Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 5 of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2. Not caught up? See our spoiler-free review of Season 1’s opening episodes here.
OK, Team Discovery, if you’re going to tease Spock’s appearance for this many episodes, then maybe don’t put him front and centre on your pre-transmission marketing – is there a sentient lifeform out there who doesn’t know that beardy young Spock will be played by Ethan Peck (grandson of Gregory Peck)? This week it’s particularly annoying, as, when the crew of the Discovery successfully bring Spock’s shuttle in by tractor beam (after a nifty, Kirk-like trick with a torpedo from Captain Pike), walking down the ramp is… Philippa Georgiou. Again.
This pre-credit let-down notwithstanding, Episode 5 is, like most of this season thus far, a delightfully traditional Star Trek episode. Exploring themes that would have been recognisable in the original series, the main thrust of the story sees Tilly – who last week disappeared into a pan-dimensional fungal blob – transported into the mycelial network. Yes, it’s more magic mushroom nonsense but, handled deftly by the writers, it becomes a new spin on a familiar Trek story: human activity inadvertently causing distress to a truly alien form of life.
At first, Tilly is, understandably, freaked out to have been dragged across the dimensions – Mary Wiseman once again proving herself to be an outstanding actor – and the spore creatures, given voice and human form by Tilly’s imaginary friend May, seem genuinely threatening. But when May tells Tilly that they want her to “kill a monster” that’s threatening to kill them all, Tilly’s Starfleet ideology kicks in – of course, she’ll help. Seeing the change in Tilly’s demeanour, from panic to calm determination, is a cause for goose-bumps.
Meanwhile, Burnham is on the case. Her inner monologue, brilliantly expressing her fear that Tilly is dead, forms a framing device for the episode – all there is to keep the fear at bay, she says, is “duty”. Working through the problem logically and as a team is also very Trek, as Stamets comes up with a science option – they can half-jump Discovery into the mycelial network – and Burnham, of course, volunteers to lead the away team.
Captain Pike plays a vital role too, once again displaying the sort of bold leadership that, in the original series, will see Spock hold his former commander in such high esteem. Here, he gives a rousing speech to his crew about Starfleet’s lofty ideals before plunging Discovery half-in and half-out of the mycelial network. In another traditional piece of Trek plotting, there’s a ticking clock – the spores will eat through the ship’s hull in just one hour (those are some deadly spores, able to break through a metal that can withstand photon blasts).
The rescue mission is brilliantly tense, and the added complication that the spore creatures need help fighting a monster runs the clock down even more. And then, fantastically, there comes a twist: the monster is Hugh, Stamets’ husband, killed by TyVoq (we saw his neck snapped in this episode’s ‘previously on’, as we did over and over last season). The writers play with our emotions and expectations expertly. Having let Hugh’s death feel permanent – he didn’t instantly get resurrected the week after his death, as might have happened in other shows – Stamets’ joy was well earned (and particularly effective, given the sterling work of Anthony Rapp). And, when it looked as though Hugh’s fungal form might not be able to exist in our universe, that too was a familiar sci-fi trope – heart-breaking but not unexpected. So, the final spin of the story-wheel – that Burnham is able to suggest a science-y way to respawn Hugh in our dimension – works perfectly.
As a final reminder of Starfleet’s guiding principles – teamwork, compassion and reverence for all life and cultures – it could have been on the nose (indeed, the pinky-swear between Tilly and May definitely strayed way over the line). But even this display of wholesome 1960s ideals is underscored by a more modern moral ambiguity. Georgiou and her Section 31 commander, Leland, now revealed to be hunting Spock, are not something of which Pike approves, especially as – presumably reluctant to reveal that they possess illegal cloaking tech – they only come to Discovery’s aid at the last minute. But, as Admiral Cornwell tells him, this is the “price of nation building” or, as Leland puts it: “We do what we do, so you can do what you do.”
With this comment on Pentagonism and the need (or not) for a secret state, coupled with the environmental issues raised with the depredation of the mycelial network, Star Trek; Discovery once again proves itself worthy of continuing Gene Roddenberry’s vision: optimism for the future, but one that also reflects the times in which the show is made. This is Trek for post-9/11, War On Terror, Donald Trump America – a potentially great country brought low by war and paranoia.
As for where Discovery goes from here, there’s much to chew on. With Georgiou well and truly established as Burnham’s frenemy, we’re surely heading for a moment when Burnham will be forced to act against Starfleet in order to save her foster brother. That’s assuming old pointy-ears actually turns up – now it’s been this long, put your money on him popping up as a mid-season cliffhanger. So, say, the end of next episode… Until then, though, there’s much else to look forward to: Burnham’s tricky relationship with TyVoq, Saru’s wish to bring his species into the interstellar fold, and Hugh’s return to life aboard Discovery.
Keep going, Discovery – we’re loving it.
Star Trek: Discovery is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. New episodes of Season 2 arrive weekly on Fridays, within 24 hours of their US release.