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!
Following the revelations last episode that the DMA originated from outside our galaxy, Zora, the Discovery‘s newly sentient computer, is calculating possible locations whence the DMA may have originated, while Stamets and Adira are pacing the room. At last, Zora has determined the coordinates from where the DMA came. There’s only one problem. She won’t reveal them, because revealing the coordinates would mean that the crew head there and put itself in danger. And Zora cannot allow that.
Since Michael can’t persuade Zora to hand over the coordinates either, even though she is the captain, Dr. Kovich (I guess David Cronenberg is a regular now) is called in to assess Zora and decide what to do about her. Because Starfleet has never really been comfortable with artificial intelligence (see Data or the events of season 1 of Star Trek Picard), fully integrated sentient AIs are banned by Starfleet, which means that Kovich could order Zora extracted from Discovery (something which is now possible, even though it was not possible to extract the sphere data back in season 2), which Zora very much does not want, because she identifies as a starship, thank you, very much.
The evaluation of Zora takes place as a sort of roundtable discussion in the Discovery‘s ready room, involving Kovich, Saru (Michael is otherwise engaged), Stamets, Culber as well as Adira and Gray who have befriended Zora. Stamets is deeply worried about Zora gaining sentience, because his sole experience with artificial intelligence so far was Control, which tried to destroy all life in the universe back in season 2. Of course, Zora’s intentions seem to be benign for now, but Stamets is still sceptical, especially since Zora has developed emotions by now. “What if she gets mad and opens an airlock?” he says.
Saru points out that he could easily go crazy and attack and murder the crew and yet Stamets trusts him. “Well, I know you and I know your values”, Stamets replies, “And besides, there are protocols and disciplinary measures in place.” Zora, on the other hand, is something completely new. Gray points out that he is something new as well, a trill consciousness in an android body. And Adira points out that they, too, are something new, the first human host to a Trill symbiont (I guess they forgot Ryker’s brief hosting duties) and that the Trill initially wanted to kill them for it.
Stamets is still not convinced, so Zora comes up with a solution. She creates a failsafe that will destroy her consciousness, should she ever become a threat. Stamets is satisfied with this solution. However, no one else is, because triggering the failsafe would mean eliminating a sentient being, which would be deeply wrong.
Kovich, meanwhile, is surprised that Zora was able to create the failsafe – something which shouldn’t be possible – and asks her about her primary operating parameters. Zora replies that her primary operating parameters are to care for and protect the crew of the Discovery. Since Zora was definitely not programmed for this, Kovich asks her who gave her these parameters. “I did”, Zora replies.
Since ship computers are not supposed to be able to program themselves or set their own operating parameters, Stamets and Adira run a full system diagnosis and find an area of code that doesn’t match any known syntax. They ask Zora where this code came from, but Zora claims she has no idea.
So Stamets and Adira access the mystery code and find images of the Discovery encountering the sphere and travelling into the future as well as plenty of images of the Discovery crew hugging, kissing or hanging out with each other. Dr. Culber, who is the resident ship counsellor after all, suggests that the mystery code might be Zora’s subconsciousness and that the images are dreams. They also demonstrate what Zora values, namely connection, friendship and love. “This is who she is,” Culber says, “This is why she kept the coordinates from us.”
Even Stamets is convinced now, dismantles the failsafe and proposes an elegant solution to the problem of Zora. True, Starfleet ship computers may not be fully integrated AIs, but Zora is more than just a fully integrated AI. She is a whole new sentient lifeform. And Starfleet has always been open to accepting new sentient lifeforms into its ranks – see Data, Odo, Nog, Saru, N’gan and many others. So if Zora were to officially join Starfleet, she would be embedded in the command structure and could no longer withhold vital information like the coordinates.
Zora, meanwhile, is delighted to join Starfleet and promptly hands over the coordinates. Kovich lets it drop that this is exactly the solution he was hoping for and also notes that if Stamets had proven himself unable to work with and trust Zora, Kovich would have suggested assigning Stamets to another ship, since he is mobile. Of course, the Discovery needs Stamets to operate the spore drive, unless they want to rely on Book, who – as this episode shows – is a lot more volatile than Stamets on his worst day.
The other plot strand of this episode involves a galaxy-wide conference at Starfleet headquarters to decide what to do about the creators of the DMA, now named species 10C for lack of a better name. Delegates from all four quadrants are present, both Federation members and non-Federation members. Some of the more recognisable characters and species include Federation President Rillak, President T’Rina and another delegate from Ne’Var (the planet formerly known as Vulcan), the newly promoted General N’Doye (last seen in last season’s episode “People of the Earth”) from Earth and Titan (who wears what is basically a Robin Hood costume in blue), Trill guardian Ze, an Orion woman who seems to have stepped right out of the Original Series in her groovy glittery gown, an Andorian, a Ferengi, a delegate of the butterfly people from the beginning of this season and loads of others, including many aliens. It’s not quite the Imperial Senate from the Star Wars sequels, for which I’ve always had an irrational fondness, but it’s close. Notable by their absence are the Klingons, the Borg, the Gorn and the many species Voyager encountered in the Delta quadrant.
Book is there as well as the last surviving inhabitant of Kwejian (though it seems unlikely that no other Kwejians were off world, when the planet was destroyed). Also present is Ruon Tarka, the arseholish genius scienist we (and Stamets) met two episodes ago.
Once President Rillak has opened the assembly, two positions quickly emerge. One is proposed by General N’Doye, who suggests assembling a giant armada (we suspect she has no idea what happened to the historical Spanish Armada, history teaching being not what it was) to attack species 10C. The counter-position is embodied by President T’Rina of Ne’Var who points out that they know nothing about species 10C and its motivations and that establishing a peaceful first contact and figuring out what the hell they want would be far more fruitful and also less dangerous, because if species 10C could create the DMA, who knows what other tricks they have up their sleeves. Three guesses which side Michael is on. And three guesses which side Book is on.
“…But to Connect” is an episode where Star Trek does what it does best, present moral dilemmas and have the characters talk them over to find a solution. But while both sides have a point in the Zora debate – yes, Zora is clearly a sentient lifeform with rights, but her emotional crisis last episode also endangered the ship and the crew and she’s also hoarding vital data – it’s very obvious that T’Rina is right in the “What to do about species 10C?” debate. Of all, there have been umpteen episodes in all incarnations of Star Trek, where some dire threat to the Enterprise/Voyager/Discovery/Deep Space Nine and her crew turns out to be merely misunderstood. Of course, most of these events happened nine hundred years before, but the characters should at least still remember that “the Burn” a.k.a. the worst disaster ever, which brought the Federation to its knees, was literally caused by a kid throwing a tantrum, cause that only happened last season.
Tarka, jerk that he is, throws a wrench into the proceedings by pointing out that they can decide what to do about species 10C later. First, they should deal with the DMA. And luckily, Tarka has figured out a way to destroy it by having Discovery jump close to deliver a weapon capable of overloading the device powering the DMA. Unfortunately, the weapon required to do the job is an isolytic weapon and those were banned by the Khitomer Accords more than eight hundred years ago for causing irreparable damage to subspace. Besides, no one knows what the weapons and the backlash from the destruction of the DMA would do to species 10C at the other end of the wormhole.
Tarka is not at all fazed by this. After all, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and the DMA is the deadliest threat they’ve ever faced (well, since the Burn) and treaties like the Khitomer Accords are niceties the Federation can’t afford right now. The parallels to the real world are all too apparent, whether it’s the erosion of civil liberties and rights due to the so-called “war on terror” or the even more glaring erosion of civil liberaties and rights in the name of curbing the spread of covid. And in both cases, we heard arguments much like Tarka’s: This situation is extraordinary, this is the worst threat we’ve ever faced and so we must do anything to combat it. Ironically, just like the delegates in this episode, politicians and many other people also seem to have forgotten what happened only a few years or decades ago. Cause neither terrorism nor pandemics are a new phenomenon.
President Rillak calls for a break to allow the delegates to discuss the issues and potential solutions. Michael tells Rillak point blank that she knows that Rillak favours the first contact approach and implores Rillak to say so openly. Rillak, however, wants to remain neutral. Michael, on the other hand, could speak in favour of the peaceful solution to persuade the delegates.
Meanwhile, Tarka seeks out Book to persuade him to speak on behalf of destroying the DMA. After all, Book as a bereaved survivor of Kwejian makes the best spokesperson for Tarka’s proposal. While they’re talking, Book asks Tarka point blank why he didn’t have the scar at the back of his neck removed. After all, Book had his scar removed as soon as he could.
So I was right. Tarka was an Emerald Chain slave and fitted with an explosive device once. Though Tarka didn’t have to do mining or salvage work, but was given a lab and ordered to find alternatives to dilithium. In this lab, he worked with another scientist and the two formed a close bond and hatched an escape plan together. They planned to escape to an alternate universe – no, not the Mirror Universe, but another one that’s peaceful and where the Federation never fell. Indeed, Tarka points out that there is an endless number of parallel universe and not just the one that Star Trek keeps dealing with (though the excellent Next Generation episode “Parallels” made this point 29 yars ago). However, the amount of energy required was enormous. Eventually, Tarka managed to escape in our universe, but was separated from his friend. They had planned to meet up in the parallel universe and that’s why Tarka is desperate to go there. And the device powering the DMA will give him the energy he needs.
Tarka opening up is clearly supposed to make a not very likeable character more likeable. To a certain degree, it even works. Tarka’s prickliness and generally jerky behaviour can be explained by the fact that he was enslaved and abused and that he lost the one person in this universe he cares about. Nonetheless, I have to wonder why the hell didn’t Tarka ask the Federation and Starfleet for help. For starters, Starfleet should have the resources to figure out what happened to Tarka’s friend and if he’s still alive and still in this universe. And if Tarka really wants to travel to a parallel universe, well, Starfleet could help there as well. After all, Discovery did jump to the Mirror Universe and back in its first season and knows where to find the Guardian of Forever who returned Philippa Georgiou to the past, after plopping her into the Mirror Universe. Just as with the rogue Romulan warrior nun J’Vini in “Choose to Live”, a lot of the problems in this episode could have been avoided, if Tarka had just asked for help.
And talking of problems, I loved Cleveland Booker in season 3 and felt he brought a breath of fresh air into Discovery. I’m liking him a lot less in this season, because Book has gone from fun space rogue with a heart of gold in season 3 to living embodiment of the five stages of grief in season 4. And while it’s nice that Discovery is trying to deal with grief, trauma and PTSD in a semi-realistic way, Book is also the most depressed fictional character since Kurt Wallander, whom my Mom and I nicknamed “the Swedish meatball of grief”, and frankly it’s beginning to grate. Especially since I keep wondering just why Book is so devastated. Yes, the destruction of Kwejian was a terrible tragedy, but Book left the place years ago, because he disagreed with its inhabitants selling out to the Emerald Chain. He only returned last season, so why does he suddenly care so much that he gets thrown into a spiral of grief? Coincidentally, I had the same issue when the Ninth and Tenth Doctors were consumed by grief over the destruction of Gallifrey, a place the Doctor heartily disliked and never wanted anything to do with.
It also doesn’t help that while I cared about the destruction of Gallifrey, since I had seen plenty of Doctor Who episodes set there and felt for the Time Lords in their goofy robes, even if I didn’t particularly like them, and I even cared about the destruction of Romulus, since again I had seen plenty of Romulans over the years, even if most of them were villains, and did feel for them, I can’t really get worked up about the destruction of Kwejian, a planet we’ve seen only twice and which looks like a forest in British Columbia, inhabited by maybe five people. It’s telling that the writers had to recourse to killing off a child – Book’s little nephew Leto – in an attempt to make us care about Kwejian. Because killing a kid is the strongest taboo US TV writers can break next to killing a dog.
Maybe Book should join a hypothetical support group for people whose home planets have been destroyed together with the Doctor, Princess/General Leia Organa (whom you’ll note does not turn into a Swedish meatball of grief) and Mikhail from my own In Love and War series. Also, I really hope that I managed to make the reader feel the destruction of Jagellowsk in Evacuation Order and subsequent In Love and War stories.
Since this is Star Trek, the central dilemmas of this episode are resolved by inspirational speeches. Book is up first, styling himself as “speaker for the dead” and basically imploring the delegates to “Go and get the bastards!” Michael, initially doesn’t want to speak on behalf of the diplomatic approach, but since no one else is willing to do it, she eventually does deliver an impassioned speech on behalf of trying the peaceful approach. And since Michael is really, really good at delivering inspirational speeches, a majority of the delegates votes for the diplomatic approach. Even the Ferengi vote in favour of peace and diplomacy, while Earth and Orion vote against.
Now inspirational speeches are not only part and parcel of Star Trek, they’re also what the fans expect. However, the writers and director found a way to make this particular inspirational speech special and memorable by intercutting Michael’s speech to the assembly with Stamets’ speech on behalf of Zora aboard Discovery. It works perfectly, too, because both speeches have the same general message: “We are Starfleet, we embrace the new and the different and we value diplomacy over brute force.”
But even though the majority of the assembly voted in favour of trying to peaceful approach first, Tarka isn’t one to care for democratic decisions. And so he brings his “next generation spore drive”, which is about the size of a briefcase, aboard Book’s ship and installs it there. Then Book and Tarka set off in Book’s ship to blow up the DMA. Michael is too late to stop them (and Zora apparently was asleep on the job) and finds herself left in charge of Grudge and with a “I love you, but a man’s got to do what a man has to do” message from Book. Cue midseason finale.
There are two C-plots as well. Now that Gray has a body again, he takes off for Trill to continue his guardian training, since the writers apparently have no idea what to do with him. And Saru continues his somewhat awkward romance with T’Rina and presents her with a flower from Kaminar, which emits a calming gel that can be used for tea.
“…But To Connect” isn’t the most action-packed episode of Star Trek Discovery. In fact, it was mainly a talking head episodes, featuring the various characters discussing and resolving moral dilemmas and talking them through. Nonetheless, it was probably the best episode of season 4 to date, because it not only delivers what we expect of Star Trek, namely moral dilemmas, inspirational speeches and brain over brawn solutions, but it also does it extremely well. Zora makes a fine addition to the crew and the chase after Book and Tarka injects some much needed urgency into what has been a rather slow season so far. And indeed, all remaining reviewers I regularly follow – Tor.com‘s Keith R.A. DeCandido, io9‘s James Whitbrook and Bonnie McDaniel – were full of praise for this episode. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see this episode on the Hugo ballot or at least longlist this year.