After a pacey opening episode for this semi-season, Discovery settles down for the slow grind again. This season has suffered from real pacing issues so far; bursts of exciting adventure but very gradual progress in the overall story. Again, I think this will play better in a season-long rewatch, and there's the inescapable feeling that this season was written for the Netflix-style bingewatch then scuppered by being released weekly.
“Rubicon” is an episode that exists purely to push the overall arc along a step, and doesn't do much beyond that. There's never any real sense of jeopardy or tension in the pursuit of Book and the tactic of proving that he has some thinking time before the DMA leaps away again is, while reasonable, not the most gripping approach. There are some nice touches – the scene between Michael and Book, separated by starship hulls, is lovely – but there's still a unshakeable feeling that this episode is filler material. After all, essentially nothing changes as a result of the events of the episode. Tarka proves that he is ruthless and can't be trusted, threatening the Discovery diplomatic team and using his isolytic bomb in spite of Book's reluctance, but this is hardly a major shock and doesn't, in the long run, change the dynamic. Tarka uses the bomb, destroying the DMA... and there's another one along to replace it in moments. Did it really not occur to the genius scientist that a culture that advanced wouldn't have back-up systems they could put in place, or that they'd keep the ever-so-tempting power source safely remote?
While it's understandable for dramatic purposes, allowing Burnham to lead the mission is obviously a terrible idea. She is far too close to Book to be allowed to take command of such a delicate point of the mission, even if she did hold it together and put the tracker on him before. Yes, Discovery is the only ship currently equipped to chase after Book via spore drive jumps, but surely someone else could have taken command? Saru, although still involved, would have been a more sensible choice, as a captain with seniority who knows the ship and crew and hasn't been sleeping with the enemy, as it were.
Assigning an officer to provide oversight and override if necessary is a reasonable compromise, but it's a hell of a conceit having Nhan take the role. As good as it is to see the gorgeous Rachael Ancheril back, Nhan's return doesn't really add much to the story and lacks the dramatic conflict of interest that the writers seem to think it provides. Visually, the episode is absolutely stunning, with events playing out against the backdrop of a complex nebula-like structure within the DMA, and there are some inarguably tense moments, altogether it just feels like we're treading water.
4-10: THE GALACTIC BARRIER
Things push on a little further in “The Galactic Barrier,” although the main beneficiary of this episode's development is Tarka, who finally sits down and opens up about his past to Book. Indeed, this episode, while moving the plot along a touch, is mainly concerned with the characters' personal relationships. Saru and Ni'Var President T'Rina move along in their cautious romance, now that Culber's given the Kelpien suitor a touch of courage. Michael and Federation President Rillak finally learn to see eye-to-eye, developing a mutual respect of each other's approach and a willingness to work together. Is it stretching things to have both presidents along for the ride on a ship with a significant chance of never returning? Well, yes, but it adds something to the feeling of danger. We're unlikely to see any members of the main crew bite the dust, but the second-tier crew and characters could be useful if the writers want to kill someone off with a bit of impact.
But yes, it's Tarka who benefits from this episode the most. Shawn Doyle has been one of the highlights of this season, but Tarka's ruthless and closed persona, combined with his arrogant self-assurance, was beginning to become annoying. This episode humanises him just in time, and explores his background in enough depth that, while keeping him mysterious and not entirely trustworthy, at least makes his attitude understandable.
The scenes set in the past in the Emerald Chain prison colony are the strongest in this episode. The chemistry between Doyle as Tarka and Osric Chau as Oros (the latter absolutely swamped with make-up and prosthetics) makes these scenes, and they both put in beautiful performances. The exact nature of their relationship remains uncertain; while Tarka describes them as friends, their physical closeness as time goes on suggests something more than that. In either case, it's a believable look at two people who have adjusted to isolation and brutality, slowly learning to bond with and rely on each other. As much as I hope Tarka finds Oros, it's slightly hard to accept that the alien has made his way to his perfect parallel universe. Kayalise, the optimal possible universe, is a fascinating idea, the sort of religious belief I can imagine a highly scientifically advanced culture developing. However, the certainty that this universe exists and can be reached seems like the wishful thinking of someone desperate to escape their unhappy life. I fear Tarka may be destined for a disappointing truth.
On the more action-based side of the episode, Discovery makes its way through the Galactic Barrier, taking back to territory from the very beginning of Star Trek. It's a very different region what we saw in those heady days though. Visually, just like this entire season, it's remarkable, a complex and alien region, but I can't help but wish they'd kept something of the pinky-purple cloud. Thanks to 32nd century shield tech, the psychic supercharging that sent Gary Mitchell off the deep end is no longer a problem. However, the volatile phenomenon is still full of dangerous energies, with Discovery forced to bunny-hop between semi-stable bubbles of safe space. It's suitably tense, but again, it seems far removed from the Galactic Barrier we saw back in the TOS days.
Overall, the episode works, but with only three episodes left in the season, there remains the sense that we really need to get moving with the arc plot now.