Emperor Georgiou faces her sins in a messy but camp episode that rehabilitates her character just in time for the inevitable spinoff.
The bones of “Terra Firma Pt. II” are good. The core of the episode pays off Emperor Georgiou’s (Michelle Yeoh) return engagement with the Mirror Universe with conviction. She chooses to keep Mirror Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) alive, attempting to break her daughter toward the Emperor’s new way of thinking rather than dispose of her. She decides to save Saru (Doug Jones) and shares the truth about the Vahar’ai with him rather than letting him die. She moves, slowly but firmly, toward peace and diplomatic solutions in lieu of total and merciless domination.
In short, despite being deposited back into her old home, Philippa uses her position and power to make it more like her new one. As she tells Michael, Georgiou saw another way to live and chose to seize it, knowing the dark future that lay ahead of her and those she cared about if she stuck to her old ways. There’s a force and even a beauty in that idea, conveyed through well-built montages and, alas, Discovery’s usual writerly voiceover monologues. Still, what this episode lacks in naturalism, it makes up for in its embrace of the heightened reality and big emotions that undergird “Terra Firma”’s high concept premise.
To that end, Georgiou faces her greatest sin head-on here—the fact that she turned the Mirror Universe version of Michael into someone just like her, or at least, who she used to be. Now that Philippa’s remade herself and accepted a different way of life, she regrets her influence over her daughter. The Emperor wants to undo the damage she’s caused and laments that the only way to accomplish that task in this universe is the Terran Way—through pain and hardship.
So much of “Terra Firma” is built around Philippa’s evolution and personal realizations about her Terran existence. But those are smartly channeled through what she sees reflected in her daughter: both the potential to lead the Terran Empire into a new and different era, one more like the Prime Universe, as well as the missteps Georgiou made in raising Michael to be a monster, turning her into a wounded creature ready to kill her own mother over such perceived weakness.
Despite the harshness of Philippa’s methods, she finds fulfillment in the rehabilitation of her world and of Michael. She knows the joy and catharsis of reconciliation and believes she’s charted a different path for her people and her protégé. And then tragedy hits.
That reconciliation turns out to be just another ploy. Burnham’s coup (which is sadly Lorca-free) happens anyway. Despite great reluctance, Georgiou is forced to kill her own daughter again. She herself succumbs to the wounds inflicted by the child she raised, only to awaken back in the Prime Universe once more, disoriented but convinced of the futility of her actions, given that they led her, literally and figuratively, to the same ultimate destination.
But then comes arguably “Terra Firma”’s biggest (or at least most buzz-worthy) reveal. Carl (Paul Guilfoyle) is not, as theorized, just another intergalactic weirdo. He is, rather, The Guardian of Forever, hailing from one of the most famous episodes of The Original Series. What’s more, the gateway Georgiou passed through is of a piece with the one Kirk and Spock walked into back in 1967. Discovery even uses Bart La Rue’s original audio from The Guardian’s first appearance.
That continuity-stoking choice is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably cool to see an iconic part of one of Star Trek’s most iconic outings back in action. The show provides a plausible fig leaf for the gateway’s new location and form, with Carl explaining that The Guardian got the hell out of dodge during the Temporal Wars. And hell, if Georgiou is going to take a supernatural journey across spacetime to magically cure her disease anyway, it softens the blow and adds some narrative economy to use a mechanism that already exists in canon.
Instead of a wild and wooly universe that’s been altered by centuries of seismic changes, we’re back to retreading the known and iconic.
But it’s also one of those narrative choices that makes the Star Trek universe feel smaller. One of the best parts of Discovery’s jump to the 31st century is that it cleared the board for the series, casting off the shackles of continuity and expectation that come from being set ten years before Captain Kirk’s adventures.
Conversely, the reveal that Georgiou and Burnham’s own emotionally-resonant escapades, nearly a millennium later, turn out to be just another invocation of something already familiar to the audience is disappointing once the initial thrill wears off. Instead of a wild and wooly universe that’s been altered by centuries of seismic changes, we’re back to retreading the known and iconic (and, in this case, Iconian). But maybe that’s an isolated and forgivable sop in a season of Discovery that’s otherwise broken new ground.
In either case, The Guardian reveals that the purpose of this trip through time and space was to “weigh” Georgiou, calling to mind the Ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife. Philippa laments that she failed this makeup exam. She killed her daughter again; she lost the Empire again, and she ended up in much the same place that she did the last time she ruled the Terrans.
But Carl notes an important difference: this time she tried. Mirror Burnham may have turned on her anyway, but Georgiou spared her daughter and strove to make her see the light. She saved Mirror Saru and set him on the path to save many more. She worked for her own kind of peace, even in a system that, by her own creation, is inhospitable to such notions. It’s the change of heart he needed to see, regardless of how those choices turned out.
For these good deeds, she earns a Scrooge-like second chance in the Prime Universe, namely a Doorway to a Spinoff. Carl promises to send her to a different time and place, one set before the dimensional divide between the Prime Universe and the Mirror Universe yawned so greatly, thus sparing her from the worst effects of her molecular degradation. He promises viewers that her fate is now uncertain, with plenty of storms to come, falling just short of reading off the logline for the long-gestating Section 31 spinoff still to come.
It ties into the biggest problem of “Terra Firma.” The parts of the episode that simply tell the story of Georgiou back in the Mirror Universe work well. They offer a compelling tale of a onetime villain realizing against her own inclinations that she’s changed and trying to make things right. The last third of the episode, which is more focused on the Guardian reveal and Georgiou’s goodbye, is much more of a mixed bag.
Some of that comes down to the simple fact that, for the audience at least, this isn’t goodbye. Discovery devotes so much of the post-doorway portion of the episode to positioning Georgiou for her new series. These scenes lack the sense of tearful finality intended when the viewer knows (and The Guardian practically promises) that Philippa will have many more televised adventures to come.
Even then, the bittersweet force of her departure could be preserved since it still means Philippa leaving the rest of the crew, especially Burnham, behind. “Terra Firma” embraces that approach with both arms, as the closing moments of the episode feature a kind-hearted wake for Georgiou among the senior staff, with each of them toasting to her memory.
As good as “Terra Firma” was as a Georgiou character story, Discovery didn’t spend enough time building to that epiphany, that transformation, or that relationship until now.
The problem is that with its focus on serialization and wide-ranging cast of characters, Discovery hasn’t spent much time bouncing Georgiou off enough of the other crewmembers for any of them to legitimately remember her with fondness. The few interactions we did see basically consisted of Philippa being nasty or even cruel to others, making the wistful farewells scan as largely unearned.
Even with Burnham, the material exploring their relationship since the jump back to the Prime ‘verse has been scattershot. There’s enough baggage between each Universe’s Michael and Georgiou and their alternate universe counterparts to carry the weight in concept alone. But their goodbye just doesn’t have the emotional impact it should. As good as “Terra Firma” was as a Georgiou character story, Discovery didn’t spend enough time building to that epiphany, that transformation, or that relationship until now.
Still, it’s better late than never. “Terra Firma”’s long-form emotional calculus may not completely add up, but it still tugs the heartstrings. It tugs at the heartstrings to hear Michael call the Emperor “My Georgiou” and to hear Philippa assure her daughter that there’s great things (and maybe a captaincy!) in her future. It’s also something to see the former villain acknowledge that there is a better way, one she learned from this place, these people, and the daughter she affirms once more.
- The intro to this one is a vertically flipped negative image of the usual opening credits. It’s not quite to the level of Enterprise’s boffo alternate opening, but it’s still a nice touch for a Mirror ‘verse episode.
- Just like goatees once did, this episode suggests that having long straight hair means you’re evil. Who knew morality was so dictated by your follicular stylings?
- The Guardian of Forever also figures into “Yesteryear,” the best episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. The episode was penned by D.C. Fontana, The Original Series’s best writer, and it strongly influenced the depiction of Spock’s home life in season 2 of Discovery.
- Speaking of which, Carl’s proclamations that Georgiou will have plenty more crazy adventures to come is uncomfortably close to Spock’s proclamation that Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln will “have some interesting experiences in store for them” in an episode of TOS, a transparent pitch for a Star Trek spin-off of that never got off the ground.
- Lt. Commander Airiam is alive in the Mirror Universe (or was, at least!) and lacks the cybernetic reconstruction from her unfortunate incident in the Prime ‘verse. It’s another small but nice alternate universe inclusion.
- Amid Georgiou’s counter-revolt, it’s cool to see Saru get to be an unrestrained physical force for the first time since season 1’s “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.”
- Georgiou apparently had another child before Burnham, hence the “my son” flashbacks we’ve seen in prior episodes. But apparently, that’s mere additional fodder for the spinoff since it receives minimal payoff or explanation here.
- Book (David Ajala) “finds his moment” by using Emerald Chain tech to reach the Kelpien ship trapped in the Burn Nebula. He also makes his pitch to Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) that to beat Osyraa you need someone who can think like Osyraa. It’s not much, but it passes the smell test.
- Jet Reno (Tig Notaro) is back in Engineering to eat candy and insult Stamets. And soon she’ll be all out of candy.