Discovery's third-season finale is an episode that alternates excessive, choppy, overwrought, and interminable action sequences with a Trekkian plot that would be perfectly fine if not for all the arbitrary technobabble and junk-science extras that are bolted onto it to explain other things. This is a mess for 50 minutes, and then exceedingly tidy for 10.
This is also an episode that cements (although it was pretty clear by the time "Su'Kal" got here) that this season is barely about anything it seemed to be when it started. The season started as "Rebuild the Fallen Federation!" (The cover art had Burnham holding a tattered Federation flag on a barren planet.) But then a few episodes later, in "Die Trying" (the season's best episode) it became "Rediscover the Current Diminished Federation!" Now, at the end of the season, it's "Kill Osyraa!" The season gradually went from potentially grand to painfully reductive and unambitious.
Meanwhile, we have the whole arc with the Burn, which suffers from taking a subject of galactic import and making it about one guy's unwitting sci-fi properties and emotional problems. If the message of the Burn is supposed to be "shit happens" — even on a cataclysmic galactic scale because of some random child — then ... mission accomplished, I guess? But that, again, feels reductive and unambitious for such a big mystery. Hell, making Ni'Var be the cause of the Burn, as the Vulcans believed, because of scientific experiments gone bad would've at least offered some sort of lesson about caution or responsibility or fallibility or some such. Here, there's nothing anyone could've done to prevent such a concocted freak occurrence, so I guess all those people died and societies collapsed so we could learn the universe can just blow up whenever because of whatever. Um, yay?
It's too bad Su'Kal's plight is tethered to this baggage, because his story is actually a reasonable one — albeit played out too long and not something I could get too emotionally worked up about. (This would've been better as a one-off, and not stretched across three episodes with a presence in two of them, and needing to serve the dual purpose of explaining the season-long mystery.) Saru's attempts to connect with Su'Kal are the best and most human parts of the episode, done in the true spirit of Trekkian communication and understanding. Doug Jones' performance continues to allow the series to prove that Saru is the most traditionally classic Star Trek character on this series.
Other things don't work. Similar to how the whole explanation around the Burn (officially explained as something about Su'Kal and the dilithium channeling energy through subspace, the most flexible and murky — and thus capable of anything — pillar of Trek science) relies on technobabble hand-waves, the whole revelation about Gray is conjured from thin air. We've never really been told what exactly Gray is, but I'd assumed him to be a personality only in Adira's mind, on the account of a Trill's past lives being merged with the host. But here the writers take things in a wild direction, and somehow whatever "Gray" is is able to be interpreted by the holo-program and assembled as a hologram that Culber and Saru can see.
This is one of those reveals that falls flat and lacks credibility because the writers haven't laid the necessary groundwork; we had no reason to believe there was anything special about Gray that wasn't solely in Adira's head. Now we have to accept him as a magical lifeform that somehow exists in the real world and in a way computers can detect and assemble on cue. It's arbitrary, magical, and unearned. This is something that maybe could've worked had the writers put in the time to build toward it, but they didn't. Honestly, they didn't really do anything except make Gray keep pointlessly appearing and vanishing without bothering to further advance his purpose. (Maybe if Gray had been telling Adira all season that he was somehow "real" in a way that transcended the memories in the symbiont, this wouldn't feel like the incredulous invention it is.)
But never mind all that; most of the episode is the crew's fight to retake the ship, and it's an endless pummeling of graceless, chaotic, off-the-shelf shoot-em-up action. The editing is overly aggressive, with excessive cuts and obnoxious camera work. (Director Olatunde Osunsanmi must've asked himself, "How many needless 180-degree camera rotations can we fit into one episode?") The gunfights are the sort that belong in Star Wars, and which The Mandalorian does far better (and even there it can become tiresome). Meanwhile, in keeping with the visual template of this series, the digital effects for any of the starship shots are overly busy and inadequately detailed, looking like chaotic video game footage rather than an intelligible arrangement of real physical objects. Discovery has great visuals when it comes to sets and computer readouts that the characters interact with, but the starship battle footage is frequently inferior to stuff DS9 was cranking out more than 20 years ago, simply in their lack of weight, dimension, and decent composition (resolution be damned). Space battles should look like ships engaging each other, not the light show at the Disney Main Street Electrical Parade.
In terms of excessive action concepts, take, for example, the extended turbolift fight sequence, which takes us inside the bowels of the turbolift tubes. But now I've already made a mistake, because I said "bowels" and "tubes" as if the corridors of a turbolift were a limited, crowded space designed to allow a turbolift to travel where it needs to go and no more, as opposed to what we see here, which is a cavernous void that looks like it's about the size of the inside of a Borg cube. I don't usually nitpick the technical details, but this scene cries out for attention because it's so ridiculous. Based on the looks of this, 80 percent of Discovery must be a hollow, uncrewed space in order to make room for these elevator canyons (which perhaps double as the ship's indoor football arena). It takes you right out of the show, because you're aware of the writers and VFX wizards going out of their way to jettison any sense of plausibility in order to give us some Kewl Graphx.
We also get the big wannabe-badass fight scene between Burnham and Osyraa in the data core, which is a cool set for something that mostly ends up being boringly derivative — and ultimately prompts unintended laughter when Burnham appears to meet her supposed demise when she gets stuffed into a big gel-like megaprocessor array (or whatever the hell it is), only to shoot her way out. We as viewers have no sense of whether we're supposed to believe this is potentially deadly other than taking cues from Osyraa's satisfied reaction. But that could simply be Osyraa being an idiot; who knows. Like much of Discovery's action, we are asked merely to experience, not understand.
That especially goes for Osyraa as a character, who seemed in "There Is a Tide" to be a more layered and sensible villain interested in making deals, but goes back to being merely an evil cartoon here. With such whiplash, it's almost like "There Is a Tide" was farmed out to a different writing staff. What was the point? Similarly, is the Emerald Chain a real system-spanning economic organization, or a band of random thugs with one leader who was the head of the snake? "There Is a Tide" seemed like it was building the Chain up to be a power to be reckoned with, but that's completely undone by this episode, in which the entire Chain collapses (per the overly tidy last-minute voiceover) with the death of Osyraa and the destruction of her ship. As usual, Small Universe Syndrome on this show pervades.
The protracted nature of the action may play as awesome for some, but for me it was just exhaustingly boring. We've long since reached the point with this series where sustained action feels like it's being done because a certain segment of the audience expects a certain quota to be met, especially in a season finale. Last season's finale was far better at generating excitement, because it at least featured some innovation; this one just sits there passively while endlessly going pew-pew-pew.
At the very least, they give one of the minor characters (Owosekun) a key showcase to help save the day, but watching everyone gasping for air for what seemed like forever just felt like over-the-top manipulation. Obviously the day will be saved before everyone suffocates, so why be so ham-handed about it?
If this review feels grumpier than usual, it could be end-of-year exhaustion with these elements that fail to entertain after their cumulative mental drubbing. What happens here isn't all terrible, and I suppose this episode does what it has to in the broad strokes: Osyraa and the bad guys are dead, the Federation is affirmed, the cause of the Burn is discovered, a second Burn is averted, Su'Kal is rescued from his isolation, and the away team is saved. It's a tidy package, made all the tidier by an ending montage that simplifies everything beyond reason. The devil is in the details, but they skip over the details.
Originally titled "Outside," which would've made sense for what happens in the Su'Kal plot, the story was renamed "That Hope Is You, Part 2" at the eleventh hour in order to … I dunno, prove that it's the companion bookend to the season premiere that it has thematically almost nothing in common with aside from Burnham being the central hope of the universe? I get that Burnham is the star of the show, but when every episode becomes a testament to how great she is, it just feels forced and, again, unearned. Her struggle earlier in the season in trying to figure out her place — leading her to disobey direct orders — ends here with her being named the new captain of Discovery, while Saru returns to Kaminar to help Su'Kal reintegrate into society.
It's a swift move that makes a certain amount of narrative sense given clues we've been fed throughout the season (like Georgiou mentioning that Michael was always meant for the captain's chair), but it doesn't track from the events of her betrayal of Saru and her constant questioning of Vance. Vance tells her, basically, that results are what matter, and she ultimately produced results, even if she used some unorthodox means of producing them. But wouldn't this have worked better if it had really laid the groundwork to show how Burnham overcame her obstacles and proved herself rather than just making it so with a few hasty lines of dialogue?
It's ironic that Discovery, the most serialized of all the Trek series, is one that somehow fails to lay enough groundwork for itself to make sense. Narrative gaps abound, year after year, and it feels like the writers spend time on the wrong things (Georgiou, the Mirror Universe, Gray's disappearing act) rather than things that might help its main narrative work better (Burnham's leadership role, Tilly's leadership role, a detailed state of the Federation). The Burn mystery was actually the most consistently and serialized investigation all season, which was good. But those morsels and clues we followed were purely procedural and could've been consolidated into one or two episodes. And, of course, the destination was a disappointment.
Will season four make better efforts to explore the Federation and the 32nd century? I sure hope so, but that's what I hoped for this season. Maybe this season was simply to get us here and next season will be committed to living here. One can hope, I guess.
"It's got dots. Deputy loves dots." "Fuck you and your dots.":
- My wife liked this episode, and thought it did all the necessary things, which made me think that maybe this show is better for newer Trek audience members versus the fuddy-duddies in the audience like me who bring all their baggage and feel a need to compare it to the glory days.
- The DOT-23 drones and the sphere data are completely irrelevant to the plot, except to provide assistance in the action sequences as a cool, gee-whiz idea. The story doesn't care that we now have the starship's intelligence essentially personified in robot form, which is actually a very intriguing idea that screams out for future episodes.
- Burnham's distress call to her mom in last week's episode has zero payoff here. Not only does Gabrielle Burnham not make an appearance, but the Vulcans/Romulans, whom she sends on her behalf and who arrive at the beginning of the episode, are completely inconsequential to the plot.
- Vance's speech for promoting Burnham and Burnham's voiceover at the end just paper over too much with such brief snippets of dialogue. It's too much of a heavy lift to tie this all up so pat.
- If Saru returns to Discovery, it won't be as captain. Dislike.
- Su'Kal's isolation and reintegration into society, and the discussions around the importance of personal connections, which can be restored in a Federation where dilithium supplies are restored, make for an apt message for our COVID times — but a few sentimental voiceovers aren't enough to save this episode.
- Rhys and Bryce. Those are the other two bridge officers, and I don't think I've ever typed their names before. That probably says something.
- Book is able to jump the spore drive, thanks to his empathic abilities — yet another arbitrary plot point this episode conveniently pulls from the air. I hope they explore what this means next season, and also explore the possibility of Aurellio cracking the spore drive.
- At the very least, this is not a cliffhanger. It ends with resolution of most of what's gone on this season, even if some of those things were arguably the wrong things.
- Seriously. Give me a schematic of Discovery that shows where the turbolift trainyard fits in. Maybe Discovery is huger than I ever figured.
- Unless I missed it, which is possible, the mystery of the music that accompanied the Burn distress call is a dead-end red herring. No explanation is given for why so many people know the song.
- My prescriptions for season four: the same as after every season, so I won't bother repeating them. Discovery either must not want to learn, or thinks it's doing exactly what it wants to be doing.
- I still have some things to wrap up, including reviews of the first season of The Mandalorian (several of which are already written, so look for them soon), as well as my long-delayed review of The Rise of Skywalker, which I haven't forgotten about, but had put on the back burner. Stay tuned.
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