Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Episode 3 Review: “Choose to Live”

The first two chapters of Star Trek: Discovery season four introduced us to this year’s ongoing mystery plot, centered around a devastating gravitational anomaly that is roaming the galaxy and swallowing entire planets whole. This week’s new episode, “Choose to Live,” is the first to relegate the big mystery to the B-plot, and while it adds two more character-driven storylines, neither of them feel entirely spaceworthy.

Have You Heard? Star Trek Has Ninjas Now.

“Choose to Live” begins with an incident aboard the Starfleet vessel Credence, where a shipment of dilithium bound for a planet in need is hijacked by a group of sword-wielding mercenaries dressed head-to-toe in black. Their leader is J’Vini (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves, Y: The Last Man), a member of the Qowat Milat order of Romulan warrior nuns, who offers the ship’s first officer one chance to surrender his ship’s dilithium without bloodshed. He declines, and a short melee ends with J’Vini’s sword run through the officer’s chest. At Starfleet Headquarters, President Rillak assigns Commander Burnham to lead a joint mission with the Qowat Milat to track down J’Vini and bring her into custody, but Burnham is frustrated that pursuing a murderer has turned into a delicate political matter. Ni’Var, the home planet of both the Romulans and Vulcans, is in negotiations to rejoin the Federation, and neither Rillak nor Ni’Var’s President T’Rina (returning guest star Tara Rosling) are willing to look weak in the eyes of their constituents. Therefore, a team of four — two Starfleet, two Qowat Milat — will be sent after J’Vini, under Burnham’s command but abiding by Qowat Milat rules. (Namely, “swords only.”)

Michael Burnham’s counterpart on the mission is her own mother, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn), who was revealed last year as having joined the Qowat Milat after her arrival in the 32nd century. Teaming them up together is meant as a gesture of trust between their governments, but it also complicates the mission as Gabrielle has a personal connection to J’Vini. It was J’Vini who nursed Gabrielle back to health after her traumatic time travels and gave her a new purpose in the Qowat Milat, and Gabrielle believes that J’Vini would not have killed to steal the dilithium unless it was in service to a worthy cause. Michael doesn’t much care what J’Vini’s motives are — one of her fellow officers is dead, and she wants his killer brought to justice. Michael only feels more vindicated when J’Vini’s mercenaries kill Gabrielle’s Qowat Milat mission partner (stunt actor Mimi Côté, whose character is offed before we even get her name).

Naturally, Michael, Gabrielle, and Tilly (who comes along as part of her efforts to shake up her work routine and broaden her experience) discover that J’Vini has indeed been acting on behalf of a “lost cause” in the Qowat Milat tradition. J’Vini is protecting a species, the Arbonians, that has spent centuries in hibernation aboard an enormous starship built out of their dead homeworld’s moon. A mechanical failure has stalled their reawakening, and their latinum-rich bodies have made them a prime target for grave robbers. Unable to free the Arbonians from cryosleep, J’Vini sought dilithium to ensure that she could at least move the aliens’ moonship should it be threatened by the massive spatial anomaly that destroyed Kwejian. J’Vini fears revealing the Arbronians’ location to anyone, even the Federation, so her application for a share of their dilithium was denied, leading her to turn to larceny. After a standoff on the Arbonian ship, Michael convinces J’Vini to surrender by repairing the cryosystems so that the aliens can awaken and proceed to their new colony world.

Star Trek: Discovery

Somehow, All of the Above is Kinda Boring

On paper, the A-plot of “Choose to Live” sounds like a solid episode of Discovery — Political intrigue, family drama, swordfights, and a starship built out of a fucking moon, what’s not to like? And yet, the episode struggles to capitalize on any of the ideas present. To begin with, the tension around the joint Starfleet/Qowat Milat mission feels entirely forced, as there is no practical difference between the goals of the two parties. Gabrielle wants to assure that every effort is made to capture J’Vini alive, but that’s also what Michael wants, and the fact that she doesn’t believe anything could justify the murder of a fellow officer doesn’t make her any less likely to act with care and mercy. The very light friction between mother and daughter Burnham doesn’t do very much to explore either character or their relationship, in fact the story could play out in much the same way if Burnham had been forced to team up with a new character. Even the Qowat Milat swordplay doesn’t fully satisfy, as each fight is brief and unremarkable.

The Arbonians (apologies if this spelling is incorrect, I must once again lament the lack of subtitles on press screeners) are neat-looking six-legged non-humanoids, and it’s a shame that we only get a brief glimpse of a living Arbonian via J’Vini’s flashback. There’s also something really interesting about the idea of a species whose body is made of a substance that much of the galaxy uses as currency, and also have the ability to project their emotions telepathically across space. What kind of monster would it take to dissect a being who can literally make you feel their pain? We’ll never know, because neither the Arbonians nor their enemies are characters in this episode. The moonship is a neat idea and its hollowed-out innards have some interesting design elements, but it’s too dark to get a good look at anything. Also, because it has already arrived in orbit of the Arbonians’ new home by the time J’Vini finds it, we are denied the image of a moon opening up and propelling itself through space at superliminal speeds. 

After the Burnhams (and Tilly) have completed their mission, President Rillak hands over the captured J’Vini to the Ni’Var authorities, where it’s expected that she’ll receive leniency for operating according to Qowat Milat customs. This angers Michael, who has to be persuaded by Admiral Vance that being part of an organization like Starfleet means trusting others — above, below, and laterally in the chain of command — to understand their job. In isolation, I like this scene, and the mentor/mentee relationship that’s developed between Vance and Burnham, but this seems like a lesson that Michael should have learned already. I continue to have trouble with Discovery’s need to constantly have Burnham butting heads with higher-ups instead of feeling as if she’s actually in command.

Star Trek: Discovery

It is Logical to Take Naps at Work

Commander Stamets is deep into studying the data that he and Book assembled during their scan of the deadly spatial anomaly, which he’s dubbed the Dark Matter Anomaly, or DMA for short. He has a theory that the DMA is actually a primordial wormhole, except he’s been unable to find any signs of tachyon radiation, which is always present at the birth of a black hole. In search of any evidence to either confirm or refute his theory, Stamets visits the Ni’Var Science Directorate to meet with the planet’s best and brightest. Stamets is forced to pace around the Directorate’s precarious floating conference room while six Vulcans ponder the data in a state of deep, silent meditation. When they awaken, it’s only to tell him that they also find no evidence of tachyons and therefore cannot positively identify the DMA, either.

On a production design level, I’d like to call out the Science Directorate’s crazy meditation space, which is one of an array of free-floating platforms in the middle of a mountain range. It seems totally impractical until you remember that this is an era in which everyone wears a transporter on their jacket. By all rights, all 32nd architecture should be at least this ridiculous.

As it happens, Book has come along to Ni’Var with Stamets, and his firsthand experience with the DMA may help to get the science team unstuck. By mind-melding with President T’Rina, the two of them can replay Book’s memories of the DMA’s impact with Kwejian and look for a telltale blue aura at the moment that the anomaly struck his planet’s atmosphere. (How is this more useful than mountains of sensor data, I couldn’t tell you.) Stamets has become protective of Book, and doesn’t want him to be forced to relive the trauma of his planet’s death because his scans weren’t good enough. Book is willing to bear it if it means the answer to Stamets’ questions, and some of his own. His mind meld experience confirms that there were no signs of tachyons, but also allows Book to go back and re-examine his last moments with his young nephew Leto and feel certain that Leto died knowing that his uncle loved him. 

The Ni’Var subplot is the most engaging of the episode’s three storylines, even if it’s the least eventful. The bond between Book and Stamets is still fresh, and brings out new facets of both of their personalities. We’ve seen Stamets play Papa Bear before, but only with family and never out of a sense of guilt. He’s finding a place between his ego-driven work self and the softer, more vulnerable side he shows his loved ones. For Book’s part, it’s nice to see him develop a unique dynamic with a regular character other than Michael. Both Anthony Rapp and David Ajala seem to be thriving under these new conditions, and I hope there’s more mixing and matching of the usual scene partners as the season matures.

Previously:

Star Trek: Discovery

The Trill Codependency Commission

The time has finally come for Gray Tal to have his consciousness transferred out of his partner Adira’s body and into a synthetic one of his own. The process is dangerous and time-consuming, combining ancient Trill ritual with late 24th century cybernetics, and if it fails, Gray will be dead for good this time. Gray bravely accepts the risk, unwilling to go on living exclusively as a ghost in someone else’s head, even a loved one’s. Adira is much more nervous, and when Gray leaves their symbiont and does not immediately awaken inside his new body, Adira has trouble keeping their cool.

Luckily, Adira has Dr. Hugh Culber, ship’s counselor, for a surrogate father. Culber suggests that, when coping with fear and stress, it can be helpful to reach out to other people rather than just stew and wallow. This is good advice, and for a moment it seems as if this will lead to Adira breaking out of their shell and mingling with more of the Discovery crew. Instead, Adira returns to Gray’s bedside to hold his hand. When Gray awakens, he credits Adira’s presence for helping to guide him home. (RELATED: I am going to start keeping track of every moment on Discovery in which two characters on screen who are textually romantic partners share an emotionally-charged moment but do not kiss. You’re telling me that these two lovestruck teens who were separated by the veil of death can physically touch for the first time in over a year and celebrate by pressing their foreheads together? What coward at CBS Studios is to blame for this?)

Gray’s awakening is a touching moment, and of course it’s a victory that he now gets to be a fully autonomous individual, but the middle part of Adira’s story feels in conflict with the beginning and the end. Instead of seeking company as Culber suggests, Adira just goes back to fussing over their partner in person, and is rewarded for it. It’s totally understandable for someone to want to remain with a loved one while they face a life-threatening medical condition and it’s a good idea for Adira to start making more connections with people now that Gray is going to have a life of his own, but the mixture of these messages in this episode feels confused. 

That’s basically the episode in a nutshell — theoretically interesting but not fully baked. “Choose to Live” is the first weak link of the season, by no means a disaster but not up to the standards set by the first two chapters. Hopefully this is just a stutter-step and not the beginning of a trend.