"There Is a Tide" tries to do what should've been done many episodes ago: some world-building within this century. It may be too little, too late, but I guess I'd rather see it attempted rather than not seeing it at all.
After having exploited Tilly's tactical weaknesses and seizing Discovery, Osyraa takes the ship back to Starfleet Headquarters, where she uses the subterfuge to get inside the base's shield perimeter where she demands … an audience for peaceful negotiation. I admit I did not see that coming. Turns out there's more to Osyraa than previous episodes — in which she, say, fed her nephew to giant worms — had indicated. She wants to form an alliance between the Federation and the Emerald Chain, providing a new economic model for the Federation through its mercantiles in exchange for access to Discovery's spore drive, which she believes the Emerald Chain has the scientific resources to reverse-engineer and mass produce. This could be a benefit for the entire galaxy, possibly solving a lot of problems posed by everyone's dilithium shortage.
This episode uses dialogue to establish the Emerald Chain to be more expansive and important than previous episodes have conveyed — essentially a power on par with the diminished Federation rather than the rogue state that they appeared to be. (It could be this was previously established as far back as "Scavengers," but I could've simply missed it because of this series' tendency to race through dialogue scenes to get to emotional beats and action sequences.) For the first time this season, it feels like we are getting to town with an idea of what the interstellar political situation kind of looks like. Too bad it took twelve-thirteenths of a season to get here.
This provides the benefit of making Osyraa and the Emerald Chain much more interesting than we previously saw, and I appreciated the episode using actual, substantial details of negotiation and dialogue to convey these ideas. The one-on-one scenes between Vance and Osyraa (plus the hologram lie detector) are the best thing in the episode, showing some interesting diplomacy, information, debate, and good performances from Oded Fehr and Janet Kidder. There appears to be potential mutual benefit in this armistice, and we get a sense of a world beyond this room at HQ.
Naturally, it's all good until it's not. Because Osyraa is such a well-known figure for her tragic exploits and the suffering left in her wake, Vance says she could never be the head of an Emerald Chain allied with the Federation. He requires the condition that she put someone else in charge while she answers for her crimes. This, he says, is the only way the Federation would be able to accept such an armistice. (Naturally, this idea could never work on this show, because there's no one else we've ever met in the Emerald Chain who has mattered, since everything always gets reduced to a single character.)
So it all falls apart just when we seem to be getting somewhere, under circumstances that can't help but feel somewhat forced. Why do the writers spend so much time on these negotiations, trying to make the villain into something more than she seemed, only to rip everything up at the last minute and send her packing so she can go back to being a standard villain? I guess to hint that this show could maybe do more complex world-building, but that at the end of the day it would rather just blow things up? I guess I'd rather have a more layered villain than a cardboard one.
Even before Osyraa returns to Discovery, she has put Zareh (Jake Weber) in command of the hostage plot. Zareh, who didn't freeze to death in "Far From Home," returns here and proves to be considerably less engaging and more trope-y. I guess less of this guy was more. He becomes the primary antagonist in the action plot between him and the Discovery crew — especially Burnham, who is running around below decks trying to fight off bad guys and doing her best Bruce Willis in Die Hard impression as she runs around with a wounded leg, loses her shoes, and talks menacingly over her communicator. This action is all competently done, perfectly fine, and a complete non-factor in the ingenuity department — and not worth spending one minute more discussing. Suffice it to say this will continue into next week's finale since this is only the middle chapter of three.
One of the overarching problems with this series is that it has too many things that play as plot points rather than engaging storytelling. Take, for example, the resurfacing of the sphere data, which has now personified itself within three of Discovery's DOT-23 drones (which have helpfully offered to assist the crew in retaking the ship in next week's finale). While I appreciate that the series hasn't forgotten about the sphere data, this is something that could've been established through an actual story (a whole episode even!) that told us something about this strange AI that has been a part of Discovery for quite some time and seems to demand some sort of storytelling attention. (Sure, it helped Saru set up Movie Night, but that was practically an afterthought.) Rather than engaging with potentially interesting sci-fi ideas, Discovery just uses them for routine plot advancement. It's a shame.
And look at how much plot this story crams in. In addition to Osyraa and Vance, and the whole action plot with Burnham, Tilly, and the others, we also have Stamets and his dialogue with Aurellio (Kenneth Mitchell), Osyraa's top scientist, who may be able to help crack the code of tapping into the mycelial network without relying solely on Stamets and his tardigrade-infused DNA.
The script and direction actually do a deft job of taking all of these elements and putting them together in an episode that makes sense and mostly hums along. The issue is that the competence of the construction doesn't add up to more than the sum of all the parts. What's lacking is that really engaging spark. We mostly have chess pieces being moved around on the board. (On the other hand, Stamets' emotional stake in the away team, where both Culber and Adira are at risk of radiation poisoning, works pretty well to provide a character-based anchor into his plot.)
Like all middle-chapter cliffhangers, there's no resolution to discuss. And we'll have a pretty full plate for next week, which will presumably have to wrap up the ship-takeover plot, deal with the survivors on the dilithium planet, resolve the mystery of the Burn (and perhaps prevent another one), and figure out what the sphere data is up to. I guess that doesn't leave much room for exploring this season's alleged mission — the diminished Federation. I guess it's good we got to see at least some of that here.
In Super Mario Bros., they're named Bill:
- Just as the two parts of "Terra Firma" were bookended by a beginning and end that told one story while having a middle stretch that was isolated, it looks like the finale is also somewhat taking this approach (except stretched across three episodes instead of two); we don't see Saru, Culber, or Adira at all in this outing, but will in next week's.
- Having Earth no longer be a part of the Federation continues to seem arbitrary and unnecessary. Given that the idea had no practical reason aside from the self-contained plot in "People of Earth," it seems odd the current Federation is still so dominated by humans. I guess they never went home a century ago.
- Burnham and Book say the L word to each other. Yawn. This would work better if there were any real chemistry between these two, but this whole romance just feels obligatory.
- Ryn gets killed by Osyraa (which she does in front of Aurellio, which is certainly going to end up being a real tactical error on her part). This was inevitable. Ryn was clearly the most expendable recurring character whose time was running out.
- Admiral Vance explains to Osyraa the experience of eating apples made from recycled shit. He's never tasted a real apple; only a shit one. Some things in life just pass you by, I guess.
- Burnham sends a distress call to her mother. This seems like it's setting the stage to bring them back together to tie up loose ends more than it makes any sort of logical sense under the circumstances. How is she going to get there in any sort of timely manner, and why not contact Starfleet, who is right there?
Previous episode: Su'Kal