Tribbles and Technobabble Return in 'Star Trek: Discovery'

Michael Burnam on Star Trek: Discovery
Michael Burnam (Sonequa Martin-Green) walks through the cafeteria after her prison transfer is interrupted by a trip to the USS Discovery in Episode 3 of "Star Trek: Discovery." (Image credit: Jan Thijs/CBS)

Warning: This recap includes spoilers for Episode 3 of "Star Trek: Discovery."

Last week's opener of "Star Trek: Discovery" was an action-packed wallop of Klingons, mutiny and explosions. Some Trekkies weren't happy with the double-header episode, complaining that it didn't really feel like "Star Trek."

To those Trekkies, we're happy to say — welcome back. You'll like Episode 3 better, because it has several nods to Trek lore, from tribbles to technobabble.

We meet up with Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) six months after she is sentenced to life in prison. Burnham serenely sits on a prison transport ship on its way to a mining colony, ignoring her fellow prisoners' insults, until aliens that love chewing on electrical cables somehow get into the rescue ship's organs. When the ship's captain is killed trying to get the critters out, the other prisoners begin to panic as Burnham, presumably summoning her Vulcan training, sits quietly. [The 15 Best Ships on Star Trek, from V-ger to the USS Vengeance]

Enter the USS Discovery, which uses a tractor beam to get the prison transport aboard the starship. Almost immediately, Burnham gets in a fight with her fellow prisoners, earning a summons to the quarters of her new captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).

Lorca orders Burnham to take a temporary role on his ship because she has expertise in a form of physics that Lorca needs for his "mission." Burnham, who doesn't want the assignment, asks Lorca what that means. "To win the war, of course. To send everyone home safe and happy," Lorca responds.

In typical Trek style, the situation quickly turns complex. Burnham is assigned to a science room that, strangely, has a highly restricted research area. Nobody will tell her what she's working on, especially her new officer in command, Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp). Burnham later breaks into the restricted part of the lab to discover beautiful plants growing, but that doesn't shed much light.

The crew then receives word that the crew of a sister ship, the USS Glenn, was lost in some sort of an incident, and a team, including Burnham, beams aboard to find out what's going on. On the way, Burnham confronts Stamets and tries to ask what the research is about — she says it sounds like physics, or biology, but can't figure out which. Stamets responds that the two are essentially the same, but it's hard to figure out what he's saying, as it's really high-level technobabble. (In my mind, this confusion almost derailed the episode, but hanging on was worth it.) [How 'Star Trek' Technology Works (Infographic)]

The "away party" then runs into a monster (as well as dead Starfleet officers and Klingons) on the ship, but Burnham distracts the creature so the crew can escape and makes her own exit, reciting lines from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as she crawls through a narrow tube on the ship as the creature pursues her — popping out in just the right place to drop down into the ship. Impressed by her skill, Lorca offers Burnham a position on the USS Discovery and, finally explains what they are working on: a spore-based organic- propulsion system that can beam anyone anywhere in just an instant, riding on a "microscopic web" that permeates the universe. (Lorca doesn't explain much about the nature of the web or the organics, so we'll probably hear more in future episodes.)

And that's this week's cliffhanger, making us wonder what this tech is. Something related to warp speed? A gateway constructed by the Iconians, a race with advanced travel tech that was discussed in "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine"? We don't know for sure yet, but we hope future episodes will make it clearer.

Some random observations from the episode:

  • It's fun to see science and the military finally come in conflict in a Trek series. Stamets has a beautiful monologue about how he was working on something really cool, but the military appropriated it and now he's stuck working for an organization he never wanted to join. More of this, please.
  • It's clear Lorca has ulterior motives, but we don't really know his full deal yet. He makes it clear that he's not above operating beyond Starfleet protocol (one reason that Lorca respects Burnham's mutiny, he says). But there's more weird stuff to come, it seems. The last shot of the episode shows him in an office next to a cage containing the deadly creature on the USS Glenn — the creature was evidently beamed aboard his ship for reasons that aren't explained to the audience. Lorca also has a tribble on his desk in another scene, but beyond pleasing "Star Trek: The Original Series" fans we're not sure if there's a significance.
  • Saru (Doug Jones) is really coming into his own after three episodes. He used to serve with Burnham before the mutiny, and has trouble trusting her: "I believe you feel regret, but in my mind, you are dangerous," he tells her. But it is Saru who recommends Burnham for the away party, even though everyone on the ship is giving her the stink eye for her mutiny. Every scene with him is worth watching, as he has little pretense and isn't afraid to say exactly what he thinks.
  • In a minor "squee" moment for fans, it's confirmed this week that Sarek and Amanda — the parents of Spock — did raise Burnham as well, right alongside him. And it was Amanda that used to read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to Burnham, which (we are told) taught Burnham that the universe is not fully logical.
  • Eagle-eyed science-fiction fans probably immediately recognized Cmdr. Ellen Landry — she's Rekha Sharma, best known for being one of the human cylons on "Battlestar: Galactica" (2004-2009). I wonder if she'll throw anyone important out the airlock again.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: