Everyone’s stuck in an in-between space in this week’s Star Trek: Discovery - between universes, between identities, between the walls of a torture chamber. “Vaulting Ambition” drops another major twist in Discovery’s path - another that had been speculated upon, but certainly not with the certainty of “Tyler = Voq.” It also gives its core characters some interesting developments, and supplies possibly the goriest character death in Star Trek since The Next Generation’s notorious “Conspiracy” episode. Woof.
“Vaulting Ambition” picks up with Burnham and Lorca on their way (in a comfortingly familiar-looking shuttlecraft) to see Terran Emperor Georgiou - the Mirror equivalent of Burnham's beloved, betrayed former captain. The Empire doesn’t mess about with its “imperial” trappings, bestowing a slew of ridiculous titles upon Georgiou and giving her a big sword to boot. What’s more, it turns out this Georgiou literally adopted her Burnham as a daughter - a moderately fucked-up relationship, and not the last heard of in the episode.
After a hearty meal of Kelpien (in case you thought the Empire spared any awful behaviour), and being sentenced to death for treason like she was going to be all along, Burnham’s facade slips. Or she just drops it. Either way, she reveals her true identity to Georgiou, who - of course - has heard of this “United Federation of Planets.” The Federation is classified information within the Empire (so much so that Georgiou murders her entire court after they hear about it) and despised for being a threat to order. That’s fair enough; free thought and equality inherently create disorder, in the sense that nature is inherently disorderly. If you see order as an end unto itself, of course you’re going to hate the Federation. Burnham presses for information on returning to the Prime universe via interphasic space, but Georgiou demands the schematics for the spore drive in return. Perhaps not the fairest information exchange, given that crossing universes via interphasic space is proven to drive everyone insane, but it’s progress of a sort.
Can the ship return via the mycelial network, then? Not currently. Deep in his mushroom coma, Lt Stamets meets up with his own mirror self, similarly comatose, learning that his counterpart’s exploitative spore experiments have led to some kind of malevolent spore sickness breaking out, threatening all of existence. He gets some of that information from - happily - Dr. Culber, whose mind or spirit or...something is still alive inside the network.
Stamets' and Culber's reunion is a really lovely one, with poetic use of the mycelial world’s surreality and heartfelt dialogue between the married couple. For all the headlines around the first queer relationship in Trek history, it plays more naturally than most - thanks to empathetic performances and the fact that it’s not a plot point. I do worry that, moving forward, Culber will only exist as some kind of mycelial ghost, but perhaps he'll take some corporeal form yet. Stamets, at least, manages to escape back into the real world, where it’s revealed that Discovery’s spores are all dead. Not a great situation, especially given that the fate of all universes may be at stake.
Culber might be trapped in an interdimensional fungal infection, but Lt. Tyler / Voq is trapped in a mind and body being fought over by two personalities. An interesting revelation in this episode is that Tyler was, in fact, a real Starfleet officer, his body and mind merged into Voq’s so as to make the lie more convincing. (Somehow, I’d always assumed that Tyler was a ground-up construct of L’Rell’s.) Tyler/Voq’s going mad as a result, tearing at himself in agony, and it’s apparently up to L’Rell - temporarily freed from the brig - to reverse his surgery.
How much does anyone want to bet that his surgery can only progress so far, leaving Voq looking like the Klingons of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s? Will Discovery ever resolve that, or is this just what Klingons look like now? Amusingly, it's the kind of thing that would just be handwaved off as artistic license if Deep Space Nine and Enterprise hadn’t made such a meal out of retconning the “forehead issue”.
The final minutes of “Vaulting Ambition” are incendiary and shocking in ways new to Star Trek. The major revelation - that Captain Lorca is, and has always been, Mirror Lorca - is something many guessed at but probably never truly expected. It throws all his actions until now into a new light - particularly where they concern Burnham. That’s the second major revelation, and probably the ickiest thing ever to be suggested in Star Trek (ickier even than the guy whose body explodes earlier in the episode). Turns out, Mirror Lorca was romantically - or at least sexually - entangled with Mirror Burnham, and that his “grooming” of her (a term specifically and knowingly used in the script) began at an early age. So not only is Lorca a mirror-universe human; he’s the Mirror Universe equivalent (since I imagine the relevant statutes are somewhat lax over there) of a statutory rapist. At best.
Did you suspect any of that? I know I did at one point, but I walked my prediction back when he proved to be at least somewhat multifaceted. The show did a solid job of playing against that particular twist, though I'm now intrigued to reach those earlier episodes. I’m also curious as to when the Lorca switcheroo occurred in the show’s timeline, and what the heck is up with Lorca Prime. Is he the one orchestrating a rebellion? Is he dead? Will Jason Isaacs ever get to play a good guy in his entire career? Hopefully we'll get to find out next week.