A thousand ways of saying family: Thoughts on Star Trek – Discovery S4 (ep. 1-7)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Ostensibly the fourth season of what has become Star Trek‘s current flagship is all about a big, bad anomaly that is wantonly winging its way back and forth across the galaxy, causing damage, death and destruction.

Discovery, which has embraced a serialised style of storytelling from the get-go, always has a central narrative arc off which everything else hangs and this season is no exception with newly-installed captain, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green in superlative form) and her loyal, future-flung crew battling to work out what it is and how to stop it.

It’s a chilling foe to have because you can’t fight what you can’t understand and so, much of each episode is devoted to figuring out this latest imperilling threat to the Federation which is only just getting back on its feet after the lingering, isolating effects of “The Burn”.

Thanks to the team’s discovery of Su’Kal in the 11th episode of the third season, the Federation now knows not only how to counter the effects of “The Burn” because they understand its origins but they now have a ready, near-limitless source of dilithium that they’re now handing out for nothing like warp travel-enabling Santas.

Cue a whole lot of diplomacy and lofty talk about reuniting the galaxy under the ideals of the Federation – it gets a little too earnest at times like the fourth season is some sort of fevered recruitment campaign for outlier states which, interestingly, include a now isolationist Earth – and a whole lot of excuses for Burnham to demonstrate she is the leader and captain the galaxy needs right now.

Of course, she can’t do it alone, and so, Saru (Doug Jones), Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Cleveland Booker aka “Book” (David Ajala) are back to help her make the galaxy safer for everyone.

One noteworthy element of the current season, which took a mid-season break in December at the end of episode 7 and is currently back screening the back half slate of episodes, is that the writers are going to a great deal more trouble to flesh out other members of the Bridge crew including Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio), Lt. Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), Lt. Gen Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon), Lt. R. A. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe) and Lt. Nilsson (Sara Mitich), enriching an already strong roster of characters and giving stories somewhere else to go other than to bring in the same people over and over again.

This move to widen the slate of characters fits with an overall thrust of the season that seems to be seeking to elevate the idea of the crew of Discovery as a family, one who cling close to each other partly because they are effectively alone 930 years into the future.

True, they are well and truly within the full Federation fold now, and Burnham et. al taking all their Spore Drive marching orders from people like Federation President Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) and Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) but they still remain in many ways outliers, people who will always be denizens of the past, if not in actuality anymore, then in spirit.

While the driving momentum of the narrative is the mission to work out what the anomaly aka the DMA is and how to stop it, what really strikes you in these seven episodes is how the crew is becoming more and more a family all the time.

You can likely say that of any crew but for these guys it’s even more pronounced, with the clearest example being the queer found family of Stamets, his husband Dr Culber, non-binary Human Adira Tal and her partner, transgender man Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) who have drawn ever closer together over the last season or so.

Emblematic of Discovery‘s welcomingly diverse and expansive to queer characters and storytelling which also includes quip-ready Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) – Out Magazine recently did a feature on Discovery‘s queer beating heart, also featuring Coutts and Wiseman who are queer in real life though not explicitly on the show … yet – the heartwarmingly diverse family of Stamet, Culber and Tal x 2 gives every episode of the show they’re in a beating heart so fierce, it reaffirms that love is love is, indeed, love.

There’s no empty tokenistic representation going on here; these queer characters are grounded and real and their sexuality is treated as no different to that of anyone else.

That’s how it should be in any show, of course, but sometimes it feels like other shows are trying a tad too hard to make a statement whereas in Discovery it feels organic and real and very much in keeping with an idealistic future where everyone is welcome and anything is possible.

And quite apart form anything else, it’s just a joy seeing them being so in love with each other and supportive of each other, especially given the stress Stamets is under, the issues confronting Culber and Gray Tal’s big life change.

There’s a lot going on for everyone with even Adira finding herself in a life-or-death learning situation with Tilly in the season’s fourth episode, “All is Possible” and what gets them through is their small, perfect found queer family but also the connections they have with the wider crew.

The bonds between the crew are solid as buoyantly reassuring too.

Burnham and Booker are, of course, still very much a couple although the DMA and the ramifications of its erratic actions throughout the Federation and for Booker personally mean that a rocky road lies ahead for the couple; you suspect, though, that given how strong their bonds are that they will weather this particular storm.

There are also strong ties between Saru and Tilly, Tilly and Burnham, new friendships between Stamets and Booker, and even the appearance of a new unexpectedly powerful member of the crew who causes some waves before eventually being folded, as is everyone, into the bosom of the family.

Discovery season 4’s first half is a strong suite of episodes, driven by a compelling mystery, and held together and given heart and resonance by the crew themselves who are bound together as a family as the newly-resurgent Federation aspires to be, and who give the show a real show of tangible humanity, proving once again that while Star Trek is ostensibly about aliens, exploration and an idealistic future, it is first and foremost about belonging, inclusion and family, three qualities that are on vibrant display in the strong current season of a show that shows no sign of running out of ideas just yet.

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