******STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s 4th season, “The Examples,” is available for streaming now on Paramount+. Written by Kyle Jarrow and directed by Lee Rose, “The Examples” is, itself, a classic example of the intersecting A and B stories; a structure that became a staple of the Star Trek franchise since the days of The Next Generation. The A & B stories of “The Examples” align with the overall season arc involving the mysterious DMA–the Dark Matter Anomaly of such unpredictable devastation that it threatens the entire galaxy, including the newly reunited, post-Burn Federation.
In this story we also see some familiar Trek tropes such as evacuees who refuse evacuation, and an arrogant visiting character who upsets the status quo (Dr. Daystrom, Mr. Kosinski, et al). While these familiar elements feel a bit worn, the character moments of the story make it work better than it should, as the actors make the material come alive; particularly Wilson Cruz, Doug Jones and Tig Notaro, who returns, however briefly, as engineer Jett Reno in her first appearance this season.
The story opens with a shot of the ever-fluctuating Dark Matter Anomaly; the unpredictable wormhole-like formation that can turn up anywhere in the universe, with gravitational forces that can rip whole planets apart. The Federation starship USS Janeway and the Vulcan ship NSS T’Pau note a spike in the DMA’s x-rays just before it disappears from the sector.
Note: The radio chatter over exterior shots of starships suspended in space reminded me very much of the USS Kelvin’s report to Starfleet at the beginning of “Star Trek” (2009). Also loved the references to the USS Janeway and the NSS T’Pau; one named after the captain in “Star Trek: Voyager”, and the other after Spock’s famed relative; the only person to turn down a seat on the Federation council, and a former member of the Syraanites; a Vulcan fundamentalist group that once overthrew the corrupt Vulcan High Command and reformed Vulcan’s government.
Aboard the USS Discovery, Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) confirms that the DMA turned up 1,000 light years away, roughly 4 seconds after it was first tracked by the two ships. Discovery’s curiously sentient computer, Zora (Annabelle Wallis), confirms that the DMA is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) is still curious exactly how Zora feels, but lack of time prevents her from pressing the computer for more information on her (its) emergent consciousness…
Note: The Discovery computer’s “Zora” personality was a side-effect gained during the computer’s storage of integrated “Red Orb” data that forced the ship’s departure into the 32nd century. Zora was first featured in the Short Trek: “Calypso.”
Jumping back to Starfleet HQ, the Discovery officers participate in a briefing held by Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr). The DMA immediately threatens a species called the Akaali, who live in the former Emerald Chain territory of the Radvek asteroid belt. The asteroid of Radvek 5 must be evacuated in three hours before the DMA’s effects cause it to become engulfed by its sun. Starfleet is the only organization with available resources to mass-evacuate the 1,206 inhabitants, and even then, only 40 persons can be evacuated at a time. Michael volunteers to lead the evacuation, with Saru in command until she returns. Discovery’s senior staff asks Vance just who might be behind the artificial DMA, and he tells them the only races with that level of technology (Metrons, Nacene, Q, etc.) have been ruled out. In the meantime, the mysterious creators of the DMA have been named “Ten-C”.
Vance then tells Stamets he’s sending an expert to help him analyze the DMA. That expert is a native of the planet Risa named Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle), a brilliant but arrogant scientist who’s failed to return any of Stamets’ requests for information, after Stamets sent specs of his own DNA for Tarka’s new spore drive prototypes (which aren’t yet operable). Stamets isn’t exactly thrilled about Tarka’s aid, but Vance’s orders stand.
Note: Vance briefly mentions that there’s been no contact with the Q Continuum since the 25th century, clearly setting the stage for Star Trek Picard’s second season, which premieres in 2022. The trailers for Picard season 2 have already shown Q’s return.
In their quarters, Dr. Culber (Wilson) tries to relax a clearly irritated Stamets by telling him to “let it roll off you.” Meanwhile, Stamets notices that acting ship’s counselor Culber seems a little less than fine himself. Before leaving to meet Tarka, Stamets tells Culber that he needs to slow down the pace of his therapy sessions for the crew, but Culber insists that his patients need his attention.
Note: I really like Culber’s newfound role this season as acting ship’s counselor; it’s not just a good way to give Wilson Cruz more to do, but it also lets us see how the doctor ticks as well, as we did when he opened up to patient Book (David Ajala) in last week’s “All Is Possible”, regarding his own family’s funeral traditions (“el muerto parado”), and how they helped him deal with his grief.
As bridge officer Commander Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) volunteers to help Burnham with the evacuation for personal reasons, the ship is left in the hands of First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), who then welcomes Ruon Tarka aboard. Beaming onto the bridge, Tarka looks around and eyes the “antique” ship’s design… managing to insult just about everyone and everything he interacts with. When Stamets finally introduces himself to Tarka as the creator of the spore drive, Tarka doesn’t miss a chance to tell Stamets how dated his once-pioneering research is today. As the friction begins to heat up, acting captain Saru steps in.
Later, during the briefing, the ever-obnoxious Tarka interrupts Stamets to ask the replicator for mashed potatoes and a single pea. Stamets is flummoxed by Tarka’s sudden need for a snack, but Tarka uses the food to illustrate how a controller of some kind (the pea) is at the center of the anomaly (the mashed potatoes)–intelligently operating it somehow. Stamets begins to see the methods behind Tarka’s madness, and he agrees when Tarka tells Saru they need to recreate a tiny version of the anomaly in “a much bigger room.”
Note: Once again, like TOS’ neurotic Dr. Daystrom (William Marshall), TNG’s blustery Mr. Kosinski (Stanley Kamel) or irritating Dr. Paul Stubbs (Ken Jenkins), Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) is the latest in Star Trek’s long series of obnoxious guest characters (usually brilliant scientists) who arrive and shake up the status quo of the series’ regulars by reveling in their own a$$holery. While Tarka made some good points, there was no reason to make the character so unlikable. He could’ve just as easily been shy or reclusive…
The rescue at Radvek 5 is complicated when Burnham, Book (David Ajala) and Rhys pick up six life forms contained within a forcefield dome. The planet’s magistrate dismissively tells Burnham they’re just prisoners, but Burnham tells him they’re going to be rescued as well–end of discussion. She then places Rhys in command of evacuating the rest of the planet’s population while she and Book try to free the prisoners from their dome-shield. With the guards long evacuated, Book and Burnham approach the dome cautiously–very aware that there might be safeguards in place to prevent the prisoners’ escape.
Note: I was disappointed with the relatively small role of Commander Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) during the rescue mission. He tells Michael that Starfleet rescued him when his family was stranded by a hurricane once, which is his motivation for volunteering, but that’s it–we never see him after he’s placed in command of the offscreen mass evacuation of Radvek 5. I thought Rhys was going to be instrumental to the story, but sadly, he wound up being incidental, as most of his actions went unseen.
As they make their way closer to the dome, Burnham and Book (sounds like an ’80s cop series, doesn’t it?) are charged by “Narissa beetles”, which, it turns out, are not biological organisms. They are part of the dome’s security system. This soon becomes apparent as they replicate circular saw-like discs which are hurled at any would-be intruders or escapees–or, in this case, Burnham and Book. Temporarily disabling the beetles, the two work to gain entry into the dome shield…
Note: The beetles are a nicely realized effect and an interesting idea–not just deadly, but also creepy as hell; acting as an escape deterrent with both killer discs and with entomophobia.
Once inside the dome’s defenses, Burnham and Book find six people, each isolated within in a small, separate forcefield containment. Abandoned by the prison guards and left to die. Burnham talks to them, and learns that they were each imprisoned for petty offenses such as taking a joyride, or stealing food to live. Meaningless, petty crimes–each one of them mandating a harsh life sentence. Using her own powers as captain of Discovery and as a Federation representative, Michael promises each of them political asylum once aboard Discovery. The prisoners take her offer and leave–all but one; the cynical, oldest prisoner (Michael Greyeyes), a man with long, iron-gray hair who tells Michael there’s something he needs to get from his cell first–an “lalogi orb” (which looks like a small Faberge egg) that he stole from a dead man. He gets it, and just as they’re all about to leave, the entire prison locks down. Book and Burnham then hack the robotic beetles outside and then use their weapons to open the doors. Michael then quickly disables the beetles again, once the doors are opened.
Note: The colony/prisoner evacuation story was personally less compelling for me, as it felt like a mashup of two TNG-era episodes. In TNG’s “Justice” you had the crazy planet of the “Edo,” where any offense warranted the death penalty; in “The Examples”, any offense warrants a life sentence. Same idea, different details. And the story of doomed colonists, or in this case, prisoners, who refuse to be evacuated is very similar to the stubborn, radiation-resistant colonists who refused to leave their own doomed colony in “Ensigns of Command.” With over 800 hours of Star Trek, the show is bound to retread old ideas, I suppose...
Also of Note: The robotic beetles reminded me very much of the robotic insects which terrorized cosmonauts on the surface of Venus in the 1960 East German film “Der Schweigende Stern” (“The Silent Star”), released in the US (with dubbed English) under the generic title, “First Spaceship on Venus.”
The following scene sees Dr. Culber asking Starfleet Command HQ’s enigmatic Mr. Kovich (David Cronenberg) to make a brief holographic house call. Culber has observed Kovich’s ability to cut through bullshit and get to the heart of matters, which is what Culber needs right now. The good doctor tells Kovich that he feels like a fraud, offering the crew hope that he no longer feels himself. Kovich then reminds Culber that he died–yet his file tells surprisingly little about that daunting experience. Kovich suspects Culber’s feelings of guilt stem from a savior complex he carries with him to justify his resurrection somehow.
Hammer? Meet head of nail.
Note: Easily my favorite scene in the entire episode, with the enigmatic-yet-direct Kovich (famed horror/drama director David Cronenberg) cutting through the fog and bulls-eyeing Culber’s issue–the doctor overcompensates as ‘penance’ for his resurrection. I would’ve loved to have seen other prior Star Trek characters who’d returned from the dead (most famously Spock, in “Star Trek III: 35 years of “The Search For Spock”) deal with these kinds of issues, as it may have given us insight into what such a thing might really do to a person who’s miraculously given a ‘second chance.’ Typically, resurrected Star Trek characters (there’ve been a few) just go on living, as if nothing happened…
Meanwhile, Saru, Stamets, Tarka and engineer Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) brainstorm in engineering, creating a small scale model of the anomaly–a micro-version of it–contained within a large forcefield for safety. Tarka, who humorously evokes the misunderstood genius of old Earth’s “Gallie Leo” (Galileo) before insisting on more power to the experiment. Reno suggests using ionic radiation channeled from the phaser array. Saru tells them it’s too risky, while the impatient Tarka impulsively roars in Saru’s face (!). Saru dismissively shakes his head at the emotional display, until Tarka roars again. Fighting fire with fire, Saru roars back–louder and far more threateningly. Reno, with her typical deadpan, quips, “Well, that was something.”
Note: This was my other favorite scene in the episode, primarily because Saru’s roaring back was hysterical, and because Tig Notaro’s brilliant comeback (and sardonic delivery) turned the moment into comic gold. The bit gets a tad more garnish later on, when Tarka refers to Jett as “Grumpy Lady.” Have I mentioned that I adore Tig Notaro? I was a fan of her standup comedy long before her first appearances on Star Trek: Discovery’s second season.
They then boost the micro-DMA’s power with the ionic radiation, but the micro-DMA begins to destabilize its forcefield containment. The forcefield quickly decreases in intensity as the scientists scan the model’s structure. With only five percent forcefield power remaining to contain the dangerous DMA model, Saru terminates the experiment for the sake of the ship. With their smaller model behaving exactly as its larger real-life counterpart, the experiment was a success–the DMA is definitely controlled from within its core.
Meanwhile, on the planet, the five other prisoners are evacuated to Discovery, but the older man remains behind. He tells Burnham that he lied to her; the other criminals committed petty offenses, but he committed murder–killing a man who once helped him, right in front of his young daughter. The lalogi orb that he stole (among other trinkets) contained the man’s entire family history, which he hopes that Michael will take back with her to the ship. He tells her the family’s name is “Doxica.” Book insists Michael take the older prisoner back with them to the ship, but she reluctantly respects his agency.
Note: Not sure if the episode is condoning capital punishment by letting the murderer ‘atone’ for his crime, or if it’s saying that all prisoners of serious crimes should be granted the right to commit suicide if they choose. Either way, it’s a muddled message…
Book and Burnham transport back to the ship. Bridge officer Nilsson (Sarah Mitich) reports that scans of the asteroid confirm it’s within the striking zone of the system’s sun. Book is seething with anger at Michael for letting the prisoner die, as she takes the captain’s chair just in time to watch the asteroid become vaporized by the star’s corona. With all but one of the 1200+ evacuees aboard, Discovery jumps away.
Note: Wonder if Book’s anger with Michael over allowing the prisoner to kill himself will carry over into next week?
The (former) sovereign of Radvek 5 meets Michael in a corridor, and angrily demands she place the other five prisoners in her ship’s brig. Burnham then reminds the former potentate that he, and all the others aboard the ship, are now refugees, and that he no longer has a world from which to exert his former authority. Later, Burnham delivers the prisoner’s stolen orb to the now-grown daughter of the man he murdered. The young woman is grateful to have her Doxica family history back. As a tired Michael steps into the turbolift, the voice of computer Zora offers her condolences.
Note: Zora… shades of HAL-9000?
We then see Culber and Stamets preparing for bed. Culber is exhausted after a long day of resettling refugees, while Stamets realizes that the irritating Tarka is very much like himself, or at least as he used to be. Contritely, Culber opens up to Stamets about his own self-discoveries gleaned during the brief therapy session with Kovich, telling his partner, “We can’t even figure our own shit out.”
The final scene has Book and Tarka in the ship’s opulent bar, downing some synthehol. Tarka offers Book some real booze from his home planet of Risa. Booker, in no mood for smalltalk, looks directly at Tarka and asks just how he knew so much about the DMA before observing the reconstructed model, but Tarka remains elusive. He tells Book whoever created the DMA used an energy source equivalent to a hyper-giant star–an incomprehensible amount of power. Tarka is avoiding Book’s question.
As the camera pans behind him, we see a mysterious scar on the back of Tarka’s neck…
Note: I’m wondering if Tarka really is from the ‘pleasure planet’ of Risa (the artificially-maintained tropical paradise first seen TNG’s “Captain’s Holiday”), and what exactly is his deeper connection to the Dark Matter Anomaly… the plot thickens.
Summing It Up.
While I can’t say “The Examples” is an example of Discovery’s strongest stories, it does bring us closer to understanding the ‘big mystery’ of the DMA through the visiting guest star Shawn Doyle’s arrogant “Ruon Tarka,” a Risian native who seems to intuitively understand the DMA through some mysterious means. The other story about the evacuation on the asteroid prison feels a bit too much like TNG’s “Justice” mixed with “The Ensigns of Command.”
Stamets and the gang working to solve the mystery of the DMA feels more critical to the overall arc, while the Burnham-Book evacuee story falls a little shorter. Judging from the episode’s title, I gather that the evacuation of the prisoners (the titular ‘examples’) was supposed to be the A-story, but it doesn’t quite feel like it for me. The commendable Commander Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) volunteering early on to assist with the evacuation feels set up to be more important than it ultimately was–this was a genuine disappointment, since the bridge officers (Rhys, Owo, Detmer, Nilsson) seem to be slowly reverting to the attractive smiling faces we saw in the earlier years of the show. Hopefully we get more from them in the episodes ahead, because the actors truly deserve better.
I do appreciate the way the series is dealing with the ongoing trauma of Book’s loss of Kwejian, which has permanently changed him from an animal-loving Han Solo into a justifiably brooding crusader. David Ajala really runs with it, too. Also liked that we are finally seeing past the pleasant facade of Culber, with the help of David Cronenberg’s acerbic yet astute Dr. Kovich. Last week, we heard a little of Culber’s colorful family history, and finally we get to learn that he’s hiding a lot more about his death and resurrection than we know. I want more of this insight; the kind of insight we never see whenever a Trek character has returned from the beyond (which has happened more often than one might think…). I imagine resurrection would be a deeply traumatic experience. Culber’s cracking facade hints at that, and warrants a lot more.
Overall, “The Examples” advances the central arc, and gives us a few genuinely good character moments, but compared to other entries of the past two seasons, it’s not an example of this series at its best; it’s a patchwork of familiar elements rejiggered just enough to advance the main storyline. Decent, if not exceptional.
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 800,000 (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!