“Terra Firma, Part 1”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 9 – Debuted Thursday, December 10, 2020
Teleplay by: Alan McElroy; Story by: Bo Yeon Kim & Erika Lippoldt & Alan McElroy
Directed by: Omar Madha
After some middling mid-season entries, Discovery returns to form with a laser-focused episode rich in the show’s own mythology. Strong performances from Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh carry the day, with some very able guest stars assisting. While just the first part of an arc, “Terra Firm, Part 1” still delivers a story that feels complete, albeit leaving you wanting more.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“A crew member is drowning”
Kicking things off with the return of David Cronenberg as the curious Kovich to drop some exposition with a little help from a hologram of a 24th-century Kelvin Universe time soldier (OMG) was a surefire way to captivate right from the start. Bottom line, Georgiou is going to die from the cosmic one-two punch of jumping universes and a millennium, and this cold-hearted mystery man recommends they just let it happen. But Dr. Culber, with a little help from the ship’s evolving AI computer, has a long shot solution: Send Georgiou to a distant planet where there is some unknown potential miracle. And in a nice twist from the regular episode setup, it is Admiral Vance giving us some “old salt” depth, convincing Captain Saru the ship should take the mission, even with the Emerald Chain breathing down Starfleet’s neck. The needs of the one, he’s told, are also the needs of the many.
As for Phillipa, she is resigned to her fate, trying to provoke everyone to strike her down so she can go out like a boss. Like a not-so-passive-aggressive mother, she tries to provoke her new adopted Michael with “killing me would be the greatest honor of my Burnham’s life.” But this Burnham’s savior complex is far too strong for that, and so the Emperor agrees to the Dannus V mystery cure. But before departing the ship, some actual pleasantries, mutual respects—and even an awkward hug—are shared with Captain Saru and (yes, she still is) First Officer Tilly. It’s all a bit much and feels very final.
“This is obviously… this”
If displays of Terran affection weren’t strange enough, things get really weird on the icy planet in the middle of the galactic nowhere. With some beautifully desolate location shooting, Michael and Phillipa have come full circle since the series pilot as they trudge through the snow, guided only by the annoyingly enigmatic Sphere Data. But the trek through the snow gives the pair time to banter and bicker more about how the two Michaels are not the same. Duh. What is it about evil universe that’s so confusing here? If you listen closely, you’ll learn about something that wasn’t part of the season one Mirror arc… it was the Emperor herself who killed Mirror Michael.
Arriving at their final destination they find Carl. That’s right, the Sphere sent them to an enigmatic dad-joking fellow in the snow reading a newspaper… tomorrow’s newspaper, announcing Georgiou’s death BTW. Oh, and he has a door that appears to go nowhere but promises to send her where she needs to go. This curious classic character played with a Kringle-on-crack twinkle by CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle is just what the doctor ordered. But he is also an ominous gatekeeper, warning her that her terminal condition may be solved, but there are unspecified dangers on the other side. That’s good enough for Phillipa, so with a new will to live, through the looking glass she goes.
“They were Kelpiens”
Even though this episode is primarily focused on Georgiou, back on the ship there are a handful of intriguing stories happening, if only to briefly remind us there is still an ongoing season arc. Adira remains out of sorts over their ghost boyfriend ghosting them, but new surrogate dad Paul is there to offer support and help get that algorithm done to determine exactly what is inside the nebula pinpointed as ground zero for The Burn. The cynical and smart money was on a Burnham or another USS Discovery, but it turns out to be 31st-century Kelpiens.
Captain Saru is intrigued. But finding out more about Captain Issa, the pre-Burn dilithium-hunting mission of the KSF Khi’eth, and the Starfleet ship that may have been destroyed trying to penetrate the radiation barrier of the nebula will have to wait for another episode. Book is also hovering around the USS Discovery, reminding us he exists and looking for something to do. In what is likely some foreshadowing, Captain Saru recommends he bone up on Starfleet regs, and suggests he bide his time for a moment to shine at a later date, in a future episode.
It should come as no surprise that Carl’s cure for Georgiou’s molecules jonesing for home was to send her back to the Terran Empire, but her arrival on the 23rd-century ISS Discovery unsettled Philippa for the briefest of moments. Back on solid ground and greeted with the title of the episode (“Terra Firma!”) she unskillfully tucks her now-green life-alert bracelet away to quickly reassume the commanding dominance demanded of an Emperor. Captain Killy is back—but with a new hairdo—to greet her, along with an honor guard headed by a grim-faced Mirror Owo. And the arrival date is auspicious, as this is the day of the launch of her ISS Charon flagship and the day Lorca launched his attempted coup against her, resulting in Mirror Michael’s death as his accomplice.
And right on cue, evil adopted daughter shows up for second chance theater, and this time Georgiou vows she is going to keep Michael on Team Georgiou. The risk: The first rule of Terran Club is you traitors have to die, and sparing lives is for wimps… as noted by Tilly, with Owo paying close attention. As mother and daughter attend a frightening party complete with life-threatening drinking games and people self-agonizing, Sonequa Martin-Green relishes every moment in her debut as Mirror Michael, making it super clear she is bad to the bone. Michelle Yeoh also impresses here as she appears to be almost pretending to be the Emperor, even though she actually is the Emperor. Michael Prime has changed her.
“As of this moment, our future is unwritten.”
This new and improved (but only from a Prime POV) Georgiou makes her first point of divergence by sparing slave Saru’s life, smartly using him as a spy to get the dirt on Lorca and Michael’s plot. Michael claims innocence, but Saru spills the tea about their treasonous pillow talk. Dressed for genocidal success, the Emperor attends an acrobatic dance telling her humble origin story, narrated by Mirror Stamets. This all leads up to the big reveal of her new ship, and her effortless thwarting of Paul’s fumbling assassination attempt, in which he’s the one who ends up bleeding to death on the shiny floor.
This all sets up the final showdown between the Emperor and Burnham. The jig is up as too many people know she is in on the coup, so she fesses up with some serious villain monologuing: “Your weakness grows every day,” and that sort of thing. Mirror Michael taunts mother to strike her down, and in a reflection of an earlier scene with Mike Prime, the Emperor feigns a head-chop sword swing. And with that, the Emperor starts to rewrite her future with this do-over given to her by Carl. But will she survive in a world where merely torturing your own daughter is a sign of failure, and both Captain Killy and Owo are ominously watching… and waiting like we are for Part 2 to arrive next week.
With a focus on Georgiou’s story, “Terra Firma, Part 1” shows how to tell a story without getting distracted by trying to serve too many plotlines. The writing team of Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt along with Alan McElroy show off their deep understanding of the show and its characters, which is critical in making this trip back to the Mirror Universe intriguing.
Everyone seems to be working at a higher level to get things right in the Terran Empire this time, including excellence in production design, props, costumes, location shooting, effects, and acting—especially Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh who carry most of the load. And they were not alone, helped along by the return of David Cronenberg’s Kovich (who is more mysterious than ever), Oded Fehr’s Admiral Vance, who is showing a bit of his vulnerable side, and Paul Guilfoyle, introduced as the delightful Carl the universal doorman.
Director Omar Madha is new to Discovery but a veteran of many TV shows and hit the Terra Firma running, with great pacing and the right twists for each half of universe-bifurcated this episode. This was helped by Jeff Russo and his team of musicians, who also relished their return to the Terran Empire, helping reset that darker tone.
One quibble for this episode is how it may be playing it a bit loose when it comes to remaining consistent within the show’s own canon. This episode’s arc pivots around Georgiou changing her choice to kill the original Michael. However, it was never actually established in the season one visit to MU that Georgiou killed Michael, who was just said to be lost and presumed dead. This bit of retcon helps tell a sort of redemption story for Georgiou so it’s understandable why they did it, and some headcanon could imagine Michael’s death was hushed up, but even some handwaves to the discrepancy wouldn’t be unwarranted.
Is this goodbye?
We began this season wondering what Georgiou was even doing with the rest of the crew in the 32nd century, beyond just knowing the producers of Discovery love Michelle Yeoh and want to include her in things. Eventually a storyline for her has emerged that includes bringing in Cronenberg’s Kovich. This episode (and presumably next week’s follow-up) feel like a nice culmination of that arc. But it could be more than just that.
With so much going on in season three, it is a bit curious they would devote two out of the five remaining episodes mostly to Georgiou’s story. And not only are they giving Yeoh and Georgiou some focus, but they are doing it in style, sparing no expense as noted earlier. They couldn’t muster up a location shoot for a Vulcan ritual, but they did so here, to good effect. They also brought in multiple guest stars and created new props, costumes, and set pieces.
This all sort of feels like they are setting up a swan song for Georgiou’s Emperor, at least for Discovery. That scene with Saru, Tilly, and Georgiou and their expressions of surprising respect had a bit of the feel of Neelix’s goodbye two episodes before the series finale of Voyager. And they certainly made a point of mirroring (ha) Michael and Prime Georgiou’s first scene in Discovery‘s series premiere with this one, changing the setting from desert to snowy wilderness, but keeping the tone and even some of the sweeping camerawork, making this feel like a bookend for Yeoh on the show.
We know that there are plans afoot and ongoing work for her own Section 31 show, which was originally set to go into production after season three. While those plans have changed, it’s not clear if they changed before or after his arc was produced. It’s possible that Georgiou’s do-over in her past can somehow fix her future self and she can return to the 32nd century—perhaps after aligning the Mirror Universe more with the Prime—but it would not be surprising if next week’s episode is her last for the season, if not the series.
Lorca, Lorca, Lorca!
There is an elephant in the room, and that is Captain Gabriel Lorca. Once things switch over the MU, everyone can’t shut up about him. The whole coup is his idea, and he put Michael up to it. His evil henchwoman (in all universes) Landry (Rekha Sharma) showed up, so where was he? The rules of storytelling make this feel like a Chekhov’s Gabe at this point, so it seems inevitable that we’ll see Mirror Lorca back for Part 2. This could be why Jason Isaacs took “the fifth” when asked if he was coming back earlier this year, after spending a couple of years openly advocating for that return.
Oh, and while they are at it, they might as well bring back Connor, just to kill him… again.
Part 2 now, please
What’s left to say except this was a highly entertaining return to form for Discovery? Season three is back on track, and even though “Terra Firma, Part 1” feels complete, “Part 2” can’t come soon enough.
Random extra bits
- This is the first episode that has referred to the Mirror Universe and Prime Universe as “Mirror” and “Prime” in dialogue.
- This is also the first mention of any awareness of the Kelvin Universe (the new timeline created by the incursion of a Romulan mining ship) in the Prime Universe.
- By showing how Lt. Commander Yor crossed over from the Kelvin Universe into the Prime Universe, it again firmly establishes these are separate parallel universes, just like the Mirror Universe.
- The Discovery computer has “every Starfleet database” from the 32nd century along with 23rd-century databases lost to the burn, along with the Sphere Data… making it possibly the smartest thing in the galaxy.
- Even though they talk about the sentient AI that has merged with the computer, it is still voiced by the regular actress Julianne Grossman. The Zora AI voice actress Anabelle Wallis was last heard in episode 304.
- Title sequence doesn’t roll for 11 minutes, making this one of the longer Discovery teasers.
- It appears the new Starfleet hand phasers can collapse into a small programmable matter device worn on the sleeve, like the Emerald Chain hand cannons.
- Paul’s fix to Adira’s stuck algorithm was to turn it off and on again, which feels like advice he could have gotten from the The IT Crowd.
- Dr. Issa was played by Hannah Spear, who played Saru’s sister Siranna.
- Hannah Cheesman, who played Airiam 2.0 in season two, played a member of the ISS Discovery crew, but had no lines in Part 1.
- The Starfleet ship that first responded to the KSF Khi’eth’s distress call was the USS Hiraga Gennai, named for an 18th-century Japanese doctor/artist/inventor.
- This episode is the first appearance of Mirror Culber, although his red medical uniform was developed during season one.
- David Benjamin Tomlinson (Linus) played the Kelpien servant who spilled the sauce on Landry.
- In the Mirror Universe, the DOT-7 robots are black and evil looking.
- There is a lot to say about Carl, his door, and his newspaper, but we will leave that for an upcoming in-depth theory analysis, so stay tuned.
More to come
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