This is the second very good Discovery episode so far this season, and also the second in a row to eschew slam-bang action to focus on the characters. These two things are related. Obviously, action and character focus are not mutually exclusive, as the season opener, "Kobayashi Maru," demonstrates. But this episode is a little slower and more introspective, and I for one loved it. (Which is why one of my favorites of the newer spate of Star Trek shows is Picard, with its elegaic pace.) The overarching galaxy-threatening mystery is still there, and dealt with in Stamets' and Booker's visit to the Ni'Var Science Academy to discuss Stamets' findings and theories. But Michael Burnham and her mother, Gabrielle, take a side trip to solve another problem that almost makes this a self-contained episode. Perhaps this is a preview of the approach that will be taken in the upcoming Strange New Worlds, the Pike/Spock/Number One show? If so, I will welcome it.
There are three main story threads here: first, the problem of dilithium shipments meant for planets being hijacked by a rogue Qowat Milat (the sword-wielding warrior nuns introduced in Star Trek: Picard). The opening shows one of said raids that ends up with a Starfleet officer being killed. At Starfleet Command, Admiral Vance meets with Burnham, President Laira Rillek and President T'Rina of Ni'var to discuss the problem. The perpetrator is named as J'Vini, and one of the Qowat Milat. This turns out to be Gabrielle Burnham, Michael's mother. She insists that J'Vini is acting as "a galankhkan for a lost cause," and must have a reason for her actions. President T'Rina also says the ways of the Qowat Milat must be respected, and Rillek, who seems to be a shrewd policitian indeed, proposes a joint mission. Michael is appointed to go with her mother, to track J'Vini (because that last shipment of dilithium had a tracker hidden in it) down and bring her to justice.
The second plot is Stamets' attempts to find out what the DMA (short for Dark Matter Anomaly, as he has named it) is so he can predict its behavior. He thinks it might be a "primordial wormhole," except that it is lacking evidence of tachyons, which appear when a wormhole forms. Since Ni'Var has already volunteered the services of its Science Academy, he ends up taking Discovery there (or Saru does, I guess, although we don't actually see them going [or any of the bridge crew, sob]--this is a very lean script, without a wasted or padded scene) while Michael takes Book's ship for her mission. Book himself is seen down in engineering helping Stamets, and asks to go with him to Ni'Var. Stamets is doubtful: "I can't bring these scientists up to speed without a clinical forensic discussion of your loss."
"I can handle it," Book says.
This is still very much an odd-couple pairing, but the breakthrough in understanding achieved between Book and Stamets last episode is apparently still holding.
The third story thread is the restoration of Gray's consciousness to his new synth body. This is done in a very hand-wavey manner as Guardian Xi can apparently perform whatever is needed via long-distance hologram from Trill? Regardless, the three of them--Adira, Gray, and Tal, Adira's symbiont--consent to the procedure.
There's also another subplot involving Tilly, who's still feeling adrift and unmoored. She goes to Saru in the first of two delightful scenes between them, saying she's trying to "step outside of her comfort zone and try new things." One of the steps in doing this is asking to water Saru's Kelpien plants. Saru says he'll look for something for her to do, and ends up suggesting that she go along on Burnham's mission. These scenes with Saru, besides affirming his and Tilly's friendship, also serve as an interesting look as to what a Number One's everyday duties aboard a starship would be, as Saru is suggesting crew assignments to his captain, following and commending Culber's efforts to help Gray ("You are doing a tremendous job, Doctor. With both jobs. Serving as medical officer and ship's counselor cannot be easy"), and just generally watching out for the crew. Saru is outstanding at this, of course. (But I still want him to have his own command, dammit.)
With the first storyline, Michael and Gabrielle take Book's ship and follow the dilithium tracker to find it on a moon orbiting a planet. Or rather inside the moon, since there is a large cavity with a breathable atmosphere. Come to find out, as the mystery unfolds, that this is not a moon but a ship: a ship with the last survivors of an alien species in cryostasis, a species whose home planet was destroyed by a supernova centuries before, and who set out for a new home aboard this moon. But upon arriving, they have not woken up as they were supposed to, and since "their biomatter is high concentrations of latinum," they were set upon by grave robbers. One of them, Taglonen, woke up during a raid and sent out a telepathic distress call to the Qowat Milat J'Vini, who was passing through the system. She went to the moon and killed the raiders, and took on this species, the Albronians, as her "lost cause." She originally asked the Federation for dilithium to restart the moonship's engines to protect the aliens if the anomaly came through the system, but as the Federation doesn't give the precious substance to individuals and J'Vini could not tell them why she wanted it without revealing the Albronians' existence, she resorted to stealing the dilithium instead.
(Which is something of a plot hole. If the Federation had known of the aliens' predicament, of course they would have come to the moonship to protect them, and also fixed whatever was wrong with the cryo systems preventing them from waking up now that they had arrived at their destination, which is what Michael ultimately ends up doing. They also might have given the aliens some dilithium anyway as an emergency fallback measure. But J'Vini didn't think about this? Of course, the Albronians are something of a red herring anyway, as we learn very little about them--they're just an excuse for more facetime with Michael and her mother, and also what I think will be a pivotal scene between Gabrielle and Tilly. This is one of those things you just have to paper over because the character work coming out of it is so good.)
Gabrielle, Michael and Tilly find the moonship's engines and shut them down, luring J'Vini out. She ang Gabrielle fight and J'Vini holds a sword to Gabrielle's throat, whereupon Michael makes a bargain to fix the aliens' cryostasis systems and begin waking them up, thus fulfilling J'Vini's oath. She does so and Gabrielle handcuffs J'Vini, taking her aboard Book's ship for justice. Gabrielle also says, "This path is at an end, J'Vini. The next path awaits," which leads into the scene I mentioned earlier with Tilly:
Tilly: "J'Vini said she was unsure of her path before she met Taglonen. And then you said there was another path ahead. The Qowat Milat are very big on the 'path' thing, right?"
Gabrielle: "Paths end and change throughout everyone's life. When we say 'choose to live,' it's an abbreviated form of a longer saying. The path you are on has come to an end--choose to live. If you find yourself at the wrong end of a Qowat Milat sword, it's pretty easy to see that particular path is over for you. You either move on to a new path and live, or you stay and die."
"What if the death is more metaphorical?"
"In everyday life, a path's end can be harder to recognize. You must be willing to look inside yourself with absolute candor."
"Another thing you're very big on," Tilly notes.
I said the Qowat Milat are warrior nuns? They're warrior-philosopher nuns, and they're fascinating.
When J'Vini is returned to Starfleet, Michael, recognizing that Gabrielle was right when she insisted that J'Vini had reasons and her reasons matter, asks for clemency in her sentencing. To her surprise, President Rillek ends up turning J'Vini over to Ni'Var President T'Rina and the Qowat Milat. Michael objects, saying the slain Starfleet officer deserves justice.
Rillek: "I agree. I also know bringing Ni'Var into the Federation will benefit millions. Justice will be served, Captain. In time."
In the Stamets/Book storyline, Stamets proposes his hypothesis to the Ni'Var Science Acadamy, and gets a bit put out when they all go into meditation to contemplate it: "Science first, nap later? I need all brains on deck here." T'Rina has to explain: "Our scientists often work in a deep meditative state to sharpen their focus and concentration." She also offers condolences and advice to a still-grieving Book, saying that while Vulcans suppress their strong emotions for a more logical approach, as an empath, Book cannot do that. After a bit, the scientists rouse and say that without evidence of tachyons, Stamets' theory is unproven. T'Rina says, "Perhaps proof may be obtained in another way. We have a witness," and proposes a mind-meld with Book, to see if there is any evidence of the telltale blue glow of tachyon-induced Chernekov radiation in his memories. Stamets objects: "You can't ask him to do that. He'd have to relive all of it." But Book agrees--not only to see if there were tachyons (there weren't) but to relive his last memory of his nephew--to see Leto looking over his shoulder and realizing Leto knew Book loved him. This eases Book's guilt and gives him peace, as we see in the final scene when Michael comes into their bedroom and Book is projecting a holo of Kwejian on the ceiling.
Finally, Gray does integrate with the synth body, and in a sweet scene when he awakens, he immediately runs to Dr. Culber and gives him a huge hug. Gray and Adira are the cutest couple.
This episode was, I think, a necessary bit of downtime before the slam-bang action starts up again later on in the season, but it was also a good script with nice character work. As I've always said, if there are interesting, well-rounded characters--and Discovery has them in spades--I can forgive a lot of sins.