Star Trek: Discovery review – Season 4, Episode 11: Rosetta

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

Last week’s episode, The Galactic Barrier, was absolutely fantastic – one of the highlights of the season for certain! Unfortunately Rosetta didn’t reach that high bar, and was an episode that felt like it was dragging its feet. While there were some emotional character moments, even those weren’t as strong as they might’ve been and couldn’t salvage an episode in which both halves of the story felt contrived, and where a major new element that had been introduced to the story last week constantly got in the way. Rosetta plodded along, constantly tripping over one big, unnecessary narrative cliché.

I like the idea of Discovery stepping away from total serialisation to go on away missions to planets like the one featured in Rosetta. As we saw just last week – and on a couple of occasions earlier in the season – those semi-standalone stories can work exceptionally well, blending together Discovery’s modern serialised approach to storytelling with at least some components of Star Trek’s episodic past. But this week, for much of the time all I could feel was a sense that the mission to Unknown Species 10-C’s ex-homeworld was a complete waste of time – not only for the characters, who don’t have so much as a second to waste, but more importantly for us as the audience.

The away team.

The worst part of last week’s episode was the insertion of the horribly overused trope of Earth being in danger. I tried to put that to the back of my mind as Rosetta got started, hoping that the time constraint it had imposed would lead to some kind of interesting or exciting storyline as Season 4 reaches its conclusion. But this cliché absolutely ruined Rosetta – turning a story that might’ve had the kernel of a good idea at its core into one that felt like a complete and utter waste of everybody’s time. With time being a very limited resource for Captain Burnham, that just isn’t something that should have been allowed to happen!

If the “Earth is about to be destroyed” cliché wasn’t part of the season’s story, this feeling would have been far less prominent throughout Rosetta, and I could have almost certainly forgiven another detour on the way to Unknown Species 10-C’s hyperfield. With less of a time constraint, such a mission would arguably be worth doing, and while there could still be naysayers and dissenters among the crew and assembled delegates, I would have been firmly in the camp that says “let’s see if we can find any interesting or useful information about this completely unknown faction.” But because Discovery’s writers wanted to crank up the tension and drama to eleven out of ten, what should have been a decent episode with some interesting story elements didn’t work. Instead of the tension rumbling in the background, spurring me on to make the story feel exciting, I could barely prevent myself from shouting at the series to just get on with it – to go to the hyperfield right now! Tension became frustration.

Captain Burnham chose to lead an away mission to a planet instead of racing to the hyperfield.

Not for the first time, narrative contrivances in Discovery have conspired to make Captain Burnham seem like she’s in the wrong. While not exactly being a complete and utter moron, she came across in the episode’s opening act as misguided in the extreme – wasting time on a mission that could have easily yielded nothing of consequence. As happened in episodes like The Vulcan Hello and The Red Angel, it fell to another character to be the voice of reason against Captain Burnham – in this case, Earth’s representative, General Ndoye.

Ndoye made the very simple point that there isn’t time to waste visiting a random planet, and that attempting to make contact first would be the best move. If Unknown Species 10-C didn’t respond to attempts at communication, visiting the planet could be Plan B – but there’s no way it should’ve been Plan A. Rosetta attempts to rely on the away team’s discovery of pheromone-like hydrocarbon dust to say “aha! Captain Burnham was right all along!” but in my view, all that the end of the episode proved was that she got very lucky. Her judgement, four seasons in, is still questionable at times – and on this occasion, with the stakes so very high, I can’t shake the feeling that she made the wrong call.

General Ndoye became the voice of reason… briefly.

The hydrocarbon pheromones will almost certainly play a role in the next couple of episodes – I mean, they have to, right? Otherwise Rosetta will have proven to be a complete waste of time. But even assuming that’s the case, Captain Burnham took a massive risk by diverting to the planet with hours to spare, and it just feels like – not for the first time this season – there was a very easy “middle ground” approach that neither she nor anyone else seems to have considered.

The USS Discovery is equipped with a contingent of shuttles, so sending one with a small away team to the planet while the rest of the crew takes the ship and visits the hyperfield – instead of sitting in orbit of the planet doing fuck all – would have been the hallowed “middle ground” option that the show’s writers seem to have just ignored. Because Captain Burnham has to be the main focus of practically every episode and every major plotline, other characters in the show are relegated to sitting on their hands and waiting for her latest stroke of brilliance. In this case, everyone with the exception of Detmer, Saru, and Dr Culber were just shoved off-screen, seemingly doing nothing except waiting for Captain Burnham to get back. Adira and Reno even found time to get coffee.

This picture is Rosetta in microcosm: Captain Burnham goes off on an away mission while everyone else stands around doing nothing.

That makes Discovery Season 4 feel like a pretty basic story – one designed for small children who don’t have the attention to focus on more than one major narrative at once. Because Captain Burnham wanted to visit the planet, everyone has to visit the planet. God forbid any other character is granted any agency over the plot or given the volition to do anything independently – they’re not real people, you know, just narrative devices.

And yes, it’s Star Trek. It’s fiction. It’s “just a story” – but god do I hate that tired excuse every time it’s trotted out in defence of contrived, underwhelming, or just plain indefensible narratives. If we’re expected to suspend our disbelief and get lost in the world of Star Trek, even just for an hour, the way characters behave has to make basic sense. The characters themselves have to feel like real people – flesh-and-blood beings with emotions, feelings, and brains, not just plot devices who can be used one moment then placed into hibernation the next. And this week, Rosetta basically sidelined the entire crew, forcing them to sit on their hands and do nothing while Captain Burnham took charge of a pretty barebones side-story that I’m not even sure accomplished all that much.

The away team with a cache of magic dust.

I said earlier that the pheromone hydrocarbons will have to feature in the story in some way later on – and I certainly hope that they will! But as of the end of Rosetta, the mission to Unknown Species 10-C’s ex-planet doesn’t feel as though it achieved very much. Captain Burnham didn’t find anything substantial – and the dust, while narratively interesting, was visually unimpressive to say the least. If there had been something more visually unique or interesting about what the away team recovered – like one of the bones that were briefly seen, a computer core, a stone tablet, or literally anything we as the audience could see, maybe that feeling wouldn’t be so prevalent. But because even the away mission’s big accomplishment was difficult to really perceive, the entire story feels like it’s on far shakier ground than it already was.

If the pheromone hydrocarbons are incorporated into the story of the next couple of episodes in a major way, maybe we’ll revisit Rosetta and consider it a little more favourably in hindsight. There are definitely interesting possibilities with this new narrative element that could be explored or that could be paid off in a big way. But if Discovery doesn’t do something big with the pheromone hydrocarbons before the end of the season, the episode will feel like even more of a waste than it already does.

Will the pheromone dust play a significant enough role in the story to make Rosetta feel like a worthwhile detour?

In past iterations of Star Trek – including in previous episodes and seasons of Discovery – the universal translator has been shown to work pretty well. There are some exceptions – such as the Tamarians – but even then a way across the language barrier was eventually found. With the 900-year time jump to the 32nd Century, it stands to reason that the universal translator has only gotten better as Starfleet has encountered more and more races. Even if we accept the premise that communication has never been successfully made with a species that uses pheromones or chemicals to communicate, doesn’t it seem like it would be worth trying to use the universal translator, especially given the time constraints? With the level of technology that Unknown Species 10-C has been shown to have, they might have some kind of translator or communicator of their own, too.

I know a lot of this must sound like nitpicking, but it all stems from the fact that the show’s writers chose to inject forced drama by using an “Earth is in danger and there’s just hours to save it!” cliché that wasn’t necessary to make this story interesting or exciting. The stakes were high enough, the danger was real enough, and by trying to turn the drama up to eleven, Rosetta tripped over. There was a potentially interesting story about learning more about a very new and different form of life… but it’s one that this cliché has spoiled. Take away the time constraint and many of the narrative complaints on this side of the story would have fallen away.

A holographic depiction of the hyperfield.

Rosetta wasn’t saved by its B-plot, either, with Tarka and Book undertaking an equally nonsensical away mission that also seemed to be based on a very shaky premise. With Captain Burnham’s decision to take an away mission to the planet, my criticism stems from the fact that The Galactic Barrier had introduced the cliché of Earth being threatened meaning that there wasn’t time for a detour. But Book and Tarka’s away mission to the USS Discovery was done because they… wanted to stick Book’s ship to Discovery’s hull? Couldn’t they just remain under cloak and tail the ship? It feels pretty weak, even by the standards of Star Trek technobabble.

We also didn’t get to see any of Book and Tarka’s journey navigating the Galactic Barrier, which is something I was genuinely interested in. A powerful ship like the USS Discovery barely made it through, so how would Book’s glorified runabout survive? We basically got no payoff to Book and Tarka’s side-mission last week of collecting programmable antimatter at the abandoned prison camp. Presumably they were able to successfully apply it and transit the Galactic Barrier – but the episode literally didn’t even pay lip service to that, with their story starting up with Book’s ship already parked a few yards away from the USS Discovery.

Couldn’t Book and Tarka just continue to tail Discovery? Also, how did they make it through the Galactic Barrier?

Given how difficult navigating the Galactic Barrier proved to be for the USS Discovery, it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see Book and Tarka having to tackle that task. Maybe it could’ve been included at the end of last week’s episode – even if it was just a short sequence, Discovery should really have done something to pay off their mission to the prison camp.

It also seems like Book has decided that he and Tarka are fugitives without even trying to make contact and explain what happened. The end of Rubicon suggested that there might be a pathway to reconciliation for him and Michael, but he has done nothing to attempt to pursue that – except for creepily spying on her in what has to be one of the most uncomfortable moments in the entire episode. Book signalled his willingness to stand down and give peace a chance; it was only Tarka’s actions that led to the weapon being detonated. With Captain Burnham on his side to advocate for him, you’d think he’d know that he has a good chance of not getting into serious trouble – and he could even be a valuable asset to Starfleet, sharing his knowledge of Tarka and his plans.

Did anyone else find this moment of Book spying on Burnham a little creepy? Cool camera shot, though…

This continues a trend of Book having been fairly static for several episodes now, having gone through several stages of grief for Kwejian and his family before seeming to just… stop. In the first half of the season, Book got some of the most deeply emotional moments in the show, and seeing how grief was leading him down a dark path was a potentially interesting story, but it’s one that Discovery hasn’t really been able to successfully elaborate on. Like most of the rest of the characters, Book has been relegated to a supporting role, and that means he doesn’t really get much agency over the story any more. He’s stuck following Tarka just like everyone else is stuck following Burnham. If we’d heard anything from him to indicate that he was still committed to that cause, maybe it wouldn’t feel so silly. But right now, Book feels like a follower; a passive character caught in Tarka’s narrative wake.

So I’m not going to nitpick things like needing to physically board the ship to install a macguffin into the macguffin network. That’s Star Trek-ish enough to be inoffensive. But the setup that led Book and Tarka to that point felt very contrived, and it wasn’t sufficiently explained as to why they couldn’t just continue to tail Discovery all the way to – and perhaps inside – the hyperfield. It also wasn’t explained why everyone keeps assuming that the hyperfield will be impenetrable – they haven’t even tried to approach it, and if Unknown Species 10-C are as advanced as we think they are, surely they’d see a spaceship coming and investigate. Book and Tarka’s quest this week seems like an unnecessarily involved stealth mission that had the potential to lead to moments of either extreme drama or perhaps even comedy, with the two fugitives sneaking on board the ship, but it ultimately didn’t deliver much of either.

Book and Tarka managed to sneak aboard Discovery.

Bringing General Ndoye into the Book-Tarka side of the story is, again, something that we’ll have to watch and see whether it leads to a significant payoff. Right now it feels like it could go either way, and although I would argue that Ndoye had been the voice of reason earlier in the episode with Captain Burnham, I’m not wild about her becoming a kind of double-agent in this conspiracy.

Two of the big thematic elements of Seasons 3 and 4 have been connection and communication – and it seems like the series is now building to a conclusion which will say something like “if only Book and Tarka had worked with Captain Burnham, everyone could have got what they wanted.” If Book and Tarka would share why Tarka wants the power source, maybe Captain Burnham could work with him – or find an alternative way for him to travel between universes, such as the Guardian of Forever that we saw last season. And if Captain Burnham could find a way to compromise with Book, their whole relationship feud could be solved. A story about how division and failing to communicate can lead to problems can be a powerful one, but it’ll need to be executed a damn sight better than it was in Rosetta. Here, the two disconnected stories just chafed against each other in the most frustrating way.

Book and Tarka at the end of the episode.

The CGI work for Unknown Species 10-C’s planet was good, and although it was only seen very briefly and not really explained, I liked the “Dyson rings” seen orbiting their star. Presumably Discovery scanned the rings off-screen and determined there’s nothing worth looking for there… although that would have been nice to get confirmation of, otherwise the rings seem a good target for an away mission of this nature as well.

The filming location for the outdoor sections of the away mission looked very familiar; I’m sure it was seen either earlier in Season 4 or perhaps in Season 3. In an interview for The Ready Room a few weeks ago, Mary Wiseman mentioned a quarry in the Toronto area that has been used for several outdoor shoots, which could be why it’s so familiar. Slapping a yellow filter on it in post-production didn’t really do much to disguise it, and with the new AR wall that Paramount invested a fair amount of money in, I’m left wondering why the Star Trek franchise keeps walking headfirst into this particular mistake. The AR wall was used to great effect to depict the interior of the Unknown Species 10-C base… so why not the exterior as well?

The away team.

The crew’s EV suit malfunction is also a bit of a contrivance. Aren’t protective suits meant to protect against everything in the environment, especially things that are new or haven’t been encountered before? This is another nitpick, I guess, but I didn’t like the way that this was just hand-waved away by half a line of dialogue. “Oh, I guess the EV suits don’t protect against substances that aren’t in the Federation database and are very different.” That just seems like an odd way to explain it. And if we want to keep nitpicking, that dust looked like it was everywhere – floating in the air as well as lying on the ground and on surfaces. So how did Detmer not get exposed when everyone else did?

After making the decision to waste time on an away mission that, realistically, she must’ve known had the possibility of failure, Captain Burnham came across as incredibly stubborn shortly before the crew encountered the 10-C nursery. Partly this was triggered by a reaction to the hydrocarbons, I guess, but coming after I found her decision to go on the mission in the first place difficult to justify, stubbornly doubling-down on it when it seemed as though there wasn’t anything to find wasn’t a great look for her character.

Captain Burnham during the away mission.

So have we just nitpicked Rosetta to death?

There were interesting and clever concepts buried here, and there were some nice but unspectacular character moments between Dr Culber and Captain Burnham, Tarka and Book, and to a lesser extent between Reno and Adira and Detmer and Adira too. Some fans argue that Discovery is all about its characters and that the sci-fi trappings should just be seen as a backdrop, with any contrivances and plot complaints waved away because of how well-done some of these character moments can be. I don’t agree with that – if you want character drama, go and watch a soap or some scripted reality show. Star Trek is science fiction, so at the very least the sci-fi side of the story has to be basically competent and good enough to keep my suspension of disbelief going.

Because of how Rosetta sidelined many of the other characters and didn’t actually spend that much time on these interpersonal moments, I would argue that it wasn’t even a particularly impressive episode on the character side of things, either. The moment between Dr Culber and Captain Burnham came in two parts – one during the away mission and one at the end in her ready-room. But it lasted all of two minutes, maybe, and that just isn’t enough time to do justice to a complicated mental health story.

Counselling for the counsellor.

Dr Culber’s storyline feels like it’s retreading the Detmer path from Season 3. We’ve had a few short scenes spread across a handful of episodes to explain in the most basic of ways how he feels overwhelmed, stressed, and/or unable to cope with his work and the situation he’s found himself in. His moment admitting to Captain Burnham that he isn’t okay should have been the culmination of this season-long character arc… but it’s an arc that feels so underdeveloped that, despite the beautiful performance by Wilson Cruz, I’m struggling to buy it. The story of a counsellor – someone working as a mental health professional – needing to seek help for their own struggles is a noble one, and one absolutely worth telling, but it’s also a story that Discovery is not doing justice to as things stand.

I’ve been a big advocate for better mental health representation in all forms of media, but I’m unfortunately in the position of having to say that if the series can’t do justice to stories like this I’d honestly rather that it skipped them altogether. It feels like Discovery is doing little more than paying lip service to a serious topic, one that’s clearly too big for the limited time and attention that the show is willing to dedicate to it.

Captain Burnham and Dr Culber during the away mission.

Returning to Detmer, last season she got a storyline about post-traumatic stress that was referenced in Rosetta. But like Dr Culber’s story of dealing with his struggles this season, it wasn’t fleshed out enough to be meaningful. She had a few scenes spread across a handful of episodes, then seemed to magically “get better.” It’s only now, a full season later, that we even heard about her getting help or treatment for PTSD.

In Rosetta, Discovery also continued a disappointing trend of ham-fistedly inserting blatantly expository dialogue that the writers sometimes use as a substitute for actual character development. In this case, Detmer remembered something about her father mistreating her that could have been significant, but it was treated as an afterthought by a script that had its attention firmly focused elsewhere. Emily Coutts did well with the material she had, and put in a decent performance – but the material was barebones to say the least.

Lieutenant Commander Detmer.

Saru’s panic attack was one of the more interesting moments of characterisation, and if I were to single out one performance and one strong element from Rosetta it would be the way Doug Jones conveyed Saru’s terror during these sequences. We’ll have to set aside questions of why Captain Burnham didn’t immediately send him back to the shuttle, but if we can ignore contrivances like that, Saru really sold me on his panic attack. As someone who has had panic attacks myself – thankfully infrequently – I found the depiction of Saru in these moments very relatable.

We got a bit of a pep talk between Reno and Adira; two characters who don’t feel like a natural pair but who worked well together this time. Adira has adopted much of the awkwardness of Season 1 Tilly, and that “young, inexperienced, and nervous” character type is a good counterbalance to some of the show’s older and more established characters. Reno was deadpan as ever, but none of her lines this week were laugh-out-loud funny; while her scenes brought some much-needed levity to the story, they didn’t exactly blow me away.

Reno with Adira.

Finally, we come to Dr Hirai. For the second episode running – and he’s only been in two episodes so far – he felt very underused. There was a brief scene between him and President Rillak in which she rebuked him for his bluntness, but that was it. Perhaps that was deserved, but as we’ve spent such a minuscule amount of time with this character, it just felt like an unnecessary addition. If Dr Hirai was going to be featured in a scene this week, why not show him working or doing something that could contribute to the story? Just because everyone aboard Discovery was sitting around waiting for Burnham to get back that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have found something useful to do.

Again, Dr Hirai is someone who could have a bigger role to play before the season ends. But his two appearances so far in Rosetta and in The Galactic Barrier have felt like fluff; a potentially-interesting character about whom we know nothing of consequence. If he is going to have something significant to do in the next couple of episodes, we need to start seeing more from him very soon – otherwise he risks feeling rather flat.

Dr Hirai.

So that was Rosetta, I guess. Not the season’s high-water mark, unfortunately.

At the core of the episode there was an interesting idea, and the notion of Unknown Species 10-C being difficult to communicate with is a concept that could still work – if it’s properly executed in the two episodes that remain. But because The Galactic Barrier added an unnecessary time constraint to Captain Burnham’s mission, this side-quest felt more frustrating than exciting; I wanted to shout at Captain Burnham – and at Discovery’s writers – to just get on with the main story.

There were more than enough smaller narrative threads to pick at to unravel the episode’s entire story. Both the A- and B-plots were disappointing, and even where Discovery has been successful in the past – with moments of characterisation and communication – I was underwhelmed by what Rosetta had to offer. As we approach the final two episodes of the season, there’s a lot of work left to do to pull out a decent ending to this rather plodding story.

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.