Star Trek Discovery Takes the “Kobayashi Maru” Test

Star Trek Discovery is back for its fourth season, though I’m not sure that I’ll be doing episode by episode reviews again, because Paramount has pulled a true dick move and pulled Star Trek Discovery from Netflix internationally, leaving viewers outside North America with no legal means of watching the show. And yes, we all know that there are ways around this, but if Paramount doesn’t want me watching their show, then I’m not sure that I want to spend the time required to write these reviews and I’m not the only one.

However, I was having technical difficulties and couldn’t watch the Foundation season finale, so I watched the season 4 opener of Discovery instead. And yes, it’s ironic that I had an easier time watching the show I theoretically shouldn’t be able to watch than the one I can legally watch.

For my takes on the first three seasons of Star Trek Discovery, go here.

Warning! Spoilers under the cut!

When we last saw the good ship Discovery and her valiant crew, they had just saved the entire Federation by solving the mystery of the so-called “Burn”. Habitual troublemaker Michael Burnham has been promoted to captain and the whole crew got new uniforms (likely because they make hiding pregnancies easier), since Saru wanted to spend time on his homeworld Kaminar with Su’kal, the troubled Kelpien they met back in season 3.

Season 4 now opens with Michael and her boyfriend Book on a diplomatic mission to the planet of the butterfly people (their species probably has a name, but Book calls them “butterfly people” and the name is appropriate) that goes comically wrong. Now that the Federation has dilithium again, they want to rebuild and repair connections with worlds that they lost contact with. One of these worlds is the planet of the butterfly people.

Unfortunately, the butterfly people have zero interest in reconnecting with the Federation and are sceptical of a no strings attached gift of free dilithium as well. They are even more sceptical, when they detect another lifeform aboard Book’s ship. Of course, that lifeform is only Book’s cat Grudge, but unfortunately the butterfly people don’t understand the concept of a pet and misunderstand Book’s remark that Grudge is a queen as Michael and book holding a literal monarch prisoner aboard Book’s ship. So the butterfly people decide to free the queen of the cats and chase Michael and Book through the forest (this is one of the thirty percents of planets in the universe that look just like British Columbia, with some extra CGI cliffs).

Michael and Book realise that the butterfly people are having problems navigating and a quick call to Stamets and Adira (who has been promoted to series regular, complete with their name in the opening credits) reveals that the poles of the butterfly planet are shifting, which affects the butterfly people’s natural navigation abilities. And the satellite network that was supposed to compensate for this has failed due to a lack of dilithium. So Michael orders the Discovery’s cutesy repair bots to supply the satellites with dilithium so the butterfly people can navigate again, before she and Book get the hell out of there. The butterfly people are grateful, but still won’t quite believe that the Discovery repaired their satellites with no strings attached. Michael assures them that it’s true, because they’re the Federation and helping people is what they do.

Honestly, Michael Burnham should never ever be sent on any diplomatic mission, because she’s just flat out terrible at it. Which is interesting, since Michael’s adoptive father Sarek was one of the Federation’s top diplomats and her adoptive brother Spock would eventually follow in his footsteps. Michael, on the other hand, is way too blunt to make a good diplomat. Send Saru or Tilly or indeed anybody except Michael.

After narrowly averting a diplomatic crisis with the butterfly people, the Discovery has to head back to Starfleet headquarters, now no longer cloaked, for the grand reopening of Starfleet Academy. Michael is supposed to give a speech and introduce the new president of the Federation, something she’s not all that happy with, because Michael doesn’t like politicians.  Meanwhile, Book heads back to his homeworld Kwejian to meet his adoptive brother Kyheem and nephew Leto at an initiation ceremony for empaths.

At the grand reopening of Starfleet Academy, Michael proves that she has the one quality that any Starfleet captain worth their salt must have, namely the ability to hold inspirational speeches.

All the familiar faces are there, including the whole Discovery bridge crew, who not only continue to be given more lines and characterisation, but also got a new member, one Lieutentant Christopher. Admiral Vance is back as well and now reunited with his family. Whereas Raumpatrouille Orion, which debuted in September 1966 only ten days after the original Star Trek, always featured the same higher ranking military officials, Star Trek usually featured random forgettable admirals of the week. I like the fact that Discovery and Picard are both more consistent with regard to admirals. Finally, we also meet President Lara Rillak, who according to reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido is part Cardassian, part Bajoran and part human and also the first female Federation president we’ve ever seen.

Notable by his absence is Saru, whom we briefly see on a much changed Kaminar. Kelpians and their erstwhile predator species are living in harmony now, even if the predators still look like evil Lovecraftian critters. Saru is well respected on Kaminar and argues for rejoining the Federation. However, he also misses Discovery. Su’Kal tells Saru that he will be fine and has found friends and that Saru can go back, if he wants to, as long as he visits on occasion.

The joyful event is interrupted, when Starfleet headquarters receives a distress call from Deep Space Repair Station Beta 6, which just suffered a catastrophic failure of unknown origin. No other Starfleet ship is close enough to help and the nearest Federation planet, which just happened to be Book’s homeworld Kwejian, is also too far away. So it’s up to the Discovery and her magic mushroom drive to save the day. However, the Discovery also has a passenger, President Lara Rillick, who tags along for the mission because she wants to see the crew in action.

Michael is less than happy about this. She doesn’t like politicians and believes that the President is just coming along to tick a box. However, Lara Rillick is also the president and Michael can’t just leave her behind. Furthermore, President Rillick also turns out to be more knowledgable about space travel than Michael originally assumed, since she used to be a cargo ship pilot. Finally, Lara Rillick also knows what the Kobayashi Maru test is. My initial thought was, “Wait a minute, they’re still doing that stupid test seven hundred years in the future.”  AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen seems to have the same impression.

From this point on, “Kobayashi Maru” turns into a straight up rescue mission episode. Not only is the Beta 6 station completely out of control, barely any of their systems are functioning. The Discovery manages to stabilise the station and hail the stationmaster who reports that most of his systems have failed and he has no idea why, but an engineer and some programmable matter should help. So Michael orders Adira, who is now an Ensign and has more experience with programmable matter than anyone on board, and Tilly, who’s now a Lieutenant and has plenty of away mission experience, to beam over to Beta 6.

Star Trek Discovery consistently looks good – the best looking of all Star Trek shows – and the Beta 6 scenes are no exception. Because the artificial gravity on the station had failed, Tilly, Adira and the station crew are walking on the ceilings.

Tilly and Adira are on their way to repairing everything – in spite of a hovering and overprotective stationmaster – when more trouble strikes. For no sooner has the Discovery figured out just what happened to Beta 6 – they were struck by a gravitational anomaly – that both the Discovery and the station are pelted by a swarm of meteorites caused by the gravitional distortion. The Discovery extends her shields around the station, but the required energy output is too great and they can’t keep it up very long, even with Stamets working his tech magic. So Michael orders everybody on Beta 6 evacuated, which frankly is what they should have done in the first place.

However, the transporter inconveniently malfunctions, as it tends to do in these situations, which leaves Adira, Tilly and the Beta 6 crew with a dilemma.  They can’t get to the rescue shuttle, because the rest of the station has lost life support and they have no spacesuits in the command center. And while the command center has a small escape pod, it can only fly one way and is not big enough to fit the entire crew plus Tilly. and Adira.

Adira thinks that they can reprogram the escape pod to return to the station, but more trouble occurs, for debris has jammed the escape pods ejection system and there’s nothing anybody can do from the inside. And Discovery‘s repair robots cannot navigate in the meteorite storm. Someone has to go out in a one-person vehicle and remove the debris. Michael immediately volunteers, but President Rillak points out – quite correctly – that the captain’s place is on the bridge and not on a dangerous away mission. Of course, this is Star Trek, so the captain and first officer will always beam down together into dangerous situation and only survive due to the sacrifice of a random redshirt. Michael, meanwhile, points out that she is the person on board with the most extravehicular experience, so she’s going. Rillak isn’t happy with this, but throwing the captain in the brig during a crisis is never a good idea, so she lets Michael go.

Things go wrong once again, when Michael’s vehicle is hit and she is reduced to removing debris in just a spacesuit. The stationmaster takes just this moment to have a freak-out and wants to head to the shuttle bay through the part of the station that has no life support. When Tilly and Adira try to stop him, he pulls a gun on them. Now President Rillak does something useful. She talks to the stationmaster and uses her knowledge about his home planet to calm him down and him to lower the gun. Of course, Rillak was lying and never visited the stationmaster’s planet at all; she just read his file. Michael is not happy about Rillak lying, but then Rillak’s lies got the stationmaster to lower the gun, which is a win in my book.

Once Michael has cleared away the debris, the escape pod can finally depart, but there is yet more trouble ahead, because the escape pod needs to make two trips to rescue everybody. Meanwhile, the shields are failing. Rillak wants the Discovery to get the hell out of there, but Michael isn’t willing to leave Tilly, Adira and the stationmaster behind to die. Rillak points out that staying means that everybody aboard the Discovery might die and then gives Michael a variation of the “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line. Part of me hoped that Michael would reply with, “Yes, I know. My brother always said that.” But she doesn’t.

The escape pod makes it to the Discovery‘s shuttle bay just as the shields fail. The Discovery jumps, but the shuttle bay takes a hit. Tilly and Adira survive with little more than bruises, but stationmaster (who may never have worn a red shirt, but was a classic redshirt nonetheless) is killed. Poor fellow was doomed the moment he started talking about his homeplanet.

Michael, being Michael, is sad that she couldn’t save everybody, but President Rillak points out that they saved more lives than they lost. She also starts talking about the Kobayashi Maru test and reveals that she’s not just aboard the Discovery to “tick a box”, as Michael put it. No, Starfleet is looking for a captain for their latest experimental ship, ironically named Voyager (watch it suffer mishaps and be flung hell knows where on its maiden voyage). Michael was on the longlist, but she did not make the shortlist, because she’s unwilling to make “hard choices(TM)” and too much of a maverick, something that will surprise absolutely no one who has watched the past three seasons of Star Trek Discovery.

Personally, I’m with Michael here and agree that she shouldn’t have abandoned Tilly, Adira and the doomed stationmaster, while there was still a chance to save them. Also, as I’ve pointed out several times (most recently here) my yardstick for evaluating spaceship captains has always been “What would Commander McLane from Raumpatrouille Orion do?” And while Michael may have failed the President Rillak test, she just passed the “What would Commander McLane do?” test with flying colours. And indeed, of all the Star Trek captains, Michael probably is the one who is most like McLane with regard to mentality, because she’s also a maverick who will never abandon anybody, if there’s a chance to save them. And I for one can’t argue with that.  McLane would also have found a way to cheat the Kobayashi Maru test BTW.

In his review at io9, James Whitbrook rightly points out that Michael and the Discovery crew have plot armour, which allows them to pull off the most impossible missions and snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat every single time. Yes, the plot is rigged in favour of Michael.

However, what James Whitbrook fails to point out (though the episode itself does) is that Kobayashi Maru type no-win scenarios are just as rigged. Because in order for a Kobayashi Maru scenario to work the way it should (There’s no way out. Everybody will die every single time), the author has to eliminate all sorts of ways to save the day without death and bloodshed.  And readers/viewers are normally very good at finding ways to rescue everybody. That’s why people (including yours truly) have been picking apart and rewriting Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” for almost seventy years, because “The Cold Equations” features a badly rigged (at the insistence of John W. Campbell) no win scenario.

This episode of Discovery is actually a good example for a rigged no win scenario. The most logical course of action would have been to evacuate the station crew at once rather than to try to repair the station. When the repair attempts fail, the writers take the transporter, which could have saved everybody, out of the game (there’s a reason transporters malfunction on Star Trek all the time). Then the rescue shuttle is on the wrong deck and the escape pod too small for everybody, even though it makes no sense that a civilisation as advanced as the Federation would not have an escape pod big enough for everybody with some redundancies in case they need to pick up an extra Adira and Tilly. In short, the whole situation is rigged, which is okay, because that is what writers do. And it actually holds up and doesn’t have too many logical issues, which is more than you can say for many of these stories.

That said, I do like President Rillak, even if the episodes sets her up as an opponent to Michael. She reminds me of characters like General Lydia Van Dyke, General Wamsler and Colonel Villa in Raumpatrouille Orion, who forever try to reign in the maverick McLane. Of course, I have Orion on my mind currently, because I’m in the middle of reviewing the whole series for Galactic Journey, but there really are a lot of similarities between Discovery and Orion. Star Trek and Orion are transatlantic siblings anyway, two shows born in the same cultural moment (debuting ten days apart), drawing on the same sources and tackling similar themes. Which would make Discovery the great-niece of Orion, I guess. And I’m pretty sure Michael and McLane would get along swimmingly.

While Michael is retaking the Kobayashi Maru test, Book enjoys a peaceful moment with his adoptive brother Kyheem and nephew Leto on Kwejian (which looks like British Columbia on a rare sunny day). Leto is an empath just like his Dad and uncle and so Book and Kyheem take him to the world root, a large tree root that is sacred to his people. They take some sap from the root and put it in a glass capsule together with a drop of blood. Empaths like Kyheem and Leto always wear this capsule around their neck, though Book seems to have mislaid his.

The peace and quiet is interrupted by a huge flock of birds flying up into the sky. Something is wrong, so Book returns to his ship to figure out what. The ship is suddenly hit by the same gravitational distortion which took out Beta 6 and pelted by debris. Book barely has time to get off a warning, before the damage knocks him out.

The ship returns to the Discovery on autopilot with Book unsconscious. Once he recovers and reports what happened, the Discovery heads to Kwejian, but the planet is a burning cinder in space, completely destroyed. Book’s family and everybody else he knew is most likely dead.

After some rough early seasons (and season 1 is very rough indeed), Star Trek Discovery seems to have found its feet in the 30th century. We get a mix of Star Trek doing what it does best – saving lives against impossible odds, while delivering inspirational speeches and moral dilemmas – with a more modern style of storytelling, more action and season arcs. The gravitational distortion and whatever or whoever causes it seems to be the main arc for this season. It doesn’t look very impressive – Zack Handlen calls it a “scary black cloud” – but it certainly is powerful and nasty.

A promising start to season 4. A pity that thanks to Paramount’s dick move, viewers outside the US and Canada won’t be able to watch it legally.

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2 Responses to Star Trek Discovery Takes the “Kobayashi Maru” Test

  1. Peer says:

    I just happened to watch this now with some delay. I am a bit wary, because imho this was a pretty paint-by-numbers episode, with a lot of familiar themes.I’m curious how things progress however.
    I have to side with Rillak, Michael is a terrible captain. Not that I don’t like her, but she is incredibly unprepared and solves things on the fly, because she can. The butterfly mission was a case in point: Perhaps a slower approach would have shown that they don’t like carnivores and need their satellites fixed. And yes, maverick
    Ing only works if you have the writers behind you, which s something Rillack can’t know 😉
    I also don’t know how the kobayashi Mary test works, if everyone knows it comes one day (even if the cadets don’t know when). But it may just shows that’s far easier to envision new tech than new social sciences like education (or political or juridical systems for that matter)

    • Cora says:

      I haven’t seen the latest episode yet, but so far season 4 of Discovery feels very much like paint-by-numbers Star Trek. It’s very recognisably Star Trek, unlike particularly season 1, but it’s very middle of the road Star Trek.

      I agree that Michael is too impulsive and too much of a maverick to make a good captain. Michael is fine for who she is, but I would have preferred Saru as captain, since Saru actually is a very good captain.

      As for the Kobayashi Maru test, I like Kirk’s solution to just hack and reprogram the damned system.

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