The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, S4E3, “Choose to Live” (written by Terri Hughes Burton and directed by Christopher J Byrne)
Star Trek: Discovery has been setting up a lot of storylines in the opening episodes of Season 4. There is the season spanning arc about the gravitational anomaly, the chilly interplay between the Federation President and Captain Burnham, Book’s grief over the destruction of Kwejian, Gray’s incorporation, and Tilly’s depression, to mention just a few of the ongoing plot threads. This can lead to the stories seeming rushed and incomplete, or to the writers trying to jam too much into one episode to cover it all.
“Chose to Live” threatens to do just that, but the fact that the many, many plot threads all tie back to the clear and evident theme (hint: it is in the title) makes it all actually work. Terri Hughes Burton’s script also allows the characters to live in their thoughts and decisions in a way that this show in particular often doesn’t take the time to do. Which leads to another episode full of beauty and sadness.
Star Trek: Discovery S4E3 is also the first of the season not to be directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi. Osunsanmi brings a visual flair to the show that is often unmatched by the other directors. The battles are grand and the crane shots plentiful. Osunsanmi often experiments with light, camera movement, and disorienting the viewer. Christopher J. Byrne, in sharp contrast, brings his quieter, more introspective, style to “Chose to Live.”
Throughout the episode there are steadier, longer, shots. Moments and interactions are allowed to linger. When Lieutenant Tilly (Mary Wiseman) walks up to Mr. Saru (Doug Jones) in the mess hall, Byrne starts the scene with a long framing shot of Saru sitting alone at the table. We can see Tilly at the edge of the frame, the anxiety that she is feeling beautifully expressed by Wiseman’s performance. Once Tilly finally sits down things remain deliberately paced, heightening both Tilly’s nervousness and Saru’s preternatural calm.
The fight scenes between the Qowat Milat and the joint Starfleet/Ni’var search party are also well-staged, but make up a tiny fraction of the running time. Most of the episode is therapy and staring longingly into space, which is grounded and enhanced by Byrne’s work. And is also my second favorite mode of Star Trek, just behind “incredibly silly nonsense” which will always take first place in my heart.
Eventually Tilly confides to Saru that Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) has asked her to step out of her comfort zone. The camera zooms in and lingers as Saru clasps his fingers and reflects thoughtfully on his young friend. The entire scene is much slower and less important to the main action than we tend to get on a short season of such an action packed show, but Star Trek: Discovery S4S3 is filled to the brim with these types of moments.
Byrne brings a real skill at that deliberate pacing to the table, but he is also good at building compelling action scenes, I think because he is still willing, even then, to allow the scenes to have room to breathe. In the main plot of “Chose to Live” Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is tasked by Federation President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) with hunting down Ji’Vini, a member of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan order of which Burnham’s mother Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn) remains a leader, who has killed a Federation officer and stolen dilithium.
The interplay between Burnham and Rillak remains tense and foreboding. I love that Burnham doesn’t trust the President but that Rillak retains a fondness for the Discovery captain despite this. It certainly seems that Discovery is hinting at some potential duplicitousness from the President. But I definitely would prefer the character to be a well intentioned, if Machiavellian, central figure going forward. I would most love it if the show were working on presenting Rillak as the perfect mix of the traits of her three ancestral species: humans, Bajorans, and Cardassians. Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) certainly seems to think this is the case.
Burnham, Gabrielle, and Tilly (due to encouragement from Mr. Saru) wind up leading the covert mission together, at the request at the end of Ni’Var President T’Rina (Tara Rosling). They prove to be the right team for the mission, ultimately discovering that the murders and theft were part of Ji’Vini’s vow to save a cryo-frozen race of beings from being exterminated in their sleep. It is the last part of this plot in Star Trek: Discovery S4E3 that really fits the themes though, when Burnham and her mother have brought in the Ji’Vini, Rillak immediately turns her over to the Ni’Var authorities, rather than putting her on a Federation trial. Rillak notes that her decision is a crossroads too, by trusting in T’Rina, she is hoping to save billions of lives by bringing N’Var back into the Federation.
T’Rina and the Vulcans of Ni’Var are also heavily involved in the secondary plot of “Choose to Live.” Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is attempting to work out the meaning of the data he and Book (David Ajala) collected from the anomaly in “Anomaly” and is convinced the gravitational disturbance is being caused by a wormhole. In order to prove his theory T’Rina, Book and Stamets go to visit the N’Var science institute to get assistance. Stamets remains adorably frustrated and awkward, but his desire to understand what is happening, not just to save lives but also to help Book through his grief, is palpable. In the end, the scientists only prove that Stamets’ theory can not be true, which makes since considering the show was not going to solve that mystery in Episode 3.
The real purpose of the Ni’Var scenes is to spark Book’s memory and allow him to “Choose to Live” as well. In order to really understand what happened on Kwejian, T’Rina proposes that she mind meld with Book, who willingly allows this as he is desperate to help in any way. Once the two start the meld, Book is able to see his last moments on his home planet in more detail than before. And he is able to, for a brief moment, see past the grief to the love that lies beneath it. Ajala is fantastic in these scenes, with the joy at seeing his lost world combining with the pain of remembering the loss all over again evident in his eyes. Book has been through a lot already in this short season but, while he still has his grief and pain, Star Trek: Discovery S4E3 has also opened the door for him to start healing.
Finally, I wanted to focus on the character who has been tasked with healing everyone else a bit more intensely, Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber. Cruz continues to dazzle in the role, with his performance becoming more nuanced and emotional with each passing episode. (And making it more incredible each week to remember that his character was initially killed off in Season 1.) . I know I mention Culber almost every week, and I try to note just how impressed I have been with Wilson Cruz’s performance but his impact on Star Trek: Discovery S4E3, and the show as a whole, really can not be overemphasized at this point. Hugh Culber has become the heart and soul of Discovery, and that is due to the nuanced, tender, performance that Cruz gives. Every week it seems that Culber is tasked with pulling someone, or multiple people, out of mental or physical peril, and he always does it with grace and humility.
Cruz’s performance really gets at the empathy required to be a real effective doctor and counselor. His warmth emanates from the screen. This week, when Adira (Blu del Barrio) was afraid and alone because they were unsure if Grey (Ian Alexander) would be able to transition from spirit form into the body that had been created for him, it was Culber, their father figure, doctor, and confidant, that was there for them. And when Grey finally did come back to them, the hug between the characters felt real because it seemed that the actors were also sharing a moment of earned, lived, experience.
Make no doubt, the entire plot of Grey’s attempt to accept, and ultimately feel at home in, his new body was an intentional allegory for the type of journeys people in different LGBTQIA+ identities have to go on every day. Del Barrio, Alexander, Cruz, and Anthony Rapp all have had different experiences, but they make such a tender and affecting family in part because they all know and respect those journeys and the fact that there are viewers out in the world who not only can identify with what they are depicting, they need to see it. There are people who need to see those loving tears in Hugh Culber’s eyes for Adira, and in Wilson Cruz’s eyes as he discusses why what he does is so important to have on-screen.