SPOILERS AHEAD … AND THINGS TO BE VERY AFRAID OF … VERY …
You could argue that this happens each and every week, which is true in a sense since Star Trek has always been a show that is about the good and bad decisions the upstanding citizens of the Federation, and especially Starfleet make in pursuit of the fulfilment of their blessedly utopian ideals, but it was more than starkly evident in “Su’Kal” and “There is a Tide… “, two episodes which drill right down to what makes the UFP so different to everyone one around them.
Such as, oh let’s say, Osyraa (Janet Kidder) who turns up at Federation HQ intent on proposing a revolutionary plan to merge the (mostly) squeaky clean Federation and the Emerald Chain into one gloriously massive force for … what exactly?
Ah, that my friends, is the great, big, planet made of dilithium question.
For while her plan might appear bold and visionary, and good lord, even the honesty-detecting AI acknowledges she is telling the truth (well, for the most part; when it comes her bloodthirsty, terrible past, she is apt to fudge the truth more often than not), she has got herself into a position to propose it by stealing the Discovery.
Yep, Discovery is in Emerald Chain hands, and has used a cunning ploy of being pursued by an Emerald Chain ship to gain precious entry, Trojan Horse-like into the very centre of the Federations as it stands in the 32nd century.
You could of course argue that the ends justify the means, and when an enemy as violently implacable as the Chain want to make nice and become honest and even outlaw slavery no less, you have to sit up and take notice as Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) does (albeit with enough justifiable cynicism and caution to sink a fleet of Kaminar bound starships).
But here’s the thing – Osyraa, and by extension, the Chain, have got themselves into a position to even pitch their plan for galactic peace, love and mung beans by doing the very things that have made them a trenchant enemy of the Federation in the first place.
Stealing things. Hurting people. Making threats. Terrorising and imprisoning.
If this is a new leaf they are turning over, then it’s starting to show a bit of senesce already.
Even worse, by stealing Discovery, which was under the temporary command of a very nervous Tilly (Amy Wiseman) who does a damn fine job while Saru is elsewhere – info on that coming up soon, along with a very Harry Potter-ish monster – they have potentially placed even more lives in danger.
Namely those of Dr Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Saru (Doug Jones) who, along with Michael, now “safely” onboard Discovery trying Die Hard-like to take it back, were on a planet in the Verubin Nebula to rescue a Kelpian kid (Bill Irwin) trapped in a radiation-safe pocket of a ship long crashed there that may have caused the Burn.
Newsflash! It did.
Well, not the planet so much as the kid in the ship who it turns out, thanks to his DNA getting used to all the planet’s radiation in utero, now has the ability, when he’s afraid, to send a shockwave out into surrounding space, and by that we mean, all space, which destabilises the dilithium in any ship it comes into contact.
Which in this case, is Discovery, hovering anxiously above the Nebula while it repairs it shields to go in and pick up Michael, Saru and Culber – the radiation is so intense it strips off the shields like fearsomely-tough detergent off a dirty saucepan (bold imagery, yes?) and so, they have to wait three or so hours before going into that radioactive hellhole – all of whom can’t get more than four hours of radiation or, well, they die, of if they’re lucky, spend days getting undergoing DNA recombination.
So, there’s no time to lose, especially not when it turns out that the kid, named “Su’Kal”, which means an end to suffering, an apt name when you consider his mother was slowly dying of radiation poisoning when she had him and initially raised him, is proving a tad elusive to locate and bring back.
It is, by any measure a complicated situation, made even more so by the fact that Su’Kal has been kept inside a fearsomely good hole program which transforms Michael into a Trill, Culber into a Bajoran and Saru into a human (yay Doug Jones can be make up free for once!) and which has educated and nurtured him but left him with the emotional capability of a child in a weird, computer-generated dream.
That’s a lot to unpack and deal with, and all with a ticking clock thundering in everyone’s ears.
So when Osyraa turns up and takes over Discovery, and to be fair while Tilly feels culpable in the extreme for this, she does brilliantly well staring down the Chain both before the takeover, and after, she not only endangers all of the crew on the ship but also everyone down on the planet which is soon going to kill Saru and Culber off, much to everyone’s horror (especially Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp, whose whole world is down there, especially when — Tal (Blu del Barrio) selflessly transports down to the planet to help everyone with extra radiation meds).
Hence, while she might have pure and good intent (doubtful), her execution is everything that is wrong with the Chain, highlighting in the process everything that is right with the Federation (which may not be perfect but is a damn sight better than the thuggish mob rule of Osyraa and her cronies).
But don’t just take the Federation’s word for it.
Rather cleverly, the writers of these two interlinked episodes place a moral compass in human form on the ship in the form of an Emerald Chain scientist named Aurellio (Kenneth Mitchell) who has been sheltered from the worst of the Chain’s brutalist excesses and has been afforded every opportunity to live a long and productive life.
In his world, Osyraa is good and beautiful person but as the episodes progress, it becomes painfully to him, especially when Rin (Noah Averbach-Katz) is blown to smithereens in front of him on Discovery’s bridge, that all of his good fortune as a disabled man living in the lap of familial love and luxury, is based on the violent misfortune of others.
He is our moral canary in the coal mine and while Osyraa talks a good diplomatic game with the Admiral, until of course he proposes something entirely reasonable she dislikes, she remains a thug and a brute, something made brutally clear when she threatens her second-in-command Zareh (Jake Weber) with beige blown out an airlock if he doesn’t find Michael, in full John McClane mode, and stop her taking back her ship.
She hasn’t changed, and her glorious plan for uniting the mercantile prosperity of the Chain and the political/military presence of the Federation, not to mention its still-revered moral authority, which she hopes to co-opt for her own purposes – let’s face it, she’s not after everlasting peace and Care Bears here – is as rotten as she quite clearly is.
As moral lessons go, “Su’Kal”/”There is a Tide … ” is a powerhouse of action and double-dealing justification, a stark demarcation between good and evil that might seem a little hackneyed and old-fashioned as concepts go in our 21st century postmodern age, but which are still very much a thing, even 930 years where what is right and what is wrong are still obvious for those who have eyes to see.
But don’t just take our word for it … just ask Aurellio.