It turns out that Star Trek Discovery won the “What to watch next?” contest, so here’s the latest installment in my series of episode by episode reviews 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 good ship Discovery and her valiant crew, they had managed to save most of the crew of Deep Space Repair Station Beta Six from a cosmic anomaly, only for that anomaly to destroy the entire planet of Kwejian, homeworld of Michael’s boyfriend Book.
This episode now is devoted to figuring out just what this anomaly is and what to do about it. And so there is a big meeting at Starfleet headquarters, involving Admiral Vance, President Rillak, the President of Nevarr a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan and several other senior Federation and Starfleet personnel. Saru is there as well, back from his sojourn on Kaminar and a most welcome presence he is, too. Cause I’ve certainly missed Saru and so, it seems, has everybody else. Michael may be the star and Captain now, but Saru is the heart of Discovery, even if it makes little sense for him to stay on as First Officer, when he actually is a Captain and fully qualified to command a ship of his own.
“We have never faced a threat like this one before,” someone says at the Starfleet meeting, which is of course ridiculous, because Star Trek constantly deals with cosmic anomalies. There were times when it seemed as if the Enterprise (any of them) or Voyager ran into some cosmic anomaly every other episode. Yes, most of them were not so big and destructive that they blew up whole planets, but even planets get destroyed in Star Trek with remarkably frequency. What makes Kwejian different from most other planets destroyed in Star Trek, even prominent ones like Romulus, is that the script gave us and the main cast a reason to care, because Kwejian happened to be the homeworld of Book and its destruction also killed Book’s brother and nephew. Nonetheless, the claim that “Starfleet has never faced a threat like this before” is as ridiculous as Tony Blair claiming that the UK has never faced such a terrorist threat before after the London terror attacks of July 7, 2005, completely forgetting more than twenty years of IRA terrorism, which had only ended not quite ten years before.
The assembled Federation dignitaries quickly come to the conclusion that what is needed is more data, so Discovery is dispatched for the anomaly to gather that data. It is this mission that makes up the bulk of the episode.
Discovery‘s resident geek squad, i.e. Stamets, Tilly and Adira, came up with the theory that the anomaly was caused by two black holes merging, which is why it was not detected in time to evacuate Kwejian and Deep Space Repair Station Beta Six, since black holes are notoriously difficult to detect. This is a very technobabble heavy episode with the only saving grace being that Anthony Rapp is great at delivering technobabble and Mary Wiseman and Blu del Barrio are pretty good at it themselves.
Once Discovery reaches the anomaly and observes it from a safe distance, it turns out that Stamets, Tilly and Adira’s hypothesis was wrong. The anomaly was not caused by two merging black holes. Apparently, it is something much weirder (and here I thought merging black holes were weird). At any rate, once Michael orders the polarizing technobabble filter applied to the viewscreen, everybody gasps and stares in shock and horror at the screen. But when we finally get to see the screen, it is a big black planet eating cloud with glowy blue sparks. Yes, it may eat planets, but the whole thing doesn’t look very scary at all (and the Discovery effects team really is in love with those glowy blue sparks, since anything strange or alien in this show is dotted with glowy blue sparks). AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen calls it a giant space kablooey.
However, the Discovery is there to gather data and gather data they will. There is only one problem: The Discovery can’t get close enough to safely gather the data. Using drones is out of the question as well, because the anomaly would destroy them.
Book points out that his shapeshifting spaceship could fly into the anomaly to gather data. Everybody thinks that’s a great idea, so Michael orders Stamets and Detmer to board Book’s ship and put that plan into action. However, Book is not handing his ship over to Detmer. He’ll fly himself, since he knows his ship better than anyone.
This put Michael in a difficult position, because as Captain she knows that Book is the person best suited for the mission. However, as a human being, she’s unwilling to put her partner into danger. Especially since she knows that Book is still dealing with the trauma and grief from losing his family and his homeworld. Besides, putting Stamets and Book on the same ship is not a great idea, since they are the only two people who can operate the spore drive. Of course, every other empath could theoretically operate the spore drive, too, but the destruction of Kwejian just radically reduced the supply of empaths.
It’s Saru’s sage advice that comes to Michael’s rescue here. Yes, Book is the best person for the mission. He knows it and Michael knows it, too. So Book should go. However, Michael is also right that Book is not in a good place mentally, so they will add some extra safety measures. These safety measures are connecting Book’s ship to the Discovery by a tether and putting Stamets not physically onto the ship, but as a hologram.
Due to her Vulcan upbringing and her own trauma, which she has never fully processed, Michael is not exactly the ideal person to help Book through his trauma and grief, though she is trying. The only person aboard the Discovery who’s probably an even worse choice in helping someone else deal with trauma and grief is Stamets. Not to mention that Stamets doesn’t particularly like Book at the best of times, because Book is the only other person who can handle Stamets’ baby, the spore drive. Not to mention, as Stamets eventually admits, that Book was the one who saved Stamets family in the season 3 finale, while Stamets couldn’t do anything. So of course, the plot pairs up these two characters who don’t get along.
To be fair, Stamets knows that he is not the most empathetic person around, so he asks Culber for advice. Culber tells him to basically listen and maybe treat Book the way Stamets wishes people would have treated him after Culber was murdered – after all, Stamets is no stranger to grief himself.
So Book, Stamets’ hologram and Grudge the cat set out in their mission. Stamets puts his foot into his mouth almost immediately, when he points out that the reason the anomaly is flinging so much debris around is that it just gobbled up a planet. Book, meanwhile, has hallucinations of dead birds (the first to sense the coming of doom Kwejian were the birds who flew up into the sky) and his nephew Leto. And hallucination are never a good thing, least of all when you’re flying a dangerous mission.
Things go wrong almost at once. Even though the Discovery is supposed to be at a safe distance, it is affected by the anomaly, which manifests itself as the artificial gravity random cutting out for a few moments, sending everybody floating and then crashing back to the floor. Tilly and Adira figure out that the gravity disturbances comes in waves – while being treated by Culber for injuries sustained by falling to the deck twice – but the Discovery still has to pull back. And since Stamets needs more time for his scans, that means releasing the tether.
Meanwhile, the situation aboard Book’s ship is getting worse. The ship is suffering damages and at one point, Book tells Stamets to just return to his body aboard the Discovery with the data and leave him be. Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out that Book is clearly suicidal in this scene and indeed the only thing which keeps him from just staying inside the anomaly until it tears his ship apart is the fact that Stamets can’t transmit the data back to Discovery (or at any rate says he can’t) and later Michael talking him down.
Since the Discovery crew knows that the graviational disturbances come in waves, Commander Bryce, i.e. the cute black guy of the bridge crew, uses his kite surfing experience to suggest that Book’s ship just ride a gravity wave out. Again, it’s nice to see the bridge crew given more to do.
The first attempt to hitch a ride on a gravity wave and surf to freedom fails, but the second attempt succeeds and Book, Stamets and the data are safe. However, an initial evaluation of the data reveals something alarming. The anomaly randomly changed direction, which isn’t even supposed to be possible. Hence, there is no way to predict where or when it will strike next. The camera then pulls back to reveal the anomaly inside what appears to be a malevolent giant eye.
Plotwise, the episode wasn’t particularly thrilling. There is a dangerous anomaly and Discovery investigates why the anomaly is doing anomalous things and if there is a way to stop it. What makes this episode are the actors and characters. Because this is not so much an episode about a cosmic anomaly, but one about the various characters coming to terms with their various traumas.
Book, who just lost is entire homeworld and the family he had only just found again, is the most obvious case. However, the episode also addresses Stamets’ lingering trauma about being powerless to save his family in the season 3 finale as well as Tilly and Adira’s trauma caused by working so very hard to save the stationmaster, only to lose him anyway. If only all redshirts were so mourned as that stationmaster. Finally, the episode also addresses Tilly’s reaction to her shifting role from mentee to mentor to Adira. So in short, there is a lot of nice meaty character stuff to bulk up the flimsy plot. Great acting from David Ajala, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz and the rest of the cast helps to sell the drama. Finally, everybody’s favourite little rainbow family of Stamets, Culber, Adira and Gray, who is about to get an android body based on the one given to Picard in the season 1 finale of Star Trek Picard gets plenty of screentime, which is always a good thing.
Star Trek has traditionally not been very good at addressing trauma, probably because the show comes from an era where trauma was much less understood as it is today, though it should be noted that there are realistic depictions of trauma as far back as the 1930s and very likely before. Discovery tries to do better and acknowledges that its characters should be massively traumatised by what they’ve been through in the past three seasons. And frankly, it’s great to see trauma and grief addressed in a science fiction show.
That said, the meaty character stuff doesn’t change the fact that the plot is flimsy and that a big, bad evil space cloud is not all that thrilling a menace, even if it eats planets. It was fine for one episode, but they better come up with some interesting background for the big, bad evil space cloud soon (It’s sentient. It’s a weapon and someone is directing it. It was caused by Discovery jumping through space and time).
This first advent weekend, I watched two TV shows – Star Trek Discovery and Masters of the Universe: Revelation – in which the characters deal with trauma and grief, while also fighting a universe-threatening menace. What surprised the hell out of me that Masters of the Universe: Revelation, a show based on a cartoon created to sell toys to kids, handled its subject better than Star Trek Discovery.
For starters, Masters of the Universe: Revelation had a much more interesting universe-threatening menace than Star Trek Discovery. I mean, a big black evil cloud versus an all-powerful Evil-Lyn who went insane because of her own nihilism is not even a contest. And when the camera pulled back to reveal the malevolent eye at the end, I exclaimed, “Oh look, Evil-Lyn has found the Star Trek universe and is about to snuff it out.”
But Master of the Universe: Revelation also handled the trauma and grief part better, which surprised the hell out of me. Because I felt the murders of the Sorceress, Fisto and Clamp Champ (and I never cared about Fisto and Clamp Champ at all and not particularly about the Sorceress either) more than I felt the destruction of Kwejian and the death of Stationmaster Redshirt. I felt Teela’s grief at losing her best friend and her anger at being lied to. I felt Duncan’s grief at seeing the woman he loved and could never be with murdered in front of his eyes. I felt Adam’s anger at never being taken seriously by his father and never being good enough, no matter what he did. But while David Ajala, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman and Blu Del Barrio all delivered great performances in this episode, I didn’t really feel for them the way I did for those faintly absurd cartoon characters designed to sell action figures.
It’s probably not fair comparing a show that was so much better than I expected to one that I know can do better than they did here.
The new Disney+ show Hawkeye also debuted this week and supposedly, it also deals with trauma, grief and PTSD, though probably not with universe-threatening menaces, those being reserved for the big screen Marvel movies. So let’s see how they do.