Sunday, January 21, 2018

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - Michael Meets the Emperor and Learns Yet Another Secret in 'Vaulting Ambition'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.12 "Vaulting Ambition"

Burnham heads to the I.S.S Charon with a special "gift" for the Emperor. With the help of an unexpected source, Stamets gains clarity while trapped inside the mycelial network. Saru asks for L'Rell's help.

Last week's episode of Star Trek: Discovery produced a meaningful conversation about the effectiveness of twists. It was the hour that finally confirmed that Tyler was Voq in disguise. But it also started the discussion of if this show was favoring big twists over actual character development. Voq wasn't a meaningful character before he disappeared. That kept last week's reveal from being all that spectacular. Even now, it's hard to get a sense of what's actually going on in that story. Saru is trying to save Tyler/Voq because Starfleet officers won't let any prisoners die under their watch. But it's a story that brings in L'Rell who simply doesn't make any sense with her actions of telling Saru what the Klingons' plans were and how they have failed miserably as she attempts to undo things. It's all meaningless. And yet, "Vaulting Ambition" is one of the most successful episodes of the season because it features yet another twist that re-conceptualizes the audience's understanding of the characters and the season. Again, the show can't do too many of these big twists because they would lose their value over time. But it's now apparent that the Mirror Universe is the reality that gives value to everything of meaning in this show. It's the world that brings everything into focus in a way that the war with the Klingons never did. And now, it's revealed that Lorca actually comes from the Mirror Universe and has been deceiving the Discovery crew this entire time. That's certainly a surprising twist. It also produces a long list of questions and potential consequences that the show should act upon as soon as possible.

Lorca has been a frustrating and erratic character all season long. He was one-note in his "the ends justify the means" approach as captain. He was a dark character to fit into a more serialized and gritty Star Trek show. Grittiness doesn't always make compelling storytelling. Being dark doesn't have to be the thing to tell a serialized story in an effective manner. It's the approach that this show has gone for. As such, it's been an adequate version of that concept. But at this point in the season, the show reveals it has played the long game with Lorca and the decisions he has made across the season. This twist wasn't as completely obvious as the Tyler/Voq one was. That's good because there's nothing more lame than when a big twist is so apparent to everyone except the creative team writing the show. And yet, some quick Googling after this episode reveals that it has been a theory floating out there since October 2017 - apparently during an extremely quick shot in which Lorca seems to change the coordinates right before Stamets makes that jump to the Mirror Universe. Of course, that jump couldn't have been as easy and precise as that. It's clear that many things have had to go awry in order to make this twist line up in a way that is believable in the stakes of the season. But it does explain why Lorca was so completely willing to avoid Starfleet protocol whenever it benefited him so many times across the season.

This twist also provides new dimension to Lorca. His character arc just makes no sense in the Mirror Universe world. That's what was somewhat frustrating when the show revealed this reality as the alternate dimension the Discovery had jumped to. Yes, it was repeating what previous shows in the franchise had done. But it seemed lazy because the Terran Empire already embodied a mentality that was a component of the show. How would Lorca's views be changed in a world where they are even more extreme? How would he grow as a character when faced with the reality that there is a cost to the captain's actions? Again, it makes it painfully obvious right now that this twist was bound to occur. But it leaves the narrative in an interesting place too. Lorca defected from Emperor Georgiou. He was labeled a traitor to the empire. That would make him a potential ally to the rebel forces and the Discovery because they all believe that the Terran Empire is a monstrous regime with horrendous viewpoints. And yet, the show makes a point in saying that Lorca is evil as well. He may not believe in the enslavement of non-human races. But he was a father figure to Michael until it became a sexual relationship. That's another element of this that proves how manipulative and controlling he has always been. He's talked about fate when he's the one actually driving this narrative forward. It's just such a creepy twist.

But is that sexual twist all that effective? Michael and Lorca's relationship has been important to this season. However, Sonequa Martin-Green and Jason Isaacs don't have sexual chemistry. It's helped define their relationship for what it is - two ideologically different people who have to work together and respect each other. They are now in a situation where they can only trust the other to get back to their universe. This twist reveals that Michael really is trapped and all alone right now. Emperor Georgiou proves herself to have an equally complex relationship with Michael Burnham. In this reality, Michael was her daughter. The daughter who would betray her too because of Lorca. Revealing her true self is the only way for Michael to survive being killed. It establishes an immediate connection of trust between Michael and Emperor Georgiou. It's a twisted dynamic too because of Michael's own remorse for what happened to her Georgiou. There is so much potential for this story to have meaning in the emotional outcome of Michael's overall character arc. But right now, she is trapped. Emperor Georgiou reveals that the Defiant crew all went mad because of their travels between universes. That creates the question of how Lorca was able to move between them while keeping his mind. It means Emperor Georgiou is interested in the spore technology aboard the Discovery as well.

Meanwhile, the spore network is dealing with its own set of problems. Stamets wakes up in that network where he meets his Mirror Universe doppelganger. Of course, there really isn't that much of a difference between the two of them. In fact, the narrative calls attention to how similar they are in that they are both in comas because of their experiments with the spores. The action also shows how the Mirror Stamets has been sending messages of this reality to Stamets throughout the season. That too feels like a twist that should be important with a satisfactory resolution. And yet, it isn't because this story barely has any time for it. Instead, it spends the bulk of its running time focusing on the loving goodbye between Stamets and Culber. Now, it's completely unclear if this is really Culber in the afterlife or if it's just a projection from the spores in order to reach out to Stamets. Either way, it's a lovely scene for a story that has just gotten too frustrating and complicated. The show's creative team said that Culber's story wasn't done when he was killed by Tyler. It was still an unfortunate moment because of the "Bury Your Gays" trope. If this was the moment they were talking about, it's still lacking because it reveals that Stamets has more of a duty to protect the spores from destruction than mourn Culber's loss. But there's still the potential for more because Stamets wakes up aboard the I.S.S. Discovery while his Mirror Universe counterpart wakes up on the Discovery with Tilly. That leaves the potential for Stamets to run into Mirror Universe Culber. But it also mostly feels like a complication to keep the plot in the Mirror Universe going for a couple more episodes. Now, the spores are dying, Mirror Universe Stamets contained the network and he happens to be on the ship heading straight to the Emperor. It's intense. But is it again the show favoring plot twists over character? Only the future can confirm or deny that.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Vaulting Ambition" was written by Jordon Nardino and directed by Hanelle M. Culpepper.
  • At only 37 minutes, this is a surprisingly short episode of the show. That's not inherently a bad thing. It's better to be concise and get to the point rather than drag things out. The show airing on CBS All Access allows it that freedom as well. So, it's nice to have a brief episode knowing that the twists revealed will redefine the arc of the season.
  • Lorca has spent the majority of his time in the Mirror Universe trapped in an agonizer booth. That's been an effective way of keeping him occupied while Michael drives the story forward. But now, he manages to escape because a guard confronts him about what he did to his sister. It's a moment that creates even more questions once the audience knows the truth about Lorca. Mostly, it leaves us wondering who this Ava is?
  • Seriously though, what is motivating everyone aboard the Discovery right now in respect to Tyler? It seems like they are acting out of plot necessity to keep him alive for whatever comes next. And yet, the show also doesn't really explain why Tyler/Voq is acting this way either. Has he simply gone mad knowing the truth about his identity? With the two sides battling for control of his mind?
  • L'Rell explains that Ash Tyler died at the battle of the binary stars. The klingons collected his remains and transferred Voq over to him. It's a science fiction procedure that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Again, shouldn't a spy know that he is a spy? It's all meaningless because the Discovery is no longer fighting with the Klingons. So, it has no point other than being a massive complication. And in the end, it seems like L'Rell may have helped Tyler's mind prevail in the war for control of the body.
  • This episode also makes me extremely envious of the version of this show starring Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh. They just have fantastic chemistry. They both do a strong job in playing these characters. Emperor Georgiou is so completely different. And yet, you can tell that Yeoh is having a lot of fun playing her. Actors do enjoy playing the villains. It's more fun. But the dynamic between Michael and Georgiou is the relationship that has so much meaning despite it being cut short so soon.