"Rubicon" talks a lot about "finding common ground," which is an admirable sentiment in our polarized, bifurcated times. But what does that actually mean for macro-level decision-making originating at the top of a chain of command and expected to be implemented by those at the bottom? There's a point in this episode where a shuttle mission is undertaken to bring in Booker and Tarka before they can complete their rogue mission to destroy the DMA, and Rhys grumbles his position of sympathy for Booker. Bryce argues the rogue mission is likely to end in a life sentence. Culber quells the matter by introducing a point of common ground between the officers. But the question that should've been pressed here (as Saru points out) is whether Rhys can carry out his duties and complete the mission while putting aside his personal feelings. Having an opinion is fine, but openly questioning your mission while you're in the middle of it is ... well, not. Common ground does not really apply to doing your job, so this sentiment feels slightly misplaced here.
Meanwhile, Burnham finds herself in the thorny position of having to be the one to bring in Book while she's also the one in love with him. It's a clear conflict of interest — so much that Admiral Vance brings in an objective outsider who is given the authority to enforce the mission's parameters in the event Burnham loses her objectivity and can't complete the mission. The stakes are seen here as too high to simply leave it to emotional error. The objective outsider turns out to be Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), last seen in third season's "Die Trying," at the end of which she returned to her homeworld. The reunion here brings back a recurring character in a fairly satisfying and effective way.
On the whole, "Rubicon" is a well-executed series of cat-and-mouse games between Discovery and Booker/Tarka, with the suspense upped by the parameters of the personal stakes and the ticking clock. Book and Tarka are very close to being ready to deploy the isolytic weapon, and only Discovery now stands in their way. Burnham has to figure out how to stop them, starting with a hopeful, last-ditch appeal to reason before moving on to potentially deadly force (but first a lot of warning shots). Meanwhile, Stamets attempts to predict the rate of the DMA's consumption of raw materials in its current region of space, with the logic being the efficiency of the DMA will deplete all available resources before deciding to go somewhere else. If Stamets can provide that estimate, perhaps Burnham can use that information to convince Book to stand down while the first-contact plan is undertaken.
As a straightforward premise, this works well, and the episode manages to get most of the details right, with conflict aboard Discovery as Burnham tries to come to grips with the fact she may have to choose duty over personal feelings by firing on Book — and conflict aboard Booker's ship as Tarka continues to play the part of the wild card, making tactical moves that he hasn't bothered to clue Booker in on. The action plays out as classic tactical space combat, featuring some technobabble that lies on the engaging end of the spectrum.
With the title being "Rubicon," ending this without the isolytic detonation would probably play as false advertising. Still, there are some details here that could've been handled a little better. For starters, if the stakes really are as high as they're alleged to be, Burnham indulges Booker far too much in talk when she should instead be doing everything she can to simply disable or, yes, destroy his ship. And then, of course, once she does convince Book to stand down, Book's inability to secure his own ship's controls from Tarka allows Tarka to unilaterally deploy the weapon himself, out of his sole self-interest. (I wish the details of these failures didn't have to look so much like people dropping obvious balls.) On the other hand, making all this so personal creates character stakes that are more central and interesting. Even Tarka, the ostensible villain here, is a three-dimensional character with very personal and internally justifiable reasons for his actions. Turning the DMA into the catalyst for differing ideological approaches was a smart idea that continues to pay dramatic dividends.
But Tarka's efforts are all for naught. The isolytic burst collapses the DMA ... but within a matter of hours it comes right back as if nothing had happened, because its power source lies not at its core as Tarka had theorized, but on the other side of the wormhole that was constructed by Species 10-C. And now 10-C knows someone is tinkering with their mining dredge. So what will that mean for the first-contact mission, which may now be interpreted in a much more hostile light?
"The encounter could create a time paradox, the result of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!":
- This episode had some of the better-visualized tactical space maneuvering on this series in a while, but I still think they throw too much colorful sparkly nonsense in what should be a more nuts-and-bolts "here's where the ships are" approach to visual composition.
- T'Rina wants to have dinner with Saru, and Saru is terrified of the possibility of going out on a date. Culber tells him to stop being an idiot. This is mildly amusing as disposable subplots go.
- After having watched this episode, last week's seems even more like a boilerplate two-star outing, so I'm revising down its star rating.
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