Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 7
“…But To Connect”
Star Trek: Discovery deals with not one, but two large scale morality driven debates as decisions need to be made on how best to approach Zora along with the DMA.
Moral debates are part of the bread and butter of Star Trek as a franchise. Posing a difficult question through the lens of a problem that needs to be solved within a given episode, having the characters debate it and then arriving at a decision on how to proceed is often fodder for the best episodes. Housing two different difficult questions in a single episode is arguably too much but there’s a certain elegance to how they were explored that gets around that.
One of them is around Zora and her recent sentience. I speculated in my review of the previous episode that there may come a time where a problem is created through her refusing to do something. This happens far sooner than expected when she determines the coordinates of those who created the DMA and opts to keep them to herself because she doesn’t want the crew to put themselves in danger by going to those coordinates. Immediately standing out is that her motivation to keep the coordinates to herself is entirely founded on protecting the crew rather than self preservation. This reinforces her loyalty to the crew of Discovery and the compassion directed in their direction.
Zora’s refusal creates a need for action be taken in the form of an assessment as to what she actually is. Performing the assessment is Kovich who represents an antagonist of sorts for the episode by suggesting that if he should reach a particular decision then Zora will be ripped out of Discovery’s systems and installed elsewhere. Starfleet regulations prohibit sentient integrated A.I. on a starship so part of his purpose is to determine if that’s what she is. He represents a looming threat to Zora’s existence even though he isn’t portrayed in a malicious way. Instead he acts as an important addition to the debate by bringing in questions about what Zora actually is. It quickly becomes so much bigger than simply getting her to release the coordinates with that acting as a springboard to widen the conversation.
The large question is around what Zora really is with the eventual realisation being that she is a new form of life entirely. Being born out of Discovery’s main computer and the Sphere Data has created a unique set of circumstances whereby life emerged. She is the Discovery computer in the sense that she has full access to the systems on board and assigns a large portion of her identity to the ship and crew but there’s something undefinable and intangible about her that raises a whole different set of questions.
To make the debate easier to digest various characters are brought in with Stamets and Adira/Gray representing the two prevailing sides of the debate. Stamets comes at this from a place of caution and concern where Adira and Gray speak in favour of Zora. Weaving in and out of the two sides is Saru, Kovich and Zora herself who offer different kinds of insight at key points. Stamets’ concern comes from the experience of battling Control. His last encounter with a sentient A.I. was less than positive so he can’t help but worry that the same thing might happen here. He doesn’t doubt Zora’s current intent but has concerns over the possibility of her viewpoint changing and for her to become a danger to the crew. Since she is the ship their lives are very much in her proverbial hands and could be extinguished on a whim. Having emotions means potentially losing control of those emotions and taking drastic action as a reaction to a specific feeling. Stamets is justifiably concerned about that possibility, at least from his well backed up point of view.
Adding into that is extra difficult considerations with no easy resolution. Saru points out that he enjoys a level of access that could pose a danger of the crew if he were to use it in a certain way which prompts Stamets to state that he knows Saru’s values and trusts that he adheres to the chain of command that they are all part of where there is disciplinary action if he were to act out of turn. It’s a strangely flimsy argument as in the scenario being suggested it’s unlikely anyone would fear punishment if they were to be driven to take that kind of action. Alternatively if they only choose not to harm others out of fear of punishment then that’s deeply concerning but Stamets’ main point is that he knows Saru well enough and understands his values to be in line with doing no harm so he never believes that he would cause harm. The same doesn’t apply to Zora who has already abused her access to conceal information which leads to a lack of total trust.
The other difficult consideration is Zora creating her own fail-safe that would effectively lobotomise her if someone chose to press the button. The existence of it is enough to alleviate some of Stamets’ concerns because it’s something to fall back on should the worst happen but there’s an extra moral quandary associated with that. Questions are asked around whether the crew has any right to have that level of control over whether a sentient being lives or dies along with the autonomy to make that decision. Zora is a living being which means she should be afforded rights so a button that terminates her sentience would run counter to those rights. It’s an easy solution to a theoretical problem but the debate is far larger than that and everyone present has to at least begin to understand what Zora is. Doing so by involving her in the discussion while she asks the same questions about her own existence makes it far more interesting because it means Stamets has to face her while raising his concerns which forces him to examine the prejudice he admits he has.
In general this is a very interesting breed of conflict as there’s no malice involved. Stamets is openly concerned and admits he isn’t quite sure why that is but he approaches it from a practical scientific point of view. This proves that it’s still possible to create compelling morality driven plots with believable conflict without a looming danger present to fuel the story. This boils down to people in a room puzzling through a series of questions that don’t have easy answers and it’s brilliantly executed. Compassion is the obstacle that needs to be overcome and in order to do so there needs to be an understanding of what motivates Zora to want to protect the crew. Digging into her memories reveals the extent of that emotional connection and her genuine desire to protect what she considers to be her family. It’s touching and provides forward movement in a fascinating character driven way.
The conclusion to this feels realistic and earned when it is reached. Kovich admits that he was evaluating the crew’s reaction to Zora as much as Zora herself and the result of his evaluation is that she isn’t a sentient integrated A.I.; she is something new entirely so this effectively becomes akin to a First Contact situation. Since Zora is committed to the ongoing safety of the crew and wants to remain installed on Discovery since she considers the ship to be her body and is as attached to it as any of the crew are to theirs. Since she isn’t going anywhere the crew need to find a way to work with her and the suggested solution is for Zora to formalise her relationship to Starfleet by being brought on as a Specialist subject to the same rules and laws that govern the crew. This means she has to obey the rules that govern all of them but it also means she’s formally part of the crew and accepted as a living being who can join them.
One thing that remains unaddressed is the potential issues around having the ship be a sentient life form rather than a tool the characters can use to solve problems. This should bring up extra considerations when it comes to entering dangerous situations as an action that will save the crew might end up causing pain to Zora. Any action taken will have to be done so with her consent to some extent though the crew do have to take orders from the Captain that place them in dangerous situations. They also have to take orders that will definitely result in their death if it means saving everyone else so there is definitely a story to be told around this idea where Zora is concerned and it’s something of an oversight to not address the fact as part of this complex debate.
The second debate is how to handle the DMA and those that created it. Representatives from worlds across all four quadrants are summoned to discuss the problem at hand. At first they gather to discuss the question of how First Contact should be handled. The options are simplified to the binary of hostile or peaceful with a variance of opinion on what the correct approach should be.
Some of the arguments are based on fear from those who consider the DMA to be an act of hostility that should be responded to in kind. To adopt a peaceful approach may be seen as a sign of weakness that leads to their undoing where a show of strength might be their only chance at survival. This is an extreme reaction but an understandable one given the destruction the DMA has left in its wake by this point. It’s easy to see why some would see it as an act of aggression that should be met with the same but there are other considerations not factored into this line of thinking such as whether it’s even possible to present a viable threat to those who could create the DMA. The fear based reactions are failing to consider how outgunned they are which means that an offensive strategy is likely to fail.
That consideration is noted, particularly when Tarka presents them with a weapon that can destroy the DMA therefore solving the current problem that faces them. On the surface it seems to be the answer that everyone is looking for because it’s a way to definitively stop this threat but beneath the surface there is so much more to consider. The possibility of the destruction travelling through the wormhole and affecting whoever is at the point of origin is raised with Tarka dismissing it as collateral damage and a necessary evil but it could be construed as an act of War that will make the situation worse.
What makes this debate work so well is that it’s simple and easy to follow on the surface but has so much depth to it. Fear and uncertainty are the main obstacles as even the less fearful arguments are entirely driven by speculation. Burnham in particular campaigns for everyone present to be the best version of themselves and vote to attempt a peaceful resolution in the first instance. It’s in line with Starfleet and Federation values and to vote in that direction shows that those values aren’t compromised under dire circumstances. Burnham occupying that viewpoint makes a lot of sense and she does acknowledge the fear being experienced but she doesn’t offer any practical alternatives should her plan fail. Of course she doesn’t have enough information to offer that but her appeal could be seen as empty moral platitudes rather than anything decisive which should make her argument less persuasive.
The episode gets around this to some degree by positioning Book on the other side of the argument and having his views be entirely emotionally driven. As far as he’s concerned the creators of the DMA struck first and they need to fight back. The core arguments being emotionally driven is understandable as this is an emotive topic and using Book as the spokesperson for the losses caused by the DMA is appropriate given his arc before this point. The conflict created between Book and Burnham where she is torn between her love for Booker and her values grounds this wonderfully. It feeds into Burnham’s arc around adapting to her responsibilities as Captain while testing her relationship with Book by presenting an issue they don’t see eye to eye on.
Much to Burnham’s delight the vote is in favour of diplomacy which is positive in the sense that morality isn’t compromised in the face of a desperate situation but it also represents a missed opportunity to have Burnham forced to carry out orders she fundamentally disagrees with. The show has been teasing Burnham having to face up to the realities of being a Captain and this would be one of them. In terms of messaging it’s entirely on point because it allows the future to be hopeful in line with what Star Trek has always stood for but there was a real opportunity here that can’t be capitalised on.
Book’s conversation with Tarka picks up on the suggestion of Tarka being an enabler for Book’s darker impulses. He encourages Book to argue for the destruction for the DMA and opens up about what drives him. Tarka admits to Book that he’s from another universe and wants to get back but requires an immense power source to do so. The DMA controller is exactly the power source he needs so he’s highly motivated to gain access to it so that he can return home. It’s a very thoughtful motivation founded on loss and loneliness; he talks openly about losing someone close to him and wanting to return home to be with those he loves. This counters the theory that Tarka is somehow responsible for the creation of the DMA and adds extra intrigue to the character. It doesn’t make him any less manipulative. He quite clearly capitalises on Book’s grief by directly referencing it and using that to encourage Book into taking action.
The ending where Book and Tarka force the decision by using Book’s ship to jump towards the DMA with the intention of destroying it was striking and devastating. It’s painful to see Book consumed by his desire for revenge to the point that he’s willing to betray Burnham in order to take action. It’s very much a step in the wrong direction where his grief is concerned and Tarka easily manipulating him into leaning into that desire paints him in a bad light. Tarka is definitely far more complex than his first appearance suggested with the sympathetic backstory being coloured by his behaviour. A lot is at stake going into the second half of the season with Book and Burnham being at odds with one another on this issue, Book and Tarka potentially starting a War with what they have decided to do and the ongoing questions around the DMA and its origins still to be answered. So far this season has been very engaging and hopefully that will continue into the second half. Coverage will continue when the show returns.
An excellent episode that explores two fascinating morality driven debates in beautifully character driven ways and leans into the complexity of the questions that don’t have easy answers. The Zora debate is fascinating because it quickly becomes about what Zora is and how that can be dealt with. Compassion is the main obstacle as Zora refuses to release information that might lead to endangering the crew so her loyalty to them is preserved and it comes from an emotional place. Stamets argues that this is deeply concerning because Zora refusing to do something will hinder them at random points. He also worries that she might harm them if she becomes upset with them. This comes from battling control so makes sense from his point of view and it fuels the overall debate nicely. Adding into that is Saru questioning why he would be trusted when he can do harm to the crew almost as easily. Zora creates a fail-safe that can lobotomise her which opens up questions around whether the crew have the right to have access to that. Adira and Gray arguing for Zora while Zora is part of the conversation and able to explore her own sentience along with everyone else also works well. The conclusion of Zora being an entirely new lifeform with rights that need to be respected is fascinating and having her become part of the crew as a Specialist bound to Starfleet rules is a compelling progression. The ongoing debate doesn’t touch on everything it could but it’s handled very well.
The other debate around how to approach the creators of the DMA boils down to the simple question of whether to approach them peacefully or with hostility. Arguments are emotionally driven which makes sense given the emotive nature of the topic with the wider implications weaving in as it progresses. Book represents all those who have lost because of the DMA with Burnham arguing for the preservation of the values. This is in service of proving that their values can’t be compromised in a desperate situation and the vote reflecting that is in line with the hopeful future the franchise looks to display but also represents a missed opportunity for Burnham to be forced to carry our orders she doesn’t agree with. Depth is added to Tarka through his backstory and thoughtful motivation while further showcasing him as manipulative by encouraging Book to lean into his desire for revenge. The cliffhanger ending where Book and Tarka take it upon themselves to destroy the DMA is striking and devastating. Lots is at stake going into the second half of the season on multiple levels and this episode represents a strong ending to the first half of the season. Coverage will continue when the show returns.
- strong exploration through two distinct morality driven debates
- the Zora debate being constantly character driven and touching on a wide range of difficult questions
- Stamets presenting the concerns around Zora with his concerns being well developed
- involving Zora in the conversation as recognition of her sentience
- her compassion being the major obstacle
- the resolution that has her recognised as a member of the crew
- the simple yet complex debate around what to do with the creators of the DMA
- adding extra layers to it through Tarka’s weapon
- leaning into the emotion of the arguments and having Book represent all those who lost
- conflict created through Burnham being torn between her relationship with Book and her values
- appealing to the values of those voting
- the result of the vote showing that those values aren’t compromised in the face of a desperate situation
- adding depth to Tarka through is thoughtful motivation and backstory
- Tarka’s manipulation of Book by appealing to his pain and desire for revenge
- the devastating ending where Book gives into his darkest impulses
- lots at stake going into the second half of the season
- not fully addressing additional concerns in the Zora plot
- missing an opportunity for Burnham to be forced to carry out orders she doesn’t agree with
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