It’s time for the latest installment in my series of episode by episode reviews of season 4 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous seasons and episodes may be found here.
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
“Choose to Live”, the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery, opens with a heist. A Starfleet ship is about to deliver a goodwill gift of dilithium to a random world, when two guys dressed as ninjas and a sword-wielding Romulan woman beam aboard to steal the dilithium. The First Officer of the Starfleet vesse tries to stop them. “Choose to live”, the Romulan woman says to the officer, indicating that she is a member of the Qowat Milat, the order of Romulan warrior nuns that we’ve seen before in Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery. The Starfleet officer does not choose to live, i.e. stand down, and is promptly killed.
The scene now switches to a conference room in Starfleet Headquarters, where Admiral Vance, President Rillak of the Federation, President T’Rina of Ni’Var (a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan) and Michael discuss the case. It turns out that there has been a series of dilithium heists, which now culminated in the death of a Starfleet officer. They know who’s responsible, a Qowat Milat nun named J’Vini, and since the latest dilithium shipment was equipped with a tracker, they know where she’s hiding.
President T’Rina is respectively horrified, but insists that the Qowat Milat deal with the issue. President Rillak, ever the diplomat (Ni’Var left the Federation and Rillak is desperate for them to rejoin), proposes a joint mission and so Michael finds herself paired with her mother Gabrielle (a welcome reappearance by Sonja Sohn), who had joined the Qowat Milat upon ending up in the 31st century. President T’Rina also offers the help of the Vulcan Science Academy in determing the nature of the planet-eating anomaly that the Discovery investigated last episode. So Stamets and Book as the sole witness to the destruction of Kwejian due to the anomaly are dispatched to Ni’Var in the B-plot, while Michael and Gabrielle hunt down the wayward nun in the A-plot. Gabrielle has brought another Qowat Milat sister with her, so Michael also brings along a second Starfleet officer. Saru suggests Tilly, who is having trouble adjusting to everything that happened to her and is looking for new experiences. Michael points out that Tilly has many strengths, but combat is not one of them, whereupon Saru notes that with two Qowat Milat nuns and Michael along for the mission, there are plenty of combat specialists, but they might need someone as likeable as Tilly.
Things go wrong almost at once. Gabrielle insists that Michael and Tilly leave behind their phasers in favour of swords, the Qowat Milat’s preferred weapon. Michael also learns why Gabrielle is so insistent that J’Vini must have good reasons for doing what she does. Because J’Vini was the Qowat Milat sister who found Gabrielle, when she was flung into the 31st century, and nursed her back to health. They land on what appears to be a barren moon. However, a scan detects lifesigns in a cavern under the surface. Those lifesigns soon beam aboard Book’s ship, which Michael borrowed for this mission, and a fight with J’Vini’s goons ensues. The Qowat Milat hold their own, but Michael and particularly Tilly, who are not used to swordfighting, have problems. However, in the end it’s the Qowat Milat sister who is not Gabrielle who gets killed.
J’Vini herself also beams aboard Book’s ship. She tells Gabrielle, Michael and Tilly that she did not want the sister to be killed and that she didn’t want to kill the Starfleet officer either. She also warns Gabrielle, Michael and Tilly to leave or face the consequences. “Choose to live,” J’Vini says ominously.
Of course, Michael, Tilly and Gabrielle don’t leave but beam into the subterranean cavern, which turns out to be no cave at all, but what appears to be an alien crypt or tomb. They find hundreds of aliens in coffin-like pods. One of the pods has been broken open by graverobbers, the body therein belongs to a species no one has ever seen before. It is also covered up with a Qowat Milat cloak. J’Vini definitely was there.
When the crypt suddenly experiences something seismic instabilites, Michael and Tilly realise that the asteroid is no asteroid at all, but a spaceship, which reminded me of the original series episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”, which also has the distinction of being the first Star Trek episode I ever watched. J’Vini stole the dilithium to power up the asteroid/spaceship. Also, they aliens are not dead, but in cryosleep.
Michael, Tilly and Gabrielle find the engine and Tilly removes the dilithium to shut it down, whereupon J’Vini appears. After a brief fight, she takes Gabrielle hostage and places her sword at her throat and demands that Tilly and Michael power up the asteroid again. Michael and Tilly stall, while Gabrielle finally get J’Vini to tell the full story, corroborated by some mural and reliefs on the walls of the cave.
The homeworld of the aliens (I don’t think their species even gets a name) was destroyed when their sun went nova. The aliens hollowed out a moon and turned it into a spaceship. Then they set course for their new home and went into cryosleep. Somehow all this happens without the Federation having the slightest idea about it. However, something went wrong and though the aliens have long since reached their destination, they won’t wake up. Furthermore, the bodies of the aliens also happen to have a high content of Latinum (the element which the Ferengi use as a currency), which attracts scavengers who have no moral qualms about harvesting Latinum from aliens in cryosleep.
This happened to the mutilated alien whose body Michael, Tilly and Gabrielle found earlier. And since the alien woke up, when they were being harvested, and since the aliens just happen to be telepathic, this alien sent out a telepathic distress signal that was received by J’Vini, who was too late to save this alien, but decided to make the rest of their species her lost cause. While I was watching the episode, all this made perfect sense. However, typing it up now I realise that there are a lot of coincidences here and that the whole aliens in cryosleep plot doesn’t make a lot of sense.
As for why J’Vini needs the dilithium, the aliens’ asteroid spaceship happens to be in the likely path of the planet-killing anomaly (Stamets has called it “Dark Matter Anomaly”, DMA for short), so J’Vini needs to reactivate the drive in order to move it when necessary.
“Why didn’t you just ask the Federation for dilithium?” Michael wants to know. J’Vini points out that the Federation is only giving dilithium to organisations and planets, not to individuals, at least not without knowing the reason they need it. Once again, this makes no sense, because why would J’Vini not simply inform the Federation of her discovery? It’s the Federation, for heavens’ sake. They won’t cut up these poor aliens for latinum.
The whole alien plot is potentially interesting and helping an unknown species in trouble is a very Star Trek thing to do, but the plot strand also feels underdeveloped. AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen points out that the aliens basically serve as a Macguffin in this story. The show isn’t interested in the aliens or their story or their culture and indeed, we never even meet one of them who’s still alive. They’re merely a plot device to give Michael some quality time with her Mom. Come to think of it, the dead Starfleet officer is more plot device than person as well. He’s literally a random redshirt. We don’t even learn his name or the fact that he has a family until the end of the episode.
And now J’Vini has her sword at the throat of Michael’s Mom and demands that Michael and Tilly fix the drive. Michael also points out that the aliens should have woken up a long time ago, but that something went wrong. However, Michael is going to fix it. How does Michael fix an issue with the computer of the spaceship of a species the Federation had never even heard of until that day? The story neither asks nor addresses those questions.
At any rate, Michael and Tilly are successful. The warpdrive works again and the aliens wake up to settle their new homeworld (which conveniently is not occupied by anybody else). Gabrielle informs J’Vini that she has fulfilled her vow to the aliens and that this path has ended and a new path has begun. J’Vini allows Gabrielle to take her into custody. Michael assures Gabrielle and J’Vini that her motives will be taken account when the Federation puts her on trial. Gabrielle also has a little heart to heart with Tilly about paths ending and new paths beginning and maybe Tilly’s issues are due to the fact that a path has ended for her. Hmm, does Mary Wiseman want to leave the show?
Back at Starfleet headquarters, J’Vini is not put on trial but handed over to the Ni’Var authorities who may well turn a blind eye to J’Vini’s crimes. Michael is angry about this – something I found difficult to understand given her not so great experiences with Federation justice. Vance is resigned and Rillak wants to salvage the relationship with Ni’Var at all costs.
In the B-plot, Stamets and Book travel to Ni’Var to visit the Vulcan Science Academy. Stamets believes that the anomaly might be a primordial wormhole and lays out his evidence, whereupon the assembled Vulcans and Romulans close their eyes. “Now is not naptime”, Stamets, who just can’t resist sticking his foot into his mouth, exclaims, whereupon President T’Rina calmly explains that the Vulcan scientists are meditating. No one can delivery technobabble and make it compelling like Anthony Rapp. And considering Stamets was somewhat sidelined in season 3, I’m happy that he gets plenty to do in season 4. Though I do miss Jet Reno.
While Stamets is waiting for the Vulcans to finish meditating, President T’Rina approaches Book and offers him some calming tea. Book asks if his emotional turmoil is that obvious even to a Vulcan, whereupon T’Rina replies that Vulcans do have emotions, they just choose to suppress them in favour of a more logical approach to life. “Can you teach me how to do that?” Book asks, whereupon T’Rina explains that it requires a lifetime of training and that for an empath like Book, suppressing his emotions would be dangerous. The scenes between Book and T’Rina were some of my favourites in this episode. I also really like T’Rina and hope that we will see more of her.
Once the Vulcans have finished meditating, they shoot down Stamets’ theory by pointing out that there is no evidence of tachyons around the anomaly, but that tachyons would be present, if it truly were a primordial wormhole. Of course, Stamets already knows that. President T’Rina points out that tachyons cause a distinctive blue glow and that they have a witness to the destruction of Kwejian around in the form of Book. So why not ask him if he observed a blue glow? And yes, if you thought, “A blue glow. Well, that narrows it down, since everything in Star Trek Discovery has a blue glow”, then you’re not the only one.
Book has racked his memories several times, but can’t recall any blue glow. T’Rina suggests that a mind meld might help Book recover suppressed memories. Stamets, whose hypothesis is on the chopping block after all, immediately jumps in to defend Book and tells him that he doesn’t have to relive traumatic memories again. Stamets is not the most empathetic person, but nonetheless he immediately sticks up for Book, so Book won’t be retraumatised. But then, Stamets knows a thing or two about grief.
Book, on the other hand, desperately wants to help and agrees to the mind meld. He sees the dead birds again and Kwejian blowing up. “There was no blue glow”, T’Rina announces, except that there is, because every cosmic effect in Star Trek Discovery has a blue glow. Maybe they should have just made the telltale glow a different colour. Still, Stamets’ hypothesis could not be proven. Whatever the anomaly is, it’s not a primordial wormhole.
T’Rina wants to end the mind meld, but Book tells her there is another memory he wants to relive. T’Rina warns him that he can only observe, not interfere or alter the memory, but Book still wants to relive it. And so Book sees himself with his brother Kyheem and nephew Leto in the forest on Kwejian again. Leto runs off, but this time, Book sees Leto turn around and smile at him, a detail he had forgotten. This actually gives Book some peace, because he now knows that Leto knew that Book loved him.
Back aboard Discovery, Book projects a holographic representation of the late forests of Kwejian onto the ceiling of his ship, something that would have been too painful for him to do earlier. He also is wearing the glass capsule pendant that all Kwejian empaths wear again – even though he ditched the pendant when he first left Kwejian. Book is still far from healed, but he’s doing better.
I also really like T’Rina and hope we see more of her. Star Trek doesn’t always know what to do with Vulcans not named Spock or Sarek, but T’Rina is both very Vulcan and also remarkably empathetic.
The third plot strand in this episode involves Gray and his quest to regain a body. The android body that has been prepared for Gray is ready and Gray and Adira admire it. But in order to transfer Gray’s ghost/consciousness/whatever it is into the android body, the Trill elder Ze needs to be present (virtually as a hologram) as well. Elder Ze warns Gray that the transfer process is not without risks. It’s possible that Gray’s consciousness will be lost in transit. Gray, however, is willing to take that risk. So are Adira and Tal, their symbiont.
So Doctor Culber initiates the transfer process. It appears to be successful, cause Adira can’t hear or see Gray anymore. However, android Gray doesn’t wake up. Culber comforts Adira – and unlike Stamets, he’s actually good at comforting people. Eventually Adira goes into sickbay again to talk to Gray and maybe serve as a guide for his consciousness to find its way. Finally, Adira falls asleep by Gray’s side. And lo and behold, Gray wakes up, kisses Adira and hugs Culber.
Adira and Gray are just the sweetest couple. And Doctor Culber is fast becoming my favourite Star Trek doctor of all time, which is interesting because I don’t normally like medical dramas and don’t usually particularly like the resident doctors aboard the various Starfleet vessels. Sure, some of them are fun characters like the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager or Doctor Phlox from Enterprise. And all of them are clearly competent. But Culber is not just competent, he’s also empathetic and just immensely likeable in general. I’m so glad that the showrunners reversed the decision to kill him off in season 1.
During season 1 and parts of seaon 2, I often complained that Discovery felt more like the new Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones in space than like Star Trek. Now that the show has overcome its growing pains (and season 1 and 2 are so different from what came after that it’s barely the same show), Discovery finally feels like Star Trek. And “Choose to Live” was a very typical Star Trek episode. There’s a mystery to solve. There is a hostile character who turns out to have a reason for their behaviour. There is an alien species in dire need of aid and Starfleet manages to save the day (for the aliens). In many ways, “Choose to Live” feels like a middling episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and that’s perfectly fine. It did deliver what I expect from a Star Trek show and I had fun watching it.
That said, “Choose to Live” is also a fairly forgettable episode. The alien plot feels undercooked and we never really get invested in their plight, since the aliens are only a plot device to give J’Vini a motive for her behaviour and to give Michael and Gabrielle some quality time together.
It also doesn’t help that I don’t find the overarching plot of the Dark Matter Anomaly particularly compelling. Yes, the anomaly destroyed Kwejian and killed Stationmaster Redshirt and that’s very sad. But it’s also an evil black space cloud and weird space phenomena are dime a dozen in Star Trek. The fact that everybody behaves as if they had never seen a dangerous spacial anomaly before – in a Star Trek show of all things – doesn’t help either. I hope Stamets finds out something juicy about the anomaly soon that makes it more exciting than just another dangerous space phenomenon.
What makes Star Trek Discovery (and any other TV show, Star Trek or not) are the characters. And while previous seasons of Discovery tended to focus on Michael to the expense of other characters, season 4 seems to be more balanced. Yes, the Qowat Milat plot focussed on Michael, but the Stamets/Book and Culber/Gray/Adira plots gave other characters a much needed spotlight. I particularly like that Stamets and Culber get more to do this season, since they often were sidelined in season 3. io9 reviewer James Whitbrook also points out that the characterisation is what makes a very average episode shine, while Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido praises that “Choose to Live” also offers plenty of characterisation for supporting characters like Admiral Vance, Gabrielle Burnham, President T’Rina and President Lara Rillack.
This is not a Discovery episode that will set the world on fire. But it’s a pleasant way to spend fifty minutes hanging out with characters we’ve come to like.