“Die Trying,” S3E5 of Star Trek: Discovery, brings the crew back to Starfleet, which is not exactly excited to welcome the ancient ship into their ranks. The storylines about the crew feeling out of place and suffering post traumatic stress due to traveling to the 32nd century continue to play out. And the episode continues the brisk pace and exceptional storytelling that has characterized all of Season 3 so far.
Nicely, instead of dragging the storyline out any longer, we jump right to Federation headquarters and it turns out they are doing surprisingly well. There are actually quite a few ships within the “safe zone” the Federation has set up. This includes a long scene where the ship slowly travels through the area and the crew stares, slack jawed, at the vast technological changes since their time. And it gives the audience some significant Easter eggs as well. Among other things, there is both a Voyager mark J and a USS Nog. (An homage to the character and a tribute to his portrayer; Aaron Eisenberg, who sadly died last year.) This means that quite a few Starfleet ships did survive the burn and that what is left, while extremely depleted, is at least functional.
Having a functioning headquarters also means that the Discovery crew has to deal with an actual Starfleet hierarchy. Immediately upon docking Captain Saru (Doug Jones), Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Adira Tal (Blu Del Barrio) are beamed to headquarters where they are introduced to Admiral Crankypants and Security Officer Lt. Dirty Looks. Oh wait, their actual names are Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) and Lt. Audry Willia (Vanessa Jackson). It is certainly a Star Trek tradition to have an overly officious Admiral on the case of heroes and interfering in their lives, and due to the enormous stresses of his time Admiral Vance seems among the most critical and distrusting we have ever encountered.
Oded Fehr plays the critical authority figure so well that I think I actually started to like him out of sheer spite since I think he would have hated that. He is immediately dismissive of everything that Saru and Burnham have to say and basically seems annoyed that they dared to (checks notes) sacrifice themselves and every connection they ever had in life in order to (checks again) save all life in the universe. Burnham, as she has been since the first episode of the series, has no time for such ridiculousness. I am sure we will learn more about her year away from the Discovery, but it only seems to have hardened the anti-authoritarian streak she already exhibited. It almost seemed like she was going to attack Vance but instead she just severely backtalked him, possibly because Saru intervened.
Vance orders that Adira be taken for observation and, sadly, they do not return at all during the rest of the episode. Then he orders Lt. Willia and her officers to interrogate and investigate every bit of Discovery and her crew. Then the ship will be retrofitted with new tech and all of the crew reassigned. Even knowing that the Admiral is suspicious of all of the Discovery crew members, this just seems irrational and designed to fail. So it is pretty much in line with every other decision by an Admiral in the Star Trek universe. Saru continues to show his impeccable skills as a Captain as he is somehow able to navigate the restrictions, the insubordination of his first officer, and the distressed nature of his crew and come up with a plausible way for them to prove themselves.
This is possible because, for all the snark Lt. Willia gives out, and for all the maddening officiousness of Adm. Vance, the Federation is still a positive force in the world. I actually thought back in “That Hope Is You, Part 1” that the Federation was going to be basically absent from the universe, that it would only be a legendary mythical government that the Discovery crew would help people believe in again. But the Federation is not gone, and is not overrun by bad actors, they are just unable to keep up with the demands of the universe since it has become so fractured.
They are even trying to help a group of Kili refugees who have come down with a deadly illness. It is in the ideal of helping those who can’t help themselves that Saru is able to come up with his ploy to make Vance see the Discovery’s value. It turns out that the refugees can be cured by a specific plant but only if it is in an unevolved form. So Burnham notes that Discovery can use the spore drive and grab some seeds from an “archival ship” and get the cure made. There is more infighting, but due to Saru being willing to stay behind and let Lt. Willia go on the trip, Vance eventually agrees to let Discovery try.
This entire plot strains credulity a bit too much for me though. I thought for a while that Burnham had learned about this ship, the Tikhov, while living with Book but that does not seem to be the actual case. Instead, somehow, it seems that this is a remnant of Federation science from Discovery’s actual time period. With almost no changes in 1000 years? The entire idea just seems absurd and hard to justify. The actual episode otherwise was fine, but this whole thread really took me out of it. Luckily S3E5, like so much of Season 3 thus far, really excelled in the character based scenes.
We get to see scenes from the interrogations that Lt. Willia’s team have set up with various members of the Discovery crew. Jett Reno (Tig Nataro) and Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) get in some great ribbing and throw the interrogators (who are mostly holograms) off of their game. Nhan has a lot of great moments throughout but her absolute refusal to say anything other than name, rank, and serial number was glorious. As usual though, the standout is Phillipa Georgiou (Michele Yeoh).
Georgiou is able to mess with the holograms so that they start to malfunction then actually get them to shut down by blinking, which she does to their “harmonic frequency”. This doesn’t end her interrogation though because she is also being questioned by an old man with glasses. Glasses guy is not just anyone though, he’s played by director and horror master David Cronenberg. He and Georgiou have an actual conversation as they both reveal that they understand the other and can cut through all the games.
It definitely seems that something important comes out of it all (and later in the episode Georgiou seems either fazed, or at least lost in thought), we just don’t know what it is. Cronenberg and Yeoh have great chemistry in the scene and if it is actually a backdoor pilot for the new Section 31 series, I hope they continue to work together. As it is, Cronenberg’s character and his effect on Georgiou remain a mystery, but one that is exciting in the possibilities it brings.
Once Discovery reaches the Tikhov things go badly, of course. The Tikhov is caught in an ion storm and the crew has to work together to get to the ship before they can even start to save the day. This is important too though, because one of the things Lt. Willia is assessing is what would be the benefit of leaving these ancient and untrained people together. This points to a need to showcase the cast as a whole, rather than one or two individuals.
Overall, it seems that the use of the cast has really stabilized. As many (including me, in earlier recaps) have pointed out, the biggest shortcoming of the show previously had been the treatment of the greater bridge crew. S3E5 continues the trend of rectifying this. Over the course of “Die Trying” the love is spread to many of the crew members. Nillson (Sara Mitich) and Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) get tapped to take the con and Nillson even gets a line (her first of the season). Detmer and Osokun get actual spotlights during the sequence where they navigate the ion storm and get the Tikov into the tractor beam. The well oiled snarky team of Reno, Stamets, and Tilly all get to show that while they may be stone age scientists in an iron age world, they are still brilliant and resourceful. In doing all of this they actually do seem to impress Willia, at least a little.
After all of that, Burnham, Nhan, and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) finally beam to the Tikhov to find the seed. It turns out that the ship was being administered by a family of Barzans (the alien race that is also Nhan’s background) but three of them died in a radioactive event and the fourth, Attis (Jake Epstein) survived only due to a transporter situation. Even though his family is dead, he has been searching in vain for a way to save them. The issues all revolve around the nature of death and what is important about culture. This is classic Star Trek plotting, but it seems rushed here, and it also seems that they don’t want to come down too hard one way or the other, making it feel disjointed.
We do get some really great moments though, particularly when Culber tells Burnham that she has to end this. Culber has been dead and resurrected so while he is playing the “man of science” here. There are real nuances to the performance by Cruz that make the viewer fully aware of the difficulty he is going through making this call. Sonequa Martin-Green is also affecting when she finally convinces Attis that he has to give them access to the seeds so no one else has to feel like he feels now. He refuses to return to Discovery for medical evaluation to save him from the radiation though, which leads to Cmdr. Nhan staying behind to complete the Barzan mission.
It would be a grand departure except for two issues: we have not spent much time with Nhan since she came over with Pike from the Enterprise last season, and the whole situation with the Tikhov is confusing and contradictory. Where is the Tikhov going and why is it important to keep it at its current trajectory? And does Nhan staying actually change anything about Attis’s decision? Doesn’t he stay and die anyway? Since they made it such a huge plot point it would have been nice for any of this to be resolved.
In the end, the Discovery makes it back with the cure in time to save the Kili and Vance is moved enough to actually give some exposition about the “burn” but many questions remain to be answered. Season 3 has been on an exceptional roll so far and I hope that it keeps developing the characters (and that Adira gets another spotlight soon). And I hope that it can keep up the pace for the rest of the season.