Book (David Ajala), Culber (Wilson Cruz), and Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in a scene from Star Trek: Discovery "Jinaal"

The Game Is Afoot — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Jinaal”

If there was any doubt whatsoever that the fifth season of Discovery is a role-playing-game-style quest narrative, “Jinaal” beats those doubts to a pulp. We’ve definitely got ourselves a goal that will be found by our heroes being clever, by getting through traps, by figuring out riddles, and so on.

And it’s fun. Trek hasn’t really done this sort of straight-up game-style narrative before, certainly not on this scale, and while you can practically hear the dice rolling with each scene, it’s fun, dangit.

It helps that the episode does something that the Secret Hideout shows have been much better about than the previous wave of Trek TV shows, and that’s embracing the history on the microcosmic level as well as the macrocosmic. I love that they do things like last week’s use of the Promellians. The first wave of Trek spinoffs would have just made up an alien species rather than re-use one, but there’s no reason not to use one that’s already established. Especially since “Booby Trap” made it sound like the Promellians were a well-known extinct species, yet were only mentioned in that one TNG episode.

While this tendency can sometimes go overboard into the fan-wanky territory (cf. the third season of Picard), Discovery has generally made it work. This episode in particular makes very good use of Trek’s history, particularly the Trill both as developed on DS9 and also as seen on this show, particularly in “Forget Me Not.” And we also get some background on why the Progenitors’ technology was classified.

The clue on Trill is held by a joined Trill named Jinaal, whose current host is still alive on the world. It’s been eight centuries, and both host and symbiont are near the end of their lives—indeed, they’re clinging to life in part because nobody has approached them for their clue yet.

Book (David Ajala), Culber (Wilson Cruz), and Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in a scene from Star Trek: Discovery "Jinaal"
Credit: CBS / Paramount+

Discovery’s arrival is met with a riddle to prove that they figured out the clue on the Promellian necropolis last time—in particular that it initially appeared to lead to Betazed. Once Burnham provides that right answer, Jinaal’s current host is willing to talk to them, but the host who actually was there eight hundred years ago wants to talk directly to the Discovery crew. So they perform a zhiantara, first seen in DS9’s “Facets,” where prior hosts’ personalities can be temporarily downloaded into another person. The Guardians (including Gray, still apprenticing as a Guardian) perform the ceremony on Jinaal, transferring the older host into Culber.

As with “Facets”—and indeed every other science fiction story that involves characters getting a temporary new personality, a well Trek has dug into any number of times, from the original series’ “Return to Tomorrow” and “Turnabout Intruder” to TNG’s “The Schizoid Man” and “Masks” to DS9’s “Dramatis Personae” and “Our Man Bashir” to Voyager’s “Infinite Regress” and “Body and Soul” to Enterprise’s “The Crossing” and “Observer Effect”—this is at least partly an acting exercise for Wilson Cruz. And, to his credit, Cruz nails it, creating a fully realized character in Jinaal, who is crotchety, enigmatic, and more than a little manipulative.

He was a scientist who worked with the Romulan whose scout ship was found last week, along with a bunch of other scientists, after the Romulan found the Progenitors’ technology. This all happened at the height of the Dominion War, which—as we know from DS9—was a time of significant paranoia in the Alpha Quadrant. Because of that, and because of how dangerous the technology had the potential to be, the scientists all agreed to hide it and only have it be findable by someone who can figure out the clues and who could be counted on to use it for good.

Having this all happen during the Dominion War was very clever, as that was a time when worry about things like Changeling infiltration was at its height. And it’s remained a big secret since then simply because nobody knows where it is without the Romulan journal.

Besides his initial riddle and his general questioning of Burnham and Book about the state of the galaxy in the thirty-second century, there’s one final test. Jinaal claims to have hidden the next physical puzzle piece in a canyon occupied by a nasty predator animal that can cloak itself. Eventually, Burnham and Book realize that it isn’t just a big nasty creature attacking them, it’s a mother protecting its eggs. Once they realize that, they back off, which is what Jinaal was waiting for.

Having passed the compassion test, he gives them the final doodad. Culber then gets his body back and Jinaal can rest.

T'Rina (Tara Rosling) and Saru (Doug Jones) in a scene from Star Trek: Discovery "Jinaal"
Credit: CBS / Paramount+

There are also three character-based subplots, two of which work nicely. Back at Federation HQ, Saru and T’Rina are about to announce their engagement, but Saru’s new career as an ambassador complicates matters for T’Rina’s chief aide, who advises Saru to convince his boss that they should postpone the engagement announcement. Saru goes along with this, thinking he’s protecting his fiancée, but T’Rina wastes no time in whupping him upside the head on that score. The Ni’Var President understands her staff’s need to be politically acute, but she refuses to let political concerns interfere with her personal life—a very logical decision, though logic and politics so rarely mix. It’s a nice little subplot, elevated, as usual, by brilliant performances by Doug Jones and Tara Rosling and their picture-perfect chemistry, as well as the script by Kyle Jarrow & Lauren Wilkinson, which illustrates the conflict potential when Saru’s compassion clashes with T’Rina’s logic.

On Discovery, Burnham charges her new first officer with getting to know the crew. Rayner resists this—he’s read their service records—but Burnham thinks there’s no substitute for talking to people. Rayner’s solution to this is to give each crewmember twenty words to tell him something about themselves that isn’t in their service record. It takes Tilly whupping him upside the head to remind him that his command style on the Antares isn’t going to work on Discovery. Mary Wiseman is particularly good here, showing us how far Tilly has come. (She’d better damn well be one of the stars of the upcoming Starfleet Academy series…)

The third character bit doesn’t quite work, mostly because it feels like some scenes are missing. Adira and Gray are reunited, and they apparently haven’t hardly talked since Gray went to Trill. Given the ease of holographic communication over absurd distances in the thirty-second century, this is surprising, but there it is. Gray and Adira are still obviously in love with each other and still are thrilled to see each other—but then they have a conversation that ends with them deciding to break up because the distance thing isn’t working. They’re both incredibly happy where they are. And yet, in the very last scene, they’re still hanging out on Trill, the mission itself long over. So are they broken up or not? It feels like there’s a scene or two missing there…

In that last scene, we find out that Mol, contrary to Discovery’s report that she and L’ak are on another world, is on Trill, having infiltrated the Guardians. That doesn’t bode well… icon-paragraph-end

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