Warning: Spoilers decloaking off the port bow!
It's been just 10 months since Michael Burnham's indecisive yo-yoing between should-she-stay-in-Starfleet and should-she-go on "Star Trek: Discovery."
Ten months since we discovered a young Kelpien with self-confidence issues stranded on a planet comprised almost entirely of dilithium accidently caused the deaths of millions of members of almost every spacefaring species in the galaxy.
And while the last season took a nosedive into absurdity in the second half, it did have one of the strongest starts of any new season of any "Star Trek" show. The first episode alone, "Hope Is You, Part 1" was one of the best episodes we've ever seen and it continued for a short while at least, which was wonderful to see.
Needless to say, we were cautiously optimistic for the fourth season premiere on the streaming service Paramount Plus. And tragically, we have to report that it's an uneven, contrived and somewhat clichéd offering that leaves us feeling disappointed to say the least, but also not significantly invested in any of these characters.
This winter, "Star Trek: Discovery" season 4 is going up against … well, just about everything. In just two weeks, "Lost in Space" returns for the third and final season on Netflix. "The Expanse" returns on AmazonPrime Video for its sixth and final season in three weeks. And in a little over 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. Sadly however, judging from what we've seen already, it's not going to. If this were the Premiership, "Discovery" would be just one loss away from relegation.
It's not a crime to wish for cerebral sci-fi and "The Expanse" — for example — is certainly that. Moreover, it's addictive and it's a page-turner; I absolutely, positively must watch the next episode as soon as humanly possible, because I need to see what happens, because I want to know how the characters survive. This is most definitely not the case with the fourth season opening episode of "Discovery." It feels like it's been deliberately dumbed down and produced for a super-easy-to-satisfy audience. Even "Star Trek: Prodigy" — which is made specifically for children — doesn't underestimate its audience quite as badly as "Discovery" does.
If you recall, the first few episodes of Season 3 of "Discovery" dealt with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) landing on the planet Hima almost a year before the USS Discovery showed up, as a result of fluctuations in the massive jump undertaken at the end of Season 2. We got an awesome introduction to the city of Mercantile and an equally awesome introduction to Cleveland Booker (David Ajala). Then not long after, the Discovery crashed on a planet known as the Colony and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Saru (Doug Jones) found themselves at phaser-point in an alien saloon with a nasty character called Zareh (Jake Weber).
That was all brilliant, unquestionably some of the Very Best of "Discovery." The disappointing dilithium-destroying-delinquent story arc didn't really start until half way through. But this first episode of Season 4, entitled "Kobayashi Maru" is somewhat unevenly paced.
It mulls along, quite happily, quietly culture building for just under an hour then, 30 seconds before the end, WHAM! And we're not talking about '80s pop music sensation. Or even '60s diptych pop art. No, instead we're handed a cliffhanger of profoundly out-of-proportion scale that jars spectacularly against the rest of the episode and to be perfectly honest, is far too much of a big deal to be used in the very first episode. It also means that the Another Anomaly story arc has started straight away and that really wasn't necessary. But we'll get to all that later.
After a nearly two-minute recap of the events of the last season, we see the USS Discovery spore jumping to a point in space and Booker's ship launches form the shuttle. It performs a seemingly unnecessary disassemble-reassemble maneuver as it flies over Discovery's saucer section, which feels like it's been put there for our entertainment, rather than realism and heads down to the planet below.
What follows, to all intents and purposes, is a rehash of the beginning of "Star Trek Into Darkness" — so at least the writers room is borrowing from Paramount's own IP this season. While not a first contact situation, this feels almost like a second contact situation, since diplomacy had broken down long ago between the people of Alshain IV and the Federation. Perhaps that's the influence of "Lower Decks," but more than likely not. This is an attempt to rebuild relations now that using dilithium is no longer dangerous.
After some not-unamusing cultural misunderstandings, the already-suspicious Alshains open fire on Burnham and Book who flee into the surrounding woodland. It seems the indigenous population have a symbiotic relationship with other lifeforms and are able to utilize butterfly-like creatures in order to fly. And fly they do, while still shooting and somehow still missing the two dimwitted diplomats.
It could've been a fun set piece, but it drags on far too long and as such falls victim to too many clichés. For some unexplained reason, the Alshains are able to follow the undynamic duo for many miles as they flee in a transport pod, but the moment Burnham and Book cower behind a tree stump, they're utterly flummoxed. Clearly, they have no clue what a flanking maneuver is. An implausible plan is hatched, the planet's magnetic field-based sensor-satellite array is reactivated and finally the Alshains can advance up to and beyond the tree stump.
Before disappearing into the night sky, Book and Burnham beam over the promised dilithium, despite the attempts to utterly annihilate them, because that's what Starfleet does. And naturally, the moment Burnham bounds back onto the bridge of the Discovery, the leader of the Alshains, hails the Crossfield class ship and more or less apologizes. Smiles all round then.
The opening credits haven't changed very much, there's a few new graphics in there including Book's ship and an updated NCC 1031-A, plus the same utterly astounding number of producers. In fact, it feels like there's even more than before; the list of producers, co-producers, executive producers, co-executive producers, consulting producers and supervising producers takes up over half the length of the credits sequence.
We cut to what looks like a high council meeting of some sort on Kaminar in what is the first example of one of the highlights of this episode: extensive culture building and taking worlds we've seen before and adding a hole new dimension to them, after all it's been just shy of a millennia since we last saw the Kelpien homeworld. Moreover, this is the first season of "Discovery" — and, in fact, the very first "Star Trek" series — to air after filming with the Stagecraft LED virtual wall technology developed by ILM, Pixomondo and others and pioneered for the first season of "The Mandalorian." So we can expect some beautiful VFX set designs and this scene is one of those.
The dialogue serves largely as exposition as Saru (Doug Jones) explains to the high council how a "burn" will definitely not happen again and that the Kelpien's should look to once more reach out into space. Before long we cut to the USS Discovery and Burnham is anxious about delivering a speech to celebrate the reopening of Starfleet Academy with the President of the United Federation of Planets present. The chemistry between is Book and Burnham is boiling over with potential, yet the dialogue always seems to let them down, as it seldom feels natural. Plus, no normal couple smiles quite that much.
The President, Laira Rillak (Tara Rosling) takes over and talks to those gathered about the gallantry of the Discovery crew, so lots more smiles all round. We learned during the earlier scene on Kaminar that five months have passed since the events of the concluding episode of Season 3, so yes, there probably would still be quite a lot of this sort of thing going, after all, the "Burn" did last approximately 120 years.
This episode is guilty of a little fan service and that's fine as long as it's kept to a minimum, but to this fan, whose favorite series is "Enterprise," the announcement of the Archer Space Dock, along with a few seconds of the familiar closing theme, was rather nice. After El Presidente's speech, she thanks the Discovery's crew personally and Burnham tiptoes off to talk to now-Lieutenant Tilly.
Her promotion to first officer last season, from ensign, was controversial to say the least, since from a practical standpoint — and especially one if you've actually served or are serving — she simply didn't have the knowledge, training or experience for such an unprecedented jump in rank. So almost like the producer's felt it necessary to close the lid on this, Burnham reassures Tilly that she was ready.
Then the emergency transmission comes in for the set piece that will tie everything together. Deep Space Repair Beta Six has lost reactor control thrusters plus gravitational stability is also compromised and it's sending a distress call. However, whatever affected the station also knocked out the subspace relays in the area and they cannot wait for any vessel to reach them at warp so the USS Discovery must go.
At which point President Rillak insists on joining the mission and immediately sets up a predictable — and somewhat clichéd — "who's in command here" confrontation at the crucial moment, on the bridge of the Discovery, during the rescue mission. Naturally, Burnham objects, but she's ultimately overruled, immediately setting up a nice and prickly relationship.
Then the strangest thing happens as the USS Discovery makes its spore jump; at about 23:20 in the episode, a new sound effect has been added…and well, it just sounds silly, almost like a comedy whistle that doesn't do anything for the credibility of the spore drive, which needs all the credibility it can get. Hopefully, it will be removed from future episodes, a little like how the producers got trigger happy with the phaser charge-up sound effect in the episode "Project Daedalus" (S02, E09) until the novelty wore off.
Upon reaching the station, an "Interstellar"-style rotation-match maneuver is required in order for the Discovery to mount a rescue. You'd think in the 32nd century they'd simply be able to use the tractor beam, but no adequate reason is provided as to why this isn't possible. Using the transporters is mentioned, but there's too much interference, naturally.
We cut to Kwejian, Book's beautiful homeworld, for some more culture building. He's returned to take part in his nephew Leto's (Luca Doulgeris) coming of age ceremony and it's a nice set piece, although it's now painfully obvious something is going to happen, but the sheer scale of it is still a shock. His nephew is given the traditional amulet containing the sap of the root of a sacred tree and the blood of his family, which is never taken off. However, Book no longer wears his and his brother Kyheem (Ache Hernandez) explains that it's a story that he will share another time.
At this point we return and remain with the dilemma aboard Deep Space Repair Beta Six. We cut back and forth from the Discovery bridge to Engineering and back to the station where Tilly and Adira (Blu del Barrio) are aboard. The set piece is enjoyable and successfully builds a little tension as one attempt after another to get the survivors off the doomed station fails for a variety of reasons. Naturally though, the President disagrees with almost every decision Burnham makes and the predictable confrontations occur. Meanwhile, the station and the Discovery are both being bombarded by asteroid debris thrown at them by the gravitational distortion, now positively identified as the cause of the damage to the Deep Space outpost.
One thing to note here is that as Tilly and Adira beam from the Discovery bridge to the Repair Beta Six station, their clothes change from standard uniform to a more rugged, away mission outfit and if you look closely, for a second Adira can be seen slightly surprised and checking out their new look after they materialize, so it's evidently deliberate. Are we to assume then, that in the same way beaming technology has replaced stairs — as we saw in the Season 3 penultimate episode "There Is a Tide..." (S03, E12) — it's also replaced dressing yourself? What's next, beaming food into your stomach to save you the time of actually having to eat it..?
There's an unexpected cut to Kaminar where an interesting conversation takes place between Su'Kal and Saru as the young Kelpien can easily see the former starship captain's desire to return to Starfleet, the Discovery and his friends. It's a nice scene, with good dialogue that hints fairly heavily at what's to come.
Through a combined effort of using the escape shuttle, Burnham's emergency EVA, the President's persuasive skills and an excessive amount of technobabble, the survivors barely make it aboard the Discovery just as the space station is destroyed and the Federation starship itself is also struck by a particularly large piece of frozen asteroid. Unfortunately, the captain of Deep Space Repair Beta Six is killed by falling debris on the bridge.
What follows is the seemingly predictable pep talk from the President to Captain Burnham. However, thankfully, it's not quite what we were expecting. Rillak uses the famous Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario to explain to Burnham that sometimes we might believe we've lost, especially if people have died, but if people have also been saved, then it shouldn't be considered a loss — the lesson is acceptance. And then she reveals the real reason she's aboard; turns out the next generation of starships are under construction that feature what she calls the "pathway drive" and the prototype ship is the USS Voyager NCC-74656-J that we first caught a glimpse of in the episode "Die Trying" (S03, E05) and she's evaluating the shortlist for the center seat.
However, she says Burnham isn't ready, which puts her nose right out of joint. It seems she cannot adequately accept all potential outcomes of a command decision. "It's a matter of experience really," she says. "Your acts of bravery are irrefutable, but they are also huge swings of the pendulum and in the time of rebuilding, there is a very fine between a pendulum and a wrecking ball," she adds thus fulfilling the required role of a command character that Burnham can square off against.
We cut to the bridge as sensors have detected something strange in the Kwejian system. Book is already there and explains that his ship was struck by something on his return journey. The image is put up on the viewscreen and we see the gasping faces of many of the bridge crew, then Burnham then Book and finally the viewscreen itself. Kwejian, Book's beloved homeworld, once lush, fertile and full of symbiotic plant and animal life — a bit like Pandora in "Avatar" — is now, to all intents and purposes, has been reduced to a burning cinder.
And that's the end of episode one. It's a surprise that the producers went full Alderaan in the Season 4 premiere episode and such a decided, obviously included for sheer shock value, jars considerably against the rest of the episode. It's extremely unlikely that this scale of end-of-episode cliffhanger will be maintained each week, so why put it right at the beginning? Better to commit planetary genocide later in the season, surely. After the Season 3 premiere episode was all about saving the trance worm, was this a conscious decision to go in the polar opposite direction and kill them all along with everything else..?
Starfleet commendation ✓
- The culture building we saw in this episode was awesome, more please
- The underwater Kelpien high council set design was gorgeous
- Burnham's pod impact scene was nicely filmed
- Laira Rillak turns out to be at least a bit more interesting than first thought
- Burnham's savior complex is addressed, so hopefully we'll see less of it
Scrubbing the holodecks ✗
- Did Adira really have to be written as the new nervous crewmember?
- Destroying Kwejian and everything on it…was excessive for episode one
- The silly sound accompanying the spore jump is as silly as the spore drive
- There's a real danger of falling into a "clue of the week" routine, yet again
- So Many Smiles.
Rating: 5½ / 10
The first episode of Season 4 of "Star Trek: Discovery" is available to watch now and subsequent installments will drop every Thursday on Paramount Plus in the U.S. However, in a move that's upset rather a lot of people, "Discovery" has been removed from Netflix in all non-US/Canada regions and will not be available until Paramount Plus launches in wider European regions next year. This will not impact Canada's availability (on CTV Sci Fi / Crave) or the US region. "StarTrek: Picard" and "StarTrek: Lower Decks" will continue to be on Amazon in non-US/Canada territories.