Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 5
Star Trek: Discovery returns to the DMA plot with further study into the threat amidst an evacuation effort.
So far the DMA has been a largely distant threat that fuels the storytelling this season rather than being the actual story itself. This has been true of every episode so far but this one strongly suggests the approach will soon shift into making the DMA occupy the bulk of the narrative. If it continues to loop back to the characters in compelling ways then it’ll be easily justifiable but there’s a strong risk of getting bogged down in high stakes plotting.
After two consecutive episodes there the DMA wasn’t an immediate threat it randomly alters course and presents a danger to an asteroid colony in its new path. The Federation mobilises a rescue effort to evacuate everyone with Discovery taking point on the mission. It makes sense because it keeps Discovery and the characters in the centre of the action while also presenting the Federation as a large organisation with considerable resources.
The evacuation is tight in terms of time but very routine so very little of the episode focuses on the whole effort because all it entails is methodically beaming everyone out. Rhys takes the lead on coordinating the efforts because he feels personally motivated to ensure it runs smoothly. Later he talks about being the one needing evacuated years prior and the Federation coming to his aid. This inspired him to join Starfleet and it’s a kindness he wants to pay forward. Smatterings of backstory about the bridge crew are better than nothing though Rhys remains far from a fleshed out character as he declares his intent and motivation before largely disappearing for the episode.
Most of the evacuation plot has Burnham and Book task themselves with ensuring that prisoners make it safely off the asteroid. The Magistrate washes his hands of them as he feels that criminals are unworthy of sympathy. He references the uncompromising Emerald Chain approach to criminals where they are labelled as examples paraded for all to see what happens when they break the rules. I mentioned in my review of the previous episode that the lack of background development within this show was frustrating and details like this only serve to highlight how little has been done to flesh out the universe the show takes place in. The Emerald Chain approach to criminals comes across as an added complication to serve this episode rather than an organic fact of the organisation though it does undoubtedly enhance what this episode offers in some areas.
For the most part the episode isn’t saying anything all that interesting about crime and punishment. It is quickly established that the prisoners are being held for really minor crimes where life imprisonment seems to be a harsh penance. In Emerald Chain controlled territory one mistake costs you everything and renders you a pariah to everyone else. If this was an attempt to provide commentary on the justice system as it exists in our world it falls far short because it’s a very shallow collection of facts that don’t invite deeper analysis.
One of the major complications is that the prisoners are unwilling to be rescued by the Federation because they have a deep mistrust of institutions and their authority. They all see it as leaving one bad situation to be put in another. In theory this is an opportunity to explore what the Federation does better than an organisation like the Emerald Chain but it comes across as empty morality rhetoric. It amounts to Burnham promising them asylum and to have their case reviewed under Federation law which resolves the conflict quickly, neatly and without any degree of depth. In theory it connects to the J’Vini outcome around decisions being made on jurisdiction but there’s limited information on both scenarios to draw a clear contrast or parallel. It’s difficult to latch onto what this plot is getting at because it seems to go out of its way to say very little.
Most of the prisoners aren’t really characters; they’re oppositional mouthpieces designed to force Burnham to use her intelligence and problem solving skills to negotiate a solution that allows her to saves everyone’s life. Felix is the outlier in that he’s more of a character than the others. He lied about the severity of his crime and carries a lot of guilt over what he has done. Felix took a life and feels that he deserves to be punished for it so opts to stay on the asteroid even though the chances of survival are slim before later being confirmed to be non existent. He is able to make amends of sorts by asking Burnham to return the heirloom he stole but doesn’t feel that he’s worthy of a second chance and accepts his fate.
Enough is done with this to make Felix sympathetic through the perspective of his death being an unnecessary loss of life. Book’s grief is still very close to the surface and he sees any life lost by the DMA that could have been prevented as being wrong. Burnham doesn’t want someone to die on her watch whether they choose it or not. In a way this is a version of the no win scenario she rejected in the first episode as there is nothing she can do to change Felix’ mind meaning she has not choice other than to accept that his life will be lost. Her view is that it’s unnecessary but there’s no doubt from Felix who accepts his fate gracefully. It’s a sore spot for Book as it makes him replay the last moments of his planet in his mind and feel like he’s failed to save someone else that could have been saved. It’s poignant and meaningful in the context of Book’s ongoing emotional journey.
Culber’s role as the ship’s counsellor is -as predicted by me- really taking a toll on him. The DMA has people on edge and looking for an outlet for the constant sense of dread that fills their daily lives. That outlet is Culber so he spends a lot of time listening to others discuss their fears, anxieties and emotional problems to the point that he is struggling. He tries to make people feel better by telling them that everything will be fine in the end but it’s not something he believes himself so he feels that he’s being disingenuous to all those counting on him for emotional support.
His conversation with Kovich allows him to outline his own anxieties and they come back to his miraculous resurrection. Kovich’s reading of Culber’s outlook is that he feels like an insult to loss itself because he came back from the dead while others have to deal with and process the loss of loved ones. He thinks that Culber is seeking purpose and is trying to atone for something he bears no responsibility for. Culber’s reaction points towards him believing that Kovich has a point and the brutal honesty he receives is definitely something he appreciates but he has a lot to work through. Both Stamets and Kovich advise him to take the time to rest and take care of himself so this is something Culber will have to learn while also examining whether he’s truly equipped to bear the burden of so much emotional weight.
The scene he shares with Stamets as they get ready for bed is excellent. There have been numerous similar scenes over the course of the series and they are always great. They offer a strong showcase of the comfortable relationship Culber and Stamets enjoy while providing them an opportunity to talk to each other in ways that they can’t with anyone else. Culber seems most relaxed in this moment as they do a post mortem on their days and it’s reinforced that they challenge one another in exactly the right ways. Their relationship has been given due care and attention which means that scenes like this can exist and are always highlights within a given episode.
Stamets finds his patience tested by Tarka (Shawn Doyle); a visiting scientis helping study the DMA. He is set up as an abrasive presence by Stamets who complains about Tarka failing to reach out when developing the next generation Spore Drive. Stamets’ view is that Tarka is arrogant and ill equipped to work effectively with others on a problem of this magnitude but his protests fall on deaf ears as the prevailing attitude is that the more eyes on this problem the better. Vance states that Tarka will be involved and that Stamets has to find a way to work with him. It’s a brief yet interesting conflict where necessity far outweighs personal feelings.
Tarka lives up to the warnings within seconds of his arrival. He embodies one of the more irritating genius tropes; one who is supremely arrogant and condescending to those around him. Tarka knows that many consider him the foremost expert in a number of fields so believes himself untouchable which justifies his less than pleasant behaviour to others. His main reason for existing is to aggravate people whether that be Stamets or Saru and he definitely succeeds. It does result in a fun moment where Saru’s typical serenity gives way to a loud scream after Tarka pushes him.
His main dynamic is with Stamets and their relationship is an interesting one. It doesn’t take long for Stamets to recognise Tarka’s value and take delight in how quickly their understanding of the DMA is enhanced. Tarka encourages Stamets’ more reckless instincts with the central conflict of this plot quickly cementing itself as Stamets being pulled between safety and risk. It is directly addressed that Tarka and Stamets have a great deal in common which calls back to Stamets having a prickly demeanour in the early episodes of the show. It’s still there but has lessened significantly.
Stamets being drawn to riskier actions in order to quickly gain information about the DMA fits the urgency of the crisis at hand. If they take some -arguably moderate- risks now then they can massively increase their knowledge which means a solution will be found more quickly. Tension is created over whether Stamets will go too far and put the ship at risk due to his desire for knowledge. He continually assures Saru that he knows where the line is and won’t cross it. Since Saru trusts him he allows the experiment to continue but asks for the ability to cut power if he feels that the limit has been reached. It’s a sensible compromise from Saru who regards the safety of the ship and crew as his number one priority. His compromise builds in a redundancy while also giving Stamets leeway.
The execution of the rapidly increasing tension is very impressive. This plot could have easily been bogged down in technobabble as two genius level intellects argue using dialogue that is meaningless to anyone but them but framing it as a test of Stamets self control in the face of attaining knowledge grounds it in relatable characterisation. Stamets sitting in the middle of risk -represented by Tarka- and safety -represented by Saru and Reno- creates a believable conflict. Even though the viewer knows it’s unlikely that Discovery will be destroyed by Stamets failing to recognise when it was time to pull the plug it feels that Stamets succumbing to the lure of knowledge is possible. Saru being the one to pull the plug strongly points in the direction of Stamets failing that gauntlet which could have further consequences as the threat ramps up especially if Tarka continues to encourage his more reckless instincts. Keeping the focus on Stamets and his temptation while providing further information about the anomaly was a great way to further plot and character at the same time.
Tarka doesn’t just encourage Stamets to indulge in less flattering aspects of his personality, he does the same with Book. The reveal that there is likely an intelligence behind the DMA was inevitable. It’s disappointing as it points towards a villain for the season to build up to rather than a force of nature that has to be managed. The latter would be preferable considering this show’s history with leaning on antagonists though it is very early days. One thing that makes this reveal interesting is that it gives Book a direction in which to focus his hatred. Instead of it being a phenomenon tearing through the galaxy it’s a thing created by intelligent beings for an unknown purpose which means that blame can be placed in a particular direction and the potential for revenge now exists.
Book finds some level of comfort knowing that there are people out there that can answer for what happened to his planet. Tarka latches onto this and probes him about the anger emanating from him. Book is very fragile and may be prone to obsessive behaviour particularly if he feels he can get revenge for what he has lost. Everything up until now has been focused on finding positive outlets for his grief so introducing a negative one that can drag him down a dark path is a compelling counter that could add further texture to this strong arc. Focusing on the mysterious mark on Tarka’s neck along with the mention of mistreatment by the Emerald Chain suggests that there’s something sinister to him that may cause further complications. It’s unlikely he’s responsible for the creation of the DMA but he may have a hidden agenda of some kind.
A good episode that continues strong ongoing emotional arcs while making the development of the DMA plot tense and character driven. The evacuation effort depicted is routine so doesn’t receive a lot of attention but it allows for a welcome background detail to be attributed to Rhys. Burnham and Book task themselves with evacuating prisoners after the Magistrate writes them off. In theory this is an opportunity to say something about crime and punishment but the coverage is very superficial and easily solved. Felix is the only character among them and is very sympathetic. His death ties naturally to Book and Burnham’s individual arcs with Book seeing his death as needless and it furthering the idea of the “No Win Scenario” for Burnham as she can do nothing to convince him otherwise.
Culber’s role as ship’s counsellor is taking a toll on him as he outlines to Kovich. There’s a lot behind his struggles such as unresolved feelings about his resurrection that motivates him to help as many people as possible as he feels like an insult to the idea of loss itself and he feels guilt over something he can’t control. Kovich’ brutal honesty approach is something he definitely appreciates and a gauntlet is laid down for him to navigate. The scene he shares with Stamets as they get ready for bed is excellent. It offers a strong reminder of their strong relationship while allowing them to talk through their feelings in an organic way. The Stamets/Tarka dynamic is an interesting one as it starts out hostile with Stamets quickly realising that Tarka has a lot to offer. Tension is created through the danger to the ship posed by the experiment. Tarka actively encourages Stamets most reckless instincts with the tension coming from whether he will go too far. Saru and Reno representing safety as a counter works brilliantly and Tarka’s abrasive presence dials up the threat level. As a character he is too obnoxious and embodies one of the more irritating genius tropes. Tarka also encourages Book to embrace unflattering instincts. With the reveal that the DMA was created by someone Book now has a direction to focus his hatred and desire for revenge; this is something Tarka latches onto and probes him about which sets up a darker path for Book to follow as he works to process his grief. The mark on Tarka’s neck also points to there being more to him than there appears.
- presenting Felix as a sympathetic character
- using his death as a furthering of the “No Win Scenario” concept for Burnham
- Felix’ choice to die affecting Book and tying into the grief plot
- Culber admitting to Kovich that he’s struggling
- Kovich’s fascinating interpretation of Culber’s mental state
- the comfortable Stamets/Culber moment
- Stamets having his reckless instincts encouraged
- creating tension over whether Stamets will fail to see where the line is
- Saru’s compromise between trust and caution
- using a character driven plot to further the knowledge about the DMA
- Tarka also encouraging Book’s darker instincts
- the potential for Book to head down a dark revenge driven path
- failing to provide meaningful commentary on crime and punishment
- all but one of the prisoners not being actual characters
- a simple solution found to the problem
- Tarka embodying a tedious genius trope
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