Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 4, Episode 10: The Galactic Barrier

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-4. There are also minor spoilers for Star Trek: Picard Season 1 and the most recent trailer for Season 2.

Don’t get confused! According to Star Trek, there are not one but two barriers in the galaxy: one around the centre called the “Great Barrier” and one around the edge called the “Galactic Barrier.” They are not the same thing, and Discovery took us to the outer edge this week, not the centre! Two barriers, one galaxy. I hope that clears it up for you!

After being underwhelmed by the last couple of episodes, mostly due to their heavy focus on Captain Burnham’s angst over the situation with Book, The Galactic Barrier came along like a breath of fresh air. Though it relies heavily on the DMA and Unknown Species 10-C storylines, it came across on screen as two almost standalone sci-fi adventures, one starring Captain Burnham, President Rillak, and the crew of the USS Discovery, and the other focusing on Book and Tarka as they tracked down a rare element that they needed to cross the galactic barrier.

The USS Discovery approaching the titular Galactic Barrier.

Both of these stories worked incredibly well for me, and showcased how strong Discovery can be when it doesn’t overdo the character drama. This isn’t a soap opera – and when the show’s writers get the right balance between fun sci-fi antics and intimate character moments, we’re treated to what I genuinely believe is some of the best science fiction ever brought to screen – and some of the best Star Trek, too.

The central character pairings of Book and Tarka on one side and President Rillak and Captain Burnham on the other worked brilliantly this week, and when the adventures paused to spend time on these character relationships, it was a welcome break from the incredibly drawn-out conflict between Book and Burnham that had dominated the past two episodes to the detriment, I would argue, of other aspects of the season’s storyline.

Captain Burnham got a much-needed break from Book this week.

I wrote last week that the DMA/Unknown Species 10-C story was unfolding in a very similar way to the Burn last season – and, to an extent, Control and the Red Angel in Season 2 as well. Discovery is definitely still flirting with repetitiveness in that regard, but with The Galactic Barrier telling these two semi-standalone stories of the mission to cross the Galactic Barrier and Book and Tarka’s antimatter harvest, at the very least we got a bit of a break from that feeling of déjà vu that had been present.

Let’s get what is perhaps the least impressive part of the story out of the way first: Earth being in danger is such a played-out cliché in stories like these. It was hard to avoid rolling my eyes when Admiral Vance’s holographic message dropped that particular bombshell, and I find myself repeating something I’ve said about Discovery on several occasions in Season 4, Season 3, and all the way back to the beginning: the show is strong enough and its storylines are interesting enough in their own right that there’s no need for this. Falling back on tired tropes doesn’t really do anything to ramp up the tension; the mission to contact Unknown Species 10-C is already sufficiently tense, exciting, and dangerous that there’s nowhere left to go.

Admiral Vance’s holo-message.

For me, this wasn’t so much an epic fail as a piece of unnecessary fluff. I wish Discovery’s producers and writers had more confidence, sometimes, in the stories they want to tell. When a fictional setting is built up as well as Star Trek’s, and when we already know the stakes involved thanks to what happened to Kwejian, there’s no need to put Earth in harm’s way – doing so almost detracts from the story, because now we know for absolute certain that Captain Burnham will find a way to save the day! If another planet was in danger – say, for example, the Breen homeworld or Bajor – the story could still go in any direction. We saw with the destruction of Kwejian that the writers are happy to blow up planets. But when it’s Earth, far from feeling like the planet is in serious danger and Captain Burnham might not be able to save it in time… now I’m left with a sense that the story’s conclusion is an inevitability rather than a possibility.

But aside from that unsuccessful attempt at taking the stakes from a ten to an eleven, The Galactic Barrier was impressive all-around. The visual effects of the titular barrier were impressive, and it was a rare treat to see the USS Discovery at warp! I love the spore drive, don’t get me wrong, but warp drive has been a huge part of Star Trek going back to the beginning, so to see the USS Discovery at warp for what I think is the first time this season and only the second or third time since the end of Season 2 was beautiful. The updated look of ships at warp is absolutely fabulous, and I never tire of seeing it.

The USS Discovery at warp.

The Galactic Barrier had originally appeared in The Original Series, first in the show’s second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, and again in the third season episode Is There In Truth No Beauty. The latter episode featured a pocket of space within the barrier, something that Discovery also used to great effect this week, which was a fantastic callback to the very beginnings of Star Trek.

Discovery has been criticised in the past for treading on the toes of the established canon of Star Trek. Some of that criticism is fair, some arguably is very nitpicky, but we’re getting off the subject! In The Galactic Barrier, Discovery didn’t overwrite anything but instead expanded on our knowledge of how this unusual phenomenon works. Using the way the Galactic Barrier had been set up in The Original Series as a baseline, the episode took the concept and fleshed it out, explaining why travelling through it is so difficult and showing why it hasn’t been attempted in such a long time. As the Star Trek franchise continues to grow, I’d like to see more of this kind of thing. Picking up an element from the franchise’s past and looking at it in more detail without overwriting what came before is incredibly rewarding for long-time viewers, and I hope that other Trekkies who enjoyed The Original Series are as impressed as I am with Discovery’s approach this week.

The Galactic Barrier was visually impressive.

I was wrong in my theory that Ruon Tarka’s friend was someone we might be familiar with… and I have to say that I’m a little confused by the way this unfolded. I always caveat my theories by saying that they probably won’t pan out and that getting too attached to fan theories is a bad thing, and I also said from the beginning that I might well be overreaching by suggesting potential crossover characters for Tarka’s friend. But as we moved through three episodes with this individual’s identity being deliberately hidden by Discovery’s writers, I felt increasingly sure that there must be a reason.

The revelation that the character of Oros was someone brand-new is fine, and I actually like the relationship between he and Tarka that The Galactic Barrier showed us in flashback form. There was a sweetness to Tarka that we haven’t really seen before, and a hint – just a hint, at this stage – that the relationship goes beyond mere friendship. All of that is totally fine, and is even good; it adds dimension and complexity to Tarka and helps turn him from a villain into an antihero we can root for. But I have to question why this character’s identity was so carefully hidden until this episode. What was the point? Was it just to throw out a red herring, to send fans like me into theory-crafting overdrive? If so, that seems a little cruel. It just feels like naming Oros as far back as But To Connect wouldn’t have done any harm to the flashbacks in The Galactic Barrier, and that there wasn’t any reason to go to such lengths to keep Oros’ name and identity a secret for so long.

Ruon Tarka’s “friend,” Oros.

Since Tarka’s first appearance in The Examples earlier in the season he’s been much more than just a “mad scientist” character trope. His characterisation may have begun with that archetype, but the complex and nuanced character that we’ve come to know is so much more than that. We saw this week how he dealt with defeat: his weapon had failed to get him the power source he’s so desperately seeking, and through the flashbacks with Oros and his conversations with Book, we also saw how he’s a genuinely loving and caring person, willing to go to extremes to reach someone he cares about. In a series that has been all about finding and holding onto connection, Tarka fits the mould in a different way, but no less of an important or impactful one.

The relationship between Book and Tarka is evolving, too. Tarka had been in control for much of their time together, dictating how the weapon would be built, what components he needed, and so on. But this week we saw Book take back control – firstly by threatening to kick Tarka off his ship, and secondly by demanding to know the full story of what happened with Oros and what’s driving him.

Book and Tarka make a great character pair.

Book has been pretty static the past few episodes; his development this season came earlier as he grieved for Kwejian, leading up to his betrayal and team-up with Tarka before the mid-season break. And I don’t think we saw a lot in The Galactic Barrier to further develop or explore the extent of Book’s grief or how he’s dealing with his feelings of loss, but what we did get was someone trying to reassert himself and regain control of a situation that I’m sure even he would admit has spiralled out of control.

Despite his complex relationship with Tarka, finding out more about the man he’s stuck with seemed to be important to Book, and the revelation of Tarka’s past seems to have solidified their partnership, at least in the short-term. It would have been possible for Book to take the antimatter and ditch Tarka if he’d wanted to; he seems to recognise that, at least for now, it’s in his interests to continue to work together. I suspect that there will be some pay-off to this if and when the pair make it across the Galactic Barrier – and I’m still rooting for Tarka to find a way to reach Oros. In spite of his misdeeds (or perhaps because of them), I find him a strangely relatable character.

Tarka in one of the flashback sequences.

One thing that wasn’t addressed in The Galactic Barrier was the status of Book and Tarka. Are they fugitives now, having detonated their weapon? Is Book in less trouble than Tarka having indicated his willingness to stand down? It seems as though Book assumes he needs to remain off the grid, otherwise I would’ve expected him to have at least tried to reach out to Burnham; their parting of the ways in Rubicon seemed to suggest a middle ground between them was possible, and from there perhaps even a pathway to reconciliation. I’m sure Discovery will address this before the end of the season, but it was interesting that Book and Tarka’s status wasn’t really discussed here.

One thing that’s baffled me ever since it was announced a few weeks ago is the scheduling of the next few episodes of Discovery. They will overlap with the first three episodes of Picard Season 2… and on a streaming platform I just don’t get why that is. This is something that I’ll address in more detail in my next theory post, but I wonder if there’s a possible crossover on the cards and that’s why the weird scheduling has happened. If so, perhaps we got the very first hint at it in The Galactic Barrier, with a reference made about Vulcans observing Earth prior to official first contact taking place. This could be a reference to the events of the Enterprise episode Carbon Creek, but it could also be an oblique reference to something we’re about to see in Picard Season 2 – the most recent trailer showed off a Vulcan (or perhaps a Romulan) on what appeared to be 21st Century Earth. We’ll dig deeper into this possible crossover in my theory post in the days ahead, so stay tuned for that!

A Vulcan (or possibly a Romulan) on Earth in what appears to be the 21st Century as seen in the recent Picard Season 2 trailer.

The burgeoning relationship between Saru and T’Rina took a turn this week, with Saru responding to T’Rina’s earlier invitation to dinner. There’s something adorable about the way both of these characters behave; they’re clearly not used to reaching out to someone else in this way, and the almost teenage awkwardness of asking someone out and worrying about saying the wrong thing is made so much cuter by the fact that they’re both usually so calm, wise, and stoic.

I’m glad that Discovery has given this kind of new relationship to Saru. It would’ve been easy, in a series with a lot of relationship drama coming from its protagonist, to either completely ignore the possible relationships between other characters or to give them easy, comfortable, safe relationships that don’t take up a lot of screen time. Discovery learned the hard way from messing with the Stamets-Culber relationship that these things don’t always come across well on screen, so taking a bit of a risk here with Saru and T’Rina is bold – and it’s working exceptionally well, injecting some lighter moments into a series that can be very heavy at points. It’s also sweet to see Dr Culber helping Saru as he takes these first steps into his very own new frontier; they work so well as a pair in these moments.

T’Rina and Saru.

So who do we think the Federation Vice President is? My money is on Kovich right now; I don’t see another plausible candidate among the very limited Federation HQ minor characters, and there was something about the way that President Rillak and Admiral Vance went out of their way to avoid using the VP’s name that makes me think that there could be a significant revelation to come. Kovich has remained ambiguous since we met him in Season 3, and although he went through some significant growth this season, particularly in episodes like All Is Possible, the events of The Galactic Barrier seem to have placed him right back in that mysterious space.

What is Kovich doing that’s more important than dealing with Unknown Species 10-C? And will this be paid off at all, or was it just a conveniently ambiguous line to move him out of the way so President Rillak could go on the mission? Sometimes it feels like Discovery has a plan with these moments, but then when the story ends and the dust settles, they turn out to be nothing more than throwaway lines! So right now I feel that there should be something bigger going on with Kovich – and again I’ll take a look at a couple of possibilities in my upcoming theory post – but at the same time, Discovery’s track record, and the fact that there are only three episodes left, makes me question whether we’ll see anything for ourselves.

Dr Kovich… Vice President of the Federation?

In a way, I enjoy Kovich’s ambiguity and the somewhat mysterious nature of his role within the hierarchy of the Federation. Speculating is always fun, but at the same time if Kovich’s position was fully explained and his role fleshed out, there’s a chance he might lose what has made him such an interesting part of the show over the past couple of seasons. I had initially pegged Kovich as a villain, perhaps a Section 31 leader or something like that. But episodes like But To Connect showed off that he at least appears to be committed to Federation principles, so I’m not sure about that any more, and I even struck the “Kovich is Section 31” theory off my list a few weeks ago.

We’ll save the guesswork for my theory post, but suffice to say I can think of a few reasons – both good and evil – for what role Kovich might play and why he might’ve chosen to recuse himself from the mission through the Galactic Barrier. I hope that, whatever’s happening with him, we don’t lose him as a character by the end of the season. With Discovery returning for a fifth season, I would hope Kovich could stick around for more ambiguous adventures!

Kovich and the rest of the senior officials.

Speaking of Kovich, it was said on several occasions this season that Lieutenant Commander Bryce is working closely with him, and he got a scene this week in which he parted ways with Saru that was very sweet. Although Bryce has been a secondary character, his goodbye with Saru hit all of the emotional notes that I might’ve expected from a major character, and this scene genuinely felt like two good friends parting ways, knowing that it could well be for the final time.

There weren’t that many characters with whom we could’ve gotten similar scenes, so in that sense it’s logical to use Bryce here – and actor Ronnie Rowe Jr. put in a beautiful performance opposite Doug Jones. The pair really sold me on this moment, and it was a surprisingly emotional scene given that Bryce has never been the focus of a major story across the show’s four-season run to date. Again, this is something to speculate about in-depth next time, but I wonder if Discovery plans to pay off Bryce’s story of working with Kovich in some way. Perhaps the two of them will work together to save the day… or perhaps Bryce won’t survive, and this moment with Saru was the equivalent of his goodbye to the series and to us as the audience!

Are we about to say goodbye to Bryce?

I stand by what I’ve said about President Rillak in her past appearances: she’s a hard-nosed politician with a Machiavellian edge, willing to use other people to manipulate events to get the outcome she’s looking for. But this week we saw – dare I say – an almost altruistic side to the Federation’s President, as she delegated power to her Vice President and accompanied the USS Discovery on its mission through the Galactic Barrier.

It’s still possible, in my view, that Rillak has an ulterior motive here. But at the same time, it was nice to see her recognising her mistake from the season premiere – in which her questioning and time-wasting on the bridge in the middle of a crisis was completely out-of-line… and arguably got poor Commander Nalas killed. Some characters on Discovery have arguably been less good at recognising their own mistakes and learning from them, so this was something nice to see; a moment of (apparent) contrition from a wonderfully complex character. As she has done all season long, Chelah Horsdal absolutely nailed it.

President Rillak joined the mission.

Captain Burnham showed last week that she has a weakness when it comes to Book – understandably so. But that weakness definitely had an impact on her ability to command her ship level-headedly, to such an extent that Nhan was given authority to overrule her if it came down to the wire. This week, with Book effectively out of the picture, we got to see a much more composed Captain Burnham, and she remained fully in control of the ship and crew as they made their way through the Galactic Barrier.

For me, this hammers home why the whole relationship drama angle that Discovery has aggressively pursued for the last few weeks is such a mistake. Captain Burnham is at her best when she’s composed and in control, able to draw on her inner strength to be the kind of leader that we know she can be. When she’s distracted unnecessarily by a fairly pedestrian and poorly-written soap opera-inspired boyfriend angst storyline, we don’t see her at her best. Female characters – especially leading characters like Captain Burnham – are done a disservice by the show’s writers and creatives if all they’re permitted to do is sit around and worry about the men in their life. By cutting the crap this week and focusing on what was a fun sci-fi adventure story in its own right, Discovery once again allowed Captain Burnham to shine.

Stepping away from Book was good for Captain Burnham this time.

Discovery presented Captain Burnham and President Rillak with a complicated question after Admiral Vance’s holo-message arrived. There isn’t an easy, clear-cut answer in situations like these, and I can understand both Captain Burnham’s position of wanting to share the news about the danger to Earth and Ni’Var with the crew so they know the full picture and understand the stakes, but also from a practical point of view, I can understand President Rillak’s wish to keep the information private, at least in the short-term.

President Rillak wanted to avoid losing control of the situation, which is understandable psychologically for someone in a position of authority. But more so I think her point about not wanting to leave the crew with an unnecessary distraction that could interfere with their work is a valid one; at the very least, waiting until the dangerous mission to navigate the Galactic Barrier was complete seems like a perfectly reasonable and sensible position to take.

President Rillak and Captain Burnham.

Because this is Discovery, though, and despite all the talk last week of “finding a middle ground,” Captain Burnham had to win this particular argument, and after a conversation with President Rillak, the news was ultimately shared with the crew and the assembled delegates. I like, however, that they waited until the most dangerous part of the mission had concluded before doing so – it feels like somewhat of a compromise under the circumstances.

It was interesting to learn that the mycelial network doesn’t extend beyond the edge of the galaxy. The network seemingly connects at least two parallel universes – the prime and Mirror – so it seems odd that it has this limitation. Obviously, though, for the sake of the story a way around the spore drive had to be found, but it does feel at least slightly inconsistent with previous statements about the mycelial network spanning an entire multitude of universes. This is really just a nitpick, though, in the grand scheme of things, and the mycelial network being a galactic phenomenon allowed Discovery to tell one of the most exciting and interesting stories of the season so far.

Dr Hirai.

I’m interested to learn more about Dr Hirai, the new character introduced in this episode, but he ultimately didn’t get a lot to do on this occasion. The talk of universal translators and making assumptions about Unknown Species 10-C was all very interesting, but until we actually get to see this faction for ourselves it was a bit of background that may or may not come into play… and it feels like it was there as an excuse to show off some combadges and other props more than anything else!

So I think that’s about all I have to say this week. The Galactic Barrier was one of the best episodes of Season 4 so far, telling two distinct stories that took our characters to some very different literal and thematic places. The sci-fi adventure of overcoming the odds to navigate a dangerous phenomenon was a ton of fun, and stepping away from the show’s recent focus on Captain Burnham and Book allowed both characters some much-needed breathing space. The show itself took advantage of this, too.

I had a ton of fun with The Galactic Barrier, and it’s an episode that I’ll happily rewatch for its semi-standalone adventure story when the season is over. With only three episodes remaining, surely we’re close to learning who Unknown Species 10-C are… right?

Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, Scandinavia, Latin America, and Australia. The show is on Pluto TV in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and other parts of Western Europe at 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Individual episodes or the full season can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, and possibly other platforms in the UK, parts of Europe, and select other countries. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 4, Episode 9: Rubicon

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-4.

Last week, All In took Discovery on a bit of a detour to a Star Wars-inspired gamblers’ den. With the season now building to what appears to be the climax of its story, Rubicon returned to the DMA in a big way, moving the story along in leaps and bounds while spending a little too much time on the dreaded Burnham Relationship Drama™.

I’m in two minds about Rubicon, really. On the one hand, the episode was by far the cinematographic highlight of the season so far, with some outstanding visual effects, beautifully-composed camera shots, and a sense of scale that would’ve made Rubicon feel right at home on the big screen. On the other, there were a couple of moments where I literally couldn’t stop my eyes from rolling at overplayed clichés that I’d hoped Discovery could’ve outgrown by now. What resulted, all things considered, was a mixed bag of an episode; there were some excellent moments and some very sub-par ones.

Captain Burnham on the bridge in Rubicon.

Stepping back from Rubicon for a moment, I want to consider the overall story of the DMA and Unknown Species 10-C in Season 4. As the season has rolled on, I’ve been feeling a growing sense of déjà vu. The DMA storyline is unfolding in a remarkably similar fashion to the Burn in Season 3, with the big, mysterious, galaxy-threatening event being slowly uncovered by Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery.

When the first Season 4 teaser initially revealed another “big bad,” I wrote the following: “there are possible downsides to another ‘huge galactic disaster’ storyline so soon after resolving the Burn, in that it risks feeling tacked-on, derivative, or even anticlimactic…” Right now, with the very similar way that the two storylines are unfolding – with little tidbits of information about the DMA or Unknown Species 10-C having been tacked on to episodes throughout the season – I’m definitely feeling that Discovery is straying increasingly close to repetitive territory. There’s still time for the emergence of the second DMA or the reveal of Unknown Species 10-C to take things in a very different direction, but this feeling is something that had been building up for several episodes now, and it kind of came to a head in Rubicon.

The DMA as it appeared in Rubicon.

I don’t usually like to talk about too much production-side stuff, but while we’re taking more of a birds-eye view of Season 4, I thought it was worth noting that showrunner Michelle Paradise recently discussed Unknown Species 10-C during a social media event. Her comments seemed to imply that Unknown Species 10-C will be someone that we’ve never met before; someone brand-new to Star Trek. And while it’s possible these comments have been misinterpreted – Paradise could have been talking about an extensive redesign of an existing faction, perhaps – I wanted to briefly consider what that could mean for the show.

In Season 3, one of the reasons why the Burn storyline fell flat at what should’ve been its climax is that basically none of the hints that Burnham and the crew had picked up over the course of the season ultimately mattered – the ending was such a bolt from the blue that it was unpredictable, making for an unsatisfying end to a season-long mystery. Because Season 4 has followed such a similar mystery box-type setup, the DMA and Unknown Species 10-C have seen crumbs of information thrown our way over the course of the season thus far. And with myriad smaller references to past iterations of Star Trek, fans have been encouraged to speculate about possible connections and explanations. For the ending to be another “surprise!” might work… but it might not. And I can’t shake the feeling right now that the explanations for the two big mysterious elements of Season 4’s story are ultimately going to be disappointing for a lot of fans.

Okay, that’s enough of that! The speculation about who Unknown Species 10-C may or may not be will have to wait, and we may not know the answer for a while!

Unknown Species 10-C sent a second DMA.

One of the central conceits of Rubicon was this idea of searching for a middle ground in between Book and Burnham’s positions. Communication and compromise have been themes that Discovery has tackled on multiple occasions over the past couple of seasons, but here I’m just not sure it’s been handled very well. I said in my review of But To Connect that there has always been a middle ground in this standoff, and it’s such a basic one that it beggars belief that no one so much as mentioned it until now.

The dividing line was whether to attempt to make peaceful first contact, as Burnham wanted, or to deploy a weapon against the DMA, as Book wanted. But the answer has been right in front of everybody the entire time: do both. In the time it would take to build the weapon and plan for its deployment, the Federation could make its attempt at first contact. It didn’t need to turn into the big fight that it did, and the idea that none of the dozens of diplomats, the Federation President, Starfleet Admirals, and the entire crew of Discovery didn’t even consider it might be a clumsy metaphor for our current divided political climate, but it doesn’t really work as a story beat. And that means that when Burnham finally proposed the compromise to Book, instead of cheering it on and thinking what a wonderful idea it was, all I could think was “that took you long enough!”

Captain Burnham eventually came to discover a rather obvious compromise position.

If the story underlying this division was stronger, perhaps I would forgive the silliness of failing to propose a compromise sooner. But because this particular story focuses almost exclusively on Burnham Relationship Drama™, something that I would argue Discovery simply does not need at this point in its run, it feels even more disappointing, somehow.

Despite a weak start in the Season 1 premiere, I have genuinely come to like Captain Burnham. Her ascent to the captaincy, particularly across the back half of Season 3, felt great – and along with Captain Sisko from Deep Space Nine, we can absolutely say that she’s one of the few Star Trek characters who genuinely earned her promotion. We saw a lot of the process that took her from a subordinate to a commanding officer, and while she has her flaws, which Star Trek captain doesn’t?

Captain Burnham’s rise to the captain’s chair has been a great story to watch.

But after a lot of messing around with Ash Tyler in Season 2 in particular, the whole Burnham Relationship Drama™ angle is completely overdone. Giving her a new start with Book worked so well in Season 3, and to upend that over such a stupid disagreement that should have been solvable is disappointing. Female characters don’t need the support of male characters to be successful, so I’m not saying that Captain Burnham somehow needs Book in her life – but having given her that relationship, to strip it away from her so soon just for the sake of injecting additional drama into a series that’s already full to the brim with it just seems gratuitous and unnecessary.

It would still have been possible to have a conflict over the DMA, with Tarka taking off on a mission to detonate his weapon. All In and Rubicon could’ve played out almost word-for-word without the Burnham Relationship Drama™ detracting from other aspects of the storylines. Another character could’ve been teamed up with Tarka, if the writers felt it necessary, and he could have even swayed a member of Discovery’s crew. In Rubicon, we saw glimpses of the way this could’ve gone with Rhys being generally supportive of Tarka, and any of the secondary characters could’ve played the Book role on this side of the story. Tarka is the driving force here, Book is really just a pilot. And while Book’s story of grief leading him to dark places sounds interesting in theory, Discovery hasn’t really done anything significant with that angle for several episodes. Book got to his dark place earlier in the season, and has been fairly static since.

A hologram of Book in Rubicon.

In short, if I was going to make one change to Season 4 as it’s unfolded so far, it would be to keep Book and Burnham together. There was scope to see Book in therapy with Dr Culber, talking out his feelings with Saru or even Zora, and being comforted all the while by Burnham. Instead, the story almost suggests that Burnham is out of her depth with Book, unable to know what to do or say.

The only way I can see the Burnham Relationship Drama™ making sense in Season 4 is if it leads to some bigger destination that isn’t apparent right now. Rubicon saw Burnham hesitate, unwilling to give the order to stop Book because of her love for him essentially overriding her duty as a Starfleet officer – comparable, in some respects, to the choice Worf made in the Deep Space Nine episode Change of Heart. If she feels that she can’t ever make that kind of choice again, or that Starfleet is getting in the way of her relationship, maybe she’ll end up resigning her commission in order to stay with him. If there’s some kind of larger arc at work, perhaps we’ll look back on the way it unfolded and reflect, wondering if the ends justified the means. But right now, assuming that isn’t going to be the case, this aspect of the Season 4 storyline remains disappointing verging on irritating.

Captain Burnham.

None of that is to detract from two wonderful performances. Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be impressive as Captain Burnham, and in an episode that revolved around her character’s internal conflict between love and duty, Martin-Green put in an outstanding and beautifully complex performance that was, at times, riveting. David Ajala made a wonderful addition to the cast in Season 3, and his arc in Season 4 has seen him put in some harrowingly beautiful performances that truly succeed at communicating Book’s grief. This latest turn for his character and his disagreement with Burnham wouldn’t have been my choice, but there’s no denying that Ajala brought it to screen and did his utmost to sell it.

It was also great to welcome back Rachael Ancheril in Rubicon, with her character of Nhan making a return for the first time since Season 3’s Die Trying. I felt it was a shame to see Nhan shuffled off the ship so quickly after arriving in the 32nd Century, and although it seems like her role this time was a one-off and not the start of a full-blown homecoming, it was still nice to catch up with her and learn that her mission aboard the USS Tikhov came to a successful conclusion.

Nhan made a welcome return to Discovery this week.

Unfortunately, though, one of Nhan’s lines was so poor that I felt myself involuntarily rolling my eyes. At a crucial moment in the mission, Nhan revealed to Burnham that, rather than just following her orders, she had another motivation: she’d been on another mission somewhere else and had lost “half her team” because she waited too long to make a decision. This terribly clichéd moment added nothing to Rubicon, nothing to Nhan’s character, and nothing to the overall story. It was undeveloped beyond a single line and was nothing but unnecessary fluff thrown in seemingly haphazardly to try to further ramp up the drama.

Discovery has a tendency to do this: taking a secondary character and giving them one or two lines about something in their past that we never saw and that is never referenced again to try to inject additional tension and drama into a story beat. It occasionally works, but more often than not it just falls flat on its face because it’s so painfully obvious that these lines are purely there for dramatic effect. Nhan’s is a case in point: it didn’t flow naturally, it was too barebones to add anything of substance to either her character’s motivation or the storyline she was part of, and overall it just felt like a very clumsy addition to the episode; the kind of line that might be written by a middle school student in one of their first creative writing projects.

Unfortunately one of Nhan’s lines was the worst in the episode; an underexplained piece of exposition thrown in to artificially ramp up the drama.

Despite that one line being so poor that it detracted somewhat from her return, I liked the role that had been given to Nhan in a more general sense. There’s no denying that Captain Burnham is too close to Book to be objective, and the rest of Discovery’s crew know him well so couldn’t necessarily be trusted either. Bringing in an outsider – or at least somewhat of an outsider – who has the authority to override Captain Burnham in this specific case makes a lot of sense from Starfleet’s point of view, and it was neat that Discovery managed to find a way to address this conflict in a way that felt natural.

I also liked the way Nhan introduced Saru and Captain Burnham to her secondary plan – the secret briefing that she gave them when their first attempt to capture Book and Tarka failed. It fitted perfectly with Nhan’s very militaristic role as a Federation security officer, and the way she presented the plan after the shuttle mission was as close as Starfleet gets to feeling like a military organisation.

This briefing was a very cool idea that was executed perfectly.

Speaking of the shuttle mission, it was nice to see Saru in command for the first time since Season 3! I also really like the shuttlecraft set design, with its rounded consoles and expansive bridge area. We saw this set used when Tilly took a group of cadets on a mission in the episode All Is Possible, and it’s neat that Discovery is continuing to make use of this new space. Because the USS Discovery hasn’t really seen much of a redesign internally, it’s one of the few sets other than Federation HQ that has a 32nd Century feel, and I like that. The USS Discovery has always felt like a ship that blends aspects of the NX-01 Enterprise, the USS Kelvin, and to an extent, parts of the Constitution-class refit into its own somewhat spartan 23rd Century style. I was wondering if we’d see much of a redesign this season, but in lieu of that it’s nice to get scenes like the one aboard the shuttlecraft that incorporate more 32nd Century design elements.

Although it sadly didn’t take up much screen time and wasn’t really expanded upon in a significant way, the conflict between Rhys and Bryce was an interesting one. It makes sense that there’d be members of Discovery’s crew who were generally supportive of Book and Tarka, so giving that debate some air was neat to see. It didn’t last as long as it could’ve, and the resolution – with Bryce offering Rhys a hand after they were beamed back aboard Discovery – was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, but it was nevertheless an attempt by the show’s writers to expand the story beyond Captain Burnham, Book, Tarka, and Nhan.

This conflict could have been expanded upon, but it was a nice inclusion nevertheless.

The visual effect of the shuttle being “eaten” and torn in half was spectacular, and definitely one of the highlights of the season so far. The “goo” that captured the shuttle seemed to be a visual blend of programmable matter – a stalwart of 32nd Century tech – and the living ice from the Season 3 episode Far From Home that almost consumed the USS Discovery. And as it gripped the shuttle, eventually ripping it in half as it tried to get away, it was an absolutely thrilling spectacle.

I genuinely felt that Saru, Dr Culber, Rhys, and Bryce were in danger during their away mission, and in a series – and a franchise – that almost always sees its heroes make it home safely, that can be a difficult thing to pull off. As Saru led his team, though, I was so immersed in the world of Star Trek that I fully suspended my disbelief! I would add, though, that this isn’t the first time in Season 4 that Discovery has put crew members into dangerous, life-or-death situations only to save them at the last second. Dr Pollard had a very lucky escape in the episode Stormy Weather, and that’s perhaps the most obvious example. It can feel as though Discovery is providing even its minor characters with some very heavy plot armour at times, and while I didn’t feel that way in the moment, as I was thrilled by an incredibly tense, well-constructed sequence, looking back it feels like yet another opportunity to demonstrate the dangers posed by the DMA, Unknown Species 10-C, and Tarka’s weapon that Discovery missed. A character death can be so meaningful and so significant, and even if it were one of the secondary characters involved in this mission, it would still have been impactful; they’re characters we’ve seen in dozens of episodes across more than four years.

This was an incredibly exciting sequence that benefitted from some outstanding CGI work.

After the failed shuttle mission, Discovery chased Book and Tarka into the heart of the DMA. I wish we’d got something – even just a clumsy line of obvious exposition – to explain how it’s possible for the ships to operate inside the DMA with impunity, especially considering how dangerous it was for Book when he piloted his ship inside it in the episode Anomaly a few weeks ago. I guess the explanation is that the central part of the DMA is more gravitationally stable than its outer edges… but something on-screen to confirm that wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Despite that, I greatly enjoyed this part of the episode. It began with a really incredible close-up of Captain Burnham ordering Black Alert – something I still find incredibly cool four seasons in! – and that led us into a ship-to-ship combat situation that was reminiscent of the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in The Wrath of Khan. This sequence was much faster-paced, as the two ships could use their spore drives to jump around, but the basic premise of having to fight without the ship’s full array of scanners, shields, and weapons in the confines of a nebula-esque setting definitely felt like it was drawing on inspiration from what is still one of the Star Trek franchise’s best space battles.

The USS Discovery inside the DMA.

The USS Discovery bridge set saw a significant upgrade this season with the addition of pyrotechnics that could spew jets of fire. That effect was, perhaps, ever so slightly overused earlier in the season, so to see the show return to a more typical “battle damage” style with sparks flying and the occasional chunks of scenery being thrown around was certainly no bad thing. Some effects are best used sparingly, after all!

Partly because Discovery still likes to give most of the significant story moments to Captain Burnham, and partly for the sake of increasing the drama and tension, there was once again a moment during this battle that felt rather contrived. Captain Burnham managed to single-handedly figure out that the DMA wouldn’t leave the area until it had hoovered up all of the boronite particles – something that doesn’t survive a second glance as you’d think everyone would’ve realised that far sooner. It worked to set up the “middle ground” part of the story, offering a compromise to Book, but it feels like something that Stamets and co. should have worked out sooner – they’ve supposedly been working on the DMA for weeks off-screen.

Book and Burnham searching for middle ground.

The shot of Book on the bridge of his ship and Burnham at the console of a shuttlecraft was another that was beautifully composed and cinematic. Discovery could’ve chosen to set up this scene using holo-communicators, and that would’ve worked okay, but there was something about seeing the two characters literally divided that really emphasised the point that the series is trying to make about compromise, reaching out, and doing the right thing. Although I think I’ve made clear that the whole Burnham Relationship Drama™ angle isn’t something I’m wild about, I can still appreciate that it was handled incredibly well at this moment.

It seemed obvious to me that Tarka – the driving force behind this whole renegade mission – would fire his weapon regardless, and so it proved. Perhaps because I’m less invested in the Book-versus-Burnham conflict I wasn’t so distracted by it that I was caught off-guard by Tarka’s actions, but it seemed like Discovery was trying to tee this up as a shocking twist near the episode’s conclusion. In that respect it fell a little flat, but I like that the writers didn’t just forget about Tarka or have him break character by standing down.

Tarka stayed true to his characterisation by launching his weapon.

Tarka was originally presented as an arrogant mad scientist – a character archetype that we’ve seen in Star Trek on a number of previous occasions. But he very quickly showed off a depth that went far beyond that character trope. I would classify Tarka as somewhat of a fanatic; he’s single-mindedly dedicated to his own goal, and is willing not only to go to extreme lengths, but to disregard the feelings and views of practically everyone else in the process. He would hurt – and perhaps even kill – if it meant he could accomplish his objective of going “home” to find the friend he’s been talking about. In that regard, I would compare Tarka with Dr Tolian Soran, the villain from Star Trek: Generations. Both characters share a comparable goal – seeking their idealised versions of paradise – and both are willing to go to extreme lengths to get there.

When the DMA was destroyed, however, we got a very rushed scene with Tarka as he realised the DMA controller had disappeared or been destroyed. He scanned the area for literally a few seconds before sitting down looking dejected, and the pacing of this moment just felt off. We’ve seen in Discovery that sensor scans can take a long time, but even if we set aside nitpicky canon reasons, just as a character moment I think this scene needed more. It wasn’t even clear if he’d miscalculated, destroying the controller, if it had been recovered by Unknown Species 10-C, or something else had happened to it.

This moment needed to be longer.

Shawn Doyle has done a remarkable job bringing the complex Tarka to screen in an understandable and occasionally sympathetic way, so at the moment of what appears to be his biggest gamble and biggest defeat (at least so far), we needed to spend more time with him. With the scene’s short runtime, Doyle did what he could to communicate the extent of Tarka’s disbelief, sadness, and even anger… but a few extra minutes spent here would have gone a long way to paying off an arc that has been running for several episodes. There will be more to come from Tarka, I have no doubt, but this moment feels like it should have been bigger and handled with more significance in his story. This is another consequence of Discovery choosing to prioritise Burnham Relationship Drama™ over practically everything else in the story at this point.

Finally in Rubicon we had a development in the burgeoning relationship between Saru and Ni’Var President T’Rina. In a story that focused on the growing separation between one couple and arguments between friends, it was cute and sweet of the series to dedicate some time to a story like this. It served as somewhat of a counterbalance to some of the heavier themes of separation and failure, but more importantly the chemistry between Tara Rosling and Doug Jones is intoxicating, even with the latter under heavy prosthetic makeup. Saru, despite his wisdom and calm demeanour, is inexperienced in this area, and that’s a nice new angle for his character, too.

T’Rina and Saru sitting in a tree…

Seeing Saru being the one to seek romantic advice toward the end of the episode was interesting, and the candour shown to him by Dr Culber says a lot about the respect and friendliness between the two of them, too. Aside from the away mission earlier in Rubicon, we haven’t seen much interaction between Saru and Dr Culber for quite a long time, so this reminder that other members of the crew have friendships with one another was very sweet. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Saru-T’Rina relationship plays out, and the fact that Discovery hasn’t rushed it is a good thing!

So I think I’ve said more or less everything I wanted to say about Rubicon. It was a mixed episode for me, one where a particular storyline really clogged things up and overshadowed others, but that managed to have some beautiful moments that shone through even when I wasn’t particularly interested in the approach being taken. It was a beautifully cinematic episode, one of Discovery’s best from a visual and technical standpoint, and one that used sound and silence to great effect. Seeing Captain Burnham silently looking around at the climax of the battle was one of the most intense, dramatic moments from all four seasons of the show, and I can’t fault it.

An episode with some stellar performances from both of its leads and a couple of guest stars stumbled under the weight of an unnecessarily heavy storyline that, unfortunately, had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer at times. There were a couple of places where more time could have been spent away from Captain Burnham and Book; stories that are just as deserving of attention that Discovery chose to rush through in favour of spending more time with its protagonist and her angst about her boyfriend. This is a choice that I wouldn’t have made for a series which is well into its fourth season, and it’s one that, unless it gets resolved soon, will continue to be a drag on what is an otherwise excellent and engaging sci-fi adventure.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, Scandinavia, Latin America, and Australia. The show is on Pluto TV in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and other parts of Western Europe at 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Individual episodes or the full season can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon Video, and possibly other platforms in the UK, parts of Europe, and select other countries. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount/ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.