Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 1
Star Trek: Discovery returns for a fourth season with a period of rebuilding and a fresh threat to the galaxy.
One of the main criticisms of Star Trek: Discovery is that it leans on threats that have impossibly high stakes. It isn’t something specific to Discovery as many franchise properties establish threats so it’s a current frustrating trend that this show heavily leans into. Thankfully this opening episode doesn’t heavily lean into the threat; choosing instead to tease it and set up the mystery.
This episode begins with Captain Michael Burnham and the crew of Discovery in the midst of their mission to reconnect the Federation with worlds that turned away from them. She takes Book down to the planet to aid in the reintroduction which results in a misunderstanding that has them attacked by the native species. It’s a fun and well put together sequence but the dialogue leading to the misunderstanding is very forced and awkward. The idea behind it is sound; terminology will mean different things to different species and it’s easy for miscommunication to happen when the alternate meaning isn’t understood. The execution of this idea left a lot to be desired as Burnham should have a greater awareness of how those misunderstandings can happen. Attempting to mine humour out of the scene trumped what actually made sense which makes the sequence far less effective as it feels as if the outcome was avoidable. Despite that it is a reminder of the engaging dynamic between Book and Burnham that remains strong going into this season.
The conclusion where the crew of Discovery were able to help the species out by identifying a problem and solving it for them before highlighting that they were genuine in their claim that no strings were attached to the offer of Dilithium was really heavy handed. It was sound in theory to show that the Federation are an organisation devoted to helping others unconditionally but the messaging is forced and Burnham arranging for the crew to take action without being asked to do so very much counts as overstepping. It’s another example of Burnham’s impulsive attitude somehow paying off which is an irritating hallmark of Discovery as a show.
Fortunately there is very much an awareness of Burnham’s methods not being tolerable to all. Her back and forth with Federation President Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) are filled with friction and hold up a mirror to Burnham in ways that force her to think about the actions she takes. It comes after several reckless decisions that could easily have resulted in the loss of Discovery along with the entire crew. The most interesting thing about President Rillak’s opinion of Burnham is how nuanced it is. She acknowledges that Burnham got results and that her decisions led to saving the lives of several people. She is prepared to admit that the risks paid off on this occasion but she also points out that those decisions put her crew in danger. Rillak’s assessment of Burnham is that she has a lot to learn about command and that she’s incapable of making the hard decisions because she doesn’t consider failure being a possibility.
Burnham’s evaluation where it was identified that losses early in life fostered an attitude of wanting to save absolutely everyone. Burnham doesn’t see a problem with that but Rillak sees that as a drawback as it blinds her to the necessity to recognise when a situation is a lost cause and prioritise protecting her ship and crew over saving everyone. The point is well made when Burnham dwells on the lost lives and has to be reminded of those she did save. Feeling remorse because people lost their lives highlights that Burnham is compassionate and emotional weight is added by taking time to imbue Commander Nalas (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stol ) with personality so there is a face to assign to the loss but Burnham sees it as a failure because she couldn’t save everyone.
The Kobayashi Maru test is referenced and explained in the episode itself. It’s a test at Starfleet Academy that is rigged so that the cadet can’t possibly pass it. The point of the test is for the cadet to learn that not every situation is winnable so it acts more as a test of character than something to be beaten. Everyone who takes it is evaluated on their ability to process the intended lesson and that the burden of command entails unavoidable loss. It’s poignant and relevant to Burnham because she doesn’t accept the possibility of a no win scenario despite how close the recent crisis was to being one. A lesson to learn is in making very difficult decisions that may cost others their lives. The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few is mentioned as a mantra and it’s one that Burnham currently doesn’t believe in but she will have to learn to think along those lines to be an effective Captain.
President Rillak also reframes Burnham’s previous successes without dismissing them. She played a major part in ending the Federation/Klingon War -as well as starting it but best not to focus on that-, saved countless lives by bringing Discovery to the future and ending the threat that existed in the 23rd century and solving the Burn. The latter has resulted in a period of rebuilding that has to be handled with sensitivity. President Rillak describes Burnham’s successes as a swing of the pendulum indicating that they are large scale and widespread but it’s easy for a pendulum to become a wrecking ball if left unchecked. Acknowledging that Burnham has done important work that created a positive situation while recognising that her actions were the first step in a long and delicate process that needs to be managed carefully. Burnham’s approach gets things started but it isn’t sustainable.
This sets up a potential arc for Burnham to follow where she has to internalise the nuances of command and recognise the drawbacks to her general approach. President Rillak challenging her by commenting on her decisions without overruling them is an interesting approach as it forces Burnham to do a brief double take before carrying out a given decision. For now she sticks to her guns but as time goes on she may be encouraged to consider alternatives and do something different. This level of challenge is compelling as Burnham has previously been characterised as someone who makes decisions and has them work out as she intended despite them not making complete sense or following established protocol. As a Captain she may find that her approach isn’t right and will start to consider the bigger picture rather than the short term outcome she wants to achieve. This is good because her character needs to grow especially in this role. Having President Rillak point out that her attitude is preventing her from being considered for particular opportunities and Burnham finding that difficult to hear highlights how she sees herself and how far she has to go in order to get beyond that.
As for President Rillak, there’s a suggestion that she is less than genuine. Burnham believes that her decision to join the rescue mission is an attempt to gain political points for having seen action and calming Commander Nalas by referring to his home and using the details to distract him from the possibility of death is suspected to be a lie by Burnham. President Rillak doesn’t see the difference between telling a well intentioned lie and being genuine so there are definite concerns around her character that could head in very interesting directions.
Other characters receive some attention but not a great deal. For the most part their inclusion serves as a reminder of where they’re at in a particular journey. Tilly is apprehensive about her promotion as she still blames herself for Osyraa taking over the ship. Burnham tells her she believes that it wasn’t Tilly’s fault and the promotion was earned which seems to put an end to Tilly’s self doubt though it’s possible it will plague her over the course of the season. Adira and Gray still carry out a relationship with Adira being the only one able to see him which is limiting for obvious reasons but there is a reminder that the plan is for Gray to get a body. Their scene together was very endearing and the lack of reaction to Adira appearing to talk to themself is a subtle display of complete acceptance from the crew. The found family connection that exists between Adira, Stamets and Culber is referenced when Stamets is more outwardly concerned about Adira than he is anything or anyone else.
Saru receives more attention than the rest in a way that fleshes out the current state of the setting in a mostly organic way. Through his dialogue with other Kelpiens and the Ba’ul it is made clear that there is fear of another event like the Burn happening. The removal of Su’Kal from the surroundings that allowed that to happen renders it all but impossible but the fear still exists and there’s a sense that people everywhere need to be convinced that the Burn isn’t something that can happen again. Saru is doing that on a micro level and his opinion holds considerable weight as he is considered an elder. His return to the Federation is set up when Su’Kal identifies that he feels drawn to getting back out there because he misses his friends and everything that comes with it. Saru talks about the complexities associated with his current emotional state as desiring to be back with his friends doesn’t mean that he is unhappy on Kaminar.
He contains multitudes and a lot of happiness comes from seeing how his people have thrived since he put things in place that allowed them to live up to their full potential. Several centuries later Kelpiens live in harmony with the Ba’ul and have helped to create a confident functioning society. Living in fear of another burn is something Saru sees as a regression and the last thing he wants is for his people to revert to being governed by fear. For him feeling like that was very recent so he remembers exactly how crippling it is. Saru’s arc could involve him resolving being pulled in different directions and truly finding a place to belong.
In terms of spectacle, this episode completely delivers. The aforementioned opening set piece was visually impressive and the rescue sequence was excellent. The action was impressively divided between Discovery and the station with plenty of external action to heighten the tension. Burnham is fully in command of the situation and her crew with a total lack of hesitation when coming up with her next move. In that way she’s a natural in that role as she has the training, experience and confidence to throw herself into it. She recognises the skills of her crew and knows how to utilise them while also being open to suggestions in the moment. It all works together brilliantly and makes for a really exciting sequence with a very defined focus. A mysterious anomaly is behind the situation and it is further set up as being a massive problem when Kweijan is shown to be destroyed by it but the stakes for the purposes of this episode were overall low key which made it far more engaging as it was all about the time pressure and limitations. Everyone pulling together using their own skills to solve the crisis at hand was great to see. It was fast paced, kinetic and exciting while still injecting character work. The destruction of Kweijan receives added weight thanks to Book attending a ceremony that provides grounding for the personal impact that loss has on him. We see him being close to two people so it’s a tangible example of what he has lost.
As an opening to the new season this worked really well. It offered reminders of where the characters currently are, offers suggestions on how they might progress and puts some work into the current background of the show along with the work that needs to be done in order to rebuild in a post-Burn galaxy. The apocalyptic anomaly as a threat currently isn’t all that interesting though there’s plenty of time for the mystery to deepen and open out in ways that are meaningful for the characters involved.
An impressive opening to the season that creates an engaging character arc for Michael Burnham and contains a beautifully put together extended set piece. Michael Burnham’s interactions with President Laira Rillak are filled with friction and hold up a mirror that forces her to consider the actions that she takes. There is nuance to be found in President Rillak’s approach as she acknowledges all that Burnham has done with no effort to dismiss those achievements but identifies them as the first step in a long and delicate process. It is also pointed out that she doesn’t consider failure a possibility during crisis situations which prompts her to behave recklessly. The Kobayashi Maru test is referenced in connection with Burnham needing to learn that being in command means making tough decisions that result in people losing their lives. It’s something she needs to understand and internalise before she can be all she needs to be as a Captain. It sets up a strong arc for Burnham to follow with the point being proven in this very episode. Her fixation on those that were lost rather than those that were saved is both a showcase of her innate compassion as well as her lack of belief in the no win scenario. As a Captain she has to recognise that not everything can be achieved and President Rillak calls her out on that. Added to that is the suggestion that President Rillak is less than genuine with two key examples found within the episode that adds a lot of potential for development in the coming episodes.
Other characters receive some attention but not a great deal with the majority of their screen time being devoted to reminders of where they were at the end of the previous season. Tilly feels apprehensive about her promotion because she blames herself for the Osyraa situation, Adira is still looking to find Gray a way to inhabit a body, Stamets is still enjoying the found family that contains Adira and so on. Saru is shown to be pulled in two different directions while still being happy on Kaminar especially with him able to see his people thriving centuries after he made that possible. He actively campaigns to not live in fear of another Burn as living in fear is something that was very recent for him and he doesn’t want to see his people regress to that point. It’s clear that he will leave Kaminar to rejoin his friends possibly to achieve closure through truly finding a place to belong. This episode completely delivers on spectacle with an engaging opening set piece -that is set up by frustrating contrivances- and an extended action sequence that is wonderfully put together. It showcases the characters and their skills, heightens tension nicely and has a very defined focus. The anomaly threat isn’t that interesting but the destruction of Kweijan has genuine emotional weight due to the tangible personal loss for Book. There is plenty of time for the mystery to deepen and open out in meaningful ways.
- holding a mirror up to Burnham’s attitude and forcing her to consider it
- setting up an arc for Burnham to follow towards fully understanding the responsibilities of command
- the interactions between Burnham and President Rillak
- showcasing Burnham’s skill, training and experience during crisis situations
- the nuanced approach to showing Saru torn between two directions
- the excellent set piece moments
- adding weight to the losses by showing tangible impact on people involved
- other characters largely being included as reminders of where they ended the previous season
- the situation that opens the episode feeling forced and unavoidable
- the anomaly threat failing to be interesting by itself
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