Star Trek: Discovery: Season 1 – Episode 10 ‘Despite Yourself’ REVIEW
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When we left the Discovery crew a few weeks back, their mushroom engine had gone badly wrong and flung them into an unrecognised region of space. Now, encountering some subtly wrong debris and a ship of hostile Vulcans, they manage to work out exactly where it is they’ve ended up – it’s that old Trek staple, the mirror universe where everyone’s evil. In the old days, you could tell they were evil because Spock wore an evil goatee, Uhura wore much much less, and they were all trying to kill each other if given any possible opportunity. This time they’ve only got that last thing.
Over in this universe, there is no Starfleet – instead there’s the Terran Empire, which is xenophobic, aggressive, expansionist, and overall basically what you’d expect from any half-decent sci-fi empire. Interestingly, whereas Starfleet is currently stalemated against the Klingons, the Terran Empire are currently taking on a coalition of all the nearby alien races without too much trouble. On that basis alone you’d think Lorca would take to this universe like a duck to water, but as it turns out, over here he’s not even close to the captain – in fact he’s on the run for trying to kill the emperor. The captain of this universe’s ISS Discovery is, in fact, Tilly, or as she’s informally known ‘Killy’.
As this is not the first time a Starfleet ship’s ended up in the evil universe, the plan becomes to get onto a Terran ship and figure out how people tend to get back to their own universe. And what this means for the crew of Discovery is a big game of dress-up, where everyone gets to put on the ridiculous gilt Terran uniform – apart from the aliens in the crew, who get to hide in a back room. Lorca’s in the same boat as a fugitive, and so’s Michael – who is technically captain of the ISS Shenzhou, but is missing and presumed dead having gone after Lorca. All the indications are that Michael’s mutiny against Georgiou went better in this universe, because that’s apparently how promotions work in the Terran Empire.
They manage to squeak through their first contact with a Terran ship by having it be audio-only, but eventually, they need to sit Tilly in Lorca’s chair, something they’re both profoundly uncomfortable with. She does her best villain-in-a-pantomime performance, which the Terrans are completely convinced by. This is by any measure the strongest part of the episode, and could easily be made into an entire spin-off of Tilly overacting and saying evil things while Lorca rolls his eyes so much he appears to be having some kind of fit. But, instead of them going rogue under bumbling Grand Admiral Tilly, the plan becomes for Michael to ‘return’ to the ISS Shenzhou with Lorca as her prisoner.
All Terran captains keep a bodyguard around, because you would in a society where backstabbing is a way of saying ‘hello’. Michael, naturally, chooses Ash. He’s head of security and very fond of her, so this would appear to all be fine – except that after a particularly jarring flashback, he goes to visit L’Rell in the brig, and she reactivates his Voq personality. Yeah, that’s the big revelation here, that Ash really has been Voq in disguise all the time. The fanbase has been taking this as read since early in the first part of the series, and I have to say, the show could have been a lot subtler than having L’Rell heavily imply Voq should drastically change his appearance, and then Voq mysteriously disappear and Ash mysteriously appear.
Now that he’s full-on blacking out and barking in Klingon, he goes to Culber for a checkup. Culber’s having problems of his own, mainly related to how Stamets is still catatonic and gibbering out significant-sounding nonsense – if you’ll remember, he predicted Tilly being the captain as a result of being filled with mushrooms. Nevertheless, Culber gives Ash the once-over, and the results are unsettling. Culber is presumably kicking himself at having missed that Ash’s limbs and spine have all been surgically shortened, almost as if he used to have a larger, almost Klingon-like body – but as the truth is just dawning on Culber, Ash has Voq kick in again and snap the guy’s neck.
Probably the best thing I can say about Culber’s apparent death is that it makes more sense than Landry’s – though between those two, Discovery’s running dangerously short on named bridge crew. More importantly, though, there is a long and unpleasant history of gay people in fiction being unceremoniously killed off – historically, it was very often the more aggressively gay part of the couple. Both Stamets and Culber are relatively gentle souls, so Discovery appears to have compromised by killing off the one who’s less white. And then having nobody even notice.
This is not to say that gay characters need to be immortal or invulnerable – nobody complained about Stamets spending most of the first half of the season losing his mind by being used as an engine part. But this is particularly significant given that Stamets and Culber are Star Trek’s first canonical gay couple who aren’t star-beings who happen to look like pretty ladies – and DS9’s Jadzia, the most prominent of those star-beings, was also eventually killed off, due mainly to the producers holding a grudge against her actor, Terry Farrell. It’s all especially damning given that Discovery made a lot of noise about its diverse cast – chiefly about having a black woman in the lead role, which takes on a sour taste when you consider that of the main characters who have been killed off so far, none have been white.
With his secret secure, Ash accompanies Michael and Lorca over to the Shenzhou – whose crew are immensely pleased to have Michael back, and even more pleased to see her treacherous first officer have a pop at her and get himself killed. Unfortunately for Lorca, evil Starfleet don’t just sling prisoners in the brig, they put them in weird pain tubes where they get blasted by red electricity. Michael tries to spare him this, but there’s only so much she can do while still selling herself as evil. And, unable to get a quiet moment to look through the ship’s records, she heads off to bed with Ash – who, miraculously, manages not to go Voq again.
This is, perhaps, an example of Discovery’s arc-based format being a hindrance compared to previous, more episodic Star Treks. While I can’t knock the writers for wanting to get their money’s worth from the evil universe, it does sort of reduce this episode to just another prologue – which is pretty damning given that previous visits to the evil universe have somehow managed to introduce the concept, set up the narrative stakes, and resolve them inside one episode. And that points neatly to another fault, that there isn’t much in play here that Star Trek hasn’t done before.
The Trek essentials
‘to explore strange new worlds’: Sadly not – it’s all taking place on spaceships.
‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’: There’s the culture shock of the evil universe, which, while it’s been featured in Star Trek many times before, will be chronologically the first time we’ve seen a Starfleet crew go over – this predates Kirk and the gang’s adventures. Enterprise did have an episode set in the evil universe, but there was no crossover, just Scott Bakula bouncing around acting even more Jack Bauer than he usually did.
‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’: Again, hats off to Discovery for featuring a gay couple for almost seven episodes.