Please note this review spoils a major event that takes place during the episode.
When the last episode of Star Trek: Discovery aired back in November, a spore drive jump saw the Discovery thrown far outside of where it was supposed to be. Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is in a coma and unable to operate the drive to get them back home. As this 10th episode commences, it soon becomes clear that the ship has been thrown into another universe entirely – one where the Federation does not exist, and a group of alien rebels fight against the brutal Terran Empire.
Indeed, and as most long-term fans of Star Trek predicted, we are back in the Mirror Universe. First depicted in the fun 1960s episode “Mirror, Mirror”, it was brought back and run into the ground in a succession of increasingly ineffective Deep Space Nine episodes before finally getting pushed through the late-series continuity meat grinder of Enterprise. Evil twins have their place in popular culture, but Star Trek has stretched the concept past breaking point so that its return here generated little more in me than an intolerant eye roll.
The episode runs through some cute little parallel universe motions. Ensign Tilly is the captain of the Discovery in the Mirror Universe, essentially for somewhat strained and painful laughs. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Lorca (Jason Isaacs) embark on a secret mission to gather intelligence on how to get home from the parallel version of the Shenzhou (Burnham’s original ship). Their adventures on the evil Shenzhou feel tiresome and worn out.
This entire Mirror Universe diversion does not work for a pretty simple reason. In the previous incarnations of Star Trek, it was a gleeful little sojourn into a bleak, violent opposite Trek. Characters could get brutally killed. Everyone was untrustworthy and unpleasant. It presented a stark and campy kind of contrast. The problem is that bleak violence, brutal murder and untrustworthy characters have been Discovery’s stock-and-trade for most of the season. There’s no campy contrast to be enjoyed here, just a slightly more unpleasant version of the same thing.
The entire storyline also feels weirdly misplaced at this point. When the Discovery left its own universe, the war with the Klingons had reached a critical stage. Now it’s been abandoned for what looks like at least two more episodes – and at this point there are only five more Discovery episodes for the whole year.
Meanwhile, Tyler’s (Shazad Latif) post-traumatic stress hits breaking point as he realises he is not who he thinks he is. Every viewer has surely worked out the truth by now – most have had it worked out since Tyler first appeared – and all that is left now is the wait for the series itself to try and make a shock reveal of something that is no longer shocking. In his “Manchurian Candidate” state – something the episode even name-checks – Tyler also snaps the neck of Discovery’s chief medical officer Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). It is a shocking moment, not simply because this does not feel like the sort of thing that happens in Star Trek but because after making such a widely publicised step of giving the franchise its first openly gay couple they have now gone and killed one of them off.
Murdering LGBTI characters is one of the most awful trends in American television, inspiring the “bury your gays” movement less than two years. Culber’s murder puts Discovery in an unwinnable position. Keep him dead, and they have added to a disgraceful trend that absolutely needs to stop. Bring him back to life, and they have turned Tyler’s crime into a cheap narrative stunt. Either way it goes, it will come down to poor writing.
That is Discovery’s core problem. The cast are great. The direction has been strong (including this week’s effort, by Next Generation star and long-term Trek director Jonathan Frakes). By contrast, the writing is all over the place, with inconsistent characters, weak motivations, and an overall tone that just feels crudely violent and regularly adolescent. That last episode in November was pretty good, and pointed to a series heading back up in quality. “Despite Yourself” just pulls it right back down again. There is not another series on television quite so frustrating.