Burnham's ta'al

Choose to Live: What is the Right Path?

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.


Choose to Live” feels very much like it’s a coda to “Anomaly,” and that’s not a bad thing. The episode shows us that while we do need others to help us along our grief journey, we do have to make our own peace with the experience of loss and the emotions that flow from it. For Book, that’s the loss of his family and world. Tilly has lost her certainty, and Burnham has lost some of her footing. Discovery has hit themes of community and communal action very, very hard this season, and “Choose to Live” doesn’t deviate from that. What the episode really does is emphasize the importance of choice in how we navigate our emotional landscapes while connecting with the people around us.

Plot Ahoy!

The episode opens with the murder of a Starfleet officer and subsequent theft of dilithium by what appear to be Qowat Milat commandoes that Captain Michael Burnham, Admiral Vance, President T’Rina, and President Laira Rillak watch via hologram. Vance identifies the leader as J’Vini, Qowat Milat nun and Ni’Var national, which explains T’Rina’s presence. Rillak assures T’Rina that the Federation will not act without Ni’Var’s guidance, and T’Rina accepts and mentions that Ni’Var may be rejoining the Federation soon. All agree that J’Vini must be apprehended, and Dr. Gabrielle Burnham, Captain Burnham’s mother joins them to represent the interests of the Qowat Milat. She asserts that apprehending J’Vini should be a matter internal to her order because she believes that J’Vini is acting as a qalankhkai for a lost cause, and after some discussion, Rillak suggests that Captain Burnham accompany Gabrielle on a joint mission to bring J’Vini safely to justice. Captain Burnham chafes under orders, but Rillak does tell her that come what may, she’s in charge.

Aboard Discovery, Saru eats lunch in the mess hall, and Tilly asks to join him, bearing her own bowl of mac’n’cheese. Saru wonders that she chose that particular dish in light of her strong dislike for cheese. Tilly explains that she’s been in treatment with Culber because she’s been feeling lost. Culber has apparently recommended that she look for things outside her comfort zone. Saru agrees to help her find something more meaningfully unusual for her.

In Engineering, Paul Stamets sifts through the data collected while scanning the anomaly, which he now refers to as the DMA, for “Dark Matter Anomaly.” Having communicated with the Ni’Var science institute, he hopes to prepare enough data for them to confirm his theory that the DMA is a primordial black hole. However, he can not yet find any evidence of tachyon radiation, which would provide the final proof that he is correct.

In Sick Bay, Gray’s new body has been completed, and they await Guardian Xi to perform a de-coupling, in which he will separate Gray’s consciousness from the symbiont’s memories. However, Xi reminds everyone present that he cannot guarantee the transfer will be successful, and Gray insists on making the attempt anyway.

Captain Burnham prepares for her mission, and on Saru’s suggestion, brings Tilly, who is thrilled to be coming. They meet Gabrielle and her fellow Qowat Milat sister and set out to track the dilithium shipment via the tracking device installed on the dilithium J’Vini and her band of mercenaries stole from the U.S.S. Credence. They track J’Vini to an abandoned moon, and as soon as they land, J’Vini and her mercenaries beam aboard the ship and attack, killing the Qowat Milat sister. J’Vini warns them to stay away, but they refuse. They beam down into a cavity below the moon’s surface and discover what looks to be a mausoleum surrounding dilithium-powered engines. Burnham orders Tilly to sabotage the engines and remain as bait, which J’Vini takes. After a brief scuffle, J’Vini takes Gabrielle hostage, and Burnham talks her down. The ship belongs to a species known as the Abronians who left their unlivable homeworld to orbit this planet, but something went wrong with their cryosleep systems. Taglonen awoke, but because his people contain large amounts of latinum in their biomatter, they were subject to predation by graverobbers. J’Vini, traveling through the sector, senses Taglonen’s telepathic distress call, and comes to pledge her sword to saving his people.

J’Vini needed the dilithium to repair the ship in case the DMA appeared to destroy the planet, but the Federation declined, refusing to give the resource to individuals. J’Vini refused to tell the Federation about the Abronians, so she stole it. Burnham successfully repairs the cryosleep systems, and the Abronians emerge to colonize their new home.

On Discovery, Gray’s transfer does not go smoothly. He doesn’t wake, leaving Adira distraught. They struggle with the wait, but ultimately, they take up a post near Gray. Holding his hand, they try and call him back.

On Ni’Var, Stamets meets with the scientists, and he shares with them the harsh details of Kwejian’s destruction while Book watches. The Ni’Var scientists sink into a meditative state, leaving everyone else to wait. T’Rina recognizes Book’s survivor’s guilt and offers what comfort she can. Eventually, the scientists emerge from their meditation and conclude that absent evidence of tachyons, Stamets must be incorrect. T’Rina offers to meld with Book to sift through his memories in order to ascertain whether Cherenkov radiation was present. Book agrees to the meld, and while T’Rina does not find the radiation, she does help Book find peace.

Burnham, however, does not find peace or justice as Rillak forces her to turn J’Vini over to the Qowat Milat as a political move. Tilly, however, seems to be on the path to making some sort of a decision about her future path after speaking with Gabrielle. Burnham does find comfort in Book’s progress in his grief journey as she finds him in their quarters lying beneath a holographic reproduction of Kwejian’s great forest. He now wears his Ikhu Zhen amulet, and they accept that sometimes, these fleeting moments of peace are all they get.


“Choose to Live” centers around not only community, which formed the major theme in “Anomaly,” but builds upon it to explore both the role of choice in our recovery process and how the context of those choices matters. In the J’Vini story-line, J’Vini’s actions are clearly wrong, and not even saving an entire species erases her guilt for Patrick Fickett’s murder. However, Burnham eventually concedes that J’Vini’s reasons matter; J’Vini’s actions fall squarely within the bounds of the Vulcan philosophy prioritizing the needs of the many over the needs of the few. She did attempt to act without violence, but she truly believed she had no recourse. The outcome of her actions and by extension Fickett’s death, is that the Abronians will be able to live on their planet with the added safety of being able to use their moonship to escape the DMA. That’s an objective good. Lives were saved. Murdering Fickett, however, is objectively wrong, and the great right of saving the Abronians does not outweigh her guilt in his death.

J’Vini accepts this guilt and remands herself into Burnham’s custody, and in turn, Burnham plans to argue for leniency for J’Vini. Unfortunately, Rillak is playing a much larger, political game, and releases J’Vini to her sisters. In that sense, she, too, acts to serve the needs of the many over the needs of the few. She knows that Fickett’s family will not get justice, but by respecting the Qowat Milat, she has won an important diplomatic victory with Ni’Var. Ni’Var’s return to the Federation expands not only Federation membership and brings all of Ni’Var’s scientific developments into the fold but also provides the Federation with additional legitimacy. Burnham, who is not the President of the Federation, has the luxury of focusing on the smaller injustice here; Rillak has a responsibility to the rest of her citizens. She makes the correct choice here, theoretically, and Burnham, justifiably, finds it reprehensible. However, as with J’Vini, reasons for these choices matter.

For Gray, the link between choice and outcome is less about context and more about making a choice. Gray evaluated the limitations of his existence and determined that continuing to live as a specter was worse than death. Adira panics and wants to protect him, but Dr. Culber reminds them that they don’t have the right to make that choice. Only Gray can make his decision, and Adira must love him through it.

This plot-line dovetails nicely with Book’s character arc in this episode. Book chooses not only to go to Ni’Var with the full knowledge that it will entail discussion of events that cause him great pain but also to undergo the mind meld with T’Rina. Doing so affords him the opportunity to drill down into his feelings and identify the real root of his grief. He worries that Leto never knew how much Book loved him, and this guilt serves as a small example of a hurt that applies on a much greater scale to the loss of Kwejian itself. Thus, when T’Rina helps him revisit his memories, seeing Leto turn back and see Book’s love allows Book to let go of the guilt that has hampered his grieving process. However, in order to capitalize on the experience, Book must make a conscious choice to embrace what T’Rina offers. In essence, he chooses to live.

We still don’t quite have a clear idea of what Tilly’s new path will be, but when she comes to help Saru tend to his plants, she seems lighter. Something about her chat with Gabrielle about the Qowat Milat philosophy has given her some insight she deems useful. My hope is that her choice will keep her aboard Discovery, but I really like that Tilly is taking a much more active role in controlling her life. Sometimes, just making that step can radically change how you view your life and your situation. I’m looking forward to watching her progress and that of all of the characters this season.


Four and a half cups of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts From the Couch

  1. If you wondered where Prodigy has gone, it’s on hiatus until early January. At least we aren’t quite at a cliff-hanger, but I really would like to get back to the adventures of Dal and his motley crew.
  2. Is this the first time we get the Vulcan term for their philosophy onscreen? I think it is, but for those keeping score at home, the term first appeared in Diane Duane’s novel, The Wounded Sky.
  3. I would very much like to know what happens when you touch the swampkelp. Let’s be real, Tilly demonstrated far, far more restraint than I would have.
  4. I both do and do not like the explanation of “choose to live” as an aphorism. On the one hand, the “choose to live” part is catchy, but on the other, I don’t like it used in conjunction with choosing a new path. Sure, if you’re staring at the business side of a Qowat Milat making the choice is a choice between life and death, as Gabrielle explains. However, not every choice has those two options, and I think they could have capitalized on the phrasing a bit more.
  5. Also, if Tilly does head off to join the Qowat Milat, I really need to see more of her with a sword.
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