S3E9 and S3E10 of Star Trek: Discovery together form the two part story “Terra Firma” bringing us back to the Mirror Universe for the first time since Season 1 and also serving as a fitting send off for Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). The focus on the Mirror Universe and the growth of Georgiou, along with the additional time to percolate created by having the episodes form a two-parter, allow for really fascinating storytelling. We also get a return of one of the most famous classic near omnipotent forces from Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as it turns out that the driving force of the plot is none other than “The Guardian of Forever” introduced back in the TOS episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”.
While it is the Guardian who drives the main action of the plot, “Terra Firma, Part 1” only sets up the ideas and the stakes. It has been established for several episodes now that Georgiou is having severe episodes and will likely die if nothing is done to help her. This leads them back to Starfleet and the Discovery version of The X-Files’ “Cigarette Smoking Man,” Kovich (David Cronenberg). Kovich, with his glasses and suit, is a real trek anomaly, but Cronenberg makes it all seem natural and necessary by virtue of his spectacular understatement. It all lends an aura of mystery and intensity to the character, which makes his appearances really pop. Kovich informs Georgiou that she is dying because, in addition to being nearly 1000 years out of her proper timeline (like the rest of the Discovery crew) she is also distant from her universe of origin. That “Mirror Universe” which was a huge part of the first season of Discovery has, by the current timeline of the show, drifted out of sync with the prime universe, which means Georgiou will die soon.
Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) of course has no interest in losing her surrogate mother again, even the extremely murder happy Mirror Universe version. So Burnham talks Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr), and a reluctant Georgiou into following Kovich’s lead to a possible cure on an obscure planet. Once they get there, and after taking a long but beautiful hike, they meet a single man in a bowler hat, named Carl (Paul Guilfoyle), standing in front of a random doorway. We will get back to Carl and the doorway itself, but in “Part 1” the key thing is that Georgiou walks through the doorway and immediately finds herself back in her primary timeline and universe, but several months before the activities of Discovery Season 1.
The main plot of both episodes concerns Georgiou’s life and decisions back in the Mirror Universe. It is immediately clear that the time with our Discovery crew, and particularly her bond with Burnham, has changed Georgiou so much that she cannot hope to fit in back in the hyper-violent world where she is the Emperor of the Terran Empire. Georgiou is conflicted and uneasy, but also still infused with a steel resolve. Yeoh never plays the character as wavering, even when she is unsure, and that plays well here. Every decision that she makes seems informed by the things we have learned about the character, and her obsession with trying to help “her” Burnham see the light is well played.
It has been awhile since the previous visit to Mirror Universe, and even then the focus was mostly on other things, so I can’t remember every way that things are different due to this version of Georgiou having changed. (An example: I know that Mirror!Stamets didn’t die by Georgiou’s hand, but I can’t actually remember how he did die in the original timeline.) Her decisions definitely have repercussions though, people die, things change, and the course of history seems to be altered significantly.
The one thing that can’t be altered, in any timeline, is Burnham’s stubborn adherence to whatever she thinks is “right”. For Mirror!Burnham that means enduring endless torture, and killing all of her co-conspirators—including poor, obviously smitten, Mirror!Detmer (Emily Coutts), sadly. In the end it turns out this version of Burnham is as dedicated to seeing Georgiou dead as our version is to seeing her live. It all allows Martin-Green to play the more emotional, violent, and angry sides of the character and since she was the impetus for growth in Georgiou it continues the trend of Burnham being better used to advance the other characters than when she is the sole focus.
This visit also allowed more insight into all of the other crew members. In the first season we knew almost nothing about the crew. Things like the Kelpians being slaves, hunted, and eaten, were obviously awful, but now that we have developed a real understanding of the depths of Saru, and the amazing talents of Doug Jones in the role, his playing the submissive and cowardly form of the character has much greater effect. Similarly the idea of “Captain Killy” is able to be expanded from what was basically a joke into a real and compelling character. Mary Wiseman is great at bringing some evil resolve to the character, while retaining the loveable silliness that makes the main universe Tilly such a delight. It is a high wire act for all of the crew, even though we still don’t know all of the others all that well, but we know them enough to be able to connect the differences and similarities into reasonable and entertaining pictures of each of them.
The Star Trek two-parter has a grand tradition across all of the series. “The Menagerie” in TOS, “The Best of Both Worlds” in The Next Generation, and “Past Tense” in Deep Space Nine all immediately come to mind as standouts, though the later two shows were filled with them. These episodes allow more time for the plots to unfold, and for more time to really deal with the psychology of the featured characters. Discovery’s faults come when it tries to squeeze in too much plot and too much lore all at once, leading to the characters being underdeveloped. By utilizing the two part structure “Terra Firma” not only avoids these issues, it allows for things that would have seemed to be an issue if they were too forced to instead develop.
In “Terra Firma, Part 2”, after finally learning that Burnham will never give in, Georgiou and Burnham have a fight to the death and both are mortally wounded. But instead of dying Georgiou appears back with our Burnham and Carl in front of the doorway. Carl informs Georgiou that while she was out for just a couple minutes she did live for months in the alternate past—it was all real. Throughout all of this the only thing that fans are obsessing over is, “what is Carl?” (The most popular guess was a “Q”, though I definitely believe they will bring back John de Lancy when they want to bring in the Q Continuum.) Of course, it turns out that he was an even deeper cut, “The Guardian of Forever”.
By making Carl the Guardian there are two key points that I think were well played. First, unlike the Q, the Guardian is limited to powers in the specific area that makes sense for the Georgiou plot. Secondly, it is a callback that can be explained with the (really cool) visual of the doorway changing into the arch but without really explaining the lore and exact specifics. This is key for storytelling. This story is about Philippa Georgiou and the awesome work that Michelle Yeoh has put into making us love the character, not about the lore itself. We can grieve the loss of the character from this show. Yes, she will eventually get her Section 31 spinoff, but it seems she is actually gone from the main show.
And that is good, it is good to have stakes and establish the rules of the universe—the Q (and the other magical gods from Trek past) don’t have those limitations, but that is the very nature of The Guardian. From the first appearance of this arch back in “City on the Edge of Forever” the point has always been to explore “you shouldn’t toy with the past” themes. (Kirk can’t save Edith Keeler or the Nazis will win World War II after all.) And so it is with the end of Georgiou’s time on the show. It is over and can’t be changed, no matter how much we would prefer that there was some way she could still be with us.
The “main universe” current storyline decidedly took a back seat for these two episodes. They have discovered that the signal that apparently caused the burn is from a Kelpian ship. This probably blows up the fan theories that the finale will be a classic “time-loop” episode but it does offer up some new and interesting character beats, particularly for Saru. There can be a lot of interesting stories to mine with Saru feeling the loss and pain of his people being at the center of the disaster that nearly destroyed everything.
Meanwhile, Book (David Ajala) is trying to find his place on Discovery, and it seems like they have decided to make him the “outsider” replacement for Georgiou. This is probably a decent role for him—it wouldn’t have made any sense for him to join Starfleet and be assigned immediately to the ship—but it also feels a little forced. The experience we have with Book is of a rebellious courier, who is guided by his instinct to protect creatures. The attempt in “Terra Firma, Part 2” to mine that for drama really didn’t work.
Admiral Vance, who continues to live up to my “Admiral Crankypants” nickname, seemed far too upset about the use of the “emerald chain” device to assist Stamets and Adira in finding the location of the ship. That and his admonition of Saru for not telling him about the Kelpian signal sooner seemed forced. The characters, as Saru notes, have been working under explicit orders to complete this mission, not to have to report every piece of headway, to report the actual findings. The entire exchange, including the Admiral expressing sympathy for Georgiou’s “death” all felt off.
So Georgiou has traveled back in time (presumably to the same time that Discovery left?) in order to launch the Section 31 spinoff. This presents a big problem for the show: how do they replace the energy and awesomeness of Michelle Yeoh? Discovery needs that swagger, and it often tries to get it from Burnham, but that is not really her strong suit. Burnham needs to be the colder, more Vulcan, presence on the ship. That at least is when she is at her best both as a character and as an officer.
It seems that they are positioning David Ajala to take on the “rebel” role, but Book is also better suited to other stories, like “The Sactuary“. He is the sensitive fighter, not the rebel. Instead of having Book try to take on this role I think it would be great if Tilly took on some more aspects of the “Captain Killy” persona we have seen the past two weeks and stepped into this role. If she were to amp up just a bit of the steel and rebel, she could fill the Georgiou gap by becoming the show’s version of William Riker, at the very least.
Or perhaps we could just fill the entire time with Tig Nataro doing one-liners about the rest of the crew. In fact, I’d like to suggest we have the “Jett Reno comedy special” as its own show.