Ah, to be a fly on the wall in the writers’ room of Star Trek: Discovery. What really happened there? How much of this show grew from Bryan Fuller’s original ideas, and how much of it was scrapped or retooled? Did the writers change the fundamental course of the season midway through, and were they justified in doing so? Did they have to fix things on the fly and figure out ways to fit a patchwork narrative together into something supposedly coherent? Or was this the plan all along? I’m somehow guessing not the latter, at least for some of it.
I ask these questions after having watched "Will You Hold My Hand?" take a season-long arc about Starfleet’s war with the Klingons and solve it in five minutes with a plot device that brings new definitions to the word "contrived." I had hoped this finale would be more resolution than cliffhanger. It was. That’s a blessing, albeit a very mixed one.
“The War Without, The War Within” ends with the Mirror Universe version of Philippa Georgiou being named the captain of Discovery by Admiral Cornwell as an act of desperation to try to turn the tide of the war with the Klingons, which Starfleet is badly losing. It’s yet another episode-ending WTF moment in a season awash in them.
The problem with always dialing up the crazy to 11 is that the audience becomes conditioned to the environment until an 11 just starts to feel like a 5. Making MU Georgiou the captain — in a scene that goes out of its way to make clear that none of the other characters were aware this was happening until it happened (for no good reason except to keep it hidden until the final reveal to the audience) — is surprising, sure. But it’s surprising for perhaps the wrong reasons. We’ve reached the point where we expect some sort of last-minute episode-closing “shock” and the number of available variables in this episode seems to inevitably bring us to this conclusion. Rather, the reason it’s surprising is because it’s so ridiculous that this is alleged as the solution to Starfleet’s war problem.
“What’s Past Is Prologue” is an apt title given all that has happened on this season of Discovery. It’s ironic when considered in the meta-context of this season’s twists and turns, which render entire characters as discarded prologues. The more I look at this season, the more I think the whole thing must be a prologue to a more normalized second season, because this level of crazy just can’t be sustained. This episode is proof of that; after having spent 10 to 12 episodes setting up the pieces that lead here, we promptly close the book on a number of them, for good and ill.
This episode is simultaneously better and worse than I had expected. It makes a mockery of my concept of episodic star ratings, because serialized mysteries and deferred payoffs, while intriguing, are hard to grade from week to week with any sort of consistency. I enjoyed watching this episode probably as much as or more than any this season — and at the same time I was also more annoyed by it. Discovery has shown itself to be a compulsively watchable nuts-and-bolts plot-moving vehicle. And the writers surprise here with a visceral hour that burns through the rest of the Mirror Universe arc at an almost stunningly furious pace, leaving the last two episodes of the season to deal with other business. The writers should be commended for not prolonging this needlessly. It’s an efficient job, and frequently exciting.
The twists and reveals are coming fast and furious as we reach the home stretch of this first season of Discovery. “Vaulting Ambition” is another entertaining hour of an entertaining — albeit significantly flawed — season, and it dives right into the encounters between Burnham and the mirror version of her mentor, Philippa Georgiou. But it will probably most be most remembered and discussed for the reveal in its final minutes regarding Lorca, who, as many had theorized, is actually from the Mirror Universe and has been an impostor playing the part of his Prime Universe counterpart all along.
This reveal and its implications are likely to overshadow a lot of better material in this episode, including tense dialogue scenes between Burnham and Emperor Georgiou, and intriguing scenes within the mycelium spore network between Stamets and his MU counterpart — as well as some emotionally resonating scenes between Stamets and a spore-network presence (in whatever form) of Hugh Culber, who somehow talks to Stamets from beyond the grave.
The issues of one’s identity in the Mirror Universe, effectively established in last week’s "Despite Yourself," heat up in the crucible that is "The Wolf Inside," which uses the MU through Burnham’s perspective to ask the question of what it means to live a life of lies while here. Can you lose yourself in a brutal world where you have to pretend to be one of the brutes to survive? Will the brutality chip away at your humanity and your soul?
These questions are explored early through a voice-over narration that tells more than it shows. But what this monologue may lack in demonstrated on-screen action is made up for with sheer narrative economy. We know where Burnham stands and we’re able to see the madness through her eyes, and it’s a troubling place. If the MU provides reflections on our characters, no one is seeing the potential for more horrifying potentials than Michael. This is interesting, because self-reflection has been a key point for this character since the fallout from her role in those first two episodes that landed her prison. But now it rears its head under even more dire circumstances.