Monday, November 6, 2017

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - A Search for Peace Only Amplifies the Cost of War in 'Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum'

CBS' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.08 "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"

The U.S.S. Discovery is tasked with a high priority mission to planet Pahvo and learn the science behind the Klingon's cloaking technology.

Doug Jones really is the only reason why "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" works at all. It's a confounding and confusing episode of Star Trek: Discovery. It mostly serves as setup for the conflict that will happen in next week's midseason finale. But too many storytelling decisions are made that don't make much sense or are just too lackluster for anyone in the audience to actually care about. This show has done certain things well but world building is not one of them. There is just no true sense as to what's happening in the world at large. It's a very small story that only focuses on a handful of characters. Michael Burnham has importance in the war because she was the one blamed for starting this conflict with the Klingons. The Discovery has importance because it has the spore technology everyone believes will be the secret weapon in this war. But this universe really only consists of six characters - Michael, Saru, Tyler, Stamets, Tilly and Lorca. Everyone else is particularly extraneous. The show hasn't put in the effort to understand what is motivating anyone else in this world. It's why it's such a problem when the action cuts away to the Klingon ships. The show is providing no context for their side of this war. As such, it would be better if the show just never showed things from the Klingon perspective. That way they could continue being this ominous and devious presence that is terrorizing the federation of planets. Right now, it all just seems like pettiness that is defining this conflict. Even when this episode actually shows a battle in this war that the Discovery is a major part of, it's never abundantly clear what's going on and why any of it means anything. It mostly just happens so that the audience can be aware that Michael, Tyler and Saru aren't on the bridge of the Discovery. That's important for this episodic story. But it does a horrible job in conveying the context of the overall war. There's no real sense of who's winning and who's losing. There's no sense of the toil this war has had on both sides. It's just this meaningless conflict that intensifies every decision that the characters have to make.

So, the show makes it a point in saying that every single action that any particular character takes could be the biggest difference in this war. It needs to be explained early on in this episode why the planet of Pahvo is so special and how it may hold the key for tracking the cloaked Klingon ships. It's a lot of exposition. And in the end, it's mostly a story where Michael, Saru and Tyler are just talking to a lifeless blue entity that doesn't really communicate in a physical way. The actions of the lifeforms on Pahvo are important to this overall episode. It's just not all that exciting to actually watch. The actors need to carry this story. They do rise to the occasion. But there is only so much they can do to really make this story engaging in a way that defines their characters in a better way. Times of stress define someone's character. That's the storytelling structure the show has employed this season. The audience has a sense of who these characters are based on what they do in the heat of this war. The war defines everything they do. As such, it's weird when Michael and Tyler just have a random moment that is meant to strengthen their romance while they contemplate about the futures awaiting them upon the conclusion of this war with the Klingons. But that's a scope that the show really hasn't earned yet. It is heartbreaking to know that any potential relationship between them is bound to end quickly because of Michael's status as a prisoner. But that doesn't really provide any new sense of depth to their dynamic. It's still just mostly the same with the audience just expected to enjoy the two of them kissing before everything goes awry with Saru.

Once more, Doug Jones is the one who carries this episode into a semi-compelling place. That's not at all surprising. Jones was a standout performer in this ensemble since the first episode. He's a unique creation for this show that actually has a distinct personality. Yes, his actions are often defined by whether or not he detects a threat in any given situation. He's a species defined by fear. But all of that has informed a greater personality that exists beyond the conflicts of war. He's had a push-pull dynamic with Michael because she robbed him of the opportunity to learn from Philippa Georgiou. He blames her for the war with the Klingons. But they've had to rely on each other as fellow officers on the ship that could make all the difference in this conflict. They still value and respect the mission. They are professional together while still having a deep understanding of how the other thinks and operates. It's been a fantastic dynamic. And here, it is compromised because of Saru's experiences on Pahvo. He is given a chance to experience peace for the first time in his life. It's absolutely beautiful for him. His entire existence is one of pain and fear that a dangerous threat could come from anywhere at anytime. When he's walking the surface of this planet, it's torture to him because he's much more sensitive to the music that the planet is creating. He never has a moment of peace. He can't enjoy a pleasant conversation with one of his fellow officers because he can never escape the pain of the music. It's through interacting with this new species that his mind is opened to a sense of calm and peace. Of course, that action makes him a terrifying sight because he's been compromised in the mission. The mission that could change the balance in the war with the Klingons.

And so, it's up to Michael and Tyler to do the research that they came to Pahvo to do. It's a scheme where they need to deceive Saru in order to complete their objective. But it's a story that basically reduces down to Michael running to a giant stalk and hooking a computer to it before Saru discovers what she is doing and runs at super-speed to stop her. Saru has talked a lot about being the species of prey on his home planet. And yet, he is proven to have some incredible abilities in this episode as well. So, it would be truly terrifying to see what the predators are like where he comes from. But this story is ultimately just pretty formulaic and boring. Saru believes he has peace and loses it because of the war. Michael rationalizes it in saying that until the war is over none of them can have peace in their lives. She extends a form of communication with the being of Pahvo to use this research in order to assist StarFleet in this war. But it's all just a case of misdirection. The Pahvians believe in peace through communication above all else. So instead of being cooperative, they instead invite both StarFleet and the Klingons to the same location. It's a decision that could produce a huge battle in this war. The best ship in StarFleet faces off with the head ship of the Klingon army. Michael tells Lorca they need to stay and hold their ground in order to protect Pahvo. They don't understand the true stakes of this conflict. But it's all just enticing buildup for whatever is going to occur in the midseason finale next week. As such, it's a little too boring in the moment.

But at least it's easy to understand what Michael and Saru do throughout this episode. The same cannot be said for whatever it is L'Rell is doing. She has personally been affected by this war as well. She lost her leader. She was disfigured. She is trying to continue the teachings of T'Kuvma while the Klingons fall behind Kol who is mostly just motivated by war. It's a dynamic that doesn't ultimately mean anything. L'Rell says she's a valuable resource because of her interrogation skills. The Klingons still have Cornwell as a prisoner. But when L'Rell visits Cornwell, she instead pivots the conversation to defecting because the morality of this war has gone. When the two try to escape together, L'Rell needs to kill Cornwell in order to provide some sense of loyalty. But it's a weirdly shot scene because it's never clear what's actually going on between the two. It's a very lame, lackluster and blunt death for Cornwell. Of course, that's nothing new for this show. Landry died a very odd and pointless death in the middle of an episode early this season. But it's mostly just the show using death as a tool in order to increase the tension without really developing the characters because of it. L'Rell later has a scene where she sees her fallen comrades and vows to stay behind and avenge their deaths. She's not going to run away to a humane Starfleet prison. But then, that quickly doesn't amount to anything because Kol can see through her false pledge of loyalty and has her arrested. It perhaps showcases that Kol is a ruthless but perceptive leader. But he's not a character with any nuance. This story mostly feels like the show doing the bare minimum to make this a nuanced two-sided conflict. And yet, nothing on this side of the war is working at all. Plus, the show doesn't treat Cornwell's death as a big loss despite her previous appearances in this world.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" was written by Kirsten Beyer and directed by John S. Scott.
  • Stamets and Tilly get their own subplot which basically only consists of two scenes. Tilly notes that Stamets is experiencing more side effects because of the spore drive than a simple change to his personality. They are able to talk about it. But this mostly just sets up how the Discovery won't be able to escape as quickly as they are used to during whatever will happen when they face off with the Klingons next week.
  • Plus, it's incredibly stupid that Stamets is making Tilly keep his new symptoms a secret from everyone else. It's a secret being used to complicate his relationship with Culber. He can't report it because Culber has a medical responsibility to inform StarFleet of what's happening. But that's also a personal betrayal because Stamets and Culber are a couple who love each other. It's all just a pretty lazy way to derive conflict and tension.
  • Of course, Stamets' new side effect from the spore drive is in not remembering details about the world around him. It's just brief. It doesn't last for too long. But he does refer to Tilly as captain. That could be foreshadowing to the future that awaits her. It could prove that he may be existing outside of linear time. Or it could just be a familiar story about amnesia. 
  • It's noted early on that Kelpiens can travel at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. It was predictable that the story was building to a moment where Saru actually had to run quickly. And yet, the actual visual of that was quite silly. It was suppose to be intense that Saru was quickly able to get to Michael while she was at the stalk. But the sight of it was too comical without given a true perception to the audience of him actually being able to run at such speeds.
  • Plus, there's a weird moment where the Pahvians are just able to transport Tyler to the stalk. That's convenient because the story needs Tyler at that location with Saru and Michael in order to be beamed up to the ship. But why couldn't the Pahvians have transported Saru this way as well in order to stop Michael more quickly? It makes it seem like they knew what she was doing and were open to starting a dialogue with all sides in this war.