Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 4
“All Is Possible”
Star Trek: Discovery puts Tilly in a leadership position as the Federation prepares to welcome Ni’Var back as a member.
Tilly’s arc built on the uncertainty around her sense of purpose has so far been interesting. She received advice in the previous episode encouraging her to look inward and be honest with herself about what she wants for life and what isn’t currently working. It’s something that has a profound impact on her and leads her to her eventual decision in this episode.
Prior to that her latest attempt to break free of her comfort zone and challenge herself in unfamiliar ways is to lead a group of cadets on a routine mission to give her a taste of leadership -outside of her brief appointment to first officer last season- as well as placing her in the role of a teacher who can impart her knowledge and experience on those who are in the position she was in not so long ago.
It’s a strong setup as it gives Tilly something new to deal with which is always interesting to see. Characters being presented with new challenges and having to figure out a way to deal with them is one of the pillars of good drama and going into this knowing of Tilly’s nervous disposition makes challenge a really interesting one. It’s immediately believable that she’s outside of her comfort zone and some of the best scenes in the episode acknowledge that fact.
As with most missions that are the subject of an episode of Star Trek, it ends up being far from routine. The setup of an accident causing a shuttle to crash and those involved having to figure out a way to survive is a very common plot within this franchise. It is used so frequently because it’s an easy way to force characters to interact while dealing with an increasingly dangerous situation. Some examples are obviously better than others but separating a number of characters from the ship and crew to change up character dynamics and test them in particular ways is always a reasonable start.
The main characters involved are Tilly and Adira who both have their own personal issues to overcome. Adira talks to Gray about finding it difficult to make friends and being overly cautious about they way they approach everything. It’s something that has held them back in life before this point and has been a consistent character trait since Adira’s introduction. Early in their time on the show Stamets picked up on that and reached out to them because of that nervousness around other people.
A curious thing about Adira is that being host to a Trill Symbiont doesn’t seem to impact them in the same way either Dax was affected. Adira is very secure in who they are without having the influence of previous hosts cloud their own sense of identity. Coming out as non binary was something Adira wrestled with prior to being joined. Gray appearing only to them was a distinct separate person interacting with them rather than memories and experiences shared by the Symbiont. This means that Adira’s thoughts and feelings are unique to them which raises questions around what the point in them being host to a Symbiont is. For now it seems to only be a device that facilitates Gray being put into a new body.
That aside, Adira’s challenges are interesting and completely relatable. Many find it difficult in social settings with unfamiliar people. Adira is someone who feels anxious about the very prospect of engaging with others so this training mission represents a major challenge for them. By contrast Gray finds socialising very easy as shown by him casually declaring that he plans to approach people and say hello. To him it’s that simple but that’s a chasm to cross for Adira.
This is something they resolve to some degree by the end of the episode. Their conversation with Tilly indicates that the experience was a positive one overall and they feel as if they have made friends. This resolution is unearned because the episode doesn’t spend any time creating evolving dynamics between any of the characters. The cadets are completely one dimensional and there’s no sense that Adira is connecting with any of them. There are token scenes where personal details are exchanged but there’s a failure to use them to form the basis of a relationship.
The cadets are defined by a singular trait which does help in making them memorable enough in themselves but nothing is done to deepen them beyond that. All of them are scared and lack confidence in Tilly’s leadership but beyond that there’s nothing to latch on to. The mention of anti-Orion sentiment prompted by the actions of the Emerald Chain is an interesting background detail worthy of further exploration but amounts to nothing more than a source of tension between two cadets that receives very little attention. One of the ongoing problems of the time period the show is now set in is the lack of development of the background. This prevented the Emerald Chain from achieving a tangible threat level with Osyraa and her organisation being forced into the forefront. On a broader level this lack of attention given to developing the background elements makes the setting feel shallow. Focusing on character is commendable but they never feel like part of a functioning universe that has a developed history.
This presents problems when blanket statements are made about Orions having to try harder than anyone else due to an innate mistrust that has developed. That in itself is an interesting idea because it highlights that there are resentments to be overcome in the pursuit of a Utopian society. Previous iterations of Star Trek have attempted to depict the Federation as a utopia where everyone is treated equally regardless of where they come from. Cracks in that ideology were frequently shown but on the whole the problems existing between people weren’t motivated by things like race. Following the Burn and the actions of the Emerald Chain it would appear that the Orions are being demonised to some degree. The working assumption is that most Orions had no affiliation with the Emerald Chain but there isn’t enough background information to know that for certain. As a result such blanket statements fall flat because the Emerald Chain was little more than an incidental detail that has all but fallen by the wayside.
In theory there’s a message to be found here about judging people on who they really are rather than any assumptions that might be made based on a given collection of factors but the episode offers that as an idea without ever following through on it. This story was primed for the cadets to get a practical education in what being in Starfleet truly means but the lesson is declared to have been learned without any actual evidence of it in the characters. Part of this has to do with the failure in building the background that prompts these assumptions and part of it is down to not characterising the cadets beyond the minimum. As such it’s a wasted opportunity.
The situation itself is another problem as it never reaches the point of achieving true urgency. Threats are mentioned and a cadet loses their life to hammer home that the same could happen to all of them but the actual presentation of that danger is never as visceral as it needs to be. Problems appear easily solved and the threat is always kept at a distance with the minimum of close calls. A collection of life threatening problems that they have to work together to solve is a great way for cadets to learn an important part of being in Starfleet but the execution fails to live up to the concept.
It is a great showcase for Tilly in ways that feed into her ongoing arc brilliantly. Often similar scenarios have the one in charge be confident and assured in the way they handle it even if they handle it poorly. Tilly is visibly scared and uncertain as she reacts to the changing nature of what they’re facing but she also accepts that everyone is looking to her for guidance so muddles through as best she can. A lot of her uncertainty is down to lack of confidence as when she is tested she consistently proves that she knows what she’s doing. A turning point comes when she takes responsibility for those under her command and puts herself in danger to buy them time. This is her facing her fears and showing she has leadership skills. Her decision doesn’t result in her losing her life but her willingness to die to protect those under command is significant.
This experience informs her decision to accept the offer of teaching at Starfleet Academy. Her conversation with Burnham details the reasons behind her decision with those looping back to the advice she was given around complete honesty with herself. She talks about missing her family and still having an irrational desire to prove herself to her long dead mother. Burnham picks up on her wishing she was back in their original time with her family so her mother could see her make lieutenant. Despite never really gaining her mother’s approval or being able to do enough to impress her. Tilly has a long way to go before getting out of that mindset but she has realised that she joined Starfleet for the wrong reasons and has allowed that to spiral in ways that have now become uncontrollable for her. Making a decision to follow a path that is entirely for her own benefit is a massive step forward for her as she is finally being true to what she wants from life rather than chasing approval that will never come. Taking on the role of a teacher is a compelling shift for her character that is unlikely to stick but if there can be engaging stories while she works in that capacity then it will be worthwhile.
Her final scene with Burnham is a highlight. Their friendship has been one of the naturally developed things this show offers and has remained engaging ever since their first meeting. They’re clearly comfortable in each other’s company, trust each other implicitly and take great comfort in what the other offers them. Their conversation about Tilly’s snoring is a great example of how natural their back and forth is and Tilly detailing her decision weaves into that nicely. It comes across as effortless which makes it entirely believable.
The aforementioned mention of the lack of background development has an impact on the plot surrounding Ni’Var looking to rejoin the Federation. Ni’Var demand a clause to their membership agreement allowing for an unconditional exit. Rillak is less than pleased with this demand because agreeing to it would suggest favouritism rather than equality and create a precedent that may prompt other members to request the same clause. This forms the backdrop for the character driven story leading to a solution. It makes sense to not want the plot to get bogged down in political rhetoric as that can be difficult to make engaging but it does mean the lack of background development really stands out. Mention is made of both Rillak and T’Rina’s hands being tied because they are expected to act in the interests of their supporters. Failing to do so means losing that support which creates other political issues. On the Ni’Var side there are anxieties around the divide between Vulcans and Romulans and on the Federation side there are supporters that may disappear. Neither are explored in any detail which is unfortunate as there are potentially fascinating stories to be told here.
Ni’Var have been featured heavily but there has been no visible evidence of the Vulcans and Romulans being at odds with one another. Everything shown has presented a cohesive society. Dialogue suggests that tensions exist and it’s difficult maintaining that unity but none of that is actually shown nor does it directly impact how this particular story plays out. It’s a background detail to T’Rina and Saru’s conversation where the real point is to showcase their strong connection. Keeping focused on character and having the relationships being forged be the actual story rather than interactions exist for the purposes of exposition is definitely a strength but it’s unreasonable to expect the audience to accept throwaway mentions of potentially interesting details as cohesive worldbuilding. Ni’Var is entirely represented by T’Rina which means it is far from being the developed world and culture that the episode needs it to be to truly sell this story. The same applies to the Federation being represented entirely by Rillak.
T’Rina and Saru’s dynamic is really engaging and turning this into a character driven story certainly has merit, particularly when Saru is able to draw on his personal background to make a convincing argument. In so many ways the relationship between the Ba’Ul and Kelpiens mirrors the Vulcans and Romulans. Saru’s point is that his people were able to live in harmony with the Ba’Ul just as the Vulcans and Romulans were. He understands that it didn’t come easily and requires constant work to maintain. This naturally leads into the point that similar effort will have to be put into Ni’Var and the Federation building a workable relationship. Once again Saru’s wisdom is invaluable and breaks down a complex issue into something far easier to comprehend.
Burnham offering herself as a bridge between two worlds as a citizen of both the Federation and Ni’Var makes a lot of sense and fits into her background but also leans into one of the more frustrating ongoing elements of the show. A fair reading of Discovery is that the universe would be in tatters without Michael Burnham being around to keep everything together. It has been proven true on another occasions and this adds to it as she becomes the reason the Federation and Ni’Var are able to come to an understanding. She is the link that connects and binds them. Once again it makes sense as she was raised on Vulcan while also embodying Federation values through being a Starfleet officer but it adds too much unnecessary importance to the character and paints everyone else in an unfavourable light as she needs to be there to bring them together. It’s another example of failed worldbuilding as the universe should be able to function without Burnham. A far more interesting idea would have been Rillak and T’Rina connecting in some way and resolving this situation with Sar and Burnham acting in a distanced advisory capacity.
Book dealing with his grief remains a fascinating ongoing story with no easy answers. He spends the bulk of his scenes with Culber who tries to help him find an outlet for his feelings. This involves confronting the lost connection to his planet by trying to recreate it in some small way. Book’s initial reaction is to resist it because it isn’t anywhere near enough for him. He dwells on what he has lost and is in some ways regressing from the step forward he made in the previous episode. This is perfectly understandable and a realistic portrayal of the complexities of dealing with loss. Book will have good days where he feels like he’s healing and bad days where the weight of the loss threatens to consume him. This isn’t something he’ll every truly put behind him and it’s great to have this show recognise that.
Culber’s approach to therapy with Book is really interesting. He’s very real with Book in telling him that he will never be the same again. It could be seen as being counter to helping Book heal but he is clearly not going to respond to platitudes about things getting better in time. The truth is that they may not and that Book is going to have to struggle to live with the loss for the rest of his life. Culber is speaking from experience with Wilson Cruz’ performance pointing towards unresolved grief in his own life. I have previously speculated that Culber offering emotional support to everyone else may take a toll on him and there are definite cracks in his armour appearing. His interactions with Book have him at his most vulnerable with his approach to therapy being more personal. Book’s experience awakens things in him that he hasn’t thought about in a long time. Book offers him support so there could be a dynamic forming where shared emotional support helps them to move forward. However it progresses their scenes together were strong and moving. Book’s grief is the strongest content being offered this season.
An uneven episode where the lack of background development causes the plots to suffer but still offers strong characterisation. Tilly being put in charge of Adira and a group of cadets is a great opportunity to push her out of her comfort zone while allowing her to showcase her leadership skills. The plot itself doesn’t entirely work because the cadets are one dimensional with little effort put in to develop their relationships. Everything depicted is so surface level and there’s little to relate to where the cadets are concerned. Part of the problem is that a lot of the basis of conflict relies on background elements that were never properly developed. Adira’s arc around the difficulty they have making friends is somewhat resolved though the resolution isn’t earned because they aren’t shown to progress. It is a great showcase for Tilly who reacts to the changing situation, draws on her knowledge and experience and is believably scared throughout. Her decision to transition to a teaching position motivated by doing something for herself rather than living up to expectations makes for an interesting progression with lots of potential. Her final scene with Burnham was a great example of their naturally built friendship and allowed Tilly to articulate her feelings.
Ni’Var’s entry to the Federation also feeds into the lack of background development. Tensions are mentioned on both sides that have never been explored and those tensions lead to the disagreement that holds up Ni’Var’s entry into the Federation. It’s commendable to not tie the plot down in political rhetoric but there’s also a lack of depth to the storytelling. Saru and T’Rina’s interactions are engaging and Saru pointing out the similarities between his people and Ni’Var was a really strong moment of wisdom from him but it suffers because the universe never feels expansive or functional. Burnham solving the problem by making herself the bridge between the two entities makes sense given her background but it falls back on the tired crutch of making her the centre of the universe. Book’s grief remains the strongest content offered by the show at this point. His regression is entirely believable and the perspective offered by Culber being very real with him is fascinating. Added to that is more cracks appearing in Culber’s armour with the suggestion that they could help each other emotionally.
- a strong setup in the Tilly, Adira and the cadets plot that presents Tilly and Adira with challenges to ovecome
- Tilly reacting to the changing nature of the situation and being realistically scared
- her decision to transition to a teaching position being based on what she wants for herself rather than measuring up to expectations
- Tilly and Burnham’s final scene
- Saru and T’Rina’s engaging dynamic
- not getting bogged down in political rhetoric and looking everything back to character
- the continued complexity of Book’s grief
- Culber’s approach to therapy and the strong suggestion that he’s in need of help
- blanket statements that the audience is supposed to accept at face value without doing the background work to back it up
- the political story around Ni’Var and the Federation being very surface level
- the threat to the cadets never coming across as urgent enough
- the cadets being one dimensional
- no sense of the cadets putting their differences aside and learning to work together
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