Discovery's fourth season begins five months after the events of last season's finale, and opens with a self-aggrandizing gesture on the part of the crew on behalf of the Federation, with Burnham and Booker delivering dilithium to a former Federation world not contacted since before the Burn. These mistrustful "Butterfly People" don't want to have anything to do with the Federation, but Captain Burnham is here, and she won't take no for an answer because, well, We're the Federation and We're Here to Help. (I dunno, maybe start with people who have asked for or even want your help? I'm sure they're out there.) This isolated curtain-raiser is played for some light comedy with its alien contact gone awry and misinterpretations over Book's pet cat (at least this show isn't taking itself excessively seriously), but it also features some interminable shoot-em-up action that feels really rote and obligatory and requires the Butterfly People to be conveniently awful shots (not to mention pointlessly hard-headed). And after this endless barrage, they stop firing because ... why?
Overall, "Kobayashi Maru" is fine, with things about it that are good, even. The plot is a straightforward if overdone peril-and-rescue scenario in which the crew must come to the aid of a Federation space station that's spiraling out of control for mysterious reasons. This plot, naturally, makes use of the convenient device of excessive interference that renders the transporters useless (still a problem in the 32nd century!) and therefore requires a much more protracted and dangerous operation. The rescue must be attempted by boarding the space station after flying through a violent debris field while Discovery's shields are endlessly buffeted and weakened and the ticking clock counts down. As these sort of Trek staples go, with the camera shaking and the sparks exploding, it's reasonably well executed, with a certain effective intensity. But little stands out here for good or ill — which is a big improvement over much of last season's closing episodes.
On the margins, the writers do some world building as we see efforts to re-establish Starfleet Academy, bring additional member worlds into the Federation, and spread the gift of dilithium (mined from Su'Kal's dilithium-rich planet) to worlds who have been cut off from each other for centuries. Yes, the Burn and its cause last season ended with that disastrously disappointing thud of an explanation, but at least the writers appear to be using its primary effect — the collapse of the Federation — to mine some stories about what we're going to do now to try to rebuild it.
The story also introduces the new president of the Federation, Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), a character who seems suspicious of and antagonistic to Burnham's leadership methods. At first she comes across as a thorn in the side, but at the end she has a good exchange with Burnham where she points out Burnham's compulsive need to save everyone. She invokes the lesson of the Kobayashi Maru as a leadership reality check. I would commend this willingness to challenge Burnham's savior complex, except I don't expect anything resembling a would-be character flaw to stick to this character. (This is the same Burnham, after all, who last season was demoted for being untrustworthy, then contemplated leaving Starfleet, but was then elevated to captain because her unorthodox methods ultimately paid off. Unfortunately, this was not so much a character arc as simply the writers just picking random stopping points off a map and then calling it a journey.)
There are also a few scenes where we catch up with Saru on Kaminar, which seem to be setting up his imminent return to Starfleet. Su'Kal assures Saru he no longer needs to remain on Kaminar to watch after him now that he has a home among Kelpiens (even if some on that home are still suspicious of him for having caused the Burn). These scenes are functional and didn't do a ton for me — and I'm wondering why the writers bothered to send Saru to Kaminar in the first place if they were simply going to immediately bring him back (yeah, I know; they needed to provide an excuse to give Burnham the captain's chair) — but they serve their purpose and get Doug Jones into the episode.
Meanwhile, Book heads to his homeworld of Kwejian where he visits his brother and nephew and they enjoy the beauty of their world. This ends in cataclysmic tragedy (and sets up what I presume is the season's big sci-fi mystery and universe-ending threat, as this episode ends on its cliffhanger), when a catastrophe of unknown origin rips through the solar system. The final shot is of Kwejian utterly destroyed, including the presumed death of Booker's brother and nephew. Just when you thought the stakes were getting less galaxy-threatening, they go and blow up a planet.
Some quick additional thoughts:
- This episode seems to do a better job of spreading the wealth among the supporting bridge players, which is nice.
- Burnham to Booker, when the Butterfly People seem poised to attack: "Do your empathy thing."
- President Rillak's makeup design is basically that of a smoothed-out non-gray Cardassian, which I guess hints at some distant Cardassian ancestry? If so, I liked the subtle approach of how this is not remarked upon within the dialogue at all. I wonder where the Cardassians are within the current affairs of the quadrant.
- Olatunde Osunsanmi and his director of photography seem to look for any excuse to turn the camera upside down, in this case because of the issues with the space station's gravity, resulting in everyone walking on the ceiling.
- I expect this season's reviews (and, indeed, likely all future reviews) will be shorter than in years past. With all the new Trek seasons airing over the next year (Discovery, Prodigy, Picard, Strange New Worlds) and my hope — repeat, hope — to review all of them, I'm going to have to sacrifice detail and dial back the length if I hope to maintain any sort of pace and/or sanity.
Like this site? Support it by buying Jammer a coffee.