Star Trek: Discovery S01E04 Recap: 'The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry'

Last week's episode of Star Trek: Discovery felt like the conclusion to a trilogy of pilots, in a manner of speaking. We were introduced to a new ship, a new crew, a completely new situation for our hero Michael Burnham to grow accustomed to. The two-episode pilot stripped her of everything, and "Context is for Kings" was about her getting some of that back. It also seems as if last week's episode was the end of Bryan Fuller's direct impact on the show, and likely around the time he watched away from it (his name is in the writing credits of all of the first three episodes and not on this one).

In that respect, "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" is likely the first time any criticism of whether or not Discovery should count as "real Trek" (whatever that's supposed to mean) holds any weight. The premise has been established, we've had a chance to be introduced to the crew and figure out what Captain Lorca's deal is, and it's finally time to get on with exploration, science, and, unfortunately, the war with the Klingons. In fact, after they were mostly absent from "Context", T'Kuvma's followers, led by the albino Voq, also make a big comeback in this episode.

As a result, "Butcher" is precisely the kind of Discovery episode we should expect for the rest of the season, and it felt like a pretty good balance between the updated Trek that Discovery strives to be, all while inserting elements of old Trek that we've all been clamoring for. The war with the Klingons and Burnham's actions loom over the show like a guillotine that's ready to drop at any second, but the episode also makes a lot of time for science, for technobabble, for missions that are mostly contained to this episode.

Following Burnham's introduce to Discovery last week, Lorca tasks her to figure out what makes the Tardigrade monster that they found on the Glenn tick, and find a way to weaponize it so that he can use it against the Klingons. It's a proposition that makes Burnham, a scientist first, uncomfortable, so Lorca assigns Commander Landry, his most like-minded follower, to make sure she stays on track. But Landry gets a little too trigger-happy and impatient, and attacks the creature, which she affectionately named Ripper, and winds up dead.

Meanwhile, Lorca puts pressure on Stamets to perfect their spore drive, as word has come down from Starfleet that the Discovery is the Federation's only hope to save a dilithium mine colony which is under attack from the Klingons. A first attempt at a jump takes them too close to a sun for comfort, but Burnham's research leads her to figure out that the tardigrade communicates with the spores, and they soon find out that its brain contains coordinates once they're in the same environment, so they use it to teleport to the colony and save the day, appearing and disappearing in a flash, likely to create a myth of what the Discovery and the Federation are capable of, similar to T'Kuvma's one-of-a-kind cloaking technology.

There's a lot of layers to what happens in "Butcher", it isn't just a straight up rescue mission. Burnham spends a lot of time researching and therefore bonding with the creature. And a very clear focus is put on how it clearly didn't like being used as a navigational device, likely leading to a future ethical conundrum around the spore drive. The battle between science and war is very much on display throughout the episode, as both Burnham and Stamets are in their own ways at odds with Lorca's way of doing things. Stamets directly questions Lorca's methods and even threatens to leave Discovery with all his research. As for Burnham, Saru points out how she's more like Lorca than she might think, in that she's very driven and doesn't really care about those around her, a trait she makes evident when she uses Saru to confirm that Ripper isn't a predator (call it Chekhov's Ganglia).

But one of Lorca's best assets is that he's convincingly charismatic. He argues that, just like Stamets studied astromycology or Burnham xenoanthropology, Lorca is a student of war, which is a totally legitimate thing to say and very relevant in the context of a war. He has a mission and parameters in which he has to achieve his goals, and that might include taking advantage of a unique creature like a macroscopic tardigrade. Lorca is pretty forward, but there's still a mysteriousness around him. He's antithetical to many of the Starfleet captains we've come to know over the years, and that makes him kind of an antagonist, yet one that seems hellbent on proving us wrong about that first impression at every turn. There's depth to this character that I truly appreciate, and I think it helps that he isn't the main focus of the show. The main idea here is that they're setting up ethical conflict. Lorca is on a warpath, as many characters are keen to remind us, but he's leading a ship of scientists. This is exactly what Star Trek is supposed to be about, it's just that it has to play out shorter than what you're used to, since there isn't a resolution within any single episode.

Meanwhile, I don't know what to make of what we saw of the Klingons. In the first two episodes, Bryan Fuller seemed to present them in a very clear light. This redesign of what we knew the Klingons to be was meant to paint them the same colour as some very real and current threats to Western Civilization. We've talked at length about how T'Kuvma's Klingons were like a version of Space ISIS, or white supremacists. I thought that was cool and an interesting way to rebrand a very tired and over-played race in the Star Trek universe. But in "Butcher", the other writers seem to walk this back a bit. These Klingons, particularly Voq, are still very religious and seem to have deified T'Kuvma as a prophet. While that lends further credence to the idea that they're tantamount to Star Trek's version of a fundamentalist terrorist group, Voq ends the episode alone with one other Klingon, a female that offers to introduce him to a Matriarchy that will help him win the war and change his point of view. I don't know if this is just a matter of a lot of setup that the show didn't have time for last week, or if it truly is an alteration of Fuller's vision for these new Klingons, but I'll wait to see where it goes before opining any further.

Overall, "Butcher" seems to strike perfect balance between the kind of Star Trek that some more traditional fans have wanted of Discovery, and the kind of Trek that beckons for something more modern and different. There are some choices the episode made that I'm not sure about, particularly with how it killed off Landry, but overall, I continue to truly enjoy this new, updated version of Star Trek that we're getting. "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" gets 8 bequeathed telescopes out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • The motherfucking Klingons ate Georgiou! So I guess that means we won't be seeing anymore of Michelle Yeoh, and her appearance as a posthumous hologram was probably her character's swan song (unless we see her in flashbacks, that is). That's somewhat disappointing, because she was great a great character, but it's also pretty much in line with Klingon behaviour to eat their prisoners instead of keeping them, so there's that.
  • I want to reiterate how cool the science stuff around the tardigrade is. They're one of nature's most interesting and mysterious organisms and it's nice to see them finally get their time to shine in science fiction.
  • Lorca name drops the Wright Bros, Elon Musk and Zephram Cochrane as the collective fanbase has a nerdgasm.
  • I really love how sassy Saru is: "Had he inquired I would have suggested the duty roster lacked any opening for a mutineer."
  • And also: "My ganglia remain unconvinced."
  • Stamets gets a good one in as well: "The frontal lobe is overrated. It only contains memory and emotional expression, it's completely unnecessary."