saved, and Discovery scored points with the brass. This week, Michael once again sees an opportunity to do some good, but this time she does have to disobey orders to do it.
Michael’s not-boyfriend Book (David Ajala, Supergirl) sends word that he’s found a piece of evidence that would aid Michael’s investigation into the Burn, but he’s also been captured and enslaved by the Emerald Chain, a nasty alliance between the Orions and the Andorians. Michael wants to take Book’s ship and rescue him, acquiring the Burn intel along with him. Saru, however, is still trying to build up some credibility with Admiral Vance and denies her request in favor of the Admiral’s order to stay put. Unperturbed, Michael steals the craft and brings her chaotic-evil quasi-parent Philippa Georgiou along with her.
The rescue mission itself is pretty by-the-numbers, with Philippa going undercover as — well, as herself, really — shopping for rare refurbished starship equipment from the Emerald Chain sweatshop where Book is being forced to work. The plot hinges on deactivating the security fence that blows up the head of any prisoner who crosses, a device previously seen in the 1987 film The Running Man. (It’s depicted so similarly that I assume the reference is deliberate.) Book leads the jailbreak, Philippa and Michael fight a crime boss’s shitty nephew, and it’s all a pretty good time, even if it’s not much more complex than your average CW adventure hour.
Happily, this story nets us two really terrific moments. First, a shot during the jailbreak in which Book’s ship flies a strafing run over some guards, then deconstructs itself and puts itself back together backwards in one of the coolest, weirdest u-turns I’ve ever seen. I’m really pleased with the way the storytellers keep finding creative new ways to apply and surprise us with clever applications of the new programmable matter technology. Second, a very charming scene in which Michael and Book finally kiss, which convinced me that we were kept waiting exactly the right amount of time to put this obvious pairing together. Rather than spoil or delay the moment, Linus’ interruption only makes the scene cuter. Well done.
Your Weekly Mom Report
It was only a matter of time before Michael and Philippa got a story together this season, and I’m actually surprised that it took this long. Mirror-Philippa has never borne much more than a superficial resemblance to the Captain Georgiou who mentored Michael, but after Michael’s lost year as a freewheeling space courier, she’s picked up a bit of Bad Mom’s bullshit intolerance, and Bad Mom has noticed. Michael doesn’t seem to enjoy being around Philippa much more than she used to, but Philippa has never been more proud of her doppeldaughter.
During their caper, Philippa exhibits symptoms of some strange ailment that causes her to uncontrollably flash back to some dramatic memory from her days in her home timeline. In these flashes, we see her kneeling and crying over the body of a masked figure. I’m interested in more backstory for Emperor Georgiou, and it’s essential if she’s going to carry a spin-off, but the clues and circumstances we have so far have me raising an eyebrow.
For the past season or so, Philippa Georgiou has been Star Trek’s Vegeta — a mass murdering royal from another world who teams up with the good guys, first out of necessity, then out of habit. Vegeta is a great character to have in an ensemble, a foil to more sympathetic characters who have more relatable motivations, but by and large, Vegeta does not get to be the main character of a series. However, in “Scavengers,” Georgiou says that her strange episodes have been going on for “a couple weeks,” and it’s been three weeks in-story since her interrogation by Starfleet Intelligence. Have they been poking around in her head, perhaps done something to secretly change her nature to better suit their ends? I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re headed towards a characterization that’s less like Vegeta, but more like Angel, another ex-villain turned spin-off protagonist haunted by the guilt of evils he performed before he was capable of shame.
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The most compelling ongoing thread for this season so far is the friction between Michael Burnham and Saru, once rivals for the attention of Captain Georgiou, then trusting surrogate siblings, and now two strong personalities with similar aims but increasingly incompatible attitudes. “Scavengers” provides a great set of circumstances for their conflict to come to a head, as neither of them is 100% wrong and each of them understands the others’ position completely, yet they still can’t agree.
Michael believes that solving the mystery of the Burn is essential if the Federation is ever going to be whole again, and she’s probably right about that. She sees an opportunity to find answers and to save lives in immediate jeopardy at the same time, and she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of that opportunity. That’s what a hero does, and that’s who she is. She’s simply no longer a team player, a requirement to serve in Starfleet at any level, let alone on the command track.
Saru is trying to keep the Discovery crew together, and to serve the greatest good he can as a member of a greater whole. To do that, he feels needs to prove himself reliable to his colleagues and superiors, and that means not double-checking every single decision with Admiral Vance. He chooses to follow the orders that he’s been assured are the most necessary to help the people he’s responsible to protect, orders that are perfectly reasonable on paper. But as Vance points out, if he had brought Burnham’s plan to him, he might have approved it, as he did in “Die Trying.” Saru stood his ground regarding his order, which is his right as Captain, but is also a mistake driven by pride and a fixation on protocol.
Everyone accepts that Michael’s mission was successful, and everyone, including her, accepts that she has to be punished for it, even if she doesn’t regret what she’s done. It’s not that she’s gone bad, or become unworthy of her uniform, it simply doesn’t fit anymore. It’s something she’s known since she returned to Discovery, and that she — and Saru — may finally be willing to accept. She’s not sorry she broke the rules, she’s not sorry she’s being demoted. She’s only sorry for having hurt Saru. When she cries, it’s for him, not for herself. And once Saru has left her, she plucks her new badge off of her chest, removing what once was, but is no longer, her heart.