Star Trek: Discovery 1.14 – “The War Without, The War Within”

In which there are many women, and everyone is making bad decisions for what they hope are the right reasons. Also known as MY JAM.

People who are Not Okay And Need Extensive Therapy And Maybe Some Kind Of Holiday, Honestly, Let’s Just Parachute Deanna Back A Century To Take Care Of It All

  • Ash Tyler
  • Kat Cornwell
  • Paul Stamets
  • Probably Sarek

People who are Not Okay But They’re Working On It And Will Get There

  • Michael Burnham
  • Saru
  • Sylvia Tilly

People who transcend mere concepts of “okayness”

  • Philippa Georgiou

On being a saint in paradise

One of the moments which solidified Deep Space 9’s place as the morally complicated one was in season 2, when Sisko, speaking of Federation colonists resorting to violence after being displaced from their homes by an unfair treaty, delivers this speech:

“On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!”

A recurring theme in Discovery, particularly around the mirror universe arc, has been that everyone has the capacity for selfishness, cruelty and evil inside them. Discovery‘s mirrorverse had the ridiculous costumes and torture phone booths, but what truly scares Michael and Tilly is how easy it is to adopt their counterparts’ personae, and how little separates them from becoming those people.

This is in contrast to TOS, where Spock remarks that the mirror universe officers were so very different from “his” crewmates that they couldn’t possibly go undetected on our side:

“It was far easier for you as civilised men to behave like barbarians, than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilised men.”

Spock certainly has a point — as I think we’re going to see next week — but clearly it’s not as black and white as he thought. Not only did Lorca pass himself off as his prime counterpart for over a year (in fairness, he’s a much more subtle person than Kirk, even when he’s paraphrasing Trump), but Michael and her crewmates have arrived home at a point where the Federation, as represented by Sarek and Kat, is desperate enough to resort to Terran strategies.

This week in Extremely Bad Choices Theatre

Michael realised as soon as the dust and transporter sparkles cleared that saving Georgiou had been a mistake. Now she’s living with the consequences, but the upside is, this week she was surrounded by people making even worse decisions, which I’m going to list in approximate order of terribleness:

A good choice: Saru not pressuring Michael to see Ash. Well done, buddy, well done.

A reasonable choice: Tilly metaphorically embracing Ash. Makes perfect sense for her personality and characterisation. She tried to exclude Michael and apologised within 24 hours. Tilly doesn’t do exclusion. (I suspect she’s more prone to Geek Social Fallacies.)

Another reasonable choice: Michael consulting with Georgiou about the war. It’s just common sense.

A less reasonable choice: Okay, so Georgiou (who hasn’t actually committed any crimes in this universe) is confined to quarters, but Ash can walk around in public, running into the partner of the man he murdered? And also we’re still not 100% sure if he’s human or Klingon? Saru kind of lost me here. He’s driven by compassion and a sense of fairness, yes, but for Ash, not Paul or Michael.

It’s fine, though, he’s been thrust into a command role for which he wasn’t yet ready, and overall he’s done very well — but he’s still unseasoned. (Which is not an invitation to rub him down with garlic and ginger and wrap him up in a nice marinade, Philippa.)

A dubious writing choice: To have Tilly’s acceptance of Ash being embraced by everyone else in the mess hall. One or two people, fine. Everyone? Kind of weird.

Ummmmmmm, okay, that is a decision you can make, I guess: Kat blasting Lorca’s fortune cookies to atoms was satisfying, but, like, maybe not ideal? If you want to show the world how stable and reasonable you are? (Spoilers: Kat is neither of those things right now, more below.)

Oh honey, no: I honestly wasn’t sure where to put Tilly’s speech to Michael. I think it’s reductive to interpret her as saying that Michael owes Ash her time and attention. Tilly is arguing as much that Michael owes herself closure.

But in saying that Michael’s treatment of Ash will shape how he recovers and becomes a real/better/functional person — I’m like, yes, that’s true of everyone, but Michael doesn’t need that responsibility, and it comes across as if Tilly is shaming Michael into pouring emotional labour into a guy who tried to kill her.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely a good writing choice for who Tilly is and where she’s at right now. She’s young, she’s clinging very, very hard to her principles, and she’s coming from a place of genuine love and concern for her two friends. Her motivations are kindness and a sense of justice, but it’s a complicated situation, and I just don’t know if Tilly quite knew what Michael needed to hear.

*hands* Nuance is hard! I don’t think Tilly was wrong, but I also don’t think she was entirely right.

This is a extremely bad idea: Sarek making a faustian bargain with Georgiou, and then, apparently persuading the Federation Council and Starfleet Command to agree to whatever brand of genocide she’s suggesting.

This one’s even worse: Giving Georgiou a starship. Putting another Terran in command of Discovery, and replicating Lorca’s deception by lying to the crew about it.

I love it, because it’s extremely messed up, and signposts the second mutiny we’ve all been expecting from Michael since episode 3. And Michelle Yeoh playing evil-Georgiou-pretending-to-be-good-Georgiou is already amazing.

But as decisions go, it’s terrible. I’m fascinated that Starfleet in general, and Cornwell in particular, would countenance it. Which brings me to…

Kat Cornwell is not okay, and I’m here for that

Kat was introduced as the stereotypical Starfleet admiral, turning up to ride Lorca’s ass and second-guess his choices. But she quickly became more, revealing herself as The Only Sane Admiral In Starfleet History, and — less flippantly — the antithesis of the unreasonable authority figure beloved of previous Trek.

I’m just gonna put this out there: I don’t think she’s The Only Sane Admiral any more. In fact, I think she’s got the PTSD plotline we thought Lorca was getting, only without support or reprieve.

Let’s look at her year so far:

  • the war (not going well)
  • concern about her old buddy Lorca
  • attacked by Lorca in bed
  • captured by Klingons a few hours later
  • a few weeks to a month of torture
  • serious injury
  • apparently goes more or less straight from hospital to view Discovery‘s wreckage
  • back to the war, going worse than ever
  • Discovery turns up and, all at once, she learns:
    • her old friend was replaced by his evil twin
    • what she thought was a consensual, if troubling, sexual encounter was actually rape by deception
  • a few hours later, she learns that Starbase One has been lost, with 80,000 dead plus three starships and their crew

I mean. How much can one human take? It makes sense that she’s blowing up fortune cookies, freezing up on the bridge, and drinking Lorca’s scotch alone in her quarters. I try not to attribute too much subtlety to Disco, but I think they’ve done very well in quietly establishing exactly how messed up Kat — and by extension, Starfleet — has become.

I’m into it. I’ve seen people (all men) complaining that this is sexist writing, implying that women can’t handle command, but I think it fits. It’s realistic, it’s not overplayed, and as long as we don’t end up with Kat dying — or taking the fall for Sarek and the Federation Council’s endorsement of Georgiou — I’m eager to see it play out. We have enough of a variety of female characters that some can fail without being held up as representatives of their entire gender.

Also, Kat’s scene with L’Rell would be the first time since Voyager that we got two women debating crunchy, Trekkian concepts, except we also have Michael and Georgiou doing the same. There are so many conversations between so many women in this episode, it’s truly amazing.

Do you wanna commit a war crime? (It doesn’t have to be a war crime.)

Sarek is also Not Okay, but aside from non-consensual mind melds, he’s mostly expressing it in the form of emotional intelligence and good parenting. That’s how bad things are.

Oh yeah, and also deals with the devil, those are quite troubling.

He and Georgiou are plainly fascinated by each other, competing over who is the better parent to Michael (Sarek wins on account of how his Michael didn’t shag Lorca) and dancing around the question of what Georgiou can offer the Federation, and what she might get in return.

Sarek is The Worst, but at least he’s failing at something other than parenting for a change.

Meanwhile, here is an incomplete list of people Sarek has mind melded with:

  • Michael
  • his three wives (we assume, I mean, come on)
  • Saru
  • McCoy
  • Picard
  • EVER

Michael is coping just fine, thank you

I often talk about other characters more than Michael, because her story is right there, it doesn’t have to be teased out or debated because she’s in the foreground. But that does her a disservice, as she is so well-written, and Sonequa Martin-Green plays her beautifully.

Like. She takes responsibility for her mistakes, and she’s honest with Saru about her motivations for saving Georgiou, even though she tries to prevaricate with the emperor herself. (Sidebar: only Michelle Yeoh can deliver a line like “daughter who is not my daughter” and make it sing and hurt at the same time.)

Now, I think she’s wrong to accept responsibility for starting the war — she did kill T’Kuvma and make a martyr of him, but I think the war was inevitable to a degree, and it’s doubtful she could have captured him alone after (prime) Georgiou was killed. I do not ascribe to the Great Person theory of history, even if everyone else in the Federation does.

And I think that, in seeking to be the person to end it, she’s not only taking on too much, but she still has Lorca in her head to an extent. (Speaking of people who were into the Great Man Theory.) But I suspect — usual caveats about my predictive skills aside — that Michael is going to end the war by helping to save Qo’noS, which is pretty nifty.

(Enough to earn her freedom? Who knows?)

Her other thread this week was The Ash Problem — not just that he was a secret Klingon, but that he — Ash, the human — didn’t come to her when he knew something was wrong, as he had promised.

Like a lot of the bad decisions I listed above, that one makes perfect sense on a character level, but it’s also understandable that Michael is angry about it now. And I loved that she refused to be the one to fix him — her speech about doing the work yourself felt very real to me.

I’m sure they’re going to reconcile before Ash’s inevitable death, but in the meantime, I’m glad Michael chose her own well-being, that she refused to set herself on fire to keep him warm.

Oh, Ash, honey, why?

On the other hand, while I once again completely understand why he’d ask, and think it’s reasonable characterisation and makes sense in terms of writing, I did want to punch Ash in the face. Just a bit.

But I think this is one of those instances where I’m just so weary of men asking women to do the work for them that I’m having trouble appreciating the nuance here. More of a Me Problem than a Writing Problem, but definitely an Ash Problem.

Husbands are like fungi, right?

Stamets has restored his mycelia supply, and in doing so, brought life to a barren rock. Next step: bring back Culber? Right? Wilson Cruz is still saying his story’s not over, but there’s not much time left, and I feel like there’s an awful lot to squeeze into the finale.

(I have to confess here that I have no strong feelings about the Stamets/Culber relationship. I’m irritated at the death of the non-white half of Star Trek‘s first ongoing queer couple, but it’s purely intellectual. I didn’t find Culber especially interesting in his own right.)

I was promised time travel (but maybe only in my head)

Further proof that you should regard all of my predictions with skepticism: I was quite certain last week that this episode would end with some kind of time travel that would take Discovery back to the point where it left, and rectify the damage caused by their nine-month absence.

I still do think that some kind of time travel solution is on the table, but maybe that’s because I’ve been trained by previous Treks to expect a reset. Certainly, “20% of the Federation has been occupied by Klingons and a third of Starfleet destroyed” seems like an awfully big change to the status quo of TOS, but I’ve seen some intelligent commentary on Twitter — I failed to keep any links, because the discussion was smarter than I am — to the effect that this could explain why Starfleet is both more gung ho about promoting the Federation in ten years’ time, but also less organised.

I’ve also seen the suggestion that this devastation, and the ensuing lack of resources, could explain the lower tech levels in TOS. I don’t actually think that needs explanation, but … well, here is an incomplete list of things which never, in my opinion, needed explanation:

  • any change whatsoever in Klingon make-up design
  • why Pike’s Number One isn’t emotionally expressive (“She was genetically engineered to be perfect!” SOMETIMES WOMEN ARE JUST STOIC.)
  • Lorca’s military prowess — the question of “how is he so good at war” having been the catalyst for the whole entire mirrorverse plot
  • AND MORE, probably

The jerk ranking

  1. With Lorca out of the way, ex-Emperor Georgiou claims the number one spot as Biggest Jerk. First, she was rude to Saru. Then she (apparently) gave Sarek some genocide tips. These are equally bad things, obviously.
  2. The Klingons. Guys, please give the Federation a break. Kat is so tired.
  3. The writers. This is really all their fault.
  4. Ash. His behaviour and choices are all completely understandable, and I empathise a lot, but he’s still being a bit of a dick.

Other observations

  • Like so many unemployed politicians, Emperor Georgiou has fallen into a cushy consulting job.
  • The cat is very quickly let out of the bag re: eating Kelpiens. Saru took it well, considering.
  • (There’s a clip from next week in After Trek which makes it clear that Georgiou wouldn’t be at all averse to eating her new first officer, and it’s both hilarious and inappropriate, and also weirdly sexy.)
  • My aesthetic this week: Michael and Saru exchanging looks of discreet alarm every time Kat lets her mask of stability slip, escalating from “…” to “???” to “!!!!!!!!!!” as events progress.
  • What I’m saying is, whatever you’re planning? Saru is in. He’s here for all your mutinies.
  • The trailer for next week includes some dodgy-looking space strip club shenanigans, to which I say, uuuuuggggggghhhhhhhh, show, we made it this far, WTF?


  • Thank you to Stephanie for proof reading (and not making too many comments about the glory that is Space Emperor Captain Auntie Michelle, the glory of all Chinese-Malaysians of the diaspora, and also for taking the time to specify that I need to thank her for this).
  • You can support my work via Ko-Fi.

2 thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery 1.14 – “The War Without, The War Within””

  1. *cough* I hate to be one of those annoying Trekkies, but Sarek melded with Kirk in Star Trek III. He may have melded with McCoy as well, but I can’t remember.

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