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Star Trek: Discovery Makes the Best Out of a Bad Situation (Of Its Own Making)

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Last week’s frustratingly messy Discovery blew open a wild field of potential disasters that the show could bring itself toward with its revelation of the Red Angel’s true identity. With that in hindsight, a lot of what happens in “Perpetual Infinity” isn’t so bad. But it still brings with it a heap of problems.


In comparison to “The Red Angel,” this episode is helped a lot by the focus it has, something its predecessor desperately needed as it breathlessly attempted to catch everyone up on a zillion plot threads while also throwing in its own fake twist on top of an actual twist for good measure. With the real identity of the Angel out of the way, “Perpetual Infinity” finds itself with not one, but two emotional anchors to pivot around—Michael and her returned mother (named at last as Doctor Gabrielle Burnham, and played by Sonja Sohn), and Michael and her freshly rekindled bond with Spock.

It’s the former of these that serves as the spine for the episode, as Michael learns that reuniting with a mother she thought was dead is going to be a lot more challenging than she anticipated. As eager, almost childishly eager, as Michael is to see her mother while she rests in stasis down on Essof IV, Gabrielle Burnham is anything but. Haunted by having to experience, over and over, Control’s destruction in the future, and watching her child grow up without her from a distance, has hardened her—to the point that, at first, she wants nothing to do with seeing Michael, solely dedicated in her mission to stop Control from gaining the sentience it will use to destroy the universe.


Over the course of the episode, we learn that their reunion is fleeting even if Gabrielle didn’t want it to be. The ability she uses to travel through time is also slowly but surely wrenching her back through spacetime, to root her back in the future she fled to the first time she used the suit (on the night the Klingons attacked her and her husband), a cruel joke that has locked her in a perpetual hell. But in a brutally cutting scene—one that hauntingly mirrors young Michael’s attempt to sever her relationship with Spock—Doctor Burnham tells Michael that that’s probably for the best. Her relationship with time has been so fundamentally altered by the Red Angel suit that she’s been robbed her of the ability to see time as a precious thing to spend with the people closest to her. Contrasted with Michael, who’s torn up over how the chance to reunite with a parent she thought dead is slowly but inevitably slipping away from her, it makes for an emotional journey, one we know has to end with Michael letting go of her mother all over again.

Michael’s emotive arc is neatly picked up with Spock at the episode’s end, thanks to the two having united over the messed-up impact the Red Angel’s time-tinkering has now had on both of their lives. Spock’s offer to be the person Michael can share her burden with—and play 3D chess without flinging the board around the room—after needling her so much about her desire to hoist everyone’s problems on herself (including his own) is a simple, yet wonderfully touching moment. It works to highlight the family that Michael ultimately found after the loss of her own all those years ago. If she can’t have her mother back (at least, for now, who can say what’ll happen by the end of this season), at least she finally has the brother she thought she’d lost back when she was an unruly child.


That’s what worked about “Perpetual Infinity.” What didn’t? Well, unfortunately, the rest of the plot. Because while Michael is going through her feelings with her mom—and attempting to hatch a plan with Stamets that could keep Gabrielle in the present while flinging the data Control needs to achieve sentience into a future it can’t reach—Control has been busy not actually killing Leland like it seemed to last episode. Instead, it’s infected him with some sort of techno-virus and turned him into its biological puppet. Now, it’s using him directly in its schemes to download the A.I. data from the alien sphere (god, remember the sphere? It all feels so long ago, when this season was a lot less messy) it had attempted to use Airiam to swipe from Discovery’s archives.

Now that it has, err, control of a human body, Control-Leland directs Ash and Georgiou to covertly swipe the data from Discovery, insisting that Section 31 will be able to hold the data securely in a way Starfleet otherwise can’t—while also advocating in an incredibly blunt way that anything Doctor Burnham says or does can’t be trusted. It’s all so very unsubtle that it doesn’t take long for Ash and Georgiou to start assuming something’s up with Leland...and in the process, it kind of ruins any attempt Star Trek: Discovery was making to present Section 31 as a morally-grey organization.


Even though initially Ash—and then eventually Georgiou, when Control-Leland ropes her in to finish the job it thinks Ash can’t—both have a crisis of conscience over whether Leland’s orders to willingly sabotage Discovery’s plans and steal the data for itself are in the name of the greater good, the audience already knows before they do that it’s not really a Section 31 plan they’re having a crisis over. It’s something a lot less interesting than that would be.


The onus of the actions Leland asks of Ash and Georgiou aren’t presented to us as the price Section 31 pays to keep the soul of the rest of the Federation pure, but instead the uncritically evil actions of an uncritically evil A.I., albeit one walking around in a meat-puppet. So when the duo have their moments of realization that Control has taken over Leland, and side with Discovery to try and stop him from running off with half of the sphere data downloaded, they’re not refuting the ethical griminess of Section 31 as an institution, they’re being the squeaky clean heroes saving the day from the mean and nasty Control. What’s the point of bringing Section 31 into the show in the first place if anything even remotely resembling an ethically questionable decision the organization makes—that the organization existed to make when it was first introduced in Deep Space Nine—is ultimately laid not at the hands of its actual agents, but an A.I. gone bad?

It’s deeply disappointing that, just as it had done in the past with Captain Lorca, Discovery has all but eradicated any interesting nuance of what it had to say about the Federation with Section 31. If anything, it’s gone even further than it did with the Mirror Universe, with Georgiou and Tyler positioned no longer as morally-murky agents of an equally murky agenda (albeit in the name of a greater good), but unequivocally heroic figures, fighting not against Section 31's insidiousness but instead the comical villainy of an A.I. gone rogue. Instead of interrogating Section 31's very existence and what that means and says about the Federation, the organization, now embodied by Georgiou and Tyler, has become a redeemed tool in a plotline that Star Trek has done over and over again.


But I still have some hope for how this season will ultimately progress, because at least the disappointment of this plot Discovery has set the stage for is now being driven, in part, by an emotional core that’s turned out to be a bright spot in this season’s back half: Michael and Spock’s tumultuous bond. Watching these wayward siblings slowly brought together over the past few episodes has been not just a delight—the humor of their knowing jabs, but also the tragedy that what brings them back together is a shared trauma that’s reached back most of their lives—but also the closest thing to a clear and coherent arc Discovery has had lately, as its delved ever deeper into the convoluted twists and turns of Control’s plans for domination. If it keeps that arc at its center as we draw closer to the season finale, then at least something good will have been salvaged from the wider mess this season has become.


Assorted Musings

  • Just gonna have to keep saying it: Oh god, please, for the love of god, don’t let Control-Leland be some future-proto-Borg. Everything about his, err, assimilation this week felt like it was set up for such a revelation to happen, and I hope that Discovery is just being distinctly unsubtle about it in an attempt for that to be a massive red herring. Maybe Control’s Leland-drone is just merely Borg-esque. But given how this season has progressed, I’m still having doubts.
  • Sonequa Martin-Green’s face in the opening scene when Pike and Saru tell Michael that a) she’s still recovering from actually dying and b) she didn’t dream that the Angel is her mother, was priceless. Hell yeah, Michael, I’d be just as baffled! Michael being much more openly expressive this season has been a lot of fun.
  • After the fantastic focus she got in earlier episodes of the season, I’m sad that Tilly has just become a sort of one-note “Oh look I’m easily excitable and talk too much” kind of comedic foil. Tilly’s exuberance is part of why she’s such a fun character, but it is only a part—and lately, it’s felt like the writers have made it her whole input to the show. Let Tilly do things beyond have other characters in a scene want her to shut up!
  • Despite the episode going out of its way to show just how much Gabrielle Burnham can’t come back from her fixed point in the future—especially now that her suit is sans Time Crystal—she is totally coming back somehow, right? Not even death stops people returning on Discovery, and the fact that she was specifically left alive after Control-Leland’s attempt to sabotage the suit in a way that would kill her makes me think a Deus Ex Momina is on the cards. There is, of course, an alternative: that she must return to die in the past, in order for the timeline to remain intact. Control-Leland did say he saw her body after the Klingon attack.
  • As if the redemption of Section 31 wasn’t weird enough, this episode also goes a weirdly large way in trying to redeem Empress Georgiou, by having Doctor Burnham—who knows who Georgiou really is—thank her for being there for Michael (and even willing to sacrifice herself for her in some versions of the timeline) when she herself couldn’t be. Can we remember that like, just last season this woman was running around trying to help enact genocides and also literally ate Mirror Saru for dinner? The leap from that to basically Captain Georgiou 2 feels way too sudden.

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