REVIEW: “Vaulting Ambition”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episode 12 – Debuted Sunday January 21st
Written by Jordon Nardino
Directed by Hanelle Culpepper
Things heat up in the third episode of the mini-arc that began with the return of Discovery earlier this month. Some familiar faces return including Michelle Yeoh, who is back in a big way, bringing a different kind of performance and driving much of this fast-paced episode. As we go deeper into this arc, the tone of the show continues to get darker, with some of the season’s grimmest moments coming in “Vaulting Ambition.”
This episode also continues the pattern of using the back half of the season to pay off several long-running arcs, this time answering a major question that has had fans talking since episode 3. Jason Isaacs once again produces a powerful performance as he adds yet another layer to the character of Captain Lorca. Anthony Rapp is also a standout, as his Paul Stamets is tasked to carry a lot of the emotional load for the episode, and more.
With this episode, one thing is for sure: the party is over.
“Vaulting Ambition” begins with a tight intro with what is likely Discovery’s most interesting character chemistry pair, Captain Lorca and Michael Burnham. They quickly remind us of the the plot device that has carried through this Mirror Universe arc: they need that USS Defiant data if they are ever going to get home, and the bit of data they got off the Shenzhou was not enough, so off to the Emperor’s ginormous palace/flagship they go.
The real meat of this teaser is how Burnham continues to struggle under the tests the Mirror Universe is throwing at her. She is heading to face an Emperor Georgiou, but can’t shake the memories of her mutinous behavior and betrayal of her mentor, Captain Georgiou. She is even carrying Captain Georgiou’s Starfleet badge with her as a constant reminder, although at this point it seems a bit reckless to carry around proof that they’re not from around these parts.
Of course, Lorca continues to appear unfazed by life in the Mirror Universe, even though he has been the one stuck in the agony booth and knows that he has more booth time booked for him on the ISS Charon. It falls to him to give her a pep talk about how Georgiou is just a ghost, but Michael feels she is in for “a reckoning” for her actions.
This is a great scene that shows the strong acting of Sonequa Martin-Green and Jason Isaacs as well as pays off the character development both have gone through this season. Discovery is a show built for moments like this – to remind us that actions have consequences.
Ain’t afraid of no ghost
Much of “Vaulting Ambition” weaves around the reunion of sorts between Michael Burnham and Philippa Georgiou. We soon learn that even in the Mirror Universe, Burnham and Georgiou were close, and perhaps even closer. Of course in this human-centric Empire, Burnham wasn’t raised by Sarek, but instead by this Emperor Georgiou, who has more titles and honorifics than Daenerys Targaryen.
The Emperor appears happy to see her “daughter,” and is especially pleased with the gift of the rebellious Lorca, who is in chains. As a reward, Burnham is gifted with the Kelpien of her choice, which you initially imagine is another slave, but no, its worse than that…much worse. Apparently Kelpien threat ganglia are a delicacy, which Michael soon learns at her private dinner, so good on her for not spitting it out and keeping her cover, but ew.
It’s fascinating to watch Yeoh and Martin-Green play out these roles. Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou exemplified the ideals and optimism of Star Trek’s Federation. As Emperor Georgiou, the fun is gone, but Yeoh doesn’t go over the top, instead delivering a nuanced performance of a determined and ruthless leader, but yet one who still has feelings for her Burnham. And we find out she isn’t so easily duped by the “Wookiee prisoner trick”, as she reveals that she knows Burnham is lying to her. The twist is that she thinks Michael is part of Lorca’s rebellion. So, with a heavy heart, she is going to have to execute her. Family, right?
When the time comes for Burnham to be put to death she quickly pivots to Plan B and tries out the truth, and the Emperor believes her thanks to that pin Michael was carrying. Not so reckless after all, or maybe in the back of her mind she knew she might need it just in case. Regardless, Burnham is spared. However, Michael’s actions again have consequences, as her reveal of the truth about a parallel universe results in the shocking moment of Emperor Georgiou using an evil fidget spinner to kill all of her Lords who were there to witness the execution. Well, all but one, who got to clean up the bodies in return for becoming the governor of Andor, so good for him.
Apparently unclear on the whole evil universe thing, Burham now tries to talk Georgiou into just giving her the Defiant data in honor of Emperor Georgiou’s love for Mirror Burnham. After some negotiating they agree to trade spore engine drive tech for the USS Defiant data, even though it appears the Defiant data may not be of any use, as the crew got there via interphasic space and went mad in the process. (See TOS: “The Tholian Web.”). Saru reluctantly agrees to a rendezvous, and apparently we will find out if all this obsessing over the Defiant data for three episodes will be resolved in the next one, hopefully. That MacGuffin is getting a bit scruffy.
Mushrooms are a hell of a drug
Once again we have Saru and Tilly fussing over Stamets, still stuck in the reaction chamber. But after spending the last couple of episodes babbling, Anthony Rapp finally gets to dig into some drama as both Stamets and Mirror Stamets. This episode found the pair of them hanging out in the mycelial network, which presented itself – most cost-efficiently – as looking just like the USS Discovery.
Apparently they are both trapped, and only USS Discovery Stamets can find the way out. We learn that Mirror Stamets is the one who has been sending messages all this time, resulting in all the crazy talk. One of the most fun elements of Star Trek is when characters get to interact with themselves in some way, and “Vaulting Ambition” played this wonderfully, as the two Stametses raced around the ship bantering and bickering. Rapp has a ball, playing Mirror Stamets as sarcastic and snarky as early season regular Stamets was sarcastic and gruff.
The mycelial Discovery scenes all played out with a twisted horror movie vibe as director Hanelle Culpepper creates a spooky atmosphere in this familiar place. There is something haunting this Discovery, and also maybe something dangerous lurking there. But there is also a surprise – if you haven’t been keeping up with the telegraphing from CBS PR – in the form of Hugh Culber.
Break out the tissues, as Wilson Cruz returns as the dead doctor to deliver some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments of Discovery so far. This pair have always shown great chemistry, and this continues with these moments that allow the characters to say goodbye to each other through replaying their favorite evening rituals and revealing their love…sorry, I’m feeling a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves.
But this reunion was more than just for tear-jerking; Hugh has a message and a warning for Paul: Mirror Stamets is up to no good. Uh, no duh. Evil Paul has messed with the network and it’s dying. He tells him to listen for the music and look for the clearing in the forest. And whammo both Stametses wake up, one on the USS Discovery and the other on the Emperor’s ship. Alas, we soon find out that the entire stock of fungi on the Discovery is dead. Could there be more on board the ISS Charon?
The Man With Two Brains
The big reveal from last week’s episode was the final confirmation that Voq=Tyler, and repercussions of that are a big part of “Vaulting Ambition.” It appears that the planning of the Mo’Kai matriarchs on Voq didn’t work as planned. When Voq was finally triggered in the last episode, any good secret agent would have maintained his cover and reported back to his handler, in this case L’Rell. Instead Voq/Tyler went cuckoo for Klingon puffs and tried to kill Mirror Voq and Burnham, and the ranting in Klingon was also a bit of a tell.
However, there is more to this transformed Klingon, ranting while restrained in sickbay. Again, Shazad Latif is able to really push his performance, as he goes from crazed to frightened to dangerous and back again. We can see the Tyler that loves Burnham is still in there, but we also see how this brain isn’t big enough for the both of them, as he is starting to hurt himself (themselves?).
So, apparently there isn’t going to be time to wait until they return and consult with Starfleet HQ. The moral decision on what to do with these two minds in one body needs to be dealt with now. Doug Jones steps up to the plate, through an effective series of scenes as Saru implores L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) to help. To her, this is just another battle in her war with the Federation. Saru shows that he has learned a thing or two from Lorca and is able to play a little hardball in a series of scenes in the brig. Eventually the acting captain is able to break through to L’Rell’s Klingon heart, as he knows she cares for Voq and won’t let him continue to suffer.
Once again, this episode makes you ache. We can feel L’Rell’s love for Voq. Of all the actors who played Klingons this season, only Mary Chieffo has really been able to pull off the promise of making you understand and feel for this other. Using some kind of elaborate glove-laser-brain surgery device, L’Rell gives Voq’s mind a warrior’s death, presumably leaving Tyler’s mind as the sole occupant. She says goodbye with a Klingon death ritual and once again it’s time for the Kleenex.
The man in the mirror
You didn’t think I forgot about Gabriel, did you? The Discovery’s captain spent most of the episode in an agony booth being taunted by Captain Maddox of the ISS Charon. Apparently Mirror Lorca killed his sister, so this time it’s personal. Maddox reveals that he has followers of Lorca’s on board, and he brings one out and kills him, because what else is an evil captain going to do? These scenes with Lorca and Maddox seemed kind of gratuitous and something of a holding pattern while Burnham and Georgiou chatted elsewhere on the ship.
It’s Burnham and Georgiou who drop the big reveals. Not only was Mirror Burnham a follower of Lorca’s, but they were lovers, and he would “cross time and space” to find her. They have a destiny together. In a moment that might be too on the nose, the Emperor opens the shades to let the ship’s bright engine core shine in, and Burnham sees the light as Georgiou reveals her weakness to brightness…just like Lorca’s. We can see Burnham’s universe crash around her as she realizes the truth. Lorca is Mirror Lorca. Dun dun dunnnnn!
Since she and the Emperor are now pals, she lets Georgiou know that the Lorca she’s got is the Lorca she knows, and apparently everything that has happened has been part of a very, very elaborate plan of his to get on this ship. Seemingly aware of what’s happening in the Emperor’s suite, Lorca takes this moment to show his true nature and use the old Fake Incapacitation Trick (thanks to that analgesic) to escape, but not before he kills Maddox and delivers some sinister post-mortem dialogue.
It was a fun reveal, and of course Jason Isaacs is fantastic at pivoting his performance. You could almost see his goatee growing on the spot. It might have been a bit over the top and even a bit hammy, but this is the Mirror Universe after all.
Insert mustache, begin twirl
All season long in these reviews, the mystery of Captain Lorca has been discussed, often noting that he was not your regular Star Trek kind of guy, and may have had something to hide. The revelation that he is from the Mirror Universe does on one hand provide a simple answer to the Lorca question, but it may not be entirely satisfying.
Star Trek: Discovery is a different kind of Trek show, full of broken and troubled characters on various journeys, all with the backdrop of a season-long war. This was to be a show aimed at a more mature audience used to “peak TV” quality. Could not Lorca just be a darker character to fit this show and it’s setting? Starfleet is a peaceful organization focused on exploration, but would it not need men like Lorca for a time of war? Could he not be like Winston Churchill, a leader uniquely suited to his time, but perhaps out of place in peacetime? By having him now be from the Mirror Universe, is he written off as merely “evil” Lorca? Cannot the prime universe produce characters like Lorca?
Episode 10 – the beginning of this trip into the Mirror Universe – had some fun as it played with the trappings of the Terran Empire. Episode 11 started to show the weight of this place and tested the emotions of the characters. With this 12th episode, things just got dark. It was almost relentless from the start, with grim scene followed by grim scene, with periodic extreme violence and heartbreaking sadness sprinkled in for fun.
There’s no need to wait for Quentin Tarantino to take on Star Trek, with writer Jordon Nardino bringing us a Kelpien for dinner, a Klingon trying to claw his own heart out, flying brain-eviscerating toys, flesh-eating DNA injections, and of course copious agony booth torture. We knew Star Trek: Discovery was not going to be like your traditional Star Trek, but wow, this is a lot to take in.
However, the journey still seems very much worth taking. This episode may have some grim moments, but it also has some lovely – albeit sad – ones. In the face of all of this, Burnham still believes in the Federation’s ideals of equality, freedom, and cooperation. And Saru believes that love can defeat war. And all of that is very much Star Trek.
Mirrorus Universus Maximus
One delight for this episode is how it both hearkened and expanded upon the canon of the Mirror Universe. It is worth giving the two-part Enterprise “In a Mirror Darkly” a re-watch, as the repercussions of that episode are all over this arc. The whole storyline with the USS Defiant and the crew is referenced heavily here. Even the title of this episode seems to connect, with with Georgiou’s reference to “Vaulting Ambition” being a line from Macbeth, and Mirror Phlox told us Shakespeare is one of the only writers to exist on both universes, and is “equally grim.”
Nardino also picks up where past Mirror Universe episodes have in showing ties between the Roman Empire and the Terran Empire. One of Georgiou’s many honorifics is “Augustus,” named for the first Roman Emperor. Georgiou also notes that the ideals of the Federation that Burnham holds dear have been abandoned for “millennia.”
But we also add some new elements to the Mirror Universe, most notably that an aversion to bright light is a common trait for its residents. Sure, this has never been mentioned previously, but it can work with what has come before and of course served an important story point for the season.
Are we there yet?
All-in-all this Mirror arc for Discovery continues to entice. “Vaulting Ambition” probably isn’t the best of the three so far, but should still be considered one of the stronger outings for the first season. Even within the heavily serialized show, it is nice to see how each of these episodes has allowed their writers and directors to set different tones and play with the concept in different ways.
Once again, as lingering questions are answered, new questions arise. We still don’t know exactly what’s up with Lorca, the when, how, and why of his crossover, what he is going to do next. Hopefully the Voq/Tyler storyline has more to play out as well, as it can’t simply be “oh, he’s just Tyler now, let’s move on.”
And while it’s been fun, I think it’s time to wrap up this foray into the Mirror Universe and get back home and end that war with the Klingons, while not forgetting to find out what Captain Killy and the ISS Discovery have been up to. Also, for the most part the redemption arc for Burnham, which was to be the driving force for this show, also seems to have gone on pause for too long.
The trip has been fun, Discovery, but it’s time to bring it home.
Random thoughts, connections, easter eggs
- At just under 38 minutes, this is the shortest episode of Discovery, and all live-action Star Trek.
- Burnham gives Lorca an analgesic to mitigate the effect of the agonizers, um, shouldn’t she have done this two episodes ago?
- If the mycelial network presented Stamets with the construct of the USS Discovery to make him comfortable, does that mean it has some sort of will?
- It’s not entirely clear what the Hugh Culber in the network was, but the whole thing has Nexus flashbacks.
- Stamets plays Kasseelian opera to drown out Mirror Stamets, a callback to “Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad.”
- Did L’Rell bring her Mo’Kai mind wiping equipment with her, or does Starfleet have their own version on hand?
- So Maddox says they have a hold full of Lorca’s followers, who else might be down there?
- If the mycelial network is dying, could that explain the lack of spore drive ships in the rest of Trek?
- What’s up with that big glowy thing inside the ISS Charon? Is it a small star, harnessed for energy?
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.