There's a lot to unpack in the dense and ambitious "Die Trying," which is easily the best episode of the third season so far and among Discovery's best outings, and possibly its most balanced to date. This show tries to do a lot of things, and it ends up doing most of them very well. There's promising stuff here.
If "Forget Me Not" was a good example of Discovery dialing it down and acting like classic Trek, "Die Trying" is more in line with Discovery's own true DNA. But it has figured out how to balance the formula and blend its more modern sensibilities with the classic ones. It does this in a story where Discovery reaches the 32nd-century joint Starfleet/Federation headquarters where they meet Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr), who debriefs them on some current happenings, but has numerous questions for the crew of such an old ship.
Because this is an episode that's all about balancing a lot of different things, I'm going to break down whether these elements are more typical of classic or new Star Trek. While these elements aren't necessarily exclusive to one or the other, they do have a tendency to be more prevalent in one rather than the other.
- The awe/wonder factor (Classic Trek) — This episode really sells the arrival at Starfleet/Federation Headquarters with gusto. We're treated to an advanced-tech starbase and fleet (including the 11th-generation USS Voyager-J), and a genuine sense of hope and amazement by the crew, who gather at the windows to take in the sight of the new HQ. This stuff is pretty well-realized, although there always seems to be a standby of equating "far future interiors" with "antiseptic white." Jeff Russo's score perhaps pushes insistently, but the point is not lost here that this is a big deal.
- World building (Classic Trek) — We finally start to get a better sense of what this century looks like from the more central point of view of Starfleet. We also get a solid away mission that gives us the sense that more exists in this universe besides Discovery and its crew. These are some welcome developments after the opening two episodes that gave us pedestrian frontier towns and a third episode that spent all of two minutes on Earth before departing.
- Suspicion and conflict (New Trek) — You didn't think our arrival at Starfleet Headquarters was going to be smooth sailing and greeted with a big party, did you? Admiral Vance is guarded, inquisitive, and suspicious, and he wants answers, especially since time travel is a taboo, outlawed practice as a result of the temporal wars. Oded Fehr plays Vance with just the right level of understated menace, which reads from his point of view as smart and prudent rather than needlessly combative, even though we know Discovery's crew is telling him the truth. It's always good when the conflict makes sense rather than being forced by the contrived needs of the script. Vance wants to split up and reassign the Discovery crew and study the ship's spore drive, while our characters have to argue the case that they should stay together and would be more helpful to Starfleet as an experienced long-range tactical tool.
- Episodic commitment (Classic Trek) — Structurally, this season so far, even more than the first two, plays like the right balance of episodic and serial storytelling. Every episode has its own self-contained story goals featuring a beginning, middle, and end, while the elements of the larger season arc play in between the story beats as ongoing questions. In this case, we have the classic Trekkian Plague, with lives on the line that must be cured by tracking down an antidote against a ticking clock.
- Serial mystery and foreboding (New Trek) — How did the Burn happen? We don't find out here; Vance says there are many theories but nothing definitive, and he's not in the sharing mood. Burnham especially wants to know, and even presses Vance when she'd be wiser not to. As evidenced by Georgiou's interactions with a Starfleet interrogator played by David Cronenberg (!), there is speculation the Burn may have been intentionally committed by someone. Meanwhile, Georgiou's face-off with her interrogator proves consistently intriguing, as they fence and she tries to get into his head, and he into hers. The nature of her Terran mirror-universe origin is a topic of discussion, and by the end, it seems very likely Georgiou has been compromised by this experience in some way. Hmmm...
- Away-mission exploration (Classic Trek) — As a test-run to prove itself, Discovery volunteers to beam aboard a far-away Federation seed repository ship (that's months away by Starfleet's reach but which Discovery can get to instantly with the spore drive). We have a small team sent on a mission to get something done.
- Visual effects and production design (New Trek) — As always, this series is filled with VFX and elaborate production design, in this case the seed ship with its terraformed interiors and extensive technology. This series is never a slouch in the production department.
- Character development and camaraderie (Classic Trek) — They really work in a number of threads here, some brief (like the displays of acerbic camaraderie between Stamets, Reno, and Tilly) — some extended, like the away mission that utilizes a fresh team of Burnham, Culber, and Nhan. Overall a good ensemble mix that allows supporting characters to get more focus while also giving Burnham a solid, workmanlike leadership role. Even Georgiou — why did she join this crew, anyway? — gets some analysis. Then there's the captain/first officer interaction between Saru and Burnham, which I thought worked especially well by showing Saru's cautious and diplomatic tendencies and respect for protocol alongside Burnham's more impatient desire for answers. Saru warns Burnham about her impulsiveness with an appeal to prudent caution — a nice, deft, light leadership touch. I really like Saru as captain.
- History and literacy (Classic Trek) — Saru delivers a welcome note of history for Vance about the artist Giotta and his use of three-point perspective at the onset of the Renaissance, and how that relates to Discovery's arrival here. While this speech isn't as gracefully integrated as, say, Picard waxing philosophic about Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Trekkian staple of invoking literacy within the dialogue is a franchise cornerstone that Discovery has too often shied away from. Good to see it back. This is solid.
- Big emotions worn on its sleeve (New Trek) — A Discovery staple, in this case surrounding the tragedy of the attendant of the seed repository and his family, who were killed by a solar flare while he was somehow protected when trapped in transporter limbo, which Burnham & Co. are able to free him from with classic Trekkian technobabble problem-solving. Not only is there emotion around this man's plight of losing his family, but it also leads to the bigger emotional payoff/sendoff for Nhan, who agrees to stay behind and see the seed ship back to its destination (which also happens to be her Barzan homeworld). I thought this all worked, although I was disappointed to see Nhan go just as we were getting to know her as a regular member of the crew, and just as Rachael Ancheril was starting to make an impact.
So this episode ticks a lot of boxes. But the most crucial box it ticks is telling a cohesive and engaging story throughout, in such a way it doesn't feel like it's solely ticking boxes. This is a good example of an episode that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Even more bullets:
- Like I said, this episode is densely packed, and includes acknowledgements between characters like Adira explaining to Vance that she carries Admiral Tal's symbiont; Burnham explaining the Red Angel suit; Saru explaining the sphere data and their escape from Control (a plot point that only sounds more ludicrous over time rather than less); the reveal that the Kelpiens joined the Federation at some point; and other various details. Discovery has often been the Trek series most riddled with narrative holes, but not this episode, which feels thorough to the point of being overstuffed.
- There are now 38 planets in the Federation, down from 350. It seems this season is not about rebuilding a collapsed Federation, as I'd assumed after the first episode, but about rejoining a substantially pared-down Federation and figuring out what that means and whether there are other worlds to patch back into it.
- Georgiou can disable a 32nd-century hologram system with a clever eye-blinking pattern. I call BS. "Your holograms need an upgrade." Uh-huh.
- Detmer's psychological troubles continue to be a topic of discussion.
- I'm not sure the title of this episode lines up with what happens in it.
- I've decided to adjust the star rating for last week's "Forget Me Not" from 3.5 to 3 stars. It was borderline and I opted last week at the last minute to round it up, but I think this episode is more indicative of 3.5 than that one.