Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 2
Star Trek: Discovery begins to unravel the mystery of the anomaly threatening the galaxy while unpacking heavy duty emotional issues.
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that threats to the galaxy/universe/all life as we know it are boring because it’s impossible to invest in stakes that large. This remains true but a clear way around that is to make the threat and stakes meaningful to the characters. That’s exactly what happens here and it results in excellent emotionally driven storytelling.
The destruction of Kweijan and the sheer volume of lives lost in such a tragedy are unfathomable. The 2009 Star Trek movie attempted something similar with the destruction of Vulcan and there are some parallels to be drawn between this episode and that film in terms of approach. Both focus the grief through the perspective of a single character fixated first on their personal losses with the wider scope of all that was lost being secondary. Book is the focal character here with loss weighing heavily on him. He begins the episode in shock with a total inability to process the reality of what has happened. Burnham wants to help but at this point Book isn’t prepared to accept it as his brain needs to catch up.
Book’s grief is explored in great complexity over the course of the episode and is very much still a part of him by the end. He runs a wide ranging gauntlet of emotions and is entirely fixated on what he has lost. David Ajala’s performance is flawless throughout; playing Book in a constant detached and haunted state that never leaves him even when the emotions rise to the surface. It’s a brutally real portrayal of grief that forms the emotional core of the episode and makes the anomaly threat feel far more visceral because of what it took from Book personally, the largeness of the threat is secondary at this point because the personal connection is most important.
As expected, the Federation and other major powers are deeply concerned about the threat the anomaly represents and Discovery is sent to gather data that will allow its path to be predicted. It’s a fairly standard Star Trek setup that gives the crew a problem to solve and focuses on the plot at hand in a way that also enables several emotional arcs. The most prominent is Book with him running point on the mission. His primary motivation is to avenge the loss of his family and his planet which raises concerns from Burnham about his head being in the game. Book doesn’t give her a choice and reminds her that he isn’t under her command so there’s nothing she can really do to stop him. It’s interesting to see Burnham react in such a way as not so long ago she would be the first to embark on a dangerous mission motivated by an emotional need of some sort. This serves as an indication that she is starting to understand how inappropriate that is because the burden of command is teaching her that there are bigger considerations than what an impulse compels someone to do. Unfortunately Burnham hasn’t been shown to learn that lesson but those concerns are correct in this moment and it further highlights Book’s troubled emotional state.
Burnham also recognises that Book is very much the perfect candidate for the mission due to his familiarity with his ship as well as his piloting skills. His desire to avenge his losses could be an asset as he may be driven to succeed and it could be a liability if he becomes distracted at a key moment. Both end up being the case as events progress which once again offers a complex exploration of grief. Book alternates between focused and distracted with particular triggers pulling his attention away from where it needs to be. It ramps up the tension beautifully and everything always comes back to character.
Pairing Stamets with Book was an interesting choice especially after setting up that Stamets doesn’t know how to deal with Book under the best of circumstances so feels apprehensive about being alone with him under these circumstances. Stamets is chosen because he understands how loss feels and is urged to trust his instincts while letting Book guide the interactions. It is well established that Stamets struggles in certain social situations so there is an extra layer of tension created by Stamet’s expertise being required while he believes himself to be the worst person to be around Book at this point.
Stamets joins him through a holographic avatar which does risk reducing the threat level since Stamets isn’t in any real danger but it ends up being instrumental in creating a powerful emotional moment. The situation reaches a point where it looks less than likely that Book will make it out alive and he sees himself as being completely alone; commenting that Stamets isn’t actually there and neither is anyone else. Grief can be intensely isolating and Stamets being there without actually being there acts as a strong metaphor for that sense of isolation. Even though Booker has someone there with him in a sense he doesn’t feel supported. Being empathic Stamets will likely register as an absence to him which would only make the isolation worse. Stamets tries to get through to him by relaying his own experience of losing Culber. He assures Book that he’s not alone and that people are there for him. It’s not quite enough to snap Book out of his nihilism but it is enough to make him more open to listening.
Burnham reinforces that Booker is loved and supported by reaching out to him as a partner who loves him rather than a Captain that needs to have the mission completed. Saru is the one to recommend Burnham reach out in this way and she does so privately in order to make that support more intimate. It’s a beautiful scene wonderfully acted by Sonequa Martin Green and David Ajala. This is another indication of Burnham having different roles she needs to juggle and that she needs to have an awareness of what is required in a given situation. Part of that means listening to those around her and taking recommendations on board which she does and it leads to success on more than one level.
Following this, Book opens up to Burnham about his feelings. He talks about how positively he felt about reconnecting with his brother and seeing the future play out through his nephew. Thinking he had connections and purpose was something he drew a lot of strength from so having that taken from him in an instant is incredibly difficult. He tells Burnham he doubts whether his family knew how he felt about them which is a very common area of doubt when grieving. It’s powerful, poignant, incredibly moving and puts Book at the beginning of a very difficult emotional journey.
Awareness of Book’s losses and the appearance of this new threat intensifies certain strong feelings in others. Tilly eventually admits to Culber that she’s struggling because things feel off and asks that they have a proper discussion about it. Culber is all too happy to be there for Tilly as well as every other member of the crew. Throughout the episode he is a beacon of compassion and a calming presence to anyone he comes into contact with. Whether being an emotional anchor for everyone else will end up taking a toll remains to be seen but it’s clear he’s becoming indispensable when it comes to the emotional health of the crew. One of Tilly’s struggles is around being an effective mentor for Adira who really wants to impress her; this comes with her promotion and the increased responsibility placed on her but also ties into feeling in some way responsible for Commander Nalas’ death in the previous episode.
Adira has their own concerns around Gray being close to being installed in a new body. It isn’t said aloud but Gray discussing plans for his future may make Adira feel that he will leave them behind once he gets his life back on track. There will be doubts over whether their relationship is strong enough to endure Gray’s ambition. A more urgent concern is being reminded of losing Gray in the first place due to the similarities in the situation that cost Commander Nalas his life. Adira and Gray’s relationship is being set up to grow in fascinating ways once he gets his new body.
Saru’s return has him take the position of Burnham’s first officer because he sees himself as being best deployed in a supporting role. He brings wisdom to every interaction he has in the episode and has a strong awareness of the best way to approach a given situation. For now he seems content to offer guidance and expertise where required while using the well cultivated relationships to bring out the best in people. His heartfelt scene with Tilly is a great example of that as are his key scenes with Burnham.
The anomaly remains a mystery but important information is learned. Tilly is terrified when telling Saru that the anomaly’s path can’t be predicted which makes it far more dangerous than they could have expected. For Starfleet, understanding what is being faced is what gives them power so something that defies understanding is a horrific prospect. The unpredictability hints at the possibility of an intelligence being at play which points to a central antagonist yet to be revealed but for now those details are far from important as the emotional implications are far more important whether that be the impact of the loss created by the anomaly destroying a planet or being afraid of it defying understanding. So far the focus is in exactly the right place which makes the galactic threat far more relatable.
An excellent episode that showcases a powerful exploration of grief and downplays the galactic threat in favour of more relatable emotional connections. Focusing the impact of the anomaly through Book’s grief is powerful, poignant, moving and complex. David Ajala’s performance is flawless throughout as Book runs a gauntlet of emotions. His desire to avenge those he lost by helping to get the data that can solve the problem makes sense and Burnham countering it by expressing concern over whether his head is in the game is a great way of exploring this. It also shows that the burden of command has shown Burnham how her emotionally driven actions in the past were ill advised. How she came to learn that lesson isn’t shown but the showcase of growth is nevertheless appreciated and it further highlights Book’s troubled emotional state. Book’s desire to avenge them proves to be both an asset and a liability with his determination proving useful but certain triggers distracting him in key moments. Having Stamets present is a compelling choice as he has trouble connecting emotionally with others. Having him present by way of holographic avatar acts as a metaphor for Book feeling isolated. As an empath he may recognise Stamets as an absence which leads him to feel totally alone. Stamets assures him that he’s not alone and this is reinforced by Burnham who reaches out to him as a partner rather than a Captain. It’s another indication of her having to learn how to juggle different roles and understand what is best in a given situation. Book opens up to her about his doubts over whether his family knew how he felt about them; a commonly held doubt when experiencing grief. It’s strongly portrayed and puts Booker very much at the beginning of a long and difficult emotional journey.
Book’s grief stirs up strong emotions in other characters. Tilly is struggling with the responsibility of being a mentor to Adira along with the responsibilities that come with her promotion, she has a strong reaction to Commander Nalas’ death and reaches the point where she admits to needing help. Culber is all too willing to give it and acts as a general source of comfort, calm along with emotional support to other characters. Whether this will take a toll on his own well-being is unknown but for now it’s a strong role for him. Adira has unspoken concerns about Gray making plans for his life once installed in his new body. One of their concerns is that Gray might leave them behind though their current struggle is around Commander Nalas’ death being too similar to the circumstances where Adira lost Gray. This sets up some compelling relationship content for them in the coming episodes. Saru’s return in a supporting role is proving excellent so far with him bringing wisdom to all of his interactions. The anomaly remains a mystery but Tilly’s terror over learning that they are unable to predict it heightens the threat because the lack of knowledge runs counter to what gives Starfleet power. The emotional implications are far more important than galactic destruction from a relatability point of view and so far the focus is in exactly the right place.
- the complex exploration of Book’s grief
- using Book’s emotional state to carry the plot
- his desire to avenge being both beneficial and a liability
- Stamets own experience of grief proving helpful
- the holographic avatar acting as a metaphor for the isolation
- Burnham reaching out to him as a partner and their emotionally intimate moment
- Burnham understanding the impact of her own reckless behaviour in the past reflected through Book
- Tilly’s array of emotional struggles
- Culber acting as a calming presence and a beacon of compassion
- setting up different trials for Adira and Gray
- Saru bringing wisdom
- the anomaly remaining a compelling mystery with the terror being framed around the lack of knowledge
- the focus being in exactly the right place
- Burnham making use of a lesson she is never shown to have learned
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