"What's Past Is Prologue" is an apt title given all that has happened on this season of Discovery. It's ironic when considered in the meta-context of this season's twists and turns, which render entire characters as discarded prologues. The more I look at this season, the more I think the whole thing must be a prologue to a more normalized second season, because this level of crazy just can't be sustained. This episode is proof of that; after having spent 10 to 12 episodes setting up the pieces that lead here, we promptly close the book on a number of them, for good and ill.
This episode is simultaneously better and worse than I had expected. It makes a mockery of my concept of episodic star ratings, because serialized mysteries and deferred payoffs, while intriguing, are hard to grade from week to week with any sort of consistency. I enjoyed watching this episode probably as much as or more than any this season — and at the same time I was also more annoyed by it. Discovery has shown itself to be a compulsively watchable nuts-and-bolts plot-moving vehicle. And the writers surprise here with a visceral hour that burns through the rest of the Mirror Universe arc at an almost stunningly furious pace, leaving the last two episodes of the season to deal with other business. The writers should be commended for not prolonging this needlessly. It's an efficient job, and frequently exciting.
HOWEVER — with a capital everything — this episode plays out pretty much the worst-case scenario regarding "Captain" Lorca, reducing him to a brutal, evil, pointless supervillain that retroactively destroys what was once an intriguing and potentially complicated character. Since everything before his radically unveiled true self was merely an act, most of his interactions from the first half of the season represent an infuriatingly pointless web of lies. It's a waste of a fine actor in Jason Isaacs, who now leaves the series because the events of this episode render his character dead and disintegrated — barring some other insane twist that reveals the Prime Universe Lorca somehow survived the destruction of the Buran. (Would I accept such silliness just to get Isaacs back on the show in a version not built upon a fraud? Yes, I would.)
I could accept the narrative trickery that is MU Lorca if he had three-dimensional motivations and represented some sort of interesting perspective in his own universe — a complex antihero, perhaps. But nope; he's a broad xenophobic caricature, showing the writers taking the laziest bad-guy route possible. They even have him chalk up his random and unlikely universe-crossing and subsequently successful plan as "destiny," making him into a self-professed fate-chosen megalomaniac, which comes across as a scripted way of admitting the plot was so hopelessly contrived that it must be acknowledged as being guided from a higher plane. This is a really disappointing conclusion to the longest of this season's long cons.
The main question comes down to whether Burnham will side with MU Lorca or MU Georgiou. I guess this is a question of which one is worse. Georgiou is the head of an oppressive and brutal empire who fed Burnham a Kelpien in the previous episode. Lorca is the man who would kill Georgiou and take over as the head of an equally if not more oppressive and brutal empire, and has been lying to Burnham for the previous 10 episodes. You do the math, but I wouldn't blame you for concluding that neither is a good option. But Burnham chooses Georgiou, because there's something in their relationship that transcends universes and Burnham has guilt surrounding her dead mentor that she just can't let go. Georgiou as Michael's emotional Achilles heel has actually been well documented this season, and they pay that off here by not only having Michael side with Georgiou but having her ultimately bring Georgiou back to the Prime Universe in a last-minute snap decision that doesn't strictly make rational sense, but makes a certain amount of tortured emotional sense from Michael's standpoint (even if it might backfire in subsequent episodes). At the very least, it keeps Michelle Yeoh on the series for a while longer, which I can't complain about.
Before we get to that point, however, we have a number of extended action sequences, which are entertaining and effective ways of moving characters and plot pieces from A to B. The production pulls out a lot of stops to play out the action beats, and they're about as satisfying as such tropes can be. There's nothing wrong with Trek occasionally embracing its inner action movie, and that's a big part of what this outing accomplishes, mostly effectively. We have shootouts, standoffs, and hand-to-hand combat. None of it is groundbreaking, a lot of it fully embraces obvious cliches, but almost all of it follows the conventions of its ilk and operates at a higher level of technical skill than Trek often has in the past. And the pacing is dead-on.
But far and away the best part of "What's Past Is Prologue" is the stuff that happens back on the Discovery once word of Lorca's true nature gets back to the crew. Captain Saru has a speech to the crew that's nothing short of awesome. It's an inspiring moment that reclaims the ship in the name of Star Trek and serves as a flat-out rejection of The Lorca Way. Saru stands in a room full of recurring players and extras (some who actually get to have multiple spoken lines!), and it makes a night-and-day difference. Within a single scene you can feel the Discovery freed of Lorca might finally become a real Star Trek crew and not the amoral backdrop for a six-character play. So even if I will miss Isaacs, there's a definite upside to having Lorca out of the picture.
The technobabble plot solution is pretty standard Trekkian fare — except for the unnecessary upping of the ante that alleges the destruction of the mycelium network would cause "all life as we know it" in all universes to end if the Charon is allowed to continue using their power source that draws from it. (Did it really have to be all universes? Couldn't just the one have been sufficient?) There's a half-hearted implied allegory in here about climate change and the shortsightedness of human greed for power, which is more commentary than most Discovery outings have attempted — but this is another place where this series needs to put forth considerably more effort in the interests of its Star Trek namesake.
Still, the scene of Stamets piloting the ship back to the Prime Universe proves visually arresting and satisfying, and I thought the way they tied it back into his memories/visions of Culber was effective within the Venn diagram where effusive sci-fi/fantasy sentiments meet hardware and visual effects. It ends with us back in the Prime Universe — but nine months later than we left it, during which time the Klingons apparently won the war. (Dun-dun-dun!)
As an action-movie hour of Trek, this episode works well in the moment. But as a wrap-up to Lorca's mysterious character arc, it feels like an act of arson against much of the season. "What's Past Is Prologue" is like the ultimate cognitive dissonance exercise: Watching it is kind of riveting, but thinking about afterward it is pretty deflating. And that's unfortunate.
Some other quick thoughts:
- How long will mirror-Georgiou remain on the show, and what will her role be? I hope they can figure out a way to keep Michelle Yeoh around long-term in a way that makes some sort of storytelling sense.
- Mirror-Stamets turns out to have shifting loyalties between Lorca and Georgiou depending on what looks like the safer bet at the moment — and it doesn't work out too well for him. Like that one exchange between Sisko and Dukat went: "You saw which way the wind was blowing, and switched sides." "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
- The USS Defiant turns out to be a complete red herring. This, alas, is in keeping with this series' tendency thus far to keep the world-building and larger Trekkian canvas connections to a minimum, and instead reuse the same core elements (six characters and the spore drive) over and over again.
- When Stamets said they overshot the timeline when returning to the Prime Universe, there was a part of me hoping he was going to say by one or two centuries instead of only nine months.
- Discovery being led by mirror-Lorca explains a lot of what has run counter to the general Trek feeling this season. But we still have plenty of canon continuity questions to tidy up, like the war with the Klingons that Starfleet is now losing, and the continued existence of the spore drive.
- What's that green glowing speck that comes out of the spore drive and lands on Tilly's shoulder? As they say, stay tuned.
- I'm wondering if we're going to find out the MU Discovery has been up to mischief in the Prime Universe. They didn't theorize the two ships traded places for nothing, did they? When the USS Discovery returned to the PU, did the ISS Discovery also go back to the MU?
- Here's hoping the Klingon War storyline is more focused in these next two episodes than previously this season.
- There were numerous Star Wars tropes on display here, including lots of phaser shootouts that felt like stormtrooper blaster exchanges, the use of the spore network as the Force, the attack on the Charon's power sphere like a Death Star run, and a shot of Burnham shooting the grate of a ventilation shaft before diving through it.
- How much plot will be resolved this season, and how much will be teased out for season two? I sure hope they resolve as much as possible now and start with a clean(ish) slate next year.