UK TV review: Star Trek: Discovery: Season 4, Episode 1
Great character work9
President Chellah Horsdal!9
Another threat to the galaxy?6
Ian Winterton | On 04, Dec 2021
Season 4 is premiering weekly on Pluto TV on Fridays at 9pm, and repeated on Saturday and Sunday at the same time. Read our guide to how to watch here
It’s been 10 months since Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) took the captain’s chair of Discovery in a season finale that, heavily referencing the real-world Covid-19 pandemic, ramped Trek’s core message of peaceful coexistence and connectivity up to Warp Factor 10. Sadly for non-North American viewers, this spirit of cooperation didn’t extend to execs at Paramount and Netflix. But, following the outcry of the show’s removal from Netflix UK, Discovery is back for Trekkies everywhere – and thankfully, having to pay a little more for Season 4 is, on the basis of this episode, more than worth it.
We begin with Michael and her boyfriend, Book (David Ajala), on a planet of humanoids who have a visually stunning symbiotic relationship with butterfly-like creatures, there to continue the Federation’s mission of reconnecting with civilisations cut off since cataclysmic Burn destroyed all the dilithium in the galaxy. As we saw last season, the crew of the Discovery found the source of the Burn – rather ridiculously, the cause of billions of deaths and the collapse of numerous galactic civilisations was a juvenile Kelpien with low self-esteem, stranded on a world of pure dilithium. The Federation is now delivering dilithium to isolated worlds, as a “no strings attached” peace offering.
It’s a confident opener, typical of modern Trek (the opening of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness springs to mind), as we see a mini self-contained adventure – all fast-moving action and quips (“Why does there always have to be a cliff?!” yells Michael as they flee – off a cliff). It’s a great starting point for Michael too – seemingly at the absolute top of her game, loved by her crew and well respected in Starfleet and the Federation, the young woman imprisoned for treason seems a distant memory.
But Book’s criticism of Michael that “not every moment is a victory” foreshadows the arrival of a major challenge to Michael: the new President of the United Federation of Planets, Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal, as fantastic here as she was in The Man in the High Castle). A Human, Cardassian and Bajoran hybrid – which means her head bumpiness is mild by Trek alien species standards – she’s an immediately intriguing character. By no means a villain (as far as we know), she’s a woman devoted to rebuilding the Federation – and she’s not a huge fan of Michael. What makes Rillak so compelling is that her criticisms are all valid – Michael remains hot-headed and, as we see in this episode, too willing to risk the lives of the many to save the few.
The central mission-of-the-week involves Discovery responding to a distress call from a deep space repair base, which has been knocked off its axis by the sudden appearance of some sort of gravitational anomaly. Rillak, pulling rank to accompanying Michael on her mission, is soon revealed to be not only cool-headed in a crisis, but actually useful: her timely scanning of a the base leader’s personal log means she is later able, when fear of dying leads him to point a gun at Tilly, she is able to talk him down by sharing tales of how beautiful she found his homeworld. As Michael guesses, this turns out to be lies – a lesser evil in the service of a greater good, Rillak’s approach is at odds with Michael’s idealistic – some would say naïve – absolutism.
The B-story of the episode focuses on Saru (Doug Jones), still on his home world of Kaminar where he continues his guardianship of young S’Kal (Bill Irwin), the Kelpien inadvertently responsible for the Burn. A few hints that he gets bullied aside, that everyone seems to have forgiven Su’Kal – and that Su’Kal himself exhibits no guilt – seems like implausible hand-waving on the part of the writers (unless future episodes go on to explore it). It’s great see Saru on Kaminar (and the Ba’ul, former enemies of the Kelpiens, living with them in harmony) but, really, there’s barely a story here – Saru feels he should stay but we all know he’ll be back on Discovery next week.
This aside, Season 4’s inaugural episode is a strong slice of modern Trek – although there’s much to please lifelong fans. We get a reference to Enterprise with the naming of the Archer Space Dock and – as Discovery’s engines take a bashing, Stamets gets to report: “The impacts caused a power surge that blew out the Heisenberg compensator” – the playful acknowledgement of the real-life physicist, Werner Heisenberg, who formulated the “uncertainty principle”, first mentioned by Data back in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And, of course, there’s the episode’s title: Kobayashi Maru. A Starfleet training simulation, first appearing in 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it depicts a situation so deliberately dire that it’s impossible to win – and is designed to teach trainees that they may sometimes have to face circumstances that cannot be overcome. Of course, with Michael deliberately designed by Discovery’s writers to represent the core of the original Trek – half-Spock (her Vulcan upbringing) and half-Kirk (brave, foolhardy, human, letting heart rule the head) – this test sits uncomfortably with her as it did with Kirk (who famously cheated it as a cadet, refusing to learn its lessons).
Having Rillak present – presumably throughout the season – is a good device by which to examine Michael’s flaws, especially pertinent now as – like Kirk – she finds herself a former rebel now sitting in the captain’s chair.
The episode ends with the gravitational anomaly expanding and suddenly – a minor scene in which Book paid a visit to his brother and nephew – takes on a poignant significance: Kwejian is destroyed. And the season’s major threat is revealed. It might have been nice to have at least one season where the entire galaxy/universe wasn’t in peril, but as a way of putting Michael and Book’s relationship under immense strain – not to mention Rillak’s challenge to Michael’s leadership style – we’ve got a high-stakes drama with well-drawn, emotional complex characters. In short: the essence of great Star Trek.