Star Trek: Discovery's Crisis of Faith Gets Lost in the Woods

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Just a few weeks after Discovery showed how much confidence it had in taking a Star Trek trope it knew it was good at and damn near perfecting it, this week we get the series diving into another—and not really finding much interest in why it even took it on in the first place.

“Filler” has become a dirty word in any discussion of contemporary TV—robbed of its nuance and meaning to essentially denote episodes that did not add Facts to the Canon or directly advance the main plot of a show. Filler episodes, at their very best, are stories that still advance the world of their shows, either by inviting us to consider it from a different perspective, or by allowing characters to sit with each other beyond the constraints of driving plot to just simply be—a chance to learn things that don’t matter to the main plot, but matter to making a series feel rich, and textured, and compelling. “Whistlespeak,” the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s final season, then is perhaps... kind of both?

Following the clue traces thanks to a little help from Kovich—casually beaming Michael into his secret white space hideaway, where David Cronenberg apparently just craves the feel of a 21st century notepad—the Discovery finds itself heading to the planet Halem’no: the site of the clue from one of the scientists on the team that hid the Progenitor tech, whose names and species were given to Michael via Kovich’s notepad. Realizing that Halem’no is home to both a series of rain-creating weather towers left behind by the scientist behind the crew—and that the planet’s pre-warp population has gathered its society around the last functioning one—Michael tasks herself and Lieutenant Tilly with beaming down, blending in, and getting the clue hidden within them as quickly as possible.

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Star Trek loves a story about skirting the Prime Directive—the Starfleet mandate that officers cannot, inadvertently or otherwise, influence a pre-warp civilization by exposing them to technology or the existence of other galactic powers. Discovery’s 32nd century setting is ripe for an interesting take on one, given that much of the technological friction that existed in past series that made blending in tough are now distinctly both much more fraught (everyone can just beam-apparate weapons out of their hands, or pinpoint teleport! It’s basically magic!) and yet also so much easier (don’t have to hold a tricorder out now that it’s been condensed into a surreptitious contact lens). But while “Whistlespeak” is high on potentiality—especially when the meat of its struggle is about the push and pull of scientific rationality and spiritual faith—it never really coalesces its ideas into anything that feels remotely interesting.

Take the titular Whistlespeak for example—a whistle-based lexicon used by the Halem’nites to communicate over long distance when shouting their standard language would prove difficult. It’s a fantastic idea, so much so we dedicate a whole scene to Tilly watching Michael geek out about the anthropological nature of it before they beam down to the planet, excited about the parallels it has to their typical long range communication tech: a classic Discovery moment, finding joy in the ways people communicate and connect to each other, regardless of their distance, the theme the show has been regularly unafraid to beat over our heads time and time again this season. And yet, aside from briefly hearing some when they first beam down, it never comes up—either as a plot device or a thematic parallel about that idea of communicating across distance—in the episode again!

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Instead, what we get is basically a spiritual retreat crossed with the worst cross country race you ever did at school. The spiritual Halem’nites have been congregating to the mountain spire hiding the last remaining functioning weather tower—which has left Halem’no arid and sparse of rainfall—because they see the spire as a temple to their gods, where the most faithful can earn the right to directly petition these higher beings for help with rainfall. Michael and Tilly, having befriended Ravah, the eager-to-prove-themselves child of one of the local religious figures, quickly discover that this proof comes in the form of a mild jog through the local forest made infinitely worse by taking some sort of dehydrating cube at the start of it, rendering all the participants gasping for air... and, of course, now easily tempted by the bowls of water placed around the race course.

If you thought watching people jog through a forest while deeply uncomfortable and dehydrated was generally not fun to watch, don’t worry: it turns out, it is. But Michael quickly and conveniently surmises that there must be a plot device nearby, noticing that some local plants have been changed in color by what she assumes must be leaking radiation from the malfunctioning weather towers. Dropping out of the trial to let Tilly keep on running in the hopes at least one of them makes it inside the spire, Michael is of course proven right about all this—and that the last tower failing will lead to every Halem’nite perishing anyway—because it’s much more fun to watch a Star Trek character solve a tech support puzzle than it is watching them uncomfortably half-run.

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

The bad news gets worse for Tilly when both she and Ravah manage to complete the trial, earning them the right to entire the spire... and be ritually sacrificed via asphyxiation to bring forth rain. Womp womp! It’s here the ethical dilemma at the crux of “Whistlespeak” should really go into overdrive—is Discovery’s mission to find the clues to the Progenitors so important that it can override the prime principle of Starfleet? What is lost when this technological advancement is exposed to a deeply religious people who have found meaning beyond it? At what point does the compassion and understanding asked of Starfleet officers wrestle with the scientific reasoning and logic that guides their duty in the first place?

Instead, the episode just kind of shrugs and, literally through Michael, decides it’ll fill out the paperwork later. And in doing so, any of the kind of tension that was driven by the potential danger Tilly and Ravah were in is just immediately undercut. Michael beams in right in front of Ravah’s dad, who was still in the spire trying to comfort his dying child from afar, and explains that she’s basically an alien with technology akin to the power of the gods themselves, and that she can fix all the towers and make it so no more people have to be sacrificed. Bizarrely, he counter argues that maybe they should keep killing people anyway, because it’s got a kind of community spirit vibe that brings people together, but at this point both Michael and the episode itself have run out of time to dig into all that, so they just kind of sidestep it. And with that, the day is saved, the clue is found (not even in the main spire that was central to the entire episode!), and everyone goes off on their merry way. Eeeeeeh.

Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Glibness aside, it’s not like there aren’t interesting ideas in “Whistlespeak”—Star Trek has a long history of trying to tackle what spiritual faith looks like in its advanced societies, and how it sits alongside the science-driven reasoning that defines so many of its heroes. But “Whistlespeak” never feels particularly interested itself into diving into those ideas, in a moment where the adventure-driven vibes of this final season really don’t work out in its favors. The show tries to connect it all back to the characters on Discovery itself—mostly in a subplot with Dr. Culber, still stuck on his quasi-spiritual experience on Trill, and trying to make sense of that as both a man of medicine and science and a partner who is likewise decidedly non-spiritual—but considering we’re at the very end of this recap and I’ve only just thought to bring it up, that should tell you how particularly trenchant that connection managed to be (the subplot ends, basically, with Book telling Culber that sometimes it’s just okay to feel something for yourself, instead of sharing it with other people in your life, and that’s that. Thanks Book!).

The overarching plot of the season is inched forward here—our heroes have the penultimate clue, and have an idea of where to head for the next—but “Whistlespeak” just doesn’t make great use of the time that is now rapidly running out for Discovery to put its ducks in a row ahead of one last sendoff. We’re in a run of episodes this last season that, while essentially still repeating themes and ideas Discovery has already had something to say about, still found ways to articulate those themes and ideas, unsubtly or otherwise, in enjoyable ways. “Whistlespeak” feels like more of a shrug along the way in comparison, but with it indeed now out of that way, hopefully Discovery can get back to more interesting things as this race draws to its conclusion.

Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream now on Paramount+.


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