REVIEW: “Despite Yourself”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episode 10 – Debuted Sunday January 7th
Written by Sean Cochran
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Star Trek: Discovery returned from a hiatus with a bang. In a fast-paced episode deftly directed by Star Trek: The Next Generation vet Jonathan Frakes, a number of the plotlines from this season paid off or at least took a step forward.
Writer Sean Cochran and Frakes balanced dark and serious content with some surprising moments of humor, especially from actress Mary Wiseman. Other actors were also upping their game, particularly Shazad Latif who gave a stunning performance as Tyler. “Despite Yourself” was some serious fun and a great way to return to Trek for this second chapter of the first season.
We aren’t in prime anymore
The episode kicks off right where the fall finale left off — with our crew lost in space in a mysterious debris field — and it don’t waste any time, getting right into an effective and very Star Treky intro. Right off the bat we are hit with technobabble about quantum signatures, an Organia name drop and a Vulcan ship (identified as “rebels”) attacking the USS Discovery.
Even if you aren’t a Kelpian, the opening scene, punctuated with appropriately ominous music, was sure to tingle your threat ganglia and immerse you back into the final frontier. I think most Trek fans weren’t surprised when Lorca put all the pieces together and posited that they weren’t in the right universe, but it was still a fun moment. And most fans probably knew what was coming next: that this wasn’t just any parallel universe, but a very specific and well-known parallel universe.
Mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror
We soon find out – thanks to data retrieved by a shaky Lt. Tyler’s space scavenging trip in a worker bee – that this universe is dominated by the “Terran Empire.” That should set off the alarm bells for any Trek fan to immediately know they are in the “Mirror Universe,” making Discovery the fourth Trek series to visit the reality populated with evil twins, some of whom have goatees.
In case you didn’t get the point, the episode relished in the trappings of the Terran Empire as the crew and ship were transformed to maintain the cover of being the “ISS Discovery,” after the real ISS Discovery apparently swapped places. Hopefully the story of what happened to that ship gets picked up later in the season. Captain “Killy” loose in the Prime Universe can’t just be swept under the space carpet.
And if you still weren’t sure they were in the Mirror Universe (MU), Burnham puts a button on it by referring to the other ship as the “Mirror Discovery.” They even got a little cute with the mirror motif, when Tilly tells the computer to turn off the holographic “mirror” after inspecting herself posing as her intimidating doppelganger. This seems to break the franchise’s previous first rule of the Mirror Universe. You can visit the Mirror Universe, but you don’t call it “Mirror.”
In fact, overall this episode seems unusually laden with exposition scenes, a Trek trope that Discovery has generally avoided. Director Frakes does his best to keep things moving with all these talky moments, although you may get a bit dizzy with overuse of the “camera circling the cast as they discuss” thing. The montage of the ship and crew trading in their standard Starfleet look for the more gaudy and marshal Terran Empire trappings was certainly fun.
Of course being Discovery, there are some differences with this Terran empire. The uniforms used are based on the prime universe Discovery uniforms, with gold armor pieces in place of gold lamé, but Mirror officers are still are adorned with an array of medals and badges. Notably, the Terran Empire symbol seems to be a bit different. But, for for the most part, so far this trip into the MU seems to fit between what we know from Enterprise and The Original Series. And those who relish continuity would surely be happy to see how “Despite Yourself” picks up on Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly” by making a mission to find files related to the USS Defiant – which showed up in the MU a century before – the MacGuffin of the plot.
Post Klingon Stress Disorder
This episode particularly moves the plot along for Lt. Tyler, who had presumably been undergoing PTSD symptoms following his capture and torture by the Klingons. His flashbacks have now gotten worse, to the point that even he knows he isn’t himself. In what may be the most powerful scene of the episode, Tyler confronts L’Rell in the brig demanding to know what she did to him. Shazad Latif and Mary Chieffo deliver a bizarre but effective combination of intimacy, anger, and mystery as she attempts to use a Klingon prayer to trigger Tyler, who is now clearly some kind of sleeper agent.
Of course, the Internet caught on long ago that there was something not quite right with Tyler, so many probably saw all of this coming. But if you didn’t, once again the episode was full of not-so-subtle clues like Saru’s threat ganglia activating the moment Tyler walks onto the bridge or the spaced-out Stamets warning that the enemy is close by. They seem to be keeping the final reveal of “who is Ash Tyler?” by leaving L’Rell’s question “What is your name?” hanging. But, we all know, right? Cough [spoiler] Cough.
The real beauty of the writing in “Despite Yourself” is that the story keeps even the most observant of us somewhat in the dark. Even if we are pretty sure we know what’s going on, the performances by Latif and Chieffo make us believe we aren’t exactly sure. L’Rell wonders why her trigger didn’t work, asking what has happened. I’ve got ten quatloos that say Tyler’s falling in love with Burnham has screwed up all the hard work of the matriarchs of Mo’Kai. And, it seems that Tyler’s blackouts are keeping him from knowing the full extent of his Klingon conditioning and actions when triggered.
He’s dead, Jim?
“Despite Yourself” was also a showcase for Wilson Cruz, who was finally able to show more range outside the context of his relationship with Lt. Stamets, who spent the entire episode confined to a bed in sickbay, lost in some kind of mycelial fugue state talking about enemies and palaces. Dr. Culber was able to out-defy his partner when it comes to taking on Lorca, calling out the captain for his B.S. The good doctor pointed to how it seems Lorca has other motives when it comes to Stamets and his abilities to navigate the ship. And Culber got to show his smarts with clever dialog like his line about imagining to Tyler: “I meant it practically and not pejoratively.”
Of course Dr. Culber’s greatest leap was being the first person to figure out that Tyler wasn’t who he appears to be and may in fact be the result of some kind of personality imprinted on a body that has gone through some radical surgeries. Figuring this out showed he may be the smartest guy on the ship. Then again, confronting Tyler with this info before informing the captain or maybe some guys armed with phasers? Not so smart.
Cruz and Latif played the confrontation scene perfectly. As the tension built to the moment, you were screaming at the TV for Culber to get the hell out of there. Star Trek: Discovery is a show that wants us to feel that there is true jeopardy for the characters, and this episode delivered on that with Tyler’s brutal neck-snap of Culber. This goal was seemingly undermined, however, with a big PR effort on the part of the showrunners to ensure everyone that Culber really “isn’t 100% dead”, and it’s kind of disappointing. We all know in Star Trek that dead isn’t always dead. However, it seems the powers that be felt it was necessary (through the official after show and a multitude of interviews with the media) to make sure people know they didn’t really kill off this character forever, possibly to avoid any backlash.
While the episode gave a lot of the other characters and actors time to shine, there was still plenty for Sonequa Martin-Green to do as she moved the plot forward, this time taking the lead through her specialty as a xeno-anthropologist. It falls on Burnham to do most of the explaining and while Martin-Green usually struggles with exposition – especially technobabble – she is able to paint the picture for the crew of the dire state they find themselves in.
Burnham and Lorca develop a deliciously crazy plan for her to pose as her evil self, the apparently dead former captain of the ISS Shenzhou. And apparently this universe didn’t have a Star Wars as they go with the “old Wookiee prisoner gag”1, with Lorca posing as his MU counterpart, who is apparently a wanted rebel. The pair of actors and characters continue to display impressive chemistry as they discuss their plans and wax philosophically about the implications of this universe revealing their true destinies.
While the Mirror Universe can be fun, we see here how writer Cochran is able to go farther and use the setting to reveal more about our characters. This is especially true of Lorca, who is always enigmatic but seems just a bit too much at home in this dark place, right down to his sexy black leather jacket. We also see this in a strong scene with Burnham – the convicted mutineer – giving a pep talk to the nervous Tilly about how it is the support of the Discovery’s crew that should give her strength, as opposed to the fear that permeates the false strength of the Terran Empire.
As Cadet Tilly reluctantly (60% terrified, 40% excited) steps into the role of Captain Killy, Burnham, Tyler and Lorca all head off to the ISS Shenzhou to obtain files on the USS Defiant, in hopes of learning how a non-mushroom-powered ship can do (or undo) a universe hop. Once on board, we get the full gamut of Mirror fun with fascist salutes, agonizer booths, and some light attempted murder. That last bit with Captain Connor – the MU version of the USS Shenzhou’s dead Ensign Connor – involved an elevator knife fight which may be the best choreographed fight scene of the show so far. Alas, poor Sam Vartholomeos returned only be killed off again, but it was a good death.
And since Discovery always has multiple plates spinning, this episode even found time to move the love story between Burnham and Tyler forward. Apparently her killing Connor and dealing with masquerading on a ship in an evil universe and him freaking out about his true nature are not enough to stop the pair from finding time to break in Burnham’s evil captain’s quarters. The love scene seemed a bit out of place, however it was important for both of their character development, and as noted before, this relationship is likely the one thing keeping Tyler as Tyler.
Hold your horses, Captain Killy
One surprise with “Despite Yourself” was the amount of humor in the episode. Usually Trek’s trips to the Mirror Universe are very serious affairs – Enterprise even swapped in a dark opening titles sequence. Cochran was able to find moments of fun without turning the episode into parody, which is a challenge in the world where the evil twin trope is a cliche.
Much of this comedy came from Mary Wiseman, who had to take on the role of Captain Tilly (aka Captain Killy) of the ISS Discovery. Her comic timing as she talks to the captain of another mirror ship was spot on. And in the same episode, Tilly delivered some of the more touching moments, including dealing with Lt. Stamets’ condition in sickbay. Wiseman continues to delight and surprise as the heart of this cast.
And speaking of comedy, both Doug Jones – with his delivery “Captain Killy? That’s not very clever” line and Jason Isaacs with his impromptu Scottish chief engineer routine showed how both of these actors have great comedy instincts.
Ready for more mirror
While “Despite Yourself” answered a number of questions and moved a number of storylines and characters forward, it was still just the beginning. It is likely that much of the back half of season one will deal with the Mirror Universe. Many questions remain open, such as: why did the ISS Shenzhou warp away from the ISS Discovery and how will they reunite, who is this enigmatic Emperor (I have my suspicion), what is the “palace” that Stamets keeps talking about, will Tyler reveal his true nature to Burnham, will we see the actual USS Defiant, and will Tilly keep her straight hair when they get back?
“Despite Yourself” continues the trend of strong episodes for the middle era of Discovery’s first season. Jonathan Frakes and Sean Cochran found a delicate balance of literally deadly consequences, with moments of fun that still find time to show the true heart of Star Trek, which is the bond of the crew as family.
Doing an episode in the Mirror Universe in the first season of the series was a risky move, as it means exploring alternative stories before establishing the main characters. It may still have been too early for Discovery to dip into the MU pool, but the fact that this episode really works showcases the showrunners’ ability to thread the needle; they may have developed their characters well enough to take this chance. “Despite Yourself” has certainly effectively set up the rest of the first season, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.