HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
How Burnham’s experiences over the course of 3188 have changed her has been a recurring theme throughout the first half of this season, and “Scavengers” tackles that issue directly. We’ve known for a while now that Burnham would eventually have to choose between serving as a Starfleet officer and her own agenda, and “Scavengers” appears to be that choice. For the first time this season, however, the show skitters away from the necessary consequences of Burnham’s decision, resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise fun episode.
The episode opens with Saru at a mission planning meeting with Admiral Vance, updating the admiral on the progress of Discovery’s refit. Vance, pleased, orders Discovery to remain at Starfleet HQ as a rapid response vessel in the event that the Emerald Chain activity at a fairly unimportant planet goes violent. Back aboard the Discovery, the bridge receives a hail from the unlikeliest of sources, Book’s cat Grudge. Burnham replays a recorded message from Book for Saru in which Book explains that he’s found another black box from a Federation ship. He’s gone after it, but in the event that he does not return to the ship in a given time interval, he’s programmed his vessel to fly to Burnham’s location.
Burnham wants to go after Book, but Saru orders her to remain aboard Discovery in line with Vance’s order. Burnham ignores Saru and asks Georgiou to accompany her on a rescue mission, and Georgiou accepts. They take Book’s ship and fly to his last known location, an Emerald Chain-controlled salvage camp owned by an Orion named Osira. Georgiou browbeats Osira’s nephew into allowing her to beam down to the surface with Burnham in order to purchase “self-sealing stem bolts from the 24th century,” and Burnham finds not only Book but an entire slave encampment. She and Book work out a plan to rescue not only Book and the black box but also the rest of the prisoners. Burnham and Georgiou allow themselves to be captured by Osira’s idiot nephew, and they manage not only to wrest control over the cruel death fence surrounding the slave camp but also literally fly in to rescue Book who has stayed behind to aid an Andorian compatriot. However, they nearly do not succeed due to Georgiou’s strange flashback episodes.
Back on Discovery, Adira continues to converse with Gray, and Stamets reaches out to them in an uncharacteristically empathetic manner. Adira confesses to him about Gray, and Stamets accepts it, citing the general weirdness of his experiences aboard Discovery as a response to Adira’s confusion at the ease of his acceptance. Saru goes to Tilly, hoping she will talk him out of bringing Burnham’s decision to go AWOL to the admiral’s attention, but Tilly does not. While she understand’s Burnham’s motivations, she also recognizes that Burnham has jeopardized the crew’s standing in the Federation as well as Federation security generally. She encourages Saru to follow protocol.
Burnham returns to the Discovery with Book, and she goes with Saru to face the admiral, whose justified frustration with Burnham is palpable. After dressing down both Saru and Burnham, Vance leaves it to Saru to determine the nature of Burnham’s punishment. Saru removes Burnham from the chain of command, relegating her to the position of Science Officer.
Season three’s Michael Burnham is a woman trapped between two opposing ideologies. On the one hand, she wishes to rebuild the Federation, but on the other, she chafes under the necessary restrictions that being part of that institution entails. In that sense, “Scavengers” builds on the plot threads we saw in “People of Earth” and “Forget Me Not.” “Scavengers” pits Burnham’s duty to Starfleet against her personal devotion to Book as well as her self-appointed mission to discover the true cause of the Burn, and ultimately, Burnham chooses to prioritize her personal agenda and relationship with Book over that duty. It would be easy to assume that Burnham’s decision grows out of her experiences in 3188, and in part, those experiences no doubt left their mark on Burnham. However, Burnham’s independent streak was established in “The Vulcan Hello,” in which she started a war by taking the action she deemed best, direct orders be damned. There’s a certain irony to having Emperor Georgiou, the Terran version of the Captain whose orders she disobeyed, not only force Michael to acknowledge the potential consequences of her actions but also aid her in being insubordinate.
While the stakes in “Scavengers” end up being relatively low because Starfleet never needs to deploy Discovery, Burnham’s decision to swan off to rescue Book undermines Saru’s captaincy in general and destabilizes the Discovery’s position in Starfleet. In the previous episode, Burnham herself pointed out to Vance that separating the crew and removing them from Discovery would have disastrous consequences for the well-being of the crew that followed Burnham into this uncertain future. Here, she knowingly risks exactly that to pursue her own agenda, so Saru is right to strip her of her duties as XO. Burnham has proven herself untrustworthy, and she knows it. However, she also knows that she cannot truly promise Saru that she would act any differently were the situation to arise again.
For his part, Saru, in his discussion with Burnham at the episode’s conclusion, demonstrates exactly why he’s going to be a good captain. He acknowledges his own errors; Vance correctly rebuked him for not passing Burnham’s intelligence regarding the black boxes up the chain of command. He also admits to Burnham that he sympathized with her reasons for making the choice that she did, but he cannot place everyone else’s safety and position at risk. Burnham has left him no other choice but to remove her from his confidence, no matter how difficult it is for him to do.
“Scavengers” does a great job of pointing out the ways in which Burnham’s choice is the wrong one while leaving enough wiggle room for us to sympathize with Burnham. Working within the hierarchy of Starfleet takes time; taking action independently is certainly more efficient. However, those regulations and structures are what make for a healthy institution, and while the Federation may not survive without knowing what caused the Burn, it absolutely will not survive if its members cannot work within its structures. Star Trek as a franchise is built on the foundational idea that the Federation as an institution is fundamentally a good idea. When there are moments when the institution does not function perfectly, it falls to the characters to work within the institution to address those flaws and repair them. In line with this history, rebuilding the Federation as a healthy, functional institution forms the thematic heart of Discovery’s current, and up until this point, Burnham has wanted to exist both within and outside of that institution.
“Scavengers” reminds her that she simply cannot do that, but when it counts, the episode pulls its punches. The episode’s greatest weakness is that it allows Burnham to get off with a relatively light tap on the wrist. I cannot help but wonder had any other character gone AWOL as she did, would they have been similarly treated? The episode goes out of its way to remind us all of the severity of her infraction, and then it just fizzles. Certainly, being removed from the chain of command is quite serious. Burnham will have to wrestle with the consequences of her demotion, but considering that she risked the entire crew, that demotion hardly seems sufficient as a consequence.
As far as character beats go, the small arc involving Stamets is surprisingly charming. With Adira, he gets to be the best version of himself in a way he has not been with Tilly, and I am looking forward to seeing how that mentorship relationship develops. It’s frankly nice to see him getting some character development that goes beyond the cycle of him snapping at other characters and having to apologize for it. Plus, getting him to reference the sheer weirdness of their experience pays off in “Scavengers” just as well as it did in “Die Trying.”
Tilly gets to have a great moment with Saru, following up on the emotional wisdom she demonstrated in “Forget Me Not.” Astutely, she can see that despite her love for Burnham, Burnham’s decision places Saru in a terrible decision, and she wholeheartedly supports Saru. This season has thrown her together with Saru pretty frequently, to great effect. Both characters need support, albeit in different ways. Saru reminds Tilly of her personal worth, and she helps him process the emotional messiness not only of being a captain but of being a captain in this rather singular instance.
Georgiou, too, has been getting some refreshing treatment in that she’s allowed to step out of being relegated to the position of Evil Terran. At some point, as Burnham correctly observes, she will have to seek help for these flashback episodes, and though Georgiou fights her on that point, Michelle Yeoh manages to convey that she’s beginning to question that fight. As far as what those flashes really are, that’s up for grabs. They could be hints at a history of trauma or even something else entirely, but they certainly are hooks to keep us interested.
Burnham and Book finally do something about the sexual tension that has existed between them since the first episode. While I’m glad to see movement on that particular front, I dislike that this is the episode in which it occurs. Both the timing and Georgiou imply that Burnham has chosen to run to the rescue of the man she loves, and that cheapens Burnham’s decision. Certainly, she opts to put the needs of the one before the needs of the many, but I think she would have done the same without the romance angle.
Season three overall has been much more focused than either of the show’s first two seasons, and as a result, each episode furthers the mystery of the Burn along just a bit. “Scavengers” is one of those episodes less about making huge strides as far as that mystery goes than it is about clarifying the positions of the characters with respect to that overarching plot. It gives us a much better picture of Starfleet’s true capabilities; Vance conveys that literally everything is on fire, and Starfleet is hard-pressed to do much about it. “Scavengers” also sets up the ties between the various characters that will either be strengthened or sacrificed as the season hurtles to its conclusion in the coming episodes, and I appreciate the decision to allow for breaks in the season’s pacing.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Self-sealing stem bolts are one of DS9’s longest running gags, so it’s nice to see them paired with a Bajoran Exchange as Easter Eggs.
- The fact that the crew is made up of tech junkies is pretty fantastic. I’m glad the show granted Discovery a refit to bring it more up to a level of technology fitting for 3189, but the crew’s sheer enthusiasm with their new gadgets is just adorable.
- I really liked the use of Linus and his inability to get the personal transporter to work as a gag. Is he becoming the Morn of Discovery? I think he might be.
- Grudge is a Maine Coon, which is a breed known for its size. She’s not fat, people. The gravitational pull she exerts is due to her sheer awesomeness, Emperor Georgiou. I am not taking questions at this time. Tilly, you’re missing out by not being a cat person.
- Georgiou, in her element, is a delight to watch. I understand why Saru allows her more or less free reign. She’s an asset, and as we saw in “Far From Home,” she’s an asset he can use.