*******STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!********
Better Late Than Never…
In the wake of last week’s announcement that Netflix would no longer be distributing Star Trek: Discovery in foreign markets (an announcement unfortunately timed right after the Destination London Star Trek convention, and only two days before Season 4’s debut in North America), Paramount+ and PlutoTV have reached an agreement to make the show available to those affected markets, with the first two episodes dropping on Friday, November 26th, and each new episode dropping subsequently in the weeks to follow. Whew! With that deal in place, Star Trek: Discovery’s 4th season will be available to those international Star Trek fans who’d previously enjoyed the series via Netflix. This emergency distribution agreement puts a patch on a PR nightmare for Star Trek.
I’m also apologizing for the lateness of this review, as I am currently attending the San Diego Comic Con: Special Edition; a truncated, three day version of the annual pop culture event that normally takes place in summer, but has been delayed for well over two years due to the COVID pandemic. I’m writing this in whatever time I can steal from the convention in my hotel room, so I thank readers in advance for their patience. In the midst of preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday this past Thursday here in the US, I did manage to watch the “Anomaly,” the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, and I’m pleased to report it’s on a par with the better episodes of the series to date. Only two episodes into Season 4, and the writing seems very strong and surefooted.
Written by Anne Coffel Saunders (“Battlestar Galactica”) & Glenise Mullins, and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, “Anomaly” begins shortly after Discovery’s preliminary investigation of a massive gravitational distortion that is 5 light-years across. The anomaly just destroyed Starfleet space station Beta-6 and the sanctuary world of Kwejian…
The story picks up shortly after the events of last week’s“Kobayashi Maru”, with Book (David Ajala) traumatized by the tragic destruction of his home planet Kwejian from a powerful gravitational anomaly that is wreaking havoc across the galaxy. His lover, Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) tries her best to comfort Book, when she is called away from his ship to a briefing at Starfleet Command. She tells Rhys (Patrick Kwok Choon) that she’ll be there shortly, but Book insists that she leaves him alone in his grief. Quietly hurt by his request, she obliges–promising to check on him later.
Note: I like the idea of a starship captain being in a committed relationship with someone who is not Starfleet…or just having a longterm relationship of any kind. We’ve not really seen this since the days of Benjamin Sisko and Kasidy Yates on “Deep Space Nine,” and it’s much more realistic than the idea of Starfleet captains being either celibate prudes or love ’em & leave ’em serial romancers.
At the briefing, Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Stamets (Anthony Rapp) present their current theories on the anomaly that destroyed Kwejian and the Beta-6 space station. They suspect that it might be caused by a binary pair of roving black holes traversing the galaxy, but the math doesn’t add up. As dangerous as the anomaly is, they realize they need to get in closer and gather more data on it. Burnham rejects the idea of taking Discovery (Starfleet’s only spore drive vessel) in at such close range. In the middle of the briefing, Book walks in and offers his own smaller, more maneuverable ship to perform the risky reconnaissance. Burnham rejects that idea since Book is too compromised following the loss of his home world. He asks to speak with her privately, where he points out that Burnham herself has been emotionally compromised on missions, yet still trusts herself to complete them. He also correctly points out that he is not Starfleet, and she can’t order him not to go.
Mulling over what to do, Burnham receives a surprise visit in Discovery’s briefing room from Saru (Doug Jones), her Kelpien former captain and valued confidante, who tells her that he is no longer needed on Kaminar and humbly requests to return to duty as her First Officer. She accepts the offer. When she tells Saru of Book’s dangerous plan, Saru agrees that, with safeguards taken, the mission could be successfully carried out. A plan is hashed together where Discovery and Book’s ship will be attached by a programmable matter tether as the data is being gathered–if there is trouble, Book’s ship will be reeled back to Discovery.
Note: Doug Jones’ Saru is, as far as I’m concerned, Star Trek: Discovery’s answer to Spock; the wisened, patient advisor and confidante to the headstrong captain. The ensemble truly feels complete when the character is aboard, and Jones’ acting through layers of thick makeup remains a marvel.
Meanwhile, in sickbay, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), has something to to show to Adira (Blu del Barrio); a holographic preview of a new, android body to house the consciousness of Adira’s late Trill lover, Gray (Ian Alexander), whose essence remains a part of Adira (Gray’s Trill symbiont currently resides within human host Adira). Adira ‘translates’ the excitement of Gray’s disembodied consciousness to Dr. Culber, who assures Adira and the presently unseen Gray that the artificial body will have all the abilities and weaknesses of an organic body. Adira is amazed the 800-year old technology works, as Culber tells her the procedure was successfully used on a “Starfleet admiral once” (Jean-Luc Picard, as seen in the season one finale of “Star Trek: Picard”), but the practice fell out of favor in subsequent centuries. Gray is eager to get started.
Note: A couple of things. While I love the idea of Gray finally getting a new ‘visible’ body, how did the idea of human-to-android transference (an idea first proposed by “mad scientist” Dr. Roger Korby in TOS’ “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” back in 1966) fall out of favor, exactly? Wouldn’t such immortality be everything humans ever dreamed of since forever? Sadly, the daunting implications (spare bodies on a whim) are too casually tossed into an already packed episode–the idea deserves more space. The ethical, psychological implications of downloading one’s consciousness into a custom-made body are too tantalizing to be glossed over as they are in this episode. Yes, Hugh assures Gray the body will age normally, but what if it didn’t have to? Granted, this ethical question might be explored further in “Star Trek: Picard,” but I’m very eager to hear about other post-Picard attempts with extending Dr. Soong’s (and Dr. Korby’s) work after the 24th century.
Later, Saru joins Burnham as she retreats to the desert serenity of a pre-Ni’Var Vulcan, as it was in the 23rd century. This is a holographic construct, of course, as apparently holographic redecorating is now a reality for anyone’s quarters in the 32nd century. It’s here that Saru calmly reiterates her own belief that Book is the right choice to go on the mission. Reluctantly, Burnham agrees, but only if Chief Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) can join him via holographic telepresence, as Stamets can more swiftly gather the data needed on the anomaly than Book, while also freeing Book to fly within the dangerous gravitational eddies of the phenomenon. Stamets’ holographic presence also keeps at least one of the only two people in the universe capable of operating the spore drive safe…
Note: It seems that holodecks and holographic telepresence are everywhere in the 32nd century; a logical development, as virtual reality is already progressing in leaps and bounds in the 21st.
A tiny chip-sized holographic transceiver is attached to Stamets’ head and his fully interactive holographic self is successfully transmitted to Book’s ship; capable of working any controls that Stamets could if he were there in person. There is tension between the two men, and a bit of rivalry, as Book suspects Paul might be jealous that he too, can empathically work Stamets’ spore drive. Paul assures Book that isn’t so; in fact, he’s grateful that Book saved his family–his partner Hugh and Adira. Even with that admission, there is still tension between the men… even Book’s cat Grudge growls at Stamets’ hologram (“She doesn’t like holos”).
Note: As Stamets prepared his holographic interface in engineering, he makes a bad joke about Burnham’s forcing him out of an airlock against his wishes in last year’s season finale in order to save the one person (at that time) capable of working the spore drive. Since Burnham nearly sacrificed Culber and Adira to do so, I take it there’s still some resentment of Michael that Hugh might have subconsciously transferred to her partner, Book. Paul laughs off his own airlock joke as “Too soon?” but I wonder if he still harbors some resentment of his captain…
As the tethered vessels move ever closer to the boundaries of the anomaly, gravitational waves overload the ship’s artificial gravity, causing the bridge officers to fly out of their chairs (where are the seatbelts??) and fall hard to the deck, causing some injuries. Burnham summons Dr. Culber to the bridge, where, in addition to patching up injured bridge officers, he can also keep a close ear on Book’s radio transmissions, carefully listening for any signs the situation might overwhelm Book’s current emotional state. Culber tells Burnham he’ll do his best, but trauma and stress are difficult to tell apart by voice alone.
The increasing danger of the anomaly makes everyone more tense than usual; even good-natured Tilly gets a bit snappy with her genius protege, Adira. Tilly is reminded by the patient Saru that Adira admires her and is only trying to impress her. Saru’s gentle wisdom to the rescue…
Note: Between preparing Gray’s new android body, patching up Tilly and Adira’s injuries and playing psychological lifeguard for the bridge crew, Dr. Culber is one busy man in this episode.
The gravitational stresses on both ships from the monstrous anomaly increases, as Burnham asks Stamets exactly how more much time he needs. He tells her maybe ten minutes. She tells him he has five. Holo-Stamets reiterates he can’t physically gather the critical data needed in less than ten, so she relents. The stress on the tether line threatens both ships, but holo-Stamets cannot stop at this point. Burnham then makes the tough call to retract the tether and return for Book’s ship when the mission deadline is reached. Meanwhile, Tilly and Adira, who’s suffering a broken rib (courtesy of the anomaly) are inspired by a plan from former surfer, Lt. Bryce (Ronny Rowe Jr.); a gravitational eddy within the anomaly can be ridden out to a safe distance–like a surfboard on a wave. They work the math, and it checks out.
Note: Once again, I appreciate the contribution from Lt. Bryce (Ronny Rowe Jr.) whose childhood surfing background comes to play in the episode. Seasons 3 and 4 have done wonders to develop bridge crew members such as Rhys and Bryce. To be perfectly honest, I only knew the names of Lt. Detmer and Lt. Owosekun before the third season. The rest of the bridge officers of Discovery were little more handsome props until the third season.
Burnham then tells Book his ship can ride out the gravity wave, which should break them free of the anomaly’s destructive influences. However, Book starts to experience random visions of his young nephew, whose manhood ascension ceremony he’d attended just before Kwejian was destroyed. Holo-Stamets reports that Book appears dangerously distracted by something unseen. Culber and Burnham immediately realize that something is seriously wrong with Book…
Note: I understand that Book had a more maneuverable ship and he is the most experienced pilot to fly it, but honestly? I would’ve let Detmer do the job; she’s flown Book’s ship before, and she’s a quick enough study. I’m not Monday morning-quarterbacking Burnham’s play, but…well, okay, I’m Monday morning quarterbacking her play. Burnham’s arc this season (as suggested by President Rillak), may be learning to trust others and not assuming all responsibility for herself. She might’ve started by trusting Detmer to get the job done, instead of the currently fragile Book.
Alarmed by holo-Stamets’ warning that Book may be hallucinating his brother’s son, Burnham requests a private comm channel–and an actual, soundproof forcefield bubble envelops her on the bridge. She reaches out to Book, gently reaching him not as a military officer, but as the woman who loves him…gently talking him through the procedure, while also grounding him to reality. She coordinates his maneuvers on her own captain’s chair panel–giving him some of her strength, love and guidance. With everyone’s help, Book’s ship surfs the eddy and breaks free of the anomaly’s influence. Stamets also disconnects from his holographic interface–his actual self safely in engineering. With the risky expedition a touch-and-go success, Discovery’s crew are now left to analyze a “Mt. Everest” of data on the anomaly, in the hopes of predicting its course and possibly working out a defense of some kind against the monstrous, dangerously destructive space hazard.
Note: Regarding Michael’s so-called “private channel” on the bridge; what if someone on the bridge reads lips? Sorry, but even HAL-9000 knew that trick…
Temporarily out of harm’s way, the crew is able to take a breather–patching up both the ship and each other. Michael once again seeks to console Book, and is able to reach him. In his vulnerable state, he admits that she was right. She tells him he was still successful, but he acknowledges that it was because of her help. Meanwhile, Tilly confides in Saru that she still hasn’t gotten over her own trauma regarding the rescue mission to the Beta-6 station, which ended in disaster. She feels better unburdening herself to the kindly Dr. Culber, who reminds her that he’s always available for professional consultation. She agrees to take him up on his offer, as soon as she analyzes the data on the anomaly and “saves the world!” He smiles, as she struts off with newfound confidence after unburdening herself to a friendly ear.
Note: The scene between Culber and Tilly is heartwarming, and their joke about her ‘saving the world’ is delivered so naturally that it sounds like an ad lib, but I wouldn’t want to detract from the writers if it’s not.
The ending sees Stamets and Tilly delivering their preliminary report on the anomaly to Burnham, based on the data gathered so far… it’s much worse than they imagined. The anomaly is on an unpredictable course, and can appear anywhere at anytime. It doesn’t seem to follow predictable laws of physics. The final images of the episode show the phenomenon appearing to grow even larger…
Summing It Up.
“Anomaly” is what used to be called a “bottle episode”; an episode primarily filmed on existing sets that is designed to save money by forgoing expensive location filming or other logistical challenges. Typically, bottle episodes took a pause from planetary excursions and allowed us to better explore the ship’s regular cast of characters in greater depth; in that regard, and in others, “Anomaly” succeeds very well. As clumsily addressed with the idea of a ship’s counselor in The Next Generation 34 years ago, we finally see Captain Burnham and Dr. Culber truly working as partners for the safety of the crew’s physical and psychological health. While Tilly and Adira are still shaken by their experiences at the Beta-6 station last week, Book has suffered the deepest trauma of all, as he watched the disintegration of his home planet and all its diverse inhabitants (humanoid and rescued alien species) right before his eyes. Kwejian is Star Trek: Discovery’s answer to the destruction of Alderaan in “Star Wars,” or even of Vulcan in Star Trek’s own “Kelvinverse.”
My initial concern that the anomaly was going to be some typical, subspace-doohickey that we’ve already seen a million times in earlier Star Treks was put to rest this week, as “Anomaly” presented a threat that seems genuinely new–a phenomenon that can appear at random, almost anywhere, with destructive effects that seem almost limitless, crushing worlds and ships with equal ease. That said, there is also a bizarre elegance to the anomaly as well, with Tilly and Adira finding a way for Book to ‘surf’ it like a wave. Superficially, it sounds like the ‘nexus’ ribbon (“Star Trek: Generations”), but that phenomenon followed a predictable course–one that could even be adjusted with great effort by altering local gravity wells, such as planets and stars. The anomaly encountered in this episode has familiar aspects, yet is unique enough to be fresh and scary.
If I had any nits with this week’s episode, it’s the seemingly shoehorned-in subplot of Dr. Culber (a very busy man this week) designing an android body for the consciousness of Adira’s deceased Trill lover, Gray. It’s a fascinating story in itself–the notion of cheating death in android bodies–but with all that happened in the wake of Kwejian’s destruction, it felt a bit ill-timed. Culber and Adira both had greater priorities at the moment (like saving the galaxy). This extraordinary and fascinating idea could’ve been better served after the current crisis of the A-story.
All in all, “Anomaly” bodes well for Discovery’s 4th season going forward. Executive producer Michelle Paradise is the Michael Piller or Gene Coon of this series, putting its emphasis where it belongs–on the core group of characters and their relationships with one another. This is the exploration that Star Trek does best; not scanning planets and charting stars, but exploring the boundaries of the human condition through a diverse and colorful group of characters (human and alien). Star Trek, as said many times, isn’t just about solving mysteries in space–it’s about Spaceship Earth and its inhabitants. Paradise seems to understand this intuitively, and it allows us a clearer window into Discovery’s crew.
Looking forward to more.
Where To Watch.
As stated above, Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is now available for streaming on Paramount+ in many more markets, as well as on PlutoTV’s free streaming service and other participating streaming services (Star Trek: Discovery’s international plan revealed/Trekcore.com). 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 777,000 (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!