It’s time for the next, somewhat belated 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!
Now that they know that the Dark Matter Anomaly is manmade, the Discovery and her valiant crew are still trying to figure out who is responsible. However, they have – as Michael puts it – a crime scene to examine, namely the place where the DMA punched through subspace to reappear elsewhere. The Discovery will now venture into this subspace rift to scan for particles and anything that might give a clue as to the DMA’s origin and creators. Book is not happy with this, he’d rather talk to his old courier pals to see if anyone of them knows anything about the DMA and its creators, but Michael points out that they need to investigate the subspace rift while it’s hot. Personally, I wonder why they can’t do both, investigate the subspace rift and question the couriers.
Heading into a subspace rift will, according to data gathered by the Enterprise and the Voyager, be a “bumpy ride”, as Michael puts it. And indeed, the initial passage into the subspace rift is somewhat bumpy. But then suddenly, the ship comes to a rest in a void that appears to be totally dark, silent and empty. According to the data gathered by the Enterprise and the Voyager, this is not supposed to happen. Even though, as io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out, Starfleet vessels have the tendency to get trapped in voids of nothingness, since something similar happened in The Animated Series, The Next Generation and Voyager (twice).
The bridge crew and the Discovery‘s computer Zora (voiced by Annabelle Wallis), who – and I should have mentioned this in my review of the previous episode – has merged with the data from the infodump sphere and is in the process of developing consciousness and a personality, do their best to scan the void, but it is to no avail. There’s nothing out there or at least Zora’s sensors can’t pick up anything.
Book, being his usual impatient self, wants to fly out into the void aboard his ship, but Michael stops him and decides to launch one of the little DOT repair drones to scan the void first. Good thing that they did, because some distance from the ship, the DOT drone runs into something which literally eats it up. The drone dissolves, while emitting noises that sound like screaming. Something is out there and it’s not friendly.
Next, the bridge crew fires a flare after the DOT drone, while Detmer measures the time it takes to vanish/dissolve. Turns out the time it takes for the flare to vanish is shorter than the time it took for the the drone dissolve. Whatever is out there and eating drones and flares, it’s coming closer. And the Discovery still can’t see or hear or scan anything.
Michael now does the sensible thing. She orders to abandon the mission and for the Discovery to get the hell out of there. However, there’s a problem. If the sensors aren’t working and they can’t see anything, Detmer can’t navigate and doesn’t know in which direction to fly.
The only way out of the rift is the spore drive, which is risky but the only chance. Stamets is reluctant to jump, both because of the risk and because he hopes for data. So Book offers to operate the spore drive, so Stamets can scan for data. It’s a sign how desperate Stamets is for answers that he let’s Book operate his baby with barely any complaints.
So Book gets into the drive chamber to jump. The Discovery starts spinning, indicated by the bridge (or rather the camera) rotating, but then an energy surge from the spore drive interface knocks out Book and the Discovery stays put. Stamets investigates and realises that the void has affected the mycellium network. The Discovery cannot use the spore drive.
While Stamets is examining the mycellium network, Book suddenly sees his father in the drive chamber. There’s only one problem. Book’s father is dead, has been dead for years, and his grave was destroyed along with Kwejian. What Book is seeing is a hallucination of his father, triggered by the power surge he experienced.
But hallucination or not, Book’s father loses no time to nag and berate his son. Apparently, Book and his father never saw eye to eye, because Book’s father used his empathic abilities to hunt endangered fauna for the Emerald Chain, while Book wanted nothing to do with that sort of thing. Book’s father or rather his hallucination also dislikes pretty much everything about Book’s life, particularly his relationship with Michael. Apparently, Book’s father has issues with the fact that Book is taking orders from someone else and tells him that Michael will always choose Starfleet over him.
Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido notes that the subplot about Book and his father doesn’t go anywhere nor is it particularly revelatory, since it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, namely that Book left Kwejian, because he didn’t see eye to eye with his people and disagreed with their dealings with the Emerald Chain. As it is, it’s just a standard parent child with the parent disagreeing with their kid’s life choices.
Indeed, whenever Book’s father or rather his hallucination appeared, I said to the screen, “Dude, I just handed out the Darth Vader Parenthood Award for 2021. You’re too late, so just get lost.”
While the Discovery is on red alert and everybody is desperately trying to figure out how to escape from the rift before whatever ate the DOT will also eat the Discovery, Gray – still sporting the goth punk look he adopted two episodes ago – finds himself left alone in the lounge. He’s not an official member of the crew, unlike Adira, so there really isn’t anything for him to do.
So Gray starts chatting with Zora and notes that the computer is nervous and apparently overwhelmed by sensory input. Gray decides to try to help her and plays a game with her that Trill Guardians use to calm down new hosts and teach them to focus. It works, too. Zora focusses, her routine sensory input retreats into the background and she notes that her sensors are picking up something on the hull. Gray tells Zora that she must inform the Captain at once, but Zora is reluctant to do so, so Gray dashes off to the bridge himself (why doesn’t he just use his personal transporter?) to inform Michael of the problem on deck whatever.
Now Zora picked one hell of a time to become self-aware and have an existential crisis, because – as AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen puts it – no one wants the machine/computer they depend upon for their lives to have navel-gazing moments of questioning reality and existence. Also, Zora’s reluctance to inform Michael that there is a problem on deck whatever feels like something out of the 1980s He-Man cartoon, where Orko, Adam or Teela would do something stupid and instead of telling Duncan/Man-at-Arms, they would hide it and make the problem worse, which would inevitably be followed by the morality bit at the end of the cartoon imploring kids to talk to their parents or trustworthy people, admit to mistakes and not run away from home. Which was eye-rolly enough in a He-Man cartoon (never mind that whoever wrote those morality bits never seems to have considered that many kids have no parents or other adults they can trust, since not everybody’s parents are like Duncan), but is a completely ridiculous when dealing with a hyper-advanced AI. If there are He-Man cartoons in the Discovery‘s onboard library or the sphere data, Zora should maybe watch a few.
Whatever Zora detected on the hull of Discovery is in the process of causing a hull breach. Gray dashes onto the bridge just in time for Michael to raise the alarm and issue a warning (and why didn’t Zora trigger the alarm herself?). But the warning comes too late for one poor Ensign (who wears yellow rather than red), who gets sucked out into space. Zora feels very guilty about this, while Owosekun (who has ditched her cornrows for a more natural look) immediately wants to dash off to help, until Saru gently reminds her that she is needed on the bridge.
Now therapy has played a big role in this season of Discovery, but as both Zack Handlen and James Whitbrook point out, the show takes this to ridiculous extremes when even the ship’s computer requires therapy now and has a breakdown in the middle of a crisis.
Gray and Michael do their best to calm down and reassure Zora, while Stamets and Culber scan Book for residues of the energy surge that hit him. They hit pay dirt, when Stamets discovery some particles originating in the galactic barrier (first seen 55 years ago in the very first Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and then again in the Original Series episode “By Any Other Name”) in Booker’s brain. The DMA came from outside our galaxy, so whoever created it is outside the galaxy, too.
However, this information also has a more practical implications, because now they know what to look for, the Discovery crew can scan for the galactic barrier particles and find the place where the DMA punched through subspace. They locate the place using an eerie sonar beep, which makes the episode feel even more like a WWII submarine film than it already does.
However, there is a problem. Whatever ate the DOT has significantly weakened the Discovery‘s shields to the point that she would be severely damaged with fatal consequences to the crew, if the ship were to try to return to normal space. The solution is for everybody on board (including Grudge in a cat carrier) to be stored in the transport buffer with only Michael and Zora remaining behind to guide the Discovery back into regular space.
Storing people in transporter buffers has been a thing since the Original Series episode “Day of the Dove” and occurs more prominently in The Next Generation episode “Relics”. However, both episodes make it clear that storing people in transporter buffers is dangerous and should not be attempted except in an emergency. Besides, in both “Relics” and “Day of the Dove”, only a handful of people were stored in the buffer, not an entire starship crew. I guess 32nd century transporter tech is much more advanced.
Once everybody has beamed into the buffer – holding hands and in groups of three – Michael dons a space suit and sits down in the captain’s chair. Together, she and Zora guide the Discovery through the bumpy edge of the rift. The ship literally explodes and catches fire around Michael and the heat is soon too great even for the space suit. Zora kindly offers to sing a song for Michael to calm her down and launches into the 1933 blues classic “Stormy Weather” (performed here by Lena Horne). Annabelle Wallis has a fine singing voice and has performed with Coldplay and her talents are on full display here.
Eventually, Michael passes out and comes to again in the sick bay with Dr. Culber and Book bending over her. The plan was a success, the Discovery escaped the rift and Zora brought everybody back unharmed from the transporter buffer. The episode ends with Michael creating a holographic family tree, inspired by the Akaali gadget she returned to its rightful owner last episode. Zora declares that she wants to make a family tree as well and creates a tree that pictues the entire Discovery crew, since they are her family.
Meanwhile, Book and Saru are sharing a drink at the bar. Book is still shaken from his hallucinatory encounter with his father and tells Saru that his father always had so much anger in him and that he never wanted to become like him, only that Book is also full of anger (so we have reached that stage of the five stages of grief, a pop psychology theory I’ve always hated BTW) and wants to kill whoever created the DMA. In turn, Saru tells Book about his conflicted feelings towards the Ba’iul. He still feels anger – after all, Saru still experienced his fellow Kelpians, including both his parents getting culled by the Ba’iul – but still has to cooperate with them on the Council of Kaminar. It’s a brief scene, but – as Bonnie McDaniel points out in her review – extremely well acted.
This isn’t a particularly revolutionary episode. It is solid mid-level Star Trek, clearly a cheap episode, since it’s set entirely aboard the Discovery with minimal effects. The premise – a starfleet vessel is stuck in a featureless void and the crew needs to science the shit out of the situation to escape – isn’t novel either, but was first used by The Animated Series and then several times since. The DMA plot arc, finally, is only advanced by another tiny step.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit, more than some of the previous ones. What I liked about it is that this is as close as Discovery has ever come to being a true ensemble show. Everybody gets plenty to do and a moment to shine. The often underserved bridge crew gets plenty of screentime, Dr. Pollard, the little seen other medical officer of the Discovery, has some nice moments and even Gray gets something to do that isn’t just Adira’s ghost boyfriend whom no one else can see.
I may have been a bit snarky above about Zora having an existential crisis at the worst possible moment, but in general I like Zora, the accidentally self-aware AI, and Annabelle Wallis gives a fine performance. If Zora can pull herself together rather than turning into Kull of Atlantis in “The Mirrors of Thuzun Thune”, she’ll make a fine addition to the crew.
I have one more episode to go until the mid season finale and then we have a bit of a break.