Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 3, Episode 9: Terra Firma, Part I

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

I was very impressed with The Sanctuary last week. It was the kind of solid mid-season episode that helped move key story threads along while also telling a semi-standalone story of its own. Following up that success was the goal of Terra Firma, Part I.

The episode synopsis, released a couple of days before it was broadcast, seemed to suggest that visiting the Verubin Nebula – believed to be the source of the Burn – would have to take a back seat to Georgiou’s health, and so it proved. We saw a little movement toward figuring out more about the Burn, including the unexpected reappearance of the Kelpiens, but much of the story focused on Burnham and Georgiou – and it took a surprising turn.

Georgiou and Burnham on the snowy surface of Dannus V.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, as a Star Trek fan, stories set in the Mirror Universe have never been my favourites. As a one-off in The Original Series, the Mirror Universe was okay; a puzzle-of-the-week for the crew to figure out an escape from. But when the Mirror Universe, or Terran characters like Georgiou, are seen for any length of time, their narrative weaknesses become apparent. The Mirror Universe is fundamentally one-dimensional. Terran characters are villain caricatures, embodying all the lazy tropes of low-budget B-movies. They like power for power’s sake, violence for the sake of being violent, and the entire universe seems to consist of a single personality type that’s ham-fistedly forced into every character. Such characters are ripe for over-the-top acting performances which can leave Mirror Universe episodes feeling almost like pantomime. This is, at least in part, why Discovery Season 1 wasn’t my favourite, and why I’ve never really warmed to Mirror Georgiou since she became a semi-permanent fixture on the series.

However, despite the way I feel about both Georgiou and the setting overall, scenes set in the Mirror Universe toward the end of Terra Firma, Part I were among the most interesting for her character and for the setting. Georgiou appears to have changed far more as a result of her time away from the Mirror Universe than we’ve seen on screen. She has generally remained the flat villain stereotype she’s always been, but when returning to her home setting, cracks in that exterior were evident. Her nuanced performance was, to my surprise, the highlight of the episode.

Mirror Owosekun leads an honour guard.

Though Georgiou’s story is off to one side, unconnected to the Burn, thematically we see it link up with the rest of Season 3 – or at least begin to. Humans on Earth, the Trill, the Romulans and Vulcans on Ni’Var, and even Booker have all come to see the Federation and Starfleet as a force for good over the course of the season so far. Captain Saru very pointedly told the crew that their objective was to “make the future bright.” Admiral Vance gave Saru and Discovery a chance. Clearly all of this has rubbed off on Georgiou – far more than we’d realised.

In fact I’d argue that Terra Firma, Part I was Georgiou at the best and most interesting she’s ever been. There was nuance to her character and a depth that has never really been allowed to come to the surface before as she struggled with returning home. For a long time she’d wanted to get out of the Prime universe, but her homecoming appears to have shown her – and us – just how much she’s changed as a result of her experiences. Perhaps, despite what Kovich argued, Terrans and humans aren’t so very different after all.

Georgiou was at her most nuanced and interesting in Terra Firma, Part I.

Speaking of Kovich, he was back this week. I’m not entirely convinced that he and Section 31 aren’t in some way responsible for what happened to Georgiou – either by inflicting it or accelerating it – but he’s an interesting character and I was glad to see him make a return. Because Kovich is played by David Cronenberg I had wondered if his appearance in Die Trying would have been a one-off; it’s great that that wasn’t the case, as I think the character has more to offer. Despite my assumption that he’s part of the secretive Section 31 we’ve seen no on-screen confirmation of that, and exploring more of who he is and what his role is within Starfleet is something I’d be curious to see.

Kovich explains to Dr Culber that Georgiou’s condition is caused by having travelled through time and from a parallel universe. Doing one or the other is fine, apparently, but doing both causes a technobabble condition. As a premise I think there’s something very “Star Trek” to it, and I’m reminded of medical-themed episodes from past iterations of Star Trek, such as Deep Space Nine’s The Quickening and Enterprise’s Observer Effect. We got a reference to the Kelvin timeline as Kovich presented the only other known case of Georgiou’s condition – a soldier in the Temporal Wars who seems to have crossed over from the Kelvin timeline.

Kovich was back in Terra Firma, Part I.

Speaking of references, there’s one from last week that I forgot to mention that was included in the recap at the beginning of Terra Firma, Part I. When telling Burnham he plans to remain aboard Discovery, Book jokingly says “aye aye,” before Burnham corrects him, saying in Starfleet it’s just “one aye.” This was something we first saw in Lower Decks – no, not the new series, but the episode from The Next Generation Season 7. Whether this was intended as an oblique reference to the animated show, a callback to The Next Generation, or neither is unclear, but I forgot to mention it last week!

Kovich believes that there’s no way to help Georgiou, and that she’ll become increasingly dangerous as her condition worsens. Discovery’s computer, however, offers an alternative solution. We saw in Forget Me Not the merging of Discovery’s computer with the Sphere data, and though that particular story thread doesn’t feel particularly well-developed or explained right now, this was a continuation of that. The AI makes a recommendation that Georgiou be taken to a planet called Dannus V – described as being near the “galactic rim,” which is a term I’ve only heard in Star Wars!

Destination: Dannus V.

Kovich is sceptical of Discovery’s computer and the way it merged with the Sphere data, and Saru is initially reluctant to go. Starfleet is currently on alert due to the Emerald Chain planning military exercises, but Admiral Vance intervenes. This was perhaps the best scene we’ve had with the Admiral since his introduction in Die Trying, as he really took on the role of leader and mentor.

Vance considered the available options and ultimately sanctioned the mission, despite the low chance of success. As he counselled Saru he appeared to hint at having made mistakes in the past, perhaps mistakes which led to deaths. The line that the crew would “never look at you the same way” if he didn’t try to help Georgiou and simply let her die was outstanding, and actor Oded Fehr has been phenomenal in the role so far. We seemed to get some hinting that perhaps Admiral Vance may not survive his encounter with the Emerald Chain – there was an air of finality to his moment with Saru. I hope that isn’t going to be the case, even though the Emerald Chain’s attack is clearly being set up as a bigger event than Starfleet realises. I’ll go into this in more detail when I write up my theories, so stay tuned for that in the coming days.

Admiral Vance sanctioned the mission… but will he survive the Emerald Chain?

With the mission greenlit, Discovery jumps to Dannus V. Georgiou and Burnham head down to the planet, but not before a touching sequence as Saru and Tilly say their goodbyes to Georgiou. There’s a mutual respect – albeit grudgingly – between Saru and Georgiou. While they approach leadership in very different ways, as Saru says he has learned from her. And as we’ll see when Georgiou re-enters the Mirror Universe, she’s clearly learned from him and Tilly. The hug from Tilly was sweet, and this was perhaps the first moment where Goergiou seemed to be different. She was touched by the kindness shown to her, even if it wasn’t what she would have wanted for herself.

Burnham accompanies her to the planet – because of course she does! – which is a snow-covered plain near a forest. This was a fun sequence, and perhaps it’s because we’re so close to Christmas, but I started to feel a little bit of a holiday vibe from the location. Burnham and Georgiou are on a quest to get help – a theme not uncommon in Christmas films – and the snowcapped landscape fed into that.

Saru and Tilly part ways with Georgiou and Burnham.

If I thought the snow made for a Christmassy feel, I was in for a surprise! Burnham and Georgiou arrive at the place where the Sphere data indicated they should go, and out of nowhere a strange man appears along with a doorway. If we continue our Christmas theme, he’s the “Ghost of Christmas Past” offering Georgiou a chance to change her ways! Despite some back-and-forth with this mysterious character – who seems to know who Georgiou is and why she’s there – Georgiou readies herself and steps through the doorway. The mysterious guardian gave his name only as “Carl,” and he was played by Paul Guilfoyle, who’s an established actor perhaps best known for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but who’s had many roles on film and television over the years. After David Cronenberg’s appearance, Discovery is doing great for guest stars this season!

I loved this weird sequence. In addition to its Christmassy tone, there was also a distinct sense that this is something Kirk, Spock, and McCoy could have encountered in The Original Series. They always seemed to be stumbling on things like that! The weird randomness of encountering a man in 20th Century dress in the middle of nowhere with a mysterious door is the kind of slightly wacky mid-century sci-fi that The Original Series brought to the table. It’s a far cry from Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War or Picard’s Zhat Vash conspiracy; tonally it’s much more in line with older Star Trek and classic sci-fi. Having spent much of the last two seasons of Discovery dealing with some dark, complex themes, it was an interesting break; a moment of lightness that brought Star Trek back to its roots.

The mysterious Carl.

Before we look at what happened to Georgiou on the other side of the mysterious door, we need to look at the only movement we saw regarding the Burn. After another sweet scene between Stamets and Adira, they manage to decode the distress signal emanating from the Verubin Nebula. To everyone’s surprise, the distress signal was being sent by a Kelpien scientist whose ship had crashed (or become stranded) shortly before the Burn occurred.

Saru is obviously affected by this revelation; it’s the first he’s seen of his people since arriving in the 32nd Century, and while he’d heard that they had joined the Federation at some point, this is the first he’s seen of Kelpiens reaching out into space. The fact that the Kelpien – Dr Issa – was portrayed by the same actress who had previously played Saru’s sister Siranna can’t be a coincidence; they looked identical. In fact at first I thought Dr Issa was Siranna somehow and that’s why Saru was reacting the way he was. Perhaps we’ll learn that this character is a distant descendant of Saru’s family.

Saru with the hologram of Dr Issa.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem as though this Kelpien ship is responsible for the Burn. They crashed or became stranded in the nebula while looking for a “dilithium nursery,” but beyond that we don’t know. A Starfleet vessel was mentioned as being en route to rescue them, but we don’t know what happened after that. Stamets seems to think that Discovery could hack into the Kelpien ship’s internal sensors to see what’s happening on board – but we didn’t see that this week.

Finally we come to Book. He talks to Saru about the Emerald Chain’s “training” perhaps being cover for something more aggressive, and I think this is Discovery building up to a major conflict or attack on the Federation. The Emerald Chain may even attack Federation HQ. Saru was a little too dismissive for my liking, telling Book that he needs to follow protocol when his courier sources seem like they could be incredibly useful. All Saru had to say here was “good job, let me know if you discover anything else.” But instead he turned it into a weird lecture about the need to fit in and find a role, and under the circumstances it just seems that Book’s contacts could be more useful to Saru than if Book himself were to read the Starfleet training manual. Perhaps this is setting up for Book to formally join Starfleet and the crew, and that’s all well and good I suppose. But from an in-universe point of view, making use of his connections and his intel should have been Saru’s priority here. It’s not like we’ve never seen Starfleet captains talk to third parties when looking for information; there are whole episodes based around that very premise, such as The Gambit from The Next Generation’s seventh season.

Saru seemed unwilling to take Book’s help, even though it was offered and could have proven valuable.

Having covered the non-Georgiou elements of the story, we now come to the Mirror Universe. It seemed obvious that the doorway would lead her there, somehow, and she emerges having travelled back in time to the day the ISS Charon – the Terran flagship seen in Discovery’s first season – was officially launched.

So let’s talk about canon and internal consistency. Discovery has been criticised by some in the fandom for its attitude to canon. Things like holo-communicators, the Klingon redesign, Burnham’s relationship to Spock, and so on are all cited as examples of how the show has ignored or overwritten established canon. I’ve never really had a problem with that side of things, though I understand the arguments on that side. One thing we’ve always been able to say, though, is that Discovery is internally consistent – i.e. events within Discovery itself are treated with respect and not messed with or overwritten.

Mirror Stamets was alive in Season 1… so how was he killed here?

Georgiou’s scenes in the Mirror Universe challenge that. She arrives on the day the ISS Charon is being officially commissioned, meaning this takes place before Discovery – under Lorca’s command – crosses over from the Prime universe. Yet we see events depicted here that go against what we saw in Discovery Season 1, such as the death of Stamets – who wasn’t dead in Season 1 – and the betrayal of Burnham, something which happened very differently in that season.

It isn’t clear where Georgiou is, and that may have an impact on what she’s seeing. It could be taking place in her head, in a different timeline, in a “pocket” universe, or in the actual Mirror Universe. Because we don’t know, some of these issues of internal consistency get a pass. But I’m not convinced that they all should. In Season 1, we learn that Mirror Burnham is presumed dead after trying to help Mirror Lorca stage a coup. Georgiou has put the death penalty on her, but did not execute her personally. The only way the storyline of Season 1 was able to unfold in the Mirror Universe was because Prime Burnham was able to convince Georgiou that she was her Mirror counterpart – something which could not have happened if, as Georgiou suggests, she executed Michael for treason days or weeks earlier.

If Mirror Burnham was executed by Georgiou’s own hand days or weeks before the events of Season 1, that storyline could not have unfolded the way it did.

We’re seeing events from Georgiou’s perspective, and I think it’s unlikely that she’s fully travelled back in time and across the divide between universes, so we may be seeing events unfold differently because of that. And if that’s how this storyline will be resolved then that’s all well and good. I just hope they don’t leave it unexplained or imply that Georgiou saw everything exactly as it happened, because that would open up a hole in Discovery’s overall storyline, with two different versions of events in the Mirror Universe. The show has always remained internally consistent, and I hope it does so again here.

Aside from Georgiou herself, who has changed as we’ve already discussed, the rest of the Mirror Universe characters played into the trope of being pantomime villains. We got to spend time mostly with Mirror Tilly and Mirror Burnham, but Stamets and a few others were also present at the dedicating ceremony for the ISS Charon. One of the defences people often trot out for episodes like this – which see the regular cast get to play different versions of their characters – is that the actors “had a lot of fun” doing it. I have no doubt that’s true – Sonequa Martin-Green in particular seemed to be relishing her portrayal of Mirror Burnham. But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly interesting or entertaining viewing, and these characters fit the Mirror Universe stereotype of being evil-for-the-sake-of-it villains with no real motivation, backstory, or points of interest. Martin-Green’s performance as Mirror Burnham in particular was incredibly over-the-top, hammy, and ridiculous. It was, at points, like watching a production put on by schoolchildren doing their best to seem villainous and menacing.

Mirror Burnham is little more than a pantomime villain.

The exception was Georgiou, who was the Mirror Universe’s saving grace in Terra Firma, Part I. At several moments in the story she reacted as if she were her Prime universe counterpart: firstly during her conversation with Tilly, then when she interrupted to save Saru’s life, and finally when she declined to execute Burnham. I don’t want to attribute her changed behaviour to some kind of psychological condition; that would be a pretty cheap way for the storyline to conclude. I hope what we’re seeing is Georgiou realising, having spent time in the Prime universe, that there is merit in some of the Federation’s ideals. It wouldn’t be the first time a denizen of the Mirror Universe came to that conclusion: Spock also felt that way, as we saw in Mirror, Mirror.

She’s clearly not going to have a complete turnaround and become a cuddly, kind-hearted person with nothing but nice things to say to everyone. But if this change sticks around beyond Terra Firma, Part II next week, we could begin to see Georgiou as something other than flat and one-dimensional, and that would be to the benefit not just of Discovery but also the upcoming Section 31 series.

Georgiou no longer feels at home in the Mirror Universe.

If we continue our Christmas analogy from earlier, Terra Firma, Part I unfolded in some respects like the classic Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. Carl, who guarded the door, is the “Ghost of Christmas Past,” Georgiou is Scrooge, and spending time away from her reality has shown her the error of her ways. She’s learned basically the same lesson Scrooge learned – to be nicer.

The play that Stamets and the crew put on for Emperor Georgiou was interesting and certainly something different for a Mirror Universe episode. It was fun to see how people in that universe – who seem to be all about violence all the time – make time for leisure activities that aren’t just blood sports. I wonder how a Mirror Universe actor or acrobat makes a living? Do they assassinate each other – as members of Mirror Starfleet to – in order to get ahead? In a way it would be interesting to see Terran society away from Starfleet; is it as violent and brutal as we think, or is there room for other activities? Terra Firma, Part I has me thinking about all the “normal” day-to-day activities we do, and how they could be similar or different in the Mirror Universe!

The play put on for Georgiou’s entertainment.

Terra Firma, Part I ends on a cliffhanger – Georgiou opts not to execute Mirror Burnham, thus changing the timeline as she sees it. As discussed, whether this is in fact the way things unfolded or this is Georgiou’s interpretation is unclear, as is the exact nature of what we’re seeing. It could be literal time travel meaning everything is literally happening, or it could be all in her head, a holodeck simulation, a vision from a noncorporeal race like the Prophets, or anything else. For my money, I don’t think she’s been able to travel back in time and across the boundary between universes simply by walking through a door on a random planet – so we’ll have to wait and see what is really going on.

I enjoyed Terra Firma, Part I. I liked its Christmas theme, the brief moment of furthering the main story, and for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed scenes set in the Mirror Universe. Georgiou has become a far more nuanced character, and while she’s hard to fully root for, especially if she wants to reclaim her throne, she’s become kind of an anti-hero. We’re seeing the Mirror Universe from her perspective, a Terran perspective, which is rare. The last episode to do that was In A Mirror, Darkly from the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

While Carl and Burnham look on, Georgiou opens the mysterious door.

I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen in Terra Firma, Part II next week. This first half of the story has given it a solid foundation to build upon, and there are many different ways it could go. It doesn’t feel like a predictable story right now, and that’s always something I like!

Stay tuned in the next couple of days for my updated theories. There was a lot to get stuck into from this episode, so it may take a little time to get everything written out.

Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.