Star Trek: Discovery S01E13 Recap: 'What's Past is Prologue'

I've come to accept that Star Trek: Discovery isn't for every kind of Star Tek fan. Over the course of 13 episodes, it has become clear that, despite its prequel setting and its heavy use of some deep references to the franchise's canon, Discovery is wildly disinterested with satisfying anyone other than the people who want a well-written, exciting plot-driven science fiction drama. That's not to say that it doesn't respect the fact that it bears the name of a revered franchise, or that it has a lot to live up to because of that; more that it accepts that it simply couldn't win over many of those people, and therefore it doesn't see the needs to get in the weeds with how to do so. Instead, Star Trek: Discovery is perennially focused on how it could be the best version of Star Trek: Discovery, in every sense of what that statement could mean for the people writing it and for the audience they intended to write it for, and that's never been more apparent than in "What's Past Is Prologue", arguably the young program's most exciting and best episode yet.

After last week's game-changing reveal that the Lorca we've come to know and love is actually the Lorca that belongs in the Mirror Universe, he wastes no time shedding the insincerity of his ruse. He also quickly proves that there is not one shed of good on him, only a selfish pursuit of grandeur. His plan the entire time was to find a way back to his dimension and complete his mission to kill the Terran Emperor and take her place. Mirror Lorca frees his followers and wages a coup on Emperor Georgiou. She manages to escape, and Burnham spends much of the episode John McClane-ing her way through the ISS Charon.

Burnham contacts Discovery and is made aware of how the Charon is poisoning the Mycellium with their reactor and therefore threatening all life as we know it. The ship must be destroyed, so they hatch a plan which involves using the rest of Discovery's spore reserves to blow it up, and using Emperor Georgiou as bait so that Burnham can disable the Charon's shields.

Long story short, it all works. Burnham and a defeated Georgiou with no other options infiltrate the Lorca-occupied throne room, leading to an extended (and awesome) hand-to-hand fight between Georgiou, Lorca, Burnham and Mirror Landry. Lorca winds up defeated, and Georgiou pulls a King Leonidas and kicks him into the core, a move teased earlier by Lorca before he kills Mirror Stamets. The shields are disabled, Burnham drags Georgiou onto the Discovery with her, and Discovery rides the wave of the explosion back to their universe. Only problem is that they overshot the trip home and landed nine months in the future, when the Klingons have apparently won the war and taken over much of the Alpha Quadrant.

There's a lot to unpack here, but there's something to be said about an episode that keeps you so far out on the edge of your seat that you have to take a few moments after it's all over to truly grasp it. "Prologue" is an insane episode which doesn't really come with the reveals of the last couple since Discovery entered the Mirror Universe, but comes at you hard with action and plot movement. Lorca, Mirror Stamets and many on the Charon wind up dead, the Mirror Universe is left behind and the ship finds itself in an even more dangerous place to discover, a near future that is completely unfamiliar not only to them, but viewers at large, since it shows us a galaxy where the Klingons have defeated the Federation.

I truly don't know what this means for the future of the show. Is this something that the crew finds a way to fix in a couple of episodes before the end of the season, eventually finding their way back to their own time? Is this a further clue into what Discovery is truly about, a constant flow of new realities that they have to navigate, be it parallel dimensions, time distortions or something else? Are they paving a new way forward with a timeline different than Mirror, Prime or Kelvin? Discovery found a way to stop being predictable after they revealed Lorca's true nature, and that's a really exciting trick to have in their bag as they explore the way forward.

But before we figure out what this all means for the show's future, there's so much more to discuss about what it meant in "Prologue" itself. We see a side of Lorca that I don't think many could have even fathomed. Even as many theorized that he belonged in the Mirror Universe, that he was using and lying to the crew of Discovery, I think many were still hoping that he was somehow one of the good guys, working with the rebellion to overthrow the Terran Empire. It turns out, nope, he's just an evil asshole who thinks the current regime has grown soft and wants it all for himself and his disciples. Lorca indiscriminately kills his way through this episode, and the only time he hesitates is because he can't help but lust over the possibility of ruling alongside Burnham. It blinds him to the point where he doesn't see her ruse coming. He winds up dead as a result, which is somewhat disappointing, but maybe there's a possibility of Prime Lorca still being out there somewhere.

Then there's Georgiou, who turns out to actually be not that bad. She's still Terran and therefore a monster, but faced with her own mortality, she too acquiesces to the will of the person she cared for the most in Burnham, and allows her to execute her plan. Burnham feels that same connection, so after Georgiou says she'll die on the Charon as a failed leader, Burnham goes against her wishes and brings her to the Discovery and therefore back to the Prime Universe, at which point Georgiou, disgusted, asks what Burnham has done to her. She doesn't belong in this universe, with these people. Here, she's not an emperor, she's a ghost. Michelle Yeoh is phenomenal in this episode, between her acting in these scenes and the badass fight scenes she got to film in and around the throne room. She kicks a motherfucking knife away. Even better is that she finally gets to share some scenes with Jason Isaacs, easily one of the top highlights of this first season.

If that's not enough, another standout is Doug Jones, who, back on the Discovery, delivers a rousing speech to a crew that he's newly acquired in the wake of the Lorca reveal and in the face of perilous danger that the crew might not survive. He doesn't accept defeat and motivates Tilly and the others to find a way to reject the "no-win scenario." Honestly, some of these Discovery characters haven't had much to work with this season as the show has been very much the Burnham show (and when it's not, it's sort of been the Stamets and/or Tyler/Voq show, the latter of whom is completely missing from this episode after an open-ended fate at the end of last week's episode), but they've still slowly come into their own as well-rounded, interesting characters. I love the possibility of an ever-learning Saru, haunted by the supposed failures of his species, leading the Discovery going forward. I don't know what the show might do with the likes of Stamets (who doesn't seem to have a purpose now without the Mycellium network or Dr. Culver) or Tilly and the rest of the crew, but I love seeing them on the show. Burnham has gone through some shit this season and weathered the storm like a pro. Every character on this show is great and compelling.

And that's really what you need with a show that has such an open-ended future. There are questions of what Discovery might truly be about, about how fast the plot is going and the liberties it seems to be taking with its stories, but you can't deny it its characters. Its developed a compelling stable of four underdog main characters, with interesting foils around them, between a displaced Georgiou, a Tyler/Voq not in his own skin, and the crew of the Discovery which I hope we get to see more of going forward. Combine seeing how far they've come with all the great action, and that makes "What's Past Is Prologue" the best episode of Discovery yet, enough for 10 Terran coups out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • The episode's title is a line from The Tempest, which I'm sure could be an article of its own, but the title is pretty clearly a reference to how everything has been leading up to this point.
  • I really don't know where the show could go from here. One would imagine they'll attempt to restore the timeline, but considering how much crazy shit has gone down over the course of 13 episodes, it has to be something crazier than simply a reset, right?
  • I haven't had much time to process so I might write more about this at another time, but if Discovery has spent all this time reframing things we know about this universe, than there has to be something to say about what all this Mirror Universe stuff means. I could talk about how we're through the looking glass with all the crazy real-world stuff that's been happening these last couple of years, how Lorca's gaslighting and deceptiveness could in some ways make him Trek's trump. The only reason I wish this show was a little slower, as it was earlier in the season, would be so that we'd have more of an opportunity to analyze these things.
  • Saru still doesn't know that the person Burnham brought on his ship eats Kelpian, which is hilarious.
  • Mirror Lorca: "I've been to another universe and back. You'd think I'd come all this way without a plan?"
  • Mirror Lorca: "It's poetic justice, don't you think? A scientist destroyed by his own creation? Just kidding. I hate poetry."
  • Burnham: "Both versions of me betrayed both versions of you. I won't let that happen again."
  • Burnham: "We would have helped you get home. If you had asked. That's who Starfleet is. That's who I am."