When you have the audacity to connect your story to a piece of Trekkian lore as iconic as the Guardian of Forever, the device at the center of "The City on the Edge of Forever," one of the most heralded episodes in the entire canon, you're probably asking for trouble. You'd better put up or shut up.
They probably should've shut up. Or just not used the Guardian of Forever.
I'll give them this: They tried. They put a character dilemma front and center and played it all the way through. But in the end this is oh-so-earnest, and overplayed, and frankly unearned. But we'll get there.
I said at the outset this worked best when viewed as the universe teaching Georgiou a lesson. "Terra Firma, Part 2" confirms that as explicitly as possible, and not without interest. Georgiou desperately wants to find a way through this particular episode without killing Michael, but what's it going to take? Apparently, weeks of torture to break her subject are the only tools available. In the Terran universe, people are programmed to respond only to strength, so Philippa brings the hammer. She does it out love, kinda, I guess, but that doesn't make the technique any less dramatically redundant.
Burnham is thrown in a cell, then put in the agonizer booth, where she is zapped. Then back to the cell. Rinse and repeat. (Admittedly, Tilly/Killy's theatrical frown before she pushes the button after Burnham refuses to submit is one of the bigger laughs of the episode.) Eventually, Burnham breaks and swears newfound allegiance to her "mother." Can she be trusted? Doubtful, but Georgiou is determined to try.
Part one felt big and operatic. This feels small and claustrophobic, despite all the knife/sword/phaser fights. (Why do people continue to bring knives to a gunfight? I guess out of some martial tradition, but it seems obsolete.) I guess the more intimate feeling is by design, because this is really about Georgiou's need to change an unchangeable fate. In the meantime, she has some worthwhile conversations with Saru (who I guess is a nameless slave in this universe) about Kelpiens and their potential (and tips him off that the vahar'ai is not fatal), and what she has seen and why she must find another way. There's value here.
But some destinies are out of our control. Burnham is destined to betray Georgiou, and that's all there is to it. There's no hope for rehabilitation, because this damaged person set her course long ago and can't change it. History repeats itself; Georgiou is only able to delay it for a while. Eventually there's another mutiny attempt, a big action scene, and Georgiou has to run Burnham through with her sword while taking a knife herself to the shoulder/neck. Georgiou dies and then wakes up back where she started, on the other side of the door.
"Carl" explains that, essentially, what she experienced was one scenario out of the multiverse of possibilities, which she was allowed to play through for her own self-growth. This is not totally unlike what Picard experienced thanks to Q in "All Good Things," but boy do I not want to compare this episode to that one. Carl then reveals himself to actually be the Guardian of Forever, a piece of continuity that ties back to a classic TOS episode. But the reason this doesn't work is because this story isn't worthy of the callback. "The City on the Edge of Forever" was about nothing less than saving history and humanity itself. "Terra Firma" is about saving a character that up until this two-parter was mostly known for being an insult factory. Thematically, the link just isn't here and thus comes across as trying to pass off this episode as more significant than its subject matter actually warrants. They'd have been better off just having Carl be a new creation rather than bringing the baggage with him.
This experience has not cured Georgiou of her deadly condition, but it does provide her the personal growth necessary for Carl to grant her passage to another century where she will not be torn apart molecule by molecule and can take her learnings and apply them. (The episode leaves her destination completely open-ended as she steps through the time portal, which means she's available for the announced but still-in-development — and thus still cancelable — Section 31 series, should that actually move forward.)
But this all falls to a thud in the last act, which drowns in unearned sentimental excess. Not only do we get an extended goodbye on the planet surface between Burnham and Georgiou — which lays things on thick enough with each of them saying personally validating things to the other and getting all teary-eyed (including Georgiou saying that Burnham belongs in the captain's chair, no less), we then get an extended farewell toast in the mess hall, where the entire crew remembers Georgiou (whom Burnham and Saru simply pass off as "deceased" to keep the timeline shenanigans under wraps) and says kind words about her. Like I said, this series never passes up the schmaltz.
The problem with this scene — and the entire retconning of Georgiou from obstinate sociopath to lovable coworker — is that the series hasn't put in the work. Up until this two-parter Georgiou has often bordered on unbearable. Sure, she's been a useful ass-kicker when needed, but not a team player deserving of this kind of fake send-off. She herself would probably be embarrassed by it, rolling her eyes more than me. Maybe it's just the Starfleet way to say nice things about a fallen colleague. But this just feels forced and unearned, and yet it didn't have to be this way. Clearly the producers love Michelle Yeoh; they had plenty of time where they could've rehabilitated Georgiou since joining the crew, believably and over time.
Or I guess maybe the point here is that this transformation actually happened, but just internally? She was all bark and no bite, overcompensating for what she probably saw as having lost her "edge" all along? But still, wouldn't this sentiment have worked a lot better if Georgiou hadn't been a complete asshat to everyone for the previous eight episodes? I'm glad the writers tried to do something at the eleventh hour when writing her out, but they should've started the process long before this (they knew what was coming). Now they've grossly overplayed their hand.
Anyway, the items below work better than traditional Terran knives and swords (because, you know, they're bullets; eventually, I'm going to stop explaining how this joke works):
- I feel like the Temporal Accords — an unbreakable commitment of the highest order, forbidding time travel under all circumstances, designed to keep the peace after the temporal wars — were invented solely to provide an excuse for why Discovery can't return to its own century. Then again, I suppose when time-travel becomes something anyone can easily do with technology, it'd be prudent to strongly regulate it so you're not accidentally (or purposely) wiping out civilization every week.
- Why does Carl obscure his true identity only to reveal it at the end? To create a Dramatic Reveal for the audience, yes, but there's no real reason for it within the story itself.
- The updates to the Guardian of Forever are well done — appropriately modernized to replace cheap 1960s props and FX, but without altering the spirit of the original design.
- Evil Insane Burnham is fun to watch. Of all the people on the Terran side of the looking glass, she's the most genuinely fearsome.
- Less fearsome, however, because it's just so effing excessive — Burnham making a big showy deal about all the traitors she's killed by throwing their insignia pins across the table in Awesome Super CGI Slow Mo.
- The structure of this two-parter is kind of interesting. It's basically two episodes, with one episode (the Burn mystery investigation) occupying the first half of part one and the second half of part two, and the other episode (Georgiou in the Terran universe) sandwiched in the middle.
- Speaking of the plot about the Burn, this story continues to advance it reasonably well, but because the episode is so consumed with the Georgiou stuff, it kind of gets lost. I'm not getting into the details, mostly because I don't remember them offhand, but: Book finds usefulness; Stamets doesn't say thank you; Reno is snarky; Vance questions Saru's impartiality; technobabble clue something.