So, three episodes into Discovery’s fourth season, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite: a standalone. The main threat arc has been established (a giant terrifying gravitational anomaly that no one can understand or effectively predict), and that still serves as a motivating factor for much of what happens in “Choose To Live.” Michael and her mother investigate a crime; Stamets and Booker go to the Ni’Var Science Institute; and Gray gets his body (and presumably his groove) back. While two out of three of these plot lines spring off the Big Bad, each tells a specific, distinct story of its own, whether it’s the discovery of a new alien lifeform, or Booker finding a way to begin to make peace with what he’s lost, or Gray getting his new flesh.
It’s a nice change of pace, and in the past, Discovery’s managed some of its most effective sequences by slowing down a bit and letting stuff sink in. “Choose” isn’t a classic, and it suffers in part from not slowing down enough; but it’s hard to know how much of that is a function of the show’s intentional structure, and how much is driven by the inherent limitations of a shortened season. Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to wonder how all this might have fared if the whole hour had been devoted to, say, Michael’s adventures with the Qowat Milat. The closest we get to a thematic cohesion comes in the title, as each individual story is, if you squint, about people (and aliens) “choosing to live.” Which is nice, but I’m not sure that’s strong enough to make this feel like anything more than a collection of incidents.
Still, I’m nitpicking—this is the way most serialized shows tend to work these days, especially the streaming ones, and it would be unfair to hold an industry trend against Discovery on its lonesome. And while “Choose” doesn’t have much in the way of cumulative impact, it does have some very nice moments and a few funny jokes, and the whole thing moves at a good enough clip that it’s hard to resent any one part of it for lacking much in the way of depth.
We kick off with a group of ninjas beaming aboard a Federation ship, murdering a guy (after telling him very clearly that they don’t want to murder him), and stealing a bunch of dilithium. I say “ninjas” because, well, they’re dressed like Hollywood ninjas, but we soon learn that it’s a group of mercenaries led by a member of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan acolytes devoted to absolute candor and lost causes. Last we saw of the group (which was introduced in Star Trek: Picard), Michael’s mother, Gabrielle, had joined up, so there’s no huge surprise to see her sitting at the table here. She insists on being part of the mission to track down the woman who killed a Star Fleet officer, and President Rillak insists that Michael accompany her as the Federation representative, explaining later that, while Gabrielle may try and push her around, Michael should keep in mind that the mission is hers to command.
This sets up “politics,” which is apparently the season’s big struggle for Michael. It’s not a particularly convincing one; her mom is a hardass, to be sure, and the argument over bringing phasers to a sword fight is an extremely silly one, but while a Qowat Milat initiative is killed in the ensuing fracas, there’s no real consequences to the tension, and Michael getting irritated any time Rillak tells her anything doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Yes, bureaucracy can be tedious, and Michael has a history of being a cut-to-the-chase kind of person, but if she’s going to be a captain of a starship—which isn’t just a job about shooting things and saving the universe—she needs to at least be better at hiding her seemingly reflexive mistrust and suspicion about everything Rillak asks her to do.
Speaking of “you need to be better at your job,” Tilly gets a minor spotlight here, and as is so often the case with Tilly, it’s hard to pinpoint what bits work and what bits skew off into overly precious “quirk.” Last week, we heard she was having issues of some sort; this week, we learn that she’s experiencing strange discomfort at just being in her usual spaces. The crisis, at least as presented, sounds more existential than legitimately worrying, but it’s enough to prompt Saru to suggest Michael take Tilly along on the mission. Given that Tilly has no real tactical training, it is, on the surface, an unusual request; but since Discovery is always more about centering its main characters as the most important objects in the universe, rather than circumstances or story or other, less important characters, it’s in keeping with the show’s general attitude.
Thankfully, Tilly does fine. There’s a little too much “nervous Tilly banter,” although the Qowat Milat don’t seem to mind. The biggest letdown of this plotline is the ultimate reveal of Javani’s motives: she’s been stealing dilithium to save the lives of a hibernating species of unknown origin, a massive ship full of sleeping aliens with latinum in their bodies, which makes them high value targets for the sort of people who would kill hibernating aliens for latinum. Again, I question the whole “Quowat Milat only takes on lost causes.” This isn’t a lost cause. It’s a difficult, challenging problem, but it’s not like tilting-at-windmills.
But the problem here is more that the hibernating aliens are almost entirely irrelevant to a story which ostensibly is supposed to be fixated on them. It’s bold to make a whole species into a Macguffin, especially for a show with “discovery” right in its damn name, but that’s essentially what happens. It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that “Choose” spends no time trying to differentiate or even comprehend these creatures, but it still feels like a lot of effort just to remind us that Michael continues to have Mommy Issues, and to put yet more strain on her relationship with Rillak. Javani gets her wish, Michael helps save the aliens, and the rogue Qowat Milat member is remanded to NiVar custody—which pisses Michael off to no end. Given her past, I’m surprised she’s decided to take a hardline stance on the value of Federation justice, but really, it’s just an excuse for her to be pissed off at how the president is leading things. It’s a dumb excuse, and I’m hoping that the speech Vance gives her about how the government is like an orchestra will calm her down, but I’m not holding my breath.
While all this is going on, Stamets continues to study the anomaly data; he theorizes they’re dealing with a wormhole, but it’s impossible to prove this because the data shows no evidence of tachyon particles. This leads to a visit to the science institute, with Booker, still desperate to do something, tagging along. Really it’s just an excuse for Booker to go through a mind meld where he can relieve his final memories of his home planet, and as those things go, it works well enough. I appreciate that the show has tried to take Booker’s grief seriously, and while it’s sometimes funny to watch a man mourn an entire planet by fixating on the last two people he saw, we all have our own ways of dealing with loss.
As for the other big plotline of the episode: Gray is transferred into his new body, and everything works out. I’ve thought about this a bit, and while I have some quibbles, this whole storyline is so clearly coded as a metaphor for transitioning that I’m reluctant to try and poke too many holes in it. Transgender people deserve coherent, well-written and thoughtful representation on screen, and I’m not sure this entirely counts; but I can also understand the value of something like this existing at all. As a story in the context of the Trek verse, it doesn’t really work for me, and the amount of time they spend with Adira agonizing over Gray’s silence comes across as contrived as everything else about their relationship at this point. But as a sci-fi fantasy about where it’s truly possible to become the person you are, body and soul, I can see it having its merits.
I can also see that it’s not a fantasy directed at me, your humble straight white cisgendered male reviewer. So just this once, I’m going to nod respectfully and stand down. Now that Gray is corporeal, I’m sure he’ll be a regular part of the show going forward, and I’m not planning on making his or Adira’s storylines immune to criticism or anything silly like that. But in this specific case, I’m comfortable saying, “This isn’t for me, and that’s fine,” and moving on.
- “Please, my friend, choose to live.” Always something warm and reassuring to hear from a stranger carrying a sword.
- “This isn’t a moon. It’s a ship.” Between that line and the Ni’Var institute location that looked almost exactly like the Jedi council room in the prequels, the Star Wars vibes were even stronger than usual this week.