L'ak (Elias Toufexis) and Mol (Eve Harlow) in Star Trek: Discovery

Secrets, Sequels, and a Synth Named Fred — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Red Directive” & “Under the Twin Moons”

The start of the fifth season of Star Trek: Discovery is unique in many ways, but probably the biggest one is that it establishes that the same person will be in command of the U.S.S. Discovery for the second season in a row, which has never happened before. The hallmark of the inaugural show of the Paramount+ era of Trek has been a new captain every year: Lorca for season 1, Pike for season 2, Saru for season 3, and Burnham for season 4.

But Burnham’s still in charge in season 5. And that’s an indication that—for once—nothing has changed on Discovery. They’ve finally found a status quo, and it’s one that works.

So, of course, it’s the last season. Sigh.

There’s only one really significant change, and it doesn’t come to fruition until the end of the second of the two episodes that went live today: Saru is being promoted to the role of Federation Ambassador-at-Large, and so will no longer be Burnham’s Number One. This is a good move on several levels, as it never sat right with me that Saru took a subordinate position to Burnham on Discovery after doing such a good job as her captain in season 3. Not that Burnham didn’t also deserve the promotion, but Saru didn’t deserve a demotion, either. They made it work last year, mostly because Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones make a really good team. But Saru is, bluntly, the best thing to come out of Discovery, and he deserves better.

And he’s getting it! Not only is he being promoted, but his relationship with T’Rina has deepened to the point that she hits him with a marriage proposal. Being Vulcan, she of course phrases the proposal in the most pedantic and bloodless manner possible, which Tara Rosling manages to make incredibly adorable.

Saru’s last mission comes from Kovich, a classified mission that’s a Red Directive. Not to be confused with other directives that are prime or omega, this one is not defined, but is obviously a shut-up-and-go-do-it-now-please mission that you go on and do not fuck around. (It’s Trek’s latest red thing. The original series had red alerts, redshirts, and the Red Hour, DS9 had Red Squad, the 2009 movie had red matter, and season 2 of this very show had the Red Angel.)

In this case, an eight-hundred-year-old Romulan ship has been found that has a Tan zhekran on it that needs to be retrieved. Established in Picard’s “The Impossible Box” as a Romulan puzzle box, this particular Tan zhekran has something very valuable and very classified on it. In fact, it’s so classified that even Vance doesn’t know the specifics.

Unfortunately, two ex-couriers named Mol and L’ak have gotten to the Romulan ship, and the Tan zhakren, first. Played by, respectively, Eve Harlow and Elias Toufexis, I’m honestly not sure what to make of these two yet. I’m getting a Bonnie-and-Clyde vibe from the two of them that’s kind of a mix of Spike and Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pumpkin and Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction, though as yet they’re nowhere near that level of interesting. (Their names are also interesting, as “moll” is a name given to a female companion to a criminal, and “L’ak” is similar to “lackey.” Makes you wonder if there’s a bad guy they’re working for…)

L'ak (Elias Toufexis) and Mol (Eve Harlow) in Star Trek: Discovery
Image: CBS / Paramount+

They take the Tan zhakren and some other stuff, and head out in their own ship, with Discovery and the U.S.S. Antares giving chase, a thrilling sequence that has Burnham in an EVA suit on the hull of L’ak and Mol’s ship, the Antares using a tractor beam, and a game of chicken among the participants. However, the ex-couriers get away, and do so in a manner that leaves dozens of warp trails behind, only one of which is the real one.

But Burnham knows this courier’s trick from her year as one between “That Hope is You” and “Far from Home,” and she puts in a call to the courier she knows best: Book.

Book is still doing his community service, helping out the worlds that were ravaged by the DMA last season. More to the point, this summoning is the first time Book and Burnham have spoken since the end of last season. Martin-Green and David Ajala continue to sparkle in their scenes together, but Book’s betrayal last season has twisted everything. The scenes are beautifully played and written, as Burnham and Book obviously still love each other deeply, but Burnham absolutely cannot trust Book anymore, and Book knows full well that he doesn’t deserve to be trusted, and it puts the pair of them in a weird place. That place remains weird, as Book stays on after the first episode, assigned by Vance his own self to be a consultant on the mission, since he knows how couriers think.

Book’s arrival signals the season story kicking in: chasing after the contents of the Tan zhekran. Mol and L’ak take the stuff they looted from the Romulan ship to a centuries-old Soong-style synth named Fred (which is fabulous). Fred has Data-like makeup, and his serial number is later established as starting with “AS” for Altan Soong, the cyberneticist son of Data’s creator, Noonien Soong, established in Picard’s “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1.”

Played with Spiner-esque curiosity-filled deadpan by J. Adam Brown, Fred is a collector of ancient things, and he’s thrilled at the twenty-fourth-century artifact. He’s also easily able to open the Tak zhekran, which contains a diary, written in Romulan. Being a synth, Fred is able to read the entire thing in half a second. He’s also not willing to pay a fair price—or, indeed, any price, and the negotiation turns into a fight, which ends with Fred and his security dead. (Why Fred doesn’t have the super-strength and speed seen in other synths like Data is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Book figured out that Fred would be the fence in this little adventure, and so Discovery and Antares head there, but by the time they arrive, Fred’s dead, baby—Fred’s dead. Luckily, Fred is a synth, so they send the body up to Discovery, where between them, Stamets and Culber are able to extract his memory, including his speed-read of the diary. Which means they also have the text of the diary.

Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) rides a speeder bike in Star Trek: Discovery
Credit: CBS / Paramount+

This is followed by another thrilling action piece, and it’s to the show’s credit that both action sequences in “Red Directive” are actually plot relevant. And character relevant, as in both sequences, we find out a lot about Antares Captain Rayner, played by new series regular Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian actor who is, I believe, contractually obligated to appear in every show that films in Canada at least once. Rayner is a Starfleet captain of many years’ standing who is, in many ways, still acting like they’re in the middle of the Burn, when Starfleet was just trying to keep the tattered remains of the Federation together, unlike Burnham, who spent most of her life in the twenty-third-century version of the Federation.

That conflict comes to a head during the motorcycle chase through the desert at the climax of “Red Directive.” L’ak and Mol are heading to a cave system. The notion of phasering the caves to block off the entrance is floated, but there’s a 30% chance that it’ll cause an avalanche that will wipe out the city and kill thousands. Burnham rejects the plan, but Rayner thinks it’s worth the risk for a Red Directive mission and Antares fires on the caves. There’s no avalanche, and Rayner proudly declares, “70% for the win!”

But the problem is that they gave Mol and L’ak an idea. They do what bad guys have been doing in heroic fiction for ages: they cause an avalanche, meaning our heroes have to spend time saving lives, giving the bad guys the opportunity to escape.

That’s not the only consequence. The two ships are damaged when they both crash nose-first into the surface to break the avalanche and have to return to HQ for repairs. Rayner is the subject of an inquiry that includes Vance and Rillak (always good to see Chelah Horsdal as my favorite on-screen Federation President, whom I got to write a story for in Star Trek Explorer, cough cough). At first, he’s encouraged to retire, and he does lose his command, but Burnham convinces him to replace Saru as her first officer.

Before he can take over, Burnham and Saru have a final adventure together. Kovich has decided to read Burnham in on the full story. I said earlier that the season’s story is a chase, and that’s an appropriate way to refer to a season that is a sequel to TNG’s “The Chase.” The Romulan ship belonged to one of the background Romulan science officers in that episode, and he knows what the power source is of the Progenitors, the humanoid beings who apparently seeded the galaxy with humanoid life.

Now here’s where I have to confess that I really didn’t much like “The Chase,” as it was a giant wink at the viewer in desperate search of an interesting plot that it never found. I’ve got very little patience with taking the time to explain something that doesn’t need explaining, which is all “The Chase” was.

But since we do have the Progenitors (a term first heard from Kovich in “Red Directive”), it is also true that whatever they did to, in essence, create humanoid life is pretty powerful stuff, and is something that could be abused.

Saru (Doug Jones) and Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) embrace in Star Trek: Discovery
Credit: CBS / Paramount+

The diary leads them to a Promellian necropolis. (The Promellians were established as a long-extinct species in TNG’s “Booby Trap.”) This is a straight-up video-game adventure, as Burnham and Saru have to get through various security features and figure out puzzles and clues and things. And scripter Alan McElroy has a little fun, because you wonder if this is Saru’s swan song. I mean, he’s just accepted a marriage proposal, it’s his final mission, and he and Burnham have several conversations about the adventures they’ve had together, and you realize that Saru’s fulfilling every dead-meat cliché in the book. He’s the partner at the beginning of the cop buddy movie who’s one week from retirement and then gets killed to piss off the main character. We even find out he has a nifty nickname—coined by Reno and used by Book, he’s apparently referred to in his post-vahar’ai state as “Action Saru.” And it is the last season…

Luckily, McElroy is just toying with us. Saru not only survives, but proves his “Action Saru” chops by using his spines to blow up some of the security drones. And he’s returned to T’Rina in one piece, and with a new clue.

I’m liking this direction for the season. The stakes are high, but not a threat to the entirety of the galaxy as we know it. It’s a quest narrative of a type we’ve seen a thousand times before and twice at our weekly role-playing game, but we’ve seen it so often because, dammit, it works. More to the point, the threat isn’t so over-the-top insane with a high body count, as every other threat Discovery has thrown at us has been. It’s therefore a less exhausting storyline, which is all for the best.

The clue they find will send them to Trill, thus giving Adira a chance to be reunited with Gray. icon-paragraph-end

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