Star Trek: Discovery Episode 'Despite Yourself' Reveals Tyler's Real Identity

7.5
  • Science Fiction
2017-09-24
star-trek-discovery-mirror-universe-despite-yourself
Captain Lorca explains Mirror Universe physics to Burnham and Saru, conveniently leaving out his own role in transporting them there. CBS All Access

Sometimes, the latest Star Trek: Discovery episode “Despite Yourself” reveals, good storytelling is accepting you’re not surprising anybody but going for it anyway, with as much commitment as can be mustered. Star Trek: Discovery is back and doing every single thing attentive viewers expected it would, returning for the second half of its split first season and taking its battle-hardened team to a radically new frontier. Spoilers for “Despite Yourself” (we’re not holding anything back): the USS Discovery is stuck in the Mirror Universe and Tyler is a Klingon in disguise, both predicted reveals that Discovery is smart enough to treat as new challenges instead of show stopping twists or surprises. This tenth series episode is mostly promise and premise, but it’s also the first time Discovery ’s serial storytelling feels necessary: radically realigning the season arc and challenging its characters right on their stress points.

“Into the Forest I Go,” which aired all the way back in November, wrapped up the war between the Federation and the Klingons. The Discovery destroyed the Klingon Ship of the Dead and cracked the Klingon code, defeating the briefly united Empire both militarily and strategically. At episode’s end, Lieutenant Stamets — the increasingly unstable navigator whose body acts as the Discovery’s conduit through the universe-spanning mycelial network — does one last jump with the spore drive, dumping the Discovery in an unknown parallel universe. “Despite Yourself” opens on that moment, as Lorca and the bridge crew work to ascertain where they’ve arrived, an effort hampered by a Vulcan attack.

It’s a dangerous mystery for the Discovery crew because it’s far from a mystery to us and there’s nothing more boring than waiting for characters to catch up. But “Despite Yourself” disposes of the mystery in the cold open, as Saru and Burnham do some quick and effective technobabble. And despite suspecting for months exactly where the Discovery has wound up, despite the prospect of yet another retread of a goofy idea from 1967 (when Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Mirror, Mirror” first aired), I got a chill when Lorca pronounced, “Unless… this is not our universe.”

Whereas Mirror Universe episodes in The Original Series and Deep Space Nine are larkish romps where cast members get to play against type, snarling and laughing maniacally, Discovery starts with the Mirror Universe’s political context. Trek veteran Jonathan Frakes’ (Star Trek: First Contact) adrenal direction rushes us right to the kind of massive infodump Star Trek does best.

“We are indeed in a parallel universe. But one not governed by the Federation, but by a fascistic human-only Federation known as the Terran Empire,” Burnham tells the assembled crew, the fan-familiar sword and shield emblem of the Terran Empire spinning in space between them. “The Terrans appear to be the antithesis of us in every way. They’re an oppressive, racist, xenophobic culture, that dominates all known space.”

And here’s where “Despite Yourself” gets very smart about the Mirror Universe. Rather than running into their evil counterparts, the Discovery crew becomes them, redressing the ship and studying the personnel files of their parallel selves so that they might hide in plain sight until they figure a path back to their own universe.

We only get a taste of what this means for characters stricken with a moral compass in an evil universe, but Discovery is already demonstrating an expertise for twisting the knife, such as the brutal fight-to-the-death Burnham must win against a captain she served with aboard the Shenzhou, way back in Discovery ’s first episode. Already burdened with guilt over his death at the Battle of the Binary Stars, Burnham’s dilemma gives a gut-wrenching look into the dark acts that will be thrust upon the Discovery in this upside-down universe.

But “Despite Yourself” doesn’t completely abandon the swashbuckling quality we expect from Mirror Universe episodes of Star Trek, where normally staid Starfleet officers get to growl and curse and threaten. Burnham, Lorca and Tilly soon learn that their evil counterparts have had quite the impact on galactic history: Tilly as a notorious marauder (“The Witch of Wurna Minor,” or “Captain Killy” for short), Burnham the right-hand of the mysterious Emperor and Lorca, the most dangerous fugitive in the galaxy after a failed coup.

The great strength of “Despite Yourself” is that Star Trek: Discovery manages to have it both ways, with each character simultaneously tormented by the evil of their parallel selves and forced to embrace the theatricality of their own brutality. Tilly puts it most on the nose: “She’s like a twisted version of everything I’ve ever aspired to be.”

Not only did “Despite Yourself” provide Discovery’s new Mirror Universe arc a tremendously effective kickoff, it also resolves one of the more dragged-out Discovery plotlines, finally unmasking Tyler as the Klingon infiltrator we’ve expected him to be all along.

Tyler himself is a false personality laid atop the Klingon cult leader Voq (with a lot of really disgusting surgery described at length by Dr. Culber), but Discovery refuses to let that revelation defuse any of the dramatic tensions it brought to the show. When L’Rell attempts to reawaken Voq’s sublimated personality, her hypnotic triggers fail to work. Tyler, the manufactured human personality, asserts himself and his own identity, hanging on tighter and tighter even as it crumbles around him in a torrent of flashbacks, lost time and violent outbreaks.

At episode’s end, Tyler pledges himself to Burnham. It’s a moving moment that we know is doomed: Tyler has already killed a member of Starfleet (a bit of a cheap major character death that the creators are already admitting will be reversed in upcoming episodes). In previous episodes, this dramatic irony really bothered me because it made Burnham a sucker, transforming her into an otherwise capable protagonist perpetually at the mercy of a Klingon huckster. But “Despite Yourself” significantly complicates that picture by insisting upon the lived reality of Tyler, desperate to be more than a paper-thin mask for Voq. Their romance isn’t a fraud, just doomed.

But anything can happen in the Mirror Universe. And it’s that sense of possibility and spiritual terror that continues to ring after “Despite Yourself” is over (if you can get the screams of prisoners locked into agonizer chambers out of your head). Now it’s not just Tyler’s soul that’s in danger, but the soul of everyone aboard the Discovery.

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