As her first real meaty assignment aboard the Discovery, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is tasked by Capt. Lorca (Jason Isaacs) with studying the tardigrade creature found aboard the USS Glenn — which Landry nicknames ‘Ripper’ — to determine how its power and composition can be best weaponized for the war effort.
Burnham learns the creature isn’t simply a vicious monster but the key to getting Lorca and Stamets’ (Anthony Rapp) spore-based drive system to work. In the meantime, Voq (Javid Iqbal) and L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), whose ship and crew have been stranded for six months with fading power and depleted food following “Battle at the Binary Stars,” beam aboard the abandoned USS Shenzhou to retrieve its dilithium chamber in hopes of using it to get T’Kuvma’s ghost ship up and running again.
“Butcher’s Knife” finds Star Trek: Discovery committing its first fumble after three promising introductory episodes. To its credit, the episode — with its alien monster mystery, colony in distress jeopardy plot, and final-act deux ex machina that wraps the story up nicely in time for next week’s episode — feels like a true Star Trek story in the traditional, episodic sense.
Burnham’s ability to connect the dots and determine that the creature is the needed ‘supercomputer’ that solves the problems with the new drive system (and also solves some of the lingering mysteries from the Glenn) is an inspired Trekkian revelation. Even Burnham’s apparent empathy for the exploited tardigrade toward the episode’s end fits nicely in the Trek playbook.
Where the episode stumbles, however, it stumbles pretty hard. Some of the decisions make absolutely no sense; chief among them is having security chief Ellen Landry (Rekha Sharma) killed by Ripper in an insipid scene where she frees the creature in order to, as she puts it, “lop off its claws” to find out why it’s so good at killing Klingons.
I’m not going to say that Landry was the most relatable of characters, but she was set up as an interesting pebble in Burnham’s shoe and a possible ongoing obstacle along Burnham’s path toward assimilation aboard ship, and her obvious devotion to Lorca could have made her an interesting foil down the line — butoffing her in this way so early was just ridiculous. (And does anyone else find it somewhat problematic to confine and then free a powerful creature in a room full of precious weapons and artifacts when there’s a chance he could damage them?)
This week’s plot concerns Corvan 2, a mining colony under attack by the Klingons. The attack provides urgency to get the new transport experiment resolved so that Discovery can fly over to the planet and rescue the inhabitants — and after a false start almost flinging the Crossfield-class ship into a star — Lorca and the Ripper-helmed ship zips over to the colony in a wild visual effect and after destroying the Klingon forces… Discovery zaps away.
We know Lorca is a hardened, battle-worn leader, but not rendering medical aid to a colony that had been under attack for a long span of time, and with confirmed causalities, seems almost criminally negligent.
I’m starting to get a little worried about Saru’s character at this point, and I’m hoping he gets more to do than just show up and remind Burnham of her mutiny aboard the Shenzhou. The show also needs to resolve some questions regarding his relationship with Lorca, a captain who seems to have no thoughts leaving his first officer out of the loop on such a bombshell decision like recruiting Burnham to the war effort.
In “Context is for Kings,” he tells Burnham when he first sees her aboard Discovery that he will do everything he can to protect his new captain. Yet, in “Butcher’s Knife,” he seems almost conflicted about Lorca when he dismissively tells Burnham that her insincerity will ensure she will fit in nicely with Lorca and the crew.
The continuing butting-of-heads between Stamets and Lorca over the efficacy and use of the spore drive remains a satisfying and credible element of character conflict in this new Trek series. Purist fans may wince at the element of blatant conflict within the ranks, but in this context of war, it works.
Lorca may not seem like the type of person who tolerates defiance or insubordination, but he knows he needs Stamets, and Stamets knows this too, at least for now. Could Lorca be grooming Burnham as Stamets’ successor?
With the Klingons being such a crucial element of the story arc in Discovery, it’s painful to have to admit that Voq’s B-plot feels distracting here. The heavy prosthetic makeup isn’t doing the actors many favors, making it difficult to tell if they’re even able to emote through the thick appliances, and the constant use of subtitles — no doubt maintained for authenticity — stands in the way of maintaining viewer investment.
The addition of Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) to the ongoing Klingon storyline adds a little dimension to what has been to this point a series of long scenes of Klingons growling at each other, and L’Rell’s ploy to play on both sides of the fence has potential, but for now it’s still a bit of a chore to get through that half of the plot.
A compelling takeaway from the Klingon element of the episode is L’Rell’s recognition that the survival of the stranded crew will require incorporation of Federation technology, something Voq is reluctant to do at first — though it’s certainly curious that Starfleet left the Shenzhou floating about the binary system with functional Federation technology intact.
One has to wonder if the writers were suggesting that survival, in the broader sense, will rest on the ability of the two cultures to integrate and co-exist… something we know will ultimately happen with the Klingons and Federation.
With L’Rell’s ominous warning that Voq must sacrifice “everything” to follow her guidance to the matriarchs of Mo’Kai, hopefully this side of the tale will pick up some steam soon.
Star Trek: Discovery returns this Sunday with episode five: “Choose Your Pain.” Watch for our ongoing Canon Connections series to continue later this week as we look for the ties to Trek‘s past in this most recent episode!
Rob Heyman is a freelance journalist and entertainment critic. He is a regular contributor to both TrekCore and The Logbook, where he has written episode reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, and the Star Trek movies.