At some point in this season of Star Trek: Discovery we were sure to start wrapping-up story arcs, and see the pace pick up. When a season of serialised television gets to that stage, pacing issues usually tend to fall away. Finally – thankfully – we seem to be at that moment.
‘The Red Angel’ begins, in the aftermath of Airiam’s death, with a funeral service for the fallen officer. As Tilly discovers hidden code within Airiam’s implants, the signature of which matches Burnham – therefore, a future version of Burnham is the Red Angel – Section 31 reveals that the Red Angel technology is something they created. Leland reveals to Michael that her parents were working for the section at the time of their deaths, and outlines his responsibility for the chain of events that led to their demise – prompting a violent reaction from Michael. The crew hypothesise that the Red Angel will arrive if there is a need to save Burnham, as has happened before; as a future Burnham can’t let her present day equivalent die. A trap is set by Michael being placed in an environment where she will die without intervention.
There’s no real B-plot this week, but the ongoing fallout of Stamets and Culber splitting continues; with Culber visiting Admiral Cornwell – formerly a therapist (that’s handy isn’t it?) – to talk through his issues with re-integration onto Discovery, and Stamets trying his best to remain professional on duty, despite clearly struggling with his feelings when in the presence of Hugh.
Let’s deal with the negatives first. This episode begins with one of the most un-earned emotional beats in Star Trek history. The funeral of Airiam, with its emotional speeches and the musical send-off, Wrath of Khan-style (Doug Jones has a lovely voice, by the way – if, indeed, that is him), doubles down on one of the central problems of the ‘Project Daedalus’ episode: her death was cheap. We barely knew the character, and all of the character work, and emotional build-up was contained in that one episode. Disco is consistently failing its supporting characters, by having the bridge populated by people we barely know. It’s meant to be a gut-wrenching moment when Airiam’s replacement takes her station, but the show would have had to have worked far harder to make this mean anything.
Characters continue to talk at each other, with every conversation being full of philosophical speeches, and nothing even approaching small talk ever being uttered. The funeral is a good example, and it’s a little obnoxious, actually. In fact, it’s very Alex Kurtzman. Watch any of the films he wrote with Roberto Orci, and there’ll be multiple examples of dialogue that sounds important, but, ultimately, is a little meaningless. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy at graduation in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 being a stand-out example. He may not have written this episode, but he’s in the writers’ room, and his fingerprints are all over this.
The visuals continue to be saturated in lens flare. This wouldn’t be an issue, but for the fact that we know it’s a conscious choice of the production team. There’s far too much of it for it to be an accident, and the fact that the crew must have had conversations about how to get some of that JJ Abrams-style energy into the show, in order to bring in the younger audience the Star Trek universe undoubtedly needs if it is to thrive, speaks to the essential problem that Star Trek: Discovery lacks a solid, core identity. After 25 episodes, it is still living with the insecurity of not knowing whether to embrace the history of the show, shoot for the audience that loved the cinematic reboot, or plot its own course. Most often, it defaults to the first of those, but it’s a show that’s yet to be fully comfortable in its own skin.
The whole Burnham as Red Angel thing really didn’t make a lot of sense. The show seemed to be implying that she shared the exact same DNA with the being – ergo, it was her. Given the reveal in the final moments of the show that it was her mother, this makes little sense: had she had a twin that turned out to be the Red Angel, that would be one thing; but mother and daughter would not have identical DNA – unless Michael was a virgin birth. It’s a small point, but it’s lazy writing (similarly, an Alex Kurtzman signature).
That said, ‘The Red Angel’ is one of the stronger entries in this run. Acting is, uniformly, top-notch; with Sonequa Martin-Green providing some of her best work in the role, with her reaction to Leland’s revelations about his role in her parents’ death. Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp continue to perform the confusion and pain of proximity post-relationship break-up with distinction, and, finally, Michelle Yeoh got to show some of the exaggerated qualities that suits the Georgiou character – even if the writing here seemed deeply self-conscious.
A note of praise here, too, for Alan van Sprang, as Leland: this was a role that screamed one-dimensional pantomime villain when he was first shown [briefly], some episodes ago, but he played his key scenes sensitively, and with a continued slight-ambiguity. There is more to learn of this character – if this new Star Trek universe (same continuity though, of course) chooses to find a slot for him.
The scenario of putting Burnham in danger to draw out the angel felt more than a little contrived, but it was very well played. The physical pain Michael was feeling during this process was genuinely well communicated, and the ticking clock aspect did add great tension to the scene. Shame about the nonsensical nature of the reveal: a parody-level facepalm moment.
‘The Red Angel’ seems to represent the moment we hit the final act of this sophomore season. The show has noticeably taken a [desperately needed] step-up in pace, and, hopefully, the filler-nature of many of the escapades of previous episodes is now done with. There is enough here to suggest there are interesting times to come in the final few entries, but this – in common with many early seasons of previous Star Trek incarnations – remains a show still yet fully to discover its own identity.