My one-sentence review of "Coming Home," Discovery's fourth-season finale, is as follows: It does all the right Trekkian things, but is predictably and sometimes painfully obvious about it. There's very little that happens here that was not telegraphed or expected, and that simultaneously speaks to this season's merits and shortcomings. On balance I consider this pretty average, mostly because it whiffs at being an emotional and visceral payoff (while trying way too hard at that), even as it succeeds in affirming the season's overall values and mission statements. The substance is fine, even admirable; the execution is ... sigh.
On the plus side, this season of Discovery is the most true-to-Trek of the four seasons of this series thus far, highlighting the importance of diplomatic restraint, communication efforts, teamwork, and individual contributions, while warning against the dangers of unchecked aggression and hubris. In the end, the values of Starfleet are affirmed and rewarded, which is exactly the way it should be if you're going to tell a story that extols the traditional Federation.
On the negative side, because this story plays out exactly as it should — indeed, the only way it possibly could, sans any real wrinkle — all suspense is lost amid the march to the foregone conclusion. The only real question here is whether Booker will survive the hour amid the tough call Burnham has to make to save the mission at the possible cost of his life, and that's a question the writers answer by having their cake and eating it too.
With Tarka having taken Booker's ship out of the enclosure, the 10-Cs have cut off communications with Discovery, which frantically tries to re-establish them. T'Rina attempts to telepathically communicate with the 10-Cs (why didn't she try this before?) but it fails spectacularly and knocks her to the ground and gives her a nasty headache and nosebleed (okay, maybe that's why). The 10-Cs no longer trust Discovery, so now we have to regain their trust while simultaneously trying to stop Tarka from taking out the DMA with his superweapon. Reno and Book attempt to reason with Tarka. He's not listening, at least not at first.
Meanwhile, Starfleet sends everything it can to Earth and Ni'Var in an attempt to evacuate as many people as possible before the DMA debris field starts hitting the planets. The best-case scenario is that the rescue might be able to save 400,000 people from each planet before they're destroyed. Tilly returns for an episode alongside Admiral Vance as a part of the rescue mission. In this week's example of Annoying Camera Moves, the camera constantly rocks back and forth aboard Vance's rescue ship, apparently to give us the sense the ship is spinning.
Buried under all the camera shaking and stagey pyrotechnics in the Countdown to Disaster Plot (which quiets down enough for Meaningful Dialogue whenever necessary), there's a palatable story here about Tilly having found her place in the world and being glad she did (even if she thinks she's going to die about 10 minutes after having reached this point in her life). It's just too bad all of this is shoehorned into the massive crisis du jour and happens for a character who was all but written out of the show months ago.
There's some decent tension around the Tarka/Booker/Reno bits, where they are finally able to talk sense into the guy and he comes to realize the error of his hopelessly obsessed ways, and the actors put in their all. (Let it be said that David Ajala and Shawn Doyle have turned in consistently strong performances this season that convey fully realized emotional arcs that feel earned, give or take an obsession that casts aside the consequences to entire planets.) The fact that Michael has to put together an intercept shuttle mission to destroy Book's ship is a reasonable nod to "Kobayashi Maru," which hinted that she had never had to face the no-win scenario as a leader (although she still doesn't really, given how this plays out). When Book's ship is destroyed and the emergency beam-out appears to fail, Michael's devastated emotional reaction is also earned, and the fact that she quickly pulls it together to "be the captain" is a nice bit of professionalism on a series that frequently prioritizes its feelings.
And setting aside the subpar CGI of the starship sequences, it can never be said that this series doesn't deliver the sci-fi visuals in the scenes that matter. We get our good look at Species 10-C in their environment and it's a triumph of imaginatively alien and colorful visual design. And if the way we communicate with them has now been greatly streamlined and simplified thanks to Saru's translation device, it at least makes logical sense under the circumstances, and his device is sensibly depicted.
Bringing back Book was one of those things that seemed kind of inevitable (the 10-Cs intercepted his transporter beam and held him in stasis), but closing out the big communication effort by using his personal emotional experience from the loss of his family and world is a nice way to bookend his arc, and it fits neatly into the whole idea of Species 10-C as beings who communicate largely through broad feelings.
But clearly, "Species Ten-C" was the breakthrough episode, and "Coming Home" is merely tidying up loose ends while often running the risk of redundancy. The successful communication efforts from that episode were paused so we could go through a crisis, solve that crisis, and pick up where we left off. It's fine as a matter of plot beats, but it speaks to the general problem — still among the biggest issues for this series — which is that these serialized arcs just can't sustain 13 episodes without running out of steam and retreading covered ground.
The back half of the season plays like a big compromise, where we're doing episodic tasks (the poker game in "All In," the titular "Galactic Barrier," and the necessary but excessively protracted 10-C research in "Rosetta") that play into the bigger picture but feel more like homework for the big test than an entertaining set of worthwhile adventures. This series needs to either stop with this obligatory serial structure, or make the arcs much shorter and varied, because holding onto all these cards for eight, 10, or 13 episodes mostly just ends up proving untenable, because we basically know what the play will be. It sure doesn't help when they imperil Earth in the final episodes to artificially raise the stakes (although I guess that's a step in the right direction, away from imperiling the entire galaxy or universe).
It also doesn't help when characters are simply repeating themselves and moving millimeters forward per episode. Case in point: The whole business between Saru and T'Rina, which started in the fourth episode and finally reaches its inevitable payoff here. And what's that payoff? That these two agree to hold hands affectionately? Great, thanks. The same goes for Culber and his work stress. Payoff: going on vacation with Stamets. Riveting. Merely telling a story over 10-plus episodes doesn't make it meaningful; it just makes it long. This show needs to consider telling more stories over fewer episodes. I wasn't a huge fan of the Adira/Gray storyline, but at least they mostly resolved it in a reasonable amount of time.
On the other hand, Discovery has made some significant progress this season by working closer to the traditional ethos of Star Trek. It did some good world building by bringing the discussion around the DMA into the current-day Federation and its stakeholders. And supporting players like Rillak and T'Rina helped make this world feel larger than Discovery often has in the past. And continuing to build up the Federation in the background (with Earth rejoining at the end of this episode) makes a difference. The debate around Species 10-C and the DMA were intriguing elements to set up an arc around, even if the writers didn't have enough material to sustain all the episodes before falling into stalling patterns. (I think the solution is to take the hybrid approach of having one-offs and not be solely focused on the arc, something the season kind of did early on before the "Earth is in jeopardy" plot took over.) Lastly, the series finally made an effort to make the supporting bridge cast into characters rather than wallpaper (although they still have a ways to go before they're solid characters). So in terms of fixing past seasons' errors, this season made the most progress.
But ... the show really needs to stop being so earnest about everything. It just comes off like a schmaltzy self-parody, even seeping into good scenes like the communication with the 10-Cs. The goofy celebration scenes after the deactivation of the DMA and the tidy voice-over wrapping everything into a neat bow — it's excessive to the point of eyerolls and laugh-sighs. And that's unfortunate. If the show could modulate its emotional self-importance a tad, it might not come across as so insufferably square. I suppose I'd prefer earnest to cynical, but there's got to be a more natural-feeling middle ground.
"It's a 10-hour movie!":
- Although the series has been renewed for a fifth season, the finality of this episode definitely felt like the writers were hedging their bets in case another season wasn't ordered, with Earth rejoining the Federation and a final scene featuring Earth's president (played by Stacey Abrams).
- Speaking of, the response to the Abrams cameo was as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise (cue people like Ted Cruz turning it into the usual Twitter-rant grist). I suppose at this point any appearance from someone in any political party is just asking for trouble from the other side, but there was nothing remotely controversial about the cameo in and of itself.
- We dodged the bullet of having Oros turn out to be part of the DMA plot, which is good — and indeed the lack of seeing Oros again at all is one of the things that refreshingly doesn't get tied up in a neat bow along with most everything else.
- Tarka pays for his obsession with his life, which I expected, but he tries to do the right thing at the very end, which I perhaps didn't expect. As season-long recurring characters go, he's at the top of Discovery's list, even if his obsession got a little one-note near the end.
- I've really soured on the external starship VFX. They're generally pretty terrible, and I just don't get why.
- Species 10-C's ability to understand and interact often plays as a function of the plot. I still find their unknowing disregard for what the DMA does to other life to be ridiculously ignorant and simplistic for such advanced beings (and the explanation given here is inadequate at best). And yet they can sense that Book's failed transporter beam is important, and are able to rescue him from the death the episode alleged.
- With Tilly's return, Mary Wiseman shows up in the opening credits, but I'm unsure if she still counts as a member of the "regular" cast or is now just "recurring." For that matter, are you a part of the regular cast if your name rotates in and out of the opening credits (like Tig Notaro and Blu del Barrio) depending on if you are in that week's episode? Arguably, Oyin Oladejo (Owosekun) and Emily Coutts (Detmer) are more "regular" than these others because they show up in nearly every episode, yet they're never in the opening credits. I'd probably need a SAG-AFTRA union rep to clear this up.
- That's it for another season of Discovery. Thanks for reading, and I'll hopefully see you over in the Picard reviews, and all the other Trek series throughout the year. Who'd've thunk we'd be this awash (drowning?) in Star Trek just a few years ago?
Previous episode: Species Ten-C
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