This was the last episode before Discovery's midseason break, to allow for more episodes of the Star Trek children's series, Prodigy (which I have watched but haven't written about yet). Discovery will return February 10 with the final six episodes of the season (assuming this season is 13 episodes as previous seasons have been).
However many episodes remain, this was a helluva sendoff. Except for the final scene, there were no space battles, explosions, pew-pew or sparks cascading onto the bridge. It was all talking and emotional reveals--and it was mesmerizing. I think this is about the best episode Discovery has ever done.
There are two storylines: the Federation assembly where everyone comes together to discuss the Anomaly and decide what to do about it, and the smaller but equally important meeting on Discovery to decide what to do about Zora. In the former, the battle lines are quickly drawn: a sizable faction of the participants, including Book, want to destroy the Dark Matter Anomaly as quickly as possible, and the scientist we saw in "The Examples," Ruon Tarka, presents them with a way to do just that. The other faction, led by Ni'Var President T'Rina and Captain Burnham, press for a peaceable first contact, to talk to the species behind the DMA and try to understand them. The thing you see right away that makes this so fascinating is that both factions are right. Book gets up and makes an emotional speech pleading with the assembly to vote to destroy the DMA, calling himself the Kwejian "speaker for the dead," and asking them to "end this now." Then Michael, once again prodded into being a sockpuppet for Federation President Rillek, stresses that the Federation has always sought out "new life and new civilizations," and asks the assembly: "We need to decide. Who do we want to be? Do we lash out blindly, no matter the risk? Or do we proceed thoughtfully, work toward the future we want to live in?" She says, "We cannot let fear define us in this moment."
This dovetails very nicely with Zora's storyline. This crisis comes when Zora manages to break down the data gained by Discovery's experiment and extrapolate the coordinates of where Species 10C is likely to be--and refuses to hand them over even after Michael's direct order, because she wishes to protect the crew. This causes Dr. Kovich to be sent to the ship to talk to her, with the authority to extract her consciousness from the ship if she refuses to cooperate. Stamets is also shaken by Zora's actions; he's remembering what happened with Control and is terrified by Zora's having gained full sentience and having access to all of Discovery's systems, so she could do whatever she wants and no one could stop her. He's right, and Zora acknowledges this: she's really coming into her own as a character, and Annabelle Wallis' voice work for her is spot on. Recognizing Stamets' and Kovich's concerns, Zora comes up with a compromise: she creates a failsafe that would terminate her consciousness if she steps out of line.
Adira and Gray have joined the meeting at this point, arguing for Zora; since Culber is also there with Stamets, we have Discovery's little rainbow family taking the opposite sides of this issue. Adira says that the Trill wanted to kill her when they learned she was the first human to accept a symbiote: "They realized they had to work on acceptance, which is exactly what we should be doing with Zora." Saru also points out "anyone on this ship could be a threat if they so chose," including him, which Stamets objects to: "I know you. I know your values. And there are disciplinary measures if you step out of line." Kovich, meanwhile, is a more than a little surprised that Zora was able to create the failsafe to begin with, as this would seem to go against her primary operating parameters. He asks Zora what those are, and she replies: "To care for the crew of Discovery." Stamets asks who gave her those parameters, and she says: "I did."
They immediately run a diagnostic: Zora's systems are normal, but Adira spots a tiny area "that doesn't share any known syntax." Zora insists she did not create it and does not know what it is. Adira opens it up, and we see scenes from past episodes appear: Discovery's coming to the future, encountering the sphere, shots of the crew connecting, interacting, hugging each other. Culber says: "It's Zora's subconscious. I think they may be dreams. She's filtering the sphere data and her own experience through her new emotional understanding."
Saru: "These images are a window into what she values and prioritizes."
Culber: "Connection. Love. This is who she is. This is why she kept the coordinates from us."
Kovich notes that AIs cannot dream unless they've been programmed to do so, and Zora states that she is beyond being a "simple artificial intelligence." Adira says: "Like an entirely new life form." Zora says: "Yes. And this is where I belong. This crew is my family."
The next scene is the climax of both storylines, and it's beautifully edited together to give the episode its emotional punch. The focus is on Burnham and Stamets, with the camera circling them as Burnham argues before the Federation assembly and Stamets tries to get through to Zora.
Burnham: "Our experiences shape us. That's what makes this so difficult."
Stamets: "I'd like to trust you, Zora, just like I trust the rest of the crew. I want to get there, but it's really hard."
Burnham: "Before we head down a path that could lead to destruction, on both sides, we need to reach first for understanding."
Stamets: "I'm trying to understand you. Trying to get my head around how they can be so okay with this and I'm not."
Burnam: "For generations the Federation has sought out new life, new civilizations, not to destroy but to connect, even in the face of uncertainty. And we are not all Federation members, but those ideals can still guide us. Especially now. We cannot let fear define us in this moment."
Stamets: "Trust is a choice, and I can make that choice if it goes both ways."
Burnham: "We're all in this together. Wherever we come from, whatever our experiences. That's the only way we can get through this."
Stamets: "The only way we'll move forward is together. And that means you need to trust us too, Zora. We need those coordinates."
Burnham states what I referenced earlier, about deciding who they want to be, and Book jumps in: "We don't have the luxury of asking philosophical questions right now. What matters is the actions we take. Stopping this thing today."
Burnham: "There are different points of view in this room, I know. But I hope when a decision is reached, whatever it is, that we can hold together. That we can move forward as a united front."
Zora considers Stamets' words and realizes the Discovery crew has also always acted with care for others. She releases the coordinates. Stamets comes to talk to Kovich as he's making his final determination, which is that Zora is a new life form and is not bound by Starfleet's prohibition against integrated AI. Since Stamets' concern about Zora was that she is outside the chain of command and not accountable, he proposes that she join Starfleet as a specialist, taking the same oath as the rest of the crew. Kovich says he will support this, and Stamets asks Zora if she'd like to join Starfleet. After her immediate affirmative reply, Stamets dismantles the failsaife. And the assembly takes its vote, and votes to attempt a peaceful first contact, and Book leaves.
There's another crucial scene where we find out just what Ruon Tarka's motives are in all this. At first he barges into the assembly the same blustery egotistical asshole we've seen before, presenting his weapon that will sever the anomaly from its power source and destroy it (never mind that this weapon, which would produce a "cascading subspace burst" via an "isolytic explosion" that was banned centuries ago under the Khitomer Accords), but when Book corners him just before the vote is taken, the truth comes out.
Book: "Why do you care so much about this?"
Tarka: "What, I can't want the DMA destroyed just like any other good galactic citizen?"
Book: "Good citizens aren't worried about finding their moment, and aren't gutted at the idea of losing it."
Tarka: "The power source that controls the device, I need it....to go home."
"You said you were from Risa."
"My new home. It's...far. Another universe, in fact."
"The mirror universe?"
"You say that like it's the only other option. There are countless parallel universes, each with its own quantum signature. He knew of one. No war, no Burn, no Emerald Chain. A place where we could be free and at peace."
"Who's 'we'?" Book asks.
"A friend. A scientist, like me. We were held in the same lab. Osyraa had us working on dilithium alternatives for years. But he was relentlessly optimistic. Eventually it rubbed off on me and we had a plan. We knew exactly how much power we needed to cross the gap between universes."
"I escaped, he didn't. Or maybe he did. Maybe he's there. We said that if we ever got separated, that's where we'd meet."
"Anyway, I have to go home. I have to keep our promise. The DMA will be destroyed, the power source won't, and we'll both get what we need."
Needless to say, this throws an entirely new light on Tarka's character. I'm wondering if this unnamed "friend" is the wheelchair-bound scientist we saw last season working for the leader of the Emerald Chain, Osyraa. I'm also wondering, given how Tarka talked about him, if he isn't quite a bit more than just a "friend."
At any rate, all this leads to the scene at the very end that provides the episode's action and the setup for the rest of the season. After the vote, Tarka steals the next-generation spore drive and transports to Book's ship with it. It's a small box of programmable matter that melts right into Book's console, leaving two apertures for his hands to use for the actual jump. Book says he has "one more thing to do" before they leave, and we cut to Burnham entering her quarters, where to her surprise she finds Book's cat Grudge sitting there in her carrier. She picks up a message chip and words flash across the screen: "I love you, Michael. Please take care of my girl." She immediately realizes what's going on and transports to the shuttle bay, too late: Book's ship clears Discovery's shuttle bay, spins up the spore drive, and vanishes.
This episode was just fantastic. It brought together all the storylines: the Anomaly, Book, Zora, even Adira and Gray (Gray leaves aboard the Trill shuttle to begin his training as a Guardian, and we see a sweet shot of all four of them--Stamets, Culber, Adira and Gray--hugging) and pays them off beautifully. It talks about the importance of trust, in Stamets' and Zora's case, and the importance of conquering fear and living up to the ideals of the Federation, in the Assembly's. And it does it all without an explosion in sight. I haven't watched Apple TV's adaptation of Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, but one common complaint I've read about them is that they've injected too much action into what is essentially a series of stories about people sitting around talking. Maybe the Foundation people ought to be looking at this episode, to see exactly how "sitting around talking" can be done.