Following last week's excellent Discovery character study, this episode brings us back to the plot. Discovery follows the coordinates given them by Adira Tal, bringing them to what remains of the Federation. As I wrote in my notes: "Discovery finds Starfleet, and finds a remote, paranoid bunch who doesn't know what to do with them."
Which is understandable, after 930 years and the civilization-destroying chaos of the Burn. Still, it's a bit sad and discouraging to see how they are treated, especially given the infectious enthusiasm shown by the crew as they arrive at Federation headquarters. It's behind a protective distortion field, and as the ship penetrates it we're given a tour of what the fleet looks like these days: There's a Voyager-J, and in a touching tribute to the Ferengi character from Deep Space Nine and the late actor who played him, the USS Nog. There's also a "flying rain forest," Tilly announces excitedly, almost jumping up and down; and ships with detachable nacelles and organic hulls. Saru, Burnham and Adira Tal are beamed aboard the center station. They meet Admiral Vance, Starfleet commander, who comes across as a skeptical, stuffed-shirt sort of fellow. He informs them the crew must be debriefed, and we're given snippets of the debriefing with various characters. Most of this is wacky as all get-out, especially with Hugh Culber's trying to explain to the embodied AIs doing the debriefing how he was murdered and got better. The great Tig Notaro is back as Jett Reno, and she's hilarious. Nhan just recites her name, rank and serial number, daring the AI interrogating her to do something about it. At the end of the debrief, Admiral Vance says he still doesn't trust that they're not pirates or members of the Emerald Chain, an Andorian/Orion crime syndicate (especially since Discovery was reported destroyed in 2258, which we were shown at the end of the second season) and he proposes requisitioning the ship and breaking up the crew.
(A side plot: the Empress Georgiou is also debriefed, first by the AIs and then by a character played by horror director David Cronenberg, of all people, and it is made clear that they know she is from the Mirror Universe. Georgiou bats her over-the-top false eyelashes at the AIs in a pattern that disrupts and fragments them into nothingness, and David Cronenberg's character, named Kovich according to Imbd, is left to carry on. He informs Georgiou that the Terran Empire also fell, and the Mirror Universe has separated from this one to the point that no one has crossed over in five hundred years. Normally no one rattles Philippa the Merciless, but this guy succeeds in doing so, as we see later when Michael tries to talk to her in the hallway and she is just standing there staring into space. Something is going on with her, and I expect we will find out what it is.)
This doesn't set well with Michael Burnham, who sees a way to prove themselves: a race called the Kili has refugees onboard the station, and they are dying from a mysterious illness. Turns out on their way here, they visited a planet that was irradiated centuries ago, and ate native plants that infected them with brain-destroying prions. But there is a Federation seed vault in a nearby sector, carrying plants harvested from said planet before their mutation, and an antidote can be made from those. However, it's too far away and there isn't enough dilithium to get there...except, you know, the new ship on the block has its own Magical Mystery Tour...err, Magical Mushroom Drive. At first, Admiral Vance is going to download Discovery's specs and send a crew of his own on the mission, but Michael points out they are under a severe time constraint (four hours before the Kili are beyond help) and they don't have time to teach a new crew to operate a thousand-year-old ship. So the Admiral grants her permission to take Discovery and go (with his security chief on board to monitor, and leaving Saru behind essentially as a hostage).
Discovery jumps to the seed vault's last known position, to find it caught in the middle of an ion storm. After some fancy footwork and piloting from Tilly, Owosekun and Detmer, the seed vault is hauled out by Discovery's tractor beam, and Burnham, Culber and Nhan (who is chosen after Burnham discovers the last people taking their turn to guard the vault were Barzan, Nhan's species) beam aboard. They discover the Barzan family....or rather, what remains of the family, as the mother and two daughters are in stasis, unfortunately dead; and the father, who attacks Michael as she tries to get into the inner seed vault and find what they came there for, seems to be "out of phase," flickering in and out of reality. The crew brainstorm as to what might have caused this, and it falls to the trio of Stamets, Reno and Tilly to figure out that the seed vault was near a star that suffered a coronal mass ejection. The resultant radiation killed the family, and since the father, Dr. Attis, was in the midst of beaming into the inner vault when the wave swept across the ship, he was thrown out of phase and has been haunting the vault ever since.
(This scene is hilarious, by the way. The three of them bicker and needle each other and work together wonderfully. "Your relationship isn't very professional," remarks Lieutenant Willa, the Starfleet person assigned to watch them.
"It's how we work," says Stamets.
"I've been trying to raise the bar," mutters Reno.
After the technobabble that solves the problem:
"Dysfunction is the team," bubbles Tilly.
"We've just accepted it," Stamets pronounces.
"No we haven't," mutters Reno.
These three ought to take it on the road.)
Dr. Attis is brought back into phase, and it falls to Michael to talk to him and convince him that while nothing can be done for his family, finding the unmutated seeds will help others. He locates the seeds and then refuses to leave the vault and his family behind, though it will mean his death. Burnham has to take Discovery back to Starfleet, but she doesn't want to abandon the seed vault and its living history; so Nhan volunteers to stay.
(I really didn't like that plot twist, however. The scene is touching and well written, but it seems like we learn something about the bridge crew or other side characters only when they're written out. It happened with Airiam, the cyborg who was killed off last season, and it happened to Nhan, although admittedly she had a few more lines and scenes than Airiam--she was fighting at Empress Georgiou's side during the second season climax, for example. But that's an unwelcome trend I wish they would stop. I want to learn about the entire bridge crew--Detmer and Owosekun, Bryce and Rhys, and even Linus the Walking Six Snotty Sinuses--without them having one episode where their pasts and/or their cultures are revealed and they're never seen again.)
After Discovery brings the seeds back and the Kili are cured, Admiral Vance gives in and says he will keep the crew together. Burnham pumps him about the cause of the Burn--he says there are many theories, but no one knows. The episode ends with Burnham and Saru on Discovery, looking out at the Federation's woefully small flotilla of ships, and musing that they, carrying the banner of Starfleet's past, can bring hope to its future. Saru is still holding on to Starfleet's ideals, while Michael says that the Federation is its people.
This episode had a nice furthering of the plot, while making clear that Starfleet and the Federation is a shell of its former self. I suspect Discovery's relationship with it will be uneasy and unsettled for some time to come.