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!
The opening of “All Is Possible” finds the Discovery still in orbit around Ni’Var a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan, while Stamets and the Ni’Var Science Institute try to learn more about the planet-eating Dark Matter Anomaly, DMA for short. The crew is stressed out, Book is still traumatised and griefing and Dr. Culber persuades Michael to mandate downtime for everybody, though not every crewmember avails themselves of this opportunity.
Hugh Culber is filling the position of both physician and ship counsellor now. And while Deanna Troi was the first ship counsellor to play a prominent role in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Original Series actually did have a psychiatrist on board, Dr. Helen Noel, who appears in the first season episode “Dagger of the Mind”, though like so many female crewmembers, she mainly seems to serve as a love interest for Captain Kirk and doesn’t do much in the way of counselling.
“All Is Possible”, on the other hand, has a lot of therapy and counselling scenes. io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out that the whole episode is about therapy and he’s not wrong. Which might explain my issues with this episode, because I dislike extensive therapy scenes. For starters, psychotherapy is much less common in Germany and I only know one person who ever went to a therapist, so therapy scenes feel culturally alien to me. Besides, they tend to be lazy writing, because therapy scenes give the characters an excuse to talk about their feelings without the writers actually having to do the work to show us how the characters feel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Wilson Cruz is given more to do in season 4, since he’s rapidly becoming my favourite Star Trek doctor. And this episode even tapped into his Latinx heritage. Though I still wish that the script found things for Culber to do that are not sitting around, holding therapy session. Deanna Troi regularly got to do a lot more than holding therapy sessions as well.
One of the crewmembers who are receiving counselling from Dr. Culber is Tilly, who is still feeling lost and adrift. On Culber’s advice, she is trying out new experiences, but it’s not enough. Tilly still feels lost. Luckily, Dr Kovich (a most welcome reappearance by legendary director David Cronenberg who appears to be a Star Trek fan) is looking for a Discovery crew member who is willing to lead a team building exercise for some cadets of the newly reopened Starfleet Aacademy, so Culber recommends Tilly for the job. He also asks Tilly to take Adira along, since Adira is having problems making friends – unlike Gray, who not only has decided to adopt a goth look, now he has a body again, but is also befriending random crewmembers.
So Tilly and Adira set off on a routine training mission – to scan an M-class moon – with a pilot and three cadets, Val Sasha, a human who had never seen any aliens before joining Starfleet Aacademy, Taahz Gorev, a tusked alien who hates Orions, because the Emerald Chain exploited and murdered his family, and Harral, an Orion who feels he has to work twice as hard to be accepted, because of the sorry history of his species. The conflicts pretty much write themselves.
As is common with routine training exercises in Star Trek, things go wrong almost immediately. The shuttle crashes and the pilot (he does get a name, but I don’t remember it) is killed. So Tilly is stuck alone with Adira and a bunch of cadets in a damaged shuttle on a moon. Worse, they crashlanded on the wrong moon, so the USS Armstrong (they really missed the chance to insert an Easter Egg and callback to earlier Star Trek series here), which is supposed to pick them up, will be looking for them in the wrong place.
From this point on, this plot strand basically becomes a replay of the Original Series episode “The Galileo Seven”. Tilly takes charge and assigns everybody to various tasks to repair the shuttle. The flight conhtrols are fatally damaged, the coms aren’t working, but Adira succeeds in getting the sensors online again, only to pick up some strange readings. There are a lot of lifeforms on this moon and they are converging on the shuttle. The lifeforms promptly attack and it turns out they are big, ugly monster things. Tilly realises that the monsters have them mistaken for their usual prey and that they are attracted to the frequencies emitted by Starfleet equipment, so she orders all equipment switched off, so the monsters can no longer “see” the shuttle. I initially assumed that “the frequencies emitted by Starfleet equipment attract alien monsters” thing also happened in the “The Galileo Seven”, but the plot summaries don’t confirm this, so maybe I’m misremembering things.
Now Tilly and her flock have a problem. They can’t lift off and they can’t call for help or use any of their equipment, because this would attract the alien monsters. So Tilly has the brilliant idea to head outside and climb a ridge, which is hopefully inaccessible to any alien monsters, and call for help from there. As plans go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Wouldn’t they be safer inside the shuttle, which can withstand monster attacks at least for a little while? Also, it would make more sense to send just two people to the ridge to contact the Armstrong, but since this is supposed to be a teambuilding exercise, they all go together.
Of course, more trouble finds Tilly and her flock. There’s an electric storm, Taahz Gorev refuses to work with Harral, because he hates Orions, until Tilly reveals that Harral’s father was an Orion dissident who spoke out against slavery and was killed for his troubles. Next, Adira gets trapped in some kind of fast-freezing quicksand ice (I really don’t know how else to describe it) and everybody has to work together to pull them out. Finally, they make it onto the ridge, but the alien monsters are gathering below and will attack once everybody switches their communicators on and tries to hail the Armstrong. A distraction is needed. Adira offers to distract the monsters and lure them away, but Tilly insists that as the senior officer in charge of this mission, that’s her job. So Tilly tries to lure the monsters away, while Adira and the cadets hail the Armstrong. But Tilly stumbles and is about the get eaten, when the cadets fire their phasers at the monsters. The Armstrong finally responds and beams everybody to safety.
In itself, the “Tilly’s teambuilding exercise” plotline is fun enough and I liked that it gave characters who are not part of the main cast the chance to shine, similar to the Next Generation episode “Lower Decks”. However, the plotline is also too close to “The Galileo Seven” and full of holes as well. The whole plot is also really heavy-handed. Everything that happens requires the cadets, Adira and Tilly to work together as a team, i.e. exactly what this exercise was supposed to be about. At one point, Harral, the Orion cadet, asks Tilly if the crash is part of the training exercise. Tilly says “no”, but the whole thing could just as well have been a holodeck training exercise to teach the cadets the value of teamwork and not judging others by their appearance or species. Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido declares that the shuttlecrash plotline uses every cliché in the book, which is absolutely correct. The result is very Star Trek and also very heavy-handed, as AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen points out.
Once they are safely back at Starfleet headquarters, Adira is thrilled that they have finally made friends. Dr. Kovich praises Tilly and tells her that she would make a great teacher and that should she ever decide to teach at the Academy, there will always be a place for her. Now the past two episodes made it clear that Tilly is looking for something new in her life and here the opportunity to do something new arrives literally on a silver platter, born by David Cronenberg no less. So Tilly decides to take up Kovich’s offer and teach at the Academy. In a tearful good-bye to Michael, Tilly also says that she desperately wanted to be a Starfleet captain to impress her overbearing mother. But now she is 900 years in the future, there really is no need to impress her mother anymore, so Tilly is reevaluating her life decisions.
In my review of last week’s episode, I wondered whether Tilly’s feelings of alienation were not a precursor to Mary Wiseman leaving the show and it appears that this is indeed the case. I suspect the reason that this whole “Tilly is feeling unmoored” plot comes a little out of nowhere (last season, Detmer was the one troubled by their one-way trip into the future) is that the writers didn’t have a lot of advance warning that Mary Wiseman was leaving and therefore only had a few episodes to writer her out. And as send-offs go, Tilly gets a pretty good one plus the option to return in the future. I hope we do get to see her again, because I liked Tilly a lot and her bubbly personality brought something to Star Trek we don’t normally see there.
The B-plot of this episode involves Ni’Var and the negotiations for them to rejoin the Federation (Ni’Var left the Federation after the Burn, even though they were a founding member). The agreement that will bring Ni’Var back into the Federation is about to be signed and President Rillak requests Michael and Saru’s presence at the signing as a substitute for Admiral Vance who has fallen ill. They are supposed “to keep their mouths shut and look official”, as Rillak puts it. Of course, expecting Michael to keep her mouth shut is about as fruitful as expecting Tilly to keep her mouth shut.
Michael doesn’t want to go – she dislikes politics, as the show has made amply clear – but she doesn’t have a choice. So Michael and Saru sit at the negotiation table, looking official, when President T’Rina of Ni’Var drops a bombshell. Ni’Var will only sign the agreement, if they are granted an exit clause. President Rillak is of course not willing to grant this, because if Ni’Var gets special terms, other worlds will demand them as well. I suspect I’m not the only one who imagines that future negotiations of the UK to rejoin the EU post-Brexit (cause you know that they will sooner or later) will go very much like this.
Michael has been explicitly instructed to keep her mouth shut, but of course she speaks up anyway and displays the one quality a Star Trek captain needs, namely the ability to hold inspirational speeches. And so she implores Ni’Var not to walk away, because doing so would not be logical. Ni’Var does not walk away just yet, so President T’Rina calls for a break and leaves to meditate.
Michael and Saru now split up to persuade Rillak and T’Rina to return to the table and compromise. Saru is sent to persuade T’Rina, who seems to have taken a liking to him. Meanwhile, Michael talks to Rillak. Rillak tells Michael that she can’t offer a compromise, because she can’t back down. But if a third party – like, say, Starfleet – were to offer a compromise that is acceptable to both Ni’Var and the Federation that might be a way out.
Meanwhile, T’Rina confesses to Saru that she was forced to push for the exit clause, because this was the only way of getting the Vulcan purists (likely the descendants of the Vulcan logic terrorists from season 2) on board. And since Ni’Var is a democracy, T’Rina needs their vote. However, a compromise proposed by a third party would allow her to save face and satisfy the Vulcan purists.
So Michael and Saru get everybody back to the negotiation table and propose just such a compromise. It is understandable that not all worlds rejoining the Federation will fully trust the Federation again, so an independent committee will be set up to discuss any issues and grievances member worlds might have before they become too big to resolve. Furthermore, Michael offers to serve on this committee, because as a Federation citizen and Starfleet officer, who was raised on Ni’Var, attended the Vulcan Science Academy and also happens to be the adopted sister of Spock, the great unifier, she is in a unique position to understand both sides. Everybody agree that this compromise is acceptable, the agreement is signed and Ni’Var is a member of the Federation again.
Afterwards, Michael goes to see President Rillak and tells her point blank that she knows that Rillak only requested her and Saru’s presence, because she knew such a situation might come up and because she also knew that Michael’s human and Vulcan heritage as well as her customary bluntness and her bad case of saviour syndrome would come in handy. Rillak doesn’t deny this – turns out T’Rina tipped her off about the exit clause amendment. Michael tells Rillak that if she needed her help she should have just asked and that she hopes Rillak will be more transparent in the future. Rillak nods.
To tie up some loose ends from last episode, T’Rina informs Michael that J’Vini, the wayward Qowat Milat nun who murdered a Starfleet officer, will be going on a meditation retreat in a secluded location under the supervision of Michael’s Mom and that she will also “make amends” to the family of the murdered Starfleet officer.
While it’s nice that the planet formerly known as Vulcan is part of the Federation again, I found the whole Ni’Var plot rather dull, to be honest. In many ways, it felt like watching EU membership negotiations, where several member states all want their little extra clauses, and the whole thing was also about as thrilling as watching a EU parliament debate.
Another issue with the Ni’Var plot is that the solution once again comes down to Michael being super-duper special. Now I like Michael and she is the star of the show, so it’s only to be expected that many episodes will center on her. However, Discovery makes Michael the pivotal figure in all sorts of galaxy-shaking crises. In four season, Michael singlehandedly started and then ended a war with the Klingons, she saved the universe from a rogue AI that wanted to eexterminate all organic life, she travelled into future and solved the mystery of the Burn, was largely responsible for rebuilding the Federation and now is the only person who can bring Ni’Var back into the fold. Even if you like Micheal – and I do – it’s all a bit much for one person. And indeed, Keith R.A. DeCandido, James Whitbrook and Zack Handlen all make similar points in their reviews.
The C-plot of this episode involves Book and his continuing struggle to process his grief over losing his family and his homeworld. Book is having regular therapy sessions with Dr. Culber now and if one person aboard Discovery could benefit from therapy, it’s Book. Dr. Culber starts off by putting Book at ease by telling him about the funeral of his uncle and the struggle to put playing cards (the uncle was a poker player) into the embalmed hand and how it made him laugh, even though Culber missed his uncle very much, and that there is no wrong or right way to grieve. Then they try a Kwejian healing ritual involving a mandala drawn into sand – only that the sand is programmable matter and not the right kind of sand from Kwejian, cause Kwejian doesn’t exist anymore.
Those scenes are well acted by David Ajala and Wilson Cruz and I also liked that the writers incorporated Wilson Cruz’ Latinx background via the uncle story. That said, I’m not a huge fan of therapy scenes, as I’ve said above, and this episode had way too many therapy scenes for my liking. Also, the therapy scenes with Book don’t really go anywhere. He’s clearly still grieving and traumatised.
Last season, Book was my favourite new addition to the Discovery cast. Space rogue, cat owner, all around good guy and smoking hot, too. What’s not to like? This season, however, Book has turned into a walking, talking embodiment of the five stages of grief and I find his character much less compelling. It’s doesn’t help that we only saw Book’s brother and nephew in two episodes, so we have no real connection to them. Yes, the destruction of Kwejian and the deaths of Kyheem and Leto are sad, but we barely knew them and their planet.
Meanwhile, the Dark Matter Anomaly plot has not advanced at all and we’re still no closer to knowing what the DMA is than we were last week. I also still don’t find the DMA particularly compelling as an overarching season plot, because it’s basically just a bigger and badder version of a bog-standard Star Trek anomaly.
Star Trek usually shines in standalone rather than arc episodes, so I don’t mind if the writers ditch the arc plot for a standalone episode once in a while. However, while both “Choose to Live” and “All Is Possible” largely stand alone, they’re not all that interesting.
So far, season 4 of Star Trek Discovery definitely feels like Star Trek – which is an improvement compared to season 1, which barely felt like Star Trek at times. However, it’s also very middle of the road Star Trek, comparable to a solid but unremarkable mid-season episode of The Next Generation. Star Trek is very much comfort viewing for me and season 4 of Discovery certainly delivers that. But I still think the show could do more than that.