Star Trek: Discovery Season 4, Episode 1 – Debuted Thursday, November 18, 2021
Written by Michelle Paradise & Jenny Lumet & Alex Kurtzman
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
Discovery returns with a bang, delivering an action-packed season opener that sets up high stakes and new character arcs for the season.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“It’s what we do”
Picking up after some time has passed, we find Captain Burnham on a genuine strange new world, taking on the task given to her at the end of season three. This first post-Burn visit to a former Federation world with an offer of free dilithium and peaceful cooperation meets a skeptical audience with the don’t-call-them-butterfly-people, the Alshain. Boyfriend Book is along for his “empathy thing,” but after the locals scan a certain Felis catus lifeform on his ship, a comedy of errors and misunderstanding of Grudge’s regal nature turns this tense reunion into running and phaser gunning, which is sort of second nature for Michael and Book. While he is ready to meet fire with fire, Michael and the team on the Discovery science out a gesture of goodwill by fixing a local dilithium-starved satellite network. After some more fun banter, they are back on the Disco with a more amenable Emperor Lee’U calling, now open to accepting the Federation gifts, no strings attached. Mission accomplished in this cold open full of sci-fi action, alien humor, Treknology, and good old teamwork. Discovery is back and ready to take on the galaxy.
Back at Federation HQ, Captain Burnham’s new calm confidence is on display as she addresses the first Starfleet Academy class since The Burn. The Federation is coming out of hiding with new president Laira Rillak, who announces Starfleet’s return to the mission of exploration. Drilling the point home, she unveils a new spacedock named for Captain Jonathan Archer and a program of new and updated ships with new post-warp technology. But all the nostalgic feels, inspiring speechifying, and admiring of fancy new dress uniforms is cut short by a distress call from a distant space station. Admiral Vance orders the Discovery to check it out, and the President invites herself along, much to the chagrin of a skeptical captain who doesn’t want to give joyrides to politicians looking to “tick a box” for space action on their resume.
“I know you want to go home”
They arrive at Deep Space Beta 6 to find it tumbling out of control. Together the bridge crew comes to life to sort out the problem (a gravitational distortion) and work out a solution requiring programmable matter and some impressive-looking maneuvering. In this, Captain Burnham is a competent conductor, letting the crew play the high notes. After Owo and Detmer affably align the ship, Tilly and the newly minted Ensign Adira—doing an admirable season one stammering Tilly routine—beam over to fix the station with a remarkable amount of technobabble. With gravity literally upside down, the station’s Commander Nalas is understandably a bit prickly, but Lt. Tilly leads the away mission with some diplomacy, and they get the station stabilized… just in time for a new crisis: giant frozen methane space boulders start tearing the station apart.
Now a desperate rescue mission with a deteriorating shields ticking clock and no working transporters (because reasons), the only way to save the station crew is for someone on Discovery to Top Gun a Worker Bee over to free the escape pod, and Captain Burnham volunteers herself! After explaining to the president that she is contractually obligated to do some space hero stuff in every season opener, Michael heads out. Sure enough, it isn’t long until the worker bee is destroyed, leaving the captain to go full Super Michael as she flies in to free that pod. She also gets an assist from the President who has to talk down a now phaser-toting crazed Commander Nalas into awaiting the fix instead of doing something stupid.
“It is hard to be away”
While all this action is happening on board the Discovery, a couple of key members of the crew are off on their own adventures. Book has left the ship to return to his homeworld–which happens to be close by to the station having the crisis–so he can participate in the Ikhu Zhen, a sort of Kwejian Bar Mitzvah, for his nephew Leto. His brother Kyheem is there and they have a lovely time tapping into the World Root with an ancient ceremony and some hints of Book’s backstory. But something is amiss, as they noticed the birds have all gone a bit crazy, which is never a good sign. As he flies up in his ship to find out what’s going on, Book sees something destroy Kwejian’s moon and then all hell breaks loose, including exploding programmable matter consoles. The more things change…
On Kaminar, Saru is now a counselor and an “esteemed elder” where he guides the insular Kelpiens and Ba’ul with wisdom and an effective 32ndcentury PowerPoint presentation, helping them see they are part of a larger galaxy and a “new era.” And in a nice, if not a bit heavy-handed, quiet moment, it is his charge Su’Kal doing the guiding, seeing that Saru is torn between his responsibilities to this cause of The Burn, and his longing for his old friends and ship. But Su’Kal is no longer the fragile man-child found at the end of season one. He has friends and acceptance and is ready to give Saru permission to find his own Great Balance by returning to the Discovery; just don’t forget to call home.
“You cannot defeat the mathematics of loss”
Thanks to the president’s clever pandering to a distraught Nalas, Michael has the time she needs to fix the pod, riding it back to the ship Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove-style, with Tilly, Adira, and Nalas left behind to ponder what they are all going to do after this sparks-flying crisis is over. With four minutes of life-saving shields left and five minutes needed to rescue the last survivors, Captain Burnham decides to get bad at math and Rillak is not happy. Cutting it too close, the pod arrives followed by a huge space rock as the ship spores away, leaving the shuttle bay in shambles and Tilly mourning three dead, including Commander Nalas. Once he started talking about going home you knew he wasn’t going to make it.
Highlighting what has rapidly become a complicated relationship, Rillak consoles Burnham while admonishing her at the same time. These two formidable women don’t see eye to eye as the president tells the captain she has failed this particular Kobayashi Maru. Her visit to the ship wasn’t to tick a box, but to see Michael in action… and she has some notes. Apparently, the Prez has been binge-watching the previous seasons, praising Michael’s “undeniable” bravery while pointing out that as captain, her “pathological” savior complex could end up getting her whole crew killed. Still in command of the Discovery, Michael is deemed “not ready” for one of the newer, fancier ships coming out of Archer Spacedock.
But before they have time to wrap things up, a shaken Book shows up, desperate to use the Discovery to find out what happened back home—but his planet isn’t where it should be. In shock, the president and crew find what’s left of Kwejian in another part of the system, and it’s disintegrating before their eyes. “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
With a good mix of action and emotion, “Kobayashi Maru” met the challenge of catching us up on the new state of things while setting out a whole new set of challenges for our characters as well as the Federation itself. Given that it was written by showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman (with an assist from Jenny Lumet), it’s no surprise that the heart of this episode was an exploration of Michael Burnham literally being tested in her new role as Captain. The introduction of President Rillak as a sort of foil allowed for an examination of how Michael’s past messiah complex may not be the best fit for the captain’s chair. Ably played by Chelah Horsdal, Rillak can go toe-to-toe with Burnham, now embodied with a new sense of confidence by Sonequa Martin-Green. All of their moments were illuminating, although the choice to have Michael ring up Rillak for another mini-confrontation in the middle of an intense action sequence was dubious.
The episode still found a good amount of time for some character development, or at least for setting a marker for the arcs that will play out this season. With the little time she was given, Mary Wiseman delivered a subtle performance showing that Tilly is still shaken over the confrontation with Osyraa—and losing Commander Nalas didn’t help. Blu del Barrio was delightful stepping in as the overtalking nervous smart ensign, with a quick sidebar with the ghost boyfriend to remind us that getting him a body is a thing. Anthony Rapp’s Stamets was left standing in for Engineer Jett Reno (as Tig Notaro’s time is somewhat limited this season), running around his spore drive lab pretending it was main engineering and talking about Heisenberg Compensators, but he did get a nice subtle moment in when asking about the fate of his adopted child Adira. The visit to Kaminar offered some good insights and Doug Jones showed good range, but the moment with Su’Kal was a bit heavy-handed and rushed, intended to get the character quickly back to the Disco guilt-free. As for everything that happened on Kwejian, it was a heartbreaking counterpoint to the fun had with the superb David Ajala’s Book at the episode start with the Butterfly People.
The production team also continues to up their game, with the visual effects for the space station sequences being a standout. And Gersha Phillips’ costume team must have been working overtime to deliver all the new uniforms and outfits required in this episode, with some great new additions to the canon like the new Starfleet dress uniforms. We can also see how the new AR Wall set is a great tool for the production, literally putting the actors into virtual locations seamlessly. All of this was held together by executive producer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi who now has a gravitational anomaly to let his love for the spinning camera fly.
A new threat for a new era
For the first time, a Discovery season starts with a bit of a time gap, and this allowed for a bit of a reset. In between all the action and character bits, there was quite a bit of worldbuilding going on here, especially with a reenergized Federation. While the speeches may have made this clear, there were subtle touches like the return of Vance’s family and a brief mention of peace with former enemies (likely season three’s big bad, the Emerald Chain). The opening tease with the Alshain also nicely set up how things have changed by introducing a delightfully weird alien species and getting back to some good old-fashioned cultural clashes and subsequent diplomatic resolutions.
The biggest sign of the new state of things came in a density of fan service with the Cardassian/Bajoran/Human president introducing Archer station (with his theme), the USS Voyager-J nestled inside, and her mentioning “the next generation” of ships. Not subtle, but we get it. The Federation is back in business, which helps set up the drama for the new threat in the form of the Gravitational Anomaly. We also get a hint of an environmental message here; even though the Federation now has tapped into the Saudi Arabia of dilithium, it might be time for them to move on to something new. That Pathway Drive sounds pretty interesting—hopefully that isn’t the last we hear of it.
Killing off Book’s family and his whole planet was a bit of a daring choice but established the stakes in a big way. We have a big new mystery, but it’s not one of those “we’re keeping a secret from you” things the show formerly indulged in.
While there wasn’t much hype in the run-up to this season, “Kobayashi Maru” may still be the best opener of the series yet. Strong performances, an intriguing mystery, and a world-class production add up to a welcome return for this series, showing again why it is the flagship show of the new Star Trek Universe.
- It’s been five months since the end of season three, but unclear if it’s still 3189.
- The opening title sequence has a couple of minor changes, including a graphic of the anomaly destroying a planet and a waveform analysis-looking thing.
- Book’s ship has a two-person pod he called “the little guy.”
- The Discovery once again has a tribble on board, because of course it does.
- Before finding the dilithium planet, the Federation had 38 member worlds. Now it has 59.
- Stamets and Culber have been promoted to Commander and Tilly has been promoted to Lieutenant.
- The station crew included a Lurian, the first seen as a member of Starfleet.
- Commander Nalas is an Akoszonam, this is the alien species first seen in Short Treks “Children of Earth.”
- New character Lt. Christopher (Orville Cummings) has temporarily replaced (now Lt. Commander) Bryce, who is consulting on the USS Curry (and appeared at the Academy ceremony).
- All the other bridge crew have also been promoted to Lt. Commander (Detmer, Rhys, Owosekun, and Nilsson).
- Burnham spoke about the Kobayashi Maru scenario as if she had experienced it, even though it doesn’t appear she attended Starfleet Academy, having transferred to the USS Shenzhou after attending the Vulcan Science Academy.
- While never stated, it appears that Rhys is currently the first officer.
- Former Tal host Jovar liked birds.
- With Kwejian destroyed, who will navigate all those new spore ships?
- Technobabble of the week: “polyhedronic quantum data devices” used in a “multiphasic processing unit.”
- Tilly of the week: “You know there are people out there who don’t have to put up with spacetime shenanigans.”
More to come
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New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery premiere on Thursdays on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, where it’s also available to stream on Crave. Discovery will debut on Paramount+ in 45 countries around the world in 2022.
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