Discovery takes a bit of a breather as characters prepare for the big finale.
A table-setting episode isn't necessarily a bad thing. Often they're an unavoidable necessity; even critically unassailable shows like Breaking Bad had the occasional installment where it was clear that pieces were being moved around the board for storylines to come, and little else. Some shows actually bake this into their season formula, like Game of Thrones' tendency to save its more bombastic fanfare for each season's penultimate episode, leaving the finale proper to recover from whatever carnage was wrought and set things up for the season to come. Not every show knows how to knock a table-setting episode out of the park, though, and while that's not exactly the case here, "The War Without, The War Within" definitely serves as a much-needed breather after the breakneck pace of those Mirror Universe episodes.
Now that Lorca has been disposed of and Burnham has successfully beamed herself back to her home universe with Mirror Georgiou in tow, a new set of circumstances is to be dealt with: The Discovery actually crossed back into their universe nine months in the future, the war having been lost when its crew wasn't able to relay the algorithm to beat the Klingon cloaking technology in time. As such, the penultimate episode of Discovery's first season is a bit of a "well now what?" story beat, and the resultant wagon-circling gives both characters and audience members a chance to reflect on where everybody's come from and where they're going.
My chief complaint about Star Trek: Discovery has mostly that it's often not nearly as thoughtful as it should be, with an over-saturation of "AND THEN!" plotting instead of earned story beats. I don't say this out of devotion to any idea of what a Star Trek series should or should not be, but as someone who just likes his storytelling to progress a bit more organically. Discovery has been trying its best to split the difference, and the result is a mostly fun, if somewhat quality-lopsided season of TV that has veered between thoughtful science-fiction and explosion-heavy action/fantasy bullshit.
For every "Hey, Lorca was actually the bad guy so we're throwing him into a little sun after one episode!" there's an "Oh shit, Ash doesn't really know who he is anymore, but he knows he loves Burnham because that emotional connection is what guided him through his whole ordeal in the first place!"
If anything, "The War Within, The War Without" makes it clear that there is a lot to love in this new Discovery, even as some of its best work is blurred by hackneyed storytelling choices and extended karate fights. Consider Bustle's analysis of the show's feminism: with Lorca's reveal and eventual disposal, the show has moved to a point where women, people of color, and decidedly non-toxic/non-aggressive male figures have successfully deposed a misogynistic, toxically aggressive traditional male leader. Consider the complicated identity politics of Tyler's assimilation with Voq, and his eventual realization that even he doesn't know who or what he is anymore; his biology no longer fully human nor fully Klingon. Consider Sarek's suggestion that by truly loving her enemy, Burnham has found a way to reconcile the warring Vulcan and Human aspects of her nature...and consider this alongside Tilly's suggestion that how Ash is treated moving forward will impact the development of his painfully new identity. For all the complaints that can be rightly levied in its direction, Star Trek: Discovery is certainly not without its fair share of depth. These characters have all grown, changed, and learned things abut themselves, even if the story beats dictating those character trajectories have been at times lazy.
Its visuals are nothing to scoff at, either. Discovery boasts special effects that blow most other TV this side of an aforementioned HBO juggernaut out of the water; its cinematography and production design are absolute feasts for your face. "The War Without, The War Within" puts them back on in the spotlight, too: After spending a handful of episodes in the considerably-less-beautiful Mirror Universe, it's nice to be back on board the Discovery, with its polished surfaces and ambient lighting. I know there have been complaints that the production design is one of the problems that Trek purists have with this iteration (if it's set before the Original Series, why does everything look so goddamn fancy??), but it's one of the things I'm able to overlook, having little to no franchise allegiance. I understand that it's a timeline-complicating detail (and a not-unimportant one, at that), but I just see a gorgeous set and am content to leave it at that.
Oh yeah, stuff happens during this episode! Back in the Regular Ol' Universe, Admiral Cromwell shows up and everyone heads to Starbase 1 only to find out that the Klingons have already totally lain it to waste. This basically puts the Federation at the brink of total decimation, so the Discovery decides to go with the only option it has left: an offensive. In a not-too-subtle callback to the first episode's battlefield tactics, it's decided that a coordinated strike on Kronos is the only way to properly disable the Klingon forces and end the conflict in a meaningful fashion. Accomplishing this requires a topographical understanding of a place that nobody outside of the Klingon race has visited for more than 100 years, so Stamets will have to spore-jump the Discovery into one of the planet's many convenient caves. From there, they'll map the surface and obtain the data needed to disable the Klingon forces. The big twist of it all? Cromwell has decided to tell everyone that Mirror Georgiou is actually Real Georgiou and make her Acting Captain of The Discovery, since she's the only one among them who has successfully engaged and defeated the Klingons before.
The time spent with the Discovery's crew is far more valuable and engaging than the episode's plot movement, especially because some of its bigger moments represent everything wrong with the way Star Trek: Discovery has been executed to begin with. For their jump to Kronos, Stamets is going to need an entire new crop of Space Fungus. This is a problem because his original crop took years to grow. With a bit of hand-wavey magic science, Stamets figures out a way to slightly terraform a moon and grow the needed fungus in a matter of a few minutes. Why not just leave such a shitty plot beat on the cutting-room floor? This episode would have played out exactly the same if the mycelium subplot had been left out entirely, and the hour had simply focused on the crew's interaction as the Discovery girded its loins for the final confrontation with the Klingons. Instead, it manufactures a fake obstacle that requires zero difficulty to overcome.
The Georgiou reveal in the episode's final moments feels the exact same, and Cromwell's explanation to the crew is summarily lazy: "Hey everyone, I know you thought Captain Georgiou was dead, but, uh...she wasn't? So here you go, just do what she says." Its execution feels designed for audience impact rather than dictated by diegetic logic, and is something another highly-regarded show's writing staff called "schmuck bait." It's made up at least half the bigger twists and turns this story has gone through this season.
I don't think this first iteration of Star Trek: Discovery is a total wash — it tried something new with its serialized approach to the franchise, and wound up producing some genuinely thrilling episodes and moments. I guess if ST:D is schmuck bait, I'm pretty much hooked.
Oh, and also...
- Really can't tell you how nice it was to have a laser-free episode.
- Anyone else super distracted by how much Lorca's death-scream resembled the TIE Fighter engine sound?
- I liked that Sarek almost immediately shot down Mirror Georgiou's petty bullshit by basically going, "C'mon I'm not going to compare kids with you."