Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Star Trek: Discovery" season 4, episode 5
Speculation continues, with still no official confirmation on why Mary Wiseman took off to Starfleet Academy last week and there are all sorts of theories and opinions flying around social media. Some speculate that Paramount Plus is actually moving forward with their Starfleet Academy series and what better way to get it going than to have an established character as a star?
While we don't subscribe to that particular theory, it is true that Adira (Blu del Barrio) was filling the role that Tilly had originally and thus both were making the same contribution to the crew dynamic, which does no favors for either character.
When "Discovery" was launched back in 2017, the unique selling point was that the main star was not the ship's captain and we would be seeing life on the Starfleet vessel from a new perspective. While we knew there was going to be some element of season-long guest stars, starting with Jason Issacs, it was clear by the third season that this unique selling point was no longer viable. Now of course Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) has come full circle and taken the center seat.
However, even with a few new characters here and there, it still feels a little weird since we are four seasons in and the main cast is not fully fleshed out. Can you name every member of the bridge crew off the top of your head?
Mary Wiseman herself has given a few interviews since last week, but not once has she remarked on why the decision was made to write her out of the main cast for the second half of fourth season. That said, she has made it very clear that we will see her again before the end of this season. Is this all a super-elaborate ruse and in the finale episode we'll see Tilly trigger the second Big Bang, with jump cables from Book's ship, in the epicenter of the dark matter anomaly, fulfilling her ultimate destiny and becoming God..? Come on, it's not that much more far-fetched than an albino Klingon undergoing full-body surgery to make himself human.
There was even an entire episode of "The Ready Room" hosted by Wil Wheaton devoted to Mary Wiseman that aired the very same day and still she didn't explain why she left. We know she's heading to New York soon to appear in a theatrical production off Broadway, whether or not that will interfere with principal photography for season five is unknown. There was even a card you could sign circulating on Twitter.
Or maybe Wiseman would just prefer to keep this matter private. And why not.
Psst—there's a card going around for Tilly. Add a message for her and pass it on! #StarTrekDiscovery pic.twitter.com/uhr3s0UDziDecember 13, 2021
It's hard to know where to start with episode five. I've watched it four times already in preparation for writing this review ... and I still don't know exactly what happened. It's like doing 90-degree turns in the car from "Automan" at 90 mph. It's like suddenly realizing — just a micro-second after ignition – that your Ikea armchair is actually a Martin-Baker Mk14 Naval Aviator's ejection seat. And not in a fun way. The change in pace — and more than that, the change of direction — of the story is enough to give you whiplash.
The insane thing is, we've seen this happen before. Last season, in "The Sanctuary" (S03, E08) the storytelling suffered a similar, sudden, substantial yank in a decidedly different direction. You'd be forgiven for thinking the showrunner on "Star Trek: Discovery" doesn't know how to effectively pace out an 11-episode season without the audience requiring Dramamine.
Within the space of the first 10 minutes, even before the opening credits, the entire plot of Season 4 is suddenly turned on its head. We very quickly (and in an extremely lame manner) discover the dark matter anomaly (DMA) is a weapon. Yup, it's no longer a natural phenomena, it's been created by someone. Which conveniently gives everyone a laser-focused point to direct the anger, loss, sadness and grief that's been piling up over the last five weeks. Everyone now has someone they can blame.
If you're getting a feeling of déjà vu — or that something subtle has been changed with the computer simulation in which you dwell — that's perfectly understandable. Maybe this might have worked had it not been for the fact that this is really rather similar to what happened last season, when it was discovered in the episode "Su'Kal" (S03, E08) that a deeply disturbed delinquent was responsible for destroying all the dilithium. And while we don't actually meet the individual responsible for destroying countless worlds — including Book's home world of Kwejian — this week, it makes the remaining story arc for this season so much easier for the showrunners to flesh out using much more conventional plot devices.
It's only a fictional story set in deep space, in the far future, when just about anything could happen. Was this a 3am decision made in the writers room following a few unexpected drinks to spontaneously celebrate someone's birthday, but now the alcohol's wearing off, everyone's getting sore heads and starting to think about booking an Uber home?
The USS Janeway, along with the NSS T'Pau, detect some massive ionic fluctuations together with a strange spike in X-ray radiation at the edge of the DMA. And just like that, the anomaly disappears from the Venari sector. Then reappears 4.2 seconds later. Following some Olympic gold medal-winning long jumps in logic, Burnham & Co conclude in about the same amount of time that this interstellar irregularity must therefore have been created by someone. Still, at least she consulted with Zora and checked the sphere data.
Had this deduction not come inside of the first two minutes and instead been written to take up just a little more time, it would've been a great place to put the opening credits in a more effectively paced story, but oh no, there's still so much more to come.
Back at Starfleet HQ, Burnham, Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Saru (Doug Jones) brief Adm. Vance (Oded Fehr). It seems the now-weaponized dark matter anomaly is heading towards the Radvek asteroid belt, a former Emerald Chain colony, inhabited primarily by the Akaali species. An immediate evacuation is critical if everyone is to survive.
Apparently, Federation Security has identified a number of alien races that poses this technology, the Metrons, the Nacene, the surviving members of the Iconian Empire and even the Q Continuum. However, since there has been "no contact for 600 years" and they've never done anything like this, it's unlikely to be them. The as-yet unknown alien antagonist species is designated species 10-C. (Super-quick side-note, "Star Trek: Picard" is set around 2399 and this season of "Discovery" is set in 3190, a difference of 791 years. Did Starfleet have another dealing with the Q Continuum after the events of Season 2 of "Picard"?)
It's about now that we're introduced to a scientist by the name of Ruon Tarka, played by Shawn Doyle, who you may recognize from "The Expanse." He portrayed Sadavir Errinwright, the former Undersecretary of the United Nations who conspired with Jules-Pierre Mao to weaponize the Protomolecule. Despite the objections of Stamets, Tarka is to board the Discovery and help determine how the anomaly was created. Burnham will lead the evacuation while Saru has the con of the Discovery.
Book meanwhile, finally has somewhere to direct his grief, turning it to anger now that he's learned that the destruction of Kwejian was deliberate. Having the showrunner suffer the consequences of setting Book up on such an enormous, emotional sub-story so early on, has been neatly solved. Book will be back to himself in no time, just under an hour in fact. Roll opening credits. Finally.
Upon arrival at Radvek V, Burnham learns there are 1,206 individuals to evacuate, plus six prisoners — known as "the examples" — in an incarceration facility. The Magistrate of Radvek V (Jonathan Goad) explains that the convicts can stay there to die as far as he's concerned, but this isn't the Starfleet way, so a plan is hatched to get them out while everyone is safely evacuated. Naturally, this won't be easy as all the prison's automated security protocols are in place, so phasers, forcefields and even bugs with "Battleship"-style super-heated circular saw blades will soon form part of the story. As will a predictable prisoners-don't-deserve-to-die sub-plot.
The friction between Stamets and Tarka is set up by way of exposition between Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz) and his partner and we learn that apparently Tarka is arrogant and has zero professional courtesy. This brief scene also sets up probably the most interesting set-piece in this episode, but we'll come to that shortly.
Once inside the communications and transportation shield on the surface of Radvek V, Book and Burnham have to deal with pesky Narisa beetles armed with circular saw blades. Thankfully, they can hack into their operational matrix and stop them, without too much trouble, but the clock is ticking before the DMA hits the Radvek asteroid belt. Once inside the facility, they meet the six prisoners, who it turns out have been incarcerated for a variety of reasons, none of them really deserving the penalty of life-long imprisonment. And so starts what could've been an interesting sub-plot that instead feels like it's been…sort of, stuck on the side. Michael Greyeyes delivers a strong performance as Felix that feels wasted here and given the amount of screentime his character has, it feels more like it's excessive, which is a pity.
Meanwhile in engineering, Stamets and Tarka begin their intellectual duel with Saru unofficially refereeing. Is Tarka going to be a potentially interesting character that we see for just one, or possibly two episodes before disappearing until a lackluster return in the season finale, just like Zareh (Jake Weber) did last season?
To explain his idea about the DMA, which really could've been demonstrated quite easily using a pencil and paper, he instead choses to channel his inner sci-fi movie fandom by sculpting some mashed potato. At least someone on the writing team knows the difference between a nod to another movie and ripping off an entire set piece, like we saw in last season's episode "Scavengers" (S03, E06).
Tarka postulates that someone has created a tunnel through space-time to get the device that controls the anomaly to its current location. (Suddenly that tinfoil hat theory about the anomaly being somehow linked to the "lightning storm in space" in the first of the awful Abrams' "Star Trek" movies doesn't seem quite so crackpot now.) He announces his intention to create a working model of the DMA controller.
Then we get to arguably the most interesting part of this episode; now that everyone has someone to pin their pent up anger on regarding the dark matter anomaly and it's no longer a natural phenomenon, which meant they had to find a way to deal with it themselves because there was no one else to blame…we get to Dr. Culber. Even he has someone he can blame now, but who does he talk to? Who counsels the ship's counselor?
In the only real surprise of this episode, he turns to Dr Kovich (David Cronenberg) who quickly realizes what Culber needs is brutal honesty. We're quickly informed that Kovich has made an effort to clear time for this 10-minute conversation, which means Culber doesn't have the luxury of talking organically, he must focus, dig deep and articulate his thoughts and feelings…on a clock. This scene is refreshing and more importantly, the dialogue is well written. Cronenberg's delivery is such that when combined with a little interference on the holocall, you even wonder for a split-second if this is a hologram responding to Culber, rather than it being a glorified Facetime call.
Back on Radvek-V, Felix is working up to his big, meaningful monologue as he makes Burnham and Book both lower their weapons in a gesture of trust and agree that once rescued, all the prisoners would all receive new trials. But, as Felix explains quietly to Burnham, he does belong here, because he once took a life and stole a lalogi orb. This quite obviously sets up a "I choose to remain" situation, but that's put to one side for a moment while everyone attempts to break free of the facility now that the prison's automated security protocols are in place. Book and Burnham use the bugs with super-heated circular saw blades to aid in their escape.
Back in engineering, Stamets and Tarka have successfully created a miniature dark matter anomaly within a containment field, but they have to let the anomaly form properly and so the "we need more power" routine plays out with Reno providing the token "I'm givin' it all she's got!" response interspersed with some technobabble and a few feeble attempts at dry wit. Eventually, Saru shuts down the experiment much to Stamets' and Tarka's disappointment as the danger to the Discovery was just too great. However, they have been able confirm that the anomaly creates a sub-space rupture and has an energy source equivalent to a hypergiant star. (This type of star is so big, if one were placed where our sun is, it would extend out beyond the orbit of Jupiter.)
Felix elects to say on Radvek-V as it's destroyed by the DMA and he gives a moving monologue about his crime, how much he regrets it and how important it is that Burnham return to the lalogi orb to its rightful heir. There's the expected exchange between the Magistrate and Burnham as the epilogue begins plus Stamets and Culber share a tender moment. Finally, there's an almost throwaway exchange between Burnham and Zora (voiced by Annabelle Wallis) in the turbo lift where the Discovery captain is given a breadcrumb clue that the ship's "computer" is actually a fully sentient AI. However, this will probably get glossed over and forgotten about, much like when Saru had a similar experience last season in the episode "Forget Me Not" (S03, E04).
For all the hard work done in the previous four episodes (following the disastrous decision to destroy Kwejian in the season premiere) dealing with near-insurmountable grief ... to suddenly redirect all that emotion to anger, feels like a let down. Book's loss (regardless of said disastrous decision) did offer some interesting opportunities, like the mind meld on Ni'var with President T'Rina, but he's practically back to himself now that he's got a justifiable reason to blow stuff up again.
This episode does get better the more you watch it (I'm up to at least five times now), but it took that long to make peace with it…and that shouldn't really be necessary with any episode of a sci-fi series, no matter how much you love the franchise.
At the time of writing, not one episode of this series scores higher than a 5.8 on IMDb and you really have to wonder if Michelle Paradise or Alex Kurtzman pay any attention to reviews like this or numbers like those. You can't help but feel now, that each season of "Star Trek: Discovery" is being written like no one is quite sure if it will get renewed. Even "Voyager" — for example, had a rough road map, which could've been rounded off at almost any time. This at least offered some sense of continuity going from one season to another. Where the deuce is "Discovery" going, does anyone actually know? (Another super-quick side-note, the potential future we saw in the "Short Trek" episode "Calypso" isn't really feasible anymore, since the USS Discovery now has the registry number NCC-1031-A together with detached nacelles. So it's unlikely that "Discovery" will end that way.)
Humpbacked Whales ✓
- Two new starships, the USS Janeway and the NSS T'Pau.
- At least Burnham consults with Zora and the sphere data this week
- Nice to see the Q Continuum getting a shout-out, plus the Metrons, yay.
- That silly sound when the spore drive is used has been addressed.
- Nods to both "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Jaws."
Humpbacked People ✗
- After many, many weeks, the DMA only now disappears and reappears?
- Weaponized dark matter, no less.
- Tig Notaro seems to wander into scenes like Poochie in "The Simpsons."
- The neck brace I'm now wearing after watching this episode is annoying.
- Are we now following the same story blueprint from last season?
Rating: 5½ /10
The first five episodes of Season 4 of "Star Trek: Discovery" are available to watch now and subsequent installments will drop every Thursday on Paramount+ in the US and CTV Sci-Fi or Crave TV in Canada. Countries outside of North America can watch on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel.