Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Welcome back to another Star Trek: Discovery episode review. Time really flies, doesn’t it? We’re practically halfway through Discovery’s third season already; six episodes down, seven remaining! It seems like yesterday that we were theorising and speculating in the run-up to the season premiere! Where does the time go?
Season 3 has been enjoyable so far. The main mystery at the core of the series – the Burn – remains a driving force for much of the story, but its origin is still unknown, and finding some way of fixing the damage done seems a long way off. Scavengers brought us a macguffin that may help in that regard… but at the cost of a story for Michael Burnham that dragged her, almost full-circle, back to the self-centred, arrogant character we met at the beginning of Season 1.
Though I didn’t enjoy Season 1’s two-part premiere, the rest of the season went some way to making up for some of its wrongs. The attempted character arc for Burnham started on far too negative a note for my liking, but by the end of the season she had rediscovered her faith in Starfleet and the promise of the Federation. This continued into Season 2, where she put others first and ended up saving the galaxy. By this point in Discovery’s run, Burnham had changed… or so it seemed.
The beginnings of this undoing of her growth had been laid in Far From Home and expanded upon in People of Earth, when we learned Burnham had spent a year in the 32nd Century before Discovery’s arrival; a year in which she developed an appreciation for a life outside the confines of Starfleet that allowed her the freedom to go where she wanted and pursue leads on the Burn in the manner she saw fit. Clearly this wasn’t compatible with a return to serving under someone else’s command. I had been speculating for a couple of weeks that this storyline was perhaps setting up Burnham’s departure from Discovery. That may yet be true, but in the immediate term we have to deal with her selfish decision to disobey orders.
While I may be in the minority on this, I see this as a cheap recycling of the worst part of Burnham’s first-season storyline, and that just isn’t what I wanted – or expected – from Season 3. Discovery is repeating its biggest mistake from back then: telling us that Burnham was right to do what she did because the ends justify the means. Is that the message Star Trek has always tried to teach?
If this was the first time she’d behaved in this way, I think I’d have come away from Scavengers with my heart breaking for the tough choice she made: deciding to do what she felt was right even if it went against her orders. But it isn’t the first time we’ve been down this road with Burnham, and aside from the repetitive storyline, it makes me feel she learned nothing. At her core, she’s still the same arrogant wannabe-captain who thinks she knows better, and that because of how unique and wonderful she is the chain of command should not apply. These were Burnham’s worst character traits in Season 1, and apparently they’re back again in Season 3.
For that reason alone, Scavengers is currently my least-favourite episode of the season.
Let’s get into the rest of the story, then. Despite my gripes with the way Burnham’s storyline was handled, Scavengers was otherwise a decent episode, one with plenty of action, some interesting upgrades to Discovery itself, and the return of Book – and Grudge! There’s plenty to enjoy, and despite his limited screen time I want to single out Doug Jones’ performance as Saru, which was once again intensely emotional.
Scavengers begins with a truly impressive CGI sequence showing Discovery’s retrofit. Saru notes in a voiceover (that soon merges neatly into a briefing he’s participating with senior Starfleet officers) some of the changes to the ship: the integration of programmable matter, detachable nacelles, and a host of other upgrades which presumably bring the 930-year-old vessel up to 32nd Century specs. No longer will she be outgunned against the likes of the “Emerald Chain” – the Andorian-Orion alliance first named last week, and who may be in charge of the Hima trading post Burnham visited in That Hope Is You.
Discovery is also given an updated number: NCC 1031-A. Although I don’t doubt some fans will argue over whether retrofitted ships are renumbered (the Enterprise wasn’t in The Motion Picture, for example) for me personally this worked well. Season 3 – despite my complaint about Burnham’s characterisation above – has been a soft reboot of Discovery in many ways, including of course the new 32nd Century setting. The renumbering and retrofit of the ship is symbolic of this break with the show’s past – even if the interior of the ship has been left more or less the same from a visual standpoint.
I can also foresee detached nacelles being controversial among Trekkies, particularly those who goggle over starship design! On the surface it doesn’t seem to make sense; how can the nacelles propel Discovery to warp if they aren’t physically connected to the ship? The answer, no doubt, lies in forcefields, tractor beams, warp bubbles, or some kind of technology to keep the nacelles bound to the ship even when they aren’t physically connected. It does make me wonder, though… if the ship were to lose all power, would the nacelles just float away? Can the nacelles go to warp independently? Maybe this is setting up a future episode where Discovery’s nacelles get stolen!
Compared to Star Trek’s past “hero” ships, Discovery has always had a somewhat clunky design. The saucer has long been my favourite part, with its spinning rings, and the “neck” and star-drive section have these sharp lines that definitely succeeded in Season 1 of indicating that this was a pre-Original Series ship. The detachable nacelles give the star-drive section a bit more visual interest, not least because that concept is something we’ve never really seen before. Overall the changes glimpsed in this opening sequence are positive – iterative improvements to Discovery without launching into an all-out retrofit like the original Enterprise saw. I look forward to seeing Discovery in action soon, as this week we only saw her in dock.
While we’re looking at little details, Saru is the first Discovery character to don the new 32nd Century Starfleet badge in place of the simpler Original Series-inspired gold emblem the crew have worn since Season 1. The rest of the crew will get their badges in a scene we’ll look at in a moment, but purely as an aesthetic, I quite like this design. As above with the ship’s retrofit, this feels like Discovery taking another step to reboot itself, symbolically moving away from Seasons 1 & 2. The badge itself is an oval shape, one that reminds me at least a little of the Bajoran combadges sported by Odo and Kira in Deep Space Nine. It keeps the familiar Starfleet logo (or Delta) but splits it cleanly in two – perhaps a metaphor for the fractured Federation? In addition, the badges show rank – in Saru’s case, four pips indicate he’s a captain. This idea isn’t new, and we’d seen combadges that could show rank in some episodes of The Next Generation that were set in alternate timelines. Taken as a whole, there are inspirations from across the wider Star Trek canon, but above all the badges look great.
Several of the other Federation captains and/or flag officers learn about the Spore Drive at this meeting with Saru and Admiral Vance; its existence is to remain a secret on Vance’s orders. I picked up the smallest of hints here that maybe some of the other Starfleet officers present weren’t happy with the Spore Drive – for whatever reason – and we’ll look at that theory in more detail in the coming days!
Saru tells Admiral Vance that Burnham is in charge of re-training the crew and helping them acclimate to the 32nd Century; this process has been ongoing for three weeks or so, along with the retrofit of the ship. It would have been nice to see some of that – even just in a montage – as it would have helped us get to really see how the crew feel about their new situation. Saru tells us that they’re adjusting, but as I’ve said on a couple of occasions already this season: show, don’t just tell!
The crew get their new badges in the next scene, and we learn how far technology has come! In addition to being combadges – which are already new to the 23rd Century Discovery crew – the badges are holo-projectors, padds, tricorders, and personal transporters! All those devices are now rolled into one, which is pretty cool! Star Trek’s technology has always been influenced by current trends, and what we see today with the likes of smartphones is the condensing of multiple tools into one piece of kit. This is reflected by Discovery in these new badges, and I think we all feel what Tilly says aloud: “this is my new favourite thing!”
This sequence also featured some of the bridge crew getting to grips with some of the new features, including programmable matter. The Detmer storyline may have been advanced off-screen, but she clearly isn’t 100% back to normal, still suffering the lingering effects of her injury and mental health issues. Random Blonde Bridge Officer – who last week we learned is called Lieutenant Nilsson – gets another line here, as Linus the Saurian mistakenly arrives on the bridge via his personal transporter; this would be a recurring joke throughout the episode, and although it was silly, it was definitely funny. Scavengers had several great moments of humour like that, but it’s just nice to see the wider crew having some screen time. I’ve written previously that expanding the characters who are in play is something I’d like to see Discovery do, and this was a short sequence, but they all add up.
Book’s ship makes a surprise arrival, kicking off the Burnham plot. The ship has arrived on autopilot, and Book tells Burnham via a recorded holo-message that he’s gone in search of a Federation black box. She takes this to Saru, as finding the black box might help them triangulate the original source of the Burn – perhaps allowing them to figure out what caused it. Saru, however, has his orders from Admiral Vance about the need to be ready to jump to another system, and tells Burnham that her idea of chasing after Book will have to wait.
It was patently obvious from this scene what Burnham was going to do next – just as it became apparent from her conversations with Sarek in the Season 1 premiere that she was similarly going to go rogue. Burnham had already decided that what she wanted to do was more important, and being unwilling to follow the chain of command or be patient and wait perhaps 12 hours, she immediately schemes with Georgiou. I don’t always like Mirror Georgiou – she can feel flat and one-dimensional – but here she actually acts as the voice of reason, telling Burnham she’ll be potentially doing harm to Saru and the whole crew by rushing off half-cocked. It was a change of pace for her, no question, but one that worked well at the outset of a storyline that otherwise didn’t. I particularly liked Georgiou’s line referencing Burnham’s Season 1 mutiny having “a very familar ring.” It was written beautifully and delivered with perfection.
After the opening titles, we immediately see Burnham and Georgiou aboard Book’s ship in flight. For story reasons, Book’s ship kind of had to be present, but in a galaxy lacking in fuel for warp travel, couldn’t he have transmitted Burnham a message some other way? Admiral Vance did mention that some of Starfleet’s subspace relays were not working, but it hasn’t been conclusively established that all faster-than-light communication doesn’t work. It just seems odd that someone as concerned with dilithium supplies as Book would send his entire ship in search of Burnham. There’s also the question of how far from Earth Federation HQ is located; Book was last seen in the vicinity of Earth.
Those are nitpicks, but in a story which generally didn’t work very well, I find myself more inclined to pick at elements I might’ve overlooked in a better episode!
This sequence continues something we saw last time – there’s something wrong with Georgiou. She appears to zone out while Burnham talks to her, as we saw her do at the end of last week’s episode. This is definitely something which has potential, adding a new dimension to an otherwise flat character. The writers seem to want us to infer that whatever is happening with Georgiou is related to her interrogation last week by the Starfleet officer (played by David Cronenberg) who may be working for Section 31. It seems too much of a coincidence that she suddenly developed a repressed memory or other psychological ailment immediately after that event and have the two be entirely unrelated – but at this stage we don’t know.
This new storyline opens up new possibilities for Georgiou, no matter what the ultimate cause of this hallucination turns out to be. Her initial appearance as the Terran Empress in Season 1 was purely for shock value – and it worked. But after Burnham “saved” her and brought her aboard Discovery she’s been rudderless. Assigning her to Section 31 was actually a sensible use of her unique perspective, but even so as a character she has no nuance or depth; I once called her a “23rd Century Heinz Doofenshmirtz,” i.e. a childish cariacture of a villain. However, the possibility that she’s been brainwashed, tampered with, or is suffering some kind of illness or the reappearance of repressed memories could take her in different directions and to new places.
If Starfleet, led by Kovich, has done something to her, I would expect to see her seek revenge, and that in itself could be an interesting storyline. This may even set the stage for her working against Starfleet’s interests, or, as I’ve been theorising, travelling back in time to the 23rd Century in time to link up with the Section 31 series that’s currently in production and is supposedly set in that era. In short, this storyline opens up numerous possibilities for a character I’ve never been particularly keen on within the show to actually do something different and interesting. I’m all for that!
While Burnham and Georgiou travel to a junkyard planet and talk their way to the surface, Tilly realises Burnham is absent. For the first time this season – and perhaps for the first time since Reno joined the crew in Season 2 – Tilly is used as some light-hearted comic relief. I adored her scene with Grudge in her quarters as she realised Burnham is missing; I was laughing out loud as she asked Grudge “did you eat her?!” That was perhaps the funniest line of the season so far. Tilly is a great character for comedic purposes; Mary Wiseman has great timing and delivery. However, I’m glad she’s not just been a comic character this season.
Her scene with Saru in engineering was interesting. Of note was the fact that she didn’t go to her captain to let him know Burnham is missing right away; he had to track her down and ask. Though the scene was short, any time Saru and Tilly are together makes for great television, particularly after their bonding in Far From Home. Saru once again demonstrates how good of a captain he is, telling Tilly he doesn’t believe she would do the same as Burnham did (i.e. disobey orders) in the same situation. This gentle mentoring of his crew is something we’ve seen Saru do at several key moments. Without being aggressive or dictating orders, he’s shepherding them to make the right decisions for themselves. Tilly would not do what Burnham did, not only because she’s better than that but because she wouldn’t want to let Saru down. He’s instilling in the crew a respect for his authority in a different way; not simply relying on rank, nor on his strictness, he’s building a genuine rapport with officers like Tilly.
As Admiral Vance points out later, Saru failed with Burnham in that regard. Not only that, but I felt Admiral Vance was absolutely fair to point out to Saru that he should have told his superior about Burnham and Book’s information; even if they couldn’t have undertook the mission immediately it may have been worth the risk very soon thereafter. Vance impresses on Saru that he’s not happy, but in a not dissimilar manner to Saru does so in a calmly angry manner. I stand by what I said last week: the casting for Admiral Vance was inspired.
But we’ve raced ahead almost to the end of Scavengers! The junkyard location was aesthetically interesting, but I didn’t really get a sense of being in the “far future.” Perhaps that’s the work of the Burn setting things back, but even so the facility seemed rather present-day in some respects. I also got a bit of a Star Wars vibe, as the junkyard reminded me a little of some locations in that franchise. It was interesting to see some of the salvage at the junkyard; I spotted a 24th Century phaser, which was a nice touch, and the return of the self-sealing stem bolt was low-key hilarious to Trekkies!
Burnham and Book are reunited; Book having been captured while searching for the black box. I can’t help but feel that Book’s side of this story is the part I’d rather have seen – searching for the black box on a dangerous world and ultimately getting captured by Andorian-Orion slavers seems like it has the potential to make for an exciting Book-centric episode. However, that’s not what we got!
It’s apparent from Scavengers that Burnham and Book’s relationship progressed far more than she let on. Whether they were ever an “official item” is not clear, but there are strong feelings reciprocated by both parties. As I said a few weeks ago, giving Burnham a love interest has the potential to humanise her and blunt the edge of some of her less-attractive character traits; ironic, considering what happened in Scavengers amplified those same traits as she raced off to rescue him!
The escape from the junkyard was tense, exciting, and action-packed. The junkyard’s security system utilises a head-exploding technology – one which Georgiou was able to disable using a macguffin that seemed to consist of two pieces of junk from the facility itself, which doesn’t seem all that secure. But as a concept it was interesting, and made Book’s escape seem implausible.
Book’s Andorian friend Ryn was an interesting character. At first I was sure he was going to meet his end at the junkyard; the story seemed to be setting him up as the sacrificial lamb to allow Book’s escape. When he was shot during the slaves’ escape it was a saddening moment, but not one that was entirely unexpected. What was a surprise, however, was Ryn’s subsequent survival. Has Book acquired a new permanent ally, or will we never see Ryn again? I’d be interested to learn more about him, and if one part of the season’s Starfleet storyline will involve a conflict with this Emerald Chain faction, perhaps Ryn will prove useful. We’ll have to wait and see, but as a character he has a lot of potential. I’m glad he made it!
I think I’ve hit most of the points I wanted to about the junkyard, which is where most of the action took place this week. It was an interesting setting, freeing the slaves was suitably tense and exciting, and it gave Georgiou and Burnham a chance to catch up. None of that was problematic, and if I were to criticise one part of the junkyard storyline it would be to say that the main Orion villain – Tolor – was bland and uninteresting; a cardboard cut-out who was only there to give Burnham, Book, and Georgiou an antagonist. The rest of it was fine, and even managed to be a combination of exciting and interesting.
Were it not for the way this had been set up, with Burnham’s total regression to her Season 1 characterisation, I would have enjoyed all of the junkyard sequences a lot more. To be clear, it’s no criticism of Sonequa Martin-Green, who always gives her all when portraying Burnham, but in this case I’m not sold on this kind of storyline for her. It recycled the worst parts of what she did in Season 1 that, for me at least, made her very difficult to root for as a protagonist. Maybe Scavengers is setting up something greater for her in future, but even if that’s the case I come back to the same argument I had against Burnham in Season 1: making your protagonist unlikeable through dumb, arrogant decisions is not the way to an inspiring character arc. It’s absolutely possible to show a character make mistakes, learn from them, grow, and for that story to be engrossing, entertaining, and inspiring. But you don’t accomplish that by making your main character arrogant and self-centred, and you certainly don’t accomplish it by dragging your main character back and undoing two years’ of positive growth.
At the close of the episode, after he received a dressing-down of his own from Admiral Vance, Saru tells Burnham her services as his first officer will no longer be required. This scene was emotional, and it’s hard not to feel for Saru as his heartbreak at Burnham’s selfishness was plain to see. He put his trust in her – twice – and she’s taken advantage of that. We can absolutely entertain the argument that Saru trusts her too readily, but this is all on her. I liked the idea of Burnham as Saru’s first officer when she first took the position in People of Earth, but after a mere three episodes she’s thrown it away again. He certainly can’t offer it to her again; as a story point that would be too unbelievable, even setting aside the in-universe way Saru must be feeling. And if any Discovery fan was under any illusion that Burnham should ascend to the captaincy herself, well I think it’s fair to say that Scavengers demonstrates why she won’t.
Her line to Saru that he’s doing the right thing was unwarranted, and again feeds into the (unintentional) narrative that Burnham is incredibly arrogant. He’s already made his decision as captain to strip her of the first officer’s post, yet she feels the need to give him her opinion. Are we meant to feel that she’s being logical and looking at the situation objectively? That if the roles were reversed, she knows she would have to fire her first officer? Because it doesn’t come across that way. It comes across as Burnham trying, once again, to put herself at the centre. It’s not about Saru’s decision any more, it’s about Burnham, and what she would have done in his place.
I thought Discovery was over this. The warning signs of a Burnham obsession have been present this season, as she’s been forced into roles in two episodes that were better-suited to other characters, so I should certainly have been prepared for something like this. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. If Burnham were a side character, a secondary character or someone less important to the series, I think what happened this week would be more acceptable. But she’s the main protagonist, the character we’re supposed to root for and support no matter what. After two-and-a-half seasons, I was there. I was a Burnham supporter. But seeing her like this again: self-centred, insubordinate, and believing that because she’s special that everyone needs to do what she wants, when she wants, felt like being at the start of Season 1 again.
I’m confused. Discovery has given us a protagonist it wants us to support, but it’s going out of its way to make her as unlikeable as she was back then. How are fans supposed to get on board with this version of Burnham? What’s confusing is where the show goes from here. On the one hand we have Saru and the rest of the crew, getting to know their retrofitted ship with its fancy new technology. There’s a real chance they can help bring the Federation together, and that’s a story I truly want to see. But what of Burnham? What role does she have now? Maybe she’s found some clue in this black box that will begin to unravel the Burn, but even if she has, can we trust her to stick with the crew as they chase down this mystery? And more importantly, for such an arrogant and selfish person, do we want to see her help? Do we want to see this victory become her victory? I’m not sure any more.
I missed out the whole Stamets-Adira bonding, and I did want to compliment the writers on those sequences. Adira and Stamets have a lot in common, and it was great to see them both reaching out for each other. I’m glad Adira has someone to talk to about Gray, and Stamets is kind and understanding. It was nice to see him take her under his wing.
Speaking of Stamets, we also got a brief scene between him and Culber. Fixing their relationship was on my wishlist for the season, and it seems to have happened. I’m so glad, because their cute relationship can be an emotional anchor for the otherwise fast-paced, action-packed Discovery.
So that was Scavengers. Overall, a mixed bag. The scenes aboard Discovery were great. Tilly got to step back into her comic shoes for a short time, Saru was on fine form as captain, Adira and Gray got some screen time, the bridge crew got to grips with the retrofitted ship, and as mentioned, Stamets got moments with Adira and Culber. But the main focus of the episode was Burnham and her incomprehensible decision to put herself first, to ignore the chain of command, and to arrogantly and unilaterally decide that what she wanted was most important. I can’t support that or get behind it, and if Discovery continues with Burnham in this fashion it’s going to be a difficult watch over the next few episodes.
Above all, I’m disappointed that we seem to be back in the same place we were at the beginning of Season 1. Discovery improved in leaps and bounds in the intervening two-and-a-half seasons, but right now there’s a real risk of much of that growth – at least as far as Burnham is concerned – being undone.
I’m a little anxious about what Unification III will bring. Hopefully it can begin the task of repairing the damage done to Burnham this week, or perhaps sideline her and tell a different story utilising other members of the crew. A continuation of this trend will be unfortunate.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.