After last week’s multilayered meditation on the Mirror Universe, this week’s “Vaulting Ambition” sees Discovery delivering a concise story focused on resolving plot threads and moving the story forward. Alternating between three interwoven storylines, “Vaulting Ambition” follows Lt. Stamets out of the mycelial forest, L’Rell into sickbay, and Burnham and Capt. Lorca aboard the Imperial Palace ship ISS Charon.
Aboard Discovery, we find Cadet Tilly continuing to administer spore therapy to a still-comatose yet dewy-skinned Lt. Stamets. In the mycelial forest, Prime and Mirror Stamets get to know one another, Prime Stamets referencing Dante’s Divine Comedy as he asks Mirror Stamets if he’s fulfilling the role of Virgil, Dante’s guide through the afterlife.
As they wander, the forest becomes a mental construct of a Crossfield-class ship; obviously the USS Discovery sets but cheekily named the USS Stamets.
The forest is only the default expression of the mycelial network, and it transforms itself into whatever makes its inhabitant comfortable, at least up until Dr. Culber appears, when Mirror Stamets warns his Prime counterpart not to become enthralled by the network’s illusions. The network is dying, and the longer a person stays in it, the greater their chance of being tainted by whatever is killing it.
Instead of heeding this advice, Prime Stamets follows Culber into their quarters, where the two of them discuss Culber’s death and share a heartfelt goodbye. It is only through this catharsis that Stamets – both Prime and Mirror – are able to escape the forest and end their comas. Like Dante, Stamets had to go deeper into the otherworld in order to find his way out. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mirror Stamets gives exactly the opposite advice that a proper Virgil would.
I get some strong vibes of the Nexus, that mystical energy ribbon from Star Trek: Generations, from the way the mycelial forest is presented in “Vaulting Ambition.” Both the Nexus and the mycelial forest are portrayed as separate planes of existence, quasi-dream worlds in which a person can easily get lost in their fantasies, and which can only be escaped by embracing then consciously rejecting the illusion.
Perhaps the Nexus is a fragment of the mycelial network that extends into our layer of space? If so, it’s not hard to imagine Discovery somehow surfing the Nexus back to the Prime Universe.
In sickbay, the medical staff has done everything in their power to help a violently distressed Tyler, but without success. This leads Saru to approach L’Rell for help, hoping to gain her cooperation by appealing to her feelings (both romantic and ideological) for Voq. Initially L’Rell refuses, citing the finality of Voq’s sacrifice.
Saru returns a few hours later with footage of Tyler’s suffering, and again L’Rell refuses, only relenting after Saru beams Tyler directly into L’Rell’s cell. “It can be undone,” the Klingon prisoner finally admits, but only her hands can do the deed.
Taking a step back from the action for a moment, I want to say how great it is to finally see Saru and L’Rell share a scene. Doug Jones and Mary Chieffo have excellent chemistry together, and it’s especially impressive that two actors covered from head to toe in prosthetics and costumes can deliver such vibrant performances.
L’Rell is taken to sickbay where she dons a set of metal fingertip probes that make it look like she’s about to play a Sirna Kolrami-worthy game of Strategema with Voq/Tyler’s brain – and just where did she get those laser gloves, anyway? Starting the procedure, L’Rell begins to chant in Klingon and her patient joins in – but while the restrained Voq responds in Klingon for the first two verses, it seems that Tyler emerges to conclude the ritual in English.
It’s not clear if L’Rell thinks she can fully suppress the Tyler persona — or stabilize the two personae so they’re no longer in conflict — but whatever she’s trying to accomplish doesn’t seem to go the way she hoped. The procedure ends abruptly with L’Rell raising her head and giving what seems to be the traditional Klingon death yell.
Whether she was honoring Tyler/Voq’s physical death, or simply the mental death of the Voq persona, is unclear.
Away from Discovery, Burnham and Lorca have been summoned to the Imperial Palace, a ship that’s vaguely reminiscent of a 24th century Romulan warbird and is built around a singularity. The ISS Charon – the palace’s official designation – is one of the most striking ship designs we’ve seen so far in Discovery; in fact, I think it might be my favorite.
The data about the Constitution-class time travelling USS Defiant, smuggled to Discovery in the final minutes of “The Wolf Inside,” has been decrypted, but it’s highly redacted. Amusingly, the only details able to be read from the stolen data is a summary of Jonathan Archer’s actions to find the Defiant back in “In a Mirror, Darkly” a century earlier.
Burnham and Lorca’s mission aboard the Charon is to access the Emperor’s personal data files and download the unredacted version. In order to do this, one of them will have to gain the Emperor’s confidence.
Fortunately for Burnham, Emperor Georgiou has invited her to dinner – which is not great for a trio of prisoner Kelpians in the emperor’s possession.
In the most shocking scene in the episode – even more shocking than the big twist ending – Burnham finds out that, after she was asked to choose a Kelpian, he was taken away and prepared as the meal she and Georgiou are sharing. Luckily none of these dinner options was poor Mirror Saru, still a slave stationed back aboard the ISS Shenzhou.
Burnham barely conceals her disgust as she gags down the delicacy offered to her by Georgiou, one of the Kelpian’s threat ganglia. More than anything else we’ve seen so far in Discovery’s time in the Mirror Universe, this scene drove home just how dangerous and twisted the place is – and Sonequa Martin-Green really sells the grossness of the moment as she chokes down the meal.
The rest of the Georgiou/Burnham plot is spent on the two of them gaining each other’s trust by showing their hands. Burnham proves to the emperor that she is not the woman once raised by Georgiou, but in fact is from a different universe – one with which Georgiou is intimately familiar, and protects the secret of the United Federation of Planets by executing nearly all of her royal guards.
Georgiou explains that she adopted Mirror Burnham, playing the same role that Sarek did in Prime Burnham’s upbringing. Mirror Lorca, Georgiou’s right hand man, was meant to be a teacher and mentor to Burnham, but according to Georgiou he eventually became more, so much more that he’d be “willing to cross universes to get what was his.”
That’s right, Captain Gabriel Lorca of the USS Discovery is really from the Mirror Universe.
Depending on who you ask, this was either a huge surprise, or has been heavily hinted at since Lorca’s introduction in “Context is for Kings.” I wasn’t surprised at all to find out that “our” Lorca has been the Mirror Lorca all along, but I was a bit disappointed.
Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing; foreshadowing the inevitability of a betrayal can be a great way to create dread and dramatic tension, for example. Instead, the revelation of Lorca’s identity just felt safe to me.
In a universe built on the back of the Roddenberry Rule (that the enlightened members of Starfleet would live in perfect harmony, thus requiring all dramatic conflict to come from external sources), I was looking forward to the complexity of a morally ambiguous Starfleet captain.
Instead, we have an expectedly immoral Terran one. Yet again, I find that a character’s trajectory gets yanked off course right when I’m really starting to get invested. It’s getting harder and harder for me to let myself care about the characters when it seems inevitable that so much of what made them interesting will get reversed or revised.
As a side note about the Lorca reveal, I’m not sold on the story Georgiou told about Lorca being an extradimensional creep. For a man so obsessed with Burnham, he was willing to cross into another universe to be with her, he was unbelievably convincing at hiding all of his possessiveness towards her, with only a few dialogue-based hints over the last dozen episodes, a few of which were highlighted in flashback as Burnham realizes the truth about her captain.
Not only did he never leer at her, touch her inappropriately, say anything romantically suggestive, or hit on her in any other way, he actively approved of Burnham’s relationship with Tyler. Someone so obsessed with Burnham would at best have cited captain’s prerogative and put an end to the relationship, and at worst been actively jealous.
While the story hasn’t yet revealed how or why Lorca arrived in the universe of the Federation, future episodes will hopefully give us the real story on how he conceived of his grand plan.
I wish I found “Vaulting Ambition” as thrilling as so many others did. It’s a beautifully-shot episode that resolves a number of dangling plot threads, but the big reveal fell flat for me. Simply put, I have twist fatigue. It’s been clear since episode one that the writers have given a great deal of thought to how they’ve constructed their story arc, and I have confidence that the story they’re telling will continue to be a good one.
I do hope, though, that season two plays the twists much more judiciously; at this point I feel as if viewers are being trained to actively look for twists instead of experience the story as it unfolds.
Star Trek: Discovery returns this weekend with “What’s Past is Prologue,” coming to CBS All Access and Space on Sunday, and debuting Monday on Netflix worldwide.