I have been a huge fan of Oded Fehr‘s ever since he costarred as Ardeth Bay in the two Brendan Fraser Mummy movies that came out around the turn of the millennium, which were among his first roles. He’s gone on to appear in tons of things since then, from a recurring role on NCIS to the Resident Evil movies to numerous voices on various DC animated projects.
And now he’s in Star Trek, as Admiral Vance, the head of what’s left of Starfleet. Amazingly, he’s not the most interesting guest star in this latest episode.
As a fan of Fehr, I really hope that this is a recurring role. Secret Hideout has been sufficiently parsimonious with details about this season that it’s not clear whether the admiral will continue to appear. Unfortunately, the reason why I hope this is because Fehr doesn’t create much of an impression here as Vance. He’s pretty much the stereotypical hard-headed admiral acting as an impediment to our heroes, whom they have to convince to be given a chance to prove themselves.
There are a lot of ways that Discovery’s reuniting with the remnants of Starfleet and the Federation could have gone. The way they actually chose is perfectly fine in theory—Discovery is welcomed, but it’s a guarded welcome—and is far better than what I feared, which would be that Starfleet would turn out to be run by assholes in the future and our crew would be pitted against them. Hell, I was partly afraid that Tal’s information would be out of date, and they’d go to the coordinates to find nothing, and they’d spend more episodes searching, and we’ve been spared that, at least.
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While I’m grateful that they didn’t go the full-antagonist route, I wish they hadn’t set up the artificial conflict that they did give us. The Discovery crew arrives at the coordinates provided by Tal. They find a base hidden behind a distortion field, and a whole mess of ships from different eras (including one or two that should look familiar).
Vance and his people do look on Saru and the gang with some suspicion, which is at least partly justified by something that has happened in the intervening years to outlaw time travel. (Discovery has jumped several centuries past the time period when the Federation had timeships going around messing with time travel, as seen in Voyager’s “Future’s End” and “Relativity.”) It doesn’t help that many of the records of Discovery’s missions were erased for security concerns at the end of last season. I have to admit, I found that disappointing, partly because it created more reason for Vance to distrust the crew, partly because I think it would have been far more interesting if Vance knew all about it because the whole thing was declassified some time in the 27th century or something.
The crew are questioned by various holograms (Discovery looks to be following the leads of Voyager and Picard by having as much fun with holographic characters as possible—I particularly like Brendan Beiser’s holographic doctor Eli, who has absolutely no conception of personal space), as well as by Vance, and the final result is that the admiral wants to requisition Discovery for Starfleet’s use and break up the crew.
And this is where I moan and groan, because it’s artificial conflict and artificial suspense. You know that the crew isn’t going to be broken up, and you know that they’re going to find a way to prove themselves—in this case, by using the spore drive to track down a base that contains a ton of seed samples, including one that will cure a virus that a bunch of aliens have succumbed to.
The spore drive is going to be Discovery’s greatest asset, as it enables them to travel distances that are unachievable by other vessels post-Burn. Their mission to prove themselves is pretty straightforward. The base was damaged by a coronal mass ejection, killing most of the Barzan family that was guarding it, and leaving one member alive but out of phase because he was in mid-transport when the CME happened. Nhan is part of the away team that tries to help the surviving Barzan, and she winds up staying behind to take over guarding the base. It’s a surprise move only insofar as Rachael Ancheril had been elevated to opening-credits regular this year, only to be written out five episodes in. We’ll see, I guess—maybe they’ll need more seeds this season…
Burnham leads the mission, with Saru left behind. While these words aren’t used, Saru is pretty much left back as a hostage to guarantee Discovery’s return, with Vance’s aide Lieutenant Willa (played initially as a hardhead by Vanessa Jackson, though she softens as she gets to know the crew) going along on the mission. While this is all justifiable from a story sense—for one thing, Burnham’s extra year of experience in the future gives her an edge over the rest of the gang—I hope it isn’t a preview of things to come. I really don’t want to see Saru artificially sidelined so Burnham can get to do the cool stuff.
However, the most interesting part of this episode is the other big-name guest besides Fehr: David Cronenberg, best known as the director of some delightfully bizarre films (eXistenZ, Crash, A History of Violence, Scanners, The Dead Zone, the 1986 remake of The Fly, and Naked Lunch, among many many others), who here plays the guy interrogating Georgiou. It’s not at all clear who Cronenberg’s character is, exactly, though he is very well versed in the history of the Mirror Universe. (He gleefully informs Georgiou that the Terran Empire fell, as predicted by Spock in “Mirror, Mirror,” and dramatized in the tie-in fiction primarily in The Sorrows of Empire and Rise Like Lions by David Mack.) One of the hallmarks of Emperor Georgiou’s character since she first showed up at the end of “The Wolf Inside” is that she is always in control of every conversation, of every situation. She has never once been out of her depth, not even when Burnham all but kidnapped her into the mainline universe—
—until now. Her interrogator is consistently one step ahead of her, and it very obviously disturbs her. (At the end of the episode, Burnham sees Georgiou lost in thought in a Discovery corridor, and while she covers it, the ex-emperor is very definitely distressed.) Cronenberg’s bland affect works beautifully here, and I’m real curious to see where they go with this.
My favorite part of the episode, though, is when Willa observes Stamets, Tilly, and Reno in action. The troika of Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, and Tig Notaro is turning into one of the most delightful aspects of Discovery. It’s especially fun with Willa as their straight person, and the lieutenant starts to understand the unique way these guys work.
In addition to reuniting the crew with Starfleet, and writing out Nhan, this episode introduces a new recurring motif for the season: a song. The tune that Tal was playing on the cello last week is one that Burnham then hears the Barzan family humming in a holographic recording, and Willa mentions that most folks at Starfleet HQ know the song, too. This will obviously be important later…
While “Die Trying” has a certain perfunctoriness about it, the episode is still enjoyable, mostly for the little touches. The teaser with the crew nerding out over all the ships at HQ is a delight, and I’m grateful that Sean Cochran’s teleplay (off a story by Cochran and James Duff) focuses only on that joyous aspect in the teaser, saving the less pleasant stuff for after the opening credits. Both Nhan and Saru are thrilled to learn that their homeworlds eventually joined the Federation (and there’s a fun bit with Eli commenting about how you never see a Kelpien with remnants of the vahar’ai anymore). Wilson Cruz does excellent work here as Culber continues to serve the role that Trek doctors always seem to serve: as wise counselors in addition to medical marvels. And Detmer’s PTSD is still a thing.
Still, this episode is more interesting for what it sets in motion going forward than it is as an actual episode of the show. I hope this isn’t Fehr’s only appearance, as I’d like to see an actor of his caliber in a role that makes use of his talents. There’s still plenty of opportunity to develop Vance—let’s hope they take advantage.