TV reviews

Star Trek Discovery 1×08 – ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’ – Review

This week’s episode is a busy mix of two completely contrasting story lines, a small spore sub-plot and an ambitiously highbrow Latin title and translates as ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ The episode deftly harks back to several Original Series episodes such as ‘Errand of Mercy’ and ‘This Side of Paradise’ and the wacky away mission plot feels more like old school Trek than even last week’s time loop episode.

‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum’ starts out with a space battle as the USS Discovery desperately tries to save the USS Gagarin (whose name is a nice nod to the first man in space Yuri Gagarin) from several Klingon vessels who seem to have the cloaking/invisibility technology that allows them to remain undetected to Stafleet ships. This battle allows the smaller roles of the bridge crew to shine, such as Lieutenant Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) and Lieutenant Commander Airiam (Sara Mitich). The loss of the Gagarin has a visible affect on the crew and once it becomes clear that 462 people have died in the battle, we get a better view of how the war with the Klingons is affecting the rest of Starfleet. This is something that could have been portrayed earlier in the series, which would have made the stakes with the spore drive even higher in later episodes.

There is no character in Discovery that is as mysterious as the Klingon, L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) and she is a delight to watch. Mary Chieffo buried beneath so much prosthetic makeup, must have a difficult job in conveying subtle emotions, so it is a testament to her brilliant acting that she has managed to create such an intriguing character. L’Rell can convey her serious curious mind with just a side look of her eyes. She claims to want to join Kol’s (Kenneth Mitchell) armada of Klingon houses and so offers her skills as an interrogator. This is of course a ruse. She hates Kol and who can blame her.

The Klingon leader gets more despotic with each episode, killing his own species and denying them an honourable burial. He rules through fear and intimidation and despite the warlike society of the Klingons, it is clear that he is a dishonourable leader. L’Rell is tasked with interrogating Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) and in what is possibly the most original scene in television to past the Bechdel test, the two scream at each other before hatching a plan to escape so L’Rell can defect to the Federation. Does L’Rell really want to defect or is this yet another trick? Either way she is the impressively and deliciously wily. After the dust has cleared on the Klingon ship, Admiral Cornwell appears to be dead, which we suspect is also another ruse. If not, it will be a shame as Cornwell has proved to be an upstanding admiral, a decent psychologist and a feisty fighter.

A small sub-plot involving Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) reveals that the spore drive and tardigrade DNA are starting to affect his perception of time and his awareness of his surroundings. He’s back to his usual grouchy demeanour but it is clear that this is because he is both confused and frightened by the effect of the spore drive. In a touching display of love for his partner, Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz), Stamets explains he is unable to tell him about his symptoms for fear of compromising his profession. Instead he confides in Tilley (Mary Wiseman) and in a moment of confusion refers to her as ‘Captain’ hinting that he may have knowledge of the future and a time in which she is Captain of a ship, possibly the Discovery. If Tilley ends up in a command position in a future series of Star Trek, it will be a joy to see, if only because empathetic characters should also achieve career success and not just brilliantly clever ones.

Meanwhile, an away team comprising of Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) and Saru (Doug Jones) land on the planet Pahvo to do some rather dodgy science. The planet apparently vibrates and has a large natural crystal transmitter inexplicably pointing towards the sky. Somehow Starfleet can use this transmitter and the planetary vibrations to disrupt the Klingon’s invisibility shields. As silly as all of this sounds, the visuals of the planet are beautifully filmed and it is a relief to see a natural landscape in the series after so many scenes on the ship.

The main issue with the Pahvans are that they are too abstract a species for us to really care about protecting. Star Trek has been criticised in the past for its many humanoid aliens unlike more enigmatic and bizarre extraterrestrials in other scifi film and television. This episode would refute this criticism, because the Pahvans are essentially floating clouds of vibrating particles, which ironically seem almost indistinguishable from the spores of the spore drive. They may be enlightened and peaceful beings, but we never really get a sense of this, even with Saru’s deliriously happy rambling. A similar plot existed in the Original Series episode ‘Errand of Mercy, ‘ in which the humanoid Organians try to force a peace agreement between humans and Klingons and was executed with much more sense.

The away mission itself may be silly but it does reward us with some interesting character development. Burnham, Saru and Tyler make a great team and their early conversation is fast flowing and witty. The relationship between Burnham and Tyler grows closer. If he is indeed a spy, he is an extremely talented one, as his conversation about fishing and cooking trout is awfully convincing. They butcher the traditional Trek ‘needs of the many’ speech in a romantic moment and share their first kiss surrounded by luminescent particles. Tyler later goes on to explain to Saru that he is willing to transform into ‘something else’ to seek revenge on the Klingons/Kol, perhaps hinting further to the fan theory that he is a Klingon spy himself.

Saru’s character is also explored. He is shown as physically stronger, faster and with sharper hearing than a human. His furious running is both hilarious and frightening. He is also filled with fear and anxiety, which is not actually unusual amongst the crew of the Discovery, since most of them appear to be suffering from some psychological turmoil. But Saru’s Kelpien heritage means that he is always on the look out for danger and can never relax. His transformation on Pahvo is reminiscent of Spock’s transformation in the episode ‘This Side of Paradise’ from a logical being to one high on blissful happiness. He reacts with violence at Burnham’s betrayal on the planet, yet again showing the hurt he feels over past events the two of them have shared. His angry efficient blows are also similar to Spock’s outbursts when he is insanely angered. Doug Jones does some of his finest work in this episode, especially in the physicality of Saru’s emotions.

This war is challenging everyone in Discovery and will no doubt prove to be even more transforming as the series progresses.

Star Trek Discovery airs on Netflix every Monday in the UK. Let us know what you think of the season.

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