Thursday 24 March 2022

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4-12 & 4-13

 4-12: SPECIES 10-C 


Season four ends with a two-part adventure that is both pacy and thoughtful. Quite a bit happens in these two episodes, recalling the pacing issues of the first season of Picard: languid progress through the season followed by a mad rush to tie things up. In this case, the finale works well on its own measure, although as the culmination of a three-month arc it doesn't quite hit the mark.

To begin with, we have a fascinating encounter with an alien environment. As I mentioned in the last review, we've had any number of Earth-like planets over the years, with only occasional excursions to more exotic worlds. Now Discovery enters a truly unique location: a gigantic forcefield surrounding the core of a star system, within which a megastructure orbits the sun, and within this three jovian planets that are home to totally new alien life forms. It's wonderful to have Discovery actually discovering something again, for once something that doesn't seem like a rehash of something we've seen before.

There are some wild visuals as the ship is pulled inside by a tentacle of who-knows-what, as the 10-C's technology makes short work of Discovery's defences. There's some fundamental good work in the first contact department, with the Starfleet crew offering a gift (some handy boronite) before the process of communication is attempted. Dr. Hirai leads the team in trying to communicate with a gigantic, nebulous entity that speaks through a combination of light sequences and olfactory molecules... it's a genuinely interesting look at how an alien life form might operate differently than us. We can barely communicate with other species on our own planet – hell, sometimes we can barely communicate with each other. This is the sort of problem we're going to face if we ever do meet intelligent extraterrestrial life.

It's a bit hard to swallow just how quickly the team go from tenuous mathematical concepts to full blown conversation. One minute they can just about say, “nine,” the next Michael and T'Rina are speechifying with all manner of idioms and metaphors. Still, it works well overall, tying into a season-long theme of communication fostering understanding and overcoming otherness.

Meanwhile, Tarka and Book come to blows, when the Risian scientist reveals he's not to be trusted after all. Shock! Horror! The least-surprising development all season, signposted as it has been since he first started peddling his scientific wares. It's a bit of a shame, since Tarka has been among the best things this season, and he's so obviously a wrong'un that setting him up as a proper villain earlier, rather than Book's shaky ally, would probably have worked better and given the season some focus. Still, his plight is a sympathetic one, even as his delusions overcome his sensibilities. The idea that there was a perfect universe out there that he could beam to was always a bit unbelievable, but we've had more outlandish ideas in Trek. Like so many villains before him, his final acceptance of the truth, sudden heel-turn and redemption come too quickly. It would have been good to see a last shot of him, in some idyllic world meeting Oros, left open for the viewer to decide if he had reached his goal, died and passed to the other side, or was simply imagining his heaven in his last moments.

There's some good material on Book's ship, though, as Jet snarks her way through captivity and uses licorice as a combined food/distraction/building material. It's classic Trek engineer work, taking low-tech materials and using them on incredibly high-tech problems. It's the sort of silliness we can get behind. Less so is the fact that it takes the rest of the crew hours to even notice that Jet has gone. The abandoned communicator trick got old with The Next Generation. Equally disappointing is the abandoned plotline of Discovery being lost in the depths of extragalactic space, having burnt out the spore drive escaping from one of the 10-C's impenetrable bubbles. A decades-long journey home at conventional warp could have been an interesting, Voyager-esque direction for season five. Still, this is far from the first time Trek's pulled that trick; by now, it almost feels like a tribute.

Some of the best material takes place far away from the ostensible main action. Naturally, the threat of the DMA was going to be magnified by having it threaten Earth directly (and Titan and Ni'Var, not that we see any of that). While some scenes of the chaos on Earth itself might have made it more powerful, there's a real sense of impending doom during the crisis. Starfleet HQ proves to be not merely a space station, but a gigantic starship, one that can speed all the way to Earth and even split into smaller ships to help with the evacuation. It helps hammer home not just the scale of the crisis, as the whole of Starfleet, every ship and the entire HQ come to the rescue, but also the level of technology in the 32nd century. In turn, the 10-C, being so much more advanced than this, appear even more powerful.

Mainly, though, these scenes work so well because of the much-missed Tilly, staying behind and working with Admiral Vance. The good Admiral has been underused this season, and here Oded Fehr finally gets to make his character seem human, displaying good chemistry with Mary Wiseman's character. There's definitely the sense that the two leave the situation as firm friends. When they give us that Starfleet Academy spin-off (come on, it's bound to be coming), I suspect lots more Tilly-Vance time. Get Jet Reno in there too – she'd suit perfectly as a crabby engineering instructor.

Ultimately, everything turns out for the best, and unfortunately, this is where it all falls down. The 10-C's immediate capitulation is too sudden to be satisfyingly dramatic. Had this been a standalone story, as most episodes had been in the old days of Trek, then it would have worked fine within those confines, but as the culmination of a season-long arc, it's all too sudden. The 10-C are sad apologise, switch off the DMA and their forcefield and send Discovery home. Oh, and they bring Book back from the dead while they're at it, undercutting some strong material by Martin-Green as she mourns her lover. Perhaps Book, Gray and Culber can form a support group for people who were dead for a bit and then got brought back in unlikely ways?

Speaking of Book, it must be said, he gets off lightly here. Having committed serious crimes against the Federation (although not treason, whatever people are saying, since he was never a Federation citizen or official member of Starfleet), the rogue gets a few months community service. That's pretty slight for stealing classified technology, attacking a starship and almost triggering an intergalactic conflict.

Much like the season as a whole, the finale involves a string of solid and effective elements that together are simply dissatisfying. Less than the sum of its parts, the season ends with everything almost exactly as it started. Except that Earth has rejoined the Federation, and to be honest, even that was a bit quicker and easier than it should have been.

Cool bits:

Species 10-C are a Kardashev Level II civilisation, at least, meaning that they can harness the entire energy output of their home star. Human civilisation has yet to reach Level I, but we might assume that they've managed it by the 32nd century.

President Rillak mentions the Borg and their hive mind, suggesting the Collective is still active in the 32nd century.

Perhaps most satisfyingly, we finally know the Tellarites' status: they never left the Federation, unlike the other founding worlds.

The Earth President is played by Stacey Abrams, a major American political figure, activist and lawyer, who has been working to address voter suppression in red states.

The USS Mitchell, oft-mentioned and finally seen, is named for Discovery guest star Ken Mitchell, a rare tribute to a still-living cast member.

The final episode is dedicated to April Nocifera, a long-time Trek producer who died from cancer late last year.

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