The mystery of the DMA steps up a gear when it's finally confirmed that the anomaly is not a natural phenomenon. We might have assumed this, given that it appeared to be steering itself round the galaxy, but the drip-drip of new information about it is tantalising. With some kind of advanced technology at its centre, and the ability to appear virtually anywhere by dint of a tame wormhole, it's tremendously dangerous and threatens and anyone and anything in the known universe.
Naturally, it's all hands on deck trying to work out who made this thing and what makes it tick. Now that Discovery has lost one of its best scientists in Tilly, Admiral Vance assigns a famed scientist, one Ruon Tarka, to assist. Meanwhile, the DMA is threatening a former Emerald Chain colony, so Discovery also heads there to mount an evacuation effort. The colonists prefer to leave their criminals behind to die in their prison, so Burnham and Book, the latter needing to make some amends for his survivor's guilt, mount a rescue mission. Meanwhile again, Culber is finding the sheer ongoing pressure of helping the many people struggling through this crisis overwhelming.
Three distinct storylines again this week, all with something important to say about how we face crises. Of the three, it's the scientific discourse that's actually the most fun. Shawn Doyle is wonderfully watchable as Tarka, an arrogant but charismatic scientist. Making him a Risian is a nice touch, with the scientist still annoyed at his upbringing on a pleasure planet, but that Risian “do whatever you want” attitude is still with him. He's a hedonistic scientist, with little regard for rules or risk. I was reminded a little of Richard Kiley's Gideon Seyetik (from the DS9 episode “Second Sight”) by the character and performance, but while the same arrogance, self-aggrandisement and lust for knowledge is there, Tarka is a much more dangerous character. He clearly knows more than he's letting on, and it's heavily implied he was once enslaved by the Emerlad Chain, so there's a lot of interesting backstory there. Stamets immediately dislikes him, although a lot of that is because the man has been heading up the spore drive research and cutting him out, but Tarka's sheer brilliance begins to win him over.
Once they start experimenting with the creation of a tiny DMA as a simulation, things get potentially dangerous. Leaving Saru in charge while Burnham is off on a rescue mission works in the ship's favour, for even when the Kelpien is won over by Tarka's charimatic pleas, he's still intrinsically cautious and probably responsible for the ship not being sucked into a black hole of its own creation. The reappearance of the long-missed Tig Notaro as engineer Jett Reno adds another spiky personality to this heady mix. You have to let slide the obvious idiocy of undertaking this experiment in the middle of a rescue mission on the edge of the most dangerous spatial event in the universe – it's absolute madness they wouldn't put it off until they were a safe distance away – but it's heady sci-fi and really sparks.
The mission to the colony, spread over a string of asteroids, is the action-packed side of the episode, but oddly the least engaging. This is classic Trek stuff but the unjustly imprisoned criminals – the Examples of the title – are a bit of an uninteresting bunch, and I struggled to remember who was in prison for what. Still, Burnham an Book remain a great team when it comes to this daring missions. The genuinely criminal Felix – the only guilty man on Radvek, if you will – stands out a little better, mostly thanks to Michael Greyeyes, but he's still not the most interesting character. Clichéd characters are fine, but the noble prisoner is harder to pull off than the self-serving scientist or the stalwart captain and the whole storyline just fails to gel for me. Still, it's a very nice touch making the colony's founders the Akaali. Previously seen in the Enterprise episode “Civilization,” the Akaali were at a roughly twentieth century level when we met them. A thousand and forty years later, they are, of course, much more advanced. (Annoyingly, I almost put the Akaali in my Discovery season four article, but decided on the Crepusculans and the Romans as my pre-warp follow-ups instead.)
Wilson Cruz is a shining star this season, bringing such humanity and warmth to the increasingly troubled Culber. Deliberately throwing himself into the task of maintaining the crew's mental health, he has refused to spend time looking after his own. Given that not long ago he was mudered, resurrected through interdimensional mulch and then thrown out of his own timezone, it's fair to say he has some issues to work through. Pairing him with David Cronenberg's blunt and pragmatic Kovich is a brilliant choice, perhaps not making a great deal of logistical sense but providing some tremendously entertaining interplay between the two characters. There's an effective coda between Culber and Stamets where they recognise that they are frankly just as bad as each other when it comes to looking after themselves.
The episode ends with ominous rumblings of future developments regarding the DMA, plus a briefly explored plotline looking at the computer Zora's gradual evolution, something which demands more attention further along. More important to the episode itself are the themes carried throughout. A lot has been made in the real world about how this season is a response to the events of the ongoing pandemic, with the Federation and its neighbours facing an implacable natural threat that they cannot reason with but must work together to understand and survive. This carries through with this episode, reflecting the general attitude of many government to ignore their prison populations safety when it came to the virus, and of course Culber's focus on the huge, ongoing stress that the situation is causing. On the other hand, this allegory is broken by the revelation, however expected, that the DMA has been constructed. If it is meant to be a parallel for COVID-19, what is that supposed to signify? Surely the scriptwriters aren't suggesting they think the virus was engineered by the Chinese or something?
More likely it's just a case of not fully thinking the allegory through. The episode equally takes a look at society's collective responsibility for its less privlileged members. The plight of the various Examples, mostly imprisoned for minor crimes, suggests the treatment of minority groups who are targeted disproportionately by legal systems, although having them be a varied group perhaps lessens this parallel. More up-front is Burnham's reprimand of the Akaali governor, pointing out that he's a refugee now and hoping for his sake that whoever takes his people in is fairer than he was. Some very clear parallels to recent attitudes by some western governments there. Altogether, this is some classic Star Trek material.
Starship Spotter: Starships mentioned this episode incluce the USS Janeway and the Ni'Var starship NSS T'Pau.
Alien civilisations: Species considered as responsible for the DMA inclue the Nacene (VOY: “Caretaker”), the Iconians (TNG: “Contagion”) , the Metrons (TOS: “Arena”) and the Q Continuum, although the latter haven't made contact with the Federation for six hundred years.
Scanning for life forms: An officer on the Discovery bridge is visibly of the Shlerm race, previously only seen in the film Star Trek Beyond.