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Michael goes off book to save a friend on a strong Discovery

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Waaaay back in Discovery’s pilot episode, Michael Burnham made a choice to directly disobey her captain’s orders. This choice led to a series of escalating crises which ultimately ended in her captain’s death. It was a strong opening statement for any show, a Trek show in particular. I’m not sure what followed ever really lived up to that opening statement, but at the very least, Discovery has never completely lost sight of Michael’s willingness to prioritize her own decisions over the chain of command. It’s just that usually, that willingness is presented as evidence of her heroism and general excellence. In the years since its pilot, the show has stumbled and fumbled and occasionally triumphed, getting more coherent as it went along, and it’s something of a relief to see that finally, in a third season which has been extremely consistent (regardless of my complaints), that they finally remembered there’s supposed to be conflict.

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“Scavengers” has Michael choosing to run to Book’s rescue over direct orders from Saru. She makes a clear, unequivocal choice to value her own instincts and loyalty over her captain’s orders, and while no one dies from her decision, there are consequences. Saru is extremely disappointed and frustrated by her choice, which is to be expected, but even Tilly (the season seems to have settled on “quirky but extremely competent Tilly,” which is probably the best direction for the character at this point) is shown to be sick of her shit. And it’s great, it’s really great. Okay, I wasn’t completely enraptured by Tilly struggling to deal with a very placid and sleepy cat, but everything else? Excellent across the board.

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I was a little disappointed earlier this season to see Discovery finding the new headquarters of the Federation so quickly. It seemed like a sign of the show being all too eager to get back to some kind of “normal” again, eschewing the possibilities of the time jump in favor of reinstalling a distressingly familiar status quo. But in the time since, it’s been reassuring to see how the Federation has changed as much as it’s stayed the same. Discovery’s reintegration into its old role (you’ll note that once again it is The Most Important Ship Of All, although given how often the Enterprise saved the universe, I guess that’s to be expected) is awkward without turning either side into obvious villains, and the more we see of it, the more I’m appreciating how the season is establishing itself.

And that goes especially true for Michael. That year she spent away from Discovery is turning out to be even more important for her arc than it initially appeared, underling her individualistic streak while making her even more reluctant to follow along with protocol when she decides it isn’t necessary. When Saru orders her not to go after Book (Discovery is essentially “on call,” waiting to see if it’s needed for conflict), Michael doesn’t even consider obeying him. Instead, she goes directly to Georgiou to ask for her help. What she doesn’t do is tell anyone else on the ship about her plans. Not even Tilly, which is probably a big reason why Tilly is so upset to see her missing.

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It’s a terrific dynamic, because it simply restates things we already know about these characters with just enough added pressure to make those things become relevant again. Saru even mentions how he once struggled to trust Michael, a part of their relationship I’d actually mostly forgotten about. Nobody is behaving erratically or randomly just to generate conflict. Even better, there are no clear good or bad people in the situation. I sided more with Saru, but the episode allows for that (might even encourage it) without offering an easy solution one way or the other. Michael succeeds in her mission, rescuing Book and getting the “black box” from a starship caught in the Burn; and she’s probably right about needing to figure out what happened in the Burn before anything can get back to any kind of normalcy. As well, Discovery didn’t end up needing to go into battle after all. But she still ignored Saru’s orders, so he demotes her to Chief Science Officer, in a decision that feels absolutely reasonable and even just.

Discovery desperately needs this kind of story development to balance out its “rah rah everyone loves everyone” vibe. It’s not like the ship suddenly needs to become rife with resentment and internal struggle. But giving major characters different goals, making those goals understandable, and then putting those goals into conflict, helps to ensure that the times when everyone does get along all the more meaningful. One of the show’s biggest failings is in how often the writers will jump to a conclusion without doing the necessary work building to it. You get the big moments, the triumphs, the sudden twists, but you miss all the context that makes those moments more than just memes. “Scavengers” doesn’t get bogged down in details, but it also doesn’t just elide over them where they might prove inconvenient, and that’s part of what makes it so strong.

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And hell, it also gives Georgiou a spotlight, which is always a good time. She cons her way onto the planet where Book is being held captive in a labor camp, pretending Michael is her servant and relentlessly browbeating the Orion man in charge of the place, as is her wont. Michael helps Book escape, and the episode finds time to quickly establish just how bad things are in the camp and also introduce a new character, an Andorian who tried to rebel against his masters and lost his antennae as a consequence. In a particularly brutal move, the bad guys then forced the rebel Andorian into the job of putting security discs on the necks of new captors, ensuring everyone would hate him and ignore any new attempt at rebellion.

This is clever and deft, sketched in quickly but affectingly, and it means that when the prison break happens, we’re more invested in the outcome than we would be if it was just a matter of Book and a bunch of nameless extras running away. (I like Book, but the odds seemed pretty good he was going to make it out of this one alive.) The labor camp also establishes the Emerald Chain as major bad guys, and presumably this season’s primary antagonist. They’re mentioned during the Federation briefing Saru attends at the start of the hour as the main cause for a lot of Vance et al’s woes, and I expect we’ll be seeing more of them soon.

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All in all, a well done episode in a season that’s proving to be Discovery’s strongest yet.

Stray observations

  • The slight, but rather sweet, subplot about Stamets and Adira bonding over the pain of losing a loved one was well acted and affecting. I’m curious if Gray pushing Adira to get more involved with the crew is supposed to be funny or not; the idea of a dead loved one bugging you to have more a life feels like it could be annoying even if it is well-intended.
  • I can’t really prove it, but it felt like this episode referenced Discovery’s past more than the show usually does; in addition to Stamets talking about Hugh’s temporary death, and Saru mentioning the Shenzhou, we had Georgiou reminding Michael about her disastrous relationship with Tyler. These are all good nods. The show has been so uneven over the course of its relatively short life that it helps to occasionally remind us that it all still happened.
  • I get that it’s supposed to play as friendly banter, but Michael getting super-defensive when Georgiou asks her if she and Book are a couple is odd. You were hanging out with him for a year and you clearly have chemistry, where’s the shame?
  • Michael and Book do make out near the end of the hour.
  • Oh, almost forgot: Georgiou is having strange, debilitating flashbacks at the worst possible times. When Michael confronts her on this, she admits that it’s been happening for weeks. (Michael’s immediate response: an angry, “Why didn’t you come to me with this?” This is not a good way to respond to a person experiencing trauma, even if her trauma did almost get you killed.)
  • The running gag of Linus using the portable transporter to show up at inopportune moments was good.
  • Speaking of bad Michael lines: telling Saru he did the right thing in demoting her just rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think Saru needs her approval in this particular instance.
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