“Scavengers” suffers for Michael’s reckless and self-serving decision-making, as she continues to try and make the show all about her rather than the many much more interesting things it could be about instead.
This recap of Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 6, “Scavengers”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Indulge me for a moment, but let’s talk very briefly about the video game series Mass Effect, a space opera trilogy of decision-driven sci-fi RPGs developed by BioWare back when that company was a worthwhile entity and not just a small army of husks – fitting reference! – designed to fill the coffers of Electronic Arts executives. In that game, players control Commander Shepard, an all-action-hero leading a morally and sexually and biologically diverse team of personalities against an ancient hyper-advanced machine race intent on culling all life in the galaxy. Commander Shepard had a ship called the Normandy – Earth’s Systems Alliance Navy named all their ships of that type after great battles in human history – on which (s)he planned a bunch of heroic operations and had sex with various crewmen. Between the first and second games, the Normandy gets a considerable technological upgrade, and this is what I couldn’t help but think about in “Scavengers”, during which the titular Discovery is brought into the 32nd Century with a complete overhaul including programmable matter, detached nacelles, and multifunctional badges to go alongside the already super-powered and plot-convenient top-secret magic mushroom spore drive.
Naturally, in this analogy, the Discovery is the Normandy, which means that Michael Burnham is Commander Shepard. In the first game, Shepard is a very good if largely unremarkable soldier who becomes extremely important to the fate of the galaxy completely by happenstance when (s)he inherits the cultural memory of a long-extinct civilization; in subsequent games, Shepard is an awesome mythic hero who everyone talks about in hushed reverential tones like he’s John Wick and someone just killed his dog. Michael Burnham is that version of Shepard, a “hero” way beyond the context or requirements of the plot. At this point, Star Trek: Discovery believes it has made its bed with Michael in it, and that everyone else has to lie next to her. And it’s starting to become a major problem.
Lots of this show’s detractors have never liked Michael, but I’ve always been keen on her, in part because I think Sonequa Martin-Green is great but also because I could accept Burnham’s familial history and specialized knowledge keeping her tethered to the plot. Very often, she was the best person for any given job, and you usually had the sense that she was acting in the best interests of everyone, not just herself. That isn’t the case anymore. Since this third season has teleported many centuries into the future, all Michael’s canonical connections are gone, or at least shelved; what was obviously intended to divorce Discovery from the broader Trek continuity should have had the secondary consequence of demoting Michael from the most important person in the galaxy to the second-most important person on the ship after Saru. In a sense, it did do those things. But as “Scavengers” makes clear, the show simply isn’t willing to accept it.
What this means in functional terms is that every episode must contrive a way to position Michael front-and-centre, and there are only so many ways to do that – most of which have been used up already. All that remains in Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 6, really, is to have her be determinedly self-involved, which doesn’t just compromise her as a character but actively damages her relationships with other characters as well, none of whom have done anything to deserve it. This isn’t just annoying, but nonsensical. Michael’s constant refusal to follow direct orders and do what’s best for not just Starfleet as a whole but also her friends and colleagues reads as damagingly childish. What’s more, it squanders all of the potential afforded by this distinct, futuristic-future setting. For all the rigmarole made about Discovery’s fancy new technology, all it really amounts to is a recurring gag in which Linus randomly teleports into otherwise serious scenes. And by the way, I had to look up his name just for that sentence.
Michael’s ostensible motivation in Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 6 is Book, and by extension the Burn, since he’s tracking down Starfleet black boxes which all stopped working at slightly different times and thus imply that the Burn wasn’t a singular, instantaneous event, but a process with a presumed point of origin. A third black box would allow Michael to triangulate that point of origin, and that’s exactly what Book was on the hunt for when his ship turns up containing only his cat, Grudge, and a three-week-old holo-message explaining that he had programmed the vessel to take off without him and find her if he didn’t return to it within 24 hours.
Michael, then, wants to go off in search of Book and the black box he was looking for, but the Federation wants the Discovery on standby so it can intervene if supposedly diplomatic talks with the Emerald Chain on the planet Argeth go sideways. This puts Saru in a terribly awkward position, since he understands Michael’s eagerness to save a friend and get to the bottom of the Burn, but has to justify Discovery’s reintegration into the Federation, which includes proving both its usefulness and its adherence to the Federation’s broad longstanding principles. There was, potentially, an interesting dilemma here. Michael’s mission is obviously important. But rather than attempt to reasonably justify this to Saru and support it with actual compelling evidence, she goes straight to Georgiou and immediately rogue, all the while acting like the aggrieved party, characterizing Saru following orders as “doing nothing”, a sentiment so ridiculous that even Georgiou herself has to caution Michael about the ramifications of what she’s doing – and she ignores her too.
Either way, by reverse-engineering Grudge’s microchip – remember when this show was all about finding scientific solutions to problems? – Michael and Georgiou are led to a junkyard planet run by the Emerald Chain and tended to by an army of slaves with explosive Running Man-style collars. This security measure leads Book, now a worker there, to insist that the place is impossible to escape from, but Michael doesn’t listen to him either, and instead comes up with a plan to trigger a kind of proletariat revolt under cover of which everyone is able to escape, despite Georgiou’s increasingly weird and severe PTSD memories or hallucinations or whatever they might be.
While all this is going on, Saru and Tilly naturally figure out what Michael is up to, and their dilemma becomes what to do about it. Surprisingly, it’s mild-mannered somehow-still-an-ensign Tilly who really insists that Saru rat Michael out to Admiral Vance so that the entire crew don’t have to pay the price for her dangerous individualism. She’s right, and to its credit, “Scavengers” frames her as such, even if it seems for a moment that it’s going to let Michael off the hook by keeping Vance preoccupied and ensuring that Discovery never actually had to jump to Argeth after all.
The scene in which Michael and Book give in to their sexual tension and passionately kiss in the turbolift is difficult to read, at least in the sense of whether Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 6 realizes how stupid and self-serving it makes Michael look. Sure, the Burn is important, and she probably does care about figuring the whole thing out a little bit, but absolutely nobody was buying her childish insistence that there’s nothing going on between her and Book, and the way this scene is staged as a kind of consolation for her forthcoming dressing-down implies that we’re supposed to see her maverick idiocy as all having been worth it just for that sexy lip-lock. In fact, I’d have been convinced this is what was being implied if that aforementioned dressing-down wasn’t so eviscerating, on both a practical and an emotional level. Vance coolly lays out in detail how stupid Michael is and what the consequences might have been for Discovery’s place in the Federation had it all backfired, and Saru gives her the whole “I’m not mad, just disappointed” routine and tearfully demotes her.
To what extent this demotion will even matter remains to be seen, but it’s a step in the right direction. I still maintain that this season has a lot of potential, but it needs to stop being The Michael Show in order to realize it. Keeping her confined to the Discovery doing sulky science while a few other characters get to go on fun Trek-y adventures in her stead is just what the show needs, and I hope that’s what it elects to do – for now, anyway.
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