The biggest problem with Discovery is that too much of the larger narrative feels like a messy, contrived improvisation that suffers from the fact that entire scenes — possibly entire subplots — appear to be missing. Consider this episode, which benefits from some pretty decent character work for Saru — but also features a subplot involving the Klingons that is so fragmented and filled with inexplicable character actions that it sometimes borders on incoherence. Even the title — "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum," which translates to "If you want peace, prepare for war" — doesn't really make sense given what's actually happening in the episode. (The war has already been underway for months, so why are the writers being both pretentious and inaccurate?)
And yet the show holds my interest and keeps me wanting to know what comes next because of its notable forward momentum. It's like a freight train that keeps moving, but every so often throws me out of the boxcar and into a ditch so I have to get up and try to jump back on.
There are moments when this felt like the most involving episode of the season, and others where I didn't know whether characters were lying or just stupid. It's gotten to the point where I'm assuming scenes that don't add up are because either (a) the writers are coyly hiding things or (b) have simply written a mess. I know I've said this before, but it continues to be this series' modus operandi: Do a bunch of things that might make sense later, or possibly never, but definitely not now.
On the good side of the scale, the story opens with what is perhaps the best and most visually coherent space battle so far on this series, which shows Lorca using battle tactics (and a willingness to put his ship in direct line-of-fire danger) to try to save a fellow Starfleet vessel under attack by the Klingons. He fails, and it's a moment that shows how Discovery's spore drive does not guarantee battle victories when outnumbered against cloaked adversaries.
To attempt to overcome the cloaking disadvantage, a Discovery landing party (Saru, Burnham, Tyler) investigates the mysterious properties of Pahvo, a world that vibrates in a musical unison of shared life force. It's believed the secret behind this "music" might serve as a type of "space sonar" that could make the cloaked Klingon ships visible to Starfleet and turn the tide of the war. That tide (apparently in unseen scenes) has turned against Starfleet, which now is back on the losing side after all the winning that Discovery had previously brought. Apparently Starfleet was winning so much they got sick of all the winning and said "It's just too much winning!" and decided it was time for some losing.
The landing party's investigation reveals the existence of the Pahvans — intelligent beings who exist as wisps of light in a unified experience with their natural world. This falls squarely into the "seek out new life" mantra of Trek, and the Pahvans' communication with Saru has a profound effect on him that's well-sold by Doug Jones: He is able to overcome his hard-coded Kelpien fear for the first time in his life. This has the side effect of making him abandon the mission in favor of instead trying to show Burnham and Tyler the true gifts of this world rather than plundering its secrets for technological gain. Jones is good in these scenes, and through him the story is especially effective in revealing the true depths of Saru's plight as someone constantly afraid of the universe because it's built into his DNA — and what a relief it is to finally be free of that lifelong fear. This, of course, is a play on the Trekkian staple of "alien influence drives a character to become the story's antagonist," requiring Burnham and Tyler to figure out how to stop Saru from sabotaging the mission. But it's effectively rooted in Saru's character, so it pays good dividends.
On the bad side of the scale is the stuff aboard the Klingon ship, which is riddled with question-raising plot gaps. Admiral Cornwell is being held prisoner by Kol on the sarcophagus ship. Kol wants L'Rell to interrogate Cornwell because of L'Rell's renowned skills as an interrogator. L'Rell agrees to do so, but instead quickly announces to Cornwell that she wants to defect to the Federation in exchange for freeing her.
This comes so far out of left field that I at first assumed it was a sly interrogation tactic meant to gain Cornwell's trust in a way that would be used against her. But no, apparently L'Rell hates Kol and wants out of this mess. (Also for other unknown reasons possibly involving Tyler.) L'Rell and Cornwell walk down a corridor, apparently to escape, and Kol sees them. With the jig being up, L'Rell kills Cornwell in a manner and with shot selection that makes you question whether Cornwell is actually dead. L'Rell then sees all her colleagues have been executed by Kol. Kol later calls her out as a traitor, then accepts her into his house when she kneels before him, then orders her to be executed by his minions (who are interrupted by the next plot point).
In a word: Huh?
I'm at a loss here. These events are so strangely depicted that I don't know what's actually happening, what's "clever" subterfuge, and what's simply incompetence by the show's writers and director. It's probably a combination of all three.
Add this to the other missing pieces here: L'Rell has somehow ended up on this ship with Kol again (how, when, and why? — and why would Kol even have entertained accepting her after she and Voq deserted him?) after having been (inexplicably in the first place) on the prison ship. Meanwhile, Voq is mysteriously still absent (L'Rell mentions him as having just gone off into some self-imposed exile — yeah, right), further fueling all the nonsense/speculation around how and when Tyler will play into this, which seems like an untenable plot disaster just waiting to happen.
Look, I really want Discovery to be a good show, but so far the larger arc stops and starts in weird fits, major gaps are completely ignored, the characters are all over the map, and the show lacks a larger scope of world-building and supporting characters. L'Rell has bounced all over the place because she and Kol are apparently the only Klingons in the universe that matter.
The longer this goes on, the more this series feels like it adds up to less than the sum of its parts — which, let me also say, are mostly okay. But I want more than okay. The paradox about this and many episodes of Discovery so far is that they often work in the moment. But if you give it any thought after the fact, things begin to fall apart. The bar here should be higher than passive non-scrutiny. The bar in terms of drama and writing should be Battlestar Galactica if that's the sort of television Discovery is trying to be (which, it seems to me, is probably the best comparison in terms of hybrid serialized/episodic character-driven sci-fi exploring a war backdrop). So far, Discovery is hitting nowhere close to that.
The final scene hints at shades of "Errand of Mercy" by having the alien Pahvans intervene in the conflict between Starfleet and the Klingons by inviting Kol to rendezvous with Lorca at their planet. Nothing can go wrong here, right? Hopefully we'll get something good out of this face-off instead of something nonsensical.
Some other brief thoughts:
- I'm going with two stars for a rating here, which may imply I think this is the worst episode yet. That probably isn't truly the case, especially given the Saru material, but the L'Rell stuff really drags everything down, and the rating is probably a cumulative reaction to the larger arc's missteps more than anything.
- Michael expects to go back to prison after the war. That's an interesting note. I hope they follow this up now that they've raised a point I figured would be a non-issue moving forward.
- Saru says it was him, and not the Pahvans, who is responsible for all of his actions. I like the choice to not write it solely off as mind-control but instead as a series of choices made because of a fundamental change in mental state. At the same time, I think it's unfair to say Saru is solely responsible for his behavior, as a fundamental part of who he is was taken away, thus vastly altering the whole.
- There's a brief subplot involving Stamets' mood turning sour and his admission to Tilly that the continued exposure to the spore drive is taking its toll. I thought this was a good piece of connective tissue showing something along the margins that needed to be addressed, and even better how Stamets is keeping this a secret and foregoing treatment because he doesn't want Culber to have knowledge about his side effects, which Culber would likely help cover up. Even though I have questions about what exactly Starfleet knows about Stamets and the spore drive, the check-in nature of this plot is exactly the sort of thing missing over in the flailing L'Rell story.
- The scenes between Michael and Ash are meh. I'm okay with the writers following this avenue and developing it from the events of "Magic," but it needs more wit, energy, chemistry, something. This is just idle romance by the numbers (which is to say, like most Trek romances). Burnham's "the needs of the many/few/one" speech felt too needlessly shoehorned into the dialogue to be useful. Yeah, I get it. She's from Vulcan. Who else is she?
- This episode was originally going to be where they split the season up, but CBS later elected to split it after the next one instead. That was probably a good move, because it would have been underwhelming to go into hiatus after this episode. It also conveniently comes just before my CBS All Access monthly pass is set to expire, forcing me to renew just so I can watch one more episode. Well played, CBS. Curse you, CBS.
- CBSAA rating for Sunday: — Still several annoying video stutters throughout the hour, but nothing too disruptive, and it even stayed in HD the whole time! But like I said, four stars is the "as good as cable or Netflix" bar to clear here. Anything less is still flawed.