Star Trek Discovery is back for the last few episodes of season 4. Reviews of previous seasons and episodes may be found here.
Also, is it me or have the episode titles become much shorter of late?
Warning: Spoilers under the cut!
When we last saw the Discovery and her valiant crew, Michael had lost a poker game and a supply of isolynium to Book and Tarka, who want to use the isolynium to build a weapon that will destroy the Dark Matter Anomaly, in complete defiance of Federation policy and decisions. Nor does Book respond to the new information that the DMA is a kind of mining equipment and not a weapon with any response other than, “But it’s still eating planets and killing people, so we must destroy it.”
However, unbeknownst to Book, Michael planted a tracker on the isolynium, allowing the Discovery to track Book and Tarka and stop them before they do even more damage and possibly drag the Federation into a war with the highly technologically advanced Species 10c.
Of course, Michael and the Discovery crew are not exactly neutral with regard to Book. However, the Discovery is also the only Starfleet ship that’s fast enough to go after Book’s ship and its experimental spore drive. So Admiral Vance along a watchdog with the power to override Michael’s and Saru’s commands, should they fail to make the necessary call. And this watchdog is a familiar, namely Commander Nhan, security chief first aboard the Enterprise and then aboard Discovery, as she came into the future. Nhan abruptly exited the show last season, when she randomly decided to guard the Federation’s seed vault ship after its previous guardians had been killed in a tragic accident.
I liked Nhan quite a bit and she was probably my favourite of the Discovery‘s various security chiefs (okay, I liked Ash Tyler, too, but Ash Tyler wasn’t real) and her exit always felt overly abrupt, so I’m glad to see her back – with a less visible breathing apparatus and heavy gold eye shadow. Michael is also glad to see Nhan back. Besides, Nhan is the ideal choice for this mission, because the Discovery crew know and trust her and because she has emotional connection to Book, but barely knew him.
The Discovery tracks Book, Tarka and the isolynium to a hollowed out planetoid where they’re hiding out. The Discovery cloaks itself and jumps in. Then a cloaked shuttle with Saru, Dr. Culber, Bryce and Rhys (who actually agrees with Book and Tarka, but orders are orders) aboard is sent in to clandestinely dock with Book’s ship, use Michael’s knowsledge of his ship to disable the security systems and take Book and Tarka into custody. In fact, the whole reason Dr. Culber is there is to talk down Book. Nobody seems to think about talking down Tarka. Maybe they were planning to simply stun him, a plan of which I would wholly approve, because Tarka turns even more insufferable in this episode, if that’s possible. And Tarka already was damn insufferable.
Because it turns out that Tarka has upgraded the defence system of Book’s ship – without telling Book about it. And this defence system not only detects the shuttle, but also coats it in some kind of nano-substance, which almost destroys the shuttle and nearly kills Saru, Culber, Rhys and Bryce. To his credit, Book is appalled and actually helps Michael to stall the nano-substance long enough, so the Discovery can beam out Saru, Culber, Rhys and Bryce in the nick of time. Tarka, meanwhile, seems totally unbothered that his defence system almost killed four Starfleet officers. This is the moment where we realise that Tarka isn’t just a jerk, he’s a dangerous sociopath. Unfortunately, neither Book nor the Discovery crew come to this conclusion until it’s too late, as Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out.
Now they know that Discovery is on their tail, Book and Tarka jump directly into the center of the DMA to deploy the weapon. Discovery follows. Michael gives a little speech about how they are jumping into the unknown and have no idea what awaits them, only to find that the heart of the DMA looks like an old school cloud tank. It’s also huge, so both Book and Tarka as well as Discovery have problems locating the device at the center of the DMA that powers it and instead encounter each other first.
Now begins a neat cat and mouse game where Michael and Book use their knowledge of each other and each other’s ships to disable the other. The Discovery fires a flare at Book’s ship to knock out his sensors, so he can’t scan for the device powering the DMA. Book retaliates by igniting a hydrogen cloud, but Michael recognises the manoeuvre from their time together as couriers (and I still wish that we had gotten to see more of that) and manages to evade the resulting blast.
At this point, Nhan informs Michael and Saru that Starfleet has found a vulnerability in Book’s ship. Michael is surprised, because she knows of no such vulnerability. However, the vulnerability is not so much in the ship itself, but in the experimental spore drive prototype Tarka stole and installed on board. A torpedo hit in a certain spot will destroy the spore drive and the ship, killing Book and Tarka.
Michael, of course, does not want to kill Book and Tarka and Nhan agrees that this plan is the last resort (though with Starfleet, I assume the reason is reluctance to lose their experimental spore drive prototype rather than concern for Book or even Tarka), but that she is authorised to give the order.
Michael’s plan, meanwhile, involves determining how long the DMA will stay in the area before it moves again. And since they know now that the DMA is a piece of mining equipment, Michael has Stamets and Zora calculate how long it will take for the DMA to extract all boronite from the area and move on. Unfortunately, the calculations involved are very complex and Stamets is also needed to jump.
By now, Discovery has finally located the device powering the DMA (a glowing, spinning polyhedron), but Book and Tarka are hot on their heels. Michael orders the Discovery to put itself between Book’s ship and the device, blocking a clear shot. Hereby, Michael is confident that Book will not fire on Discovery.
There is a tense stand-off. Discovery fires some warning shots at Book and Book fires some warning shots at Discovery. Book’s ship also jumps a few times, hoping for a clear shot, only for Discovery to jump as well. However, while Book will not fire shots aimed to destroy or disable at Discovery, Tarka has no such compulsions and fires at Discovery, taking out their shields. At this point, I was yelling at Book to please knock out Tarka, before the idiot could do any more damage.
Nhan is about the give the order to blow Book and Tarka to smithereens, when Stamets finally has the solution to his math problem. The DMA will remain in the area another week before moving again. This is the information that Michael needed to convince Book.
She orders Rhys to fire the deadly shot, when Nhan says the word, boards a shuttle and flies out to Book’s ship, confident that Book will not fire on her. Once again, no one worries about Tarka or what he might be doing. I have no idea why Michael can’t just hail Book from aboard Discovery and say her piece, but then the solo shuttle missions makes for more drama.
Michael tells Book that the DMA will remain in this uninhabited part of space for another week and that there is no accute risk of the DMA gobbling up another planet in this time. The Federation will use the time to initiate first contact and if there is no response or a hostile response, they can still blow up the DMA. But for now, would Book please stand down and wait just one week?
Book finally agrees to stand down. But once again, no one pays any attention to Tarka. A fatal mistake, since Tarka launches the weapon anyway before Book can stop him. And once launched, the weapon cannot be stopped. All that remains is for Discovery to jump to safety. Book follows, once he’s sure Discovery is safe. The weapon hits its aim and the DMA vanishes. However, no one gets what they want in this episode, not even Tarka. For once the dust has cleared, Tarka realises that the DMA power source he so desperately needs is on the other side of the wormhole created by the DMA and beyond the Galactic Barrier, meaning that Tarka is not going to escape to any other universe soon.
Like Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido, I found myself increasingly frustrated by Michael’s and Book’s complete and utter failure to realises that Tarka is a loose cannon, even though this was apparent at the very least from the moment on that Tarka’s unauthorised modifications of Book’s ship nearly got Saru, Culber, Bryce and Rhys killed. And considering that Tarka nearly blew up Discovery in the name of science back in “The Examples”, it should have been obvious to everybody from the start that Tarka just cannot be trusted. Tarka going rogue and stealing the spore drive prototype might have come as a surprise, but afterwards it should have been obvious to everybody that Tarka is a loose cannon and capable of anything. So it’s a mystery why Michael and Book turn their back on him for just one second.
Worse, Tarka’s destruction of the DMA doesn’t achieve anything, because a Starfleet vessels named the USS Mitchell (likely named after Gary Mitchell, the Enterprise crewmember who had a fatal encounter with the Galactic Barrier in the very first Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) reports that a new DMA has popped into existence at the exact same location as the first one. Species 10c received the message and they are not impressed.
Maybe I shouldn’t find the reappearance of the DMA funny – after all, it is a very dangerous planet-eating anomaly – but I did. Because I could imagine some bored Species 10c technician noticing that their mining device had gone offline and just pressing a button to deploy a new one in utter ignorance of all the drama that we had just watched unfold.
However, this also illustrates the main problem with season 4 of Discovery, namely that the DMA for all the devastation it caused just isn’t all that interesting as a threat. It’s basically an alien space dredge that eats planets, deployed by a species we have neither heard nor seen. And what those aliens want is energy. There’s a clumsy metaphor about fossile fuels and climate change in there, but that doesn’t make the DMA itself any more interesting. Ruon Tarka makes for a much more compelling villain with his combination of single-mindedness and utter callousness than the DMA.
There is a subplot, too, involving Saru and his ongoing mutual attraction to President T’Rina of Ni’var. Saru gives T’Rina a holo-call, asking for meditation tips, and T’Rina asks him out on a date, which sets Saru all aflutter, since he has no idea if going on a date with someone of a very different culture is a good idea. Saru even approaches Dr. Culber, hoping that Culber will agree that pursuing a relationship with T’Rina is not a good idea. Culber just grins and tells Saru that he’s being an idiot.
I have to admit that the relationship between Saru and T’Rina is one of my favourite things about season 4 of Star Trek Discovery. Saru and T’Rina are so cute together and besides, Saru deserves some happiness. There seemed to be some hints at an eventual relationship between Michael and Saru in season 2, but I like this development much better. Because Michael is a hot mess with terrible luck regarding boyfriends. Meanwhile, Saru deserves stability and happiness that he will never have with Michael. So even if it looks as if Book will be gone by the end of this season, I’m still crossing my fingers for Saru and T’Rina.
All in all, I enjoyed this episode. It was tense, it was fast-paced and the stakes were suitably high, as io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out. I also enjoyed that violence was only the last resort and that Michael’s plan (which would almost have worked, if not for Tarka) relied instead on her knowledge of Book and his ship. It’s certainly a very Star Trek-like solution and indeed Discovery feels more like Star Trek in its fourth season than it ever has. But while Discovery finally feels like Star Trek, it’s also very middle of the road Star Trek with little of the highs and lows of the earlier season.
Finally, I also can’t help but notice that this entire drama could have been avoided, if Michael and Owosekun had just nerve-pinched and/or punched out Book and Tarka last episode and thrown them in the brig of Discovery. In fact, will someone please punch out Tarka, because he so has it coming.