Star Trek Discovery s4

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 4

“somewhere in here is potentially the best season of Star Trek in years”

Review by Daniel Tessier

The third season of Star Trek: Discovery ended with the galaxy, if not saved, then in a better position than it had been when the season started. The Federation had themselves a lovely new source of dilithium, the Starship Discovery's spore drive to experiment with, and old member worlds had started to come back into the fold, starting with the planet Trill. As for our heroine Michael Burnham, the merry mutineer had finally made her peace with Starfleet and was given the captaincy of the Discovery itself. This is how we start season four, with Captain Burnham leading her crew on missions to detached worlds, trying to make friends again and bring them back into the Federation.

With Discovery the flagship show of Star Trek's current televisual age, it makes sense that Paramount (now the owners of CBS television) made it the champion series of their new streaming service Paramount Plus. Less reasonable was their decision to pull the series from Netflix after a backroom deal, two days before its advertised premier and make it available only to subscribers of the new service – especially as Paramount Plus was, at the time, only available in the USA and Canada. Pitching Paramount Plus at Star Trek fans was a canny move; flipping them all off by suddenly refusing most of them a way to watch it wasn't. Paramount soon capitulated to fan demand, at least to an extent, by broadcasting the new episodes on its Pluto TV digital channel in the UK. Nonetheless, it left a lot of fans unable to watch the new season legally for months, creating a great deal of ill will amongst the fanbase. Even the cast, who heard about the decision the same time as the fans, were vocally unhappy about it.

Star Trek Discovery s4

So the new season started off marked by controversy. Which is a pity, since the first episode, “Kobayashi Maru,” is rather good, and would have made a good launch for people who could watch it. Burnham and Booker, now a personal and professional partnership, enjoy a hair-raising but ultimately successful mission to the planet Alshain Four, home to a race of butterfly people. The opening is very much the sort of adventure we might see Kirk on, with Book providing the common sense of Bones while Burnham wings it on guts and charm and ends up with a precarious situation that eventually comes good. Unfortunately, the feel good stuff doesn't last long, as a huge, inexplicable gravitational anomaly appears, throwing planets about and threatening all life as we know it. It isn't long before it approaches the planet Kwejian, Book's home planet, leading to its spectacular destruction, and leaving poor Book very likely the last of his kind.

The season suffers from two problems that have plagued recent Trek series. One is, shall we say, “apocalypse exhaustion,” with each year providing yet another civilisation-ending threat that must be defeated. The first season of Discovery had the Klingons almost conquering the Federation, so both its second season and Star Trek: Picard’s first upped it by bringing in evil AI's that wanted to wipe out organic life. Discovery's third season mixed it up a bit by starting in the aftermath of a galaxy-spanning disaster and ended by narrowly averting another, while Picard's second season mostly dealt with putting history back on track but still threw in a random space-time event to threaten the galaxy at the very end. Sometimes it's nice to let the cataclysms lie and just deal with smaller scale problems. Constantly upping the stakes ends up making everything seem, strangely, less dramatic rather than more.

Star Trek Discovery s4

The other problem is the pacing, which is even more unsteady in this season than before. While there are some episodes that mostly standalone, this season is heavily serialised. A great deal of time is spent on exploring how the individual characters deal with the impending disaster, and how it affects their relationships. This is all excellent stuff, with some particularly strong work from David Ajala as Book, and Wilson Cruz as Hugh Culber, who seems to have been promoted to head counsellor on Discovery. Both struggle to deal with their experiences of death – for Book, his whole people, for Culber, his own death and resurrection – and throw themselves into their respective missions to keep from facing up to their emotions. In, time, they are able to help each other confront and deal with their experiences.

Star Trek Discovery s4

This helps make the disaster storyline work. Galaxy-ending threats are too big to be meaningful, so focusing on the personal fallout provides the real drama. Before the season began, the showrunners spoke about their desire to reflect the collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the harsh realities of fighting a faceless threat. This side of things works, but the unfortunate result is that the overall plot creeps forward incredibly slowly, and while individual episodes are often highly entertaining, we all too often end them exactly where we started them. With so little plot movement, the series might as well be entirely episodic, rather than serialised.

Star Trek Discovery s4

It's fortunate, then, that the regular cast are so good and can carry off the emotional material that makes the stories work. Mary Wiseman is as excellent as ever as Tilly, now promoted to Lieutenant, who is both more assured of herself but also struggling to find her path in this new century. 4.4, “All is Possible,” sees Tilly placed into both a survivalist situation and a teaching role when she is stranded on a desolate moon with a group of cadets. As well as being a nice, old school sort of adventure with plenty of derring-do and monsters, it serves to show Tilly her path, and she asks to be reassigned to the newly re-established Starfleet Academy. While this isn't the last we see of her on Discovery, I would be very surprised if we didn't eventually see her leading her own series in that setting (there have been rumours of an Academy spin-off for years).

Star Trek Discovery s4

Doug Jones continues to impress as the alien officer Saru, who starts the season working with his people on his home planet Kaminar before returning to Starfleet, where, in spite of being a captain with seniority, he decides to act as Burnham's first officer. Saru's main storyline this season is a very gentle, quite formal, and rather sweet romance with the Vulcan president T'Rina. Played by Tara Rosling (Impulse) with understated grace, T'Rina represents her people as Ni'Var – the planet formerly known as Vulcan – works to rejoin the Federation. There's a complex political situation in play, as both T'Rina and the Federation president are left unable to compromise on their promises to their own voters, so employ Burnham and Saru to shove things along with some unofficial intervention.

Star Trek Discovery s4

Chelah Horsdal (Hell on Wheels, The Man in the High Castle, Arrow) gives a strong performance as the aforementioned Federation president, Laira Rillak. In a nice touch (and with some subtle make-up), Rillak is a mix of human, Bajoran and Cardassian heritage, showing that even deadly enemies can eventually overcome their differences. (The Cardassians were recurring enemies of both the Federation and Bajor in Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-off Deep Space Nine, both set around eight hundred years earlier than this series.) Rillak is a moral character but a canny one, a true politician whose ultimate plan we're never really sure of. She and Burnham develop from antagonism to mutual respect over the course of the season, where they both serve to remind each other of their limitations and abilities – particularly Burnham, whose Messiah complex and need to save everyone repeatedly threatens to put others in even greater danger.

Star Trek Discovery s4

Blu del Barrio continues to impress as Adira Tal, given the tricky task of playing both a young inexperienced ensign and the ancient being that they carry inside. The character struggles to balance their wisdom with their naivety and is confused by the mixture of extreme praise for their abilities and dismissal when they try to pull rank over senior officers. (One of Tal's former lives was a Starfleet admiral, something they seem to forget is no longer the case.) They're at their best when doing the emotional work with other characters. Unfortunately, their partner Gray – still basically a ghost before being granted a new, artificial body, a la Star Trek: Picard – runs out of story halfway through the season. Gray quite suddenly decides he wants to go back to Trill, and actor Ian Alexander leaves the series, at least for now.

Star Trek Discovery s4

Anthony Rapp remains a wonderfully grounding presence as the compassionate but sometimes arrogant Paul Stamets. He is at the centre of the relationships of the series, being Culber's husband, Adira's father figure and, later, confidante to Book. His primary modes are reassurance and irritation, so when he's genuinely worried, we should all be worried. He finds himself struggling to come to terms with the near-catastrophic events of the previous season finale, and resents Book's usurping of his role as spore drive operator and his sidelining of him during those events.

They come to terms and learn to accept each other, but Stamets is at odds with his crewmates once again when the Discovery's computer finally reaches full self-awareness (it's a long story). Now calling herself Zora, the computer (voiced by Annabelle Wallis – The Tudors, Peaky Blinders) presents a potential threat to the crew. Having faced down aforementioned evil AI, Stamets is against the idea that such a being should be integrated with a powerful starship. He's got a point, since Zora starts disobeying orders because she fears they will harm the crew, and even suffers anxiety attacks when the ship is pulled into dangerous and unknown territory. Ultimately, both Stamets and Dr. Kovich (the mysterious individual who seems to pull the strings in the Federation, played by director David Cronenberg) decide that Zora is a new life form and give her a Starfleet commission, the idea being that now she'll follow orders because it's her duty. We shall see how well that works out in the long run.

Star Trek Discovery s4

Sadly limited in her appearances this year is Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno, whose health conditions meant was even more impacted by Covid-related restrictions than the rest of the cast. When she does appear, though, she steals the scene with her sardonic wit. Oded Fehr (The Mummy, Once Upon a Time) also has a reduced role this year, although he continues to appear as Admiral Vance whenever Burnham needs to appeal to someone other than the president.

Star Trek Discovery s4

A significant new character, Ruon Tarka, is introduced mid-season. A mysterious, arrogant, brilliant and entirely untrustworthy sort, Tarka is a scientist with a shady background, who has taken Discovery's technology and perfected it further, making him probably the only person in the galaxy who can outrun the ship. Played with aplomb by Shawn Doyle (The Expanse, The Eleventh Hour, 24), Tarka turns up to work on the ship sporadically, butts heads with Stamets and then leaves, returning for the mid-season finale,“...But to Connect.”The episode is a turning point for the series. Once Zora finally agrees to reveal the coordinates of the creators of the deadly anomaly – given the uninspiring label “Unknown Species 10-C” - a galactic conference is called to decide what to do. These are always fun, with various colourful aliens, both new and recognisable, coming together to discuss and vote on a course of action.

Burnham speaks in favour of a diplomatic approach, saying their best is to make contact with these aliens and try to make them understand that they are harming the people of our galaxy, while Book, still reeling from the loss of his world, speaks in favour of those who want to attack the aliens. (Burnham also points out that attacking them is probably a tremendously bad idea that can't possibly work, given how powerful they are, but no one seems to listen to this.) Tarka, obviously being set up as a villain from the start, reveals that he has created a weapon capable of destroying the anomaly, and joins forces with Book to go after them. He soups up Book's ship with his new drive; they steal the coordinates and takes the weapon with them, leaving Burnham with no option but to pursue and try to track them down.

Star Trek Discovery s4

After a six-week break, the season started up again with 4.8, “All In,” a rollicking adventure that sees Burnham take Discovery to a distant planet where Book and Tarka are trying to barter for a power source to get them to the 10-C's home, beyond the limits of the galaxy. Set largely in a cosmic gambling den that would be just at home in Star Wars as Star Trek, this is a great episode that works well as an adventure in its own right as well as pushing the overall plot forward. Burnham proves to be far more fun as a rambunctious space adventurer than as an angsty Starfleet officer, with Martin-Green clearly having a lot more fun playing a spikier, spunkier version of her character. She and Ajala have return to their earlier chemistry even as their characters are set against each other. Meanwhile Oyin Oladejo (Endlings), having played Discovery crew member Owosekun as a background character for over three years, finally gets some characterisation and rules the episode.

Sadly, after this the season drops back to its earlier, ponderous pace, and while individual episodes are often enjoyable in and of themselves, there's so little forward momentum that the story as a whole feels intractable. Yet there are some powerful moments, both on the cosmic scale and the personal. We slowly learn more about the 10-C aliens, most notably when Tarka succeeds in destroying the anomaly, which the aliens replace with barely a pause. Clues slowly reveal that they aren't attacking the galaxy at all: they're dredging it, for a vanishingly rare element, and are seemingly unaware that they are harming anyone in the process.

Some of the best moments come in 4.10, “The Galactic Barrier,” which sees both Discovery and the renegades break through the energy field that was revealed to surround our galaxy way back in Star Trek's second pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Through an extended series of flashbacks we learn about Tarka's past, as a slave to the Emerald Chain along with another alien scientist named Oros (Osric Chau – Supernatural, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) giving a remarkable performance while absolutely swamped with make-up). Their building friendship/romance, their inevitable but devastating failure and Tarka's eventual escape are far more gripping and moving than what's been happening in the series' present. Tarka's true motivation is revealed gradually through these episodes: he intends to take the 10-C's power source and use it to escape to a hypothetical perfect universe and find Oros, giving him an almost religious motivation.

Star Trek Discovery s4

This leaves the final three episodes with a lot of work to do to resolve both the personal and interstellar plotlines. 4.11, “Rosetta,” starts to get the season moving again, as Burnham, Saru and co. discover what appears to be the 10-C's homeworld – desolate, abandoned and entirely inimical to human life. The remains of the aliens on the planet reveals that they have seemingly abandoned their world, but have left clues as to their methods of communication, which utilises chemical markers and sequences of light. It's rare that we have a truly alien species in Star Trek, and when the 10-C are finally revealed – gigantic floating beings living in a jovian environment within an impossibly vast Dyson sphere – they are suitably impressive. The final two-part story of the season sees the crew having to work together to not merely stop Tarka and Book before they try attacking the aliens, but also trying to devise a way to communicate with this wholly alien intelligence. It's real, intelligent science fiction of the sort we just don't see enough of these days.

Sadly, the time spent treading water earlier this season means that these last two episodes have to pelt along to fit everything in. The result is that first contact with the 10-C is just too easy. One minute Starfleet can barely count in the aliens' language, the next they're throwing around idioms and metaphors and making speeches. The aliens, once contacted, are horrified that they are killing innocents in their mining operations, and even agree to deactivate the enormous defence array around their home that they need all the power for in the first place. It's exactly the ending we'd have hoped for from Star Trek, one that emphasises the season's themes of communication and connection, but cramming it all into a ninety minute run like this makes it seem all too simple. Meanwhile, there are some huge leaps in logic and coincidence needed to resolve the Book-Tarka plotline, which is a pity, since Ajala and Doyle are the best things about this half of the season. At the same time, while Burnham is trying to talk round both her ex and a new order of alien life, the Earth is under threat from the anomaly itself, with Tilly and Vance left to work as the last line of defence, because why not?

It's a real pity, because somewhere in here is potentially the best season of Star Trek in years, dealing with hope in the face of adversity, truly alien aliens and reaffirming the franchise's core themes of exploration and communication. Trek has never looked better, with both planetary and stellar vistas that absolutely take your breath away, while on the dramatic front the cast are giving it their all with some of their best performances. Unfortunately, by stretching the storyline out for so long and then rushing the ending, the drama is compromised so badly that the overall effect is disappointing. Somehow less than the sum of its parts, Discovery's fourth season skirts on the edge of success but never quite makes it.

Published on August 26th, 2022. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.

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