Star Trek: Discovery 1.10: “Despite Yourself”
Jonathan Frakes (director), Sean Cochran (writer)
Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Jason Isaacs (cast)
In choosing Star Trek: Discovery as my TV show of the year, I opined that the series is taking the phrase “To Boldly Go” more seriously than any of its predecessors, but with the premiere of the back half of the season, that statement requires a bit more granular attention. The first nine episodes put the emphasis of that phrase on “boldly,” making daring choices like introducing a brand new, female-led crew in the first half of the two-part debut and then completely wiping it out in the second.
This half of the season is emphasizing the “go.” Star Trek: Discovery is now unequivocally an action show, thanks in no small part to a spectacularly choreographed, gravity defying fight in an elevator directed by Jonathan Frakes, who as a director, has been remembered by Star Trek fans for helming the lamentable Star Trek: Insurrection. Frakes’ victory lap on this episode is a hard earned one, given that he’s amassed an impressive run of TV directing credits including Castle, Dollhouse, Leverage, Agents of SHIELD, and Falling Skies.
The other way that this episode is telegraphing an emphasis on “go” is the steadfast refusal to allow Star Trek: Discovery to have anything resembling a status quo. The destruction of the Shenzen and the incitement of the Klingon war was much more than a one-off gut punch: it established the state of disruption that has consistently defined the series from then until, seemingly, at least the end of the season.
The central disruption that the Discovery crew are dealing with this episode is after the final, disastrous use of the spore drive that left Stamets catatonic, they found themselves stranded in the mirror universe. It’s a development that has been hinted at since Stamets’ own image in the mirror stayed behind after he left the room in an earlier episode. It also offers the fundamental answer as to how the spore drive operates: it jumps the ship from their native universe into the mirror universe and back, almost exactly how the eponymous ship in Event Horizon achieved faster than light travel by literally going to hell and back. Which is more or less what the crew of the Discovery is faced with when they begin to understand just how and where the mirror universe has diverged from their home universe.
In the mirror universe, Starfleet has been supplanted by a fascist, human supremacist cabal run by a mysterious emperor opposed by a ragtag coalition of non-human species including Vulcans, Andorians, and Klingons. Compounding the situation, Burnham’s mirror universe counterpart is the missing, presumed dead captain of the Shenzen, believed to have been killed pursuing none other than Lorca, who led a failed coup against the Emperor, leaving Tilly at the helm of the Discovery.
Of course the mirror universe Tilly isn’t the endearing, anxiety ridden, over-sharer we know and love. She’s a brutal warlord with as many ludicrous, violent nicknames as an average Game of Thrones character. Which sets the stage for the razor’s edge between outlandish comedy and outright terror that the series lives its greatest moments in, as Tilly has to impersonate her evil self to allay the suspicions of the locals.
Tilly’s makeover and impersonation are a darkly comic callback to Burnham’s ambitions for her to achieve the rank of Captain, but it’s also a central example of how transmogrification, both subtle and overt, has been a major undercurrent of the series informing all of its major character arcs: Burnham was introduced on the Shenzen fully assimilated into a Vulcan identity, wearing a severe haircut that hid the rounded tips of her very human ears, then reintroduced during her incarceration with natural, non-relaxed hair that emphasized a broad reclamation of her humanity and a specific assertion of her blackness. Stamets underwent a transformation at the genetic level that made him a physical extension of the ship itself.
Lastly, Tyler is confirmed this episode to be the disgraced Klingon rebel who submitted himself to a radical series of procedures and torture to embed him into Starfleet as a sleeper agent. The Klingons in general are no less of a wash than they were in the first half of the season, but the dynamics of Tyler’s transformation and his reversion to his memories and personalities as a Klingon are fascinating within the larger context of physical transformations that range from subtly cosmetic to extremes of transhumanism. Tyler is now a complete inversion of Burnham’s unique socialization, but the pair of them exist on a spectrum that now encompases Discovery’s entire crew as they turn in their Starfleet comm badges and uniforms for counterfeit Empire ones in order to survive the mirror universe.
In that sense, this episode represents a crystalizing for the show. Both by textually bringing what, out of the chaos of the Klingon War, are Discovery’s core themes, and by beginning to sketch out how the influence of the very distinct camps within the crew, from Bad Robot veterans like Adiva Goldsman (Fringe) and series co-creator Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to Frakes, can be harnessed to draw engrossing patterns out of the chaos they produce.
It’s almost certainly a product of competing interests and the void of Fuller’s departure, but it nonetheless emerges as a key element of how the series rises to the challenge of capturing the spirit of the chaotic, fragmented nature of the times its audience lives in.