HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
This week’s episode’s title comes from a common English idiom, “Do X or Die Trying,” and it would be easy to conclude that the link to the episode’s plot comes into play in the Discovery crew’s resolve to be useful in this new, 3189 Federation. However tempting, centering that resolve at the heart of “Die Trying” would miss the mark by a wide margin. “Die Trying” concerns the search for a home and whether the crew can find one in this darker future. Nhan gets an answer, and between them Michael Burnham and Saru secure the hope for one both for their crew and the Federation.
Following Admiral Tal’s coordinates, the Discovery finds a distortion where Federation HQ should be, which Saru identifies as a security measure. They push through and discover a marvel of advanced technology that includes not only an 11th generation version of the U.S.S. Voyager but a floating rain forest. Captain Saru orders the Discovery to dock, and he, Adira, and Michael Burnham beam over to Starfleet HQ where they meet the severe Admiral Charles Vance. He insists that the crew be debriefed because the story Burnham and Saru share with him implies either that the Discovery and her crew are in violation of the Temporal Accord or that they pose a threat to the struggling Federation.
Accompanied by Lt. Audrey Willa, Saru and Burnham return to Discovery and inform the rest of the crew about the upcoming debrief. What follows is an interview montage featuring the Discovery crew confusing the poor holographic interrogators and is, frankly, hilarious, until the holograms attempt to interrogate Emperor Georgiou. However, unlike the rest of the crew, whose interrogations occur solely at the hands of the holograms, a bespectacled man remains in the room while the holograms attempt to question Georgiou. She begins blinking at random times and forces the holograms to disappear, and she then directs her attention to the bespectacled man. Mr. Specs never identifies himself, and he and Georgiou banter back and forth about her presence on the Discovery.
In a different zone of Starfleet HQ, Vance, Saru, and Burnham watch as Kili refugees writhe in fatal agony on biobeds. Stymied, Starfleet Medical cannot craft an antidote and can only estimate that all of the refugees will die in four hours. Burnham and Saru offer to take the Discovery and investigate the Kili’s flight route to determine the nature of the prion disease and hopefully synthesize a cure. Initially skeptical, Vance determines that Starfleet will use the Discovery but with a brand new crew. He orders Saru to prep his crew for reassignment and tells Willa to have the Discovery ready for refit. Walking away, Burnham convinces Willa that contemporary Starfleet officers will have no idea how to pilot a thousand year old ship and have zero experience with Black Alert. Willa sees the logic and presumably intercedes with Vance.
Vance informs Burnham and Saru that Starfleet has identified the possible planet where the Kili acquired the prion disease, and the medical hologram explains that an unmutated sample of the plant concumed by the Kili would be necessary to craft a cure. Burnham reminds everyone that the Federation has a seed vault aboard the U.S.S. Tikhov. Vance agrees to dispatch the Discovery with Burnham in command after Saru offers himself as a willing hostage. Burnham jumps the Discovery to the Tikhov’s last known coordinates and finds the ship caught in an ion storm. After using Discovery’s tractor beam to pull it out, Burnham, Dr. Culber, and Nhan beam over to search for the current caretakers of the seed vault, a Barzan family.
However, they find the ship overgrown and operating at half power and three of the four members of the Barzan family, dead, in cryostasis tubes. Burnham beams into the seed vault and discovers that she cannot access the seeds without the Dr. Attis’ voice activation code, but Dr. Attis appears to be out of phase. Burnham has Tilly, Stamets, and Reno find a way to bring Dr. Attis back into phase, and when he does, Attis collapses in grief. Burnham convinces him to activate the seed vault, and after she acquires the necessary seeds, she tries to convince Attis to accompany them to the Discovery, but he refuses, adamant to remain with his family even though it will mean his own death. Burnham won’t let his death doom the seed vault, so Nhan agrees to remain aboard the Tikhov as its caretaker.
The Discovery returns to Starfleet headquarters, where Culber administers the antidote to the surviving Kili. Vance remains skeptical that the Discovery crew is up to the task of remaining active, citing their collective trauma, but Saru talks him into allowing them to stay together. Vance welcomes them to Starfleet but reminds them that they will fly where he tells them to fly. Saru and Burnham discuss the particulars of their working relationship, and Burnham investigates a strange piece of music that Adira played aboard the Discovery and the Barzan mother sang to her children aboard the Tikhov. She goes to ask Emperor Georgiou about it, but the Emperor seems unresponsive until Burnham can startle her into responding.
“Die Trying” is, in a significant way, a send-off for Commander D. Nhan, who joined the crew last season on loan from the Enterprise. We know very little about the Barzan, except that they were a resource poor species that originally appeared in TNG’s “The Price.” Nhan is thrilled to hear that the Barzan joined the Federation; when she joined Starfleet, she did so with the full expectation that she would never return home. “Die Trying” focuses on that point, reminding not only the viewer but also Nhan just how alien she is. The Tikhov is the first place she’s been to where she doesn’t have to wear her respirator. The caretakers’ logs are the first time in years that she has heard her language, and only she can read the menus aboard ship, which have all been switched over to Barzan. She champions Attis’ decision to die aboard the Tikhov as a point of Barzan culture, as Burnham would otherwise force Attis to violate his implied beliefs regarding death. Nhan chooses to remain aboard the Tikhov both out of service to the Federation and also because, upon the conclusion of her stint as caretaker, she might have the opportunity to return to Barzan. Unlike the rest of the crew, the jump into the future has given Nhan a chance to go home again, and she jumps at it.
Admiral Vance welcomes Burnham and Saru home at the conclusion of the episode, and for the rest of the crew, that might be true. Burnham and Saru plead with Vance for a chance to return to duty as doing so would carve out a space and identity for the rest of the crew. In the absence of literally everything else they have ever known, cleaving to Starfleet as an institution makes sense. Doing so provides structure and purpose that are mostly familiar to the rest of the Starfleet crew, so in a way, duty forms the “home” for which Tilly and the others have searched.
For Burnham, she has come to recognize the Federation less in its ideals and more in its people, and for her, those people are the ones trying to find the best in themselves. While Saru talks about the Federation ideology as having saved him, Burnham’s dedication is far more personal. She finds her home therefore in people, not the Federation itself. This episode heavily foreshadows an upcoming potential conflict between that devotion to the personal and to the ideological, possibly where Cleveland Booker is involved. Ironically, no one aboard would better understand that nuance than Emperor Georgiou, whose love for Burnham drove her to launch herself 930 years into the future. I suspect we’ll see Georgiou following Michael even where Saru won’t allow the Discovery to tread.
I do like that the episode reinforces that this Federation is one that struggles with resource depletion and allocation. Vance presents a stern figure whose concerns regarding Discovery’s crew are valid. We see Detmer dissociate before she can navigate Discovery through the ion storm, and Willa gets a front row seat to the semi-dysfunctional hilarity that is the Reno/Stamets/Tilly trio. However, both Vance and Willa conclude that the Discovery crew somehow manages to work through their issues to get the job done. Vance’s initial decision to reassign the crew seems cruel at first because as Burnham points out, some of the crew would never recover from being ripped away from the only bit of home they have left. Vance, on the other hand, sees a fragile crew manning a potentially incredibly valuable asset, and putting that asset into slightly more mentally stable hands makes sense for Starfleet. Vance ultimately acquiesces, not only because these actors have contracts but because while this Starfleet must be careful, it is not cruel in the same way some of the UEDF and the Trill were.
Similarly, I look forward to seeing how Mr. Specs will fit within the season 3 narrative. He has an aura of menace that reminds me very much of the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files, and not coincidentally he is the first character that comes out ahead bantering with Emperor Georgiou. I didn’t get a good look at his badge, but I do wonder if he is the representative of Section 31 that will give Georgiou her own (much anticipated) spin-off. Even if not, Mr. Specs, like the music that Burnham discovers, is likely going to be a future story hook.
The episode’s only real failing is that it rushes the explanation of Barzan culture. Because Nhan never tells Burnham why Attis’ decision to remain aboard the Tikhov to die is a rational decision in light of their shared culture, his decision comes off as strange. At 55 minutes, I understand that “Die Trying” is already longer not only than the usual Discovery episode but also than the normal network television installment, so I suspect a lot of that information ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Still, the episode suffers for its lack. Even Nhan’s own internal conflict gets short shrift, as important as it is to the episode’s resolution and thematic framework. Despite those issues, the choice to end the episode with familiar Star Trek music shamelessly tugged at my heartstrings, and in light of all of the other moving parts in the episode, I don’t think these issues are necessarily fatal if they do require some hand-waving.
Three Cups of Earl Grey Tea and Some Assorted Tea Biscuits
Stray Thoughts From the Couch
- We have some pretty fantastic guest stars in this episode. If you found yourself thinking Admiral Vance looked familiar, you’re right. That’s Oded Fehr, better known as Ardeth Bay from the Mummy franchise. Mr. Specs, you might not recognize, but you’ve probably heard of some of his work as a director. He’s better known as David Cronenberg, famous for directing such classics (cult and otherwise) as Scanners, The Fly, and Videodrome. He also directed more recent films such as Eastern Promises and A History of Violence.
- I really like the continued use of the EMH. Eli is disturbingly cheerful.
- The interview montage is pretty fantastic because it hammers home just how bonkers the Discovery’s crew adventures really have been. Culber gets to begin with having been murdered while following that up with an assertion that he and his murderer are cool now. Wilson Cruz should do more comedy. Tilly also gets to grumble that having been turned into a dominatrix with a blow-out was decidedly not in the handbook, and even the holograms are confused.
- Reno and Stamets have always had a great antagonistic rapport, but it’s equally great to see Tilly getting a piece of that action. I can only imagine that when all three are on duty in Engineering, everyone else either brings popcorn or clears out.
- Nhan keeps bringing up Airiam, and while that makes some sense in terms of how Nhan ends up aboard the Discovery, it relies on the same emotional buy-in that “Project Daedalus” did last season. In this instance, as in that episode, there’s just not enough invested in Airiam to create that level of audience attachment to the character, so Nhan’s devotion comes off as more than a little weird.
- Also, good on the Kelpiens for becoming Federation members!
- This is the second episode in a row that lacks Grudge. I demand to see my Queen!