REVIEW: “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episode 8 – Debuted Sunday November 5th
Written by Kirsten Beyer
Directed by John S. Scott
Star Trek: Discovery goes exploring, giving Doug Jones a chance to stretch his hooves and grow the character of Saru on a truly strange new world. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” evokes a number of classic Star Trek episodes, which comes as no surprise from first-time TV screenwriter Kirsten Beyer, author of multiple Trek novels and “keeper of the canon” within the Discovery writer’s room. Together with director John S. Scott, she delivers the most emotional episode of the series so far. And true to the title (which translates as “If you want peace, prepare for war.”) this episode feels like preparation for next weekend’s mid-season finale and a big confrontation with the Klingons.
Party time is over
After having some fun in the last episode with some actual disco and a visit from Harry Mudd, this week’s quickly sets a new tone by kicking things off in the middle of a frantic space battle with the USS Discovery jumping in to save the USS Gagarin. Jason Isaacs is in his element as Lorca barks orders to a crew that still seems unprepared for war as they struggle to find Klingon targets and protect the other ship. In the end, the Gagarin is destroyed and the Discovery spores out before it is next.
The shipboard scenes are mostly a sideline for this exploration-focused episode, but we do learn a bit more about what is going on with Lt. Stamets. We have moved past the groovy stage and are now starting to see there is some price to be paid for the tardigrade DNA injections as he appears to be losing touch with reality, or possibly time. Ever-nosy but helpful Tilly has swooped in to help monitor these changes. In a brief but surprisingly heart-breaking scene Anthony Rapp nails it as a man in a no-win situation. Just like with the reintroduction of the war, the message here is, the Stamets party is over too.
After another fun briefing where Lorca gets insubordinate with an admiral, the early scenes effectively set up the dilemma for the episode, and perhaps more. The tide seems to be turning against Starfleet, who are struggling to counter the invisible cloaking technology, now being widely deployed by Kol. As Lorca intones “There will be time to grieve. This is not that time,” we know the clock is ticking on this war. Even the secret weapon that is the USS Discovery isn’t enough, they need a game changer.
Talk to the cloud
In this episode Team Game Changer is Saru, Burnham and Tyler who have been left on a planet called Pandora Pahvo to figure a way to turn a giant singing crystal thing into a giant cloaked ship detector. After some fun banter teaching us a bit more about Kelpians – they can run 80 kph and have super-senses – the team soon find out that this uninhabited world is not so uninhabited after all.
In a classic Star Trek moment we find out that not only is there intelligent life on this planet, it appears the whole planet is some kind of single sentience that manifests itself to the crew as a sort of swirling glowy cloud. Not only that, but Pahvo seems to be like its own little Federation as it seeks harmony with all the elements of the planet and hopes to reach out and make contact with the rest of the universe. And as a side-note, it was a delight to finally hear someone on this show say “Greetings, we are explorers from the Federation Starship Discovery.”
And this was not a planet with forehead-alien of the week. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” introduces us to something that feels unique and was effective in driving both the plot and character stories for the season. It was an interesting and daring choice to not have the alien entity ever fully materialize into some kind of form or even ever overtly speak. Pahvo is truly a strange new world that was worthy to visit.
Again with the Klingons
This is another episode where Klingons get some focus, possibly too much as they often drag things down with Discovery. We were promised that this over-arching war story would reveal more insight and empathy for the Klingon perspective. Yet, for the most part they are just joyless thugs yelling at each other. That being said, Mary Chieffo’s L’Rell is an exception as her nuanced portrayal of L’Rell continues to intrigue. This time we have this admitted weaver of lies show up on her old Sarcophagus ship, trying to weasel her way into Kol’s trust as a ruse to get her into a room with Admiral Cornwell, who was captured at the end of episode 6.
L’Rell’s motivations remain a mystery. We certainly do believe her when she calls Kol a “petaQ” with no honor. But, are we buying L’Rell’s desire to defect with Cornwell? Does she possibly have other motivations to get on board the USS Discovery? These questions are deliciously left unresolved through some scenes with good dynamic with Jayne Brook, who continues to surprise as Admiral Corwell. Hopefully, even though we last see her seemingly lifeless body dragged around the ship, this isn’t the end of Corwell’s story on Discovery.
Dances with Saru
Back on Pahvo, it isn’t clear how aware this sentient-planet-group-consciousness was of other life in the galaxy. Burnham hand-waves away any issues with the Prime Directive saying now that everyone has met, they might as well jump to First Contact protocol and try to convince this peaceful harmonious planet/being to become an an ally in a war it has nothing to do with. What could possibly go wrong?
After spending some quality alone time with Pahvo, Saru takes a different view. Doug Jones stretches his acting chops here as he is transformed into a suspiciously cheerful and confident Saru. We soon learn that Kelpians are crazy strong as he crushes the team’s communicators with a smile, offering “Do not be alarmed. These are no longer necessary.” It turns out he is now one with Pahvo and they are all going to stay and be happy, peaceful, harmonious and free of fear.
But Burham has other plans as she returns to the mission to use the crystal tower, leaving Tyler behind to distract Saru who is tripping harder on harmony than Stamets on space shrooms. Saru gives chase to Burnham, showing his inner gazelle as he runs through the forest, with effective cuts between live action and effects making us believe the amazing speeds he can achieve. He also can deliver a mean donkey-kick.
The final confrontation between Burnham and Saru is gut-wrenching as he tells her that she keeps taking things away from him. We soon find out that Saru isn’t being possessed by the planet as it brings Tyler over to join the crowd. We later find out that Saru had been transformed through the planet’s harmony draining him of all fear, a constant for his prey species. It was the real (albeit “compromised”) Saru that turned on Michael and the mission, all to hold on to the peace of Pahvo, and to keep it out of the war.
The going native storyline has been seen before in Trek, such as with Spock in “This Side of Paradise.” But this episode didn’t feel like a copy and in fact dug even deeper revealing much about Saru. We believe and ache as he tells Michael “My whole life I have never known a moment without fear.” His reaction to fear-free bliss provided by Pahvo may be more evocative of how Data was tempted by the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact or how Odo was drawn to the Great Link throughout Deep Space Nine. And when a character is drawing favorable comparisons to Spock, Data and Odo, you know that Discovery is truly coming into its own. Doug Jones shines in this episode as he finds ways to express all the needed range of emotions through the layers of prosthetics.
Pahvo is for lovers
On top of everything else going on in this episode was some more romance with Burnham and Tyler. Martin-Green and Latif go through the motions as they further their romantic bond. Things certainly seem a bit rushed when Tyler suggests abandoning the mission and the war if it means keeping Burnham from returning to prison. Beyer then provides some fan service by using the Vulcan “needs of the many” aphorism to lead the the pair’s first kiss (at least in this timeline).
Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones have shown excellent chemistry since the pilot, especially when they fall into their bickering sibling dynamic. This tension only increased as Saru is compromised by the planet. Poor Shazad Latif and his Lt. Tyler almost feel like a third wheel on this mission. Without the need to further the Tyler/Burnham romance arc for the season, the episode may have been stronger with just Burnham and Saru on Pahvo.
OK, who called the Klingons?
Things wrap up quickly back on board the Discovery. Turns out Planet Pahvo has decided that it’s time for the Klingons and the Federation to have a nice chat. So, instead of a Klingon detector, they turned Pahvo into a Klingon attractor… oops. We still don’t fully understand Pahvo. It is a classic super-powerful force, but we still don’t know what its intentions are on the spectrum of others like Organians, Metrons, the Borg and others.
At just over 41 minutes, the episode feels a bit short and in some ways like the first part of a two-part finale. It’s a good thing that CBS decided to move episode nine up as even though “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” was a strong outing, it would not have sufficed as the mid-season finale.
The middle portion of this first season of Star Trek: Discovery continues to deliver solid episodes. Maybe not as good as the last couple of outings, but “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” provided excellent character development, a welcome return to exploration, and dynamic action, all presented within a classic Star Trek framework. The anticipation it sets up for the fall finale next weekend is almost too much to bear without a sentient planet to take away the anxiety.
Random thoughts and easter eggs
- Second episode in a row with no intro/teaser.
- USS Gagarin presumably named after first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
- Tribble is back on Lorca’s desk.
- Singing blue plants of Pahvo are reminiscent of those on Talos IV in “The Cage.”
- Did the Pahvo cloud make anyone else think of Melllvar?
Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access on in the US and airs in Canada on the Space Channel. It is available on Netflix outside the USA and Canada.
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