Star Trek: Discovery – Season 4 Episode 10
“The Galactic Barrier”
Star Trek: Discovery takes the crew outside of the galaxy to make First Contact as Tarka takes a difficult stroll down memory lane.
There’s an odd disconnect in the second half of this season between what is conveyed in dialogue and what the episodes actually present. Much of the dialogue points towards increasing urgency while the episodes themselves are meandering and glacially pushing the plot forward. It’s not uncommon to be dealing with long timescales in Star Trek stories largely due to the time it takes to travel across vast distances but when time is running out then typically it’s clear that every second counts.
That’s definitely not the case here which makes it stands out even more when a tight timescale is established with Vance’s communication about the DMA being a few days away from Earth, Ni’Var and basically everywhere else important to most of the main or recurring characters on the show. This establishes that Discovery has to make First Contact with the enigmatic Species 10-C and convince them to turn off the DMA before it forces most of the characters to experience what Book has. It’s a defined timescale with failure spelling devastating consequences for most of the characters the audience are invested in.
Unfortunately that urgency doesn’t come across in what the episode delivers. So much time is spent on the immediate problem of leaving the galaxy that the threat of the DMA feels very far away. What doesn’t help is that both the problem and the solution consist of empty technobabble that carries no dramatic weight on its own. The clear intent is for the dramatic heft to be found in the tight timeline how the characters keep their minds on the task at hand in spite of their awareness of it but since only Burnham and Rillak have the information for most of the episode that doesn’t come across. Ultimately it boils down to some technobabble, promises of destruction if the technobabble doesn’t work, impressive effects shots and then the solution. This is a trap that Star Trek stories often fell into in the past so it’s disappointing to see it deployed so liberally here. Visually the show is as impressive as always with the barrier itself looking particularly monstrous and imposing.
There is some attempt to force an emotional connection to the threat of death through the bridge crew having an inspiring moment of solidarity where they talk about where on Earth they will go when the crisis is over and what they will do when they get there. It’s a good bonding moment entirely sold by the actors performing their roles with the addition of guilty impressions on Burnham and Rillak’s faces because they know about the danger to Earth. Scenes like this where the crew are allowed to be a crew and exhibit some personality in the face of danger are an example of what the show could be if the work was put into developing them as complete characters so that the rapport is earned. As I pointed out in my review of the previous episode, one of the conceits of this show is accepting that a strong bond exists among the Discovery crew without most of the ground work actually being done. This conceit would be fine if the show had settled into a rhythm of this developed team supporting one another on adventures but it is unfortunately relegated to brief moments such as this that are great when they happen but ultimately unsatisfying because they are so sporadic. It’s especially egregious in this episode as there is another scene where Bryce laments the fact that he won’t be joining the Discovery crew on their extragalactic mission. Saru talks to him as if he is a defined presence that will be missed with there being nothing definable about his presence or lack thereof.
Fortunately there is some strong character work to be found in this part of the episode. Burnham and Rillak continue to have an engaging dynamic founded on them challenging each other in really interesting ways. Their first exchange loops back to their interactions in the first episode of the season where Burnham felt that Rillak was challenging her decisions and references it to create an understanding between them. Rillak wants Burnham to understand the difference between asking questions and her authority being questioned. To Rillak’s mind she was simply trying to gain greater understanding of the situation though perhaps did so in a way that suggested Burnham’s decisions were the wrong ones, at least as far as Burnham’s concerned. Rillak feels that Burnham took these questions far too personally; this reviewer’s opinion that the truth lies somewhere in the middle with both parties having a point. They iron that out before getting underway with Rillak reiterating that she isn’t questioning Burnham’s authority and just wants to understand the situation while Burnham points out that her approach may create doubt in the crew which risks the mission failing if there is a loss of trust in her ability to command. The compromise reached is that Rillak commands the mission while Burnham commands the ship and that carries through into the rest of the episode with Rillak observing rather than interfering. This is defined growth and development of their relationship and factors into what the episode is doing really well.
When off the bridge they have more candid conversations about controlling information. Rillak opts to keep the danger to Earth, Ni’Var and the other planets secret from the crew because she doesn’t want it to distract them from the task at hand where Burnham wants to be honest with them due to the strength of the connections. Neither stance is the wrong one so it comes down to whether it makes sense for their characters. Rillak confides in Burnham the personal connection she has to Earth and how she’s struggling with the thought of losing those close to her. Both Earth and Ni’Var have been homes for Burnham so she is also fully invested in that potential loss. Their stances on transparency are rooted in where they are with Rillak believing that she has to be infallible, untouchable and presidential so doesn’t believe she has the luxury of feelings as people will be looking to her for guidance and leadership. Burnham takes the stance of a Starfleet Captain who has to trust and rely on her crew while they trust and rely on her. Forging that bond means being honest with them and giving them access to all of the information so they can react as a team accordingly.
Her appeal to Rillak is to think more like a member of the crew and embrace the support she can get from this group of people while they have no external help. This presents Rillak with an alternate way of looking at things that she considers before telling the crew the truth before highlighting that she’s grateful that she and Burnham were able to personally connect. In a really nice touch, Rillak’s speech to the crew is cut off and replaced by silence as the news washes over those around her. It’s a poignant emotional moment far better than a platitude filled speech.
Book and Tarka spend the episode engaged in a MacGuffin hunt that will allow them to pass through the Galactic Barrier. This provides an excuse for Tarka to take a stroll down memory lane to add more detail to his motivation. Instead of hearing about the friend and partner he lost, flashbacks are shown that give a quick yet clear outline of their relationship. Tarka and Oros scenes work well in giving a sense of how close they were. Oros has little in the way of characterisation but this isn’t a weakness as the real story is Tarka’s memory of him. He remembers the highlights, the good times and the pain of the loss vividly so the detail around what sort of a person he is or was is unimportant as the memory of him is what sustains Tarka.
Most striking is how different Tarka is in the flashbacks. He’s tender, compassionate and joyful despite the fact that he’s a prisoner. Their intellectual compatibility is quickly established and their shared motivation of the promise of a better life is a natural bonding point. Tarka’s mention that Oros is his first real friend underscores the tragedy of not knowing what happened to him as well as highlighting the lonely existence that Tarka has. With each episode he is granted more depth which pulls him away from the off-putting arrogance that defined him when he was introduced. That arrogance is still there but exists among so many other interesting traits.
The flashbacks and the analysis of them in the present day make them relevant to Book and Tarka’s relationship. Book gains a greater understanding of what motivates Tarka and wants to understand the person he has chosen to ally himself with. His concern is that Tarka’s attitude and desire for revenge will create significant problems. The episode doesn’t believably resolve this as the flashbacks combined with Book supposedly understanding what Tarka went through allowing him to trust that he knows who he’s dealing doesn’t come across. There’s no indication that Tarka won’t act recklessly out of self interest just as he did in the previous episode. It is however clear that he has fully succumbed to his darkness and that Species 10-C are a proxy for those he wants revenge on so it’s likely that there is no line he is unwilling to cross in pursuit of his goals. This episode also clarifies that he is trying to move to another universe rather than being from one calls his general honesty into question and presents obvious questions around what else he might be lying about.
As strong as the emotional exploration was this plot was another example of wheel spinning just as Discovery’s journey through the barrier barely counts as a narrative step forward. In theory the idea of Tarka visiting a location that encourages him to relive uncomfortable memories is a strong one and, from his perspective, the location is haunted by the past presence of that relationship but there wasn’t enough of a visual contrast to sell the relative warmth of the companionship Tarka enjoyed when imprisoned there and the coldness of the empty camp in the present. Both are barely populated so the distinction isn’t as clear as it needs to be. Fortunately Shawn Doyle does a lot of heavy lifting to bring across these ideas but they aren’t supported from a production standpoint.
Prior to Discovery leaving for the mission there is a compelling round table discussion about what they can expect when they encounter Species 10-C. Kovich outlines the mystery and the issues surrounding it. His assumption is that Species 10-C are unimaginable based on their current understanding of sentient life considering how advanced they are. This means that the Universal Translator may not work at all because they are so unfamiliar. The translator technology is based on the familiar such as verbal communication so in effect it’s based on confirmation bias as Kovich points out. Expecting to make contact with Species 10-C and simply talk to them is very likely a fool’s errand as they are probably dealing with something completely unlike anything previously encountered. This is an intriguing prospect though setting this up and delivering it are two different things. It remains to be seen if the production team on this show are capable of delivering something truly alien. Despite what is being teased the encounter has to be possible otherwise the season has no payoff.
A good episode that makes great use of the Burnham/Rillak dynamic, offers strong character beats for the bridge crew and meaningful emotional development for Tarka. The episode suffers from a lack of urgency associated with the threat of the DMA. Vance’s message detailing how close it is to Earth, Ni’Var and other planets in theory starts a ticking clock but the threat feels far away and isn’t treated with the urgency it demands. The episode makes very few strides forward in terms of the overall plot with most of the running time spent with Discovery trying to traverse the galactic barrier. Regrettably the problem and solution are handled with empty technobabble that carries no dramatic weight Since the truth is kept from most of the characters. Visually it’s impressive and the attempt to force an emotional connection through the inspiring moment of solidarity showcased for the crew is appreciated but it isn’t enough to carry the episode. Burnham and Rillak’s dynamic is handled well with a compromise reached on how they will conduct themselves on this mission and them later bonding over Rillak being offered the support of the crew as long as she puts her trust in them. Their disagreement over whether to be honest with the crew is a great example of neither side being right or wrong.
Book and Tarka’s MacGuffin hunt provides an opportunity to explore Tarka’s motivation through detailing his relationship with Oros. It’s striking to see how tender, compassionate and joyful he is in those flashbacks and there is a strong sense of that relationship as Tarka remembers it. Analysing them in the present day makes it relevant to Book and Tarka’s relationship as Book is looking to understand if he can trust Tarka. This isn’t believably resolved as there’s no indication that Tarka won’t act recklessly at a later point. It is clear that he has given into his darkness and thinks of Species 10-C as a proxy for those he wants revenge on. The plot itself is another example of wheel spinning and there wasn’t enough of a visual contrast between the past and present though Shawn Doyle’s performance helps sell that the present day iteration of the camp is haunted by the absent relationship. The round table discussion where Kovich points out that Species 10-C will likely be beyond understanding is fascinating and sets up something truly alien though it remains to be seen if this can be delivered.
- exploring the engaging Burnham/Rillak dynamic
- defining a compromise that accounts for both of their points of view
- Rillak and Burnham’s equally valid stances on telling the crew the truth
- Rillak confiding in Burnham while being presented with the virtues of putting her trust in the crew
- stunning visuals
- a great moment of inspiring solidarity among the bridge crew
- the showcase of Tarka and Oros’ relationship through the flashbacks
- Shawn Doyle’s excellent performance
- very little actual plot movement
- the lack of urgency despite the imminent threat to several important planets
- the problem and solution amounting to empty technobabble
- the contrast between the past and present for Tarka’s flashbacks not being strong enough
- not believably resolving Book’s concerns around Tarka
What did you think? Select your rating in the “User Review” box below
User Review( votes)
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you might want to talk about. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Review” box
If you want to chat to me directly then I’m on Twitter as well.