I'm so glad to learn the aesthetics of 19th-century saloons, complete with batwing doors, have survived into the 32nd century. That's some staying power. And that bad guys come strolling into such saloons with an imposing swagger as the camera makes a point to show us their jangling boots before showing us their faces.
There's a scene midway through "Far From Home" that screams out: Hey look! Space cowboys in a space western! At the risk of setting up an expectation where I will make one Andromeda reference per episode this season (don't count on it), I couldn't help but think of that series' "Last Call at the Broken Hammer," which also had a futuristic saloon with batwing doors, albeit infinitely worse production values.
"Far From Home" is about on par with last week's outing — maybe a little bit better because it features an ensemble cast that allows it to have more scope. But at the core of the storytelling is an unfortunate fallback upon fairly worn tropes. TOS was initially envisioned as a space western — and there's something to be said for dropping our characters into the middle of a gritty wilderness that keeps them off balance — but I'm waiting for this season to really hook me and reel me in, and I guess I'll have to wait yet another week. Half this episode is fifth-season TNG technobabble starship disaster recovery with people crawling around Jeffries tubes, and the other half is a claustrophobic single-set western where our characters find themselves having to help the locals overcome their regional bully.
Don't get me wrong. There's some good stuff here, most of it involving now-Captain Saru, who is the Trekkiest of this Trek's characters, always well played by Doug Jones. And it appears other actors aside from Sonequa Martin-Green and David Ajala got to go to Iceland to film these exquisite location sequences; if you're going to amortize your travel expenses, you might as well get the bang for your buck and get two episodes' worth of footage.
The episode shows us Discovery's POV in arriving in the 32nd century, which includes an elaborate crash-landing sequence on an icy world (after first careening through an asteroid field) that's at least as impressive as the Enterprise-D crashing in Star Trek: Generations. With the ship damaged and without main power, and now threatened by "parasitic ice" (which begins growing around the ship and putting it into a deep-freeze from which it may never escape), Saru takes Tilly on a walk outside the ship to go meet the locals and ask for help. This is not likely to end well, but there are not great options.
They arrive at the aforementioned saloon and strike a deal with the local residents, including Kal (Jonathan Koensgen), who helps bring our characters up to speed on what's happening here in the 32nd century — there's no dilithium, the people have old ships but no way to power them, and so they're cut off from all supplies and interstellar travel without the help of couriers who control all the commerce and hold all the leverage, and aren't particularly nice about it.
This colony is under the thumb of a courier named Zareh (Jake Weber), who sadistically kills Kal for helping the mysterious visitors because he's a lousy SOB in a space western. Weber plays this villain with an air of jaded intelligence that the script itself doesn't provide, which I guess is something. These scenes functionally allow us and the characters to learn more about how this century operates, but it would be nice if the writers could figure out a fresher angle of coming at it than "hostage situation" and "bar fight."
Enter Georgiou, who is more capable of playing this game at its chosen level and meets violence with violence (using the requisite martial arts after the villains allow themselves to be disarmed) and turn the tables against the bullies and put their fate in Saru's hands. Georgiou of course wants to kill them because she's a bloodthirsty antihero, but Saru sticks to the Evolved Sensibility Playbook and puts Zareh's fate in the hands of the locals, who banish him to the frozen wilderness at night with no transportation, which may be a fate worse than a quick death. Seems about fair.
Back on Discovery, we get Stamets and Culber reaffirming their relationship, and then Stamets getting back on his feet following his injury and coma from last season's finale. He's teamed up with Jett Reno, which is good for some dry sarcasm and verbal fencing, although the writers would be wise not to put this character (as they have Georgiou) into a perpetual gear where a single personality trait defines her. The starship-based scenes play as decent, straight-down-the-middle, ensemble Star Trek, although without doing much of anything new or riveting. But we see a ship full of crew members working toward a common goal, and that's always a welcome mode on this series.
The episode ends with the reveal that the approaching vessel in orbit is actually Burnham's ship, coming to the Discovery's rescue after long searching for them, a full year after she herself arrived in this century. This temporal twist has the potential of getting us up to speed and to the meatier aspects of this season's storyline much more quickly. But it also has the potential to deny us the joy of discovery about the new paradigm, and instead gives Burnham a lot more information than we or any of the other characters have, which could lead to a lot of narrative gaps and shortcuts and Burnham-at-the-center-of-all-things storytelling, which are unfortunate hallmarks of this series. So it will be interesting to see how they handle this in the coming episodes.
Some odds and ends:
- No western would be complete without someone getting a bottle smashed over their head during a bar fight. In this case, Tilly gets to do the smashing. Call it character growth.
- Detmer, injured during the crash, goes to sickbay, is told she is fine, and is promptly discharged and sent back to her post. She is still dazed and clearly not right, and what's wrong is not resolved by the end of the episode. We're clearly being set up for something more here. The fact that we can tie a smaller supporting player like Detmer to an actual plot point is a positive development.
- I don't know if it's the braids or something about Martin-Green's performance in the final minute, but Burnham's temperament seems somehow more soft/serene in the way she greets her shipmates. Has the past year given her some time to find some Zen-like peace?
- Rachael Ancheril (Commander Nhan) has been elevated to series regular, as of this episode's opening credits.
- Last week's episode was called "That Hope Is You, Part 1," but there's no "Part 2" this week, or any other week this season. I'm guessing this is the producers being coy and they will provide "Part 2" sometime in season four under circumstances of notable significance? (Update: Just before the airing of the season finale, the producers changed its title to "That Hope Is You, Part 2," thereby closing this loop.)