******STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery is available for streaming, and “All Is Possible” focuses on trust and personal growth as we see Ni’Var (formerly Vulcan) tepidly questioning whether it should rejoin the Federation, and Lt. Tilly placed in command of Adira and a group of Starfleet cadets on a “routine survey mission” (the words ‘routine mission’ automatically jinx it). Written by Alan McElroy and Eric J. Robbins, “All is Possible” was also directed by movie music composer John Ottman (“Superman Returns,” “Halloween: H20”).
“All Is Possible.”
The episode begins with a familiar old “captain’s log” narrative device to bring the audience up to speed. In it, Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) relates how the crew, particularly Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) have been working doggedly on the DMA (Dark Matter Anomaly) that threatens the galaxy. Despite the danger, Burnham has mandated routine breaks for the crew, in order to keep them sharp. Meanwhile, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) has partnered with the captain to offer therapy sessions for anyone who requires them. Burnham is concerned about her lover, Book (David Ajala) who is withdrawing into grief, following the devastating loss of his sanctuary home planet Kwejian. Meanwhile, Burnham and her trusted Kelpien first officer Saru (Doug Jones) have been ordered to Ni’Var (formerly known as Vulcan) to take a mysteriously ill Admiral Vance’s place during the delicate negotiations for Ni’Var’s re-admittance back into the United Federations of Planets. The Federation is quickly rebuilding following the event known as the Burn, which had crippled galaxy-wide warp travel–effectively isolating member planets for the past 125 years. Fears about the new DMA have made some Federation members skittish about rejoining the thousand year old institution, particularly Ni’Var.
Note: Nice to hear the captain’s log device being used again; it’s a casual way to deliver exposition within the story framework. It’s a tried and true device from Star Trek’s toolbox that’s worked for 55 years. As Nicholas Meyer once observed, it made Star Trek almost feel like an old radio play–something you could listen to without visuals, and still understand what was going on.
The first patient we see taking Dr. Culber up on his offer of therapeutic assistance is Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who is still coping with her own issues as she tries pushing outside of her own comfort zones (which are uncomfortable to her now as well). This experiment of hers, has, so far, met with mixed results. Culber tells her that he has a request from Starfleet’s Dr. Kovich (David Cronenberg), who seeks a volunteer from Discovery’s seasoned crew to oversee a group of cadets on a routine survey mission. Tilly accepts the offer to play teacher to a new generation of Starfleet. As a favor, Culber asks Tilly is she wouldn’t mind taking Adira (Blu del Barrio) along, since they’ve been through a lot lately with the recent transition of their partner Gray (Ian Alexander) into his new artificial body.
Note: “Routine survey mission”… famous last words in Star Trek.
At one of the cavernous shuttle bays at the spaceborne Starfleet Headquarters complex, Tilly and Adira are met by the enigmatic Kovich, who, despite advances in Starfleet optometry, still wears glasses. Kovich tells her that they their survey mission will be to an M-class desert moon called Geryon. The cadets will include pilot Lt. Callum (Nck Name), a Tellarite named Gorev (Adrian Walters), an Orion named Harral (Seamus Patterson) and a human named Sasha (Amanda Arcuri).
Note: Still a bit weird for me, seeing director David Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “Dead Ringer,” “History of Violence”) in Star Trek; as I’ve said before in this column, it’s a little bit like seeing Alfred Hitchcock on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise…it’s slightly surreal.
Kovich reiterates the importance of this seemingly frivolous mission by reminding Tilly that these cadets were raised after the Burn; a much less optimistic time than the one she hailed from. He even tells her that Discovery’s arrival in the 32nd century was a stinging reminder of just how much the Burn has isolated everyone, and how much of the Starfleet’s old optimism was lost. Teaching these cadets how to work together again for the first time in over 125 years could be one of the most important assignments within the Federation right now…
Note: Kovich’s emphasis on the importance of Tilly’s assignment rings sort of valid, but I still question the wisdom of pulling a critical scientist off of a vital mission of studying the DMA wreaking havoc across the galaxy. Tilly’s work with Stamets last season to solve the mystery of the Burn only proved just how valuable she is aboard the ship, especially right now.
During the shuttle ride, nervous motormouth Tilly does her best to warm up the icy cadets, who, despite their smarts, are lacking in interpersonal skills, since they were raised on worlds isolated by the Burn. She asks them to make introductions to each other, until pilot Callum reminds them that they’ll be dropping out of warp in a minute. Tilly forgoes the introductions for now, and gives the team their various assignments (microbiology, geology, etc) including Adira, who assumed they were coming along as Tilly’s aide, until Tilly reminds them that as an ensign, Adira still has much to learn as well. Suddenly, without warning, Callum loses helm control as their shuttle is crippled by a massive (unexpected) gamma ray burst, which also cripples all communications with the USS Armstrong, the recovery vessel due to retrieve them after the assignment. As they spiral in, Cadet Sasha, who has piloting experience, offers to take the helm, but Tilly sharply orders her and all the cadets to remain in their seats, as the shuttle crashes on the harsh, frozen moon of Kokytos, not their original destination of Geryon. Following the crash, Tilly grabs a med-kit for the mortally wounded pilot Callum, but he dies before she can administer aid.
Note: Once may question if Tilly might’ve been wrong in not letting Sasha take the helm during the crash. However, even if Sasha, by some remote chance, could’ve made a softer landing, it doesn’t matter–the scene is about the team needing to follow their commander during a crisis. And it also teaches Tilly a lesson that, sometimes, even the best-intentioned choices may have fatal consequences. If Sasha had taken the helm she might’ve been killed instead. A real Kobayashi Maru test–something these cadets got a bit earlier than they expected, not too unlike the cadets aboard the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
The cadets begin to lose their composure. A frightened Harral wonders aloud if this is a holodeck simulation, but is grimly assured by Tilly that their situation is all too real. Almost immediately the surly, snout-faced Tellarite Gorev turns on the green-skinned Harral, having a personal grudge against the Orions, who were part of the “Emerald Chain” which maintained an oppressive rule over a group of planets following the isolation of the Burn. Tilly steps in to break up the quarreling cadets, reminding them that survival is their priority. They hear a loud noise outside, and a large creature’s appendage appears outside their window. Adira scans it and reads it as a colony organism; a collective of creatures that can combine and separate at will. The creature (“jellyfish from hell” as Tilly calls it) hunts for bioluminescent fish, whose energy signatures are similar to the shuttle’s powered equipment, including sensors and comms, which forces Tilly to order a blackout mode. Without power, they will freeze to death inside their shuttle long before help can arrive. Tilly and Adira only see one chance for survival; the entire group needs to leave the ship, make their way to a nearby rocky hill, and use short range comms to signal the USS Armstrong for help.
Note: The creatures in the snow look an awful lot like the giant snow crab monster that menaced young Cadet Kirk (Chris Pine) and the prime universe Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in “Star Trek” (2009). In fact, the snowy setting makes this visual homage a little bit too on the nose, but this would hardly be the first time Star Trek has ever borrowed from itself…
Tilly, Adira and the cadets leave the shuttle to make their way to the high ground ahead in order to transmit their short range distress call. Adira is immediately ensnared in what appears to be some form of “parasitic ice”, like the kind encountered in season 3’s “Far From Home.” As the ice crawls up Adira’s legs, Tilly gets the emergency kit and replicates a long tether line, which she tosses one end to Adira, while the rest of them pull Adira out of the ice. They free Adira, and that sense of accomplishment builds some esprit de corps, which quickly fades as old animosities regarding the Emerald Chain resume. Gorev blames Orions for personally starving his parents to death under their rule. Even human Sasha blames Harral for cowardly seeking a cave, instead of marching onward. As the cadets gang up on Harral, Adira reminds them Cadet Harral’s father was a political dissident against the Emerald Chain who died in their custody as a political prisoner. Harral’s father’s slavery abolishment proposals became the basis for Orion’s admittance back into the Federation. The cadets realize their own prejudices, and apologize. Tilly is pleased to see the group finally overcoming the isolation of the Burn and working together as a true Starfleet team.
Note: Making Harral’s father a respected political dissident against the Emerald Chain is an easy and admittedly effective way to squelch the cadets’ prejudice against Orions, but I wonder how would things have gone if his father weren’t so respected? What if Harral’s father were a slave trader, or some other disreputable sort? At any rate, it’s a convenience that keeps things moving, so I accept it.
Book finally manages to get into a therapy session with Dr. Culber, who, at first, has Book create a mandala using programmable matter to create sand, much like a Japanese Zen garden. It reminds a frustrated Book of a Kwejian ritual, and he grows irritated by the seeming futility of it. Taking a break from the exercise, Culber tells his patient a colorful story from his own past. He tells Book about the time he attended an “el muerto parado” (a standing funeral), a custom unique to his heritage. An intrigued Book listens to how the custom takes the body of the deceased and arranges them in a position familiar to their loved ones–in this case, Culber’s uncle Cesar was arranged playing poker, since he was a famed card shark. Unfortunately, Culber wound up breaking the corpse’s thumb off, only to break off the index finger trying to surgically reattach its thumb! This humorously macabre tale gets Book out of his headspace for a moment, but the anguish of losing Kwejian catches up to him. Culber reminds him that the pain will never fully end, and that it takes a “long-ass time” to learn to live with it, too. Book eventually completes the mandala exercise, only to realize its impermanence… it’ll be swept clean for the next attempt. Such is life, Culber reminds him. Book asks the good doctor if there’s anything in his own past he wishes he could just ‘sweep away,’ and Culber promises to talk about it with him… someday. Doctor and patient helping each other.
Note: While Book’s therapy session with Culber could’ve easily been a deleted scene for a future video release, but I’m glad it was kept in the final episode, as we finally hear something of Culber’s (and Wilson Cruz’s) Puerto Rican heritage. Wilson Cruz is also allowed to speak Spanish briefly, and it’s lovely to hear. I also enjoyed his playing therapist once again for the crew, particularly his very productive session with Book, whom he’s very honest with, regarding the long road of healing that lies ahead for the grieving Kwejian native.
Meanwhile, on Ni’Var, Burnham and Saru join the Federation delegates who are on-hand to witness the historic reunion of Ni’Var (Vulcan) back into the United Federation of Planets, an organization of which it was a founding member. As Federation president Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) prepares to present Ni’Varan president T’Rina (Tara Rosling) with the Federation flag, until T’Rina proposes a startling last minute caveat to joining the Federation–an exit clause that would allow Ni’Var to leave the Federation whenever it chooses. Naturally, Rillak and Burnham are strongly opposed to this idea, as it would allow Ni’Var to enjoy the benefits of membership without any commitment. It might also lead to other Federation members amending their own agreements, thus turning the Federation into an alliance of mere convenience. With the caveat rejected, and neither T’Rina nor Rillak willing to compromise, a recess is called.
Note: Despite her tough demeanor, Rillak is not the heavy one might expect her to be, especially with her ice queen exterior and Cardassian ridges. Here’s hoping they keep her an aggressive political animal, but refrain from turning her into a Kai Winn version 2.0.
Meanwhile, Saru seems to have established a connection to Vulcan president T’Rina, whom he seemed fond of when they talked in last season’s “Unification III”. T’Rina seems just a teensy bit smitten with the wisened Kelpien as she makes him some Kelpien tea–a fact that doesn’t escape an amused Michael’s attention. T’Rina accepts Saru’s offer to meet after the session. She tells Saru, with refreshing candor, that her own constituents are pressuring her not to rejoin the Federation, especially with the DMA threat facing them. Saru appreciates her frankness, but assures her that trust is the only way forward for Ni’Var and the Federation.
Note: I have to admit, the subtle attraction of T’Rina to Saru was both unexpected and delightful. It makes sense that without his fear-inducing ‘threat ganglia,’ the more reserved, rational and wisened Saru of seasons 3 and 4 might very well be attracted to a Vulcan such as T’Rina.
T’Rina and Saru engage in an entry-level Vulcan meditation exercise designed for Vulcan children; sort of like a low-level mind meld. The exercise helps to put them in synch, but without the trauma or emotional upheaval typically associated with a mind-meld. Through this exercise, Saru is better able to understand her and she him.
Note: Okay, I won’t lie…I’m shipping these two. Big time. It’s also clear from the sly grin on Burnham’s face that she very much approves of their seeming mutual attraction as well.
Meanwhile, back aboard Discovery, Burnham requests a teleconference with a hologram of Rillak. Rillak comes clean–she knew in advance that T’Rina was going to insist upon her last minute caveat; in fact, T’Rina secretly told Rillak herself. The open forum was, as Burnham suspected, mere political theater. This is why Admiral Vance fell mysteriously ‘ill’ (he’s fine, by the way)–so that Rillak could bring Michael Burnham (a Ni’Varan citizen) to the negotiating table and add her voice. Rillak knew that Michael wouldn’t choose to sit idly by and do nothing as the negotiations fell apart. To that end, Michael tells the president she already has a plan in mind that just might work…
Note: To those who don’t like the idea of Michael once again swooping in to save the day with a last minute plan? Deal. That’s what Starfleet captains do. That’s what Kirk did, that’s what Picard did, that’s what Sisko did, that’s what Janeway did and that’s what Archer did. Personally, I think that Michael Burnham really acts like a Starfleet captain (in every sense) during this episode.
Back in session with the Ni’Varan council and the Federation delegation, Burnham presents her addendum to both parties. She proposes a committee of impartial observers to oversee the needs of all Federation member planets, not just Ni’Var. This would allow any concerns of member planets to be arbitrated independently and resolved. Burnham takes the opportunity to remind the Ni’Varans that their current culture is based on the successful reunification of the Vulcans and Romulans–she even points out that Federation president Rillak herself is part Bajoran and part Cardassian; two races that used to be bitter enemies. The proposal for the independent oversight committee is accepted, and Ni’Var is welcomed back into the Federation, as president Rillak presents the Federation flag to president T’Rina.
Once their respective delegations clear out, Burnham is alone with president Rillak, who confesses she wasn’t sure if Burnham was up to the challenge, but appreciates her solution. Burnham tells the president that she didn’t appreciate the cloak and dagger machinations Rillak used for her to attend the signing, and that he expects total transparency in the future. Rillak agrees, and they shake on their newfound understanding of transparency going forward.
Note: While I hope that Rillak doesn’t lapse into two-dimensional villainy down the road, I still wouldn’t entirely trust a career politician to keep her word…just sayin’.
On Kokytos, the team led by Tilly had found temporary refuge on the rocky ridge (they have the high ground–hehe). However, they can’t risk using their comms for the sixty seconds or so it will take for the USS Armstrong to lock on and beam them aboard, since the creatures stalking them are attracted to energy usage. Adira volunteers to sprint across the ice and act as a diversion for the creatures while the others use their comm badges to signal the Armstrong. While the cadets balk at Adira’s risky plan, Tilly admits it’s a good idea, but that, as commander, it’s her responsibility to act as lure, since she’s responsible for their safety. The moment Tilly jumps onto the ice and begins running, the creatures breach the ice and begin chasing her. Frantically the cadets signal the Armstrong as they insta-replicate phasers to fire at the creatures (gotta love that programmable matter). Soon, the USS Armstrong’s Captain Imahara hails the stranded party and begins beaming them aboard, with Tilly getting rescued last–just before she is about to become the creature’s lunch…
Note: I’m assuming that the USS Armstrong’s Captain Imahara was named after the late Mythbuster and visual effects wizard, Grant Imahara, who passed away in 2020 at age 49 of a sudden brain aneurysm. Imahara also played Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the highly praised fan series, “Star Trek Continues.”
Tilly and the cadets, minus the fallen Lt. Callum, return to Starfleet Command where she is met by the enigmatic but sympathetic Kovich. Kovich tells her that when she and Discovery first arrived, they weren’t readily accepted, mainly because they served as an uncomfortable reminder of a more aspirational Starfleet. But soon, the valued experience of Discovery’s seasoned crew soon became apparent. Now Kovich is hoping that Tilly can transfer some of that experience to new generations of Starfleet cadets by becoming an instructor at Starfleet Headquarters. The position is hers, whenever she chooses…
Note: Given Kovich’s slightly sinister presence (see: his delight in torturing an uncooperative Georgiou last season), I half-expected him to confess to Tilly that he deliberately programmed the shuttle to malfunction and crash on Kokytos instead of Geryon, as part of their training and to see if Tilly herself had ‘the right stuff’ to teach future cadets. The gamma ray burst that caused the shuttle to crash just seemed a little too convenient for me…
With Ni’Var returned to the Federation, and Book’s ongoing therapy underway, Burnham takes a minute to visit Tilly in the quarters they used to share when they were both new to the ship. Tilly jokes to Burnham about her “typical day” of nearly getting killed while saving the cadets on Kokytos. The two share memories of being “roomies” on Discovery, as Tilly jokes how she used to fear former “mutineer” Michael would stab her in her sleep, to which Michael teases that Tilly’s snoring might’ve given her just cause. Tilly tells her friend and captain that she’s accepting Kovich’s offer, because getting her lieutenant’s pips wasn’t as meaningful without her stern mother there to see it, and that made her realize it wasn’t necessarily her own ambition to begin with. In fact, Tilly believes she’s now found her groove with teaching cadets. The two women hug, and Tilly says her tearful goodbyes to the rest of the crew as she heads over to Starfleet Academy to begin her new career as an instructor…
Note: I had NO idea that Mary Wiseman (let alone Tilly) was leaving the show, or even stepping down to a recurring role. This was quite a surprise. I hadn’t even heard rumors of this, to be honest. Wishing Mary Wiseman (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting) the very best of luck. Her audience avatar of Lt. Sylvia Tilly will be missed.
Note: Just before the scene with Michael and Tilly in their once-shared quarters, there is a brief moment where we see Gray greeting the returning Adira in their quarters. Gray gifts Adira with a snow globe of the NX-01 Enterprise; the starship commanded by the pioneering explorer Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) in “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005). The prop seen in the episode was custom-built for the show, but it was based on an actual collectible from Willabee & Ward, which was issued a few years ago (thanks Trekcore.com for that interesting piece of trivia).
Summing It Up.
The big message, as implied by the title, is that “All Is Possible,” but only through trust and cooperation. The cadets have to learn to work as a team; this is an old Trek trope given a fresh coat of paint through the eyes of Lt. Tilly as commanding officer, as well as a group of cadets who bear the scars of growing up after the Burn that caused the once-proud United Federation of Planets to decay and collapse. The title also applies to Ni’Var, which has to learn to trust being part of a greater Federation again…an organization it cofounded a millennium earlier.
While some might legitimately argue that the core challenges and issues of this episode are too easily glossed over, I would counter that this is only a television show, and not a solution to all the world’s problems. The story’s theme of mutual trust making all things possible is still valid. I also like that the episode doesn’t end with everything quite back to status quo: Tilly has left the crew, and Ni’Var’s return to the Federation is not entirely without conditions (the new impartial committee to regularly check on the health/status of all member planets, as suggested by Michael).
If I had any nits with the episode, it’s that the DMA (Dark Matter Anomaly) is temporarily reduced to something of a background threat–so much so that Starfleet is more worried about team-building exercises, and taking skilled scientist Lt. Tilly away from studying it in order to teach at the Academy. This seems, to quote the Vulcans, somewhat illogical. Stamets and Tilly worked very well together to decode the mystery of last season’s Burn mystery, and it seems to me she’s far more needed on the ship during this crisis. But, for whatever the real reason, Mary Wiseman’s role for the future of the show promises to be reduced, and that’s a shame. Tilly is the audience avatar, and she’s also something of an unofficial champion for neurodiversity within the audience, just as Spock and Data were in their heydays (I very much related to Spock as a kid). Let’s hope that Tilly’s future role will be recurring, at least…
Overall, “All Is Possible” offers another solid episode that continues to bode well for the remainder of the season. As with last week’s “Choose To Live”, the strong character moments and old-fashioned Starfleet optimism buoy some of its weaker aspects. I very much appreciate the new season’s continuing devotion to its core characters. Can’t praise showrunner Michelle Paradise enough for how she’s turned this once awkward colt of a series into a prized contender.
Where To Watch.
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 786,000 (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!