Star Trek Discovery is back for the last few episodes of season 4 and in their infinite wisdom, Paramount decided to drop season 2 of Star Trek Picard, while season 4 of Discovery is still running. So here is the review of the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery. Star Trek Picard will follow in the next few days. Reviews of previous seasons and episodes may be found here.
Another one word episode title. It’s not just me, the episode titles have definitely become shorter.
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
When we last saw the Discovery and her valiant crew, they had just crossed the Galactic Barrier and were on their way to make first contact with Species 10c, creators of the planet-eating Dark Matter Anomaly.
The main problem, however, is that the Federation knows nothing about Species 10c, not even what they look like, how they communicate, etc… Luckily, there is an abandoned planet close to the Galactic Barrier and Species 10c’s massive energy field. Michael theorises that this planet was once inhabited by Species 10c and should therefore yield some clues about them. Therefore, she decides to take a detour to that planet to find out as much as she can about Species 10c before attempting first contact.
Not everybody agrees with this plan. Time is of essence, after all, since the DMA will reach the alpha quadrant and threaten both Earth and Ni’Var in only 29 hours. President Rillak isn’t happy with Michael’s plan and even less happy that both Michael and Saru will be going on the mission – though Michael points out that Saru’s enhanced senses and his extensive linguistic knowledge will be invaluable – but in the end Rillak decides to trust Michael.
President T’Rina also trusts Michael and Saru. Doctor Hirai feels the need to inform the away team not to mess things up, whil permanently muching on some kind of snack balls. The random Ferengi and President T’Rina’s aid are just there to look decorative. And honestly, what is the purpose of the random Ferengi, if just stands around looking decorative and never says a single word? The fact that the Ferengi joined the Federation isn’t really news, since things were obviously moving in that direction in Deep Space Nine.
General Ndoye of Earth, however, is not at all happy with the delay and also not shy about expressing her misgivings. Ndoye was opposed to the first contact mission from the start and voted in favour of blowing up the DMA and she now points out that the mission to the deserted planet costs precious time that they do not have. She’s not wrong either, though blundering into Species 10c’s energy field with zero knowledge about them can only lead to disaster.
I like Phumzile Sitole a lot as General Ndoye, but what’s up with that uniform she’s wearing? The weird outfit and the Robin Hood hat remind me of Carol Hughes’ outfit as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which I doubt is the intention.
Once the various delegates have aired their reservations and offered their good wishes, the away team is off to explore the planet that they believe to be a original homeworld of Species 10c. The team consists of Michael, Saru, Dr. Culber and Detmer. Because there are atmospheric interferences and all sorts of debris flying about, the away team can’t just beam down to the surface of the planet, but needs to use a shuttle.
We get a bit of an infodump about the planet. It was a gas giant once, before asteroid bombardment burned away the gas layers and left the solid core of the planet a dead rock in space. Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but who cares? A nearby star is also surrounded by what Michael calls Dyson Rings, probably because Larry Niven already has dibs on the term “Ringworld”, though that’s absolutely what it is. The Dyson Rings appear to be deserted as well, beggering that question why the Discovery team doesn’t just investigate the Ringworlds, since there’s probably more evidence to be found there than on the destroyed planet. And while it makes sense that Species 10c abandoned the dead planet, why did they abandon the Ringworlds, too? Did Species 10c even build the Ringworlds? Finally, is this the same planet where the Enterprise wanted to dump off Gary Mitchell and Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” eight hundred years before?
On the surface of the planet, the team comes across giant, if hollow bones, which they believe belonged to Species 10c. Because the pressure on the surface of a gas giant would be too great to survive (unless you are the robots ZZ One, Two and Three from Isaac Asimov’s delightful 1942 science fiction story “Victory Unintentional”, because ZZs are top – yes, I had to make that pun), the away team comes to the conclusion that Species 10c lived in the gas layers, which is also why there are almost no ruins except one massive reinforced structure that crashed to the surface. At this point, the story basically becomes Arthur C. Clarke’s 1971 science fiction novella “A Meeting with Medusa”.
When they find the bones and some mystery dust, which Culber identifies as an unknown hydrocarbon, Saru suddenly freaks out. His old, ever-present fear, absent since the season 2 episode “An Obol for Charon” is back with the vengeance and he’s suffering from hallucinations, too, seeing tentacled creatures and attackers where there are none.
When the away team explores the mystery ruin – which is full of floating jellyfish-like things, which reinforce the “Meeting with Medusa” parallels – Saru’s condition worsens. Dr. Culber tries to calm him down and give him medication, only to fall prey to intense fear and hallucinations as well.
Meanwhile, Michael and Detmer come across yet more hydrocarbon mystery dust and more bones in the ruined structure, bones which are smaller, and deduce that the structure was a nursery and that it was reinforced to protect the young. So they deduce that Species 10c cares about its children and values life, which should at least serve as a basis for communications.
At this point, Michael suddenly experiences intense fear and hallucinations as well. Only Detmer remains unaffected. The team attempts to figure out what triggered the hallucinations and why Detmer was spared and finally realise that the culprit is the mystery hydrocarbon dust, which Saru, Culber and Michael touched, but Detmer didn’t. Because the hydrocarbon is unknown to the Federation, their spacesuits are not designed to filter it out. Luckily, a few adjustments solve that problem.
I guess I wasn’t the only one who was yelling at the screen at this moment, “Folks, you’re probably looking at a communication attempt right there.” The Discovery team does finally come to that conclusion as well, but only after they experiment with a different kind of mystery dust – red instead of blue – that they find in the ruins of the alien nursery and experience overwhelming feelings of love and security. The mystery dust are the pheromones that the aliens use to communicate. The red dust made the alien babies in the nursery feel safe and loved, while the blue dust was generated by the fear and horror of the aliens as their planet was destroyed.
Detmer is intensely affected by the red dust and confesses to having a difficult family background and very few opportunities to feel safe and loved. It’s great that the bridge crew are getting more character development, though it still feels a little shoehorned in.
The Discovery collect more samples of alien pheromone dust for Stamets to analyse and return to Discovery, read to make contact with Species 10c, now they know that they at least share emotions and Species 10c should surely sympathise with the pain of seeing your planet destroyed and therefore stop the DMA, once they learn what it is doing to the inhabitants of the galaxy next door. Saru points out that it’s quite possible that Species 10c already knows and just doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, no one thinks to ask the obvious question, namely if the inhabitants of the dead planet truly were Species 10c? After all, it’s quite possible that the poor Medusae of the dead planet were merely the first victim of Species 10c’s insatiable energy hunger (Star Trek has never been subtle about its messages and real world parallels), before they turned their attention to the galaxy next door. Also, what about those Dyson Rings? What is their purpose and why does no one even consider checking out the rings, too?
While Michael, Saru, Culber and Detmer are traipsing about on the dead planet, Book and Tarka have also made it through the Galactic Barrier without either of them having their brains fried nor Book having his empathic abilities enhanced like what happened to Gary Mitchell or Elizabeth Dehner in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Book’s ship, which still doesn’t have a name, is lurking nearby in cloaked mode, while Book and Tarka discuss how to get through Species 10c’s energy field. Book is confident that Michael will find a way in. Tarka agrees and suggests hitching a ride on Discovery. Of course, they will have to hide from Zora’s sensors, but Tarka is confident he can achieve this, if he installs a patch into Discovery‘s system. There’s only one hitch. The patch has to be installed aboard Discovery and it has to be installed in engineering, one part of the ship which is never empty. None of this makes any sense, though it does make for nice drama.
Tarka wants to sneak aboard Discovery alone to install his patch, but Book won’t let him go alone. After all, he knows Discovery better than Tarka does. Besides – though Book doesn’t say this out loud – Tarka is a loose cannon and there’s no telling what he will do, if the mission doesn’t go according to plan. Which is exactly what happens.
Tarka sciences up two devices which will cloak Book and Tarka from Zora’s sensors and they beam aboard Discovery to crawl through Jeffries tubes, from where they overhear General Ndoye sharing her misgivings about the detour to the dead planet with President T’Rina. And of course, Book and Tarka only overhear conversations that impart relevant information, rather than eavesdropping on – say – Linus watching porn or Rhys recording a podcast. Never mind that Book and Tarka have zero reason to sneak into the mess hall, since that’s the least likely place aboard Discovery to be empty after the bridge and engineering.
Having heard that General Ndoye is sceptical of the whole mission, Book suggests making contact with her and using her as a spy inside Discovery. After all, Ndoye voted in favour of Tarka’s plan. So Book sends Ndoye a faked message from President T’Rina asking for a private meeting in a deserted part of the ship. And because Ndoye finds nothing strange about this at all and never even thinks to ask T’Rina if she sent that message, she heads for the meeting and finds Book waiting for her instead of T’Rina. After some physical altercations, Book persuades Ndoye to listen to him, since they all want the same thing, namely for the DMA to be stopped.
Ndoye agrees to give Book and Tarka information and not call security and have them arrested and thrown in the brig. In exchange, she asks that Book and Tarka only act, when the first contact mission fails. If it succeeds, they must stand down. Book promises this. As usual, no one even worries what Tarka might do.
While Book is meeting with T’Rina, Tarka sabotages the replicators to only generate steamed bananas to lure the engineering crew away to repair the problem. Amazingly, it works and the entire engineering crew scrambles to repair the replicators. No one is left behind, which I frankly find unbelievable, because on a seagoing ship, the engine room is never left unmanned, unless the ship is burning or sinking, and often not even then. After all, the Titanic‘s enginee room crew famously kept the engines running until the end and died at their posts. For a minor issue such as a malfunctioning replicator, only a random ensign would be dispatched, not the whole engineering crew.
The engineering officer on duty is Jet Reno, once again delightfully portrayed by Tig Notaro. We haven’t seen a lot of Jet Reno in season 4 so far, probably because Tig Notaro is very much in demand, so I’m glad to see her back. We first see Jet Reno, as she gives advice to Adira, who has taken to admiring Detmer, because Detmer always seems so cool and together. Reno points that Detmer was not at all cool and put together, when Discovery first came into the future. She also tells Adira that if they want to strike up a friendship with Detmer, it would be helpful to just talk to her. “And don’t say, ‘I want to be you’,” Reno advises Adira, “Cause that’s creepy.”
Shortly thereafter, Linus appears to report that the replicators are malfunctioning and a grumpy Jet Reno goes off to repair the problem and takes the rest of the engineering crew along with her, allowing Tarka to sneak in and install his patch. However, Reno is smart and so she quickly realises that the replicators did not break down, but were sabotaged and that the middle of a crisis really isn’t the time for practical jokes. She also returns to engineering sooner than expected and finds Tarka hiding under a deck. “Please tell me I just spoiled a surprise party,” she says.
The show then cuts away to mop up several plot threads. Book makes gooey eyes at Michael from inside a Jeffries tube. Stamets shares his findings about the alien pheromones. Adira finally takes a heart and approaches Detmer. President T’Rina invites Saru to a stroll on the holodeck to Michael and Stamets’ approval and amusement. There also was another C-plot earlier where President Rillak tells Dr. Hirai – who’s still permanently snacking – to show a bit more empathy and be less rude.
While all that was happening, I yelled at the screen, “What happened to Reno and Tarka?” After all, Tarka is a loose cannon and Reno just blew his cover, so there’s no telling what he might do.
What he did do – as is revealed after five minutes of unrelated scenes – is kidnap Reno and take her aboard Book’s ship, where she is imprisoned behind a forcefield. “There’s nothing like coming home to an unexpected hostage”, Reno snarks when Book returns, appalled at the mess that Tarka has made again. Cue credits.
Viewed in isolation, this was a fun episode of Star Trek Discovery. The crew got to explore a deserted planet and science the shit out of a cosmic mystery. There was some nice character development and impressive special effects. Also, this was one of the most sixties episode of Star Trek ever – including many episodes from the actual 1960s – since the crew had to deal with colourful alien hallucinogenic dust.
If this had been a random midseason episode, it would have been a very good one. However, “Rosetta” comes near the end of the season and there are only two more episodes to go. Besides – as the dialogue keeps reminding us – Earth and Ni’Var (and Titan) will be destroyed in 29 hours, so there is a huge ticking clock involved here. But in spite of all this, the episode never really develops any sense of urgency. Instead, Michael, Saru, Culber and Detmer act as if they have all the time in the world to go traipsing about some alien ruins, while Book and Tarka have all the time in the world to crawl through Jeffries tubes.
Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido also points out the curious lack of urgency in this episode and the odd pacing of the second half of season 4 in general. The DMA plot has been moving at a glacial pace throughout all of season 4 anyway with plenty of detours – oh, let’s help Michael’s Mom catch a wayward nun or send Tilly and a bunch of recruits on a training mission or let’s muse about the ethics of crime and punishment – and when the pace finally picked up at the mid season break, the show promptly gets lost in plenty of meandering detours again. Playing poker with Book might have been necessary for the plot, but did we really need to spend an entire episode on crossing the Galactic Barrier, when the Original Series accomplished this in a few minutes?
In general, I find the DMA plot a much less compelling season arc than the mystery of the Burn or the mystery of the Red Angel or the Klingon War (Also, what happened to the Klingons in the 31st century? Have they died out? Cause we haven’t seen a single Klingon since season 2). Yes, the DMA is big and dangerous and gobbles up planets and it’s also a really clumsy analogy for our reliance on fossile fuels and the harm it causes, but I still find it hard to get worked up about what is essentially a big evil dark cloud. And while the destruction of Kweijian is sad, Kwejian is also a planet we’ve seen exactly twice before it is blown up, where it seemed to consist of about five handsome guys in leather jackets running around the same forest in British Columbia that stands in for thirty percent of all planets in the known universe. And while the DMA may be headed for Earth, Titan and Ni’Var, we also know that Star Trek won’t blow up Earth and Ni’Var, though poor Titan might be fucked, so there is little sense of urgency there either, because we know the DMA will be stopped just in time.
That said, there still are a few intriguing questions: Are the Medusae of the dead planet Species 10c or just another of their victims? And what about Tarka’s lover Oros? Will we see him again and is he maybe involved with the mystery of the DMA in some way?
With two episodes to go, season 4 might still pull the potatoes out of the fire and come to a satisfying conclusion. Besides, it’s not as if season 4 is bad. It’s solid, middle-of-the-road Star Trek with neat mysteries, likeable characters you want to spend time with and effects that are so much better than anything that Star Trek used to dish up. In short, it’s the sort of solid, comfort-viewing Star Trek that helped me through university in the 1990s.
That said, I’m not sure if I will be continuing the episode by episode reviews, because they are a lot of work and I’m not sure Star Trek is interesting enough to warrant it. I will finish the episode by episode reviews of season 4 and I will do at least the first episode of Star Trek Picard tomorrow or the day after, but I’m not sure if I will do all of Picard and Strange New Worlds, because I want to blog about something other than Star Trek once in a while, too.