Star Trek: Discovery season 5 episode 3 review | a less than Trill-ing hour

Star Trek Discovery season 5
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Jinaal is the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery season 5: it’s a slice of television that highlights the issues with the show.

The issues that I have with Star Trek: Discovery can be typified in an episode such as ‘Jinaal’, the third outing of the fifth season, which cloaks achieving very little storytelling or character wise by doing a lot on screen.

If we accept that serialisation is the bread and butter of Discovery, we can appreciate that ‘Jinaal’ will be primarily about moving the ongoing narrative regarding the Progenitor mystery forward – since ‘Red Directive’ called back to The Next Generation episode ‘The Chase’ regarding the Prometheus-esque ancient of ancient races who seeded the very building blocks of galactic DNA.

What becomes apparent in this episode, written by Kyle Jarrow & Lauren Wilkinson, is that said storyline is being designed following the ‘mystery box’ structure of storytelling. This was promulgated by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot stable during the 2000s, in shows such as Alias and Fringe, and can work incredibly well if written skilfully.

Alex Kurtzman, now commander in chief of Star Trek’s TV arm, earned his stripes as part of this stable.

I’ve never been convinced that such a storytelling structure works for Star Trek, which always avoided too deeply revelling in ancient fantastical arcanum and lore. It was present in that universe but Star Trek was always about moving forward, pushing the frontier, exploring scientific concepts and human ideas. This era, typified by Discovery, is obsessed with looking back. Everything is either about ancient history or the series’ own internal nostalgia.

See as evidence every season of Star Trek: Picard, the very existence of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks (good as they are), and the fact that when Discovery launched itself into the 32nd century, what did it immediately do? Investigate a century-old unexplained event. In this season, the main arc concerns billion-year old technology and a long dead race. It isn’t that such ideas are not intriguing (‘The Chase’ posited a potentially revolutionary idea, based on the ‘ancient astronaut’ theory), it just again speaks to Discovery’s lack of imagination.

Which brings me to ‘Jinaal’, an episode itself rooted in Star Trek lore of the past, particularly a corner of the universe crafted by the vastly superior Deep Space Nine. In that show, we properly explored the Trill, a race who contain symbiotic worms that are hosted by willing Trill humanoids, and who gain the historic memories of dozens potentially of previous incarnations across centuries. Through the lead characters of Jadzia and later Ezri Dax, we thoroughly explored the spiritual concept of past lives and the meaning of personal identity.

One episode in particular, season three’s ’Facets’, gave us a glimpse at the many previous versions of the Dax symbiont, the memories of whom were placed, as part of a ritual called the Zhian’Tara, inside the bodies of various main and recurring cast members. This was played for both comic and dark effect, given one of her previous hosts, Joran, was revealed earlier to be a serial killer in his lifetime. ‘Facets’ isn’t a great episode of Star Trek but it allowed for an enjoyable exploration of Trill symbiosis.

That ritual is revisited in ‘Jinaal’, but rather as a mechanism to explore a character (as it was for Jadzia), here it is yet another contrived stepping stone to the next piece of the Progenitor puzzle. This season already reminds me heavily of the Rambaldi mystery in Alias, a show increasingly lost to the mists of TV history, but also included a centuries-spanning enigma filled with secret locations, hidden puzzle pieces, and people like the Trill Guardian here who only lets Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) get to the titular Jinaal through the use of an arcane pass phrase.

None of it, even for science-fiction, feels particularly organic. The fifth season of Discovery wasn’t planned to be the last but one wonders if we will get a checklist of elements to tick off now we are heading for the big finish, Trill being one of them. We have seen this future incarnation of them since the third season, which allowed for the introduction of non-binary character Adira (Blu del Barrio), whose relationship with ex-crewman now Trill initiate Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) forms part of the B-story here.

In terms of inclusivity, Adira and Gray have been solid characters for Discovery, but their dynamic isn’t all that interesting on screen. ‘Jinaal’ doesn’t make them the focus but, honestly, an earlier Trek series probably would have, and likely both characters would have—in the fashion of many Trill we saw in the previous era—been far more intriguing to watch. The fact they’re just a by-product of going to Trill for the bigger plot mechanism tells you a lot about how bland Discovery’s future setting is.

More time is given to the Zhian’Tara (a good thing), as the brawny and swaggering Jinaal inhabits Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), usually a fairly effete healer and sounding board. Cruz here enjoys having a bit more personality to work with, even if Jinaal feels less a character, more of a plot cypher, simply there to cue up the obligatory, apparently necessary big CGI action sequence where Burnham and Book (David Ajala) fight some weird monster… thing. Who cares? It’s dull. Discovery does this every other week. It’s just to get us to where we need to be and please anxious Paramount bods who think Star Trek needs Star Wars-style theatrics to keep viewers coming back.

I found the most enjoyable factor of the episode to be Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) working with new second in command Commander Rayner (the ever dependable Callum Keith Rennie) to ingratiate himself with the crew. That allowed for some grouchy comedy and genuine character work, which flows partly into the subsequent episode. It helps that Rennie is a genuinely good character actor. Discovery doesn’t have many of them in its stable, and even this season is relegating them – Doug Jones as Saru sidelined for rather dull Federation ambassadorial stuff for example.

‘Jinaal’ then is exactly what Discovery now is, a clear example of the template. Ongoing serialisation with bits and pieces of character work, tapping into older Star Trek lore, and trying to balance science-fiction with fantastic action. The show on absolute auto-pilot. If you love that, you’ll really like this.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via here.

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