Star Trek Discovery (DIS) Season 5

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Red DirectiveUnder the Twin MoonsJinaal

 

Red Directive

Synopsis

Mr. Kovich requires the USS Discovery for a top secret "Red Directive". He only reveals that an 800-year old Romulan science vessel has been discovered in a debris field, and that an artifact stored aboard needs to be recovered by any means necessary. As an away team explores the derelict vessel, suddenly the two former couriers L'ak and Moll decloak and begin to fire. They encase Rhys and Owosekun in forcefields and then detonate a bomb, by which Burnham gets blown into space. As she is drifting through the debris, she sees a cloaked vessel and activates her magnetic boots to lock onto its hull before it goes to warp. Burnham uses her phaser to break into the propulsion system. Meanwhile, the USS Antares under Captain Rayner has caught up with them and locks a tractor beam on L'ak and Moll's ship. Without the tractor beam, they would escape, whereas if the warp field collapsed around the ship, it could destroy the Antares. Rayner finally stands down, but Burnham's sabotage was not enough. Moll and L'ak restart the engines and create 20 warp trails in different directions. In order to find the right trace, Burnham enlists Book's help. He suspects that they are going to the planet Q'mau, to meet with a dealer called Fred. On Q'mau, Moll and L'ak offer the Romulan artifact, an ancient puzzle, to Fred as expected. But they only need the android to open the device, which contains an old diary, upon which they kill him. Burnham, Book and Rayner find Fred's body and beam him up the the Discovery, in the hope of recovering his memory. L'ak and Moll escape with their ship, which was hidden underneath the planet's sand, pursued by Burnham, Book and Rayner on sandrunners. Against Burnham's objections, Rayner has the Antares destroy the entrance of their mountain retreat. L'ak and Moll are forced to turn around and fire torpedoes, which releases a sand avalanche that is about to obliterate the settlement. The two Federation ships descend and block the avalanche to save the city, upon which the couriers can escape. Meanwhile at the Academy, Tilly has encrypted an ancient message left behind by a Romulan named Dr. Vellek about something enormously powerful that is hidden somewhere. On the Discovery, Stamets and Culber recover a symbol from Fred's memory that he saw in the diary. Additionally, there is a mention of the "twin moons". Burnham suspects that this refers to a planet in the Vileen system. Dr. Kovich finally lets her in on the secret. Dr. Vellek was part of the Romulan crew that witnessed the message from the Progenitors in the 24th century. He somehow found their technology or clues about it. In the meantime, Saru has decided to accept an offer from President Rillak to become a Federation ambassador. He can be close to T'Rina this way. The two decide to marry.

Commentary

Discovery is back for its fifth and final season. And as much as things have changed for Michael Burnham and her crew, one thing always remains the same: her traditional space dive in a debris field, as in every single season opener so far!

The story of "Red Directive" chronologically begins at a Federation Day party and with a lot of exposition. The work on the spore drive has been discontinued. Stamets is an official "Science Luminary" with a perhaps intentionally corny holographic badge. Book has not been heard of for many months. Saru has an offer to become a Federation ambassador. The Tholian Republic and the Breen Imperium are considered threat forces. I don't think any of that is bland. Yet, someone decided to spice up the very beginning of the episode with a flashforward (like already in PIC: "The Star Gazer") to said space ride, only to jump back four hours again. This annoyed, rather than entertained me. It turned out to have no merit in the way of revealing something that makes more sense as the story catches up with the flashforward (which, for me, is the only cause that could justify such a disruptive storytelling device).

Aynway, a solid story unfolds for Burnham after she and her away team have boarded the Romulan ship on the search for something they are not told anything about and which they are to defend against an unknown enemy they are authorized to kill. I like that Burnham decides to keep phasers on stun nonetheless. Later in the episode, she cares for the dead android Fred and wonders if he has family that should be notified. This, and her insistence to learn what the "Red Directive" is all about (that her crew are supposed to risk their lives for), gives the otherwise action- and mystery-driven episode a human touch. On the downside, once again it doesn't have any consequences for her or for Tilly to hack into an encrypted database to acquire highly classified information.

Discovery has a long record of the ship's crew not following orders because they somehow can rely on Vance or Rillak to cover it up. In "Red Directive", it is additionally unjust that Rayner's reckless but legal actions on Q'mau will get him discharged in the next episode, whereas Tilly's (and indirectly Burnham's) criminal act of stealing top secret information gets handwaved. I understand that the intention is to establish Rayner as an even more daring character than Burnham and the probably only one in 32nd century Starfleet who holds a candle to her. Although it won't have any notable action for him, the next episode will push this idea even harder. Still, the story could have been told with more realism regarding actions and their consequences.

Actually, as I am writing the summary and rethinking the course of the plot, it occurs to me that Tilly decrypts the Romulan message at about the same time as Culber and Stamets read out Fred's memory. Fred reveals everything that Tilly finds out about the "twin moons" and more, such as the shape of the puzzle from the diary. Tilly's contribution to the solution is practically non-existent. If it was just about showing the garbled message from the Romulan, that's something Kovich may have done anyway to let in Burnham on the secret.

The plot is initially all about action but increasingly about the mystery. There isn't so much new about the concept, remembering that it was the defining theme of all previous Discovery seasons and of all of Picard as well. The Romulan connection with the literal mystery box (the tan zhekran) initially even appears like a carbon copy of what happened in Picard's first season. But rather than a reissue, it turns out to be a sequel to an already known mystery story, and one from classic Trek no less. I noticed the similarities to TNG: "The Chase" while I was watching and made an according note after pausing for the supper break (slightly rephrased and extended because my raw notes suck): "So far the story is decent - aside from the usual problem of a TV/movie treasure hunt that no one knows what's to gain and still everyone does everything to get hold of it - much like already in TNG: 'The Chase'. In the classic episode the outcome was a reward for a bumpy plot, and I feel this too could go into the same direction." I had no idea the story was more than only inspired by "The Chase". Just before the whole truth was revealed, I wrote down another note (I paused a lot this time it seems): "So there is a technology from ancient times that has been a well-kept secret for centuries? Sounds like Illuminati and the likes..." The connection to what happened in "The Chase" makes this a bit more acceptable because at least it is not yet another unrelated galactic secret.

Anyway, for a second time after "Unification III" with its reference to Spock's stay on Romulus, Discovery forges strong ties with classic Trek, this time with the direct mention of TNG events and a picture of Jean-Luc Picard. The series thereby strives to make up for the huge errors of ignoring canon in its first two seasons and somehow attempts to appear as more relevant. Irrespective of how the story about the technology of the Progenitors turns out, I like this development, although I don't think it can retroactively repair what was wrong with the series when it was in self-imposed isolation.

"Red Directive" is a very enjoyable story with a good amount of action, decent character interaction without misplaced emotional moments and a strong new character (Rayner) that many will relate to. It comes with yet another big mystery (which at least has a surprising connection to classic Trek), with small annoyances (the flashforward) and with some story elements that simply don't work (everything that involves Tilly).

Annotations

Rating: 7

 

Under the Twin Moons

Synopsis

Stardate 866274.3: As the Discovery is being cleaned from the sand, Burnham and Rayner are debriefed by President Rillak. This doesn't go well for Rayner, who clashes with Rillak over his actions on Q'mau. The Discovery then departs for Lyrek, the planet in the Vileen system with the twin moons. This planet used to be a burial ground of the ancient Promellians. Burnham and Saru hope to find a message from Dr. Vellek at a structure, which the Promellians protected by a still operational EM field. As they approach the place, drones begin to attack them. Adira and Tilly try in vain to find out what powers the devices, until Rayner hacks into their communication and gives them the hint that they should search for something the ancient Promellians already possessed. While Saru is distracting the drones, Burnham manages to blow up the power source, upon which they are free to proceed and find the message. Phaser scorches in a stone pillar, however, reveal that L'ak and Moll beat them to it. It is still possible to decipher the four first verses of a Romulan poem though, which seems to indicate there is a further message on Betazed. Burnham and Saru have little time left as the drones begin to reactivate. But they find a "backdoor" underneath the pillar with the remainder about "where two souls entwine, joined as one" that points to Trill. There is also an artifact, whose shape matches with the drawing from Vellek's diary - apparently the first one of five parts of a puzzle. On the Discovery, Book uses an untraceable transmitter to talk to Moll and L'ak. He realizes that he has seen Moll before - she is Malinne, the daughter of his mentor Cleveland Booker IV. As Saru has left the ship, Burnham finds a new first officer in Rayner. He was forced to resign but his reinstatement was approved of by Admiral Vance.

Commentary

With the exception of Burnham and Saru's fight against the Promellian drones, "Under the Twin Moons" is a much calmer episode than the adrenaline-filled "Red Directive". I appreciate that the pace slows down. The time for character interaction is mostly used well. I especially like the way that Burnham and Saru take on their prospectively last common mission and reflect on the past while walking through the woods, although Saru says something odd that he probably didn't mean this way and that I comment on in the annotations.

It was foreshadowed in the previous episode, and now Rayner faces the wrath of his superiors. As it happens off-screen, we can't tell whether he was forced to resign only because of his allegedly reckless actions on Q'mau or whether there was something else on his record that leads up to the end of his career. We also don't know how much his confrontation with Rillak contributed to the decision. In any case, as I already mentioned, it leaves a bad taste. He gets penalized for something he didn't actually do, whereas Burnham and Tilly did do something wrong but are protected from prosecution as usual. This all serves to "prepare" Rayner to become Burnham's new XO (no one would have seriously expected Owo or Detmer in that capacity!), but it could have been done in a more plausible fashion.

"Red Directive" gratuitously involved Tilly, who needed an excuse to take a break from the Academy routine. What she found out after cracking that file was redundant. This feigned usefulness of her character continues in "Under the Twin Moons". She and Adira desperately try to find information on Promellian power sources that is ostensibly relevant but actually doesn't help Burnham and Saru against the drones on the planet. Then even Rayner chimes in and hacks their comm channel, apparently because someone felt the new character with the potential to become a fan favorite would otherwise have been too passive in this episode. If this were all half-way realistic, his interference would make them still more nervous. Anyway, the advice he gives Adira and Tilly about searching for technology the Promellians could have possessed is correct, but eventually doesn't help in any way either. Saru and Burnham have run out of options, and blowing up the launch base of the drones is about the only thing that is still left - with or without the tips from the jerks on the ship and on hacked subspace channels. This all is a textbook example of how not to write a race against time. If you do it right, you either involve everyone in a useful capacity, or you focus on those in danger and let them follow their instincts.

There is yet another plausibility problem pertaining to Rayner. When he talks to Burnham about the old days, Vance speaks of the many firefights he and Rayner were involved in. Rayner later insinuates that the reformed Starfleet wouldn't need unconventional officers or warriors like him any longer. This is not necessarily inconsistent, yet it makes me wonder if I got it all wrong in the third season. It was my clear impression that the post-Burn and pre-Burnham 32nd century Starfleet was seclusive. The ships were hiding behind the shield around Federation Headquarters most of the time. They would avoid battles and risky rescue missions. They had effectively stopped exploring - also because of the dilithium shortage, of course. The whole organization definitely was rather more than less politically correct than after Burnham turned it on its head. Is it just me, or are both Vance and Rayner telling a completely different story?

Bonnie and Clyde only appear in the communication with Book this time. It is not yet clear what kind of a role they will have for the rest of the season. My impression is that they won't remain the main antagonists. Although Moll and L'ak kill in cold blood if necessary, it seems more likely that someone else, someone bigger, is pulling the strings. It is well possible that they will even switch sides, especially since Book knows Moll. (On the other hand, he seems to know everyone in the galaxy anyway, like Fred last week.)

"Under the Twin Moons" does not quite live up to "Red Directive". But this is not primarily because the lack of excitement but because of the awkward ways that characters get involved and changes are brought about. I like that the episode doesn't lose focus of the mission to find the old artifacts. And I really dig Rayner, although the character is not written well in this episode.

Annotations

Rating: 5

 

Jinaal

Synopsis

After analyzing the artifact from Lyrek, Adira and Tilly find that the spots on it match with those of a Trill scientist named Jinaal Bix, who lived 800 years ago. As the Discovery arrives at Trill, Guardian Xi only permits the away team to beam down after Burnham has answered the question that the fourth stanza of the Romulan poem leads to Betazed. Kalzara, the current host of the Bix symbiont, and Hugh Culber undergo the zhian'tara in the Caves of Mak'ala, so Jinaal can lead Book and Burnham to the clue. Jinaal, Vellek and four other scientists found the Progenitors' technology but it was so overwhelmingly powerful that they decided the galaxy was not yet ready for it. In the meantime, Rayner gets acquainted with the crew of the Discovery on Burnham's orders, but he doesn't make friends among them with his callousness. After talking to Duvin, a Vulcan advisor, Saru is concerned that her engagement to an outworlder may endanger T'Rina's political career and Vulcan purists could gain influence. Saru suggests to postpone the announcement. Yet, T'Rina says she has nothing to hide and convinces him to proceed regardless. As Book, Burnham and Jinaal, in Culber's body, proceed to the stash, they are attacked by indigenous predators. Jinaal chooses to retreat. Book and Burnham keep trying and get trapped. They recognize that the creatures only try to protect their clutch and are free to leave after successfully communicating that they mean no harm. They return to Jinaal with the intention to try again later, but Jinaal says this was a test and hands them the next puzzle piece (which leads into Tzenkethi space). As Adira is still on Trill to say goodbye, Moll sneaks in and secretly attaches a transponder to their uniform.

Commentary

I was pleasantly surprised about "Red Notice". I still thought the storyline about the Progenitor technology had potential when I watched "Under the Twin Moons" right after the season premiere. Unfortunately, as one week has gone by, things fall apart in "Jinaal".

This negative impression is in part because the story is more diversified this time and involves several other characters besides Burnham. What sounds like a good idea is not to the episode's benefit in my view.

Whether we like it or not, Michael Burnham is the one character that carries the whole storyline of the season. Not only does she have the most screen time and the most lines of dialogue. She is usually the one who recognizes the truth when everyone else does not see it and who takes action when everyone else falters. We can call her a Mary-Sue but Discovery would not be possible without her always being in the focus. Everyone else pales in comparison by default, and this is all the more noticeable in this particular episode where various other people are strongly involved too. Their plot threads are trite and their lines are clumsy. Well, we see a lot of Wilson Cruz with a strong performance in a key role, but he appears as Jinaal in Culber's body most of the time, leaving the regular character underdeveloped. At least, Culber gets involved, other than his husband Stamets, who still has no purpose in this season.

Rayner already had some decent action, then slipped into a conflict with his superiors that he lost and was given a second chance, all in the course of the first two episodes. His character got so well established in such a short time. The writers probably felt that he needed a setback and decided to let him appear as edgier and less likable this time. But the way how they push it, with Rayner out-Jellicoing and out-Shawing other callous Starfleet captains, is too much. At least, it gives some of the otherwise silent rest of the bridge crew 20 words of dialogue that he concedes to them. And in the tradition of the first two episodes, it provides this week's excuse for Tilly to be aboard the ship when she calls out Rayner's being a giant [sorry, 20 words limit exceeded]. I admit that bit was funny, but one punchline doesn't justify the plot. Neither does the voice-over at the end of the episode that once again emphasizes how important it is to connect (and how poor Rayner fails in this regard), like all through seasons 3 and 4. I almost missed this reminder in the first two episodes. No, just kidding!

Anyway, speaking of character interaction that feels off, we also have the not-so-glorious return of Jett Reno. When she tries to insinuate that not all may be well in Adira and Gray's relationship after being separated for six months, why does she have to speak in riddles to "space dad" Stamets (who reacts with his usual grimaces, which in this case are understandable)? The foreshadowed breakup itself is awkward too, but more relatably so and more like it could happen in real life. Although Adira and Gray come to that decision without having reasons and essentially because they talk one another into it, it is something that comes across as familiar (and that has something of the Abilene paradox). It just isn't interesting and probably will not have consequences (other than it may be undone towards the series finale).

I would also have hoped for a more engaging plot line (pun alert!) about Saru and T'Rina. I like these two a lot. But even though the Vulcan purists may be a thing and may play a role later in the season, the question of when to announce their engagement is even more trivial than Adira and Gray's breakup and further distracts from the main plot.

Coming back to Burnham, she is also an immensely valuable asset because she often speaks through the fourth wall and voices possible objections of the audience. Burnham does it at least twice in this episode. The first time is when she suggests to skip to the end of the level and get the clue right away, the second time is when she objects that Jinaal and company would have destroyed all evidence if they had no trust in people. I like Burnham as a "fans' advocate" that occasionally provides reason in a confounding story, even when it's merely lampshading. On the other hand, some time later we have to question Burnham's sanity because she seriously expects that the predators could recognize her phaser and would not attack once it is dereplicated (is that a word?).

The perhaps biggest disappointment about "Jinaal" is that everything that happens on Trill after the zhian'tara, on the search for the second puzzle piece, is essentially a carbon copy of the events on Lyrek where the first one was found. It was drones last week, now it's deadly predators that can shoot likewise. The only difference is that, for some reason, no one thinks about asking anyone on the ship for help. Anyway, the outcome that devils in the dark protect their eggs and can be appeased with a mind-meld is just as clichéd as the idea to blow up the central control unit to disable a decentralized system. On the top of that, in both cases there is a built-in deception, then a backdoor and now a red herring.

It doesn't have to be a bad thing that the storyline is formulaic and procrastinative by design. 800 years ago, some scientists decided the galaxy was not yet ready for an ancient technology. And so they created an adventure game that would test the players whether they are "worthy seekers", as Jinaal puts it (which sounds like an Indiana Jones reference, although I don't think it's one). With backdoors to test intelligence and with a red herring involving hatching monsters to test their moral standards. If this were a single episode like "The Chase", it could be a fun trip despite the many issues of logic and probability. And if the treasure hunt hadn't been done in similar ways in like six seasons since 2017, it would still have an air of originality.

It could all have been a little more captivating, had it been more about analyzing the clues and less about mindless action and passing character tests, a bit like it would have been in TNG (and was most notably in "The Chase"). But the arguably more interesting part about discovering how the spots on the artifact match with those of Jinaal is sidelined and condensed to like half a minute at the very beginning of the episode.

I am a bit sorry for this episode to draw my wrath because I did not recognize the weaknesses of the premise sooner, although they were already present in "Red Notice" and "Under the Twin Moons". But as the storyline turns out to be that of an average adventure game, with "Jinaal" being merely another level to be played by the book, interrupted by sitcom-like side plots, it comes as a disillusionment.

Annotations

Rating: 3

 


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