Before Star Trek: Discovery debuted in September of 2017, fans knew that Michelle Yeoh was playing Captain Georgiou. And now, as the show races toward the end of its first season, there is again, a person called Captain Georgiou in command of a starship, leading a daring mission where everything is on the line. But, because this isn’t the “real” Captain Georgiou, Discovery has put itself in a tricky spot. With its newest twist, the series is having a philosophical discussion as old as Star Trek itself.
Of course, for those who have been keeping up — or at least saw this whole episode — we know this isn’t the same Georgiou who died on the Klingon ship in the “Battle at the Binary Stars.” Instead, this is a version of Georgiou from an alternate dimension, specifically the wicked Mirror Universe where everyone is straight-up evil. So, the question is, why the hell did Admiral Cornwell and Sarek go along with a plan where they give Mirror Georgiou the keys to the USS Discovery?
The plot answer is that it’s not enough just to attack the Klingon homeworld successfully; they’ve got to scare the shit out of them, too. And what better way to freak out the Klingons than to have a face from the dead, a martyr, come back to life as Starfleet’s version of an avenging angel? From a plot perspective, it’s a pretty cool and dramatic plan. But the more interesting thing about the Georgiou switcheroo it that it thematically seems to put Discovery under its own philosophical microscope.
At one point in the episode, Tilly wonders if she was “naive” for thinking she would be able to avoid war by joining Starfleet. Burnham comforts her by saying she’s “optimistic.” Metafictionally, this is like Star Trek having a conversation with itself. Is this a show about space peace or space war?
The very first lines uttered by Burnham in Discovery’s first episode, “The Vulcan Hello,” was the phrase “We come in peace?” Relevantly, Burnham phrased it as a question, making it sound like she wondered if it was really true. Back then, the “good” version of Georgiou told Burnham “Starfleet doesn’t fire first.” But, now, the bizarro version of Georgiou is in charge, and she believes not only do you shoot first, you also don’t leave anybody behind to ask any questions.
Morally, Star Trek has always been both complex and somewhat reductive at the same time. In the 1966 original series episode “The Enemy Within,” after Kirk is split into “good” and “bad” versions of himself, Spock ponders the source of leadership and decisiveness: “What is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.”
It doesn’t seem like an accident this latest Discovery episode was called “The War Without, The War Within,” while only three episodes ago, there was an episode called “The Wolf Inside”. Though the show has leaned heavily on the events of “Mirror, Mirror,” it’s the themes of “The Enemy Within,” which pervade a lot of Discovery, and for what it’s worth, almost all of great Star Trek.
When Sarek and Cornwell meet Mirror Georgiou in “The War Without, the War Within,” Sarek asks her what she knows about her counterpart. “I know she is dead and I am not. I’ll leave it to you to determine which of us was stronger.” When Kirk was split into his good and evil halves in the original series, the solution was clear: Kirk needed his evil half to become whole again. But, Discovery has done the opposite. Now, we’re stuck with just the evil Georgiou, and also only the “good” version of Ash Tyler/Voq. In other words, all of this amounts to the classic Kirk split but inverted. We never saw the “good” Captain Lorca, but the evil one we met was, despite his ulterior motives, an effective leader.
Boldly going where no one has gone before is supposedly all about meeting new, exciting aliens and shaking hands with them. But, in practice, Star Trek has been best at using these stories examining the human spirit, even the ugly sides. In “The War Without, the War Within,” Cornwell and Sarek have basically decided that if faced with the choice of letting a good version of someone die versus their evil counterpart, they prefer to pick the person who will get the job done. Evil Georgiou is more ruthless than good Georgiou was. She can probably help the Federation win the war. But then where does the series boldly go next? Because just like Burnham, the audience probably can’t handle seeing Georgiou die for the second time.
The season finale of Star Trek: Discovery airs on Sunday, February 11, 2018, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS All Access.