Action movie antics and rescue missions ensue upon the Emerald Chain’s invasion.
The debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie is played out. It’s time for a new pop-cultural dispute to take hold, namely whether an episode of Star Trek Discovery that pays serious homage to Die Hard is, by extension, also a Christmas movie, despite having no explicit ties to the holiday.
That’s right, folks: it’s action movie Trek time on Discovery and the fireworks in “There Is a Tide…” take a page out of the old Bruce Willis classic. Instead of terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza, the Emerald Chain has taken over the Discovery. Instead of John McClane skulking through the air ducts in an effort to retake it, it’s our own Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) doing the same. And in lieu of Hans Gruber taunting his rough-and-tumble foe via walky-talky, it’s Osyraa’s lackey, Zareh (Jake Weber, from the second episode of the season), using the comms system to bait his target.
That alone would be enough to suggest a clear shoutout, but Discovery goes a step further. Burnham’s encounter with Zareh’s goons results in her wandering through the ship barefoot. She slips from an improvised wrist-hold that stands in for a similarly cracking wristwatch. There’s even a trip out the airlock for a baddie that stands in for Gruber falling to his doom.
Is there a point to all of these homages? Not really. But if you’re going to have your hero sneaking around an occupied structure in the hopes of rescuing someone they care about, there are worse blueprints to borrow from. In truth, it seems pretty silly that Burnham and Book (David Ajala) would be able to burst onto the ship, neutralize/evade all of the brutes aboard, and save Stamets (Anthony Rapp) without issue. The episode even tries to scaffold this with some grousing commentary from Osyraa (Janet Kidder) herself. But if you can forgive the implausibility of it all, “There Is a Tide…” offers a solid dose of action-y entertainment.
And yet, it’s not the most interesting part of the episode. Instead, after several appearances full of standard-issue bad guy snark, Osyraa finally receives some shading and motivation here. It begins when she stages a fake attack by the Viridian against the Discovery to gain entrance into Federation Headquarters. But rather than sneaking in just to blow up the place, Osyraa uses her possession of the ship, its spore drive technology, and its crew to make a surprising offer to the Federation: to join forces.
The proposal and the hostages give her enough leverage to prompt a face-to-face negotiation with Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr). More than that, Osyraa’s plan finally gives the season’s ostensible Big Bad and her organization a purpose and a worldview beyond “antagonize our heroes just for the hell of it. It turns out that the Emerald Chain envies the Federation’s air of legitimacy. They view themselves as merely a different flavor of the same type of governing body: a “federation of mercantile exchanges” no less valid or worthy than the Federation’s “chain of planets.”
So, Osyraa offers Starfleet an armistice. It’s one that would have the Federation recognize the Emerald Chain as an equal partner and institutional force. This would in turn lend it the same good name and sense of hope the Federation has forged over centuries in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, the end of slavery in Chain-controlled territories, and other concessions and compromises to help the medicine go down.
The episode burnishes Osyraa’s perspective through the arrival of Invigorator Aurelio, her top scientist and seemingly the only other soul she has any respect for admiration for (with hints that they might be involved). Aurelio interrogates Stamets but does so as another man of science. He takes on the posture of a seemingly more cosmopolitan and humane member of the Emerald Chain, one who tries to meet Stamets where he lives and make the pitch that his benefactor is more than the Federation gives her credit for.
He too presents a different view of the Federation, one grounded in gripes that go as far back as the Maquis. Like the leaders on 31st Century Earth, the Chain views the Federation as hoarding resources, with cloistered technology Osyraa would rather share with a galaxy that sorely needs it. Aurelio essentially argues that while the Federation and its ideals made sense in a post-scarcity society, people like him, set back by disability and dwindling opportunities, needed the help and benevolence of industrialists like Osyraa when seismic events irrevocably changed the galaxy to where that technology is no longer free and travel is no longer easy.
In essence, the back and forth between Admiral Vance and Stamets on the one side and Osyraa and Aurelio on the other comes down to a conflict between the progressive idealism of classic Star Trek versus the benevolent capitalism that the Emerald Chain claims to stand for.
Amid this tug of war, Admiral Vance stands for a desire to preserve liberal institutions and the principles of the Federation amid the prospect of capitulating to a force that doesn’t share those values. Osyraa represents the notion that financial interests are just as worthy of having a seat at the table and, more to the point, that markets are both a significant force and a practical reality in this brave new world that must be acknowledged.
It’s a deft framing from Discovery. As enjoyable as the John McTiernan-style antics aboard a starship are, those across-the-table (or engineering bay) debates feel more in tune with the core of Star Trek. Political and philosophical arguments, ideological clashes between feuding groups with different views of civilization, weighing the balance between the world as we wish it to be and the world as it is, all represent the contemplative side of the franchise, the one that made all those space battles and karate chops worthwhile.
“There Is a Tide…” makes it plain that the Emerald Chain are still the villains here, but it gives them a plausible perspective, a series of self-justifications, and the type of stories that all communities tell themselves to make them feel secure on the side of righteousness. The villains who believe they’re the ones fighting for what’s true and fair are far more compelling than the ones who exist only to yank the good guys’ chains. But Vance and Stamets puncture that worldview with two simple but elemental concepts, ones that expose why the Emerald Chain may never be fit to join with the Federation despite the pragmatic reasons for a merger: justice and violence.
As enjoyable as the John McTiernan-style antics aboard a starship are, those across-the-table (or engineering bay) debates feel more in tune with the core of Star Trek.
The sticking point between Vance and Osyraa is that for the Federation to agree to join forces, any deal would have to include holding Osyraa accountable for her crimes. It would have to mean selecting a representative who will represent the Chain’s interests independently within a fair system, not just be her puppet. For Stamets and Aurelio, it boils down to acknowledging the mortal and moral costs that Osyraa has inflicted on those whom she governs and controls, the unfortunate souls whose blood oiled the machinery that Aurelio is so willing to protect and justify, something even he seems rattled to contemplate.
In short, whatever the conflicting claims to legitimacy the Federation and the Emerald Chain may possess, whatever divides could be bridged through compromise and necessity, there are certain lines that Starfleet and its officers refuse to cross. Some things can’t be accommodated or ignored, and they’re often the things that divide self-justifying villains from complicated heroes.
The themes and values of Star Trek don’t neatly align with those of Die Hard. The latter had a subtle strain of xenophobia that’s antithetical to the ideals of its star-bound counterpart. And while John McClane and Captain Kirk both deploy a certain amount of Cowboy Diplomacy, Star Trek has trended in a less rough-and-tumble direction in the decades since McTiernan’s seminal holiday film was released.
But both works share a skepticism of mercenary interests dressed up in the trappings and niceties of “the greater good,” with schemes and ploys and hostage negotiations whose results would just so happen to benefit them. Beyond the ship-retaking excitement, that perspective aligns “There Is a Tide…” with its 1980s blockbuster predecessor. Refusing to capitulate to such neatly packaged cruelty may mean having to fight for your ideals. But to that Starfleet says… yippee ki-yay.
- Tilly’s (Mary Wiseman) also in action movie mode! She organizes Discovery’s B-team to fend off their captors, earning a vote of confidence for her captaining in the midst of a dicey situation. The show’s rightfully all-in on her leadership journey this season.
- Osyraa’s level of commitment to her vaguely British accent seems to vary by the scene. Charitably, maybe she puts it on more when dealing with Admiral Vance as a show of formality?
- “Children are a blessing; I have one myself.” Awww, Stamets. You old softie!
- Speaking of which, while the scene is overdone, Stamets’s utter refusal to countenance doing anything other than rescuing his partner and child from the Verubin Nebula, to the point of lashing out at Burnham when she forces the issue, is a good character beat for him.
- A PSA for Discovery’s more impressionable viewers: in the (hopefully) unlikely event that you end up stabbed, leave the puncturing object in until a medical professional can remove it for you. Removing it yourself will just do more damage. (Unless, of course, you’re a space-traveler with futuristic technology like Burnham).
- Discovery is sporting some surprising tie-ins to its Short Trek segments here, featuring the biggest use of the helper robots since “Ephraim and Dot,” who are now infused with the spirit of the Sphere Data.
- The episode also confirms the Sphere Data has made the ship at least semi-sentient, accounting for both its personality and appreciation for old movies in the “Calypso” Short Trek.
- The holographic lie detector is named “Eli!” Puns!
- Expect Gabrielle Burnham to show up in the finale with a cavalry of all the people the Discovery’s helped over the course of season 3.
- It’s time to start taking bets on which actor will end up playing the heavily-hinted Federation President here. There’d be some synergy to having Kurtwood Smith—who played the role in Star Trek VI, guest-starred on Voyager, and recently appeared on Lower Decks—drop in with some different prosthetics. But it’d be even cooler to see Nichelle Nichols pop up, maybe even as one of Uhura’s descendants, to play the part.