Booker's vessel — minus Book, but not his cat — appears at Starfleet Headquarters. A recording left by Book details his discovery of a "black box" from a starship destroyed in the Burn, found in the slave labor regions run by the Orion/Andorian syndicate, where Book has gone missing and may now be held captive. Such a black box could be a key piece of evidence in understanding how, and perhaps from where, the Burn originated. This is a mystery very much on Burnham's mind, and she wants to undertake a rescue mission to find her missing friend as well as this black box of possible evidence.
The catch: Admiral Vance needs Discovery on standby for something more urgent to the greater good of Starfleet, so Saru can't sanction a mission for one man (who, by the way, isn't even a member of Discovery's crew), even if it might shed light on the Burn. So Burnham decides to go rogue and disobey a direct order to rescue Book. She recruits Georgiou ("You had me at unsanctioned mission") to help her.
There are numerous things to like about "Scavengers," but for me the qualms I have with this episode can't quite be overcome by the good things about it. For one, I'm having a hard time getting a handle on where they're going with Michael's character this season. After being reunited with the crew, she seemed to have a more relaxed attitude, as if some weight had been lifted. But if her year in the 32nd century detached her from the weight of Starfleet responsibilities, it has apparently replaced them with a new monomania about solving the mystery of the Burn. It's beginning to look like a destructive obsession.
She goes after Book because she can't leave a friend (and possibly more?) behind, but it's just as much because she needs to solve this mystery, believing the Federation will never be restored until the Burn is fully understood (for whatever reason). But what she does in the process is nothing short of a complete betrayal of Saru: She leaves the ship against his explicit orders and puts him in a serious bind with the admiral just when the one thing Discovery needs to be building is credibility.
Let me stress this episode deals with all these issues of chain of command by the end – which is decidedly a good thing — and this may ultimately lead somewhere promising. But after a couple episodes where it seemed Burnham was becoming more at peace with herself, this about-face is jarring, and shows a surprising amount of selfishness. (I mean, if she feels this strongly about it, why not just resign? It would put Saru in a far less difficult situation.)
The bigger obstacle to my enjoyment of this episode is the pure tiredness of the alien labor camp/prison break plot, which has been done a million times and "Scavengers" puts no fresh spin on it, with its cruel warden and the industrial scrapyard setting. Burnham and Georgiou infiltrate the camp while pretending to be buyers, confirm Book's imprisonment there, and then work with him to break him out. The plotting here feels choppy, with Book in one scene telling Burnham to leave for her own safety because he has everything under control, and then the prison break unfolding in the next scene in a way that clearly has them working together. Maybe I missed a line or three of dialogue. We get our requisite action scenes and FX, but it's all kind of by the numbers.
More encouraging is some of the character work. Georgiou keeps having flashbacks to an indistinct but bloody encounter that's mentally taking a toll and compromising her ability to effectively kung fu her opponents when fighting ability is most needed. Burnham takes note. Clearly, David Cronenberg's brainwashing or uncovering of some past trauma is at play here, and it's all very mysterious and To Be Revealed, but I appreciate the cracks in the normally bulletproof armor that is Georgiou's smug attitude of invulnerability. Hopefully this is going somewhere worthwhile.
Best of all, Burnham's off-book mission does have some serious ramifications and the script leans into them rather than downplaying them. Saru must face that he can't trust Burnham, and demotes her from number one to chief science officer. This opens up new possibilities for the show: Who will replace Burnham as first officer, and what will Burnham's identity be now that she's no longer in leadership? This could be a shakeup that provides the show some new avenues.
"Scavengers" is a near miss. It puts a main plot front and center that feels too rote, but it has good character work around the edges.
And now, like those faceless prisoners, let's go down in a hail of bullets:
- I don't want to lose sight of the subplot where Stamets befriends Adira, whom he witnesses talking to her dead, invisible former-host boyfriend. This is a very nice character subplot, where Stamets finds that he can connect with her because he also lost someone he loved, only to have them return improbably from the dead.
- Everyone ooohs and aaahs over the tech newly installed on the retrofitted Discovery (which now has an "A" at the end of the registry number), which helps sell the fact that we're in a Star Trek that has jumped ahead many centuries.
- The emotions and tears around Burnham's insubordination are laid on a little too thick. I get that everyone feels bad about this, especially Michael, but Discovery just always pushes the sentiment too hard.
- Burnham and Vance: "Permission to speak?" "It'd better be the best thing I've ever heard." I like this guy, and Oded Fehr is very good. He leaves it up to Saru to deal with Burnham and takes into account the positive results of her rogue mission. (I hope he doesn't turn out to be the season's secret villain. That would be too obvious a disappointment.)
- Linus continues to be the misfit who just can't figure things out — in this case, his new badge/tricorder/transporter multipurpose tool, which leads him to accidentally beam in randomly to various scenes where he's not wanted, most especially the Big Kiss between Burnham and Book when they realize they have feelings for each other.
- Speaking of, this budding romance could really benefit from more heat (it's been a year!) and less cliché sappiness. The kiss/embrace they share here feels perfunctory and scripted when it should feel like a spontaneous release of long-bottled emotions. There was more chemistry between these two before that tepid turbolift kiss than during it.
- The Bajorans are name-dropped here — and some of the prisoners in the labor camp are Bajorans, which I guess shows how things have gone full circle — but their inclusion doesn't give us any sense of how Federation space is currently arrayed. Part of this is probably just the way it goes when we're thrust into a situation 800 years beyond any version of Trek previously seen, but part of it feels like we're playing in a universe without thoughtfully building it out, except in the most generic ways.