The thing about Discovery is that it's good in everything but the writing. So this episode's extended action sequences and few long expanses of dialogue served to make "What's Past Is Prologue" one of the most watchable episodes to date.
All images: CBS All Access
Every word out of Lorca's mouth continues to be mind-bogglingly gross, though.
Listen, I stand by everything I said about the Mirror Lorca twist last week. It's lazy, and takes a character that could have added a lot of dimension to Star Trek and just gives him a moustache to twirl. Even if he had to be from the Mirror Universe, it would have been interesting to have a character trying to live up to Starfleet ideals against everything his prior life experience told him. But instead, we have a Lorca who does and says every conceivable thing to remind us he's Evil, with a capital E.
Not that Jason Isaacs doesn't sell it. He has the time of his life in this episode, and it shows. He's having so much fun it almost makes the terrible dialogue he is given bearable. He is a microcosm of this whole show: The design, the effects, the action and the acting is so much better than the scripts that when all of that is firing on all cylinders, the bad writing barely registers.
The episode begins inauspiciously, as it is Lorca's grand speech to his followers. It all very much sells that he's evil to us, the audience, but it does not really sell why all these people - whom Lorca is freeing from many, many hours of torture - were so willing to follow him. This is the Mirror Universe, they should have all turned the second he vanished. Backstabbing and betrayal is par for the course! Anyway, Lorca proclaims, "Today is the day we reclaim our empire." You know, just in case you hadn't quite gotten that he really is not just from the Mirror Universe, but an arsehole. No resisting tyrannical rule here, Lorca just wants to rule himself.
Lorca's plan for domination rests, as it so often has, on forcing Stamets to share his work. We get a little backstory about how Stamets actually did do what you'd expect anyone in the Mirror Universe to do: He sold out Lorca, which, man, that adds a dimension to how Lorca dealt with Prime Stamets. Lorca comments that all Stametses love their work too much to abandon it. He fails to add that all Stametses also loathe him and are sarcastic arseholes. Truly, having two Stametses - and one not haunted by the death of the man he loved - was a boon to my personal enjoyment of this show.
A face that screams, "Gabriel, I really hoped you were dead." Which he also said out loud, because there is no Stamets in any universe who isn't going to share that thought whenever he has it.
Lorca, we learn, got to the Prime universe the way Kirk and company will get to the Mirror one in the original series: A heady mix of a transporter accident and an ion storm. "To me, it was physics, acting as the hand of destiny. My destiny," Lorca intones. Perhaps because he had only said it a handful of times earlier in the season, Lorca says the word "destiny" so many times in this episode that he could kill a person who used it as a drinking game. In response, Mirror Stamets speaks for the audience: "Frankly, I'm still stuck on the not dead part."
Lorca wants the bioweapon that Stamets is working on so he can use it to get the upper hand on a city-sized ship filled with people on the Emperor's side. No explanation beyond "bioweapon you're working on for the Emperor", because we don't need it. Of course Mirror Stamets creates bioweapons. He probably creates three accidentally on his way to the toilet. See, Discovery, you can just let some things be established by implication instead of having characters repeat the implications repeatedly! Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Charon, Emperor Georgiou doesn't trust Burnham - which is more than fair, since she brought Lorca on board and this universe had a Burnham which betrayed Georgiou for Lorca. She orders Burnham to the brig, but Burnham escapes through the Mirror equivalent of a Jeffries tube.
Back on the Discovery, Saru's log informs us they're heading to the rendezvous with the Charon and that Stamets and the ship are repaired, but the spore crop is super dead. Now, in true Star Trek fashion, we get to the message portion of the hour. It is not good, but I think I love it? The Disco crew figures out that the Charon is running on a spore drive, too, except this one pulls power out of the spores instead of working with them. It gives the ship planet-killing power, but is unsustainable. And then...
Saru: How can a people be so shortsighted?
Stamets: Well the Terrans are egotistical enough to believe they can replenish this resource before it collapses.
If they're not stopped, "Life as we know it will cease to exist."
This is amazing. It's so unsubtle. And it's not even the focus of the episode, really, it's just an aside. In the midst of Lorca's attack on ego, Burnham dealing with her parental issues, and everyone just trying to save the universe and go home, this show slipped in some fossil fuel shaming. I thought after Stamets said that thing about resource collapse he was going to look straight into the camera and blame us, personally, for the existence of the internal combustion engine. Ah, the patented Star Trek preachiness. That's the good stuff, put it right into my veins.
Back on the ship literally named for the vessel that takes you straight to the underworld, Lorca's really going for it in his speeches. He wants to take over the Empire because Georgiou didn't kill enough aliens, and he needs to "preserve our way of life, our race". You'd think the racism, fascism and egotism Lorca displays would be enough to convince us he really is an arsehole, but then he comments about Burnham, "Well, it's indecorous of me to share pillow talk," and everyone in hearing distance goes straight for the sonic showers. Lorca talks creepily about Burnham as much as he does destiny. Those are basically his only two modes after his reveal.
Lorca's gross talking does serve a purpose, though. It lures Geogiou into an ambush that is legitimately one of the greatest action sequences this franchise has done on television. Someone sat down and thought of every "but why didn't they use this?" question and incorporated them into this fight. There's the forcefield and the automated guns Georgiou uses, the way Lorca's side batters the forcefield down, and flash grenades - really useful in a universe where everyone's sensitive to light. Even more than the big sequence in the end, it's this one that really stands out for the variety of tactics on display.
Georgiou, almost beat, even uses an emergency beam out to escape. Lorca, as is his default, turns his anger on Stamets and asks why he didn't say she could do that. And while I heartily disagree with the sentiment, Rekha Sharma's delivery of the line "Please tell me we can kill him now" is sublime.
Life is so rough and it's about to get so much worse.
Stuck in her Jeffries tube escape plan, Burnham finally gets in touch with Discovery and drops the big Lorca bomb on them. She tells them to turn around since Lorca has no reason to not blow them out of space and kill them all. They take that pretty well in stride since they have a bomb for Burnham: If they don't destroy the giant flaming ball in the Charon, the spore network will die and wipe out all life, in all universes.
Team Disco comes up with a plan: Burnham will take down the containment field around the Charon's spore drive while the Discovery stays at warp, undetected, waiting for her signal.
I appreciate that, even though acting like this is absolutely going to get him killed, Stamets cannot help himself when confronted with Lorca's lunacy
Back on the Charon's bridge, Lorca finally makes it to the throne of the Terran Empire, asking Stamets if he believes in destiny now. Stamets' reaction, "That's rhetorical, right?", speaks for us all at this point. Lorca literally believes he is "living proof that fate is real", and is so off the deep end this episode, I almost expected him to intone that he will always triumph because good is dumb.
Sadly, this episode means we have to say goodbye to Mirror Stamets, too snarky for this world. And also, you know, a guy who cooks up bioweapons and a drive that could kill everyone, everywhere. Lorca opens up a hole in the floor above the swirling fireball that is the Charon's engine. Being in the Mirror Universe means never having to explain why something such as this would exist. It's just "because evil".
"It's poetic justice, don't you think? A scientist destroyed by his own creation," says Lorca. "Just kidding, I hate poetry." And Landry shoots Mirror Stamets just as he think he might get a reprieve. Is it gratuitous and obvious? Yes. Does every actor involved manage to make it work? Also yes. It's great.
RIP Mirror Stamets. I will miss your face, but not your questionable ethics.
After Stamets' execution, Landry announces they have detected an unauthorised transmission aboard the Charon. Lorca says, "That will be my Burnham." Excuse me, I have to go dry heave forever.
After isolating Burnham's signal, Lorca starts his pitch to her and, once again, we get a reminder that subtlety is not Discovery's strong point. He says the Federation is a social experiment doomed to failure and "every species, every opinion is not equal" and "the strong will always rise".
"Stay with me, stay here and help me bring peace to this world. Through strength and order, the right way." Blah, blah, blah, fascism cakes.
Meanwhile, Emperor Georgiou has escaped to her ready room of sadness, where she has Mirror Burnham's insignia like our Burnham has the damaged Starfleet badge of Prime Georgiou's. It is truly amazing that we spent the beginning of this series being constantly told that Burnham is too Vulcan-like, since she very frustratingly proves Lorca right: A few episodes ago, Lorca said she was blinded by her emotions and tried to remind her the Emperor wasn't her Georgiou. Burnham is incapable of remembering that this Emperor Georgiou is famously cruel and unforgiving and, you know, was the leader of an Empire that crushed all resistance beneath its boot and espoused human supremacy. Plus, Burnham, she literally fed you a sentient being last week, so, uh, maybe learn to draw a bit of a line? But, no, Burnham tells this woman that she won't let another Burnham betray her and... gah.
As much as I love the hallway ambush from earlier this episode, my absolute favourite moment this week is back on the Discovery. Stamets has bad news (On this ship? No!): Proton torpedoes won't be enough to destroy the drive. They will have to use all the spores they have instead, leaving them none to get home with. And even then, the Discovery's shields wouldn't hold against the resulting explosion, frying them all in the process.
No one protests. Not for a second. The crew, not even our main characters - who we've spent so little time actually getting to know! - instantly start talking about logistics instead. If this little foray into the Mirror Universe was meant to be a contrast between the Terran Empire's values and the Federation's, this scene does it better than any other one. No one has to say "the needs of the many," they just... live it. Of course, this is Discovery, so the moment can't be allowed to just land. It's immediately followed by a too-on-the-nose speech by Saru. He even ends it with "we will not accept a no-win scenario".
And if you want that little bit of fanservice beaten into the ground, we later see Tilly technobabbling, saying Saru was right not to accept a no-win scenario. Stamets builds on her plan, coming up with a way for the ship to survive and get home. Tilly points out that, as the navigator, it will be... "Hard is the word you're looking for," says Stamets. "But I don't accept no-win scenarios." Oh my god, we get it. If you say this enough, does James Kirk appear like Bloody Mary?
This my "no-win scenario" face
Back on the Charon, Burnham delivers Georgiou to Lorca, and I can't believe Lorca, who has up until this point been at the very least a cunning sort of bastard, just... goes with it. I think he's supposed to be blinded by his want for Burnham, but it's extremely "curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal". Burnham offers herself in exchange for the lives of the Disco crew and specifies she's just offering her "mind" and nothing else. Lorca's face says that he expects that will eventually change and... weird, did anyone else just spontaneously break out in hives? Thankfully, the Discovery drops out of warp to move us on from Lorca's whole creepy Burnham fascination thing, and Lorca smarms, "Mr Saru, it's good to see you." I so wish Saru had answered, "Mr Lorca, it's a steaming shitpile to see you."
The Discovery fires on the Charon once Burnham gives them the sign. Obviously, it was a plan with Georgiou and the two of them take out everyone. It's another good fight scene; the bit where Georgiou throws a knife into Lorca, he pulls it out and throws it back, and she deflects it with a kick is particularly great, and a reminder that Michelle Yeoh is still a completely badarse action star.
But again, even after a lavish action sequence, Discovery has to have everyone talk, to hammer home the message a little more bluntly for those in the back. Burnham gets a phaser on Lorca and says, "We would have helped you get home, if you had asked. That's who Starfleet is, that's who I am. That's why I won't kill you now." Shock of shocks, Georgiou kills him though. Goodbye, Jason Isaacs, I hope we get to meet the actual Lorca at some point (it seems like an impossibility, but that hasn't stopped this show from giving us a "shocking" twist before).
After Lorca falls to his death-by-spore-reactor - and honest to god, screams a sound that is basically the noise of a TIE Fighter swooshing by - Georgiou chooses to have a dramatic last stand, because she correctly surmises that she's too weak of an Emperor now, so she may as well die standing. Burnham, because she has never had any problem just ignoring people's wishes, decides to grab Mirror Georgiou as she's beamed out by the Discovery and the crew makes their daring escape. Oh sure, just bring her home with you! I don't know if Burnham knew they'd be going straight home, but, uh that's cool. I mean, I guess neither the Prime Directive nor the Temporal Prime Directive applies here. I would suggest a new directive that states "leave things in the right universes and return things to the right universes whenever possible" would be worth having for Starfleet.
Stamets has trouble navigating but, of course, we flashback to when he talked to the ghost of Hugh Culber last week and he's guided home by Hugh's favourite aria. I have said everything I am going to say about how miserably this relationship has been treated, so I will just say this was extremely predictable in that way only Discovery can be. Discovery's twists are so predictable that it's basically yawn-inducing to find out they got back nine months late and that the Federation totes lost the war to the Klingons and whatever. At some point they have got to get to the relative equilibrium that existed in the original series. I'm mostly concerned we're potentially going to follow up this trip to the Mirror Universe with a story about time travelling back nine months to fix this by the end of the season in two episodes' time.
This whole episode felt a lot like a season finale. It should have been. Like the midseason finale, there were a lot of things I wished had been built to more. I wish we'd had a better grasp of who the hell Mirror Lorca had been, because he espouses some very racist-sounding things this week, but he never seemed to have problems with the aliens on his ship. And yet, he flat out says he actually respected Saru and the Disco crew. I didn't necessarily want to spend a ton of time with him, but after spinning the wheels for so long, the climax is a bit rushed here.
Another big disconnect is that Emperor Georgiou's cruelty has been built up and then shown a lot, but she's made sort of noble this week. In comparison to Lorca's gross obsession with Burnham and his ramblings about fate, she seems fine! And then she offers to sacrifice herself for Burnham, all in the service of making us relieved when Burnham saves her. Except, of course, she's still incredibly bad, and the turn between last week's literal eater of slaves and this week's sympathetic saviour is very tight.
This episode wanted to be the culmination of comparing and contrasting the Federation to the Terran Empire, with some not-so-subtle hints that present-day Earth is leaning more Terran Empire than Federation. The constant backstabbing and selfishness are its downfall, while the Discovery's crew of team players who believe in a greater good get the win. That message is muddied a little by things like the loyalty of Lorca's band of followers, and Mirror Georgiou's self-sacrificing. And it looks like Mirror Georgiou is going to offer Terran Empire techniques to the struggling Federation next week, so I guess this wasn't actually a culmination of anything.
Devoid of any context - with no mention of the L'Rell and Voq subplot - this episode moves at a nice clip, with some great fights and acting. It's whenever anyone starts pontificating, reminding us that a lot of what's happening doesn't match up to the rest of the season, that it falls apart.
- Forget the spore drive, the Discovery runs entirely on a Murphy's Law drive. Once one disaster ends, the ship will make it to the next one.
- I'm kind of really into knowing what it was like for Lorca in the Prime Universe. Did seeing Saru not being served as dinner throw him badly? How did he get the light sensitivity thing past doctors, since it's less a trauma and more genetic?
- Speaking of the Mirror Universe and Saru, does Burnham ever come clean about that lie? Georgiou is going to find him as captain weird as hell.
- I get that only the people who are on the Discovery bridge in the Mirror Universe have to be in costume, but it's still kind of bizarre that the ship is "undercover" with a mix of uniforms.
- I'm pissed we never found out what Mirror Hugh was like.
- A friend of mine said this whole arc is like when The Next Generation did a sequel to an original series episode to draw in old-school fans. "It's like 'The Naked Now', but a whole season." And, yeah, that checks out.