Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 8
Star Trek: Discovery slows down so that time can be taken to gather information on what awaits then outside of the galaxy while Burnham works to track down Book.
The season has reached the point where the internal and external stakes are attempting to match. Internally there’s the drama created by Book giving into his desire for revenge with his decision to help Tarka build his weapon and externally we have the DMA as well as the unknown species who created it. In theory this is the right approach as it moves the main plot of the season forward while making meaningful connections for the characters involved. Book’s grief around what the DMA did to his planet and family can only go so far without him taking some kind of action and at this point he is going down least healthy path for him as he tries to heal.
Book and Burnham’s relationship has always been engaging. Their natural chemistry and strongly written interactions have created a realistic connection that rarely falls into melodramatic tropes. It’s an adult relationship that doesn’t define either of them and has allowed for some of the strongest on screen moments. This and the effort put into Book’s overall characterisation is why his decision to succumb to his desire for revenge hit so hard. A lot of time has been spent on his grief prior to this point with steps back and forward in his journey towards his new normal. Making this choice represents a significant step back and the show has earned the tragedy associated with that decision because so much was invested in allowing Book to heal.
The approach taken to Book as a character in this episode is a confusing one. I suspect the intended reading of his role is that he is falling back on old habits and returning to the role he had before meeting Burnham and forming an association with Starfleet/the Federation. Conceptually this is all sound as Book is in an emotionally vulnerable position so it makes sense he’d revert back to something that was comfortable. In execution it doesn’t come across that way as going back to his old life is treated as a means to an end.
Having Book and Burnham interact in this episode was a confusing choice as it removes a lot of the weight from Book being on the run. Knowing where he’ll go and being aware of the contacts he has that Starfleet have no knowledge of is an example of how well she knows him but having them in the same location and working together at points significantly lessens the impact of that betrayal. The fact that Burnham doesn’t try to arrest him immediately stands out particularly with the dialogue from Vance and Rillak indicating that Book and Tarka are topping the “Most Wanted” list. An attempt is made to explain it with Starfleet and the Federation having no authority where they are but considering the scale of the problem being faced it fails as as justification.
The point of having them interact is for Burnham to offer Book a simple choice. He can either continue as he is and lose everything he has built for himself or he can come back and face more lenient consequences. This is a direct challenge to the strength of Book’s convictions in order to define how certain he is about the decision he has made. Burnham’s appeal is equal parts emotional and logical. The logical side is around not declaring War on an unknown powerful species without full understanding of the motivation behind the DMA and the emotional side is around losing Burnham and the life he has built for himself as well as possibly spending the rest of his life in prison if his revenge fuelled mission doesn’t bring him to a bad end.
If nothing else this does confirm that Book stands by his decision and that he has no regrets. He is aware of what he is jeopardising and what the consequences will be but it’s all worthwhile if the threat of the DMA is removed and nobody else has to experience the kind of loss that he is dealing with. The interactions between Book and Burnham on this topic are strong but they could have been delayed to a later point as there’s almost no character progression. This episode largely reinforces what is already known and disrupts the anticipation of their reunion. Highlighting that Book is convinced that what he is doing is the right thing could have been accomplished without Burnham.
The surrounding plot isn’t all that interesting and is lacking in urgency. No mention is made of the DMA’s current status so the threat it represents is all but forgotten and the characters are killing time until Zora completes an analysis. One of Burnham’s objectives is to get access to a stellar survey that will give them a better idea of where they’re going but there’s a lack of focus on the overall threat so the pacing suffers massively. As a result this episode is meandering to a frustrating degree with some meaningful character beats but nothing that couldn’t have been achieved another way.
Any episode of this show since Discovery’s arrival in this time period featuring the seedy underbelly of activity that exists outside of the Federation has the same issues. One of these is that the locations always feel the same with no strong sense of identity. Various aliens are seen; some familiar and some not with the general sense that they’re up to no good. I often talk about the lazy approach to world building on this show with this episode being a great example of how poorly developed the world outside of the main ship is.
There is mention of Book’s history as a courier, there’s the sense of a criminal underworld that exists but there’s no texture to it. The Emerald Chain are repeatedly mentioned as a major player but there remains no clear idea of how big the organisation is, who is running it or whether it represents a significant threat. Information is delivered to answer a given question at a particular time without coming across as if that information forms part of a cohesive whole that makes up a wider universe. For example, Book’s courier history is a fact of his backstory and in theory becomes important in this episode but it isn’t something that has come up until this episode; the same applies to Burnham’s time in that role.
Book and Burnham’s interactions in theory come to a head when they play a game. the stakes are simple; if Book wins then he loses the life he has built and if he loses then he has a chance to rebuild it. The execution of this leaves a lot to be desired as it’s bereft of tension due to a failure to outline what the rules are. This failure means that there are a collection of meaningless beats where characters play hands of cards with the staging allowing for the audience to react while there is no clarity as to what playing a particular hand means. It’s clumsily put together and the focus on humour robs it of any tension. A great example of building tension through a card game is in Casino Royale where the rules of the game being played don’t matter because of how brilliantly the film portrays it. This is very much the opposite and does little more than fill time despite the overhanging question around Book.
Ultimately the game proves meaningless after Burnham reveals that she went into it knowing she would lose. It makes sense that she would place a tracker on Book’s prize though it doesn’t make sense that he wouldn’t find it especially considering how well he knows Burnham. It’s possible that this may come up in the next episode with a reveal that he found the tracker and placed it elsewhere but given the focus on how strong they are as a couple and how well they know one another Burnham wasn’t discrete enough when placing the tracker.
Curiously, Book’s decision isn’t unlike one that Burnham would have previously made herself. The fact that she values patience and following orders shows her growth as a character and as a leader though she isn’t quite tested in any meaningful way as Vance gives her permission to go after Book on her own terms and find a creative solution to a very sensitive problem. A true test would have been for Burnham to be ordered to focus on Species 10C and stay away from the Book/Tarka situation because her relationship to Book risks complicating things further. She could be torn between loyalty to Book and her oath to Starfleet as well as potential doubt over whether Vance and Rillak truly trust her or whether she trusts herself to carry out her orders when she does confront Book. These sorts of challenges were set up in the first episode of the season as things Burnham needs to overcome to be effective as Captain so it’s frustrating that the opportunity to actually explore how she reacts when tested both personally and professionally wasn’t exploited.
This was a notable episode for Owo, at least in terms of screen time. The key scene where she and Burnham bond over their need to take control of a situation and the frustration that comes with helplessness is really strong. It backs up her outburst in an earlier episode and Burnham providing encouragement because she understands how that feels. The lack of attention given to Owo or most of the other members of the bridge crew means that there is a lot of scope for development and pretty much any personality trait is fair game at this point. Owo has been more prominently featured than some others but still remains largely undefined so seeing her have so much screen time is welcomed. Even at that her desire to fight appears to come out of left field and isn’t all that interesting, once again due to the lack of stakes associated with the fights.
Some of Owo’s screen time is used well such as her conversation with Tarka where she attempts to relate to him because she understands being motivated by loss and struggling to deal with it. Tarka’s response where he talks about Owo being unable to understand the loss he has experienced was beautifully delivered by Shawn Doyle. He fully believes that his grief is more severe than anything experienced by anyone else which fits in with the arrogance he routinely displays. It’s a very quick yet powerful moment adding further layers to Tarka while showing Owo to be insightful when it comes to reading people.
The depiction of Culber’s growing difficulties both works and doesn’t. The scene itself is good as it boasts a strong interaction between Culber and Stamets where Stamets offers Culber support in order to snap him out of his spiral. Culber blames himself for Book’s actions as he convinces himself it represents a failure on his part. It’s a singular example of the larger problem associated with choosing to bear the burden of the ongoing mental well-being of the crew. Stamets offers him a distraction and an opportunity to get away from his work while pointing out that he isn’t alone in the uncertainty that plagues him. It doesn’t fix the problem because nothing can but it’s an acknowledgement that he isn’t alone which definitely helps in the short term. What doesn’t work about this is that it’s such an obvious presentation of a problem to be resolved in the space of a short scene. It doesn’t feed into the rest of the episode so only serves as a reminder of what has been previously established. Any scene that showcases the Culber/Stamets relationship is welcomed because they are so charming together but the lack of relevance and obvious intent stands out. A general problem with this episode is that it’s connected to the season without appearing necessary and this scene is a clear example of that issue.
Ending the episode is the reveal of the purpose of the DMA. It turns out it’s a highly advanced mining apparatus used to extract Boronite from space. The purpose of this reveal is to prove Burnham and the Federation right by arguing in favour of getting more information before taking action. It also proves that the DMA being destructive doesn’t automatically mean that the intent is destructive. As was previously argued, knowing and understanding the purpose of the DMA is the key to solving the problem. Now that the reason it exists is understood that helps define the approach when it comes to reaching out to those who created it. In theory this is a confirmation that Federation values are work standing by even in the most hopeless situations but in practice the reveal is messy with a lot of questions raised that aren’t addressed.
The DMA being a mining apparatus with the side effect being that it destroys everything in its path is problematic because of how Burnham and those present react to learning this. Intentionally or not the destruction and loss of life still happens which means that those who created it simply don’t care about collateral damage as long as they get what they want. This is likely heading towards an allegory of mining natural resources despite knowing the destructive consequences which will tie in with the problems created through the reliance on Dilithium. It’s inelegant as a connection so far but the link is undeniably there.
Burnham takes this as a victory for her way of thinking because it means there’s no intended hostility from those who created the DMA. She’s right but also very wrong because the possible apathy on display through the existence of the DMA is just as bad. Species 10C are advanced enough to create the DMA which means they’re advanced enough to know that sentient life exists where they’re deploying it. In all likelihood they have chosen to ignore that fact in order to get what they want. Many factors could motivate this such as necessity for their own survival or greed but the fact remains that they are ignoring the impact of their mining which could mean they see themselves and their needs/desires as superior to those impacted by their creation. This presents a tricky starting point for a negotiation as Species 10C can simply choose to continue destroying the Milky Way Galaxy in order to mine the resource they need and there’s nothing the Federation can do to stop them. Even if the DMA can be destroyed Species 10C can most likely build another one. Burnham and those present when the information is learned failing to recognise this problem is glaring though it could form the basis of a debate in the next episode. The idea that there are other motivations behind destructive forces is an interesting one but the facts that surround this example get in the way of the point being made.
A disposable episode that connects to the ongoing plot and character arcs but fails to significantly further them. Book falling back on old habits makes sense as he’s in an emotionally vulnerable position but the execution is lacking as his choice is treated as a means to an end. Having Book and Burnham interact in this episode was a confusing choice as it removes a lot of the weight from Book being on the run. Burnham not arresting him immediately stands out despite the flimsy explanation of Starfleet having no authority where they are. The point of their interactions is to offer Book a simple choice that Burnham delivers both logically and emotionally. This does confirm that Book stands by his decision and is aware of what he stands to lose. The interactions themselves are strong but all of this could have been accomplished in other ways as all having them interact does is reinforce what is already known while disrupting the anticipation of their reunion. The surrounding plot fails to capture interest and lacks in urgency. The setting also highlights the consistent failure of world building with referenced elements having no depth to them.
The game being played is lacking in tension and leans too heavily on humour. Book winning means that he loses the life he has built offers a compelling contrast but the game itself is poorly defined meaning that there’s no sense of what is actually happening or why it matters. A clear opportunity existed to test Burnham’s development as a leader through her orders running counter to her instincts. Book’s decision is similar to one she would have made not so long ago so having the support of Vance who lets her go after him wastes the opportunity to explore what was previously set up. This was a notable episode for Owo who has some strong scenes. Bonding with Burnham over their shared need to take control of a situation and the frustration that comes with helplessness works really well as does her recognition of Tarka’s loss. Tarka’s reaction reinforces his arrogance while showing Owo to be skilled at reading people. Her desire to fight comes out of left field and isn’t all that interesting, once again due to the lack of stakes associated with the fights. The scene between Stamets and Culber is charming in the way that most of their scenes are but it’s also a transparent problem raised to be resolved in the space of the episode. It serves as a reminder of his arc but doesn’t feed organically into the rest of the episode. The reveal of the purpose of the DMA confirms that Federation values are worthwhile and proves Burnham right to a degree but it also raises too many questions that nobody present begins to address and doesn’t present the argument that is clearly intended.
- strong interactions between Book and Burnham
- Book confirming that he understands the consequences and stands by his decision
- Burnham and Owo bonding over similar character traits
- Owo showing insight by recognising Tarka is motivated by loss
- Tarka’s views on the loss he experienced reinforcing his arrogance
- the charming Stamets and Culber scene
- a further example of poor world-building in the setting
- the card game being bereft of tension due to the rules not being established
- leaning too heavily on humour during the game
- Burnham and Book interacting disrupting the anticipation of their reunion
- Book falling back on old habits acting as a means to an end
- failing to capitalise on the opportunity for Burnham to be torn between orders and her loyalty to Book
- the episode generally being connected to the rest of the season but furthering very little
- the reveal of the purpose of the DMA not working as intended and raising too many questions
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