Last week's Star Trek: Discovery felt like an old-school Star Trek episode, in a really good way. It had a familiar rhythm and tone, its characters worked, and it did justice to a high-concept premise. This week's episode, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” bears a similar familiarity - only with the inverse result.
The war with the Klingons isn't going well, as evidenced by Discovery's failure to save the USS Gagarin from destruction in the episode's opening act. Its combatants are locked in a tech race: Discovery's spore drive isn't transferable to the rest of the fleet yet, while the Klingons have successfully rolled out cloaking devices to nearly every vessel. For the Federation, the logical next step is to invent new sensor technology to penetrate those cloaks. Luckily, there's a nearby planet whose plants’ resonance waves might be able to be adapted for that purpose, using science.
That's right: it's time for an old-fashioned away mission to a strange new world, to seek out new life and...exploit its vibes.
In concept, that's pretty interesting, developing upon the show's focus on biotechnology. Discovery, it turns out, is into biotech in a very Star Trekky way, examining the rights and agency of the entities being put to use. We saw that with the tardigrade/vivisection storyline a few weeks ago, and we see it this week with planet Pahvo's spirits of the forest, or...whatever they are. This hasn't been explored significantly in Star Trek’s past, but with the biotech industry growing in real life, it makes sense to cover it now.* There's interesting debate to be had on this subject, and Discovery definitely touches on it.
Unfortunately, in execution, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” succumbs to some of Star Trek's sillier habits. It starts out okay - the away team of Burnham, Tyler, and Saru encounter non-corporeal lifeforms; they have a Prime Directive / first contact ethics conversation - but then the episode devolves into a pretty silly mind-control story. Those rarely turn out well, and this is no exception, as Saru is driven to perform comically exaggerated acts in service of these forest sprites (which themselves bear uncanny resemblance to Discovery's spores). Saru has visions; he merrily crushes the team's communicators; he rages at Burnham when she tries to carry out their mission. It all culminates in a debate between Saru, Tyler, Burnham - and an alien consciousness whose intentions cannot be heard or otherwise read. It's hard to get invested in a debate when a major player is an amorphous, non-speaking representation of a forest and a giant crystalline dick.
What this storyline does provide - albeit cartoonishly - is some nice character moments for Saru, who for the first time gets to experience life without being so darn afraid. He even gets to smile! I’ve said before that I like Saru, and that hasnt changed; I just hope he doesn’t end up entirely defined by fear and doubt. His upped screentime in this episode also signifies Discovery's transition to more of an ensemble show: Burnham’s still the main POV character, but the rest of the cast are all getting their moments. Among them: Ash Tyler, whose speech about hating the Klingons (aside from being a glowing red flag to any self-respecting Starfleet psych evaluator) all but confirms his role as a Klingon spy. Surely, he doth protest too much.
On the Klingon side of things, we catch up with pro interrogator L’Rell, who at this stage is sort of an underdog. She’s also subject to some of the show’s muddiest writing, spinning a complicated, tangled web of deceit. To recap: Boss Daddy Klingon Kol treats her poorly; she offers to interrogate Admiral Cornwell; she tells Cornwell she wishes to defect; they’re caught on their way to L’Rell’s ship, at which point L’Rell kills Cornwell (but totally doesn’t kill her, right?); she dumps Cornwell’s body in Dead Traitor Storage; that turns out to be full of her former buddies, so she vows vengeance on Kol; she swears fake fealty to Kol; Kol calls her out for her deception; so we basically end up where we started. L’Rell is definitely the most interesting Klingon on the show, and Kol is a charismatic villain, but the twists and turns are presented using confusing visual grammar. Cornwell’s “death,” for example, is shot and staged as if L’Rell expects her to wake up, but...she doesn’t. Is Cornwell dead? Who knows? L’Rell’s clearly just in this for herself, so if Cornwell is still alive, she’d better make herself useful.
Finally: on board Discovery, Stamets has trouble with his mind as a result of repeatedly being used as part of the ship's propulsion system. I mean, when you put it that way, of course he's going to get a little fried. Curiously, the show still hasn't gone into depth on this - but it seems it'll reach breaking point in next week's mid-season finale, which sees Discovery facing off against Kol's flagship in orbit around Pahvo.
The Pahvans calling Discovery and the Klingons together echoes another Original Series trope: that of higher beings settling conflicts with philosophy. One assumes that’s the reason why they’ve called everyone together, given how Saru waxed lyrical about togetherness while under their influence. I don’t see Gabriel Lorca falling for that kind of peace-loving horse-crap, though, nor do I see the conquest-hungry Kol lowering his bat’leth and chatting with the Federation. But who knows? Stranger things have happened, and an uneasy peace is in the Star Trek timeline’s near future. Just probably not that near.
* (That's also why I give the technologically augmented Discovery crew members a pass: given today's advances, it’s only logical that such augmentations would become commonplace in the future. Star Trek has canon to maintain, yes, but shouldn't it also paint the future of the world in which it was made?)