Sunday night’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery took a long, hard look at what happens when war and exploration are smashed together. The story underlined the brutal irony of setting this particular corner of the Star Trek universe aboard a starship called Discovery. Whatever wonders of the cosmos its crew may discover, they will always be twisted toward the task of defeating the Klingons.
Part of Star Trek’s enduring appeal across its many incarnations has been that emphasis on people heading out into deep space to learn about the universe and, with it, themselves – it’s the “to explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations” bit from the opening monologue. That’s most of Michael Burnham’s story in this episode, as Captain Lorca orders her to work out the nature of the monstrous creature found aboard the U.S.S. Glenn.
The captain makes no secret of the goal here: Burnham must figure out how to weaponize the traits the creature used to rip through untold Klingons.
Burnham doesn’t exactly object to the assignment, but her approach is so deeply rooted in her Federation — especially, as far as Commander Landry is concerned, her Vulcan — ideals. As Burnham sees it, there’s no way to accomplish Lorca’s task without first understanding the nature of the creature, much to Landry’s annoyance: “It can only be what it is,” Burnham says, quoting a Vulcan proverb, “and not what you want it to be.”
There’s plenty of horror and heartbreak to be found in this episode, which has the wonderfully old-school Trek title “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry.” For a while, events unfold to justify Burnham’s more thoughtful, inquisitive stance. The creature kills Landry when her desperation to get something Lorca can use pushes her to attack it once more. Lorca pushes Burnham to ensure the commander’s death was not in vain, and for a while the episode slips into Star Trek’s more familiar territory of scientific discovery.
Burnham correctly connects the creature’s heightened activity with Discovery’s spore-assisted jump, as she realizes it can act as the starship’s navigator. A little of the franchise’s old optimism and sense of wonder creeps back in as even the curmudgeonly Stamets betrays some excitement as he sees the creature commune with the spores.
But this can’t last, as inevitably the creature’s ability to guide the jumps is put to use in combat against the Klingons at Corvan II. Lorca uses the jump not just as method of transit but as part of his battle strategy – it was a roundabout path, but Burnham weaponized the creature for the captain after all.
None of this is straightforwardly good or bad. The show actually veers into the hokey with the depiction of cherubic children on Corvan II saved by Discovery’s sudden appearance, so it’s hard to dismiss out of hand the virtue of what Burnham helped do here. But the path to that point has casualties, both minor and severe. There’s Landry, of course, and the creature itself suffers – and will suffer again – in its involuntary service to the Federation cause. There’s even the minor moment where Burnham uses Saru, bringing him into the creature’s quarters on the pretext of apologizing just to see if the beast would activate his instinctual fear.
As with last week’s episode, look to what Captain Lorca has to say to understand Discovery’s intentions – that he is at best an unreliable dispenser of wisdom speaks to the show’s larger ambiguities about what it’s trying to say. His early scene with Burnham in which he lays out the job before them diagnoses the essential contradiction.
“We’re the tip of the spear with a science vessel full of wide-eyed explorers,” says Lorca. This assessment isn’t unreasonable, exactly: Go find the lie in the captain’s assessment of the failed battle simulation, after which he points out Discovery’s coming ability to go anywhere in the galaxy will make them the ultimate strike vessel, yet also one entirely cut off from all backup. The ship can’t afford to operate on anything but a military footing.
But, as 50 years of Star Trek — and, more proximately, the show’s opening two-parter aboard the Shenzhou — that’s just not what Starfleet is, and so much of Sunday’s episode revolves around people trying to reshape themselves to fit Lorca’s requirements. Burnham has the clearest sense of how to do this, acting with a clarity perhaps born of her previous failure. Stamets exists in a perpetual state of near insubordination. Saru’s very nature as prey instead of predator makes it hard for him to function in any terms other than those of absolute loyalty to Lorca.
And Landry – well, Landry is the saddest case of them all. As played by Rekha Sharma – late of the Battlestar Galactica reboot – the commander doesn’t come across as a militaristic true believer in the same way Lorca is. Sharma suggests an officer who has so entirely internalized her captain’s hard-edged demands she no longer has any sense of purpose. We learn pretty much nothing about Landry beyond her distaste for Vulcan proverbs, as every other line in Sunday’s episode is repeating something Lorca has said.
That, incidentally, speaks to the biggest weakness of “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” – well, other than the show’s continued commitment to the Klingon side of the story, which is charitably described as fitfully interesting. Landry’s death makes some sense thematically but barely registers emotionally. There’s no real character development, no reason for the audience to connect with her, beyond some shorthanded sense that she is straining under her captain’s pressure.
This is an episode that offers plenty to think about – and not just meta-commentary about what Star Trek ought to mean, but deeper questions about the interplay between scientific discovery and the necessities of war – but it offers far less to feel.
Landry’s death also makes a small cast feel still more claustrophobic. Discovery has the smallest regular cast of any Trek series with just six people – one of whom hasn’t even appeared yet, and we’re four episodes in! – and Landry was one of the few recurring characters aboard the ship the show had put even passing effort into developing. Burnham and Lorca are compelling characters with terrific actors behind them, and Saru, Stamets, and Cadet Tilly have all shown promise as supporting players, but for Discovery to be something worth investing in, there needs to be a sense of deeper ensemble, an idea of how these characters interconnect and exist within this grim, perilous corner of the Star Trek universe.
Ultimately, there’s a deeper question that comes out of all this. Yes, Discovery is a cruelly ironic thing to name this show, as a bunch of wide-eyed explorers committed to Starfleet’s ideals find themselves commanded by a man pushing them in a very different direction. The war with the Klingons has created this situation, but the captain does not come across as someone who cast aside a lifetime of exploration six months ago in order to wage war. Discovery has given us plenty of insight into what created Burnham, and at least some sense of what created Saru, Stamets, and Tilly. But what, exactly, created Lorca? Based on the trailer for next week, an answer may be coming very soon.
If you liked this article, check out this video on why the Klingons look so different on Star Trek: Discovery.