It’s the penultimate episode of season 4 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous seasons and episodes may be found here.
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
When we last saw the Discovery and her valiant crew, they had explored what they assume to be the original home planet of Species 10-C and found out that Species 10-C transmits emotions via pheromones which are basically psychedelic dust. So now Discovery is finally ready to initiate first contact and communications with Species 10-C.
Of course, they must get through the hyperfield protecting Species 10-C first. And since Discovery has no way through, they decide to politely knock. This “knock” involves sending a couple of DOT robots to inject the pheromone that means “peacefulness” into the hyperfield. This ploy works spectacularly well, since the hyperfield promptly gobbles up first the DOTs and then Discovery.
While all this is going on, Zora, the Discovery‘s newly sentient computer, realises that something is off, even though her system diagnostics show that everything is functioning normally. Zora has no idea what the problem is, but the viewer does.
Because as we saw last episode, Book’s ship is attached to Discovery, cloaked and hidden from Discovery‘s sensors and Zora, because Tarka whipped up a patch and installed it in Discovery‘s engineering section. Unfortunately, he was caught red-handed by Jet Reno and took her hostage.
However, once the hyperfield of Species 10-C gobbles up Discovery and Book’s ship along with it, everybody has the same problem, because they are trapped in an impermeable bubble and Species 10-C has deactivated all shields and weapons, while leaving the life support systems intact, all of which suggests that they are not deliberately hostile. Not that Tarka cares.
Most of the rest of the episode is given over to the attempts to communicate with Species 10-C. Discovery tries broadcasting a prepared message on all frequences, but Species 10-C does not respond, probably because they don’t recognise the message as a message.
The next attempt at communication is to offer a gift. And since the only thing the Discovery crew knows Species 10-C wants is boronite, they beam some boronite onto the edge of the bubble. This does the trick, because a member of Species 10-C (who really are the Medusa-like floating jellyfish whose remains we saw last episode) appears outside the Discovery‘s shuttle bay.
Michael, Saru, Rillak, T’Rina, Ndoye and Dr. Hirai go to meet the 10-C and try to communicate with it. The random Ferengi is nowhere to be seen, which begets the question what the purpose of that character even is, if he never does or says anything.
The 10-C sends the first contact team a bunch of mixed pheromone dust and flashes some lights at them. Unfortunately, the universal translator can’t make heads nor tails of either. Dr. Hirai suggests flashing the lights back to show the 10-C that Discovery got the message, but that does not do the trick. The 10-C just flashes the same lights pattern again.
After some debating, Saru suggests calling in three members of the bridge crew – Detmer, Rhys and Nielsen – to get a new perspective. Eventually, they figure out that the light pattern is a sequence telling them how to decode the pheromones mix. Dr. Hirai decodes the message and realises it’s a set of mathematical equations, math being used as a kind of universal language here similar to the real world Lincos, which is even namechecked by Dr. Hirai. Discovery sends back a message that they understand, so the 10-C send a bubble like capsule filled with breathable air to continue communications.
Michael, Saru as well as Presidents Rillak and T’Rina board the capsule. Dr. Hirai is left behind to his infinite disappointment, because his expertise is needed on Discovery should the team not return. General Ndoye also opts to stay behind, because unbeknownst to everybody else, she’s feeding information – and more – to Book and Tarka.
The inside of the capsule turns out to be a replica of the Discovery‘s bridge – the 10-C clearly tried to create an environment in which the team would be comfortable. Also inside the capsule is a replica of Tarka’s isolynium weapon (isolynium is element 178, we learn – in the real world, we’re up to element 118 Oganesson). This freaks out the team, since isolynium is hugely dangerous. But then they decode the message that comes with it and realise that the 10-C are merely curious as to why their visitors (or rather Tarka, but the 10-C have no way of knowing that) shut down the DMA (represented by a mathematical equation describing its distinctive shape).
The team replies that the DMA has caused them great pain and terror, sending out the mathematical equation that represents the DMA, the pain and terror pheromone and the composition of the air inside the capsule and aboard Discovery as a way of saying “us”. The 10-C reply with the symbol for “greater than” and the sadness pheromone. So in short, they apologise for the pain and trouble caused.
The scenes of the first contact team trying to communicate with the 10-C are incredibly entertaining and made my linguist heart leap with joy, especially since the linguistic principles behind the whole thing are sound – even if they involve psychedelic pheromone dust. The actors also convey the sheer geeky joy of learning to communicate with a very different lifeform and even though it’s a blinking tentacly mass on a viewscreen, I suspect the 10-C feels the same. After all, the 10-C are very isolated outside our galaxy and probably don’t get a lot of visitors. In fact, they may have had no idea that there is other sentient life at all and are clearly delighted to have found some.
Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido and io9 reviewer James Whitbrook both agree with me that the attempts of the first contact team to communicate with Species 10-C are the best part of this episode and probably the whole season, because this is exactly the sort of stuff – brilliant, geeky people using science rather than guns to solve a problem – that Star Trek fans crave. “Species 10-C” is the first thing I put in the Best Dramatic Presentation Short tab of my personal Hugo longlist for 2022, because the first contact bits are just that good.
Unfortunately, the monomania and general arseholishness of Ruon Tarka has to throw a monkey wrench into the proceeedings. Tarka still wants to snatch the DMA power source to get back to his friend turned lover Oros. He also has a cunning plan for Book’s ship to break out of the 10-C’s bubble – a plan which requires General Ndoye to sabotage Discovery‘s systems. Ndoye is initially not happy with this – she signed up to pass on information, not engage in sabotage (and that, kids, is why you never let yourself be recruited as a spy for any group or power) – be she eventually goes along with the plan, because the communication attempts are taking too long for her.
Meanwhile, Jet Reno sees only too clearly that both Book and Tarka are motivated by pain and that Tarka is also – to quote Jet – “a few cherries shy of a sundae”. Jet also gets a glimpse at Tarka’s calculations and realises that snatching the DMA power source will cause the hyperfield to collapse, putting Discovery, Book’s ship and Species 10-C in deadly danger. Worse, the subspace rift this will cause will endager Earth and Ni’Var just as much as the DMA itself would. So in short, Tarka’s plan is a huge “no win, everybody dies” scenario.
Jet tells Book about this and encourages him to confront Tarka about it. “The equations will mean nothing to you”, she says, “But his face will tell the story.” So Book confronts Tarka and Tarka basically admits that Jet is right. However, the imposion of the hyperfield will not be so bad, because Book’s ship can get away via its spore drive as can Discovery. The 10-C can probably get away as well, not that Book cares about them. As for Earth and Ni’Var, they’ll have a month to evacuate everybody and surely that’s enough time.
Book has finally had enough of Tarka’s bullshit and attacks him. But Tarka has hacked Book’s ship – again – to project a forcefield around himself which repeals any attack on the attacker. Book is finally knocked out and Tarka locks him up behind a forcefield with Jet Reno.
Now it has been very obvious since Tarka first showed up that he’s a massive arsehole who cares for nothing and no one except himself and Oros. Never mind that Tarka has been lying to Book from the get-go and keeps lying to him as well as making unauthorised modifications to Book’s ship. Finally, Tarka’s brilliant plans inevitably backfire or otherwise don’t work out and threaten to get everybody killed. Hey, the first time we saw Tarka, he almost blew up the Discovery.
So in short, it’s absolutely obvious what Tarka is and why he can’t be trusted. Everybody else in the show and watching at home can see this, so why can’t Book? Why does Book keep trusting Tarka and does not just slug him in the jaw, considering the many times Tarka has lied to him, has modified his ship without his knowledge, put people’s lives at risk and has just generally been a massive arsehole? And when Book finally realises what Tarka is – well after everybody else has realised this – it’s too late and Tarka locks him up, left alone to execute his plan that will get everybody killed.
Luckily, Jet Reno is smarter than this. She palmed a communicator chip and activates it via the conductive properties of the glycerin contained in the licorice she asks Book to replicate for her. However, Jet can’t get past the defences of Book’s ship, so she needs Book’s access codes, which he gives her, once he realises that Tarka is going to get everybody killed, so Jet manages to send a warning to Discovery.
At the same time, Zora and Dr. Culber have figured out that Zora’s mysterious feeling of something being off started shortly after the replicator malfunction, which Jet Reno repaired. Culber and Zora decide it might be helpful to ask Jet about that and head to engineering, where Jet is according to Zora’s sensors. Only that Jet is not there and Stamets hasn’t seen her all day long either. Eventually, Culber, Stamets and Adira find Jet’s com badge as well as the patch Tarka installed. They remove the patch and Zora detects Book’s ship attached to Discovery‘s hull. However, before anybody can do anything about that, Tarka launches his escape plan with the help of Ndoye and blasts out of the bubble.
This happens just as Species 10-C has basically apologised for causing the Discovery crew pain. Species 10-C is understandably not amused about Tarka blasting through their bubble and return the first contact team to Discovery and break off communications. So now the race is on to stop Tarka before he gets everybody killed and make it clear to Species 10-C that this arsehole does not speak for us. Cue credits.
All in all, this was a really good episode, the best of what has been a lacklustre season so far. The communication attempts with Species 10-C were a joy to watch. Unfortunately, Tarka’s arseholish behaviour not just cuts short that communication attempt, but also creates unnecessary drama in order to have a flashy, saved in the nick of time season finale. Because come on, we know they won’t destroy Earth, Ni’Var, the Discovery and Species 10-C, though Book’s ship and everybody on board are fair game. And I’m sad to say that Jet Reno, whom I adore, is the character I’d miss the most, if Book’s ship were to be destroyed. Because honestly, I don’t see how Book can remain a part of the crew and the show after what he has done. Yes, he’s grieving and in pain, but he also keeps working with Tarka in spite of all the shitty things Tarka has already done. A heroic death is probably the best Book can hope for. Which is a pity, because I enjoyed his character a whole lot back in season 3, before he became a meatball of pain and grief. As for Tarka, I honestly don’t care what happens to him. Ditto for Ndoye.
There are plenty of lovely character moments as well, whether it’s Michael and Saru trying primal scream therapy to the irritation of Grudge, Michael giving Saru relationship advice for dating Vulcans, Jet talking about the death of her wife and her time on the crashed Hiawatha, trying to keep the injured crew alive or Book explaining that Cleveland Booker is a name passed on from courier to courier in Dread Pirate Roberts fashion.
The fact that this episode is both very good and very good Star Trek only serves to highlight the fact how lacklustre this season has been so far. Particularly the second half of the season has moved at a glacial pace. Did we really need to spend two whole episodes chasing after Book and Tarka, only for Tarka to be a total arsehole and sabotage everything? Did we really need a whole episode to cross the Galactic Barrier, something which took five minutes the last few times we saw it done? Couldn’t we maybe have spent more time communicating with the 10-C?
This episode and the previous one do seem to hint at a return to form for Discovery after a largely lacklustre season. Let’s hope that the season finale continues this positive trend.