Star Trek Discovery is back for the last few episodes of season 4, so here is my somewhat belated review of the latest episode. Reviews of previous seasons and episodes may be found here.
Another short episode title and another one which is easy to turn into a blog post headline. Is it me or have the episode titles become much shorter of late?
But before we get to the meat of this post, I also want to point you to the latest episode of Take Me To Your Reader, a podcast which discusses filmic science fiction adaptations. The subject of this episode of Robert Sheckley’s 1958 short story “The Prize of Peril”, which was adapted in West Germany as Das Millionenspiel in 1970 and in France as Le Prix Du Danger in 1983. I put in a guest appearance to talk about Das Millionenspiel (which you should absolutely watch, if you can find it, because it’s brilliant), while Emmanuel Dubois talks about the French adaption.
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
When we last saw the Discovery and her valiant crew, they not only failed to prevent rogue scientist/consumate arsehole Ruon Tarka from blowing up the DMA controller, but Tarka’s actions also turned out to be for nothing, because the DMA popped back into existence mere hours later, bigger, badder and more efficient. Instead of spending a week extracting all the boronite from a thankfully uninhabited region of space, it will now take only a day and then proceed to the next location, where it might well do even more harm.
In order to prevent this, the Federation has fast-tracked their mission to establish first contact with Species 10c, creators of the DMA. The group which prepares this first contact mission consist of Michael, Saru, President Rillak, Dr. Kovich, General N’doye of Earth, President T’Rina of Ni’var, Admiral Vance and a linguist named Dr. Hirai (played by Hiro Kanagawa, another one of those actors who have been in everything), who is constantly snacking and reminds the others that not all communication of verbal.
Michael and Saru are not just present, because they happen to be the stars of Discovery, but also because the Discovery is the only Starfleet vessel capable of reaching the Galactic Barrier in time to hopefully persuade species 10c to recall the DMA.
Because time is tight and the DMA will soon move again, the Discovery leaves as soon as its shields have been upgraded to withstand the stress of crossing the Galactic Barrier. In addition to the crew (sans Bryce, why stays behind to work on a project with Dr. Kovich, but with Adira, who has returned from their trip to Trill) the delegates on board consist of President Rillak (who hands over the reins to her vice president, since the model for the Federation is still the US), General N’doye, the constantly snacking Dr. Hirai, President T’Rina and her aide, who join the mission much to the delight of Saru, when the Ni’Var representative does not show up in time, and a random Ferengi. I guess they took along the Ferengi in case the key to getting species 10c to stop is trade.
Since things did not go so well the last time President Rillak was aboard Discovery on a mission, Michael and Rillak hash out responsibilities before taking off. Basically, Michael has responsibility for the ship and Rillak will not question her decisions as captain, while Rillak is responsible for diplomacy and the first contact mission and Michael will not interfere there. As division of labour goes, this seems fair enough, though you just know that Michael will interfere anyway, cause that’s what she does.
Meanwhile, Saru clumsily accepts President T’Rina asking him out on a date, even though they’re too busy to actually take the next step, since the fate of the galaxy obviously takes precedence. Dr. Culber can barely suppress a laugh at Saru’s obvious nervousness and also assures Saru that it’s perfectly normal to be nervous, when embarking on a new relationship. While Culber is dispensing romantic advice to Kelpians, his husband Stamets is extolling Adira’s skill and talents towards Michael like the very proud papa that he is.
The mycelical network only exists inside our galaxy, so Discovery will have to cross the Galactic Barrier the old-fashioned way. However, Stamets believes that he can jump Discovery within four lightyears of the Barrier, though in the end the furthest he gets is nine lightyears away. “You owe me five lightyears, Mr. Stamets”, Michael says in a delightful line of dialogue.
The Galactic Barrier is one of the oldest Star Trek concepts, because it shows up in the very first Star Trek episode (though not the first broadcast) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in 1966 as well as in two more episodes of the Original Series. However, the Galactic Barrier was never mentioned again in any subsequent Star Trek series, probably because it is – as Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out – a scientifically absurd concept that did not age well. The plot point from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” that crossing the Galactic Barrier enhances latent ESP abilities and eventually drives those affected mad is another very 1960s concept that did not stand the test of time. And indeed by Star Trek Discovery, the whole ESP nonsense has been condensed to the single line that crossing the Galactic Barrier unprotected may fry your brain. Though Michael uses the words “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in her trademark inspirational speech before Discovery takes off, which is a nice shoutout to the (not very good IMO) episode with which everything started more than 55 years ago.
By some moment of cosmic serendipity, one of the surviving cast members of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, actress Sally Kellerman, who played psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner who has her brain fried/her ESP enhanced by crossing the barrier, died on the very same day this episode was broadcast, aged 84. There are plenty of obituaries for and tributes to Ms. Kellerman online, though most of them focus almost exclusively on the fact that she was in the M*A*S*H movie back in 1970, playing an army nurse named Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (one of her co-stars was René Auberjonois, better known to Star Trek fans as Odo from Deep Space Nine). I found this focus on M*A*S*H quite surprising, because to me Sally Kellerman was always Dr. Elizabeth Dehner from Star Trek as well as someone who showed up in all sorts of US TV series from the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. However, I have never seen either version of M*A*S*H (I may have seen the opening credits of the TV show once or twice, before changing the channel) nor do I have the least desire to watch it.
This obituary from the New York Post also mainly focusses on M*A*S*H, but also notes Sally Kellerman’s importance to Star Trek history. After all, Sally Kellerman was the very first female character seen on screen in Star Trek, predating Uhura, Janice Rand and Christine Chapel by several episodes. Interestingly, the New York Post obituary also shows how very revolutionary the original Star Trek was in its portrayal of women, dated as it may seem today. Compare Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in her no-nonsense pants and sweater uniform (the miniskirts came in later) to the vaguely creepy upskirt photos of Margaret Houlihan in her army uniform. And while Margaret Houlihan may have held the rank of major, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner was a psychologist and no one ever called her “Hot Lips” or any other sexist nicknames either. Furthermore, from what I’ve been able to glean without actually watching the thing, Margaret Houlihan’s main role in M*A*S*H seems to have victim of the sort of sexual harrassment that would get people fired today (also considering she held the rank of major, wouldn’t sexually harassing her also be insubordination?). And according to this obituary from The Guardian, that sort of thing also happened behind the camera on the set of M*A*S*H. So rest in peace, Sally Kellerman, who went where no woman has gone before and was so much more than a US Army nurse with a sexist nickname.
Special effects have come a long way since 1966 and so the trip through the Galactic Barrier is very visually impressive. When Discovery enters the Barrier, the colours suddenly fades and everybody becomes not quite black and white, but much more muted, which may be a reference to the fact that the original Star Trek debuted just as US TV went all colour and that it might have been black and white, if it had come out only a little earlier. And indeed Raumpatrouille Orion, Star Trek‘s West German counterpart, which debuted within ten days of the original Star Trek (for my episode by episode reviews, see Galactic Journey), was in black and white.
Because the ride through the Galactic Barrier is more bumpy than initially assumed and the shields won’t hold, exposing the Discovery and everybody aboard to that brain-frying radiation, Discovery hitches a ride in a bubble of normal space to cross the Barrier unscathed.
Just before communications break down for good, Michael and President Rillak receive a message from Admiral Vance, reporting that the DMA has moved again and is now in the Alpha Quadrant, threatening Earth, Titan, Ni’Var and presumably countless other worlds, just as we might have guessed it would (because a ticking clock involving a planet no one has ever heard of wouldn’t be much of a ticking clock). Since many members of the Discovery crew are from Earth (reinforced by the bridge crew talking about places they want to visit on Earth, once they get back) and Michael considers both Earth and Ni’Var her home, Michael wants to inform the crew that Earth and Ni’Var (and Titan) are under threat. Rillak, meanwhile, wants to keep the truth from the crew, so as not to impede their performance. For once, Michael does not go against Rillak and Rillak eventually relents, informing the crew and the delegates that the stakes just got higher, which leads to a sweet scene of Saru attempting to comfort T’Rina.
The main plot doesn’t really move the overall story forward. Yes, Discovery crosses the Galactic Barrier and the stakes are upped by the fact that the DMA is not just threatening nameless planets no one ever heard about now, but Earth and Ni’Var. But we still don’t learn anything more about the mysterious Species 10c or what precisely they’re doing. Considering that there only are a few more episodes to go, this is certainly surprising.
The B-plot involves Book and Tarka, who – to quote io9 reviewer James Whitbrook – have gone even roguer, since Tarka blew up the first DMA and landed the Federation and Starfleet in the pickle in which they now find themselves. Tarka is nothing, if not single-minded and while Book correctly realises that Tarka is an arsehole, he is still driven by his grief over Kwejian to stop the DMA. And since Book’s ship now is the only other ship equipped with a spore drive and capable of reaching the Galactic Barrier and Species 10c in time, three guesses where Book and Tarka are going next.
Of course, Book and Tarka still have the problem of upgrading their shields with programmable anti-matter. And while Discovery can draw on the resources of the Federation to procure this rare substance, Book and Tarka must find an alternate supply. Luckily, Tarka just happens to know where to find an alternate supply. He leads Book to the remnants of an Emerald Chain slave labour camp, in fact the very camp in which Tarka was once imprisoned.
What follows is a flashback to Tarka’s time as an Emerald Chain prisoner and his relationship with the friend for whose sake Tarka is willing to plunge the galaxy into all-out war. This friend is a brilliant alien scientist named Oros (played by Oric Chau who has been in The Flash and Supernatural among many other things). Initially, Oros wants nothing more to do with Tarka than Tarka with Oros, but eventually they bond over geekiness, mathematics and the golden ratio. The result is a remarkably sweet love story between two prickly geeks.
Oros eventually tells Tarka about his plan to escape to another universe which he believes is the paradise his people believe in. They plot to escape together, beyond the reach of the Emerald Chain, and begin stealing supplies to make it happen, including the programmable anti-matter that is still hiden in the ruined lab.
When Tarka and Oros finally make the attempt and switch on their universe-crossing transporter, the power is not sufficient and the transporter fails. Worse, the Emerald Chain guards catch wind of what Tarka and Oros are planning and beat them up. Tarka manages to snatch a guard’s rifle and kill him. He also uses the rifle to remove the bombs at the nape of his and Oros’ necks. But Oros is too badly wounded to make a run for it, so Tarka leaves his lover behind. Shortly thereafter, the Emerald Chain abandon the camp, taking Oros with them. Oros leaves behind a symbol – the very symbol that Tarka and Oros had used as a code for the paradise dimension – but otherwise vanishes from the face of the universe, so Tarka assumes that Oros finally made it. Ever since then he has been doing literally everything to get back to the one person in the universe he ever cared for.
Normally, you’d assume that an extended flashback to the backstory of a supporting character no one likes or is supposed to like would bring the story to a crashing halt. Instead, the scenes featuring Tarka and Oros and their blossoming geek romance are some of the best in the whole episodes. They also do a lot to humanise Tarka. He’s still an arsehole and always will be, but at least we now know why he does what he does. Finally, Discovery also gives us another sweet gay romance with the story of Tarka and Oros.
Discovery features more LGBTQ actors, characters and relationships than the rest of Star Trek combined, both on screen and behind the scenes, as this profile of Emily Coutts, who plays Keyla Detmer and was encouraged by Discovery to come out, shows. This is wonderful enough in itself. But what I like best about Discovery portrayals of LGBTQ relationships is that they are not treated as something special or extraordinary. There is nothing more remarkable about the fact that Stamets and Culber are a gay married couple or that Tarka fell for a man than there is about the fact that Michael has a troubled relationship with a man and that Saru is courting a woman of another species. Discovery portrays its many LGBTQ characters as people rather than reducing them to their sexual orientation and I for one love it.
I’m pretty sure we will see Oros again, if only because Osric Chau is too well known an actor for a one episode guest part. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that Oros will either be involved with Species 10c and the DMA or will be revealed as the DMA’s architect to finally get the power he needs to get to his universe of choice.
Are these suspicions correct? I guess we’ll find out soon.