One of the things about Discovery's serialized format is that it's hard to know whether questions I have with the story will be answered soon, later, or never — whether gaps are a result of unfinished long-form storytelling or simply sloppy writing. With certain aspects of "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry," I'm leaning toward the latter.
Consider the plot's central motivation, which is that the tactically crucial dilithium mines on Corvan II — which are responsible for nearly half the Federation's fuel supply — are under attack by the Klingons, and Starfleet needs the Discovery to come through with a miracle by making its experimental spore-drive engine technology functional so they can get there before the defenses fall and the Klingons kill everyone and destroy the facility. Why is this crucial facility so utterly defenseless that only a hail-Mary pass employing a starship using untested, dangerous technology can now save it? Starfleet must really be out of practice when it comes to war strategy.
Meanwhile, we learn that along with his crew, Voq (Javid Iqbal), the late T'Kuvma's hand-picked albino successor, has been left sidelined and starving for six months on the adrift sarcophagus ship while all the other Klingon houses went to war with the Federation. Why was he left here, against the ostensible wishes of T'Kuvma, whom the Klingons were willing enough to follow into war? Given how Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) ultimately treats Voq, there's a distinct possibility T'Kuvma was merely a means to an end for war, and his religious/cultural movement was not important to them. But exactly what makes the Klingons (and these scenes) tick is not made adequately clear. It's kind of a muddle, which can be blamed partly on the six-month ellipsis which puts us in the middle of the war with a lot of missing context.
On a related note, which is also a symptom of that six-month gap, Lorca's hierarchy on the Discovery is confusing. (Maybe I missed it in the last episode, but is Lorca even Discovery's original captain, or was he assigned there after the war started? His natural militarism doesn't seem to fit with what was supposedly Discovery's original scientific mission.) Burnham is assigned (with no rank) to work with security chief Landry, who appears to take orders directly from Lorca. Burnham's task is to study the creature that killed members of the Glenn crew and figure out, at least initially, how to weaponize it for possible use against the Klingons. This seems like a questionable plan when most battles take place in space where ships fire at each other from a distance, but whatever; it does set up an interesting conflict where scientific study is employed for militaristic purposes, which is this episode's biggest thematic asset.
It also, alas, sets up the series' dumbest scene so far, where the stunningly brazen, hostile stupidity of Landry gets her killed in swift and stupid fashion. She ignores all of Burnham's well-reasoned warnings and even simple, obvious things like "exercising caution around a creature already known to be very deadly" and just opens the force-field and starts firing phasers at the thing. Because, you know, reasons. She's killed immediately — which is good for the series because it means we're done with this terrible character, but boy is this ham-fisted and contrived. When you are rooting for a character to die for being so inexplicably hostile and inept, the writing has failed.
Unclear is how much of Landry's hard-assed worldview is actually Lorca's. Certainly, Lorca is more thoughtful about his militarism, as when he appeals to Stamets' refusal to rush the spore-drive experiments by playing live audio from the ongoing assault on the colony as a reminder of Why We Are Doing This. Sure, the scenario is forced (crew must accomplish the impossible on an impossible timeline to complete a life-or-death mission) but it at least gives everyone solid motivation. It also sets up the tensions between scientific research and the military (certain to recur on this series) and how one services the other. And it makes for the most Trek-like technobabble-driven problem-solving Discovery outing yet — even if I have my doubts about the magical spores and how the creature so neatly ties directly into the spore-drive technology the ill-fated Glenn crew developed. Burnham and Stamets reveal genuine curiosity (a key Trek quality) in their study of the creature, which is actually a tardigrade (dubbed "Ripper") that somehow grew from microscopic to massive because of strange sci-fi occurrences aboard the Glenn. Credit here for the writers using the real world as the basis for some sci-fi ideas and the design of a CGI creature.
But going back to my confusion about this ship's crew: How and why did Saru become the first officer? We have no inkling of the relationship between Lorca and Saru (they've not yet shared a single scene of any significant dialogue). In "Context Is for Kings" Saru told Burnham he would do a better job protecting Lorca than he did Georgiou — but it wouldn't seem Lorca needs any "protecting" at all. Indeed, Lorca and Saru seem philosophically at odds with each other and, if anything, Saru needs to be a voice that protects Starfleet's morality from Lorca's potential overreach. There's a good line here where Saru says to Burnham, "I was wrong; you will fit in just fine here." He's referring to her propensity for deceit and ethical line-crossing, and that this crew seems to do so as a matter of course. But where does he fit in all that as second in command? This is something that needs further examination, please.
As for the Klingons, I'm still not sold on them, but this is better. The subtitles continue to be more trouble than they're worth, and the insistence on having them always speak Klingon mostly serves to hamper all the actors' performances (who are already disadvantaged by the prosthetics). But this subplot does take an interesting turn when Kol betrays Voq and maroons him on the dead Shenzhou (from which Voq had already retrieved a dilithium core that will now fuel future plots for Kol), and Voq finds himself with only one ally in L'Rell (Mary Chieffo), who speaks of a new plan that would require Voq to "give up everything." The Klingons have not been a particularly good part of this series so far, but I am hopeful about Voq and L'Rell as outsiders among them.
Some other quick thoughts:
- Lorca overpromises to the admiral regarding the readiness of the experimental drive. This is the exact opposite of the "Scotty It" motto of underpromising and overdelivering. Unwise.
- The Discovery jumps in above the mining colony, destroys the attacking Klingon ships to save the day, and then jumps out. Is that it? What about all the injured among the survivors? Couldn't the Klingons send more ships and attack again?
- Voq and his crew ate Georgiou's corpse. That's not exactly a touch that seems in keeping with the supposed goal of giving the Klingons depth rather than making them seem like savages.
- The episode title is especially long and arty. What's the lamb and what's the butcher's knife? I have opinions here, but not strong ones.
- We meet the ship's doctor, Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), who shares some snark with Stamets.
- The Discovery saucer section is also a centrifuge. Um, cool?
- Regarding the war backdrop, the storytelling appears to prefer being vague to using lots of exposition, but that leaves holes where this still feels half-formed. Maybe this will be cleared up over time. I sure hope so, because right now certain details are pretty murky, and not in a good way.
- Burnham's receipt of Georgiou's will allows a welcome guest-star turn for Michelle Yeoh (as a holographic recording that reminds Michael, and us, how far she has fallen from the time the recording was made). The telescope is a nice touch.