It’s time for the next, somewhat belated 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!
After spending the last episode dealing with the political situation on Ni’Var a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan, Discovery is finally back to dealing with this season overarching plot problem, namely the planet eating Dark Matter Anomaly, DMA for short.
The episode opens with a Starfleet vessel, the USS Janeway (nice shout-out to Star Trek Voyager there) approaching the Dark Matter Anomaly to take some readings, when something unexpected happens. The anomaly abruptly vanishes, only to pop up a thousand lightyears away 4.5 seconds later. This is clearly not supposed to happen and no natural phenomenon would behave this way, so Stamets and Jet Reno (a welcome return by Tig Notaro, who has also been promoted to the title sequence by now) deduce what was bleedingly obvious to everybody else: The DMA is no natural phenomenon, someone created it and has sent it to wreak havoc upon the universe. As for who might be behind the DMA, the likely candidates thrown out are the Metrons, the Nacene and the Iconians as well as the Q-Continuum, though there has been no contact with them in more than six hundred years. There’s a nice spectrum of suspects here, ranging from the Original Series all the way to Voyager (and there’s an Enterprise reference in the episode as well), though I can think of several other likely candidates not mentioned.
Michael, Saru and Stamets break the news to Admiral Vance, who is appropriately horrified. Vance is also understandably eager to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the DMA, so he sends the 31st century’s premier scientist, one Ruon Tarka (played by Canadian actor Shawn Doyle, who has been in everything) aboard the Discovery to investigate the DMA and run some tests. Stamets is about as thrilled about this, as you can imagine, especially since Tarka has not been replying to the messages Stamets sent him and won’t talk to him.
The fact that Tarka is as much of an arsehole as Stamets was in the very early episodes of Discovery, before he gradually mellowed out, doesn’t help either. And indeed, Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido and io9 reviewer James Whitbrook both point out how much Tarka is like early Stamets. That said, I did feel a bit of sympathy for Tarka, who hails from Risa a.k.a. the prime sex tourism destination in the Federation. Tarka is clearly frustrated, since he is the only intelligent person in Risa and the only one who doesn’t want to have sex with anything that moves. Star Trek quite frequently relies on the good old “all members of species X have the same characteristics” shorthand, but occasionally they manage to play against type such as one of the most brilliant scientists in the universe hailing from the sex tourism planet.
Tarka theorises that there is a device at the centre of the DMA that controls it and wants to recreate the device and the DMA as a small scale model in a risky experiment that for reasons unknown needs to be done in the Discovery‘s engine room. Surely a lab on some research station with a high power supply would be a much safer location to carry out this experiment. Especially since the Discovery is in the middle of a rescue mission (more on that later) to evacuate the inhabitants of some asteroids which happen to be in the path of the DMA. But of course, the plot needs maximum drama and so Tarka has to carry out his experiment on board the Discovery in the middle of a rescue mission.
Stamets may not be a fan of Tarka, but he’s clearly a fan of dangerous experiments and so he’s of course totally eager to recreate a mini version of a planet-killing anomaly in the Discovery‘s engine room. Jet Reno is much less enthusiastic about the whole experiment – “I imagine the look on Tilly’s face when she learns that we all got sucked into a wormhole a week after she left.” – but goes along with it. Saru is not exactly pleased either and insists on supervising the experiment right there in the engine room.
It’s great having Jet Reno back, since Tig Notaro’s dry and sarcastic remarks have been sorely missed. I remember that I was initially sceptical about Tig Notaro, when she was announced as a regular back before season 2, but Jet is quickily becoming one of my favourite characters. Not to mention that it’s still rare to have a middle-aged woman in a TV show who’s not playing a sitcom mother or something like that. And she gets to be delightfully grumpy, too. More Jet please.
The experiment initially goes quite well and recreates a mini-version of the distinctive eye shape of the DMA. But then it stalls for lack of power. Tarka wants to increase the power, which unfortunately also requires increasing the power consumed by the containment field for the experiment. However, Tarka and Stamets can’t use all the power the Discovery has at her disposal for the experiment, because the transporters are needed for the rescue mission and consume quite a lot of power. However, Jet believes that she can scrounge up some additional power for the experiment. “Is it safe?” Saru asks. Jet Reno informs him that on a scale from 1 equals harmless to 10 equals “This is a really bad idea”, supplying additional power to the experiment is a 6. Saru is not happy, but eventually gives the go-ahead – after trading primal cries with Tarka – with the caveat that Saru wants a kill-switch to personally shut down the experiment, if necessary.
So Stamets and Tarka get their extra power, but it’s still not enough. Tarka persuades Stamets to take power from the containment field, which seems like a spectacularly bad idea. Stamets keeps telling Saru that they need only one more minute, while the integrity of the containment field keeps dropping. When the containment field integrity is down to only five percent, Saru finally does the smart thing and activates the kill-switch and shuts the experiment down, much to Stamets and Tarka’s frustration. “That is the closest you’ve come to killing us all, and that’s really saying something,” Jet Reno dryly tells Stamets. Did I mention that I love Jet Reno?
But even though Stamets and Tarka may not have gotten all the data they needed (which is a good thing, since they were about to blow up the Discovery), they got enough data to draw some conclusions. For starters, they proved that the DMA was artificially created by someone. “And that someone…” Tarka tells Book at the bar (The Discovery has a bar?), “…is not the Metrons, the Iconians or the Nacene.” For Tarka also points out that even a miniature model of the DMA consumed more energy than the Discovery was capable of generating. So the real deal will require unfathomable power. Keen-eared viewers will notice that Tarka omitted the Q-Continuum from the likely suspects he eliminated. So does it mean it is the Q-Continnum? After all, we know that John DeLancie will be reappearing in season 2 of Star Trek Picard.
While Tarka and Book are having a drink at the bar, the camera makes sure to show us that Tarka has a distinctive scar on the back of his neck. There is a lot of speculation about what that scar might mean. It reminded me of the explosive devices the Emerald Chain implanted in the neck of their slaves in the season 3 episode “Scavengers”. Other theories involve the mysterious mind-controlling parasites from the Next Generation episode “Conspiracy”. Frustratingly, there never was a follow-up to “Conspiracy” and we never saw those parasites again, which is a pity, since “Conspiracy” was always a personal favourite of mine, probably because it was my introduction to the concept of the mind-controlling parasite, even though the trope goes back to the golden age. The 1944 story “And the Gods Laughed” by Fredric Brown is the earliest instance of mind-controlling parasites I’ve come across. The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein is probably the most famous. Though IMO it’s likelier that the scar refers back to a Discovery episode that aired last year and that Tarka is a former Emerald Chain slave than that it refers back to a Next Generation episode that aired 33 years ago. And if Tarka is a former Emerald Chain slave, he certainly has every reason to be angry and abbrasive.
As Bonnie McDaniel points out in her review, it seems obvious that Tarka will play a bigger role this season. However, in this episode his main purpose – beyond confirming what everybody already suspected anyway, that the DMA is manmade and that whoever made it is very powerful – is to provide contrast to Stamets and remind us what Stamets used to be like and how far he has come in four seasons. Plus, Tarka also provides a much needed lesson to Stamets about how he comes across to others.
Stamets gets a lot of screentime in this episode and so does his significant other Dr. Hugh Culber, who has some issues of his own. In addition to his regular job as ship’s doctor, Culber has also taken on the position of ship’s counsellor and he’s stressed out, not too mentioned worried whether he is truly helping his patients. So Culber requests a therapy sessions with Dr. Kovich, which results in Kovich telling Culber point blank that he’s trying to compensate for the survivor’s (or would that be resurrection) guilt he’s been feeling since he came back from the dead.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of therapy scenes, but I like David Cronenberg as the deadpan Dr. Kovich, even if he looks more like an undertaker than a therapist. Hugh Culber’s resurrection was of course the result of the showrunners desperately trying to undo one of the many mistakes of season 1. And honestly, I still have no idea what the season 1 showrunners were thinking to kill off Culber in the first place. Did they honestly not foresee that people would be upset if they offer us an incredibly cute gay couple and then kill off one of them for pure shock value? Cause it was so very obvious that this was what was going to happen.
But even though Dr. Culber’s resurrection was the result of the terrible choices made by the season 1 showrunners, it is nice to see it addressed that coming back from the dead would not be without consequences for Culber, even two seasons later. Though I’m still glad that the showrunners brought Culber back, because he and Stamets make such a cute couple and I just love seeing them together.
Hard as it may be to believe, “Stamets and Tarka nearly blow up the Discovery” was only the B-plot of this episode. The A-plot was the rescue mission I have mentioned a few times. Because once the DMA beamed to a different location, it threatened a group of inhabited asteroids. The inhabitants of those asteroids are the Akaali, a humanoid species that James Whitbrook points out were introduced in an episode of Star Trek Enterprise. The Akaali were a pre-industrial civilisation in Enterprise, but by the 32nd century they have developed space flight and established space colonies.
The Akaali colony that is in the path of the DMA is not a member of the Federation, but is located in what was Emerald Chain technology, but Starfleet – being Starfleet – wants to rescue them anyway. And of course, the Discovery leads the evacuation mission.
Lieutenant Rhys asks to lead the rescue mission. Turns out his home was destroyed by a hurricane and Starfleet rescued and evacuated him and others, so he wants to give back. Discovery continues giving the underserved bridge crew backstories and personalities.
While Michael is discussing details of the evacuation with the local magistrate, the Discovery notes six life signs far from the evacuation point. Michael informs the magistrate about this and points out that these six people seem to have been forgotten and that the Discovery will of course beam them out.
However, the six people have not been forgotten. They are prisoners – the titular Examples – who have been locked up for life as an example to other citizens, a practice the Akaali retained from the Emerald Chain era. Michael points out that they have to evacuate the prisoners anyway, but the magistrate couldn’t care less what happens to them. As far as he is concerned, the Examples are criminals and don’t deserve to be rescued. And besides, the guards have long since abandoned the prison and automatic defence systems prevent Discovery from just beaming out the six prisoners.
So Michael – being heroic to a fault once again – and Book personally beam down onto the doomed asteroid to rescue the prisoners. In order to do so, they have to dodge forcefields and exploding beetles shooting glowing saw discs, that look like something out of a 1920s/1930s Frank R. Paul illustration and that serve as perimeter guards. Someone said that the whole prison break sequence is reminiscent of a videogame and it very much is.
The prison break scene brings back some of the banter between Michael and Book that was such a joy in season 3 and yet has been almost absent from season 4, once Book morphed from space rogue to walking and talking illustration of the five stages of grief. I’m glad to see at least some of that banter and the old Book back.
Once Michael and Book have made it into the prison, more problems await them. For starters, the prisoners are extremely sceptical of Michael and Book’s intentions. It turns out that all of them were given life sentences for petty crimes like car theft, food theft or card counting to make examples of them, for such is Emerald Chain justice. The Federation never cared about this patently unjust system before (and to be fair, the justice systems of worlds not part of the Federation are none of their business), so why do they care now? Besides, the prisoners fear that if they are evacuated, they will only be locked up again elsewhere. But if left to their own devices, they might manage to escape and go on the run.
This situation provides another moral dilemma for Michael. For distasteful and unjust as the Akaali justice system may be, the Akaali colony is a sovereign territory and can do whatever it likes and Starfleet has no right to interfere with their policies. However, Michael finds a way around this. If the prisoners apply for political asylum in the Federation, their cases will be reviewed. And since the Federation does not believe in life sentences for petty crimes, at least not anymore, the prisoners will be set free. Michael’s faith in the Federation’s justice system is certainly touching especially considering her experiences in season 1.
The prisoners are satisfied and Michael and Book manage to disabled the remaining security systems. However, there is one more hitch because the leader of the prisoners, a man called Felix (played by indigenous Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes) refuses to leave the prison. Unlike the others, he was convicted of murder and feels the need to do penance for his crime even thirty years later. Michael manages to convince Felix to at least leave his cell, but he refuses to cross the final perimeter fence to be beamed out.
Book refuses to leave Felix behind. Michael isn’t happy about leaving Felix behind either, but points out (correctly) that they can’t force Felix to go anywhere against his will. Michael gives Felix her communicator – in case he changes his mind – while Felix gives her an Akaali holographic family tree doohickey, which he stole from the man he murdered. These holographic family trees are extremely important to Akaali families and apparently every family only has one, so the daughter of the man Felix murdered has to live not only without a father, but also without a family history. Felix now asks Michael to return the family tree doohickey to its rightful owner. Michael gives him her word, then she and Book reluctantly beam out.
Just before the asteroids are gobbled up by the DMA, Michael contacts Felix once more and gets his whole story. The man Felix murdered was a good person, who gave homeless Felix a place to sleep and got robbed and murdered for his troubles. Felix has been atoning for his crime ever since.
Michael Greyeyes delivers an impressive performance as Felix, but this cannot hide the fact that the whole Felix plot makes very little sense. For starters, Felix has been in prison for the murder he committed for thirty years now. It’s quite likely that the Federation would pardon him, especially since he clearly is no menace to society anymore. And even if he wants to stay in prison to atone for his crime, he could still have allowed himself to be evacuated and then been imprisoned somewhere else.
As for that family tree doohickey, yes, it makes for impressive drama, but again the whole thing makes no sense. If that doohickey is really so important, why does every family have only one and why are there no backups? Why did Felix steal it in the first place, when he’s Akaali and would know that the doohickey is valuable only to the family whose lineage it illustrates. Why did he wait thirty years to return the doohickey, when he could have given it back at any time?
It’s easy enough to see what the writers were going for with the whole prison sequence, namely bring Starfleet into contact and conflict with a system that is unjust and abhorrent but that they are nonetheless forced to respect for reasons of sovereignty. The Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon” is one example (which ends with Kirk saying “Fuck that shit” and not respecting the computerised warfare and disintegration stations of Eminiar VII). The Next Generation episode “Justice”, where Wesley Crusher is almost executed for trampling some flower beds, is another. In fact, “Justice” is probably a closer parallel to “The Examples”, because both episodes feature a justice system that imposes disproportionately severe sentences for petty crimes to keep the populace on the straight and narrow.
“Justice” is one of the worst, maybe the worst, Star Trek episodes of all time, so using that episode of all things as inspiration is certainly a choice. On the other hand, “Justice” is so terrible that it shouldn’t be too difficult to redo the basic story idea and do better. The Orville, which sadly seems to have vanished into the ether, managed to offer its own superior take on “Justice” after all.
Sadly, “The Examples” does not manage to offer a superior take on “Justice”. Of course, “The Examples” is not as mindblowingly terrible as “Justice”. There are no space hippies and no god-like entity in orbit and while the sentences of the prisoners are excessive, they are not as ridiculously excessive as the death penalty for trampling flower beds.
However, “Justice” also does a better job at making us care, because the person at the receiving end of the unjust alien justice system is a character we know and care about (at least in theory, since Wesley Crusher wasn’t exactly beloved among viewers at this point). Meanwhile, the prisoners in “The Examples” are ciphers, props to allow the story to make a moral point. Felix is the only one who acquires anything approaching a personality. Coincidentally, this is not even the first time this season that Discovery treats the beings at the centre of its moral dilemma of the week as props rather than character. “Choose to Live” also did it.
In his review at the AV-Club, Zack Handlen points out that the whole prisoner plot feels like the dramatised version of a moral dilemma borrowed from a philosophy textbook (and I thought only The Good Place did this) rather anything that might plausibly happen. Felix nobly sacrificing himself (For what exactly? The guy he killed is still dead) and Michael returning the family tree gadget to the very pregnant daughter of the man Felix killed is pure emotional manipulation, designed to tug our heartstrings without really resolving anything. Felix being evacuated after all and returning the gadget to the young woman himself would have been much more powerful than Michael giving the thing back.
Though Michael does get a good scene with the snooty Akaali magistrate who insists that the prisoners be locked in the brig, because he can’t be expected to breathe the same recycled air as criminals. Michael calmly points out that the Discovery is her ship and that the magistrate has absolutely no jurisdiction. Then she reminds him that wherever he ends up, he’ll be a penniless refugee and not exactly welcome, so maybe he should just show some fucking empathy.
All in all, my take on this episode of Star Trek Discovery is very much like my take on the previous episodes of season 4. It definitely feels like Star Trek – which is an improvement over season 1, which did not feel like Star Trek at all for long stretches of time. However, it’s very average, middle of the road Star Trek. There are moral dilemmas, inspirational speeches, intergalactic mysteries to solve with the power of science.
It also doesn’t help that I still don’t find the DMA a particularly compelling mystery, even though we now know that someone created it. The whole DMA plot also moves at a glacial place, while the story takes various detours into not very interesting moral dilemmas.
At this point, what keeps me watching are the characters and their interactions, because the plot isn’t particularly exciting.
Two more episode to go until the mid-season break, so let’s see if it gets better.