REVIEW: “What’s Past is Prologue”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episode 13 – Debuted Sunday January 28th
Written by Ted Sullvian
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
The action ramps up more than ever for what may be Discovery’s most exciting episode of the season. Jason Isaacs steals the show as Lorca, chewing up the scenery as he dominates the story throughout and in some surprising ways. The effects and stunt teams up their game, delivering more punches and explosions than we’ve seen since the two-part debut in September. And in what has been a pattern of late for the show, the twists keep coming, setting up the upcoming final two episodes of the season.
Just as he did in “Lethe,” writer Ted Sullivan digs into the lore of both the series and Star Trek as a whole, and even a bit of another franchise from a galaxy, far, far away. “What’s Past is Prologue” wraps up a few story lines and plays well with the serialized nature of the show with callbacks and character development. At the same time, there is also an interesting exploration of the theme of fate throughout along with some allegorical messages.
“What’s Past is Prologue” rewards fans who have been paying attention (or later binge the series) as this disco is spinning its greatest hits.
I’m So Excited
After three episodes in the Mirror Universe, it was time to wrap things up and go for the big showdown and “What’s Past is Prologue” does not disappoint. It doesn’t even bother with a teaser, and just dives back in where last week left off. After the big reveal from “Vaulting Ambition,” it was clear that the now revealed “Mirror” Lorca has been orchestrating things all season long as part of an elaborate plan to get onto Emperor Georgiou’s ship and finish his revolution.
While Discovery likes to keep a lot of plates spinning in most episodes, often with A,B,C,D and more threads running, this time things were simple. We get three POVs, all of which were tied together: Lorca and his gang of Terran Empire rebels trying to take over the ISS Charon, Michael avoiding Lorca and seeking escape from the ISS Charon, and Saru and the crew of the USS Discovery seeking a way to get Burnham back and put this dark universe in their rear view mirror.
Lucky for Lorca, all his old friends were conveniently on board the ISS Charon, just ready to be decanted from their agony booths. Considering they were being tortured for almost two years, they seemed in good shape. We soon have a reunion with Rekha Sharma, now playing the Mirror Commander Landry, although it’s hard to distinguish her with her hard-ass (and thankfully dead) Starfleet counterpart. Rejecting her advice to withdraw, Lorca lets us all know he is the evil man, with the evil plan.
They are also soon reunited with Mirror Stamets, now out of his coma and hiding in his lab. It turns out evil Paul was part of Lorca’s revolution but finked to the Emperor. So, it was not a happy reunion. We also finally get a too-quick flashback, telling us the Lorca backstory. Turns out, while he was beaming up to the ISS Buran (while it was under attack by the ISS Charon) an ion storm caused a good, old-fashioned, universe-swap transporter malfunction, just like in “Mirror, Mirror.” Classic.
Good thing this Stamets has a nasty bio weapon to smooth over the pain of his betrayal, and Lorca didn’t waste any time using it, killing much of the ISS Charon’s massive crew in a very gruesome way. But that’s apparently just how things are done in the Terran Empire, as he follows that up by asking the rest of the crew to join him.
In “Mirror, Mirror,” Kirk tells Mirror Spock “In every revolution, there is one man with a vision,” and Lorca certainly has a vision, made even more fervent now that he believes the hands of destiny and fate have saved him to rule. He delivers a too familiar sounding speech about the threat of aliens spilling over the border and vowing to “make the empire glorious again.” Star Trek has never shied away from political allegory, and this was just as subtle as a native of Cheron’s face.
Lorca also reveals that he doesn’t want a hair on Michael Burnham’s head touched. She, it seems, is also part of his destiny. This again shows how Discovery has been playing the long game all season, when you look back to how Lorca got Burnham out of prison and has been protecting her all along. His Burnham is dead, but apparently Michael Prime will serve very nicely as a replacement.
As Lorca ramps up his revolution, Michael Burnham finds herself at the mercy of Emperor Georgiou. Perhaps due to nostalgia for her Captain Georgiou, Michael seems ready to join #TeamEmperor in this fight, offering advice on how to deal with Lorca. But Georgiou isn’t playing, reminding Michael “Your choices have determined your fate,” which was probably Burham’s first prison tattoo. In another moment that bookends with the two-part pilot, this Georgiou orders for Burnham to be sent to brig. The Emperor has more important things to deal with, notably capturing and killing Lorca personally.
This all results in the first of a number of elaborate fight scenes for the episode, with Sonequa Martin-Green again showing off some strong moves. She also shows off her research of the Terran Empire, as she borrows a guard’s personal agonizer to give him a time out. Michael then makes her escape, revealing the Terran Empire may have an exchange program with the Galactic Empire as the remaining guards trying to stop her showed off a lack of accuracy rivaled only by Imperial Stormtroopers.
We Are Family
Over on the good ship USS Discovery, things start out a lot more relaxed. We even get a nice little captain’s log from acting captain Saru. He gets us all back up to speed on the plot, reminding us Stamets is back, but his crop of Spore engine-powering space fungus is dead.
In a classic Treknobabble-laced exposition briefing, we learn the level of peril is much worse than imagined. That glowy orb at the center of the ISS Charon turns out to be a big ball of mycelial power drawn from the network, delivering huge amounts of power, allowing it to play Death Star and destroy planets. However, the inconvenient truth is revealed that this “shortsighted” generation of power is poisoning the network which will, astoundingly, kill every living thing in every universe, everywhere. That’s a lot of environment, in case you didn’t get the allegorical nail being hammered.
Eventually Burnham – hiding out in the ISS Charon’s evil Jefferies Tubes – makes contact and let’s them know Lorca is Mirror Lorca and they let her know that everyone, everywhere is going to die unless the Charon’s core is exploded. So, a plan is worked out for her to play Obi Wan and lower a containment field so the Discovery can play Luke Skywalker and come in to torpedo it.
After more of the crew get involved in working on a plan, it is revealed that the Discovery is going to have to use up all of its spores to take out the Charon and it won’t survive the resulting detonation. But Saru isn’t ready to give in. Doug Jones continues to impress as he donkey-kicks out a rousing speech about duty and working together on this newly-declared “maiden voyage” of the USS Discovery, sans Lorca. It was a wonderful Star Trek moment, referencing his ability to sense the coming of death as well as Starfleet Acadmey’s famed “no-win scenario,” which he refuses to accept.
A follow-up scene has Tilly and Stamets come up with the solution to not only surviving the attack on the Charon, but also getting them home, something involving a surfing a wave on a warp bubble – how cool is that? The goal of the three previous episodes of using the data from the USS Defiant to get home is now clearly just a red herring used by Lorca to get onto the Emperor’s ship. Now that Stamets is awake, he says he can just reverse engineer Lorca’s data that got them into Mirror Universe to get them out. Easy peasy mycelium squeezy.
All the scenes on board the USS Discovery are a delight in this episode and are full of classic Star Trek feels. You have weird science, motivating rhetoric, and lots of teamwork, and all of that before you even get to the cool parts with the torpedoes firing. Sullivan also took the time to highlight more of the crew contributing, including Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys and Airiam.
Love To Love You Baby
Eventually the Emperor and Lorca meet outside her throne room, but Georgiou appears to be unfazed, or maybe her confidence comes from her personal shield and emergency transport backup wristband. Regardless, Michelle Yeoh and Jason Isaacs have a good round of evil dialoguing before she escapes after a rather dull firefight.
Now in command of the throne room and ship, the usefulness of Mirror Stamets came to an end. Lorca pulls a Mr. Burns, opening a trapdoor in the floor, teasing evil Paul with the poetic nature of being thrown into his own mycelial creation. However, Lorca continues his metamorphosis into Bond-villain territory as he just has the mad scientist vaporized, exclaiming “I hate poetry.”
Lorca is now seen to be somewhat obsessed with Burnham. He continues to use the ship’s PA system to let her know he sees a connection with her as part of his fate to lead. Her mutiny is evidence to him that she should agree that the Federation is a “social experiment, doomed to failure.” He then said “You can destroy the Emperor…It is your destiny! Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy.” OK, he didn’t say that last bit, but he might as well have.
Burnham disagrees as she goes to find Georgiou, hiding out and caressing the Terran Empire badge of her dead daughter. So, everyone carries badges of their lost loved ones and everyone is much obsessed with at least one Burnham.
For her part, Michael still seems to see her Captain Georgiou in this Emperor, and wants to make amends for her betrayal. The regret of her actions in the two-part pilot continue to haunt her and she uses that emotion to connect and convince the Emperor that together they can defeat Lorca. Why Michael so easily trusts this ruthless Georgiou is a bit perplexing. She seems to be projecting the memories of a dead counterpart, just like Lorca is doing with her. But all the scenes with Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green sell it anyway.
Everybody Is Kung Fu Fighting
With a plan in place, it’s time for Burnham to use the Wookiee Prisoner Trick yet again, bringing Georgiou to the throne room to meet Lorca. She promises she will stay with him if he lets the USS Discovery go, but she also makes it clear “I’m offering you my mind, nothing more.” Ouch. Even the Mirror Universe has a friend zone. Lorca is so blinded by his hatred of the Emperor and faith for his shared destiny with Burnham, that he can’t see this is all some kind of trap and ups his bad guy parlance by telling Georgiou “Looks like you’re destined to be betrayed by Burnhams in every universe.”
Saru and the Discovery get a call and drop out of warp, where Lorca tells them how proud he is of the warriors they have become under his guidance. It’s almost touching until he calls the Federation a cult, but still kind of nice. Burnham chimes in to let Saru know that she is going to stay, but her saying “this is my place” turns out to be some kind of signal to start the epic action sequence.
The Discovery opens fire on the Charon, things start exploding, and Michelle Yeoh reminds everyone that she has starred in quite a few Hong Kong action films. Even though it’s just Burnham and Georgiou versus Lorca, Landry and his whole army, the fight eventually narrows down to just a handful, helped by a couple of inexplicable moments, like Landry vaporizing a guy fighting Burnham just so she could fight Burnham, and Lorca knocking out Landry just so he can step in to take on Georgiou.
Finally, it comes down to just Burnham and Lorca. He hesitates because he doesn’t want to kill her (remember, he’s obsessed) and she gets the upper hand. In another classic Trek moment, she won’t kill him either, telling him he should have just asked for help to get home and it would have been given, adding “That’s who Starfleet is. It’s who I am.” This unveils the ultimate tragedy of Lorca. In a twist on the Shakespearean-inspired episode title, Lorca believes he understands Burnham’s past and it is a prologue to a choice for her to join him. But, he never really understood her. While her logic led her to a mutiny and she lost faith in herself, she never lost faith in the ideals of the Federation and Starfleet.
Unfortunately for Lorca, Georgiou is not Starfleet and she skewers him with her sword and throws him through that door in the floor and he gets disintegrated in a puff of super-villainy.
Emperor Georgiou continues her transformation as she helps Burnham lower the core’s containment field and vows to sacrifice herself to allow Burnham and the Discovery time to destroy the core. But Michael isn’t done with this Georgiou yet, as she gives her a life-saving mid-transport hug, taking the Emperor with her back to the Discovery.
Saru and the USS Discovery continue their attack, destroying the Charon and its mycelial network-poising hub and – perhaps for the last time ever – going to Black Alert. The ship rides the wave as the mycelial network repairs itself, but Stamets struggles to find the right path home. The data from Lorca’s diversion into the Mirror Universe isn’t doing the trick, but the memory of Hugh Culber inserts itself, reminding him to seek out the clearing in the forest. And so the ship is literally saved through the power of love, as Paul says thanks to his late partner, who may or may not be alive in some way inside the network.
There is one little extra beat here that seems significant, as one last tiny spore floats around the lab, landing on Tilly’s shoulder. Was this a callback to episode 3 where Stamets was introduced, swiping spores off his shoulder? Or perhaps is this spore the beginning of a whole new forest some day? It is unclear for now.
The effects throughout these final sequences are impressive, as they were throughout the episode. For a show set in space, shots of the ships have been too spare throughout the series, but this episode seemed to have the most ship action since “Battle at the Binary Stars.” The ship on a Star Trek show is always one of the characters and the USS Discovery put in a great performance in “What’s Past is Prologue.”
We end the episode finding out that the Mirror Universe arc is over, but the season arc is not. Yes, Discovery has yet another twist. They are back in the Alpha Quadrant, but oops, Paul got the time wrong and they have missed nine months of the war and it appears, during that time, that the Federation sort of lost the war, with a map showing just a handful of planets left that are not under the control of the Klingons.
“What’s Past is Prologue” brings an end to Captain Gabriel Lorca. This character has been fascinating since being introduced in episode 3. Thanks to a layered performance by Jason Isaacs, Lorca has been mysterious and compelling and the focus of all sorts of theories, some of which turned out to be true. So, it’s going to be hard for some to say goodbye. It has been known since the beginning that the creators of Discovery are inspired by Game of Thrones and Lorca appears to be the Ned Stark of this series.
The message is clear – actions have consequences and there is real jeopardy on this show and all of that is good to see in a Star Trek series. However, this episode almost seemed to want to soften the blow by portraying Lorca as not just a dark and nuanced character, but profoundly evil to an almost cartoonish degree.
Discovery itself has shown that being from the Mirror Universe does not make a character nefarious – just look at Mirror Sarek, Saru and Voq. So, this final stage of Lorca’s portrayal was not a given, and perhaps not necessary. An irony of this episode is how it paid off the journey of the crew of the USS Discovery, now working together as a well-oiled machine. Saru says the ship is no longer Lorca’s, but isn’t Lorca the captain who put that machine together?
Some may revel in the over-the-top wickedness, and may see it as all part of his pattern from day one. Lorca never fit into Starfleet and now we know why. But I for one am going to miss Captain Lorca and would like to think that maybe the Federation could use a few men like him at times. I would like to think the intriguing character we were introduced to and explored throughout this season was genuine and not all just an act that has now been unmasked. Regardless, the exit Lorca and Isaacs will certainly leave a big hole in this show. Perhaps Michelle Yeoh’s expat Emperor Georgiou will be able to fill the void, but Lorca leaves behind a long shadow.
And The Beat Goes On
“What’s Past is Prologue” grabbed from the start and never let go, thanks to perfect pacing set by director Olatunde Osunsanmi. The episode was filled wall-to-wall with excellent performances, copious calls to the lore of the series and the franchise, compelling effects and more action than seen in the series to date.
Even with all of that going on, it still found time to deliver allegorical warnings about the environment, xenophobia and authoritarianism. Perhaps a bit preachy, but that’s nothing new with Trek. There was also a good amount of character development, especially moving the ball down field for Burnham’s journey of redemption. While we may be curious as to what’s going on with L’Rell and Tyler, this episode benefits by staying focused and leaving their story lines to be picked up later.
It is no surprise that Jason Isaacs’ time as Lorca has come to an end. A high profile actor like him was never likely to stick around for a series season after season, especially not in the lead part. He played his final bow with great relish and it was a lot of fun to watch but it might also have been a missed opportunity to end his arc in a more nuanced way.
While a very welcome and satisfying conclusion, it’s nice to finally put the Mirror Universe arc to an end, as the show probably spent one or even two episodes too long away from home. As if hanging a lantern on that, we now have the latest twist – because apparently you need one every episode now – that we missed the war and it was lost, or close to it.
There are just two episodes of Discovery‘s first season left. They have a lot to do if the Klingon arc is going to wrap up with the good guys winning and I can’t wait to see how they pull off that twist.
Random thoughts, connections, easter eggs
- While evil, Mirror Landry still seemed nicer than Prime Landry.
- Assuming Lorca Prime swapped in right before the ISS Buran was destroyed, he was killed shortly after arriving in the Mirror Universe, but you never know for sure.
- Given the timeframe, it appears the Lorca swap happened before the war with the Klingons began.
- Saru ponders why his threat ganglia didn’t warn him about Lorca. Which is a good question. Either it didn’t work, or maybe Lorca was never a threat to the crew of the USS Discovery.
- There are a number of moments with bright light on the ISS Charon, but all the Terrans forgot they were sensitive to it.
- One of the subtle ways this episode enhanced its classic Star Trek feel was use of old-fashioned 2D screen conversations instead of the newfangled holograms.
- The activation of phasers on this show is really loud, making it hard to imagine they would be useful in a stealth situation.
- The Terran phasers also only seem to have one setting: painfully vaporize.
- It appears the Disco’s crew spent their time flying around in warp to do costume changes to get out of their Terran Empire disguises, including saying goodbye to Tilly’s “Captain Killy” straight hair.
- The scene where Lorca’s troops are revealed in the corridor to the throne room (see clip below) was reminiscent of the Borg reveal in Star Trek: First Contact.
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.