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.

Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 4, Episode 4: All Is Possible

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

Last week we saw Captain Burnham and the crew largely leave the gravitational anomaly behind as Discovery told three distinct stories. The main thrust of the season still involves the DMA – as the anomaly is now being called – so it was interesting to see that All Is Possible once again shelved that story to take us on another pair of side-missions.

Unfortunately Discovery’s fourth season is still unavailable to large numbers of Trekkies. Fans from Puerto Rico to Tokyo still have no (official) way to enjoy the series, and this self-defeating corporate nonsense is something I’m going to continue to call out at every opportunity. The rollout of Paramount+ internationally next year means nothing to millions of fans in Asia, Africa, and other regions when ViacomCBS believes they don’t exist.

The USS Discovery at the beginning of the episode.

Though there were secondary and tertiary plotlines in All Is Possible, there’s one massive thing that we have to talk about first and foremost: the departure of Lieutenant Tilly. I have to be honest: I did not see this coming – at least, not this early in the season. We’re four episodes into a thirteen-episode season, and Tilly’s arc has already seemingly concluded. Though I had begun to make predictions last week about Tilly’s fate after she’d been seeming so out of sorts, I figured her departure – if indeed that’s what her arc was building towards – wouldn’t have happened until nearer the end of the season.

When All Is Possible kicked off and it became apparent that we were getting a Tilly-focused story, particularly another “Tilly tries something new” story, I was worried that the episode was going to feel a bit samey after she’d played such a big role last week. And although it now makes sense in light of her departure, I’m still left wondering if it was the right decision to schedule these two stories one after the other. We had some stirrings and indications from Tilly in episodes 1 and 2 that she was feeling this way, but because that story has now effectively run its course it feels if not rushed then at least unnecessarily condensed and perhaps poorly scheduled.

This was a huge episode for Tilly – and for Discovery.

The big question, of course, is whether Tilly’s exit will be permanent. It certainly felt permanent in All Is Possible; she even got the send-off from the crew that I argued Saru had missed at the end of Season 3. I don’t usually comment on cast interviews or The Ready Room (Discovery’s social media after-show) in these reviews, but when Mary Wiseman was interviewed this week after All Is Possible had aired she said that we’d see Tilly again before the end of the season. Good news on that front, at least!

That doesn’t mean that Tilly will remain a series regular, though, and her new role at Starfleet Academy has removed her from the ship and thus presumably the bulk of the season’s remaining episodes and storylines. And if the show is renewed for a fifth season – something which is surprisingly still unconfirmed – presumably Tilly won’t be back in a starring role. I think that’s a shame in a way; she was a fun character and after three seasons was beginning to grow in confidence and settle into her role. Or so it felt.

Mary Wiseman spoke with Wil Wheaton on The Ready Room after All Is Possible aired.

On the production side of things, it’s my suspicion that the show’s writers and producers didn’t really know what to do with Tilly or where to take the character. The addition of Adira to the regular cast was a double-edged sword for Tilly because they occupy a very similar role. In Seasons 1 and 2 in particular, we’d see Tilly working in the engineering bay with Stamets. Now Adira fills that role – and because of their deeper connection with Stamets, arguably fills it better. In Seasons 1 and 2, Tilly was the “baby” of the crew; young, fresh-faced, eager to please, worried about making mistakes, and keen to do her part. Adira once again has taken over that character space.

Tilly’s growth across Seasons 1, 2, and 3 was wonderful to see, and when we compare her to characters like Harry Kim – who essentially remained in a similar space for all of Voyager’s seven-year run – we can see the advantages of serialised storytelling. But Tilly’s growth as a character appears to have come at the expense of her roles on the ship, and the addition of Adira may well be the proverbial last straw. We can kind of see the snowglobe scene through this lens – Tilly was passing the metaphorical torch to Adira in that moment.

Tilly gave her snowglobe to Adira.

We can’t ignore the rumours of a Starfleet Academy series when discussing Tilly’s fate and future. Alex Kurtzman, who’s in charge of the overall Star Trek franchise for ViacomCBS, hinted that such a series is in the early stages of being worked on, and in more ways than one the Tilly side of All Is Possible feels almost like a backdoor pilot for such a show. We got to see Tilly both as a teacher and a leader across these sequences, laying the groundwork not simply for her departure from Discovery, but setting up her new role as well. Could all of that mean that the potential Starfleet Academy series would feature Tilly in some capacity?

I thought Mary Wiseman’s comment in The Ready Room that Tilly’s confidence had been knocked by the events of Season 3 was particularly interesting, too. Tilly had seen herself as being on a pathway that led her from the Academy to the captain’s chair, but when she got a taste of what being in command was like, she found herself out of her depth as she lost the ship to the Emerald Chain. I think a lot of us can relate to feeling overwhelmed by a difficult situation, or feeling the weight of responsibility and struggling with it. Perhaps, as Wiseman suggests, Tilly came to believe that command was not right for her.

Tilly came to believe that she was on the wrong path.

If that’s true, whose fault is it? There was a lot of talk during Season 3 that Saru’s decision to appoint Tilly as acting first officer was the wrong one, and while I defended that story point at the time, when seen through this new lens perhaps we could argue that Saru pushed Tilly to take on that role too quickly. He’s been a good friend to her, and has advocated for her when others might overlook her – as we saw last week, for instance – but might his friendship with Tilly have blinded him, at least somewhat, to her inexperience and limitations? Perhaps.

Tilly held her own when the Emerald Chain captured the ship, and ultimately played a huge role in retaking Discovery and defeating the villainous faction once and for all. But of course it makes sense that those events would completely bowl her over. She was in command of Discovery for a few hours at most, then lost the ship to the Emerald Chain with relative ease. As someone who’d hoped to one day have her own command, those events are going to take a toll, and it’s natural that she’d question her career path in light of what happened. We can empathise with Tilly, putting ourselves in a comparable situation.

Tilly had hoped to one day command her own ship.

It was sweet to see Tilly reunite with Captain Burnham, albeit briefly, before confirming her decision and departing the ship, and the choice of Tilly’s cabin for this conversation harkened back to the early part of Season 1 where we saw them together in that room on multiple occasions. Tilly had already made her decision, it seemed, before Burnham even sat down. Yet it was still nice to see her talking it out with her captain – and friend – before finally confirming that this is what she was going to do. The moments between Mary Wiseman and Sonequa Martin-Green added a lot to this story.

One person who was missing from Tilly’s story, though, was Stamets. Not only had Tilly and Stamets worked together since the beginning of the series, but earlier in the episode Tilly had expressed concern about “abandoning” him to go on the Academy mission – yet by the end of the episode she was content to leave him all alone with the problem of the DMA while she took on a new role. I think we could still have arrived at this point; I’m not saying Tilly needed to stay behind for Stamets’ sake or anything. But just as it was sweet to see her with Burnham talking things out, I think we could have also enjoyed a quiet scene between Tilly and Stamets in which she at least said her goodbyes. As it is, we saw Stamets incredibly briefly as Tilly left the ship, but that was it.

Stamets was noticeably absent from Tilly’s story.

This is the second story in a row from which Stamets has been absent after he missed Gray’s incorporation last week. I confess I’m not exactly sure what’s going on there – whether it’s simply a case of writing/editing (Stamets actor Anthony Rapp confirmed on social media that at least one of his scenes this week had been cut) or whether there’s some other reason for the lack of Stamets in some of these stories. He has a deep connection with Adira, which made his absence from that story last week feel very odd, but he also has a friendship with Tilly – so again, his absence from her story aside from one mention right at the beginning makes it feel like there was something missing; someone else she needed to talk to before departing.

One thing that wasn’t made clear is this: what exactly is Tilly going to teach? I presume it must be something scientific; she can’t be lecturing on subjects like command, surely? Starfleet Academy has usually been presented as something akin to both a military officers’ training college and a civilian university – with different teachers for different subjects. Tilly has a scientific background, so presumably she’d teach something in that department. Or maybe Federation history… since she’s 1,000 years older than all of the cadets! Perhaps this is something we’ll see more of either later in the season or in that potential Starfleet Academy show.

Will we soon see Tilly back on our screens in another Star Trek series?

We haven’t even talked about Tilly’s mission! She and Adira led a small group of cadets on what was supposed to be a training mission – but in true Star Trek style, things didn’t go to plan. I confess at first that I felt sure the whole thing was either a setup or a simulation, especially because of the involvement of the mysterious Kovich. However, it doesn’t seem like that was the case; Tilly’s shuttle really did crash-land on an icy moon, and the monsters she and the cadets had to escape from were real.

It wasn’t clear how much time had passed since the season premiere, when we were first told that there would be a new intake of cadets, so we don’t really know how long these cadets have been together. However, I felt that some of the tension between them was a little forced. The whole point of Starfleet Academy, especially in a post-Burn galaxy, is to work together and pull in the same direction, yet we had exaggerated moments of drama and tension between the cadets that just didn’t feel natural even in that context.

Adira and Tilly with the trio of cadets.

Even if many people in the galaxy harbour prejudices or preconceptions about other races and people from beyond their homeworlds, why would anyone who felt that way apply to join Starfleet? Surely we should be seeing if not “the best of the best” then at least folks who are superficially willing to work together; it kind of felt like the cadets were from some semi-scripted reality TV show, the kind that deliberately chooses the most belligerent contestants with clashing personalities. In that sense, I didn’t really like any of the cadets.

They had to start from a place that would allow them to come together, and in particular that would allow Tilly to be the catalyst for their coming together, and I get that. But it just felt like Discovery, not for the first time, had taken things to an unnecessary extreme in order to accomodate this storyline, putting up one-dimensional characters who behave unnaturally solely for the sake of presenting Tilly with an obstacle and a point of contrast. The young actors who played the cadets did very well with the material they had, but their characters were written rather poorly, in my view, and none came across as feeling either like a natural character nor someone we’d expect to find at Starfleet Academy.

Cadets Harral (left) and Gorev didn’t get along at first.

The puzzle that lay before Tilly and her crew felt like it came right out of The Next Generation’s era, and I’m absolutely there for that kind of story! After the shuttle crash the group was unable to stay aboard, instead needing to climb out of the crash site to use their communicators – but were unable to use their technology. This angle definitely added a lot to the story, forcing Tilly and everyone else to think outside the box rather than being able to fall back on phasers, tricorders, and the like. Again, this feels like a story that could’ve come from any of the 24th Century Star Trek shows and was a great throwback to the franchise’s past.

On a personal note, I have to confess that I’m sad to see Tilly go. If the move is permanent, as it seems to be at this stage, her absence from Discovery will be noticeable going forward, even if Adira steps up to fill the void she leaves behind. I liked Tilly as a character so much that one of my cats is named Tilly (if you want to see a couple of photos of her, follow me on Twitter!). Tilly didn’t just fill that “young and eager” role that characters like Harry Kim, Nog, Hoshi Sato, and Wesley Crusher had in past iterations of the franchise. She was always more than just a character archetype. Tilly was strong in her own way, brilliant in her own way, and funny to boot.

Tilly’s departure is a bittersweet moment.

Across the show’s first three seasons we saw Tilly as a scientist and engineer, working with Stamets on the Spore Drive. We saw her as a friend to Michael Burnham and Saru in particular. We saw her passionate about helping the jahSepp in the mycelial network, and how she came to the aid of Po in the Short Treks episode Runaway. She grew and developed from an anxious cadet into a true Starfleet officer – and while she will undoubtedly make an excellent teacher to a new generation of cadets, her departure is a sad one. She may yet have a role to play either this season or in Star Trek’s future, and I look forward to that. But for now, it seems as though Discovery is moving on without her. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a stab of sadness as a result.

Just like Discovery plans to do we’ll leave Tilly behind and move on to take a look at the rest of the episode. There was a secondary storyline that involved Captain Burnham, Saru, President Rillak, and Ni’Var’s leader T’Rina. We talked last week about contrivances and forced drama, and in this story I’m afraid we did get some of that for the second week in a row. At what was supposed to be the final moment of negotiations to bring Ni’Var back into the Federation, the Ni’Var delegation dropped a diplomatic bombshell that appeared to sabotage the entire thing.

The negotiations on Ni’Var.

Both the timing of this and the way it was pretty easily resolved feel rather contrived – and it begins to stretch credulity to think that neither the Federation nor Ni’Var negotiators could’ve come up with Captain Burnham’s “independent committee” solution on their own. It seems like the perfect compromise, allowing Ni’Var the backdoor they needed without compromising the Federation’s unity. Captain Burnham wasn’t the only person capable of proposing such a solution, and while her status as a citizen of Ni’Var and the Federation makes her well-qualified to serve, I have to ask if she’s the only citizen of Ni’Var who’s also in Starfleet at this point. It seems quite plausible that there are others, and thus her claim to be “uniquely” capable of coming up with this solution might be stretching the truth somewhat.

All that being said, these negotiations reminded me very much of the negotiations that my country, the UK, has been taking part in for much of the past five years. I don’t know whether this story was intentionally written as an allegory for Brexit, but it certainly felt like it had elements of that, and to my surprise it was handled in what felt like a mature way. Brexit, much like certain American political issues, divides opinion sharply, and it would be very easy for a story like this one to come down firmly on one side of the fence, presenting one side as morally right and the other as morally wrong. All Is Possible didn’t do that, and instead tried to find a way to cut through the political machinations of both sides before ultimately settling on a compromise.

Captain Burnham’s compromise can be read as a metaphor for our current divided political climate.

If we ever needed Star Trek to shine a light on contemporary issues through its sci-fi lens, we need it at the moment! There are so many divisive political topics, including Brexit, all across the world. What we’ve seen over the past decade or more are moves away from the political centre ground toward the extremes of left-wing and right-wing politics. The art of the political compromise has been lost in too many cases, and that’s a driving force for further division. Finding ways to compromise and to maturely understand that it isn’t always possible to have everything your own way is something politicians of all ideologies – and their supporters – need to understand, and Discovery delivered this message in a simple yet meaningful way.

It wasn’t the perfect story, as I’ve tried to explain. It had its contrivances that definitely felt forced. But at the same time, any British or European person can tell you that, having watched years of Brexit negotiations, such things aren’t as unrealistic as they might seem. Diplomats for both sides have, at times, seemed to be negotiating in bad faith, waiting to spring the next trap or throw in a new uncompromising proposal at the last minute. It’s a wonder that the Brexit negotiations got as far as they did, all things considered!

President T’Rina was happy with the proposed compromise.

So perhaps calling this story “contrived” was too harsh in light of what we’ve seen in the real world! Though I maintain it’s a story with some imperfections, it was an interesting one nevertheless. Star Trek has tackled many political issues in its long history, from nuclear proliferation to the teaching of religion in schools, but this is one of the first stories to really feature politicians and diplomacy as a key part of the narrative, with nakedly political considerations having to be taken into account by our heroes. That alone makes it a very interesting story.

It was wonderful to welcome Ni’Var back into the Federation after seeing how many worlds had quit the organisation last season. It definitely feels as though the Federation is now making significant strides in reforming; Ni’Var is the first of the “original” member worlds to rejoin as far as we know. Perhaps we’ll see Earth do the same one day soon? It would be a shame if Discovery left that particular storyline unresolved, especially after we saw how isolationist Earth had become in Season 3.

Ni’Var has rejoined the Federation!

President Rillak once again showed her almost Machiavellian political style; her willingness to lie and use truly underhanded tactics to get her way without revealing the extent of her meddling. By sidelining Admiral Vance and bringing in Captain Burnham and Saru, she was able to execute a hidden plan to bring Ni’Var back into the fold and negate their last-second demand. It was, all things considered, a brilliant tactical move on her part – and re-emphasises her uncompromising nature and willingness to bend or even break the rules to advance the Federation’s best interests.

Despite what appeared to be a détente between Captain Burnham and President Rillak toward the end of the episode, I hope Discovery’s captain keeps her wits about her. If we’ve learned anything about President Rillak over these four episodes, it’s that she sees everything and everyone around her as means to an end. Working with Captain Burnham was, in this instance, advantageous to her – but Rillak will throw Burnham into the fire, and Discovery along with her, if she believes it will help her cause or advance what she considers to be the best interests of the Federation.

Captain Burnham would be well-advised to beware of President Rillak… no matter how superficially friendly she’s currently being.

We haven’t seen President Rillak do anything completely immoral or “evil” just yet. And Discovery may choose to keep this nuanced presentation going all season long. I kind of hope that’s the case, because right now I’m loving President Rillak’s “ends justify the means” approach to governing. Chelah Horsdal plays the character expertly. But Rillak is the kind of character with whom a major confrontation feels increasingly inevitable – her moral ambiguity and Captain Burnham’s moral certainty feel like they’re on a collision course.

There was a third storyline this week that involved Book and Dr Culber. As with Stamets, Book found a new but fun pairing with Culber and I hope they revisit this character pairing in future; it would be great to see them socialising or doing something else outside of a therapy setting. There seemed to be a hint that Dr Culber might need help processing his own trauma – perhaps from his time trapped in the mycelial network – in future, and if so maybe Book could have a role to play there.

Dr Culber may need some help of his own one day.

The programmable matter that Dr Culber and Book turned into sand reminded me a lot of the sequence from Lower Decks Season 1 where a character is in the process of “ascending.” Maybe that was unintentional, and tonally these sequences could not be further apart! But it was interesting to see nevertheless – or perhaps I’m grasping at straws as I desperately hope for the producers of Star Trek to do more to bind the franchise together!

Grief and loss have been themes that Discovery hasn’t shied away from, but they’ve come to the fore this season. Book and Tilly’s stories both connect to this theme as they’re both experiencing different kinds of loss. In a sense, everyone aboard Discovery is in Book’s shoes – they’ve all lost everyone they ever knew apart from each other, albeit in very different ways. And we’ve seen different ways of coping with that loss. Book seems to have made a small breakthrough this week, and I hope we see that process continue.

Book spent this week’s episode in counselling.

Captain Burnham, in Season 3, seemed to rebel against the confines of Starfleet for a time. At first I called this a character regression, as I felt it risked dragging her back to her early Season 1 portrayal. But thinking about it again, through this lens of loss and grief, I think we can see that Burnham is processing the loss of her friends, her family, and the world she had to leave behind. She did so at first by seeking freedom, then later by reconnecting with her mother and reaffirming her relationship with Starfleet. In Tilly’s case, she couldn’t make that renewed commitment and has chosen to walk a new path. Book’s destination is still unknown as he’s still processing his own loss and grief – and I’m glad. What Book has gone through is almost unfathomable, and it wouldn’t feel right if this element of his story and characterisation were resolved too soon.

So that was All Is Possible. Tilly’s departure is by far the biggest thing to come out of the episode, and while there were some minor gripes with the way both Tilly and Burnham’s stories unfolded, ultimately they end up feeling like little more than nitpicks in what was a solid, thoroughly enjoyable episode. I’m glad to see Discovery sidestepping the main serialised story and being bold enough to give us these semi-standalone episodes. I have no doubt that some elements will come back into play later in the season, but for the most part what we got is a self-contained story – albeit one with huge implications for the series going forward.

Onward to new adventures.

Unlike when Nhan and Georgiou left last season, I’m not scrambling around wondering who will replace Tilly. That question has already been answered: Adira. However, her departure does potentially open up another space for a new crew member – and with noteworthy absences in departments like security and tactical, perhaps we could be set for someone new to be promoted. Gray is perhaps the most readily apparent choice, but there are great cases to be made for Detmer or Owosekun to get bigger roles on the bridge, as well as for the return of Nhan, or even for a new character to be introduced.

A few scattered final thoughts: is Kovich the head of Starfleet Academy now? Has he always been in that position? I don’t recall him being referred to as “doctor” last season, but he could be some kind of professor holding a PhD. That’s an interesting take on the character! At first I wondered if he was responsible for the shuttle going off-course… it seems like something he might do! Beginning the episode with a traditional captain’s log was awesome, and another great callback to past iterations of the franchise. I believe this was the first time we heard a 32nd Century stardate, too.

Kovich made his first appearance of the season.

It was neat to see the Season 3-style uniforms being used for some secondary characters. Season 3 of The Next Generation and the film Generations both showed that there’s a kind of transition period when uniforms are being changed over where not everyone has the new variants, and that seems to still be true in the 32nd Century. I was a little worried when Admiral Vance seemed to have been shuffled out of the story in favour of President Rillak – but it makes perfect sense. Vance isn’t a politician and wouldn’t be capable of doing the kind of things we saw Rillak doing this week. Nor would I want to see Vance go down that road. Finally, is there a blossoming romance between T’Rina and Saru? I certainly felt the show was hinting at something to come!

Although it was bittersweet to say goodbye to Tilly, All Is Possible was a good episode all around. It didn’t feel overcrowded, which episodes with multiple competing storylines sometimes can, it had some well-made visual effects particularly on Tilly’s away mission, and though the politicking was somewhat contrived in one respect it was still genuinely interesting to see Star Trek trying something different. I think for me, All Is Possible is the high point of Season 4 so far.

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 ViacomCBS. 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 3: Choose To Live

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-4. Spoilers are also present for Star Trek: Picard Season 1.

When we saw the first few episode titles for Discovery Season 4 a few weeks ago, I completely missed something huge. “Choose to live” is a Qowat Milat saying, a phrase used by Elnor in Star Trek: Picard Season 1 last year. That was an oversight on my part, and meant that my original analysis of the episode before the season premiered was way off-base. Oops!

Although Discovery Season 4 is now available on Paramount+ in Australia, Latin America, and Scandinavia, and in western Europe and a few other regions via Pluto TV, or to purchase via iTunes, Google, and Amazon, there are still too many Star Trek fans unable to watch the new season of the show. Fans in countries and regions that ViacomCBS believes don’t exist still have no (official) way to access the season, and with the painfully slow rollout of Paramount+ also skipping over large swathes of Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world, that’s very disappointing. In my own small way, I’ll continue to point this out and call on ViacomCBS to do more to fix this problem and bring Star Trek to every fan around the world.

Captain Burnham at the beginning of the episode.

Choose To Live feels like a mid-season episode. It advanced the season’s main gravitational anomaly storyline in a pretty minor way, but in its place gave several different characters episode-long storylines that may or may not connect to the season’s ongoing themes. There are some nitpicks that we’ll get into, particularly surrounding one of the main story elements, but overall Choose To Live was a solid episode with some deeply emotional moments and throwbacks to past iterations of Star Trek. With its three concurrent storylines, I even felt it was structurally similar to episodes of Lower Decks!

As someone who’s spent decades struggling with my own gender identity, it’s really only in recent times that I’ve felt comfortable to be open and “out” as non-binary. Thus it was Gray’s story that perhaps intrigued me the most on a personal, character-scale level as Season 4 approached. We were promised that Dr Culber, Stamets, and Adira wouldn’t forget about Gray, and that his quest to be “seen” would succeed.

Gray watches his new synthetic body being constructed.

I’m absolutely thrilled to see Gray in a corporeal body for the first time. The scene with Gray customising his synthetic body in last week’s episode was absolutely the episode’s emotional high point, leaving me in tears, and I was hoping to see Choose To Live continue that trend. But something about Gray’s story this time felt… rushed. And although it was supported by amazingly emotional performances by Wilson Cruz, Ian Alexander, and in particular Blu del Barrio – who put in their best performance in Discovery so far – I actually felt that something was missing.

It was only when Adira beamed aboard the KSF Khi’eth in the Season 3 finale that Gray was able to be seen by anyone other than Adira. The end of that episode kicked off Gray’s quest to become corporeal again, fully confirming that Gray is indeed “real” and not a figment of Adira’s imagination. The first episode of Season 4 didn’t really feature any part of Gray’s quest, and we got one scene last week; a wonderful scene, but a single scene. And then this time, across several deeply emotional sequences, but in an episode that was packed with other storylines running at the same time, Gray’s quest has already come to an end.

Gray’s quest to be seen has concluded.

Gray’s invisibility had been an analogy for how many transgender people – and I would posit from my own experience, many non-binary people too – feel invisible, either ignored by the world or having to hide our true selves from it. Overcoming that, and finally feeling free to openly live one’s life is not a fast or easy process, and as much as I respect Discovery for putting together a story like this, the way it concluded so early in the season has left me feeling a little hollow.

Firstly, Stamets had no involvement at all – despite being a big part of Adira and Gray’s family. Stamets has had precisely one scene with Adira so far this season, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the premiere. It was great this week to see Stamets away from Discovery’s engineering lab for once; his being on Ni’Var was fun to see and another emotional story. But it was also noteworthy that he was absent not only from the scenes featuring Adira, Gray, and Dr Culber, but from their story as well.

Stamets was entirely absent from this story – even though it’s a huge moment for his family.

Here’s what I mean by that: Dr Culber didn’t mention Stamets. Adira didn’t mention Stamets. Gray didn’t mention Stamets. And Stamets didn’t mention any of them – not even a throwaway line about how he was nervous for Gray or upset to be missing such a big moment. He didn’t hesitate about going on the mission; his only moment of pause before going to Ni’Var was thinking about Book and how to spare him from reliving the trauma of Kwejian’s destruction.

Maybe all of this will play into some other storyline as the season runs along. I could foresee, for example, Dr Culber delivering a gentle rebuke to Stamets for getting so lost in his work that he didn’t even check in to see how things were going with Gray and Adira. But I could also see Discovery rushing right past all of this, setting the various characters on different paths and dropping them into different stories as the season rolls on.

Adira and Dr Culber waiting to see if the procedure will succeed.

I don’t want the show to turn something beautiful – Gray’s incorporation – into some kind of Stamets-Culber relationship drama. We had too much of that in Season 2 – and frankly, it did not work. But the show should try to acknowledge, somehow, what’s going on. Think about it this way: if you sat down to watch Choose To Live knowing nothing about Discovery, you wouldn’t know Stamets and Culber even knew one another, let alone are married. You wouldn’t realise that the connection between Adira and Stamets developed first; that Stamets had to tell Adira that he and Culber come as a “package deal.”

For a story about someone becoming whole again… an important person, part of their family, was missing. And combined with the fact that this storyline didn’t run as long or as deep as I might’ve expected it to, I’m left feeling a little empty at its conclusion. I’m absolutely thrilled by the prospect of Gray finally being able to interact with the rest of the crew, and to perhaps offer his services during future missions or playing a role in different stories. And when you pull Gray’s story back to his appearances in Season 3, we did get quite a lot of his invisibility. But I can’t shake the feeling that the entire thing has been shuffled out of the way a little too quickly so that Discovery can race ahead to other stories that it wants to tell.

Stamets’ absence from this story was noticeable.

In a similar way, we talked last week about how much of the work that Captain Burnham and the crew of Discovery had been doing to restore the Federation seems to have happened off-screen. We caught a glimpse of it at the beginning of the season premiere, but then the anomaly story took over. Likewise with Gray – much of the actual work involved to get to this point seems to have taken place off-screen, in the months between the Season 3 finale and the Season 4 premiere. I tried to argue last time that seeing the Federation being restored at a slower pace would have been absolutely worthwhile – and so it is with Gray. We saw the culmination of a longer process, but it would have been nice to see more of the process itself, partly because it’s interesting sci-fi and partly because it’s an analogy for something significant here in the real world.

Before we wrap up the Gray storyline, I want to again point out how outstanding Blu del Barrio was in Choose To Live. I’d enjoyed what del Barrio brought to Discovery in Season 3, but Choose To Live gave them an opportunity to show off a fantastic emotional range, and they absolutely nailed it in every single scene. I went on a rollercoaster with Adira – the anxiety and nervousness as the procedure began, fear and regret when Gray seemed lost, then relief and joy when Gray finally awoke. Blu del Barrio put in the best performance of the season so far, showed off their range as an actor, and made these sequences feel incredibly emotional. Despite my criticism of the somewhat rushed feel to the Gray storyline overall, Blu del Barrio’s performance elevated it and made it so much better than it otherwise would’ve been.

Blu del Barrio put in an outstanding performance this week.

Star Trek as a franchise is full of plot contrivances; story moments that don’t feel genuine because of some inconsistency or other. Some contrivances are bigger than others, though, and on Captain Burnham’s side of Choose To Live we ran into a whopper. I can believe, for the sake of the story, that J’Vini was unable to trust the Federation. After all, in the post-Burn galaxy, trust seems to have been difficult to come by, and Ni’Var isn’t a Federation member. But what feels so incredibly contrived in this storyline is that J’Vini was so unwilling to trust other members of the Qowat Milat that she was prepared to kill one of her own sisters.

If J’Vini was leading some rogue Qowat Milat splinter group, I guess we could argue that perhaps there’d been some kind of split within the order or something. But it was made crystal clear that J’Vini had hired mercenaries as part of her quest to defend the Abronians and their cryo-ship. It simply doesn’t make sense that J’Vini – a proud member of this ancient order – would trust mercenaries when she was unwilling to trust her own sisters, especially considering the stakes, and I find this particular aspect of the story to be incredibly contrived.

J’Vini’s story felt rather contrived.

The contrivance didn’t ruin this storyline, but it certainly detracted from it in retrospect. Looking past all of that, however, we got a genuinely fun adventure romp, one which took Captain Burnham away from the anomaly for a side-mission that, as things stand at least, feels disconnected from the overarching story of the season. In that sense, this part of Choose To Live feels a lot more like the episodic Star Trek stories of The Next Generation’s era. If you removed the Qowat Milat and Captain Burnham from this story, I could easily see it being one for Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D to have tackled!

It was great to welcome back Sonja Sohn as Dr Gabrielle Burnham. I stand by what I said in Season 3, though: the choice to make Dr Burnham a Qowat Milat nun still feels odd! The connection between J’Vini and Dr Burnham was perhaps less developed than it could’ve been; aside from a couple of lines of dialogue, we didn’t really get to see much evidence of their supposed closeness. J’Vini was, according to Dr Burnham, the Qowat Milat nun who nursed her back to health after her arrival in the 32nd Century… but I didn’t really feel that connection; the story seemed to rush past it.

Dr Gabrielle Burnham returned for a Qowat Milat story.

Dr Burnham’s line about how context matters when considering J’Vini’s actions was an interesting one – and it’s a notion that Discovery has tackled before. Context is for Kings was the title of the third episode of Season 1, and that episode began the slow process of rehabilitating Michael Burnham as a character after her failed mutiny attempt. Dr Burnham compares her support for J’Vini to Michael’s support for Spock in Season 2 – and Michael really doesn’t have a leg to stand on in arguing the point!

Tilly was a welcome addition to this side of the story, too. She got a great moment with Saru, sharing her feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and homesickness that she briefly talked about with Captain Burnham in the premiere and with Dr Culber last week. She got more of a chance to talk with Saru, and he tried to help both by giving her access to his plants, but most significantly by recommending her for the mission.

Tilly and Saru make for a great character duo.

Saru and Tilly make a wonderful pair – something Discovery’s writers found out at the beginning of Season 3. Because they’re such contrasting characters in terms of age, temperament, and even appearance, they don’t necessarily seem like a natural pairing. That may be why Seasons 1 and 2 didn’t feature a great deal of Saru and Tilly together. But their differences complement each other.

Saru has a great deal of faith in Tilly’s abilities – something he made clear in Season 3 when he named her as his temporary first officer. This confidence from someone senior, and someone she clearly respects, gives Tilly a boost of her own, and we saw that play out again this week. I think we can all relate to wanting to step out of our comfort zones – as Tilly does on the away mission – so her inclusion in this story was a great idea.

Tilly stepped far outside her comfort zone this week.

Tilly and Burnham also make for a great duo, and we got to see some of that on the away mission too. Ever since they came together early in Season 1, they’ve established a firm friendship and an intuitive way of working together. Tilly trusted Burnham even when she was told she’ll be “bait,” and I think that’s something significant. Tilly had often been seen as a kind of fearful or anxious character – so to put her faith in her commanding officer in such dangerous circumstances and execute a complicated plan was positive and uplifting to see.

We’ll have to cover this in more detail in this week’s theory post, but I think there’s more going on with the Tilly situation than meets the eye. Since the beginning of the season – and arguably toward the end of Season 3 as well – she’s had this unsettled, almost restless feeling that many people who’ve experienced anxiety can probably relate to. But whether that can be resolved through counselling and talking with friends like Saru is an open question at present. Saru gave Tilly the opportunity to get out of her comfort zone this week – but will she seek to permanently get outside of her comfort zone? And if so, what form might that take?

Tilly and Captain Burnham watch the Abronians colonise their new homeworld.

Captain Burnham took the initiative on this side of the story, figuring out what had happened to the Abronians and how to help them. As mentioned, I liked this story as it definitely had a Next Generation flair to it. The design of the Abronians as a non-humanoid race was also exceptionally neat, and I kind of wish we could’ve seen more of them – but perhaps we will! This is another point I’ll pick up in this week’s theory post, but I suspect that the Abronians have some kind of connection with the gravitational anomaly.

Did anyone else feel that Dr Burnham’s “this isn’t a moon” line had the faintest echo of Star Wars? I surely did! The revelation that the moon base was actually a giant starship was pretty neat, and its stone engines, carvings, and computer interfaces were well-designed and contributed to the feeling that Burnham and co. were inside a tomb or other ancient structure.

The Abronians’ moon-ship made great use of stone to feel ancient and otherworldly.

While we’re talking about designs, the beginning of the episode showed off a brand-new starship: the USS Credence. The Credence has a fantastic design, incorporating elements from several prior Starfleet vessels. I felt I could see callbacks to the Oberth-class and Constellation-class in particular through the alignment of the ship’s body and nacelles. It felt like a 24th or 25th Century ship in some ways – it wouldn’t have looked terribly out-of-place in the Dominion War or in the armada seen in the Picard Season 1 finale!

The ship’s internal design, however, is another matter. I freely admit that this feels like a nitpick, but when I sat down to watch Choose To Live, my sense of immersion was immediately knocked off-course by the fact that the USS Credence’s interior was a barely-disguised USS Discovery. Discovery has, on a couple of occasions, shown us some pretty poor set redresses. The Ba’ul prison cell in Season 2 was so obviously the transporter room set that it was painful – and here, in Choose To Live, we get a sequence supposedly taking place aboard the USS Credence that was clearly just the USS Discovery hallway set. I can’t even charitably call it a “redress” of the set, because basically nothing had changed. Would it have been difficult or expensive to create something at least slightly different to represent the dilithium chamber or cargo bay of the USS Credence? Doing so would have made this sequence so much more enjoyable.

The USS Credence.

Back on topic, and it was another somewhat contrived situation that J’Vini’s whole plan for stealing dilithium and murdering people was basically for the sake of stockpiling it “just in case.” That’s a somewhat timely message, perhaps, given the panic-buying and stockpiling we’ve seen during the pandemic! But it felt a little forced considering that her plan was basically to just sit aboard this cryo-ship and wait for the Abronians to awaken. Did she bother to investigate their computer system at all? It took Captain Burnham barely five minutes to figure out that the Abronians should’ve woken up already! Simply using logic and analysing the situation – even assuming J’Vini had zero computer skills – should have told her that they’d arrived at their destination and could be safely woken up.

However, setting the contrivances of the story aside, it was neat to see Captain Burnham and Tilly working so well together to solve the puzzle and help the Abronians awaken. Seeing them depart their moon-ship to colonise a new world was a powerful moment, and everyone involved – J’Vini, Dr Burnham, Captain Burnham, and Tilly – all played roles in ensuring it could happen. Saving an entire race from what could’ve been extinction is a huge victory, and Choose To Live played it well – even though it was taking place in the context of a smaller, character-focused story.

Captain Burnham helped save an entire race from the brink of extinction.

The way this story concluded was interesting, and I think it shows a pragmatic side to President Rillak that may come into play later in the season. She was willing to turn over J’Vini to the Ni’Var authorities because she believed that doing so was a gesture of friendship that may help sway Ni’Var into rejoining the Federation. Putting the big picture first – or the “needs of the many,” to use a Star Trek quote – was something Captain Burnham didn’t like to see in this instance, but it’s another example of President Rillak being on a different course from Burnham.

It seems clear that Ni’Var will indeed rejoin the Federation at some point this season, which will be great to see. So President Rillak’s politicking will probably pay off – but as Captain Burnham reminded her, it doesn’t come free, and the price in this instance was Federation justice being applied in J’Vini’s case. The hard-nosed political pragmatism of President Rillak makes her a very interesting character – not always playing fully on Burnham’s side, but thus far never as a direct antagonist either. She has her reasons for doing what she does, and she doesn’t care too much if Admiral Vance or Captain Burnham disagree with her. She’s confident in her authority and her decision-making – and I can’t wait to see how that plays out as the season progresses.

President Rillak is a fantastic, well-written character with genuine depth.

That brings us to Stamets and Book’s away mission to Ni’Var. As mentioned, it was great to see Stamets away from Discovery’s engineering bay; it seems like he spent most of Season 3 down there! And after last week, pairing up Book and Stamets again was a good idea. Discovery seems to have found a character pairing it likes in Book and Stamets!

What we saw with this Ni’Var story is the scientific method playing out. Stamets had a theory: that the anomaly is a “primordial wormhole.” He presented his theory to the Ni’Var scientists, who analysed it using their technology and meditative method. But it turned out to be wrong – something Stamets seemed to be fighting against, but arguably must’ve felt was a possibility. We’re still no closer to understanding the anomaly, but it’s another theory that Stamets can cross off his list.

The Ni’Var Science Institute debunked another of Stamets’ anomaly theories.

The interaction between Book and T’Rina was neat to see. Both Kwejian natives and Vulcans are, as T’Rina pointed out, emotional, empathic races. But they take completely opposite approaches to emotion: Kwejian natives draw on it, Vulcans try to suppress it. Book couldn’t learn Vulcan discipline as a way to overcome his grief, but by reliving his last moments on Kwejian he got a kind of cathartic emotional release.

It was painful to relive those memories with Book, and David Ajala put in a wonderfully complex performance. Book is feeling almost unimaginable grief – not just for his family, but for his whole race. Losing one’s home and family would be difficult and painful enough, but to be left as one of the few survivors of his people is something difficult to fathom. David Ajala brought those feelings to screen in an understandable way, and keeping the focus primarily on Book’s family – and his nephew in particular – gave focus to this deeply emotional story.

By reliving his memories, Book found some measure of peace.

Book is moving through the grieving process, and helped by his time on Ni’Var has now moved on, ever so slightly, from where we saw him last week. As Captain Burnham remarked at the end of the episode, he was able to do something – watch a holographic recording of Kwejian – that would’ve been too painful a few days earlier.

So that was Choose To Live. The main thrust of the season’s story was sidelined for the most part as Stamets saw another theory fall down. However, Captain Burnham got her own mission, one which felt like a throwback to past iterations of Star Trek in the best way possible. The return of Dr Burnham and the Qowat Milat was fun, and we got some great character moments with Saru, Tilly, the Burnhams, Book, Stamets, Gray, Dr Culber, and Adira.

Gray and Adira at the episode’s climax.

My only real criticism of Gray’s storyline is that I had expected Discovery to make more of it. The outcome was pitch-perfect, and what I think we had all hoped to eventually see. But there’s a feeling I can’t shake that this story concluded too early in the season – too soon after the events of That Hope Is You, Part 2 had kicked it off. Much of the legwork of figuring out how to help Gray – and his own agency over helping himself – seems to have happened off-screen in between Seasons 3 and 4, just like the dilithium deliveries and Federation rebuilding work. That might be fine… but it depends what happens next, and whether the stories yet to come in Season 4 can compensate for not seeing those things play out.

In Season 3, what I loved most about Adira’s story was that their coming out moment to Stamets was so low-key. Being non-binary in the 32nd Century shouldn’t be a big deal, and that moment captured the kind of optimistic tone of Star Trek’s future absolutely perfectly. Gray’s incorporation was always going to be more complex because of the technobabble side of things, but that gave it the potential to perhaps take into account the false starts and complex emotions that transitioning and coming out can elicit. Some of that was present in Choose To Live, and the payoff to that story was deeply emotional. But I can’t shake the feeling that it happened very quickly, and at a very early stage in the season. Perhaps Gray will go on to play a significant role now he can interact with everyone else – and that will be fantastic to see. I’m optimistic about future storylines… but also a little underwhelmed that the story I’d been most excited for has already concluded after a mere three episodes.

Next week we’ll be watching All Is Possible – and I have no idea what it could be about! Perhaps a return to a story all about the anomaly is on the cards after it took a back seat this week. In any case, I hope you’ll stay tuned for my updated theory list between now and Thursday and another review after I’ve seen All Is Possible next week.

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 ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.