Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 12
Star Trek: Discovery introduces the advanced and enigmatic Species Ten-C and presents a communication barrier for the crew to overcome.
One of the ongoing themes of this season -and arguably the show itself- has been communication. Characters need to understand one another in order to let their connections evolve and deepen. This only happens through good quality communication. It’s also a foundational idea in the Star Trek franchise; from day one it has always promoted the idea of conversation over confrontation as it’s the best way to forge meaningful bonds. Many stories focus on solving a problem peacefully and finding common ground is often the first step towards achieving it. The Federation is built on the principle of communication and collaboration so it radiates from every molecule of the franchise and the characters who inhabit it.
Species Ten-C represent an external manifestation of that theme. Their very existence would seem to defy communication as they are the most advanced alien race ever encountered. They have evolved beyond the usual methods being used so finding a place to start is a significant obstacle. Fortunately the previous episode provided an answer through the hydrocarbons representing different emotional states. This establishes that Species Ten-C experience emotions comparable to those experienced by most known species which makes for a definitive starting point. It makes perfect sense for emotion to be the baseline that connects the characters to Species Ten-C as Discovery has always been a show that wears its heart on its sleeve. For better or for worse it’s one of the major pillars and consistently forms the root of stories. Species Ten-C reaching out through emotion furthers the idea that feelings are important by suggesting they are a universal concept experienced by every sentient being in some form. The fact that the hydrocarbons produce familiar emotions in the character is confirmation of that message and them being universal provides hope as there is the possibility of reaching out peacefully.
Most of the episode focuses on attempting to make contact. This is presented as a series of roadblocks impeding progress in articulating information to Species Ten-C. The first is how to get their attention which is solved by spraying hydrocarbons on the surface of the Hyperfield and things build from there. Species Ten-C very much take the lead on opening a line of communication. Since they are far more advanced it makes sense for them to do so as their language is beyond what can be understood meaning they have to find a way to simplify it. They do this by presenting simple messages to be decoded by Discovery. It starts with a display of hydrocarbons and a light show that indicates the order in which they should be read. This is enough for a response to be generated that tells Ten-C that rudimentary conversation is possible. It’s enough for them to extend an invitation to discuss things further.
Immediately this evokes Arrival; a film that also presents the idea of understanding through emotion. The approach Discovery takes is different enough but there are undeniable similarities. This episode doesn’t go beyond the rudimentary points being put across but there’s a sense that adding complexity is possible. In essence the characters have to make Ten-C aware of how the DMA makes them feel in order to go about asking them to turn it off. Conceptually it’s very simple and the episode builds to it nicely.
A drawback is that the problems are solved very quickly. The episode adopts a formulaic problem solving structure where the characters are given something, they discuss it briefly and then arrive at a solution. It maintains momentum but moves very quickly which negates the idea of this being a challenge. It is justified to a degree by the likelihood of Ten-C making their messaging as simple as possible but there is very little trial and error and unrealistically quick solutions to every problem. It’s an extension of the uneven pacing plaguing this season and it’s unfortunate that First Contact with Species-10C suffers as a result as this is a fascinating science fiction plot that could have filled multiple episodes instead of being condensed into easily solved puzzles.
The advantage to the approach taken is that it’s easy to follow and compelling in its own right. Different characters provide the key to solving the puzzle each time which provides variety in the storytelling and neatly confirms how important cooperation is. There’s a particularly strong scene where members of the bridge crew are asked to weigh in as different perspectives may point the way to an answer. The point being made is far from subtle but no less effective. Diversity always opens the door to greater knowledge and we are at our best when united in common cause.
This is arguably the most Star Trek this show has ever been as it features the crew being presented with a unique challenge that they have to work together to solve, all while promoting the values making this franchise so unique. Scenes are filled with curiosity, wonder and the right amount of caution as the spectre of destruction hangs over them. Failure means the end of their way of life but the threat doesn’t alter the fact that this is why many of them joined Starfleet in the first place. They are doing the job they want to do and there’s a certain amount of joy to be taken in it despite the danger.
Real progress seems to be made when they are able to convey that the DMA inspires terror for them which prompts Ten-C to express sadness at the prospect. This proves encouraging as it shows that Ten-C are capable of empathy and feel it towards them which means that peaceful communication is possible. Getting to that point doesn’t seem as much of a challenge as it needed to be but the conclusion is mostly satisfying. Unfortunately the breakthrough is hindered by Tarka’s actions that possibly risk any possibility of peace with Ten-C being extinguished. The contrast between accomplishment and the setback threatening to undo it works brilliantly and finally creates the sense of urgency that the show has been lacking.
As good as the portrayal of the early communication attempt is there are still some blind spots that fail to be addressed. One becomes apparent when Ten-C create the replica of Discovery’s bridge to potentially provide a comfortable environment for those making contact. If they are able to do this then it stands to reason they would be able to understand language and its meaning in a way that they could use to communicate. For example they could translate their intentions into actual readable text rather than mathematical constructs. Since the messaging at this point is very simple they would only have to create rudimentary phrases. There may be a reason for this but the problem is that there isn’t enough time to go into detail as to what that reason might be, None of the characters ask why Ten-C don’t simply do this so it remains a glaring detail demanding coverage.
Another question is why they don’t realise the DMA is so destructive to any life it comes into contact with. The strong suggestion that they they empathise with what they are being told shows they are capable of that concern so it’s unclear how they would have missed a densely populated region being impacted by the DMA. This particularly stands out when they recreate the weapon that destroyed the first DMA indicating that they understand what it is. Those answers may be forthcoming and the focus on opening lines of communication is definitely welcomed but these points still stand out.
Species Ten-C remain a mystery even if parts of that mystery are beginning to be solved. They are shrouded to encourage the viewer to use their imagination as to what they might look like. This is effective in increasing the tension while promoting a general sense of wonder. Ten-C are present but they are still beyond perception. It’s a visual representation of the beginning of understanding with still a very long way to go.
The importance of emotion is showcased in other ways in the Discovery set portions of the episode. One is through Zora who feels like something is amiss. She is minorly aware of Book’s ship being attached to the hull but isn’t able to understand why she feels out of sorts. Conventional diagnostics find nothing wrong so this is her version of a gut feeling that she needs to understand. In order to do so Culber suggests going back to the game that once helped her focus and sort out her feelings. It’s brief but effective and allows for a natural connection to Book and Tarka through Zora’s emotions leading her to them. It also signifies development for Zora who is learning to trust her feelings even when instrumentation tells a different story. There may also be an intentional meta joke associated with everyone believing Reno to be somewhere nearby when she is actually off the ship. It’s often the case that she disappears for long stretches of time only to reappear as if she was there the whole time. Acknowledging it in this way is fun though only draws attention to the problem.
Emotion also comes into play in how T’Rina and Saru interact. Their relationship is failing to progress because they have yet to find a baseline for communication. Burnham is able to help him understand how Vulcans approach their feelings based on her experience which gives Saru other angles to consider. It’s an obvious link to the Ten-C plot as they are having similar difficulties getting the other party to understand. Their relationship remains mature, engaging and heart-warming. Tying this relationship obstacle into the main Ten-C communication plot through a thematic link creates an overall sense of purpose.
Saru and Burnham share a tender moment as friends as well as Captains. Burnham can turn to him and be completely open because she trusts him as a friend while knowing that his rank puts him on equal footing with her. In this exchange she admits that she’s scared and feels a lack of control over the situation. This isn’t something she can tell the crew because they look to her for leadership and she is expected to be an example of how they should conduct themselves in the face of massive uncertainty. It’s a significant burden to bear and Saru being present to share the load is a great touch. It feeds into him being used to support others and always knowing the right thing to say showcased earlier in the season. The visceral expression of emotion to provide an outlet for those anxieties was an amusing addition to this strong moment of friendship.
Book and Tarka are presented as an oppositional force that risk derailing any attempt at peaceful communication. Tarka in particular is unhinged and has long since lost sight of his objective now that his obsession has completely overpowered him. Reno highlights that his plan with destroy the Hyperfield as well as laying waste to Earth and anything else in the immediate vicinity. He doesn’t care about the destruction because achieving his goal is all that matters to him no matter what the consequences.
Reno recognises this immediately while also identifying that Book is suffering from similar tunnel vision. Both are acting out of grief and pain in very different ways. Tarka would seem to be beyond redemption at this point but Book is a different matter as his innate decency is impossible to extinguish. Reno reaches out to him on that level and tries to make him see how dangerous Tarka is. She presents him with facts and points out what will happen if Tarka achieves his goal. By association Book will have unimaginable blood on his hands. This speaks to him on a very primal level as his main motivation is to prevent further loss of life so Tarka hiding key information from him in order to shield him from the loss of life that will accompany success is a visceral betrayal.
Book and Reno have a really strong exchange where they bond over sharing personal stories. He tells her about the name Cleveland Booker being a title passed down through a line of trust. It’s his responsibility to take the name forward and honour its legacy. His story is somewhat incongruous with the surrounding situation but there is a link between what he says and his desire to protect others. It’s something that should be associated with the name and he doesn’t intend to let it down.
Reno’s story about a tireless attempt to save a dying patient purely because the eyes reminded her of her recently deceased wife. She links that to Book and Tarka because she should have had the presence of mind not to prolong suffering and let the patient go for their own good rather than trying to use it to achieve some sort of personal redemption. It was an action wholly motivated by grief and dealing with it allows her to see the same obsession in them. It’s moving, insightful and brutally honest which makes it believable that Book would take notice.
It’s less believable that Book would allow Tarka unrestricted access to his ship, particularly when he proven himself to be untrustworthy before this point. Book is intelligent and savvy so should be taking more precautions when it comes to Tarka even if their goals align. It’s possible that the grief inspired blind spot prevents Book from being as cautious as he should be but that excuse doesn’t hold water as it relies on his intelligence being reduced because he’s distracted by grief which isn’t evidenced anywhere else in the season. He has been routinely distracted by his grief but his partnership with Tarka seems to have given him greater focus so he should be more wary of what Tarka is capable of particularly after detonating the weapon that destroyed the first DMA.
Tarka overpowering Book, taking control of his ship and embarking on his single minded quest to reach the power source makes for an exciting ending. It raises the stakes, increases the tension significantly and completely derails the attempt at peaceful contact with Species Ten-C. At this point he exists to throw a spanner in the works and take on the role of primary antagonist which works really well. He also maintains some sympathetic aspects though his selfish behaviour mean those are eroding away but he may not be entirely beyond redemption. His admission that he considers Book to be a true friend is genuine and well earned with Shawn Doyle’s performance containing a hint of regret. Tarka is badly misguided but it’s clear that he is fully committed to achieving his goal and no cost is too high. This is setting up a character driven resolution to this conflict that deals with both Book and Tarka finding some other outlet for their grief. Alternatively Tarka’s obsession may end up destroying him.
An interesting detail about the power source comes to light through this plot. Tarka learns that it isn’t defended so destroying it shouldn’t be a problem. This begs the question why Species Ten-C don’t have visible defences of any kind. A possible explanation for this is that they have no concept of malevolence so don’t see the need to defend their technology from external threats. Another possibility is that they don’t believe anything could represent enough of a threat to need them. The latter is short sighted especially after they fled a planet to avoid a disaster. This is a question that could be met with an answer in the final episode but there isn’t a great deal of time to resolve everything in a satisfying way.
An engaging episode with a strong grasp of the communication theme and weaves the importance of understanding emotion through the different plots. Species Ten-C represent an external manifestation the theme of communication. Their very existence would seem to defy this as they are the most advanced alien race ever encountered. The hydrocarbons representing different emotional states provides a starting point as Ten-C experience emotions comparable to those experienced by most known species. It makes perfect sense for emotion to be the baseline as Discovery is a show with a strong focus on emotional well-being. Species Ten-C feeding into that suggests that feelings are a universal concept and provides hope that there is the possibility of reaching out peacefully. Most of the episode focuses on the attempt to make contact. This is presented as a series of roadblocks impeding progress in articulating information to Ten-C. Essentially they are puzzles that the characters need to solve before moving onto the next problem. It’s a clear and easy to follow structure that keeps the episode moving but the solution to any given puzzle appears to come too easily which negates the idea of this being a challenge. It’s justified to a degree with the likelihood of Ten-C making their messaging as simple as possible but the lack of trial and error means that the solutions are arrived at unrealistically quickly. It’s an extension of the uneven pacing plaguing the season and it’s unfortunate that this First Contact scenario suffers as a result as this is a fascinating science fiction plot that could have filled multiple episodes. The advantage is that it’s easy to follow and allows different characters to provide the key to solving the puzzle. This provides variety and the storytelling and neatly confirms how important cooperation is. It isn’t a subtle message but it’s an effective one. Progress being made in managing to convey that the DMA inspires terror for them with Ten-C expressing sadness at the prospect is mostly satisfying. It shows that Ten-C are capable of empathy and feel it towards them which means that peaceful communication is possible. As before it doesn’t seem like much of a challenge but it works in context. There are some blind spots that remain unaddressed such as the replica of Discovery’s bridge inviting at least the speculation of enough understanding existing for Ten-C to communicate in more detailed ways or the lack of realisation from Ten-C that the DMA is destructive particularly when they recreate the weapon that destroyed the first DMA. All could be covered in the next episode but for now they stand out. Species Ten-C remain a mystery. They are shrouded to encourage the viewer to use their imagination. This is effective in increasing tenstion while promoting a general sense of wonder; something to be found throughout the episode and acting as a visual representation of the beginning of understanding.
The importance of emotion is showcased in other ways. One is through Zora feeling like something is amiss and going back to the game to help her focus and sort out her feelings. It’s brief yet effective while creating a natural link to Book and Tarka. It also comes into play through Saru and T’Rina who are struggling to find their own baseline for communication. It’s a further showcase of this excellent relationship and gains purpose through a strong thematic link. Saru and Burnham’s tender moment as both friends and Captains was brilliantly done. Burnham turns to him out of trust in him as a friend and as someone who shares her rank. The crew look to her for guidance so she can’t be honest about her feelings around them. It’s a significant burden to bear and Saru being present to share the load is a great touch. It feeds into him being used to support others and always knowing the right thing to say showcased earlier in the season. The visceral expression of emotion to provide an outlet for those anxieties was an amusing addition. Book and Tarka are presented as an oppositional force that risk derailing any attempt at peaceful communication. Tarka in particular is unhinged and long since lost sight of his objective now that his obsession has completely overpowered him. Reno recognises this and understands the destruction that will follow in the wake of his access. Tarka doesn’t care about this because achieving his goal is all that matters no matter the consequences. Reno also recognises that Book is suffering from similar tunnel vision and tries to get him to see what Tarka is really doing. Once again Book’s innate decency is used to great effect as he listens to reason while keeping his eye on preventing bloodshed; the thing that motivated his actions in the first place. Book and Reno’s open exchange of stories is excellent even if Book’s doesn’t entirely relate to the situation at hand. Reno’s is far more relevant and supports her point perfectly. Tarka being allowed unrestricted access to Book’s ship despite proving himself untrustworthy before this may seem contrived but his actions make for an exciting ending. He maintains some sympathetic aspects but those are quickly eroding and his declaration that he considers Book to be a true friend comes across as genuine. The contrast between accomplishment in communicating with Ten-C and the setback caused by Tarka threatening to undo that progress works brilliantly and finally creates the sense of urgency that the show has been lacking.
- Species Ten-C representing an external manifestation of the theme of communication
- the importance of emotion being reinforced through making that the basis of communicating with them
- an easy to follow narrative that is well structured and provides opportunities for different perspectives to weigh in
- the strong sense of curiosity and wonder
- the development of Zora as she comes to trust her feelings more
- Saru and T’Rina experiencing their own challenges in finding a baseline for communication
- Burnham and Saru talking as friends and fellow Captains
- Tarka being consumed by his obsession
- reinforcing Book’s innate decency
- Reno recognising Book and Tarka’s grief driven actions
- Book and Reno confiding in one another
- Shawn Doyle’s complex performance allowing Tarka to remain sympathetic
- Tarka’s actions finally creating a sense of urgency
- the communication puzzles being solved quickly and easily
- some unaddressed blind spots that should be covered given the available information
- Book allowing Tarka unrestricted access to his ship doing his character a disservice
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