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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ returns with a refreshing yet retro mid-season premiere
Our recap of episode 10, ‘Despite Yourself.’
Warning: This story contains spoilers for the Star Trek: Discovery season 1 episode “Despite Yourself.”
Death! Resurrections! Makeover montages! It’s all happening! Star Trek: Discovery returned with one of its strongest episodes to date, confirming two plot twists that work whether you predicted them or not. The U.S.S. Discovery is now trapped in the Mirror Universe, and Ash Tyler has begun to realize that “he” doesn’t actually exist—he’s a false personality in a surgically altered body, created so the Klingon leader Voq could infiltrate Starfleet.
The Mirror Universe is a long-established alternate timeline where Earth rules an evil empire, but instead of aiming for a darker tone, Discovery (gloriously) went for fish-out-of-water comedy. In this universe, the dorky Cadet Tilly is Discovery’s captain, known by a selection of bloodthirsty nicknames including the Slayer of Sorna Prime. Other Mirror captains include Connor (an ensign who died in episode 2) and Michael Burnham. Captains tend to skew younger in this universe, and we can easily infer why: They climb the ranks by assassinating their predecessors. Did Burnham murder Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and inherit her ship, or is Georgiou still around? My money’s on her turning out to be the Terran Empire’s mysterious ruler.
This episode follows a grand tradition of Mirror Universe stories, which are typically an excuse to do two things: resurrect dead characters and make everyone wear evil glam-goth outfits. Discovery‘s Mirror costumes are outstanding, combining gold shoulder pads and boob armor with a convenient lack of coverage for your vital organs. (If you can’t defend yourself in a knife fight, you don’t deserve to be in command anyway.) As is often the case, the whole situation is Lorca’s fault. By secretly disrupting a spore drive jump in episode 9, he gave Stamets neurological damage and effectively crashed the ship. He was probably motivated by a desire to retain command of his ship, but there’s another possibility: He may be from the Mirror Universe himself. There have been a few hints in this direction already (for instance, a scar that could come from a Mirror Universe “agonizer“), but I’m hoping that’s a red herring. “Lorca is screwed up due to complicated personal reasons” is a more interesting character arc than “Lorca is his own evil twin.”
Speaking of which, our next storyline involves a classic Mirror Universe trope: impersonating your own evil counterpart. Mirror Lorca is a wanted fugitive, and Mirror Burnham disappeared while trying to catch him. This gives them the perfect opening to impersonate their alternate selves. Why? Well, mostly because it’s fun to watch. The actual reason is so they can find information on another Starfleet ship that got stuck in the Mirror Universe. It’s unclear why they embarked on a perilous undercover mission instead of researching this on Space Google, but whatever. Burnham, Lorca and Tyler beam across to the Mirror Shenzhou, where Lorca is promptly locked in a torture chamber, Burnham assumes command after killing Connor (in self-defense!), and Tyler continues to grapple with his fracturing personality.
Tyler joined that mission on a worrying note. After confronting the imprisoned L’Rell, she tried to use Klingon phrases to trigger his (Voq’s) underlying personality. It didn’t work, but it worsened Tyler’s flashbacks and led him to seek treatment with Dr. Culber—who already had a lot on his plate with Stamets. Culber discovered that Tyler went through massive surgical procedures during his time with the Klingons, and when he advised Tyler to take medical leave, Tyler snapped his neck.
Culber’s death comes as a shock, not least because it falls under the “bury your gays” trope. When Star Trek introduced its first same-sex couple, this was an immediate concern. TV dramas have an ugly habit of killing off queer characters, and Culber (seemingly) only survived half of Discovery‘s first season. In turn, this folds into a cumulative problem from earlier episodes. Discovery boasts the most diverse cast in Star Trek history, but it also killed off two women of color in the first few episodes, and now Dr. Culber. CBS heavily promoted the groundbreaking nature of Stamets and Culber’s relationship, but it feels like they had about five seconds of domestic bliss before one of them got horribly injured and the other one died.
The good news is, we probably haven’t seen the last of Culber. The showrunners and actor Wilson Cruz already gave several interviews hinting that Culber will return, and his love story with Stamets isn’t over. Does this mean we’ll meet Culber’s Mirror Universe counterpart? Whatever the explanation, Culber fans shouldn’t abandon the show in disgust just yet. Many of Discovery‘s growing pains came from the show following a serialized story that requires several episodes of patience before an emotional payoff. We’re just not used to seeing that with Star Trek in the same way that we’re unused to the kind of dark (and, let’s be real, humorless) content of earlier episodes. It’s not the kind of show where things get wrapped up in a single episode, but whatever the outcome with Dr. Culber, fans do have a valid reason be annoyed. Even if it’s only temporary, a queer character death plays into damaging trends for this type of show, where “anyone” can die, but certain demographics seem safer than others.
In the wake of The Last Jedi, I’ve come to appreciate Discovery‘s unpredictability even more. Both inspired fan backlash because they make unexpected choices, but when you dig deep, they still have a thorough understanding of the source material. Admittedly Discovery got off to a shakier start. But given the longer format, that’s allowable. With the Mirror Universe, we reach a comfortable meeting point between familiar and unfamiliar Star Trek ideas. This episode was unabashedly tropey in the same way as episode 8’s “planet of the week” concept, reframing classic material through Discovery‘s lens.
After the dark moments earlier in the season, the Mirror Universe’s dystopian setting feels intentionally ridiculous. Everyone here is a cartoon supervillain, complete with wildly overblown threats and ostentatious fashion choices. It lends itself well to comedy, hence the genius choice of making Tilly pretend to be a murderous tyrant. (I eagerly await our first Evil Goatee, by the way.) With one caveat about Culber’s hopefully temporary demise, this was a strong start to a new chapter. It’s not easy to land a plot twist like Tyler/Voq and have it work both before and after the big reveal, and they’re already having fun with the new setting. My ideal outcome would be Tyler/Voq abandoning his holy war in the name of love, but at this point I’ve given up trying to predict this show unless it’s actively flinging foreshadowing in my face.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.