'Star Trek: Discovery' season 3, episode 5: Starfleet tries to break up the band

"Star Trek: Discovery" season 3, episode 5 features a truly amazing cameo.
"Star Trek: Discovery" season 3, episode 5 features a truly amazing cameo. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Warning: Locking spoilers on target…

It seems like the big mystery of this season is going to be what exactly brought about "the burn." We're four episodes in already, and we still have no new clues on what caused the dilithium mines to dry up and every warp-capable starship powered by dilithium crystals to unexpectedly explode. Were Romulan quantum singularity drives also affected? That doesn't seem to have been addressed yet. It seems unlikely that it's linked to the Omega molecule, but if an alien species is involved, we're hoping it might be an alien species that's totally new to "Star Trek" and we're also hoping that "the burn" has nothing whatsoever to do with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). But what we can tell you is that episode 5, entitled "Die Trying," also provides no additional clues whatsoever.

Instead, this week's installment is all about the crew of the USS Discovery finally finding what's left of the Federation and learning how this age-old intergalactic institution has weathered over the last 930 years.

After having been given the coordinates for Federation headquarters from Adm. Senna Tal last week, the USS Discovery has finally arrived at its destination. We learn that the entire facility is cloaked and shielded, but since the Crossfield Class starship is expected, it is permitted to enter through the protective energy barrier.

The crew is amazed by what they see inside, and we ourselves get a glimpse of how far technology has advanced in the 32nd century. And starshipheads like us the internet over are going to have a field day speculating and theorizing about all this new tech. According to Burnham, the distortion field seems to be sustained by the collective energy of every ship within it. "Detecting neutronium alloy fibers. Those used to be theoretical," Lt. Nilsson (Sara Mitich) gasps in her first lines of this season. 

Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) joins in, "Some of these hulls are organic, some are completely comprised of holographic containment walls!"

"Is that a new Constitution?" Lt. Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) excitedly blurts out. "I bet it can sleep a crew of a thousand, no…two thousand!"

"Detached nacelles?" Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) exclaims. "Where do they even put the warp core?"

Lots of lovely new starships and 32nd century tech for Trekkies to pour over. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Everyone on the bridge continues to gush as the Discovery slowly makes its way through the spacedock-like environment. Throughout the ship, like kids in a candy store, the crew rush to the nearest windows and gaze in awe at what they're seeing. They fly past a starship with the name USS Voyager and the registration NCC-74656-J. As Tilly points out, that's 10 generations of evolution. In the "Enterprise" episode "Azati Prime" (S03, E18) we get to see a Universe-class USS Enterprise NCC-1701-J in the 26th century. (We can't wait to hear the story of the USS Nog NCC-325070 – it's there, on the left hand side.)

The crew is energized for the first time since exiting the time displacement wormhole, and, upon arrival, Saru, Burnham and Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) are instructed to beam over and meet with Federation representatives. Roll opening credits.

The décor inside the Federation headquarters craft is like "the construct" in "The Matrix" — every "Star Trek" writer seems to think that in the future, any form of interior decorating will be made illegal across the Alpha Quadrant. Adm. Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) and Lt. Audrey Wiilla (Vanessa Jackson) don't so much as welcome the three crewmembers from Discovery aboard as interrogate them and accuse them of breaking the law prohibiting time travel.

The department color-coding seems to have been retained on the 32nd century Starfleet uniforms. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

We don't know much about the Temporal Cold War: a conflict fought between several time-traveling factions, each from different points in time and each trying to manipulate history for its own benefit, in violation of the Temporal Accords. So, the instant suspicion that the Discovery represents a temporal incursion of some kind might make sense to the Federation of the 32nd century, but we don't have the proper context for this mistrust, so it jars a little and comes across as a cliché. Hopefully we'll find out more about this as the season unfolds. 

Vance continues the warm welcome by making it perfectly clear that he and Adm. Senna Tal were familiar, but for the moment at least, he and Adira Tal are not. A doctor reminds Vance that the Kili situation is getting worse. It seems this particular alien race is suffering from a mass die-off that resulted from eating contaminated food. 

Burnham and Saru are anxious to help, since their intentions are sincere and they're not the vanguard of an impending invasion, as the clearly paranoid Federation would have us believe. After all, the USS Discovery is the only starship available (in the galaxy?) with a long-distance-capable drive, but Vance wants everyone to be debriefed first. As we saw at the end of Season 2, everyone with knowledge of the red angel time suit, the spore drive, Control and the events that lead to where we are now was sworn to secrecy. Therefore, there's no official record to corroborate their story, making the doubtful Admiral even more suspicious. 

Cmdr. Nahn was actually a pretty cool — albeit underused — character. It's a shame to see her go. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Saru wants some answers himself, and Vance explains that there are now 38 member worlds in the Federation, down from 350 at its peak. There may be others, but since the sub-space relays went down, they're having difficulty finding each other. He goes on to say that where they sit now represents not only the headquarters of Starfleet Command but also the entire civilian government of the United Federation of Planets, and it's been that way since "the burn." He announces that until they can sort through this mess of conflicting accounts, he will be requisitioning the Discovery for analysis and retrofit and reassigning the crew. 

Back on the Discovery, Saru and Burnham bicker as they talk about what just happened, which we suspect will be a recurring story element now. Burnham's character clearly needed to be changed slightly in order to achieve a more interesting dynamic with her straight man, Saru. That's why she had to spend a Whole Year with Book, although as we've said before, it would've been so much more believable if it had been at least two, even three.

Burnham argues that Starfleet should make use of them and what they have, while Saru wants to remain within the rules. The writers will need to be careful to ensure this doesn't get too repetitive going forward. Burnham makes some very valid points, naturally, about keeping the crew together, and, while Saru agrees, the way they go is to fine-tune the means slightly in order to justify the ends.

"One thing that drives me nuts is people who think that Jethro Tull is just a person in the band." (Image credit: CBS All Access)

The crew isn't happy that the band is being broken up as each undergoes a debriefing — but this is probably the most interesting part of this episode. Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) begins the "Armageddon"-esque montage sequence as they share the bizarre-sounding details of their recent experiences to disbelieving Federation hologram doctors. "And I was murdered. That can really do a number on you," Culber says. "But my murderer and I are good now."

Cmdr. Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) is next, and, for once, her dry sense of humor is a perfect fit here. Tilly's contribution is also very amusing, and Cmdr. Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) refuses to give any information aside from her rank and serial number, but the best is saved for last. At first Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) toys with the holographic doctor and manages to disrupt its functionality by excessive blinking (which is just silly). But then a real, human doctor who until now had only been in the background steps forward. He is played by David Cronenberg no less, in quite possibly the finest piece of guest star casting ever, in any "Star Trek" series.

Once we're past the by now extremely annoying Georgiou Giggle to signal she takes pleasure in mischief, he very calmly gets to work. He talks about first contact on April 5, 2063 where — in the Terran "mirror" universe — they slaughtered the visiting Vulcans and wonders why someone like Georgiou would join Starfleet. He offers her the chance to ask him questions, and she learns that the Terran Empire fell centuries ago. Suddenly, her cockiness vanishes. He explains that the distance between their two universes began increasing after her departure and that there hasn't been a single crossing in over 500 years. He reminds her of how alone she is and also determines that there's a person on the Discovery crew that Georgiou cares about.

"We have an announcement we think you should all know about: We've run out of coffee." (Image credit: CBS All Access)

It's clear that this man, Kovich, is more than capable of playing mind games to a superior degree than Georgiou, but sadly, this is the last of the secondary plot that we see, until a brief moment at the end of the episode. Unusually, the rest of this installment is focused on Burnham et al. 

It just so happens there's a handy humanitarian crisis going with the Kili, as we briefly noted before. The Discovery can use the spore drive to visit the location of this poisoned food, and an antidote can be manufactured. But Burnham has little luck in convincing Wiilla, so she tries a less formal approach and they eventually succeed in putting their proposal to Vance. It's determined that the Kili became ill on the now desolate planet Urna, which was once an industrial hub that the Federation was in the process of raising an alarm about over toxicity even back in the 23rd century. If they stopped there, then they scavenged there and more than likely consumed noxious flora and fauna.

The medical hologram known as Eli (Brendan Beiser) provides helpful exposition; if a healthy sample of the protein they ingested could be found, then a potential vaccine could be created, but since the damage was done so long ago, such a sample doesn't exist. Cue Burnham and a mind-bogglingly helpful coincidence: apparently there was a starship in the 23rd century called the USS Tikhov that held seed samples from across the galaxy. If it still exists and, you know, wasn't one of the thousands of starships that were destroyed in "the burn" then, you know, we could save these people. 

Burnham demonstrates she has the ability to command, which might cause friction in the future. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Vance confirms that the Tikhov does indeed still exist, but apparently it's still five months away at sub-light from their current location. Saru volunteers to stay behind as collateral of sorts, so Burnham takes command of the Discovery and a poorly scripted plan is hatched. The Tikhov is located inside an ion storm and Burnham demonstrates that she is extremely comfortable — and capable — in command. Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) does well to maintain control of the USS Discovery.

Scans suggest that a Barzan family were the last people to be custodians of the ship, so Nahn joins Burnham and Culber for the away team. The ship is overgrown inside, and they find a holographic representation of the family and, much to Burnham's shock, one of the children is humming the same tune that Adira was practicing on the cello last week. We can't possibly think what the connection is there. We learn more of Nahn's backstory as this primary plot unfolds, so it's painfully obvious that she either gets left behind or dies, just like Lt. Cmdr. Airiam in the Season 2 episode "The Red Angel" (S02, E10). 

She and Culber find status pods with the wife and children of Dr. Attis (Jake Epstein), the last remaining Barzan left onboard alive, who himself seems to be out of phase with normal space. The away team needs his voice codes to access the seed vault, you see. Back on the Discovery, Stamets, Reno and Tilly determine that the Tikhov was hit by a coronal mass ejection (CME) and if Attis was in the process of beaming into the vault when the CME struck the ship, then the protons would have interfered with the ship's magnetic shielding and destabilized his body's polarization on a quantum level. Duh.

Casting David Cronenberg was a masterstroke, but he's underused in this episode. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

They bring Attis back into phase and, in a drawn-out final act, the away team access the vault and secure the seed samples they need, but Attis refuses to leave his family — even though they're dead — and beam back to Discovery for medical treatment. Nahn supports his decision and elects to stay on the Tikhov, even though Attis himself will be dead very soon as a result of exposure to radiation from the CME. It's an odd decision, and she assumes that the ship is heading back to Barzan, which isn't made particularly clear. (Surely, for the benefit of all life in the galaxy, the Tikhov should make its way back to Starfleet HQ?) Nahn delivers a strong speech and there's lots of powerful, emotion-evoking music, tears and Burnham's quivering bottom lip.

The writers of "Discovery" have yet to come up with a decent episode that deals with the departure of a crewmember going all the way back to the first season and the ridiculous death of Cmdr. Landry (Rekha Sharma) and, sadly, this is no different. 

Hunt Stockwell Vance is suitably impressed with the success of the mission, so it looks like the crew of the Discovery will be performing missions for the Federation for the foreseeable future a lá "A-Team" — albeit the last season. Finally, Burnham inquires about the piece of music, and it seems almost everyone at Starfleet HQ has heard it, or at least recognizes it in part, so clearly it's connected to something somehow. Then she sees Georgiou, standing, expressionless and motionless in the corridor; something has upset her and we can't wait to find out what it is. 

In the Mirror Universe, Zefram Cochrane opened fire on the visiting Vulcans as seen in "Enterprise." (Image credit: CBS All Access)

This is probably the weakest episode of Season 3 so far, and it demonstrates the elastic pull on "Discovery" writers that coincidence and convenience have when attempting to outline a plot. It would have benefitted from not having Burnham instantly recall the Tikhov when presented with the Kili crisis; maybe some time could've been cut from Nahn's drawn-out farewell and instead a) have everyone search for any one of a number of seed ships, with several having been destroyed in "the burn" until they find one surviving ship; b) have more fun with the cross-examination scene and finally c) more of Cronenberg's character, as he was spectacularly underused, so we sincerely hope he has a significantly more substantial role in future episodes. A mind match between his character and the annoyingly smug Georgiou could be easily sold as a pay-per-view event. 

As we reported a few weeks back, the episode titles were officially announced. Episode 7 is called "Unification III" — and we strongly suspect that's going to be the rejoining of Earth and the Federation. 

Rating: 6½ out of 10

Was the idea that she might never be able to return to her own universe terrifying for Georgiou?  (Image credit: CBS All Access)

Humpbacked Whales ✓

  • David Cronenberg is arguably the best "Star Trek" cameo ever
  • Clearly one of the writers was a big fan of "Star Trek: Voyager"
  • The debrief montage was fun, but more could have been made of it
  • The space dock sequence was nice, but we could have seen more ships
  • Burnham handled her first mission in command of Discovery well

Humpbacked People ✗

  • Will we learn more about the Andorian/Orion "Emerald Chain" syndicate?
  • There just happens to be a seeding ship that wasn't destroyed in "the burn"
  • We desperately wanted to see more of Kovich's interrogation of Georgiou
  • Painfully obvious that Nahn was going to either die or get left behind
  • Er, what happened to Adira?

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Scott Snowden

When Scott's application to the NASA astronaut training program was turned down, he was naturally upset...as any 6-year-old boy would be. He chose instead to write as much as he possibly could about science, technology and space exploration. He graduated from The University of Coventry and received his training on Fleet Street in London. He still hopes to be the first journalist in space.