In recent weeks, fans of Star Trek: Discovery have been teased about the mysterious illness of the former Emperor Philippa Georgiou (legendary kicker of faces Michelle Yeoh). Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Georgiou has evolved from the despotic ruler of an evil space empire to an amoral secret agent to a reluctant tag-along antihero. Now, with her life in jeopardy, Georgiou’s journey must come full circle in Part One of what is surely the most batshit insane episode of the series so far.
Hold This Thread as I Walk Away
Right off the bat, the mysterious Kovich (Master of Horror David Cronenberg) answers a question that has lingered over the past few episodes — what is happening to Philippa Georgiou? As it turns out, hopping between timelines is bad for your health, and the increasing divergence between the Prime and Mirror Universes over the past 930 years is literally tearing Georgiou apart. This is a simple, easy to swallow explanation for Georgiou’s condition and I’m very happy that theories of mental reconstruction or sabotage by Kovich or Section 31 have proven to be false. As a special bonus, the example Kovich provides to illustrate the issue includes our first Prime Universe acknowledgement of the Kelvin Universe, setting of the J.J. Abrams-produced trilogy. And if viewers think that’s the extent of the fanservice they’ll be receiving this week, boy howdy are they in for a surprise.
32nd century science does not have a cure for Georgiou’s gradual disintegration, but Discovery’s computer — enhanced by the ancient Sphere Data that it absorbed last season — suggests that a far-off, deserted world may have a way to save her. True to the Starfleet we know and love, everyone from Admiral Vance on down decides that it’s worth sending Discovery to the ends of the galaxy for a 5% chance at saving the life of the single worst person they know. Laughable as it is on paper, this level of compassion beyond any reasonable expectation is essential to Star Trek in general but to this episode specifically. Emperor Georgiou is a mass-murdering psycho who treats everyone around her like dirt, but our heroes are still willing to help her.
When dropping her off on the deserted planet with no expectation of seeing her again, Captain Saru offers Georgiou a sincere farewell and Tilly gives her a hug. Do I think you should hug the evil Emperor who’s killed and enslaved millions of people just because you’ve gotten kind of used to her and having her around has been useful towards your personal growth? No, I do not! But it is an efficient illustration of what the Prime Universe has represented to Georgiou — a place where people are nice, whether she likes it or not.
Upon the planet surface, Georgiou and Burnham hike across an empty land in search of they-don’t-know-what. Eventually, they come across a strange, free-standing door guarded by a silly old man in a waistcoat and a bowler hat named Carl — or is it Qarl? (Paul Guilfoyle, The Good Fight). This episode offers no explanation as to who this guy is or where he comes from, and honestly, no explanation is necessary. He’s a weird little man who dresses like Mr. Mxysptlk and talks like a Lewis Carol character — no greater shorthand for “pan-dimensional imp” exists.
I’ve often wondered how the current crop of live-action Star Trek series would handle the franchise staple of the “wacky godlike being.” Discovery and Picard are much less theatrical than their predecessors, and having John de Lancie appear in a flash of light with, say, a mariachi band behind him would be a complete tone-breaker. I’m pleased with how one is handled here, treated more or less like the Guardian of Forever from the famous Original Series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” This episode is not about Carl, he’s just here to get another character from “A” to an improbable “B.” That idea is conveyed in the simplest possible terms — a door, a doorman, and a cryptic message. Will we learn more about him later? Maybe. For now, we’re moving on.
While Burnham naturally isn’t thrilled with the prospect of Georgiou risking her molecular structure on the word of a weird cosmic game show host, the adversarial mother/daughter duo get a degree of closure in the opening act of this episode. Burnham has long since learned that the best way to manage Georgiou is to match her stubbornness and to challenge her. She managed to get Georgiou down to this planet to take a chance at survival rather than commit suicide by cop, and once confronted with Carl’s mysterious door, Georgiou will not be talked down. If her last words towards Michael turn out to be “Learn when to shut up,” that would actually be almost tender, given the circumstances.
This Place Sucks
The door leads Emperor Philippa Georgiou back to her home universe in her home timeframe, not to the point that she left, but several months earlier, before the crew of our USS Discovery made their trip through the looking glass halfway through Season One. The rest of this episode takes place entirely in the 23rd Century of the Mirror Universe, as Emperor Georgiou relives the day when her adopted daughter Michael Burnham is destined to betray her in favor of a coup led by the treacherous Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, unseen in this episode).
Critical and fan response to the Mirror Universe arc in Discovery’s first season was mixed, but an area in which I feel it was successful was in redefining the Mirror Universe from the “sexy pirate dimension” into something truly frightening. The Mirror Universe was born from camp, and continued to be played that way on Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, a setting in which actors could crank their performances up to eleven and where characters or their counterparts could literally get away with murder. Discovery examines this world populated by psychopaths working for a genocidal fascist dictatorship and rightly asks the audience “Why do you want this to be fun?”
Don’t get me wrong, Discovery’s Mirror Universe is still insane to watch on screen — the acting is broad, every detail of plot and design seems exaggerated, there’s a fucking skydance performance in this episode — but anything that felt cute about it has been removed. The Terran Empire are not pirates squabbling over treasure, they’re vampires lusting after blood. This is a universe ruled by monsters who compete over who can be the most evil.
Emperor Philippa Georgiou has spent the past year and a half in a universe full of warm, compassionate people who she’s dismissed as weak. Now, having been returned to her home, it seems as if life in the Prime Universe has softened her up, as she is now prioritizing changing the timeline to save her universe’s Michael over keeping up appearances as the cruelest person alive. This is a problem since a faction is already accusing her of weakness even before she spares the life of slave Mirror Saru, and then seemingly forgives an attempt on her own life.
Holy Shit, Evil Michael
Appropriately, Georgiou’s growth is measured against Mirror Michael Burnham (still Sonequa Martin-Green but hooooly shit). Georgiou has spent the past two seasons favorably comparing her universe’s Michael to our own, even implying that Mirror Michael’s nastiness rivals even the Emperor’s herself. Now that we’ve finally met the genuine article, she does not disappoint in the least. She is both a cold predator and a petulant child, with a terrifying and hypnotic stare.
Michael is an absolute monster who relishes in inflicting suffering and death on her subjects and slaves. It speaks to just how horrible the Mirror Universe is, and how horrible Emperor Georgiou has been, that this version of Michael is the person she loves most, the daughter of whom she’s so proud, and who she now seems desperate to keep alive. Georgiou’s efforts to reason with Michael, to find out what she wants and give it to her, all fail and Michael would clearly rather die than make amends, but Georgiou still won’t do what everyone expects of her and execute her treasonous daughter, which may cost her everything.
It’s difficult to fully parse, since the value system of Terrans seems so ass-backwards. Presumably, Emperor Georgiou loves her Michael because she’s evil as hell, and that may still be her position. It seems as if any sentiment or attachment at all is considered disqualifying for leadership — Emperor Georgiou’s fondness for her adoptive daughter, as wicked as both their deeds may be, might be enough for people to doubt Georgiou’s toughness.
Mirror Michael herself seems to back up this idea, as her betrayal of Georgiou is motivated by hating their association and codependency. Michael believes that Georgiou only loves her because she made her, and this keeps Michael from enjoying her own accomplishments. This feels totally in line with a brutally individualistic cultural psychology, but Michael has also fallen into the emotional trap set by Lorca, who we know actually is just using her for the throne and doesn’t care for her at all. Shouldn’t she expect this? Would this not always be how it works around here? My head hurts.
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Heavy is the Hand that Writes the Review
Any visit to the Mirror Universe is bound to raise questions as to how anyone could possibly live like this, but that’s part of what makes Discovery’s approach to it so interesting. Rather than handwave it and say “It’s just a silly pirate episode, don’t think about it too hard,” Discovery deliberately lingers. You have to think about it. How did a society evolve, and seemingly thrive, on the principle of putting in charge whoever is most willing to punish and exploit people, as if that’s what’s best for everyone? Where people tolerate the enslavement of others and the precariousness of their lives spent in constant, vicious competition in the hope that they may be able to climb higher on this pyramid of abuse?
HOW COULD THAT POSSIBLY HAPPEN?!?!
Emperor Georgiou has had a taste of life outside of the sociopathic bubble in which she was born and thrived. Can she truly go back? Can someone who has experienced the warmth and kindness of an egalitarian post-scarcity utopia still rule over the sadistic hell hole she once loved? We’ll find out in next week’s Part Two, which promises to be equally as nuts as Part One, and will likely lead us right into Georgiou’s spin-off, which we can no longer make any assumptions about whatsoever.