*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
I swore I wasn’t going to focus on episodic recaps of “Star Trek: Discovery” (DSC) anymore because, as I said in an earlier column, the negative feedback I received (much of it in since-deleted racist/sexist/homophobic comments & emails) was just not worth it.
Conversely, if I wrote any legitimate criticisms of the show, I was afraid they might be taken out of context. But then I remembered that this is my column, and that I can write whatever I wish. So, as I did with the first season of “The Book of Boba Fett”, I’d like to present my summary of Star Trek: Discovery’s 4th season.
Haters be damned, full speed ahead…
Season 4 Summary.
This season focused on the fragile, reassembled United Federation of Planets facing the daunting challenge of making first contact with an alien intelligence known only as Species 10-C, which lives just outside of our galaxy, beyond the galactic barrier. 10-C mines the galaxy for a substance called boronite, destroying random inhabited planets with a gravitationally-stressing DMA (dark matter anomaly) left in its wake.
Note: One of my favorite subplots of the season was the budding, sweet-natured romance between Saru (Doug Jones) and Vulcan president T’Rina (Tara Rosling). It has little to do with the overall season arc, but I just loved it. That’s one of the defining traits of DSC; the character moments are often better than the story arcs.
Among the planets destroyed is the planet Kwejian, the sanctuary home world of Cleveland Book V (David Ajala), the lover of Discovery captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green). Devastated by the loss of his planet, Book joins forces with Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle), an ethically-challenged scientist with his own very personal reasons for wanting to destroy the DMA.
Going against the will of the Federation Council and of Michael herself, Book and Tarka steal a prototype miniature spore drive and set off to create an illegal isolytic weapon. Book learns that Tarka wishes to steal the DMA’s power source and use it to get to another universe–one where he hopes to see his dead lover Oros (Osric Chau) again, whom he fell in love with during their time in an Emerald Chain prison years earlier. Tarka hopes that the DMA power source will be enough to send him into this other near-identical universe, where he hopes to reunite with (some alternate version of) Oros.
Note: Tarka’s motive was pure weak-sauce, and felt like a rehash of Dr. Tolien Soran’s motive for seeking a way back to the nexus in “Star Trek: Generations” (1994).
When both Discovery and Book’s ship reach the hyper-field DMA source, Burnham and her crew assess the delicate protocols of first contact while Tarka destroys the DMA–which is immediately replaced by another one. Book’s earlier resolve with Tarka is shattered, as are possible hopes for peaceful contact with 10-C. The new DMA directly threatens both Earth and Ni’Var (the planet once known as Vulcan). With the clock ticking ever faster, the Discovery crew learn that the 10-C communicate both mathematically and chemically, not unlike pheromonal responses, but for a wide variety of emotional states.
Note: The initial communication between 10-C and the first contact team aboard Discovery was a season highlight, homaging first contact scenes from movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “The Arrival” (2016). Not terribly original, granted, but well-executed.
Contact is soon tentatively established, and Discovery learns the 10-C didn’t realize the various races within the Federation were sentient beings, and the collective consciousness of 10-C now feels the crew’s sadness. This delicate contact is nearly undone by Tarka, who has taken engineer Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) and a remorseful Book hostage. Tarka then dies in a futile attempt to complete his own mission. Reno is returned safely, but Book is nearly killed until the 10-C secure his transport beam in stasis and return him unharmed.
Ultimately, first contact is a success. The 10-C discontinue their (its) harmful mining operations. The Federation is saved. A contrite Book is ordered to give restitution by helping other races displaced by the DMAs. The crew breath a collective sigh of relief. United Earth rejoins the Federation (with a surprise cameo…).
Considering the season was made at the height of the COVID pandemic and suffered many challenges and setbacks, I applaud the entire DSC creative team, both in front of and behind the cameras, for delivering 13 motion picture-quality installments under difficult conditions.
Production difficulties aside, the characters of DSC are the show’s core strength, and while I had issues with this season’s story arc, the many delightful character moments (and the actors) always deliver the goods. Season 4, like the preceding seasons of DSC’s feature-film quality production continued seemingly unabated, despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and that is something that needs to be both acknowledged and appreciated.
Now onto the show’s other strength; the characters.
Some solid development with Federation President Lara Rillick (Chelah Horsdal), a person of human/Cardassian heritage who’s pragmatic and sensitive. Set up as an obstacle of authority for Michael, she’s turned out to be a sensible pillar of strength as well. The same for Oded Fehr’s Admiral Vance from season 3, who’s been similarly strengthened this year. Vance is the voice of Starfleet, and Fehr brings a quiet, world-weariness to the role that is just perfect.
Both Rillick and Vance act as safely rails for Michael, who is often in danger of being emotionally compromised during season 4’s latter half, which sees Discovery forced to hunt down her lover Book, and preventing him from helping Tarka set off an isolytic weapon that could destroy any chance of peace with 10-C. Unfortunately, Michael proves their suspicions right; on her watch, Tarka does indeed set off his hastily-made weapon, and as a result, a new DMA forms to take the place of the one that’s destroyed–the new DMA also directly threatens Earth and Ni’Var. Fortunately, their faith in Michael is restored by the season finale, but it’s a shaky ride.
Note: Now, for those who’d jump to criticize Michael for failing to stop Tarka’s isolytic detonation? Just remember that the revered Admiral Kirk also failed to prevent Khan from stealing the “Genesis” torpedo and detonating it as well. Michael is no more ‘guilty’ of bad command calls than any other Star Trek captain. Like Rillick and Vance, I give her a pass on this one.
Tilly went far this season, as the lovably uncertain former cadet-turned-first-officer Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) truly found her command voice during a critical training mission with a group of cadets (S4.4: “All Is Possible”). After accepting an offer from Starfleet Headquarters to stay on as instructor, Tilly says tearful goodbyes to her shipmates (with whom she’s leaped over a thousand years) and fans of the character were worried they might not see her again. However, she turns up in the season finale, “Coming Home,” as she and Admiral Vance share a drink and a wonderful scene together aboard the nearly evacuated Starfleet Command hub.
Whatever Mary Wiseman’s career plans? Here’s hoping we’ve not seen the last of Sylvia Tilly in this series; she’s the voice of all who experience daily doubt and uncertainty, only to find their strength under pressure. Despite her newfound confidence, Mary Wiseman’s Tilly always manages to personify the self-doubting ‘imposter syndrome’ lurking in all of us. She may be Star Trek’s most relatable ‘everyperson’ character ever.
Doug Jones, who plays Discover’s first officer, Saru, is a true marvel; a latter-day Lon Chaney who has perfected the art of working under thick prosthetic makeups for his entire career. As an actor, Jones seems to be liberated under prostheses, not hindered. This season, Jones maintains the grace and sagacity of Saru while adding a new layer to the character… romance. The long-limped Kelpien enters into a budding relationship with the president of Ni’Var, T’Rina (Tara Rosling). Vulcans are known for being an emotionally reserved people, but T’Rina and Saru had a certain je ne sais quoi dating back to their initial meeting in season 3 (S3.7: “Unification III”).
By the end of season 4, their bond has solidified, after T’Rina risks her own life to mind-meld with the powerful 10-C entity (S4.13: “Coming Home”). After all they’ve been through together this season, Saru and T’Rina are past being coy with each other, and it’s lovely to see an onscreen relationship with two actors under heavy alien makeups who more than manage to create heartfelt, dynamic characters.
Speaking of relationships, it’s also great to see the unwavering bond between Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). Stamets always manages to give his captain the impossible, no matter how absurdly soon she needs it, while still managing to be there for Hugh as well. With Stamets stressing over solving the 10-C mystery with his engineering staff, Dr. Culber tasked himself with an equally formidable challenge of being psychiatrist to the starship’s stressed-out crew. At one point, even the therapist needed some therapy (S4.5: “The Examples”), and he turned to the unlikely source of the deadpan jack of all trades “Kovich” (played by director David Cronenberg); a bespectacled enigma of a man who, curiously, seems to have the pulse of everyone he encounters.
I daresay that Stamets and Culber are the most accurate onscreen coupling I’ve yet seen in Star Trek (and yes, that includes the O’Briens of “Deep Space Nine”). As a longtime married man myself, I can vouch that their intuition regarding exactly when to give space and when to pull closer perfectly embodies the non-verbal communication of a successful longterm relationship.
I’ve been a fan of comedian/actor Tig Notaro for about 10 years now, since a friend of mine loaned me one of her standup performances; in it, she managed to bring a scathing deadpan voice to her own struggles with cancer, and other formerly taboo subjects. When I first heard she was beaming aboard Star Trek (S2.1: “Brother”) I was curious to see how they’d fit her persona into Star Trek’s universe. Her character of Jett Reno is essentially Notaro’s standup persona retooled with bits of technobabble to make her a credible engineer.
Unfortunately, season 4 sees Reno largely unused until the last few episodes when she’s kidnapped by Tarka, after he and Book sneak back aboard Discovery to steal intel on 10-C (intel supplied clandestinely from a reactionary United Earth delegate). Taken aboard Book’s ship as a prisoner, Reno effortlessly steals every scene she’s in with her dry wit (Notaro is snark embodied). Very quickly, her MacGyver-esque engineering skills are put to the test (using black licorice to hack a combadge). I understand that Notaro’s contract with Star Trek means she’s used in a limited capacity, but her wry impact on the show is priceless.
One of the most profound episodes for me in season 4 was a minor ‘subplot’ involving the late Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) being allowed to transfer his living consciousness (hosted within his lover, Adira) into an all-new cynernetic body; an improvement over the Soong-class androids seen in “Star Trek: Picard” (PIC). The characters of Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray made headlines as Star Trek’s first onscreen non-binary/trans-male couple. Noteworthy as that is, it pales in comparison to the events of S4.3’s “Choose To Live”, where we see most subtle, yet profound change to the Star Trek universe as death itself is rendered little more than a temporary inconvenience.
In the episode, Dr. Culber makes good on his earlier promise to Adira in crafting a new body for their late lover Gray’s surviving consciousness, which still exists inside of Adira’s Tal symbiont within their body (the symbionts are one-half of the symbiotically-joined Trill species). We see the replication of Gray’s new cybernetic form, which is carefully designed not to have any ‘special’ abilities that Gray himself wouldn’t have experienced within his biological body–the same agreement Jean-Luc Picard made 700 years earlier when he was transferred into his prototypical “Golem” body.
Gray awakens in his new form, and announces that he feels “whole” again, for the first time since his biological body ‘died.’ This was a moving metaphor for trans-persons who finally achieve their own wholeness; be it through surgery, dress, makeup, or simply by a name or pronoun change. Whatever means one uses to feel like the person they’re meant to be, I’m all for it. Sadly, Gray and Adira leave the ship for a few episodes so that Gray can achieve his goal of being a Trill ‘guardian’ (one who tends/maintains the Trill symbionts). Adira returns briefly in the latter half of season 4, but it’s mainly to assist in the greater 10-C crisis, and future exploration of their lover Gray’s life within his newfound cybernetic body seems to be put on hold for now. The second season of “Star Trek: Picard” hasn’t done much with the concept, either, suggesting that his existence is continuing with no real changes whatsoever. This is arguably Star Trek’s greatest final frontier, yet it’s treated as frustratingly nonchalant.
Note: With this addition to its lore, Star Trek has quietly affirmed that humanoid consciousness–that thing described by some as a ‘soul’–is simply information to be transferred from one form to another; that given the right circumstances, a humanoid mind can be transcribed or saved somehow before death, only to ‘reawaken’ inside a new body. Maybe this is just an old man’s fancy talking, but I could watch an entire series about a person waking up from near-death inside of a cybernetic body, and all of the possible changes that might entail.
Told over 13 episodes, the 10-C arc of season 4 is essentially an inverse retelling of TOS Star Trek’s classic “Devil in the Dark” episode, where human miners on the planet Janus VI were destroying round collections of silicon nodules found during their operations. These ‘nodules’ were, in fact, the unhatched eggs of an intelligent rock-boring creature called a “Horta.” Fiercely protecting her unborn children, the mother Horta struck back against the miners with deadly force. The miners assumed the creature’s seemingly irrational attacks were just mindless slaughter.
In Discovery’s twist, the various humanoid races of the Federation are now the Horta, as they attempt to convince a higher intelligence to suspend its own deadly boronite mining operations throughout the inhabited planets of the galaxy. The 10-C, like the human miners on Janus VI, are unaware they are killing sentient beings, since their intelligence is centralized, and quite different from our own. And in both stories, Vulcan mind-melds were instrumental in bridging the gap between Federation citizens and a previously unknown consciousness.
I appreciate that the 10-C are a massive, joined consciousness so vast that they’re incapable of recognizing we puny humanoids as significant, let alone sentient. I would’ve been very disappointed if 10-C had turned out to be bumpy-headed humanoids, or smart-ass Qs. The unknowably differing consciousness of the 10-C life-form is reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “crystalline entity” (“Datalore,” “Silicon Avatar”) or the unfathomable, intelligent ocean of the planet “Solaris” (1972/2002). It’s a rare Star Trek first contact that feels truly alien.
Considering the constraints of COVID production, including delays, illnesses of crew, etc., it seems rather petty to focus on the weaknesses of the season, but I’d be less-than-honest with myself if I didn’t, so these are my issues with season four, which started off rather strongly, but faltered a bit after the mid-season break, beginning with the midseason opener “All In”…
S4.8 “All In” is my clear choice for the worst of the season, if not one of the worst of the series to date. This was an episode that would’ve felt more at home in an old episode of 1979’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which in fact, had an episode very much like this, called “Vegas In Space.” Well, at least that episode was more entertaining than this time-waster. Captain Burnham and Commander Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) are trying to figure out where Tarka and Book might go to find material for their isolytic weapon, so they take a shuttle to a cloaked casino, whose interior looks like ‘Quark’s After Dark.’ Once there, they try gambling in order to raise money and outbid Tarka for the materials needed to make the weapon. With the entire galaxy at stake…? Really…?
In the end, even after Owosekun goes into the ring to fight and raise funds, they still lose. But Michael puts a transponder on Book & Tarka’s winnings so that they can be tracked. Whoopee. A whole episode is wasted, and the two dangerous fugitives simply walk away. Michael and Owo could’ve carried cleverly concealed weapons (or called in reinforcements) and simply demanded the materials, fairly or not. With the DMA threatening the entire galaxy, this was no time for screwing around. About the only positive I can give this episode is that Owosekun had a lot more to do than usual, including showing off her impressive MMA skills, but otherwise it’s a dull exercise in frustration.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with the season; the character of Ruon Tarka, played by Shawn Doyle (“The Expanse”). When we first meet him in S4.5’s “The Examples,” he comes across as an arrogant jerk; the kind of ‘rockstar scientist’ you could imagine a younger Jeff Goldblum playing in the mid-1990s. We see clues that there’s more to his story–unusual scars on his neck, and suggestions that his “home” isn’t necessarily our universe. He appeals to Book’s grief over the loss of Kwejian, and they unwisely decide to pair up. Tarka’s the genius, and Book has a ship–the crafty bank robber and the guy with the fast wheels. Even after Book makes himself a fugitive by assisting Tarka in stealing a prototype spore drive and defying Federation orders to rendezvous with the DMA, we still don’t know Tarka’s motives…
… and once we find out, I almost wish we hadn’t. In S4.10, “The Galactic Barrier,” Tarka comes clean to Book; turns out he was a prisoner in an Emerald Chain prison camp, where he befriended and eventually fell in love with another captive scientific genius, an alien named Oros (Oscric Chow, in an admittedly moving performance). Tarka and Oros were working on an inter-dimensional transporter with which they hoped to escape to an idyllic universe (somewhere) that didn’t have an Emerald Chain, and where identical versions of lost loved ones lived on (in theory). During their escape, Oros is badly injured and Tarka is forced to leave him behind.
So Tarka has a guilty conscience for leaving Oros behind, and he hopes to find him in another universe using the DMA’s power source to get him there. Tarka’s tale is a minor variation on Dr. Tolien Soran’s backstory from “Star Trek: Generations” (1994); another grieving mad scientist who is willing to destroy an inhabited planet just to build himself a ‘stairway to heaven’ and rejoin his lost loved ones out there… somewhere. This is a variation of a story we’ve already seen on Star Trek (“The Alternative Factor,” “We’ll Always Have Paris,” etc) and Tarka isn’t really necessary for this season’s arc to work. The Tarka super-weapon arc feels like an unnecessary addition to an already engaging and very dangerous first contact. As a result, Tarka’s shenanigans make the much anticipated first contact with Species 10-C feel overly busy, and lacking the sort of awe it truly deserved.
Tarka’s actions and motives directly impact the character of Cleveland Book, birth name Tareckx (David Ajala). Book is a character I liked very much in season 3 and the first half of season 4. He was like a sensitive Han Solo combined with Dr. Doolittle. He was also a nice significant other for Captain Burnham, since we hadn’t seen a Star Trek captain in a committed relationship since Ben Sisko and Kasidy Yates on “Deep Space Nine” (DS9). Like Kasidy’s early dealings with the Maquis, Book now has a blemish on his own record. Instead of running weapons for local freedom fighters, he was assisting Tarka in constructing an illegal weapon that could’ve possibly set off an intergalactic war–all so his buddy Tarka could find a trans-dimensional Shangri-La. Kasidy went to a Federation prison for her crimes, while Book is sentenced to doing what he was doing before–helping people; in his case, people displaced by the DMA.
Now, I’m fine with a more lenient 32nd century code of justice, but my point is that Book didn’t need Tarka as a catalyst for seeking revenge. It would’ve been more interesting if Michael’s dogged pursuit of peaceful first contact with 10-C become a dramatic sticking point between them. After all, this was a life form that destroyed his planet (and its resettled wildlife). However, by throwing in his lot with Tarka, the barrier of trust between Book and Michael is permanently breached. Yes, I’m sure Michael will forgive him, especially after he was nearly lost in an escape transporter beam (and saved by Species 10-C), but can I–as a viewer–ever trust him again? This pains me, since I enjoy the character of Book very much. Now I wonder how long it will be until he goes rogue on Michael again…
My next issue involves the sentient computer Zora (voice of Annabelle Wallis). I find the idea of a sentient, and sometimes unstable computer more than a little unsettling. Maybe I’m simply too much of an old “2001: A Space Odyssey” fan, but she reminds me uncomfortably of HAL-9000. Yes, I realize they granted Zora the freedom of joining the Discovery’s crew earlier in the season (S4.7 “…But to Connect”) but what were Zora’s alternatives? Is she enslaved to Discovery because it houses her consciousness? Does she stay because it’s the only world she’s known? For me, it’s disturbing to see people controlling the will of another living entity, even if that entity is artificial.
When I start my car or open my computer, I don’t have to care about its feelings, or if it’s in the mood to do what I require of it. But Zora is, by any reasonable standard, alive. To quote Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban) from “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984), “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon, it makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.” The fact that Chandra’s right makes me all the more uncomfortable with Zora. It also disturbs me that she can eavesdrop or monitor emotional states on any crew member, whenever she wishes. It’s one thing to have an inert device monitor one’s bio-signs. It’s quite another to have a living omnipresent being monitor your feelings. That’s a little too ‘Big Brother’ for me. I’d prefer the inert device, thanks…
Note: Zora, was, of course, cryptically introduced in the Short Trek, “Calypso”, which was written by PIC showrunner Michael Chabon, who also cowrote the underrated 2012 fantasy “John Carter” (2012), based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Finally, a minor nitpick: I appreciate that characters like Commander Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), Commander Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Tactical Officer Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) and other members of the ensemble are having more appreciable moments, I still think more could be done to make them stand out. They are arguably more developed than Sulu, Uhura or Chekov in TOS, granted, but I really want to know these people, beyond factoid traits.
Shed those dowdy feathers and fly…
The first batch of episodes this year were at least as good as the more surefooted third season, but it fell apart somewhat after the series returned from its mid-season break. The character of Tarka was not not successfully matched in motivation, or justification, to his means. Too much of the arc’s overall ambitions were pinned on that character, and his too-familiar plan hobbled what could’ve been a more awe-inspiring second half. While the season had its share of faults, the season finale, “Coming Home,” was a solid piece of Star Trek, even if its overall arc felt a bit too protracted.
Personally, I wish DSC would embrace the ‘mini-arcs’ we saw in Star Trek: Enterprise‘s final (and best) 4th season. I don’t know where this series will go next, but if the return to standalone storytelling hinted at by “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” proves succesful? I’d love to see this terrific ensemble of characters go back to the business of exploring the universe (and themselves) instead of just solving galaxy-wide apocalypses every season. That gets old very fast.
At any rate, the characters are what draws me to this series, which feels less about the bigger picture, and more about the terrific little moments.
Where To Watch/Stay Safe
“Star Trek: Discovery,” along with all other Star Trek series, can be streamed on Paramount+, both in the US and in some overseas markets as well. With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous aggression ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide), and while overall cases have significantly dropped in the last two months, please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections. In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong!
Live long and prosper!