Before cracking on with the review, let's take a moment to rail against Paramount's latest dubious marketing decision. While I understand the company's desire to monetise their product effectively, their decision to make Discovery available only through their own streaming service is questionable, and their approach to doing so utterly baffling. It's not that Paramount hasn't got a large slate of films and programmes, but it's hardly Disney, and not so many people are going to want to sign up to another expensive subscription service to watch their shows. Choosing Star Trek as their tentpole production shows that they're pinning their new service on Trek fans, so then doing their very best to piss worldwide fans off seems like a very stupid thing to do.
Pulling Discovery from Netflix after a backroom deal, two days before the latest season is due to start, is a kick in the teeth to anyone who hasn't decided to shell out for Paramount Plus, and to anyone outside of the US and Canada. With days to go after much trailing, the rest of the world is told to stuff it and will have to wait months to see it legally. It's not exactly hard to pirate things these days, and Paramount are going to make considerably less money in the long run as people either torrent their programmes or leave it altogether. That's even without looking at the concerns of the cast and crew, who were suddenly told days before their big premiere that 90% of the world won't see their work as promised.
Onto the actual episode... and yes, that was really rather good. Taking up some months after the end of season three's climactic finale, with Burnham fully ensconsed as captain of the Discovery, on a mission to reunite the disparate worlds of the Federation and spread a little goodwill. The opening act sees Burnham and Book (there for his special empathic skills) visit the planet Alshain Four, where the native population are struggling for dilithium but are very hostile towards the Federation due to previous bad experiences pre- and post-Burn. It's a very fun, over-the-top and visually spectacular opening, ending with Burnham and crew making things good with the Alshain and gifting them some dilithium. “We're the Federation,” says Captain B. “It's what we do.”
Moving on to Starfleet HQ, where Starfleet Academy is re-opening for the first time in over a century, and the brand new Federation President is on-hand to speechify about the importance of it all. Twenty-one worlds have rejoined the Federation in the last five months, a new experimental Pathfinder Drive is being worked on, and missions of exploration are starting again. A new spacedock named Archer is commissioned, and to hammer home the symbolism, we get a refrain from Archer's Theme from Enterprise. It's all rather moving. There are little, subtle asides to other historic Trek series as well – mention of the new USS Voyager and a line about “what was left behind,” plus a paraphrase of the classic “strange new worlds” opening, just to bring everything full circle.
It's rather more feelgood than the immediate crises the show has previously dropped us in. This doesn't last long, of course, and before the episode is done a new, unforeseen and unprecedented catastrophe is heading for the galaxy. Discovery is called out to help space station Deep Space Beta 6 when it's hit by a gravitational anomaly, and just so happens to be in the general vicinity of Kwejian, where Book is enjoying a space coming-of-age ceremony with his brother and nephew. Without going into massive spoilers for the whole episode, it's leads to a thrilling rescue mission at the space station, where Adira and now Lieutenant Tilly face a panicky and proprietory commander alongside a catastrophic collision with some Oort cloud debris. Burnham, none-too-happy to have the President along for the ride, takes matters into her own hands and goes on a breakneck, death-defying one-woman mission to fix the station from the outside. Meanwhile, similarly catastrophic gravitational effects begin around Kwejian.
I had thought that the icy debris heading for the station was evidence of the whole of Kwejian's system shifting across space due to the gravitational anomaly, but this doesn't seem to be the case. Nonetheless, planets were left dislocated and it's clear the galaxy is in for some serious trouble in the near future.
In a side-plot, Saru remains on Kaminar, doing his best to lead the Ba'ul-Kelpien alliance back into the wider galaxy while also looking after his young protege Su'Kal. There are some lovely moments here, with a genuinely touching scene in which Su'Kal reassures Saru that he now has new friends and family on Kaminar, even as some people still fear him, and that the Kelpien captain should return to Starfleet where he clearly belongs. Another little sideline is Adira's relationship with Gray, who's still hanging around as a ghost in want of a physical body. There's not much time spent on it, but it gets its moment so we know this storyline hasn't been forgotten. Stamets and Culber remain devoted space dads to Adira, who is struggling with being both the youngest crewmember on her first away mission, and having centuries of experience no one expects.
The main thread of the story, though, is Burnham's messiah complex, seemingly even worse than ever now she's captain. As the President points out, her inflexible commitment to ensuring everyone lives could one day mean that everyone dies, and her inability to delegate during major crises risks missions failing. In Burnham's defence, it did, as she says, work, and she can probably be forgiven for acting like the universe revolves around her when events so far in Discovery suggest it does. Martin-Green (now also listed as producer) gives a great performance, fun when she needs to be and stubbornly rigid otherwise. She has a great foil in David Ajala's Book, and their chemistry hasn't lessened in the time between seasons. More interesting though is her interplay with Chelah Horsdal as President Laira Rillak, who muscles her way onto the bridge and questions the captain's decisions at every turn. Clearly a charming and resourceful leader, Rillak is also canny enough to research the people she's dealing with, memorising key details she can use to get them on side.
It looks to me that the writers are trying to set Burnham up as a new Kirk. The opening is very much the sort of adventure we might see Kirk on, with Book providing the common sense of Bones while Burnham wings it on guts and charm and ends up with a precarious situation that eventually comes good. Watching here we were reminded very much of the Teenaxi at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, physically very different but equally paranoid and aggressive aliens who went for Kirk the same way the Alshain went for Burnham. Her fractious relationship with the President also recalls any number of arrogant and officious VIPs that Kirk had to put up with on his bridge on TOS, questioning his sometimes impulsive command decisions.
The rest of the cast remain strong, with Mary Wiseman giving us a more assured Tilly, Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander remain adorable and Oded Fehr is a solid presence as Admiral Vance. Perhaps the most impressive remain Doug Jones and Bill Irwin as Saru and Su'Kal, providing extraordinarily nuanced performances under layers of make-up. With some fascinatingly strange new worlds and some gripping action, this is an excellent season opener.
What a shame we couldn't watch it.
Alien life forms:
President Rillak appears to be a mixture of human, Bajoran and Cardassian heritage.
Nalas, the commander on DS Beta 6, is one of Kima's species, now named the Akoszonam.
Starfleet officers seen include Lurians and Ferengi.
The Alshain (who reminded me visually of the Engineers from Prometheus) have some kind of symbiotic relationship with their planets butterflies, and can fly using their planet's magnetic field.
Stellar Cartography: Alshain, or Beta Aquilae, is a real star system, a mere 45 light years from Earth.
Personnel roster: Rhys has been promoted to Lt. Commander, and seems to be acting as first officer for this mission.
Future history: Rillak talks to Burnham about the Kobayashi Maru, but it's a little hard to credit they're using the same test all these centuries later. Even naming a space station after Jonathan Archer is a bit of a stretch – his era was a thousand years earlier.