"Choose to Live" is the best episode of Discovery in a very long time, since maybe "Die Trying." It works because it mostly keeps its stories grounded and straightforward, rather than excessive and overwrought, and puts forward sincere interest in them. Instead of shaking the camera for an hour while artificially employing emotional manipulation, it tells a reasonably good story and lets the emotional notes grow naturally from it. This is a major course correction that, while not a groundbreaking or stellar example of Trek, is a good example of it, and gives me hope that this season might be able to find its footing.
Stamets has a theory that the gravimetric anomaly, now dubbed the dark-matter anomaly or "DMA," might be a primordial wormhole, thereby explaining its ability to change directions spontaneously. I'm not going to pretend I think this makes any scientific sense, because I honestly don't keep track of the sci-fi minutiae within Trek beyond its most core elements. But as long as they convince me the details are being considered by somebody in the moment and they try to explain them, I'm game. In this case, they make the case that Stamets is lacking the key evidence he needs for his wormhole theory in the presence of tachyons (which were a key clue to DS9's wormhole, so hey, there's that). So he wants more scientific minds beyond the Federation's to look into the possibility.
This works as a means to an end to showcase problem-solving by our characters, who are in the middle of this, and to bring in others — most notably, the Vulcan and Romulan scientific minds on Ni'Var — who want to cooperate in the larger mutual interest. In what's a massive relief, at least for now, the DMA currently poses no immediate risk to nearby star systems, thereby making it the impetus for Federation and non-Federation members to work together to solve an urgent crisis, but without turning the season into an overheated ticking clock (again, at least for now). I think the DMA is far more interesting and valuable as a mysterious threat that spurs actions by our characters and speaks to the current interstellar political situation than something that artificially creates absurd galaxy-ending stakes. Bringing Ni'Var into the storyline — and using President T'Rina (Tara Rosling) as a key and well-played familiar face — is an important piece that helps with Discovery's much-needed world-building and credibility. This should not be discounted. By not having this episode so confined to the decks of Discovery, the episode opens things up considerably.
For our characters' part, this puts Stamets and Booker in the middle of the cooperative investigation, with Book again providing the primary emotional fulcrum as the only surviving eyewitness to the anomaly. He wants to provide any information that may be helpful, regardless of how reliving the trauma may affect him personally. Stamets, for his part, tries to keep Book out of emotional harm's way, but Book isn't having it, and it's good to see this getting back to basics (without losing sight of the characters) after last week's sentimental overreaches. The writers even manage to bring more meaning to Book's memories of his last moments with his nephew (with some mind-meld assistance) by actually telling an emotional story about it rather than getting lost in the superficial tragedy of it all. If they had done this from the start, I wouldn't have mocked it so much last week. There's a difference between hollow sentimentality and emotional character study, and this episode finds and understands the difference.
Meanwhile, in the main plot, a Qowat Milat nun named J'Vini (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) beams aboard a Starfleet vessel and steals its dilithium. In the process, she kills a Starfleet officer who refuses to stand down when she directs him to "choose to live." The Qowat Milat, created for Picard, actually turn out to be a more significant piece of world-building on Discovery, between this and last season's "Unification III." Burnham is assigned to track down the murderer/thief, since we certainly can't have dilithium piracy and the murder of Starfleet officers becoming a thing. This also means the resurfacing of Michael's mother, Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn, whose presence I will seldom argue against), who has a personal stake in this as a member of the Qowat Milat. J'Vini is not only one of her nun sisters, but the very person who, when Gabrielle emerged in this century, guided her into the life she now lives. Naturally, this increases the personal stake for Michael. This story finds the right balance between the personal and professional stakes.
Aside from the unnecessary (and frequently repeated) contrivance of making J'Vini into a heedless, murdering pirate in order to power the plot (if she's such a skilled fighter, why couldn't she find a way to stop the Starfleet officer without killing him, and why doesn't she try communicating with her pursuers rather than coming in with swords swinging?) this mostly works. Gabrielle's insistence that J'Vini must have a reason for what she's doing and that "reasons matter" is a much more interesting idea to engage with than the simplicity of hunting down a faceless villain. And the ultimate uncovering of her "lost cause" — something to which a Qowat Milat will commit unswervingly — is done with a not-trivial amount of Trekkian interest, exploration, and visual storytelling.
And, yes, there are some stupidly contrived things here. Like the idea of the team not arming themselves with phasers because that would send the wrong message (to the overcommitted zealot who comes in swinging anyway). Or putting Tilly in the middle of such a combat-heavy scenario when it's admitted up front that combat is her least-strong attribute (she should've been dead in that first attack). But it's hard to argue with the charm of Tilly's self-awareness as she frequently notes, "This is way out of my comfort zone." And this episode — and I can't stress it enough — tells an actual, effective story in the progress. Burnham & Co. ultimately help the "lost cause" by brokering a deal with J'Vini, fixing the alien technology, and awakening the alien population she's protecting, and allowing them to finish their migration. It's a good Trekkian resolution that is sincerely played all around.
In the C-plot, we have Adira and Gray and the attempt to put Gray in his new body. But don't groan, because the writers actually make this work too! First of all, while we don't have full details, they at least make it mostly clear that what we're dealing with in Gray is a rare effect of the Trill symbiont. They make this even more credible by bringing in Trill Guardian Xi (Andreas Apergis) from "Forget Me Not." So that's something beyond "Gray is a magic ghost." And at least we're dealing with the true risk of Gray's consciousness being lost forever if the transfer into the synthetic body fails. And thus a real risk for Adira. A betting person would not in a million years bet on this failing and ending in tragedy, but as these things go, this was pretty nicely done, and way better than what we've suffered through with Gray and Adira in previous episodes, including the one immediately before this ("Can you remove the mole from my hand?"). Now that Gray is here in the flesh, can this character become something more and better? Time will tell. For this week, I can get on board.
"Choose to Live" chose to tell three complete stories, and Discovery is better off for it.
"I wrote little haiku poems. I emailed them to everyone.":
- The political situation here is intriguing. J'Vini should be charged for her crimes, including murder, but it's unclear whether that will actually happen, because President Rillak agrees to have her extradited back to Ni'Var in the interests of greasing diplomatic wheels, because she really needs Ni'Var to rejoin the Federation and wants to do everything she can to make that happen. Rillak as a pragmatic political operative who is trying to work on the greater good is an angle of the character and the show that could be valuable.
- On the political maneuvering, Admiral Vance has something to say about it, in the form of a long, metaphorical monologue I thought was nicely done. Even nicer was the writers' self-awareness around the Meaningful Moment when Burnham notes the fancy metaphor and Vance replies, "They pay me by the letter." This guy is great.
- On the swordplay, I still find it silly that even in the 32nd century we're still dealing with this ancient tradition. The Qowat Milat may be great fighters, and it might make for more cinematic action, but let's face it — they should always lose their fights because of their inferior technology. Hence the plot's need to bend over backward such that our heroes don't bring their phasers to a swordfight.
- Saru is doing his Wise Saru Thing. Well, except for sending Tilly on a combat-heavy mission because she has a certain thing for diplomacy. That works okay when your enemy gives you a minute to talk, which J'Vini doesn't seem prepared to do, until she finally does. So maybe Saru is wisest after all.
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