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Sunday, February 11, 2018

At Peace with "The War Without, the War Within"


As we close in on the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery, my impression of the show is as confused and muddled as the show itself can be: I'm impressed by its moments of greatness, but in equal measure I'm frustrated by its storytelling flaws. "The War Without, the War Within" reflects this ambiguity.

The basic structure of this episode is simple: Admiral Cornwell arrives to bring the Discovery up to date on the war (the Federation is losing, badly), and the crew comes up with a harebrained plan to turn the tide; meanwhile, Ash Tyler/Voq struggles with questions of identity and forgiveness.

The Ash Tyler/Voq question has been the show's greatest puzzle. By this point, I think it's become clear that the showrunners either haven't really considered the larger philosophical questions surrounding this character's journey (or is it two characters?), or they have, but they've presented it in such a way as send a message that's the opposite of the one they intended.

The dialogue in this episode and others seems to establish that what we have here is Voq's surgically altered body, which until recently also contained Voq himself (that is, his personality/memories/soul/katra/essence) with an overlay of Ash Tyler's memory/personality/soul/katra/essence. Since L'Rell "killed" the Voq aspect of this being's tortured psyche, we are left with, presumably, Ash Tyler, who now has all of Voq's memories.

Presumably, Ash Tyler's body is dead. Maybe some of it was even used to build Voq's human body. Or maybe Ash Tyler is still a prisoner of the Klingons, and they only transferred a copy of his personality to Voq. So maybe there are two Ash Tylers, one with an original human body, one in a surgically altered Klingon body. Or, if you take a different philosophical view, maybe there's a "real" Ash Tyler, and the one we know is really Voq, but Voq "brainwashed" to believe he's a human. It really depends on the sophistication of the medical technology involved; are people the future sophisticated enough to transport and capture souls, body-swapping them as necessary? I suppose there's precedent for it in Star Trek--witness episodes like "Return to Tomorrow," for example, in which non-corporeal beings possess Enterprise crewmembers. And in a way, it's much like the age-old transporter problem: do you die when you're transported, only to be replaced with a perfect copy at the end of the process?

Whatever Tyler's "true" nature--if that can ever really be established--we're clearly meant to empathize with him here, tortured as he is by Voq's actions. I thought the writers handled his situation  in this episode reasonably well, given the circumstances, if you accept their premise that this really is Tyler. Tyler bumps into Paul Stamets in the hallway, and Anthony Rapp delivers an incredible performance in just a few seconds; he looks like he wants to tear Tyler apart for the murder of his partner, and it's all in his murderous eyes. But he walks away, of course, because this is still Star Trek, a point driven home even harder when, after an awkward moment in the mess hall, a number of crew members join his table in an effort to start the process of forgiveness and healing. It's a reminder that this is still a utopian vision, an imagined future in which people try to do a better job of being nice to each other. On the flip side, Michael Burnham is not so forgiving of her former lover; Tyler begs her for forgiveness and understanding, but Burnham, clearly struggling, recoils; he tried to murder her, and she's having a hard time forgetting that. This interaction felt very genuine, and encapsulated how the showrunners are trying to balance classic Trek ideals with modern television storytelling techniques. They don't always strike the right balance, but I think it works here.

I also enjoyed Admiral Cornwell's reaction to learning that her Gabriel Lorca died (presumably) months ago, and that for several months she's been interacting with (and even sleeping with) an evil duplicate. In one amusing moment, she vaporizes Mirror-Lorca's trademark dish of fortune cookies: "Bastard!" She also classifies all knowledge of the Mirror Universe, which explains why, in "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk and company are so surprised to wind up there.

The rest of the episode is pretty much a setup for tonight's big finale. There's a nice sequence of the Discovery engaging in a bit of terraforming to grow some more mushrooms to replenish the ship's spore drive, and Admiral Cornwell and Mirror Georgiou hatch a (possibly genocidal?) plan to turn the tide of the war. Cornwell even puts the Emperor in nominal charge of Discovery--posing, of course, as the real Georgiou, who she claims actually survived the battle of the binary stars. Only a few of the crew know differently, and presumably they're all just waiting for Georgiou to stab them all in the back, Mirror-style.

We'll see what happens a few hours from now...

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