Week three in the Mirror Universe, and I’ll give Discovery this much: They are making the most out of this premise. While some details of the Terran Empire don’t really work (most of the sneering minor characters are laughably trite), forcing Burnham to spend time with a doppelgänger of the mentor she betrayed has its advantages. For one thing, it means bringing back Michelle Yeoh, who is very clearly enjoying playing a murderous, manipulative tyrant. For another, the fact that the Terran version of Burnham (who is almost certainly dead) was the Emperor’s adopted daughter works to poke into some of our Burnham’s very complicated feelings about Georgiou. It doesn’t hurt that the Terran Burnham was also a betrayer, albeit in a more direct and potentially lethal manner.
The scenes between the Emperor and Burnham are some of the most effective the show has done so far, managing a suspenseful mix of subtext, uncertain motives, and shocking twists in a way that feels, if not exactly organic, than at least somewhat close to earned. And to give credit where it’s due: after the non-surprise of Tyler/Voq, it was legitimately impressive to get a reveal I wasn’t expecting. Maybe commenters have been suspecting this from the start, but while the specifics were clunky, Burnham discovering that her captain, the Lorca we’ve been following all this time, is actually from the Mirror Universe is easily the show’s biggest “holy shit” moment since its premiere.
I’d have to rewatch the previous 11 episodes to be sure, but I’m fairly certain this twist holds up. At the very least, it explains Lorca’s odd interest in Burnham, and the risks he was willing to take in the “real” universe. While the reveal doesn’t excuse the show’s problems with world-building and coherent storytelling, it does recontextualize the narrative and character relationships in ways that are a bit more interesting than the Tyler/Voq duality. Tyler’s introduction made him suspicious form the start, but Lorca fell into a familiar archetype—the “gets results” starship captain who was both reassuring and maybe a bit dangerous. It was entirely possible to believe he was exactly who he said he was, which means the realization that he isn’t has actual weight to it.
There’s also the explanation of his relationship with Burnham, which I’m a bit mixed on. While this wasn’t as hilariously clunky as the “Oh, all Terrans are vulnerable to bright lights!” moment (this is such an awkward character beat that it only really works as self-parody), the idea that Lorca was an adoptive father figure for Terran Burnham, only to become her lover when she grew into adulthood, is… well, it’s kind of icky and weird, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. Up until now, there hasn’t been anything remotely sexual between Burnham and Lorca, and while the actors play off each other well, the lack of romantic chemistry has been one of the foundational parts of their relationship.
But we’ll have to wait and see what happens there. Judged on its own merits, “Vaulting Ambition” is strong. In sticking to the show’s strengths—rapid story development, a willingness to make big choices—it manages to downplay the weaknesses, and the result is a suspenseful, occasionally moving entry whose shallowness is easy to overlook for the sake of its scope. In addition to learning the horrible truth about Lorca, Stamets also gets a chance to do more than just be in a coma, spending some time with his Terran double and also saying goodbye to his boyfriend before forcing his way back to the real world to discover yet another horrible truth.
I’m torn on the Stamets stuff. I think the idea of a kind of spore-verse is a good one—or at the very least, a necessary one, given how much the spore drive has influenced the storytelling of the show. I also appreciate that Dr. Culber got a chance for a properly emotional farewell, although if this is what the producers meant by the character not being completely gone yet, ho boy. The idea that Terran Stamets is responsible for sending Stamets visions of the Mirror Universe is clever, albeit something we could’ve spent more time on, and the fact that his actions have created a sickness that wipes out the Discovery’s spore garden helps to raise the stakes again (especially given that the Emperor just told Burnham that a trip through “interphasic space” would drive everyone on the Discovery insane).
At the same time, I just don’t care that much about Stamets. The character has yet to endear himself, and I’m legitimately not sure if that’s the fault of the actor or the writing. Regardless, during his emotional farewell to his dead lover, I was torn between appreciating the solid use of tropes, and knowing that this would’ve been so much more affecting if their relationship had been more than just a well-meaning concept. Dr. Culber never got a chance to rise above “nice boyfriend with medical degree” and Stamets is just a persistent vocal tone. There was nothing to distinguish Evil Stamets from regular Stamets besides the wardrobe.
But that’s a standard complaint with this series. Very few of the characters stand out—of the lot, Saru is easily my favorite, which may just be because he’s the only one I can really see as someone who belongs on Trek. Lorca is fine, and who knows what will happen now that we know the truth; there’s a possibility Burnham might get a chance to be more than just the well-meaning but kind of tedious center to everyone else’s madness. (She’s got a bad case of Main Character Disease, in that everyone else gets to do wacky things but she has to be all serious and stone-faced. Remember how the show started with her attempting a one-person mutiny for the greater good? It’s understandable that she’s wanted to behave with moderation since then, but it’s still frustrating that such a dynamic figure has been slotted a perfectly-acceptable-but-not-all-that-distinct hero role.)
“Vaulting Ambition” at least offers the possibility that the status quo will be meaningfully upended. Earlier I criticized the show for spending this much time in the Mirror Universe, but given Lorca’s true origins, it turns out that time has been well spent after all. If this escalates into an all out battle between Burnham and Lorca, that could give the entire season the direction and specificity it’s been struggling to maintain. Or we could just get a bunch more scenes of Klingons arguing because reasons. Have to wait and see, I guess.
- Yes, there were more developments on the Tyler/Voq front that sort of clarified exactly what the hell he is: some sort of mash-up of a human’s DNA and a Klingon’s reworked body? Whatever it is, there’s still no sense that all this effort was put to good use, or that it’s put Voq in a better position than he was before. (There seems to be an implication that Tyler’s personality wins out in the battle between the two?)
- I’ve complained about the Mirror Universe’s frustrating lack of visual style, but the Emperor’s ship is legitimately impressive.
- I think my screener may have been missing a scene. The episode ran short (37 minutes), and the transition from Burnham and Lorca in the shuttlecraft to Burnham and Lorca on the Emperor’s ship was distractingly abrupt.
- The scene were the Terran Stamets “psychs out” our Stamets was intensely unfunny.