Star Trek: Discovery’s 4th season opens with a “Kobayashi Maru” scenario…


I usually post spoiler warnings in most of these columns, but I’m doing so with a vengeance for this new season of Star Trek: Discovery reviews in light of a recent real-life controversy. Star Trek: Discovery, which is seen in the United States on Paramount+, CTV Sci-Fi channel in Canada, and on Netflix in overseas markets around the world, is being pulled from Netflix as of this week, meaning that millions of Star Trek fans worldwide (including those who recently attended the popular convention, Destination London) will not be able to see the new season of the show until Paramount+ expands to those areas sometime in 2022. Personally, I am deeply unhappy with this decision, as are many of the creatives who work on the show itself. As a consequence, I urge any readers in those affected regions to decide for themselves if they want to risk spoilers (I’ll take no offense if they choose not to). Here’s hoping the beancounters/lawyers/etc. at Paramount+ will get their act together soon, so that the series can be streamed in those affected markets as soon as possible.


S4.1: “Kobayashi Maru.”

This episode was written by Michelle Paradise, Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi.

“No strings attached.”
Booker (David Ajala) and Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) negotiate for the Alshain’s return to the Federation.

The episode begins with Book (David Ajala) and Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) negotiating with the Alshain for their reintegration into the Federation, 125 years after the Burn sent them into isolation. However, the Alshain leader resents Burnham’s presence and resists her altruistic gift of dilithium to help rebuild Alshainian warp travel. Despite Burnham’s insistence that there are “no strings attached” to her offer, the Alshain leader is offended when he learns that Book brought his cat, Grudge (“a small carnivore”), to their planet. Book explains that his cat “is a queen,” which the Alshain misinterpret as a kidnapped monarch (!).

In short, negotiations break down, and Book and Burnham are forced to run for their lives, barely managing to return to Book’s ship after leaping off a cliff together. The Alshain take flight with living wings (made of tiny hordes of flying creatrues) and pursue. As the Alshain fire at Book’s shuttle, Burnham realize that they can’t seem to aim straight, even at point blank range. Contacting Discovery, Burnham asks them to scan the planet. Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Ensign Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) discover the magnetosphere of the planet is in the process of a magnetic shift of its poles, disorienting wildlife who use planetary magnetism to navigate.

Note: Burnham and Book’s jumping off a cliff and landing on their ship is very reminiscent of Kirk and McCoy’s jumping off of an alien cliff to avoid angry natives in 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” –that jump was itself an homage to many buddy action movies, such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). Recognizing the trope, Burnham even quips, “Why are there always cliffs?” No surprise that writer/producer Alex Kurtzman had a hand in both this story and “Star Trek Into Darkness”.

“You’re welcome.”
Burnham, Book and Grudge leave, after fixing the planet’s failing satellites.

Because of the magnetic polar shift, Tilly realizes they can simply fix the planet’s orbital satellite navigational network. Discovery’s repair drones are sent to repair the lead satellite, and the compensatory signal immediately aids in the Alshain’s biological navigation. Realizing they were aided by the very beings whom they were trying to kill, the Alshain are humbled into accepting the Federation’s offer of dilithium. Whether the Alshain choose further assistance is entirely up to them. No strings attached.

Returning to Discovery, Book tells Burnham he’ll return just as soon as he finishes some personal business with his adoptive nephew’s ceremony of manhood on his home planet of Kwejian.

Note: Nice reiteration of how the Federation works; a system of networked worlds that offer aid without reciprocation–altruism for its own sake. Even in its current state of rebuilding following the Burn, we see the reintegrating Federation membership rise, and a return of the old Star Trek-style optimism, which was arguably in short supply during Discovery’s earlier seasons.

Burnham addresses a new class of fresh cadets for a reopened Starfleet Academy, as President president Lara Rillik (Chelah Horsdal) and Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) look on.

Discovery comes home to roost at the now de-cloaked Starfleet Headquarters complex, still situated in deep space. Burnham is in her dress uniform (a gorgeous plum-colored suit) to address a group of new Starfleet Academy cadets–the first class of Starfleet cadets in 125 years. We are then introduced to Federation president Lara Rillik, a half-human/half-Cardassian who offers thanks to Burnham and the entire Discovery crew for making all of this possible. The ceremony also dedicates a brand-new “Archer spacedock” complex, where a new generation of Starfleet ships will be created. It’s a hopeful time for the healing Federation.

Unfortunately, the good feeling is soon interrupted by a distress call from Deep Space Repair Beta-6, a space station which reported a gravitational anomaly just before all contact was lost. Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) tells Burnham that since the call was made over two hours ago, conventional warp drive will be too slow for a quick response, and that Discovery’s spore-powered jump drive is needed. Against the strong objection of Burnham, President Rillik invites herself to join the ship and observe the possibly dangerous mission firsthand. Burnham assumes its political grandstanding, but we later learn it’s something else…

Note: Discovery’s unique spore drive makes it a much more plausible choice to answer distress calls instead of the old “it’s the only ship in the sector” cliche.

President Rillik makes herself at home on Discovery’s bridge…much to Burnham’s displeasure.

Discovery arrives at the coordinates and finds Beta-6 tumbling rapidly end-over-end. Her gravity control has gone haywire, and Discovery tries to stabilize her spin. After a few tries, contact is reestablished with the station’s commander, Nalas (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll). The nonhuman Nalas is under great stress as his station is critically damaged. Burnham dispatches Lt. Tilly and Ensign Adira Tal with a supply of programmable matter to expedite the station’s repairs. Adira is excited about going on an away mission and nervously babbles with their late Trill lover Gray (Ian Alexander), whose symbiont lives inside of Adira and can still communicate with them. The bridge officers fully (even nonchalantly) accept that Adira can speak to a part of their self that they cannot see and hear, and it is quite normal to everyone on the bridge to see Adira engaged in conversations with Gray. Adira and Tilly have their programmable matter and flash-beam to the station.

Note: I really liked that no one on Discovery’s bridge gives sideways glances or makes fun of Adira talking to their late lover Gray, whose presence is still a very real, since Adira bears Gray’s living Tal symbiont inside of them. In older incarnations of Star Trek, seeing a character talking to themself would be immediate fodder for ridicule, or at least a raised eyebrow or two. However, Discovery’s officers all know that Adira’s communication with Gray is very real, and there is no room to mock or ridicule them for it.

Saru (Doug Jones) addresses his now peaceful, prosperous people, and wonders if it’s time to return to Starfleet…

Meanwhile on the planet Kaminar, Saru (Doug Jones) addresses his people as a respected elder. He is still amazed that his once agrarian world is now sleek and modern, and at peace with their former predators, the Ba’ul. The Kelpien Starfleet officer has been on leave at Kaminar for the past five months, helping the traumatized Su’Kal (William Mills Irwin) readjust to life among his fellow Kelpiens after more than a century on his own. While some Kelpiens are still worried that the dilithium-enhanced Su’Kal might somehow cause another Burn event in an uncontrolled emotional outburst, Saru assures them that is impossible now. After the others leave, Su’Kal tells the supportive Saru that he is much more comfortable on Kaminar now, with friends and family of his own, releasing the ever-patient Saru from his obligation to care for him. This sets up Saru’s return to Starfleet, of course..

Note: Nice that they picked up this thread from last season’s Burn arc, showing that the once raging and near-omnipotent Su’Kal is recovering nicely. If only TOS Star Trek’s Charles Evans (“Charlie X”) had someone as patient and gentle as Saru to reintegrate him into human society, maybe that raging, omnipotent human teenager could’ve been rehabilitated as well. This is an aspect of Discovery I really appreciate; it doesn’t just pay lip service to Star Trek’s high-mindedness–it practices it, as well.

Ensign Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) beam aboard the crippled space station with some programmable matter–the duct tape of the 32nd century.

Aboard the gravitationally-disoriented space station Beta-6, Tilly and Adira are helping the crew and its increasingly agitated Commander Nalas with repairs. Unfortunately, the gravitational force that damaged the station also pushed a wave of icy debris from the system’s surrounding Oort cloud inward, and has rendered transporters unsafe. Discovery tries to extend her shields around the station, but the debris nevertheless impacts the station, depressurizing the only access to the station’s remaining escape shuttle. Burnham says she will fly out to the station in a single-person worker bee spacecraft and repair the damaged sections from outside. Before Burnham leaves the bridge, President Rillik reminds the captain that her place is on the bridge, and the two have a tense moment before Rillik concedes to Burnham’s authority. Tactical officer Lt Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) is placed in command until her return.

Note: The idea of a higher authority on the bridge looking over the captain’s shoulder is another callback to older Star Treks, with characters such as Commissioner Ferris (“The Galileo 7”) and Ambassador Fox (“A Taste of Armageddon”) acting as nosy interlopers to the captain’s command. However, in this case President Rillik is not entirely wrong, either. More on that after the synopsis…

Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) takes the center seat in Burnham’s absence, while Detmer (Emily Coutts) keeps things steady.

Burnham’s worker bee canopy is destroyed by a chunk of the debris and she is nearly killed, just before the programmable matter in her vehicle turns into a pressurized thruster suit (like Tony Stark in “Iron Man”), and barely saves her life in time. Shedding her worker bee spacecraft, the thruster-suit wearing Burnham jets off to continue her repairs to the station’s compromised exterior. Nalas begins to break under the strain, as he points a phaser on Tilly, ordering her to open a hatch to the vacuumed access area. President Rillik overhears Nalas’ anxiety on the open comms and talks him down. Rillik tells Nalas of a beautiful, rare natural fissure that she once saw on his home planet. Distracted by her soothing words of home, Nalas relaxes, and the volatile situation is defused.

Burnham is able to repair the exterior, allowing access to the Beta-6’s emergency shuttle. Forced to abandon the station, the shuttle needs to make two trips before everyone can be evacuated. Burnham returns via thruster-suit to the Discovery bridge, but the shuttle containing the last three from the station–Tilly, Adira and Commander Nalas–is forced to make an emergency crash landing in the Discovery’s hangar deck. With the last survivors onboard, Discovery is able to jump away in time, but an emergency medical team led by Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) finds Commander Nalas dead under a pile of debris.

Note: Programmable matter… what did Star Trek ever do without it? A very smart addition to the Star Trek toolbox.

President Rillik and Michael have a disagreement about leadership–and the president isn’t wrong, either.

After the crisis, Burnham and President Rillik have a frank discussion. The President went on this mission to assess Michael Burnham as a captain for another command posting (the USS Voyager-J, which is being refit with a new “pathway” drive), but has concluded Burnham isn’t ready. Reminding Burnham of the old “Kobayashi Maru” training exercise, she tells the headstrong young captain that she can’t always expect to win, and that accepting loss and “finding balance” are also the marks of good leadership. Rillik also notes that Burnham still has the martyr complex that’s defined her Starfleet career–that need to always assume everyone’s burdens for herself. Michael then asks the president if she’d really been to Commander Nalas’ home planet or if she just bluffing, to which Rillik replies, “does it matter?” Rillik, somewhat accurately, concludes that the admittedly capable Captain Burnham still has a lot to learn about command. Their conversation is interrupted by a call from Lt. Rhys on the bridge. Book’s ship is returning to Discovery, but on automatic pilot. Something is wrong.

Note: I thought I was going to hate Rillik, and that she was a classic Star Trek interloper (in the tradition of Commissioner Ferris, Ambassador Fox or Admiral Satie) but I was wrong, and she was right in many ways. Despite Burnham’s relative success with the Beta-6 crisis, much of that success wasn’t necessarily due to good leadership on her part.

Lt. Commander Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) tries to get a navigational fix on Kwejian–and can’t.

As Discovery closes in on the nearby Kwejian system, Lt. Commander Owosekun is unable to get a precise navigational fix on the planet. Book’s ship is brought aboard safely, and Book is treated for and quickly recovered from injuries sustained in a shock wave as the gravitational anomaly that devastated nearby Beta-6 seems to have affected his home planet as well. A recovered Book comes to the bridge as the starship approaches the coordinates of where Kwejian should be…

Book stares in horror at the remains of his sanctuary home planet…

… but Book and the others stare in horror as they see the broken, burning shell of his former home planet; his brother, his nephew, his people, and all of the unique species from around the galaxy that were preserved there are gone forever. It’s a shocking, devastating moment.

Note: The sight of Kwejian’s burning husk of its former self reminded me of the loss of Vulcan in the Kelvinverse Star Trek movies. While we didn’t get to know the planet Kwejian nearly as well as we knew Vulcan, the fact that it was a wildlife sanctuary filled with many unique endangered species from around the galaxy makes its loss arguably as profound as the loss of a founding Federation planet. Heartwrenching performance by David Ajala in this scene as well.

The End.

Summing It Up.

The 4th season opener of Star Trek: Discovery feels surefooted and confident, if not overly dynamic. Firmly settled in the 32nd century, “Kobayashi Maru” sees the Discovery crew reassembling a fractured, post-Burn Federation as well as investigating a devastating new gravitational anomaly (good ol’ spatial anomalies–what would Star Trek be without ’em?). There are some borrowed/homaged elements in the episode, such as the comically failed negotiations with the Alshain, which is very reminiscent of Kirk’s epic failure with the Treenaxians in “Star Trek Beyond.” We see the dedication of the “Archer spacedock”, along with a nice reprise of the instrumental theme music to the underrated “Star Trek: Enterprise”. Discovery’s answering a distress call from a wrecked space station reminded me of the Enterprise-D’s rescue mission to the Amargosa observatory in “Star Trek: Generations”. These various elements are nicely (and unobtrusively) integrated into the overall story.

The newly dedicated Archer spacedock. Nice use of the “Star Trek: Enterprise” theme music, too.

More importantly, the title of the episode, which refers to the no-win training scenario seen in both “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek” (2009), is key to the discussion between President Rillik and Captain Burnham near the episode’s end. Rillik is not at all wrong when she points out that Burnham has a martyr complex. This has been addressed throughout the series (even in the pilot) and it’s one of the things that has rubbed some fans the wrong way with her character–her underlying need to constantly risk her own life to save others, and a tendency to ‘go it alone’. A seasoned leader knows when to trust their people to do their best–this is a notion Burnham pays lip service to, but rarely seems to follow.

Another famous Starfleet Captain with a somewhat reckless martyr complex…

This martyr complex also defined the style of Captain Kirk (William Shatner/Chris Pine) as well; how often did Kirk take on a dangerous mission by himself, or beam into a potentially lethal situation when, according to the rule book, he should’ve remained on the ship? Practically every week. So even this potentially fatal character flaw of Burnham’s feels authentically Star Trek. Unlike Kirk, the writers seem to be setting up a season-long arc where this flaw of Burnham’s will be explored and perhaps even exorcised. Perhaps she’ll go from being a reckless Kirk to more of a wisened Picard? It’s one of the things I enjoy about Burnham’s journey–we’re seeing the painful early years of a future great captain, step by step.

Capping the story off with the loss of Book’s wildlife sanctuary home planet of Kwejian gives this solid season opener the necessary gravitas to make the new ‘big threat’ for the season feel valid. While gravitational/spatial anomalies are hardly anything new to Star Trek, I have a feeling this one won’t be easily solved with a few well-placed antimatter detonations.

Looking forward to seeing where this goes…

Where To Watch.

As stated above, Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on Paramount+ right now in the United States, with an overseas debut planned for sometime in 2022. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 762,000 (and over 5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available as well). With a bit of Star Trek optimism and medical science, we can persevere through this pandemic. 

Live long and prosper!

Images: Paramount+,

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Bowler says:

    I’ll probably give Star Trek Discovery another go when season 4 reaches out shores here in the uk. Must admit I didn’t go much on Season 3, and was quite disappointed with how the show has developed. Still, I’m willing to give it another chance.

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