Star Trek: Discovery got good on its first post-hiatus episode, and perplexingly, it did so by dropping two plot twists that many viewers had seen coming a mile away. But this week's Discovery subtly inflected those twists with character and thematic notes that suggest genuinely intriguing execution down the road. “Despite Yourself” sets up what promises to be a much stronger back half for Discovery’s first season, full of drama and excitement. It’s great.
Where we last left it, Discovery had spore-jumped into an unknown region of space, and “Despite Yourself” wastes no time in revealing exactly where they’ve jumped. As many speculated, it’s the Mirror Universe, and if the crew wants to get their hyper-sensitive Klingon cloaking intelligence back to Starfleet, they’ll need to first find a way back to the Prime universe. That’ll take tracking down the U.S.S. Defiant (making an appearance in its third Star Trek series, after The Original Series and Enterprise) and, more immediately, blending in to the Mirror Universe.
The show wrings a ton of mileage out of the fish-out-of-water element here - both comedic and dramatic. It’s a delight to hear what roles each crew member plays in the mirror universe, and the revelation that Sylvia Tilly is the much-feared captain of the I.S.S. Discovery is chief among those delights. Mary Wiseman has some real fun playing Prime Tilly playing Mirror Tilly, spouting ridiculously, self-consciously aggressive dialogue (perhaps acknowledging her controversial F-bomb from earlier in the season). So too does Jason Isaacs, adopting a Scottish accent in pretending to be Discovery’s engineer for one all-too-short scene, before ending up in the mirror Shenzhou's Agoniser-filled brig. And Sonequa Martin gets some of the meatiest acting on the show yet, forced to play the part of a ruthless captain amongst an obsequious, backstabbing crew that slow-claps whenever a crewmember kills another.
Discovery’s depiction of the Mirror Universe could have stopped at the weird militarism, silly costumes, hedonism, and goatees, but the writers took it further - in ways that justify many of the painstaking setups from the season’s front half. Given the depiction of the Klingon Empire as a militaristic force bent on racial purity, the Mirror Universe’s Terran Empire becomes all the more significant. Much screen time is given to descriptions of the mirror human race as racist xenophobes - and the alliance of the Vulcans, Klingons, Andorians, and others as persecuted rebels - which in a sense finally makes the Mirror Universe feel like a true mirror. Only Discovery has truly set up a Prime opposite to the Terran Empire, and a Mirror opposite to the Federation, and it should hopefully make for some fascinating ethical investigations. That tightness in your chest? That’s anticipation and excitement that Star Trek: Discovery might have something to say about today’s increasingly xenophobic political climate. Let’s do this.
The duality between mirror humans and Prime Klingons hits even harder when you consider poor Lt. Ash Tyler, the subject of the episode’s other - even longer-awaited - plot twist. We’d all long suspected that Tyler and the mysteriously-disappeared Klingon Voq were one and the same, whether because of their Clark Kent/Superman switcheroo, or because Voq actor “Javid Iqbal” always seemed like an alias for Tyler actor Shazad Latif. But it’s confirmed! Tyler is Voq, having undergone what seems like incredibly painful, Gattaca-like skeletal and cosmetic surgery and had a covert identity installed in his brain.
Again, the suspicion with Tyler’s secret identity was that he’d simply get re-activated and start doing dastardly deeds around the ship. That’d be the obvious way to do it - frankly, it’s how most prior Star Treks would’ve done it. But Tyler’s human identity has become dear to him, and for whatever reason, the Klingon brainwashing hasn’t reactivated him properly, creating a real internal crisis for the character. Tyler is a reprogrammed sleeper agent struggling with his own nature, who wants both to serve Starfleet as a human and to do right by his beloved handler L’Rell as a Klingon (as depicted in a compelling, surprisingly erotic scene in the Discovery brig). Riddled with PTSD and self-doubt, Tyler’s suddenly the most interesting character on the show - and a unique counterpart to Burnham, herself trapped between human genetics and Vulcan upbringing (not to mention her difficulties portraying her Mirror counterpart). That they’re coupled together highlights Discovery’s focus on identity, and I can’t wait to see where that goes.
Meanwhile, Lt. Stamets gets the real short end of the stick in “Despite Yourself.” Not only is he in a catatonic stupor (and a force field) for the bulk of the episode; he gets just one last kiss with boyfriend Dr. Culber before Culber’s neck gets unceremoniously snapped. In addition to being a sad repetition of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, it robs the show of one of its few properly level-headed, calmly competent characters. Rest in peace, Dr. Culber; we’ll miss you. Fingers crossed Stamets’ space-fungus magic can bring you back somehow.
Moving forward, we’ve got a mission to the Defiant to look forward to (boy, if the Discovery crew walk the halls of a ‘60s-style Constitution-class starship, that’ll be some wild aesthetic whiplash), as well as a handful of new narrative threads to tug on. Tyler, Burnham, Lorca, and Tilly all have interesting directions in which to go. Stamets’ rambling about a “palace” will surely have some significance, and I for one look forward to the inevitable return of Rainn Wilson or, better in all ways, Michelle Yeoh as the Terran Emperor. There’s also every indication that the Mirror Discovery has taken the Prime Discovery’s place in “our” universe*, surely complicating matters. Among the core cast, only Lt. Saru has little interesting to do, but that will surely change once the Terrans catch wind of him.
As a longtime Star Trek fan, I’m super-pumped about the direction Discovery is heading now. It’s finally starting to acknowledge established continuity, it’s pushing its characters in interesting directions, and it’s taking the Mirror Universe seriously, which is kind of a novelty. Hopefully the confidence and pace director Jonathan Frakes (!) brought to “Despite Yourself” carries through into subsequent episodes. Maybe I’m just excited about continuity porn and fanservice (unsettling, given how much I adored The Last Jedi’s aversion to such things), but as the kids say, I am here for it.
* Is the Prime universe even our universe? The way things are headed, I’m not sure whether we’ll end up like the Federation, or like the Empire