Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
When we last saw the Discovery and her valiant crew, they had only just determined that the planet-devouring Dark Matter Anomaly, DMA, for short was man-made and controlled by someone outside the Galactic barrier. The Council of the Federation and associated worlds had just voted to attempt to make first contact with the creators of the DMA, Species 10c, when Book and Riesan genius scientist cum massive arsehole Ruon Tarka took off with a spore drive prototype to destroy the DMA. Oops.
The first episode after the holiday break opens with a justifiably pissed President Rillak yelling at Admiral Vance and Michael and demanding to know why no one saw something like this coming. After all, Vance was the one who dug up Tarka and brought him to Starfleet, clearly without doing a background check (a large part of Tarka’s problem is connected to his past as an Emerald Chain slave, something which should have shown up during any background check) or reining in Tarka’s terrible behaviour. Meanwhile, Michael was working and sleeping with Book and yet had no idea that he would go off half-crooked to do something incredibly dangerous and incredibly stupid. Much as I hate to admit it, Rillak is also completely right. Tarka is a massive arsehole and obvious bomb waiting to go off and Book hasn’t been himself since the destruction of Kwejian.
Michael isn’t the only one who beats herself up over not realising that Book was about to go completely off the deep end. Hugh Culber also beats himself up – after all, he was supposed to be Book’s therapist and so he takes his failure to notice what was up with Book personally. Stamets calms him down in a very sweet sequence.
However, in order to destroy the DMA, Book and Tarka need a substance called isolynium, which isn’t easy to find. Rillak orders Vance to keep watch on all known isolynium dealers, while Michael is ordered to keep out of the hunt for Book and Tarka and find out more about Species 10c. Of course, we know that Michael will get involved in the hunt for Book and Tarka anyway. And so Vance shows up aboard Discovery to tell Michael that they both know that Book is too smart to go to any of the usual suspects. However, Michael might just know some unusual suspects. And if she happened to located the AWOL Book and Tarka, while pursuing the mission to find out more about Species 10c, well, that would be a nice bonus.
Meanwhile, Stamets is pursuing the Discovery‘s actual mission, namely find out more about Species 10c. However, Species 10c lives outside the Galactic Barrier, so it’s difficult to get any visuals or scanner results on them, cause the Barrier is in the way. However, Zora, the Discovery‘s newly sentient computer (I loved Stamets’ facial impression, when the computer suddenly talks back), knows of a species called the Stilth which lives close to the Galactic Barrier, is warp-capable and should have data on what’s going on outside the Barrier. There’s only one problem. The Federation has never had any contact at all with the Stilth. The only ones who have are the Emerald Chain and no one wants to ask them for help. However, Michael just happens to know a broker who’ll sell anything for the right price from her time as a courier, working with Book, before Discovery appeared in the 31st century.
Aboard Book’s ship (which still hasn’t got a name), Book is stunned to realise that a) Tarka is still a massive arsehole, and b) that Tarka has no isolynium nor any idea where to get some, though he’s sure Book knows how to procure the stuff. And indeed, Book just happens to know a broker who’ll sell anything for the right price.
Of course, this broker whom Book and Michael happen to know is the same guy, one Haz Mazarro (played by Daniel Cash, one of those actors who’ve been in everything, in heavy make-up), who runs a casino/black market hub on the planet Parathia (that sounds a lot like the tasty Indian flatbread paratha). Haz is a crook, but a rather nice one (much like cuddly crime boss Boba Fett), who also thinks that Michael and Book – or Right Hook and Glow Worm, as he calls them – make for a really cute couple.
Book and Tarka arrive on Parathia first, bearing latinum, which apparently is still the black market currency of choice in the 31st century. Haz confirms that he has some isolynium, but that Book and Tarka don’t have nearly enough latinum to pay for it, especially since Book still owes Haz money. The fact that Tarka is his usual charming self doesn’t help either. However, if Book and Tarka are willing to do just one little job for him – locate a pesky cheater who has been fleecing the casino – he may reconsider.
Since Parathia is outside Federation territory, Starfleet has no jurisdiction there. So Michael takes a shuttle to the surface, together with Joanne Owosekun. I initially suspected that Michael took along Owosekun, because she happens to know that Haz has a thing for black women with awesome cornrow hairstyles. However, the real reason is that Michael wants to give Owosekun the chance to make up for her freak-out inside the subspace rift in “Stormy Weather”. But whatever the reason, it gives Oyin Oladejo a lot of chance to shine as Owosekun. I’m always happy when the bridge crew is given more to do and Owosekun and Detmer are my favourite bridge crew members.
Since Haz has – probably wisely – banned weapons, communicators and transporters in his casino, Michael and Owosekun have to go in with nothing but their wits and their muscles. I’m surprised that they don’t ditch their Starfleet uniforms for civilians clothes, especially considering how popular Starfleet is on Parathia, namely not at all. Of course, the shuttle could still give the fact that they’re Starfleet away, but then Michael and Owosekun could always claim they stole it.
There is a really neat special effect sequence – the only one in what is a very static set-bound episode – where the shuttle descends on the ocean world of Parathia only to encounter the sort of megafauna that you’d expect to find in Star Wars rather than Star Trek. Michael instructs Owosekun to fly directly into the maw of the giant sea-dragon/sea-serpent, only for the creature to be revealed a holographic illusion hiding Haz’s casino barge. That’s clever and also a very Star Trek type solution.
The rest of the episode takes place almost entirely inside the casino, which has gambling tables, a boxing ring (more on that later), shady backrooms and plenty of alien patrons. In short, it’s Space Las Vegas, a trope that goes back to the Golden Age at the very least. I reviewed a Space Las Vegas story by Manly Wade Wellman called “Gambler’s Asteroid” as a Retro Review back in 2020.
Star Trek does have its share of intergalactic gambling dens – see the Star Trek Picard episode “Stardust City Rag” – but in general, intergalactic gambling dens are more of a Star Wars phenomenon. See Bespin, Canto Bight or Garza Fwip’s late lamented Sanctuary. So my first thought was, “Oh, it’s another episode of Star Trek doing Star Wars.” Except that it’s not. Because the various Star Wars gambling dens are usually of a somewhat higher class and nicer design than Haz’s rather dim and cheap looking casino (the chain mail curtains are a nice touch, though. Maybe Haz’ interior designer is an unemployed Mandalorian armourer). Instead, as Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido correctly points out, “All In” is not Star Trek doing Star Wars, but Star Trek doing the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica.
The comparison is point on, starting with the brown and gold tones of the casino interior, which mirror the colour scheme of the original Galactica uniforms as well as that of the Carillon and Rising Star casinos in the series. Besides, the plot of “All In” – our heroes head to a casino planet in order to acquire a rare element they need to continue their journey/mission and hijinks ensue – mirrors the second half of the Battlestar Galactica pilot, where Apollo, Starbuck, Boomer, Serena and Cassiopeia head to the casino planet Carillon to acquire the tylium they need to fuel their fleet and continue their journey. In fact, the blinking cheater alien is reminiscent of the insectoid Ovions who inhabit Carillon (and eat humans). Also, I really want to see Carillon’s multi-eyed and multi-mouthed disco singers perform with Star Wars‘ Max Rebo. Whom does Disney need to buy to make that happen?
Haz is happy enough to see Michael and also happy enough to sell her the Stilth survey data. He’d even be happy enough to sell her the isolynium, except that Michael and Owosekun don’t have enough latinum either. This oversight is really inexcusable, for while it makes sense that Tarka won’t have sufficient funds, the Federation should have more than enough to outbid Book and Tarka and take the isolynium off the market. However, Haz graciously offers Michael and Owosekun to win the funds required at his gambling tables.
I assumed that most of the episode would be a cat and mouse game between Michael and Owosekun on the one side and Book and Tarka on the other. But instead, Michael and Book run into each other almost at once. But then, Haz’ casino isn’t very big, likely for budget reasons. Michael implores Book to come back, while he hasn’t done anything unforgiveable yet. However, once he buys the isolynium, all bets are off and the Federation will come after him with everything they’ve got to put him in a nice slave labour prison mine (should the Federation no longer have of those under its control, the Emerald Chain will surely be happy to help out). Book, however, is determined to be a martyr to the cause of destroying the DMA and avenging Kwejian. In fact, Book’s insistence on martyring himself (unlike Tarka who thinks that everybody will forgive him and kiss his feet, once he succeeds) matches Michael’s insistence on bearing the weight of the universe on their shoulder. They actually make a good couple – if they weren’t on different sides, that is. Also – and I know I’ve said this before – but I liked Book much better before he became a Kwejian meatball of grief.
As it is, I was yelling at the screen, “Oh, just nerve-pinch Book, punch out Tarka (or leave him to his fate), pay off Haz and just get the hell out of there, Book and Tarka in tow.” However, that would be too easy a solution and so Micheal and Owosekun try to win the missing latinum first, while Book and Tarka hunt down the cheater, which leads to a pair of amusing scenes. Owosekun, who’s a skilled martial artist, believes that the best way to win the required latinum is to challenge the house champion (who looks like one of the Anacreons from Foundation) in the boxing ring. However, Owosekun loses – or rather, pretends to lose – the first two rounds before taking out the champion in the third, when the stakes have gone up to 48:1. So Michael and Owosekun have got all the latinum they need to buy the star charts and the isolynium.
Meanwhile, Book and Tarka have made out an insectoid alien who uses the blinking sequence of his eyes to signal his partner. However, the alien is remarkably slippery and randomly vanishes. Book eventually figures out that the alien is a changeling, while Tarka figures out how to apprehend him, which they do. The Dominion has certainly fallen on hard times, since we last saw it in Deep Space Nine. So now Michael and Book both have the funds to buy the isolynium. Worse, a third party – two human Emerald Chain underbosses with terrible goth eyeshadow – have entered the bidding war as well.
Michael and Book quickly agree that letting the Emerald Chain have the isolynium would be infinitely worse, so they decide to cooperate against the Emerald Chain for now. And in fact, I wonder what exactly the Emerald Chain wants the isolynium for. Considering that the Emerald Chain representative voted in favour of destroying the DMA during the big council meeting, are the Emerald Chain planning to take matters into their own hands, probably with some help from Tarka’s missing partner/friend?
Haz proposes a game of Leonian Poker, which – as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out – is basically Texas Hold’em with slightly redesigned cards (very slightly redesigned – even using a German deck would have been far more different and alien). Book and Michael really co-operate and keep signalling each other and generally cheating. Haz clearly knows – especially since Book and Michael are really obvious about it – but says nothing. I guess he doesn’t want to sell to the Emerald Chain goons either.
While Michael and Book are playing Poker, Owosekun tries to probe Tarka to find out just what’s in this for him. She does figure out that Tarka is not solely doing this for scientific glory, but that it’s personal for him. However, Tarka won’t tell her about his missing friend/partner. I guess that would be too simple.
Once the Emerald Chain goons are out of the game, Book and Michael face off against each other in one of those supposedly tense Poker sequences, which sadly mean very little, if you don’t play Poker. The cards are laid on the table. Michael has a good hand, but Book’s is better, so he and Tarka depart with the isolynium.
However, all is not lost yet. For starters, Michael still got the star charts that will allow the Discovery a glimpse at Species 10c. Plus – as Michael explains to a justifiably angry Rillak – she knew that Book was the better Poker player and that she couldn’t beat him. So she attached a tracker to the isolynium, so Starfleet can track down Book and Tarka, hopefully before they can build the weapon and destroy the DMA.
Meanwhile, Stamets has analysed the star charts and found something alarming. The star charts show the area where Species 10c should be headquartered. However, they can’t see anything, because Species 10c has surrounded its territory with a giant distortion field that has to consume enormous amounts of energy. As for where the energy comes from, Stamets has analysed the data from the DMA again and realises that wherever the DMA has wreaked havoc, one element is missing, namely boronite. The DMA is not a weapon, it’s a mining device – a dredge – and it’s mining our universe for boronite. And if a dredge can wreak such destruction, how terrible will the weapons of Species 10c be?
I have to admit that the “It’s not a weapon, it’s a dredge” is that most Star Trek like thing about an episode that wasn’t very Star Trek like otherwise. Cause Star Trek tends to go for solutions where the great menace turns out to be just misunderstood. This is also why “Shoot first and ask questions later” is never the correct approach in Star Trek, but the great menace most likely isn’t one.
But even though “All In” was not a typical Star Trek episode and more reminiscent of the original Battlestar Galactica, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. The casino scenes were a lot of fun and it’s great – to quote io9 reviewer James Whitbrook – that Owosekun got something to do beside sit on the bridge. But while I enjoyed seeing Michael and Book work together, I would have vastly preferred to see them work together for good rather than just temporarily. Because Haz is right, Michael and Book do make a good team. Though I fear we won’t get to see that team-up much longer, because Book has officially passed the point of no return.
Also, can I just point out that Michael has terrible luck with boyfriends? First, there was Ash Tyler who not only turned out to be a surgically altered Klingon, but who also killed Hugh Culber (don’t worry, he got better) and had a secret Klingon baby with his Klingon lover. And now there’s Book, who’s charming, nice, good with animals and a great pilot, but who also decided to abscond with the next generation spore drive prototype, is planning to destroy the DMA against Federation orders and may well cause a devastating war in the process. Honestly, with these romantic prospects, Saru may well get lucky, after all. Because Saru clearly has a thing for Michael and he’s nothing, if not dependable.