At last, here's the Discovery episode I've been waiting for all fall — something that feels exciting and compelling and goes a long way toward addressing many of my bigger questions about this series. ("Answering" might be too strong a word, as certain aspects remain open-ended and new questions are raised.) This is easily Discovery's best episode so far. It moves the plot forward significantly and resolves some notable points, and then presents a twist that hints at all kinds of possibilities (depending on how far they pursue the idea) — even though where we actually go from here remains to be seen.
But beyond all that, this episode just flat-out works. There's a certain intangible quality that a good show has that eludes the mediocre ones. I sum that quality up as "conviction" — the sense that the story really knows what it's doing while it's doing it and everything is clicking. That's what has been missing with Discovery so far. But "Into the Forest I Go" features that spark of conviction almost everywhere. There's emotion, camaraderie, tension, and danger here that feels palpable and immediate, at times with an epic scope — starting with Lorca's rousing shipwide announcement about the mission and the sense that this is a singular crew working together to carry it out, rather than a bunch of characters trapped in their own subplots.
All the disparate pieces feel like they come together and finally make sense. While that doesn't forgive the clunkiness of the plot's execution in earlier episodes, this does give me a great deal of hope and relief that this series' makers have an idea of what they're doing; it just might be a matter of working out growing pains. Time will tell on that front, but for now this is very encouraging.
With the Klingon Ship of the Dead en route to Pahvos, the Discovery crew must devise a plan to protect the planet from certain annihilation while also disobeying Starfleet's direct order to return to safety. I was glad to see Lorca take a stand for doing the right thing; I wouldn't have necessarily expected him to be the one to disobey orders in the name of stopping the Klingons from threatening a non-Federation planet, but there he is, rallying the crew to fight the good fight.
Even more interesting is what grows out of Lorca's interactions with Stamets, who is suffering from all the spore-drive jumps — but is going to suffer a lot more before the day is out given what's going to be needed to execute the clever plan. Lorca reveals to Stamets, with unexpected scientific kinship, that he has been paying closer attention to how the spore drive works — by mapping all the jump data — than anyone would have imagined. His analysis indicates the spore drive can open doors to alternate universes/timelines, which opens intriguing potential avenues of future stories. But more to the point, it shows a captain with bigger interests than simply killing Klingons. He displays intellectual curiosity after all.
"I didn't know you cared," Stamets says, astonished. Indeed. Lorca is full of surprises this week. What we see here supports a mentality first hinted at in his speech to Burnham in "Context Is For Kings" but not much seen since; he's someone who knows Starfleet must win the war, and how that must be top priority, but also realizes that at some point the true mission of exploration will resume.
A lot of this, frankly, comes across like a meta-commentary acknowledgement that this series itself has (temporarily, it would seem) stepped away from (or at least de-prioritized) the core tenets of Trek — particularly for a show that is named, well, Discovery. But Lorca, seemingly speaking for the writers, reveals a forthright self-awareness of that fact, as if to say this might all very well be a detour before normal business can begin. It's a refreshing reveal and the first on-screen evidence that leadership is very aware of the disconnect.
Back to the tactical plan: Burnham and Tyler secretly beam over to the Klingon ship where they have devices that will collect data that will allow Discovery to overcome the cloaking technology. The technical details of this plan, which tie into 133 jumps Stamets must make in the middle of the battle zone, are intricate — but they are clear and well-sold by the writing, which makes all the difference. It feels like old-school Trek, where the tech is taken seriously enough that we can follow what's going on. That's at times been a point of sloppiness with this series; here they prove they can play it old-school.
All of these pieces come together with skillful execution of action and suspense, and pretty much everything pays off with some sort of satisfying character beat. Burnham gets to come full circle to revisit the ghosts of the beginning of the war by being the one with key information about the Klingon ship (although given how briefly she was aboard it in "Battle of the Binary Stars" her knowledge seems a little overstated) and she eventually finds herself in hand-to-hand combat with Kol, who holds Georgiou's insignia pin as a prize.
Tyler must confront severe PTSD when he comes face to face with L'Rell and has flashbacks to memories of torture, sexual slavery — and perhaps something else he has still not realized. The flashbacks are suitably disturbing, and Shazad Latif does a terrific job selling the horror (and even guilt, for having reached the "arrangement" with L'Rell to be spared more torture) throughout his scenes.
Admiral Cornwell, as expected, turns out not to be dead, which also makes this a rescue operation. And the ultimately successful destruction of the sarcophagus ship once the cloaking device is disabled is presumably a major turning point in the war. That's a lot of ground covered in one episode. The action is effective and efficient and still has room to breathe; credit goes to Chris Byrne's direction over the most ambitious and cohesive effort yet.
In the aftermath, back aboard the Discovery, the episode is able to sell something new and useful in the Tyler/Burnham relationship: comfort and solace. Previous Burnham/Tyler scenes have been pretty bland, but this is an angle that works, showing two people helping each other cope through difficult experiences. But there's still another shoe yet to drop here. L'Rell is taken prisoner, and Tyler goes to see her, and she tells him, "I won't let them hurt you." The show still hasn't quite shown us its hand, but the Voq/Tyler theory continues to be very probable. One thing is certain — Tyler, even if he is somehow Voq, has been so deeply programmed or brainwashed that he's not aware of it at all. (And, yes, this would be exactly like season-one Boomer on Battlestar Galactica, a pitiable role of existential dread.) More to come on this for sure. I am sufficiently intrigued even if I have no idea what L'Rell's endgame could possibly have been.
Stamets and Culber must face the fact the spore drive is a danger risking Stamets' well-being, as well as building secrets that aren't great for their relationship. Stamets tells Lorca he's done with the spore drive (an experience that has changed his very view of reality), except for One Last Jump to get the crew safely home to the starbase. But the final jump Stamets makes goes horribly wrong for reasons uncertain, and Discovery ends up somewhere no one expects or recognizes. Stamets himself is affected in an alarming and transformative way. The episode doesn't tell us where we've gone, but an alternate/mirror universe seems the most obvious explanation.
And this of course puts all kinds of new possibilities on the table regarding Discovery's role vis-a-vis the Trek timeline. The possibilities are many (assuming this concept spans more than an episode or two), but also perilous. But then this is a series that probably needs peril to thrive.
Some other brief thoughts:
- Why was Lorca so initially insistent that Burnham not go on the away mission? It didn't seem like "It's too dangerous" was a good reason. When did Burnham become irreplaceable, especially given the importance of completing this particular mission successfully?
- They really milked Stamets' moments before his final jump for a serious sense of ominous dread. The long looks, the seemingly final exchanges of "I love you" between him and Culber — it all told you something was about to go terribly wrong.
- The final "where are we?" pullback through the debris field reminded me of the end of the first season of Fringe, where Olivia found herself meeting William Bell (played, of course, by Leonard Nimoy) in a high floor of the still-standing World Trade Center in a parallel timeline/universe. Since Discovery shares some producers who worked on Fringe, will they be bringing along some of those tricks?
- Vulcan Admiral Terral (Conrad Coates) always comes across as such a company-man tool. He manages to make everything come across as simultaneously robotic and dickish. This seems to be a common thing with supporting Vulcan players. (Soval on Enterprise was always kind of jerky too, granted a much more interesting and complete character.)
- It would be nice to see the supporting bit players on the bridge like Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), and Airiam (Sara Mitich) get some actual substance in future episodes beyond being generic placeholders. They have the same actors in these parts every week and they are getting paid for every episode they speak in, so why not see what else they can do and make them part of the team? Let's do some world-building here! (Lorca refers to them by name now, so that's a start.)
- CBSAA (Android edition) rating for Sunday: — Pervasive video stutters throughout the hour, a couple of times where the HD dropped down to poor quality for at least a couple minutes, and one point where the video paused and buffered for about 30 seconds. Not good at all. I'd be interested in hearing what others' experiences with this premium-cost but hardly-premium-quality platform continue to be.
- The last couple months have felt like a revival for this website, and I'm glad I've been able to offer up more than I'd initially predicted in terms of review length. Hopefully things can continue at this pace in the new year, but as always there are no guarantees, and a scale-back is always a possibility. (This is my longest review since the two-part premiere; don't get used to it.) I think the pre-review discussion threads have worked out well. Thank you for the consistently civil participation and high-quality discussion. I continue to be amazed by the quality of the comments here and I'm honored to be your host. See you in January.