Destructive vengeance and constructive hope: Thoughts on Star Trek – Discovery S4 (ep. 8-13)

(image via YouTube (c) Paramount)

There seems to be a widely held perception that Star Trek: Discovery is wildly inconsistent, a newly-installed flagship series for the franchise that never quite manages to do anything remarkable.

Quite why that is is open to debate – as the lead series for the new wave of multitudinous Star Trek storytelling, perhaps it is the one most open to being compared to the shows that made up the last great wave of stories from the idealistically-minded sci-fi franchise including The Next Generation (TNG), Voyager (VOY) and this reviewer’s favourite Deep Space Nine (DS9)?

Or perhaps it is the fact that it keeps reinventing itself, shifting times, captains, reasons for being, in some cases substantially, such that people feel like they can’t get a handle on the show?

Whatever the reason, Star Trek: Discovery is not always the fan’s favourite, though like any show, it has a healthy number of true believers who rightly sing its praises.

As far as this reviewer is concerned, Disco, as it affectionately known, is a show that while inconsistent at times, and a little lacking in the richly-realised characterisation that were the hallmark of TNG and DS9, nevertheless has some rich and rewarding elements that together offer up a show very much in keeping with the most evocative parts of Star Trek‘s rich and much-lived heritage.

All these elements are on full display in season four’s six-episode back half which follows a taut and richly told first half which proved the show “is first and foremost about belonging, inclusion and family” all set against imaginatively expansive storytelling that you can well argue is very much in keeping with the historic spirit and idealism of the show.

The most obvious element on display throughout this race to yet another save-the-universe finish line is the show’s ability to pivot on a narrative time and to finely execute an engrossing solution to a prevailing mystery all while making judiciously inspired use of the CGI effects in their toolbox.

If you recall, season four’s first tantalising half was all about a mystery giant anomaly that keeps appearing randomly, or seemingly randomly – as we know from Star Trek new and old random is simply a pattern no one has recognised yet – threatening life across the newly-restored, and still restoring Federation, and sometimes, wiping it out as was the tragic case with Kwejian, Booker’s (David Ajala) home planet which was — SPOILER ALERT!!! — utterly wiped out, causing identity and good judgement-warping grief for the man Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) calls her own.

His grief could soon become the wider Federation’s own with the DMA, as it’s dubbed, suddenly appearing in the same solar system as Earth and Ni’Var (old Vulcan, now home to both the Vulcans and Romulans one thousand years in the future; hence, the new planetary moniker), both of whom are either re-joining or close to re-joining the Federation.

It’s Kwejianic destruction and its threat to repeat the same to planets that will barely be able to evacuate 500,000 people a piece – it’s good to see Tilly (Mary Wiseman) back helping coordinate evacuation efforts with her now loyal cadets from the newly re-minted Starfleet Academy in concert with Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) – provokes two quite different reactions with Burnham, a swathe of Federation delegates including Saru’s (Doug Jones) possible new girlfriend and Ni’Var President T’Rina (Tara Rosling) racing to make First Contact with Species 10-C who live beyond the galactic barrier while Booker and arrogant but brilliant scientist Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) trying to, illegally, blow up the DMA instead.

With Discovery occupying the more noble, less gritty end of the Star Trek spectrum, far from Deep Space Nine‘s more knowing ways, there’s little doubt that the officially sanctioned First Contact route will prevail although the episodes prove devilishly good at making us wonder if they will, in fact, make nice with a species that one the surface wants to kill us all. (SPOILER: Maybe it doesn’t?)

While the outcome is pretty much know since Discovery does not wade in the European indie end of bleakly honest storytelling – it’s a pity Star trek doesn’t go down this road more often because while it’s not technically Hollywood happy, it gives you illuminating and affecting insights on the human condition – the narrative ducks and dodges are impressive.

So too is the season’s ability to put the pedal to the metal narrative wise while giving characters like T’Rina and Saru, Booker and Burnham, and everyone’s favourite warm-and-fuzzy queer family, Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Culber (Wilson Cruz) Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) chances to have quiet, special moments together.

That doesn’t always work in high-stakes, fast-forward save-the-universe narratives where big reveals and desperate races to the finish line are the thing but Discovery pulls it off with aplomb, adding real emotional weight to proceedings, which are already fairly heavy anyway with possible annihilation of Earth and Ni’Var in the offing, no guarantees Species 10-C will play nice when they’re shown the damage their DMA has wrought, and the fate of the Federation hanging in the balance.

So good is the back half of the season at investing action with humanity that even Tarka, who’s a thoroughly dislikable a**hole through much of the story, ends up getting humanises in a way that doesn’t justify his actions but which at least adds poignancy to his singularly selfish deeds.

Discovery also has belatedly got better at giving some heft to minor Bridge characters like 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), all of whom, Owosekun and Detmer especially, get a little more fleshing out that has previously been the case.

As series go, Discovery isn’t perfect, with work still to be done on characterisation and consistency of tone and narrative, but by and large, it is a wondrously, imaginatively and expansively rich show that pays heed to the ideals of the Star Trek franchise while neatly balances some grave storytelling markers with some moments of raw emotional intimacy, able to go big when needed but also cognisant of the benefits of going small, mindful that epic only means something long-term when you remember and highlight the people at the heart of it.

Star Trek: Discovery is coming back for a fifth season, with seasons 1-4 currently screening on Paramount Plus.

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