Star Trek: Discovery S01E08 Recap: 'Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum'

While my awareness of the pushback against Star Trek: Discovery has made me sound like a broken record every time I decide to bring it up in these reviews, it can't help but overcome how I view most new episodes. Instead of trying to determine an episode's value based on its own merits, we've become obsessed with judging whether or not it fits the warped definition of what the collective fandom wants the concept of "Star Trek" to be. It concerns me to have to watch a show I've enjoyed since the beginning through that lens, because I've always maintained that Star Trek can mean different things to different people, and that it most definitely needed to evolve and join what TV has become since the franchise was last on the air.

So in a way, I'm not sure what to make of the reaction I had to "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum". Because while the episode mostly help up on its own, the prevailing thought that lingered through my brain related to how if this episode didn't make the internet happy, then certainly nothing will, because more than any other episode to date, it did the most to attempt and strike a balance between the kind of Trek that we know, and the kind of Trek that Discovery aimed to become.

"Para Bellum's" main story involves an away party traveling to a unique, unexplored planet, cut off from the rest of their crew and unaware of the wonders and dangers they might find on it, which as about as close to The Original Series as you can possibly get. Saru, Burnham and Tyler are on this planet, named Pahvo, because its unique properties have the potential to create a type of sonar that will allow them to pierce through the Klingons' cloaking technology, which will give them a leg up in the war. A wrinkle appears when they discover that Pahvo is inhabited by a unique being which encompasses the planet itself. In his attempt to communicate with this creature, Saru discovers a longing for the planet to make itself aware to universe; that's why they built the crystalline tower which the away team wishes to use to aid their conflict.

A problem emerges when Saru becomes overwhelmed with what he feels when connected to this being. Saru is a Kelpian, a being born in fear, bred to sense danger. He's also a rare member of his race to join Starfleet, no less at a time where danger is perennial thanks to the war with the Klingons. His interaction with the Pahvians, a being that lives in absolute harmony on a planet untouched by conflict, is the first time Saru has ever felt at peace. And in a bit of an ironic twist, it corrupts him, leads him to a place where he wants to preserve that feeling forever at any cost, even that of more lives in the war or his own shipmates.

It's classic Trek with a bit of a twist. When Captain Kirk and the gang would visit a new planet and meet a new kind of alien, corruption at the hands of a force they didn't understand wouldn't be uncommon, but said corruption would often be of a nefarious nature; a being or creature that wanted to exploit the benevolent and curious nature of humanity for personal gain. If anything, that was the biggest fault of Rodenberry's original show. While humanity had allegedly solved its own problems, Rodenberry projected them onto everyone outside of the Solar System. Literally every nonhuman race of TOS is a racist caricature, and that's something that Discovery has aimed to correct, not only by giving even the Klingons more depth than they ever had in the 60s (for better or worse, depending on where you stand with the redesign they've been allotted), but also by turning the focus onto humanity and the Federation itself.

Discovery's humanity is the same humanity that ended scarcity, found peace and eliminated many more of earth's problems, but it's also a humanity that is perceived as arrogant by outsiders. Harry Mudd said as much in his first appearance on the show, and it's something that really spoke to me as I was struggling to verbalize why I liked the changes to Trek that this show had been making. At a time where human nature has only gotten worse over 50 years since Gene Rodenberry envisioned a utopian future for our planet, I couldn't help but feel that continuing on with that exact same vision wouldn't be fair or worthy of the franchise. To reduce what Rodenberry created to just that would be an insult to his vision, if anything. Discovery aimed to evolve it, to mold it into something that fits into our current reality and our own, updated outlook to the future. Discovery has posited that all the good stuff still happens to the human race, but to pretend as if there's no more bad stuff would be unfair and unwise.

So Discovery is chalk full of well-meaning people who have seen some shit and made questionable decisions. And everyone is like this. The show starts with Burnham creating this mold for the Discovery character archetype, then we see Lorca do the same (in several instances, even). Stamets is guilty of doing this, and now, even Saru, makes a mistake. Because everyone makes mistakes, even in a utopian future where, almost every week, Captain Kirk or Picard or a member of their crew did something they shouldn't do. It's not about the mistakes you make, but how you own them, and Discovery is all about taking responsibility. So in "Para Bellum", Saru does something dumb because, as good of a Starfleet officer as he is, as physically advanced as the Kelpians are, he's exposed to something he's never felt before and doesn't know how to cope with. For the longest time, he was a faux moral compass for the viewers, the infallible officer who perceived Burnham as a blight on Starfleet. And now, just like Burnham, just like Lorca and everyone else, Saru has been knocked down a peg.

And that's what makes Discovery the perfect balance of Star Trek, old and new. We can still go to unique planets, we can have self-contained adventures, but there has to be something more important, something bigger at the core of it all. Not only is Discovery telling a 15-part story about a war between the Federation and the Klingons, it's telling a 15-part story about specific characters that need to have highs and lows, that make both good and bad decisions, that see consequences to their actions and evolve and grow with each and every one of them. That was something that wasn't possible with syndicated, procedural television in the old days of Trek, and that can and needs to happen now.

"Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" finds the balance in all of these things, and gets 8 PetaQs out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • Elsewhere, Tilly confronts Stamets about how weird he's been acting, in seeds certainly being sowed for future developments, and the female Klingon interrogates the Admiral and eventually kinds up killing her, before realizing General Kol killed her crew. She winds up vowing revenge even though she successfully infiltrates Kol's ranks.
  • The episode ends with the Pahvians modifying Discovery's beacon to invite the Klingon cemetary ship to their planet, unaware of the danger that creates and forcing Discovery to stick around for a faceoff in next week's midseason finale.
  • "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" is a famous Latin idiom that means "if you want peace, prepare for war", and that encapsulates a lot about this episode as well as Discovery in
    general and the show's attempts to elaborate on the paradox of what Star Trek has always been.
  • A lot of the Klingon scenes were actually kind of confusing. At first it was unclear if L'Rell was playing the Admiral or not, then she still kills her, then vows revenge on Kol, then Kol anoints her interrogator but also seems to punish her. I feel like we need more time with these Klingons to truly understand what's happening, and the show desperately needs to clear some stuff up with them.
  • The CGI on Saru running fast was pretty bad, worse than even how superspeed is portrayed on The Flash. I'm guessing that just isn't something you can make look cool on a TV budget.
  • Kol: "The scar is an improvement, L'Rell."
  • Burnham: "I would give anything for a millisecond of peace. But until the war is over, none of us can have it."