Star Trek: Discovery S1E8: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum
Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones
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If Discovery was simply bad television, it would be easy to dismiss and ignore…
Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru (Doug Jones) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) beam down to a strange planet in the hopes of utilising its natural harmonic transmissions to detect cloaked Klingon vessels. Their mission is complicated, first when they discover a species of intelligent energy-based aliens living on the planet, and secondly when Saru appears to fall under the planet’s control and begins working against Burnham and Tyler.
I honestly cannot pin Star Trek: Discovery down. It is a series visibly made by a lot of talented people – particularly its cast – and yet the end result each week veers wildly from well-observed drama to genre cliché, and then stumbles into bizarre tone-deaf moments of poor character development. It is the least Trek-like Star Trek series ever made, in which the upbeat Utopian values that typified its predecessors – yes, even the murkier Deep Space Nine – are sidelined in favour of a bleak setting, a war criminal captain, and an inexplicable obsession with straining franchise continuity to breaking point. At this stage I am loving Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as protagonist Michael Burnham, and Jason Isaac’s committed portrayal of the horrifying Captain Lorca, and pretty much despising almost everything else.
Recent episodes have seen a partial shift towards the episode-of-the-week science fiction stories of earlier series. Last week saw Discovery revisit the well-worn ‘time loop’ story with fairly ordinary results. This week sees an honest-to-god away mission, with a bonus first contact scenario thrown in for free. Starfleet ships cannot pinpoint cloaked Klingon vessels to avoid getting ambushed, but the strange emanations from the planet Pahvo may hold a key to developing some sort of interstellar sonar that would pick such disguised ships out from the darkness. When the planet’s wraithlike inhabitants reveal themselves it throws this mission into crisis mode, since it means that in addition to investigating the crystal tower that is transmitting the signals the away team also has to beg permission to touch it. Saru tries to negotiate with the Pahvans, but their constant alien signals do something to his brain and lead him to sabotage the mission in order to live with them forever.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Saru. Doug Jones plays him wonderfully, and he is an exceptional piece of prosthetic design and application. At the same time he is a grossly inconsistent character. At first he seemed so risk-averse one questioned why he would have joined Starfleet at all. By three weeks ago he was willingly torturing a sentient creature to complete a mission. Now he is sabotaging mission-critical work in order to escape the war and live in peace. One spends much of the episode assuming he is under alien control, however later scenes reveal he knew exactly what he was doing all along. It turns his character into a joke, since he cannot be taken seriously as the first officer of a warship any more – assuming he ever was. Between his treachery, the captain’s willing betrayal of his superior to the Klingons, and Lt Stamets’ hiding of serious medical issues to the captain and ship’s doctor, this is the most wildly incompetent Starfleet bridge crew since they let a teenage boy pilot the Enterprise.
The production values are top-notch, with each episode looking and sounding great. Burnham is a truly brilliant lead character. The rest is just a weird mess. If Discovery was simply bad television, it would be easy to dismiss and ignore. Instead it’s actively frustrating: you can see the decent series that is almost in view, and cannot help but want the production team to somehow find it under their noses.