Star Trek: Discovery returned with huge revelations, a lot of Trek fanservice, and yes, a few big shocks. But none of that was made "Despite Yourself" compelling - if anything, those moments ended up serving as frustrating distractions in what was one of the show's strongest episodes yet.
There's a lot to love in "Despite Yourself", which starts at an insane clip and rarely lets up - to the point that casual confirmations of the long-running theories that last episode's cliffhanger left the Discovery trapped in the iconic Mirror Universe, and that Lt Tyler really is a Klingon sleeper agent (albeit one that's gone a bit wrong) feel like they're just casually tossed out. The bulk of the episode sees the crew adapting to being stuck in this bizarre alt-reality, and crucially something the series doesn't do nearly enough of: Letting its characters just exist with each other.
After the initial revelation of both their arrival in the Mirror Universe, and Tyler's brief rendezvous with the captive L'Rell to show us his "true" identity, we get to stop for a few moments and see the crew take a few moments for themselves, checking in on each other. Some of these scenes are cute, like Tilly trying to annoy Stamets out of his spore-jump-induced delirium, while some are important character acknowledgements, like Michael opening up to the clearly stressed Tyler, and Lorca checking in on how Dr Culber is feeling in the wake of Stamets' ongoing deterioration. These are important vignettes that Discovery has rarely tried to take advantage of, trying to find drama in having these crewmates hide things from each other instead of being open and helping each other in times of need, and every one of these moments is great.
The episode gets even more interesting when Burnham figures out that the alternate reality is ruled by the Terran Empire, made up of fascistic, xenophobic humans. The shock of the gathered officers around her, their seeming complete and utter dumbfoundness at the existence of an entity so like Starfleet, but so wholly cruel and evil, is a subtle yet wonderful refutation of complaints that Discovery's take on Starfleet strays away from the idealistic utopia presented in past shows. It holds up a mirror (sorry not sorry) to the questions the show only briefly flirted with in its first half about whether or not Starfleet's ideals of exploration and science can hold up in a time of warfare. If only Discovery's first half had focused on that a little more, the Voyager-esque conclusion here - that even stranded and forced to mask themselves as members of the Empire to get home, the crew will hold true to the idealistic tenets of Starfleet - would have been a great end cap to that debate. Instead, it simply serves as a welcome, albeit slight, consideration of these heady concepts.
Sadly, after entertaining these intriguing ideas for most of its runtime, "Despite Yourself" casts all this aside for a moment of grim shock: After being prompted by Tyler to run tests on himself, Dr Culber discovers some sort of surgical alteration hiding in the chief of security. Tyler's Klingon identity is triggered, and he promptly snaps Culber's neck... and then still goes on a highly dangerous undercover mission with Burnham, that a neck-snapping sleeper agent with schizophrenic episodes shouldn't be anywhere near. In the moment, Culber's death is shocking, but it's also deeply concerning -- one half of Star Trek's first LGBTQ couple, brutally dispatched in front of his own ailing partner (Stamets, stuck in his spore-comes) for little more reason than to add some shock value the very obvious reveal of Tyler's other side, and it smacks of the terrible "bury your gays" trope. In the wake of the episode's release, pre-planned interviews released last night with actor Wilson Cruz and Discovery's showrunners were quick to acknowledge the connotations, and state that not only is there more to the story of Culber's death, but that this is not the last time we see the character, heavily hinting at a return through some spore-network magic-science.
That's fine, and would subvert a trope Trek's first gay couple should be absolutely nowhere near in the first place. But if Culber does return to life somehow, what does Discovery get out of mercilessly offing a main character (well, technically Cruz is a guest star, but a chief medical officer is a crucial part of the Trek ensemble) beyond the momentary thrill equivalent to a writer yelling "NOBODY IS SAFE!" at the audience? Time will tell what Tyler's actions and the crew's - especially poor Stamets' - reaction to Culber's death will play in the overall narrative of Discovery's back half, but for now, it feels hollow - a shock for shock's sake.
And the quest to chase that shock - something Discovery's creative team has discussed plenty of times, complete with the prerequisite Game of Thrones comparisons - is what frequently undermines the good aspects of the show. There was more than enough going on in "Despite Yourself" thanks to the wonderful character moments, as well as the crew's reaction to the hateful xenophobia of their Mirror selves, that we did not need the surprise murder of a prominent character in the show. If anything, it undermines the show's attempt to examine mature, suitably Trek-ian concepts with cheap, adolescent thrills, like the bits where they get to show gore, naked Klingons, and characters saying "fuck" - which have already felt like Discovery is more interested in, rather than an examination of how Starfleet's ideals hold up in a time of war. But that's what Star Trek: Discovery should be exploring.
There's a moment between Burnham and Tilly just before they launch their grand infiltration of the I.S.S. Shenzhou, where Burnham consoles the nervous cadet about the supposed strength of their Mirror counterparts. It's a strength, Burnham states, that is little more than a facade, one only born out of a desperate fear of getting caught, of getting the proverbial (or literal) knife in the back. But it's a fleeting strength, not true strength.
It's hard not to draw the obvious comparison. Here, the show's desperation to be Game of Thrones in space, to prove "it's not your father's Star Trek!" is the fleeting strength. These cheap, brief thrills may surprise people, but they don't satisfy - I mean, Culber's death was so pointless that the cast and crew had to immediately promise he was coming back in some form, right after the episode aired!
Discovery's true strength is in its characters, in seeing how they exist with each other, and exploring how it can use its beloved scifi setting to ask intriguing questions, and mirror our own times. "Despite Yourself" proves that the show can do these things, and why it should. Hopefully this is something Discovery continues to realise as it continues its first season - even if we know their mustache-twirling counterparts in the Mirror Universe won't.
- Tilly's attempt at being her bloodthirsty Mirror self when the ship was contacted by the alt-Shenzhou was an absolute joy, and the sort of fun Discovery should let itself have more often. All hail Captain Killy!
- Why does the Discovery's sickbay always look so woefully understaffed? It feels like there's Culber - or I guess there was Culber - and a couple of nurses, and that's it. There's clearly no ship's counsellor for Tyler to go talk to about his stress or anything. Seems like a bad oversight for an incredibly important, top-secret warship.
- Despite seemingly not having nearly enough medical staff, the Discovery has enough graphic designers and tailors (or more likely, replicators) to immediately whip up a whole ship's worth of Terran Empire uniforms and livery at a moment's notice. It was a fun montage, but it was also delightfully silly.
- There's a lot of hints in this episode that Lorca may have intentionally meant for the crew to come to the Mirror Universe. In fact, given that that his Mirror self went missing after killing Mirror Burnham, there's even a possibility that our Lorca is actually Mirror Lorca. I kinda hope that's not the case. Thanks to Tyler, there's already enough people with secret identities on this show.
- Given that the Discovery's return to its own universe relies on the information left behind by the Defiant (not the one from Deep Space Nine, but "The Tholian Web" of the original Star Trek and Enterprise's own Mirror-adventure, "In a Mirror, Darkly"), could we get some Tholians appearing on Discovery? That could be really cool.