'Star Trek: Discovery' Season 4, Episode 3 is stuffed full of subplots and side stories (recap)

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) shows that her extra-curricular classes in performance art at the Vulcan Academy were worth it the "Star Trek: Discovery" season 4 episode "Choose To Live."
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) shows that her extra-curricular classes in performance art at the Vulcan Academy were worth it the "Star Trek: Discovery" season 4 episode "Choose To Live." (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Warning: The spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery's season 4, episode 3. They enter through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex.

In sharp contrast to last week's episode of "Star Trek: Discovery" on Paramount Plus, so much happens in the third installment of Season 4, entitled "Choose To Live," that it becomes overwhelming and we're soon swamped by subplots and side-stories. 

This December, "Star Trek: Discovery" is going up against some of the best contemporary sci-fi currently on television. "Lost in Space" has returned for the third and final season on Netflix. In a little over a week "The Expanse" returns on Amazon for its sixth and final season. And in a little under a month, "The Book of Boba Fett" airs on Disney Plus. Those three shows represent consistent high-quality, well-written science fiction and with these alternatives on offer, "Discovery" is going to have to work hard to keep up. Just look at the IMDb ratings for the previous two episodes; at the time of writing, the fourth season premiere scores a 5.8 and last week's installment scores a 5.2, both significantly below what the fans expect and what Michelle Paradise was no doubt hoping for. (Note: If you're behind, here's how to stream Star Trek: Discovery to catch up on seasons 1-3. Our full streaming guide for Star Trek has tips on how to see the rest of the Trek franchise).  

Once we're past the recap we open with a brand new, previously unseen starship, which is always nice, the USS Credence NCC 2804. The First Officer, Commander Fickett (Khalil Abdul-Malik), is about to deliver some dilithium, when [what looks like] the engineering section is suddenly overrun by Space Ninjas who have beamed in, waving their Ninjatō swords about and causing a fracas. We briefly talked last week about the noticeable absence of an antagonist — aside from the astrophysical abnormality measuring more than 29 trillion miles across — so could these otherworldly warriors represent a larger, evil force at work, like the Emerald Chain from last season? Well, this particular potential subplot is started, explored and ended all within this one episode, but more on that later.

The USS Credence NCC 2804 looks like she has four detached warp drive nacelles plus two others..?  (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

It seems they're determined to take the dilithium and a handful of Starfleet officers aren't going to stand in their way. During the altercation, the Commander himself fights valiantly, while another — at first glance — seems to pass out like a pansy. However, upon closer inspection, it looks more like he was the victim of a very subtle Vulcan neck-pinch. Sadly, the Commander isn't quite so fortunate and gets skewered like a shish kebab.

The footage we're seeing of the attack transforms into "security camera footage" and we pan out to see the Starfleet briefing room. According to Adm. Vance (Oded Fehr), there have been a string of similar thefts across Federation space; however, killing a Starfleet officer is new. 

This is actually a really nice idea. Word definitely would've traveled about the approaching anomaly and as such, many species would more than likely be desperate to get their hands on some dilithium in order to escape or even evacuate their home worlds. Sadly though, it looks like this sub-plot is started, explored and ended, all within this one episode. You may have sensed already that it's a recurring theme in this week's installment. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether this idea is developed beyond this episode, but if it isn't, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

It first looks like this officer faints, but upon closer inspection, he's immobilized by a Vulcan neck pinch. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

The assassin is a citizen of Ni'var and a rogue member of the Qowat Milat named J'Vini (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves). Her cohorts are confirmed to be mercenaries operating under her orders. Thankfully, the tracker that was secretly planted in the dilithium has provided her coordinates. More thankfully, someone at Starfleet actually thought to put a tracker in the dilithium. And even more thankfully, J'Vini has provided a platform for President T'Rina of Ni'var (Tara Rosling), Federation President, Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), Adm. Vance of Starfleet and a representative of the Qowat Milat to jostle over jurisdiction in this matter.

Who is the representative of the Qowat Milat in this matter..? None other than Michael Burnham's (Sonequa Martin-Green) mum, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn), last seen in the episode "Unification III" (S03, E07). She insists that this matter be supervised by the order of Romulan warrior nuns, but agrees to have Burnham and the USS Discovery represent Starfleet on this politically-problematic joint-mission. As everyone exits the briefing, Rillak has a quick word in Burnham's ear, reminding her that it's critical J'Vini faces Federation justice for her crimes, thus setting up a potential clash of priorities later in the episode. Roll opening credits.

Another sub-plot is set up in which Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is looking for some new experiences outside of her comfort zone. She shares this with Saru (Doug Jones) in the Discovery's mess hall and while it provides the comedy relief for this episode, there isn't really an adequate explanation as to quite why Tilly feels she needs to do this. She asks if she can mist the plants in Saru's quarters to which he agrees but warns her not to touch the swampkelp while it's in bloom.

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Differentiation, let's see, so it's dy/dx, carry the 4…and I get Energy equals Cats per square Ironing Board.  (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

We cut to engineering and see Book (David Ajala) for the first time this episode and learn that a few weeks have in fact passed, so at least that makes his ongoing grieving for Kwejian a little more believable. There's a brief but tender moment between Book and Burnham here, which is very nicely executed. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is also there, fussing over some equations and he has not only come up with a neat and tidy abbreviation for the Season 4 primary plot driver (DMA, for Dark Matter Anomaly) but also a new theory: primordial wormhole

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All the evidence is there, apparently; the gravitational distortions are consistent with wormhole behavior, so is the shape of the gravitational well, plus it's ability to change direction and finally it contains a massive amount of accreted dark matter. It's just missing tachyons, otherwise it would be cut and dry. Last week, we threw in a tinfoil hat theory that this might somehow later be linked to the "lightning storm in space" phenomena used by both Ambassador Spock and the Romulan warlord Nero in the first of the terrible trilogy of JJ Abrams' "Star Trek" movies. We've seen how much "Star Trek" showrunner Alex Kurtzman likes to have everything connected, George Lucas style. Now this feels like it's one step closer to being the case. Ugh.

It seems like Stamets and Book have continued to build on their friendship from last week, which is super to see and Book asks if he can accompany Stamets to the Ni'var Science Institute. Meanwhile, Burnham has asked if she can borrow Book's ship for the mission. Strangely, it still doesn't seem to have a name, so look out for that changing later this season for marketing reasons. Or not, who knows.

Also, there's no sign of Commander Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) this season yet, perhaps she'll pop up later if her scheduling calendar permits.

Will Gray Tal possess superhuman strength as a result of being transferred to an artificial synth body? (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Next, we cut to the slowest moving of the subplots, Gray Tal's (Ian Alexander) consciousness being transplanted into a golem. Adira (Blu del Barrio) is on hand obviously, as is Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) together with Guardian Xi (Andreas Apergis) of the spiritual community and member of the Trill High Council that we last saw in the strong Season 3 episode "Forget Me Not" (S03, E04), which was a well-written insight into the journey of Gray, a non-Trill, taking the host Tal. 

The transference of Gray Tal into a synthetic body subplot feels like it's been slowed down and drawn out. Why couldn't this have been handled in just one episode, since that's all it really needed?Instead, we could've had a more in-depth look at the previous hosts of Tal. It would be nice to see this incorporated at some point later in this season, but we're not holding our breath. Xi explains that this is a unique situation and the transference might not succeed without a host to guide Tal, thus establishing an ongoing set piece where Adira waits patiently by Gray's bedside that we can cut back to with minimal disruption.

We return to Tilly's story by way of a conversation between Burnham and her First Officer, Saru, about how an additional member of the crew should be present in the away team to equal the number of representatives from both Starfleet and the Qowat Milat and ensure that the mission doesn't appear to favor either party. In other words, here's the perfect opportunity for Saru to suggest that Tilly go, which was the whole point of her subplot after all.

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So far, Saru's role has sadly been kept to a minimum, serving as a source of exposition and a plot driver.  (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

So far, it seems like a normal episode with a normal amount of story (the Dark Matter Anomaly itself, Burnham and her mother, Stamet's theory, Tilly's search for new experiences, Book's ongoing grief and Gray Tal's consciousness transference) and that might be sufficient for any other television show, but not "Discovery."

We're on Book's ship now and Gabrielle and Burnham are having a chat about J'Vini. Turns out she was instrumental in nursing Gabrielle back to health when she first arrived 950-or-so years in the future in 3188 using the Red Angel time suit. So now there's a personal element to further compound the political complications of this attempt to apprehend the Qowat Milat outlaw. We hear about a new element of Qowat Milat culture, which is the need to act as a galankhkan, or savior to a lost cause. Burnham's mother was once J'Vini's lost cause, and now Gabrielle fears J'Vini fights for a new cause, the question is, what is it? 

In order to respect the Qowat Milat way and therefore reach J'Vini — and also to make the fight scenes more enthralling — phasers must be left behind and Ninjatō-like swords should be carried instead. They arrive at their destination, which is a seemingly barren, deserted and inhospitable planetoid, but Tilly detects a faint signal from the dilithium tracking device in a giant cavern under the surface. At which point two of J'Vini's cohorts beam in and attack. In the ensuing battle, they are both killed along with the token red shirt-equivalent Qowat Milat member of the away team. The fight itself is well choreographed and great to watch, but that's why the story included a reason why phasers had to be ditched. However, they hadn't actually left Book's ship yet, so it's not clear why they didn't leap over to the weapons locker and unload a whole clip of supercharged forced plasma particles on the sword-wielding Space Ninjas. 

The alien worldbuilding has been nice so far, benefitting from the Stagecraft LED virtual wall technology. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Checking in briefly back on the Discovery, the process of transference continues and the unjoining of Gray Tal from Adira has been a success, now we must wait to see if the consciousness settles in the synthetic body. 

Now we're inside the cavern, inside the barren, deserted and inhospitable planetoid. What our three-woman away team discovers is what looks like the ruins of an ancient temple or mausoleum and an unknown species of alien, dead on the floor, covered in J'Vini's cloak. The Burnham/Gabrielle conflict of interest sub-plot develops further here as they argue over whether or not J'Vini's intentions warrant punishment. Suddenly, the ground shakes and Tilly detects controlled matter and anti-reactions beginning as the dilithium is being used to power up a massive set of engines — this is no moon, it's a space station ship. They locate the dilithium and take an ancient turbolift up to a giant platform high above them, offering us a brief glimpse of the vast, cavernous interior. 

We return to Stamet's Theory subplot and we're now at the Ni'var Science Institute. Sadly, the other representatives don't seem to share his sense of urgency and they begin to meditate on the matter. It could be argued there's an underlying ignore-science-at-your-peril theme and that's probably quite intentional. 

Admiral Vance may not have a lot of screen time, but like last season, he does get some dynamite lines. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

However, while we're here we also dive a little deeper into Book's subplot and probably a highlight of this episode. T'Rina notices Book's grief and suggests he look at it from a Vulcan perspective, one of logic, since the tragedy that befell Kwejian was not his fault. What he requires is freedom from his guilt, but he insists that if he'd only seen a sign, he could've saved his family. 

When the meditating scientists finally awake, they conclude that Stamet's theory simply isn't plausible. T'Rina interjects and reminds them they have a witness to the destruction of Kwejian and since tachyons are superluminal, upon hitting the atmosphere of that planet, they would've created a glowing blue cast to the sky. Duh. She suggests a mind meld with Book, but Stamets objects, saying he shouldn't have to relive the trauma of the experience.  

It's an interesting approach to dealing with significant personal loss. However, it really only works if the last memories of the one you lost are not vivid scenes of them suffering — that would pretty much torpedo this particular method of therapy. Book volunteers and we once again witness the destruction of his home world and despite some potentially confusing blue lens flare, T'Rina does not see a glowing blue cast to the sky, therefore no tachyons. D'oh.

This is what feeling lost in a sea of sadness looks like. David Ajala has nailed his performance so far. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Before T'Rina can end the mind meld, Book asks if he can see a little more. He recalls his memories of the very last time he saw his nephew Leto and his brother Kyheem. As Leto turns, his face displays the signs typical for a Kwejian to indicate emotional happiness … and Book is reassured that at least before he died, Leto knew how much he was loved by his uncle. To be able to somehow know this with certainty, to obtain this reassurance (along with the Alien Healing Machine from "Babylon 5" that could prevent the loss to begin with) are probably the two things I would wish for. Book is extremely fortunate and as such, it's quite an emotional scene.

Back inside the moon-ship, Tilly sabotages the engines to shut them down and Burnham discovers detailed carvings in the rocks and stones showing a supernova and a moon leaving the world it once orbited. They then deduce that it isn't a mausoleum, but rather thousands of cryostasis pods — they're alive. And this is J'Vini's cause. It's only a matter of time before she beams to their position and the inevitable dual with Gabrielle ends prematurely when the rogue Qowat Milat sister disarms Burnham's mother and holds a sword to her neck. Thus begins the diplomacy element of the mission. 

Tilly begins to repair the damage that she's just caused as Burnham negotiates with J'Vini. Turns out the unknown aliens are a species called Abronians and this vessel contains the very last of their kind. J'Vini explains that she was travelling through the star system when she suddenly felt love, community, family and suffering, as if someone was calling out to her, begging her for help. It was a telepathic distress signal and she knew she had to help, accepting this cause as her own. The planet this moon-ship is now orbiting seems to be the intended destination and the dilithium was .. .er, in case the DMA swung by in that direction before they were revived. Still, at least it can now be used as an escape vehicle, right?

Scenes from episode 3 of "Star Trek: Discovery" season 4 on Paramount Plus.

A clear nod to "Deep Space Nine," we see a Lurian hunched over his drink and a Ferengi bartender.  (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Using their tech know-how, the engines are repaired and the Abronians are revived. J'Vini accepts that her cause is complete and she's handcuffed by Gabrielle. Once back onboard Book's ship and off the surface of the moon-ship, they see the Abronians also leaving the moon-ship and traveling toward the surface of their new homeworld. 

Granted we used to see new and different alien species every single week in "The Original Series," but that followed an episodic format, not a season story arc and it just feels like we've been shortchanged to have been introduced to, learned a bit about and then said see ya to a totally new alien species, all in the space of about 40 minutes. 

Onboard the Discovery, Adira frets about the transference and begins a vigil by Gray's bedside. Saru complements Culber on his improvised role as ship's counselor as they chat in the gorgeous setting of Discovery's Ten-Forward-like lounge and recreation facility – complete with open fires and a rustic, steak restaurant aesthetic…plus a throwback to "Deep Space Nine" with their very own Lurian barfly.

Happiness is comfortable bed, 300 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and a huge hologram of home. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

And the long process of wrapping up every storyline in this episode begins. The Abronians are settling in, the transference of Gray Tal is a success, Tilly learns a little more about the way of the Qowat Milat — and gets to tend to Saru's plants — and Burnham receives a lesson in looking at the bigger picture. Finally, Book — who is wearing his Ikhu Zhen amulet once again (will we hear the story of why he stopped wearing it?) — comes out with a beautifully written line. "I got a memory back," he tells Burnham. "And I realized, someday, if I am lucky the grief will fade. And if I don't want all my other memories to fade with it, I'll have to open myself back up to them. Good and bad." 

This week was a bit of a story dump. That's not to say that this episode isn't enjoyable, there's just a lot (too much) crammed in. While it is a couple of minutes longer than the previous two offerings, it feels a lot longer — more like a full-length feature film and it's certainly been written like one. Having so many disposable sub-stories that aren't explored further might work in a Marvel movie, but not a television episode and not an episode of "Star Trek." It's like we were fasting last week and this week we've suddenly had a full Thanksgiving dinner placed in front of us. With all the trimmings. 

Life of ignorant bliss on Talos IV   ✓  

  • Always nice to see a new starship 
  • The sword fighting was pretty cool 
  • All in all it's a good job Book insisted on coming with Stamets to Ni'var 
  • "Deep Space Nine" nod with the Lurian and Ferengi in Discovery's bar 
  • David Ajala continues to own "Star Trek: Discovery" 

Death by a Varon-T disruptor   ✗

  • Entertaining though they are, so many subplots won't be explored further 
  • There's so much loss and grief this season … it's a bit of a downer really 
  • The USS Credence interior looks a lot like the Discovery airlock set  
  • So Many Subplots 
  • Tachyons, always with the tachyons 

 Rating:  6/10 

 The first three episodes of Season 4 of "Star Trek: Discovery" are available to watch now and subsequent installments will drop every Thursday on Paramount Plus in the U.S. and Canada. Countries outside of North America can watch on the  Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel.

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Scott Snowden

When Scott's application to the NASA astronaut training program was turned down, he was naturally upset...as any 6-year-old boy would be. He chose instead to write as much as he possibly could about science, technology and space exploration. He graduated from The University of Coventry and received his training on Fleet Street in London. He still hopes to be the first journalist in space.