Of all the narrative staples that make Star Trek feel like Star Trek—science-y technobabble, fighting with Klingons or Romulans—one of the most enjoyable has always been exploring the definition of life and how to protect it. That's why the title for Star Trek: Discovery episode four, 'The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry," is so provocative. If Starfleet is the butcher, then something's gone terribly wrong.
Captain Lorca, Hero or Villain?
Four episodes in and firmly planted aboard USS Discovery, the show is taking time to dig in and put down roots. In "Butcher's Knife," we learn more about Saru, Michael Burnham's new roommate Tilley, and most of all Captain Lorca, who continues to be the most puzzling yet intriguing character in the entire show.
In a kind of Kobayashi Maru battle simulation, Lorca runs his crew through drills, fighting off fictitious Klingons to prepare for real war. After the crew's fatal defeat, Lorca expresses annoyance and disgust, and when Commander Landry says they'll do better, he spitefully answers "it will be hard to do worse." Not exactly Jean-Luc Picard-level leadership skills here.
Later, after learning a Federation outpost and crucial mining station Corvan II is under attack, he broadcasts the residents' death pleas over the ship's PA system. He's trying to motivate his crew? Or perhaps traumatize them.
"Butcher's Knife" also doubles down on the idea that Lorca is willing to win the war against the Klingons by any means necessary. It's been said before, but Lorca remains one of the weirdest characters to ever sit in the captain's chair, and I won't lie—I'm excited to see where his mild psychosis takes us.
About That Spore Drive
Ah yes, Spore Drive. In last week's episode, Lt. Paul Stamets laid out the theoretical framework for Discovery's out-there mode of transportation. After some "biology is physics" bong-rip kind of talk, he explains that microscopic organisms, making up the fabric of space, could somehow be manipulated to travel the cosmos.
Manipulated, being the keyword.
You might remember that Discovery last week introduced a horror monster in the shadows, one that had run rampant on the USS Glenn, killing Klingons and the crew there and chased the Discovery away team that came aboard. Capt. Lorca assigns Burnham to learn more about the beast; he's interested in how it repels phasers and Klingon Bat'Leths, and believes it could be studied and weaponized. Burnham delves into the creature's biology, and begins to learn much, much more.
The former first officer figures out she's dealing with an overgrown tardigrade (in real life, are those tiny "water bears" that can survive extreme desiccation and even the vacuum of space). After Commander Landry's eventually fatal (and idiotic) attempt to kill the beast, Burnham learns that the tardigrade and the spores have a symbiotic connection and that they can communicate with one another. The pieces begin falling into place.
When Stamets argues they need a supercomputer to power the spore drive, Burnham convinces Stamets that the tardigrade is the supercomputer. It's the missing piece to the spore drive puzzle, sort of like a spice-crazed in Dune. With the tardigrade placed in its navigator (torture?) chamber, the crew successfully jumps to Corvan II, saving the day.
However, toward the tail end of the episode, Burnham realizes that these jumps take a physical toll on the tardigrade, and it's here where Star Trek's flame begins to flicker—the fight to preserve life, in any of its forms. After Burnham get a posthumous gift and note from Captain Georgiou saying "take care, and most importantly, take care of those in your care," it seems obvious that she and Lorca are on a collision course for conflict.
While Discovery is shaping up to be an interesting take on the franchise, it remains plagued by unevenness. The show's clunky dialogue and pacing is a problem. In "Butcher's Knife," no where is this more obvious than the moment Commander Landry opens the tardigrade pen to...do what? Her stated reason is that the captain wants to learn its attacking secrets, so she's going to sedate the thing and figure out those secrets, dammit. But the viewer can feel a mile away that it's not going to work and she's going to get mauled. Hell, she was on the away mission that encountered the tardigrade, she should know that, too. Killing her off like this felt cheap, a ploy for some drama and a fight scene. It's sloppy.
The Klingons are still a great storyline and I hope we revisit them every week. The new Klingons were a bit of a one-note song during the premiere, but I love the web of lies and deceit already and Voq's exploration of the destroyed USS Shenzhou was a great scene. (The Klingon space suits are terrific, too.) Although Voq's mission as Tkuvma's torchbearer still alive, it's going to be harder than he originally thought to keep the Klingon houses together.
But where the Klingon narrative feels like A+ science fiction, Michael Burnham continues to be a blank slate and a tough character to interpret or empathize with, which is worrying because Burnham is obviously the narrative force behind the entire series, and if this character doesn't work, the show likely won't either.
However, "Butcher's Knife" gives us a glimmer of hope for Burnham. With her empathy for a creature Lorca only wants to exploit for war, Burnham carries the flame of what Star Trek has always been about—the pursuit of a more perfect society and to live among all beings in peace. Burnham, like the Klingon Voq, is her own sort of torchbearer. Let's hope she doesn't stumble.
• Yes, Star Trek just named dropped Elon Musk. I could go into why the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s means its highly unlikely that Musk would even exist, but it was a good wink-wink moment I didn't mind.
• The Discovery CGI team also does an amazing job making the spore drive—and the Discovery's jump—look incredibly badass. I could watch Starfleet ships hop around the galaxy all day.
• The Discovery's saucer section rotates. I'm not sure the purpose for such a design, but it looks cool.
• First Officer Saru continues to have the best moments in the show. Every time he (and his threat ganglia) are on screen—pay attention.
• I like that the medical officer, Dr. Culber, is decked out in a white Starfleet uniform. It's a nice touch.
• This Star Trek series seems pretty comfortable killing off semi-important characters to keep you off-guard. Call it Game of Thrones syndrome spreading out all over television.
• Klingon spinoff show, please!