Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 10 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
The biggest problem with this (mostly) brilliant two-parter is that it shouldn’t have been a two-parter at all. The best double episodes – like classic The Next Generation Borg tale "The Best of Both Worlds" – work as two excellently crafted halves, each instalment precision-engineered to deliver exposition, character development, and cliffhangers at the right time. When showrunners get it right, each episode should be able to function on its own terms.
Rather than being a key element of the storytelling, however, the break between the two parts of "Terra Firma" feels like it exists only to meet the demands of schedulers. It only really works when viewed as a single feature-length story, the seemingly throwaway moments of part one only becoming relevant when viewed in the context of the whole.
Luckily, the story has got its narrative wibbles out of the way by the time "Terra Firma: Part 2" gets underway – this isn’t just one of the highlights of season 3, it’s one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s entire run. There’s action, emotion and huge ramifications for the rest of the season, but it’s also a deep dive into Trek lore, featuring a plot device/character from a classic Original Series episode – nobody could ever accuse Discovery of neglecting Trek’s hardcore fanbase.
Part 2 reverses the structure of Part 1, starting in Georgiou’s Mirror Universe flashback before returning to the ‘normality’ of the 32nd century. It picks up where we left off, with the Emperor arresting Mirror Burnham for her part in Lorca’s coup against her. By any normal standards, Georgiou’s treatment of her adopted daughter – notably sentencing her to extended periods of torture in the Agonizer at the hands of the sadistic Captain ‘Killy’ – would seem harsh. In the Mirror Universe, however, the mere fact that Burnham is still alive is considered as big a sign of weakness as taking Kelpien off the dinner menu, so the threat of insurrection remains.
Nonetheless, Georgiou’s very tough love appears to do the trick when Burnham returns to the cause. Indeed, the affection between the pair is clear, even though sending your daughter on a murder spree to eliminate her co-conspirators is somewhat questionable parenting. At least she’ll work out if she’s loyal or not…
Or not, as it turns out. After all Star Trek’s trips to the Mirror Universe, we should know that a Terran should never be taken at their word, but it’s still a shock when Burnham double-crosses her mother. Brutally killing off all your allies is a big price to pay to overthrow the Emperor – the death rate on the ISS Discovery is so high it’s remarkable there’s anyone left to run the ship – but in the anything-goes ethos of the Terran Empire, she clearly thinks it’s worth it. The resulting bloodbath – featuring a gratuitous headshot to poor Lt Nilsson – ends with Burnham dead, and Georgiou fatally wounded.
But crucially, the trip back in history has illustrated how much Georgiou’s time on the USS Discovery changed her. The cruellest warlord in the quadrant has developed a conscience to the point she’s forming an alliance with the enslaved Kelpiens to fight off the insurgents on her ship. Georgiou’s scenes with Mirror Saru – who survives the ordeal of vahar’ai as she predicted – are wonderful, as their oppressor/oppressed dynamic shifts to one of genuine friendship and affection.
It almost feels cruel when we’re instantly whisked out of the Mirror Universe to see Prime Burnham’s face – especially as we never get to see Jason Isaacs’ Lorca, whose return is teased throughout the episode. (The closest we get is Lorca’s number two, Duggan, played by a man with sci-fi form of his own; Daniel Kash was Private Spunkmeyer in Aliens.) But coming back to reality is soon forgiven after the episode’s big reveal. Why has Georgiou experienced three months of memories in less than a minute? Who actually is Carl?
“I am the Guardian of Forever,” replies a familiar booming voice, as that simple wooden door morphs into the asymmetrical portal from classic original series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" – now with added CG effects.
It’s one of Star Trek’s greatest shock moments. Sure, there was speculation online after "Terra Firma, Part 1" that Carl might be the Guardian (his copy of The Star Dispatch newspaper was a massive clue) but it’s still a near-perfect rug pull. After its debut in "The City on the Edge of Forever", the Guardian returned in an Animated Series episode but has never cropped up in canon since – though it was rumoured to be a potential plot device for the time travel in J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek. Here it turns out the Guardian went into hiding after the Temporal Wars, and it just took the unprecedented combination of 32nd century Federation computers and all that 100,000-year-old sphere data to pinpoint where it's laying low.
The Guardian’s reason for sending Georgiou back is a simple one – it wants to work out if she’s worthy of being saved, in Star Trek: Discovery’s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life. Having made different choices second time out, Georgiou is considered worthy of redemption and a second chance – but only in a time period when the Prime Universe and the Mirror Universe are more closely aligned, and her cells aren’t trying to tear themselves apart. “The paper says the forecast will be bumpy and painful,” says Carl, “with lots of rainstorms, heartaches, but that’s life. Or so I’m told…”
It’s a one-way, solo trip, but one that makes total sense for the wider Star Trek universe. There’s been much speculation about how Georgiou – trapped in the 32nd century – could front the in-development spin-off show about the Federation’s shadowy intelligence agency, Section 31. This is the perfect way to get her back into the action – provided, of course, she promises not to spill the beans on the USS Discovery’s location. While the departure of the brilliant Michelle Yeoh will make Discovery weaker, it’s great news for Section 31 – and Trek canon.
It’s also the perfect send-off for a wonderful character, that totally fits with logic and canon, but carries the emotional resonance of a death; Burnham will never see her anti-mentor again, as highlighted by their poignant farewell.
Events on Discovery almost feel like an afterthought following the emotional fireworks created by the Guardian of Forever, though they do advance the crew’s hunt for the source of the Burn. Book really did go by the, well, book when he followed Saru’s advice to read the Starfleet Federation manual, and justifies his presence in ‘Terra Firma’ when he suggests using Emerald Chain subspace technology to boost the signal from the ship trapped in the Verubin Nebula.
Admiral Vance – who’s possibly the most inconsistent commanding officer in the history of Starfleet – is totally against the plan, and makes his dissatisfaction clear to Saru. It’s still not entirely clear what angles Vance is playing – though he does go along with the scheme, despite his concerns about Emerald Chain boss Osyraa getting her hands-on Discovery’s spore drive.
So it’s a shame the sceptical Vance didn’t stick around to see the Discovery crew toasting the departed Georgiou, because he missed out on a funny, touching scene that showed the cast and crew at their very best. “She had no tact, and God I loved that about her,” says Jett Reno in one of her semi-regular scene-stealing cameos. “She was a pain in the ass,” adds Burnham. She was also Discovery’s MVP – roll on Section 31.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 3 land on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the US, and on Fridays on Netflix in the UK.