The primarily feeling I get watching the fourth-season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery—which is entitled “Kobayashi Maru” after the training exercise seen at the top of The Wrath of Khan and which has become synonymous with “no-win scenario” even outside of Trek—is that this is what the show should’ve been in the first place. I’m far more invested in the thirty-second century than I ever was in back-filling the twenty-third.
The secondary feeling I got from this episode in particular is that this is what Star Trek is about: our heroes helping people.
We open with Burnham and Book on an away team mission, talking to butterfly-like aliens who had a very strained relationship with the Federation. It’s actually a pretty hilarious opening, as the aliens are already wary of the Federation’s generous offer of dilithium, and then they find out about Grudge. First they’re pissed that they brought a carnivore to their world; then they’re pissed because they think the Federation will make pets of them the way Book made a pet of Grudge; then when Book and Burnham both refer to her as a queen, as they often do, the aliens interpret this as holding a monarch hostage. All this results in an attack.
But Burnham doesn’t fire back, and instead works with Discovery to help them: they have satellites that regulate the planet’s magnetic field, but they’re malfunctioning. Tilly, Stamets, and Adira figure out a way to fix them. The good news is that the planet is fixed. The bad news is that now the butterfly people can shoot straight. However, Burnham leaves the dilithum behind and returns to Discovery. The emperor is surprised that they still left the dilithium even though they were assaulted.
I enjoyed the hell out of this opening scenario on several different levels. For starters, it looks amazing. State-of-the-art CGI has enabled Secret Hideout to give Star Trek some truly magnificent alien landscapes. After five decades of using Vasquez Rocks and the “planet hell” soundstage for alien worlds, it’s so wonderful to see lush, beautiful landscapes that are the finest other worlds we’ve seen on TV since Farscape (the previous gold standard for creating new planets that look like somewhere that isn’t Earth).
In addition, it’s funny as hell, but it’s not played for laughs. This opening works as an introductory prelude much like the Nibiru sequence at the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness and the first contact at the top of Star Trek Beyond, but both of those were pure comic relief with a big silly escape. But while this similar scene has many of the same comic beats, it also includes our heroes helping out the locals and ending it with a good talk between Burnham and the emperor in which it was made clear that there would be better relations.
There’s a reason why so many Trek episodes start with answering a distress call. Helping people is what Trek is all about. This is emphasized again for the latter portion of the episode, when Discovery is sent to Deep Space Repair Beta 6, which has had a catastrophic failure. With the spore drive, Discovery can get there faster than anyone, so they go along.
And they have a passenger: newly elected Federation President Lara Rillak. According to Paramount’s publicity, Rillak is part Bajoran, part Cardassian, and part human, which is rather nifty, and she’s also the first Federation President we’ve seen onscreen who wasn’t a dude. We’ve seen presidents in The Voyage Home (a human male played by Robert Ellenstein), The Undiscovered Country (an Efrosian male played by Kurtwood Smith), and the DS9 two-parter “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” (a Grazerite male played by Herchel Sparber). And now we have Rillak, played with straightforward dignity by Chelah Horsdal.
I am particularly fascinated by Rillak, mainly because I literally wrote the book on the Federation presidency (my 2005 Trek novel Articles of the Federation). She’s a bit too much of a politician in spots—like twice questioning Burnham’s command decisions in the middle of a rescue mission on the bridge, which is not something you should do, and Burnham can’t really put her off the bridge because, y’know, she’s the president—and she has an interesting background, as someone who worked for a cargo carrier when she was younger.
And toward the end of the episode, she has a very interesting conversation with Burnham about, basically, plot armor. During the rescue of the repair base, Burnham takes several risks to Discovery. The gravitational anomaly that damaged the base also moved the system’s Oort cloud further in so that the station and ship are being pelted by chunks of ice. Discovery has to extend her shields around the station, which weakens them, and give them a time limit to be able to get the crew off the station. They manage it, just barely, but Rillak is not thrilled that Burnham took the risk she did.
It’s an interesting conversation the two of them have, with Burnham on the side of no-person-left-behind that most TV show characters follow, and Rillak with the much more practical and realistic notion that you can’t possibly save everyone. It almost feels like a TV Tropes discussion: Burnham will take the crazy-ass risks because she still remembers being “abandoned” by her parents when the Klingons attacked, and she always makes it because she’s the star of a television show. Rillak quite rightly points out that that kind of luck doesn’t always hold out.
How interesting that conversation really is will depend a lot on how the rest of this season plays out. Will Burnham’s dogged insistence on insane risks bite her on the ass, or will she continue to have plot armor and always win?
Speaking of the rest of the season, while this episode quite nicely has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it also sets up stuff that we’ll be seeing more of this season, to wit, the gravitational anomaly that destroys Beta 6—which also destroys Book’s homeworld of Kwejian, a fate that Book himself barely escapes. His family does not—his brother Kyheem and Kyheem’s son Leto are killed right after the latter goes through a coming-of-age ritual with Book and Kyheem.
In addition, we look in on Saru, who has returned to Kaminar to find that the Kelpiens and the Ba’ul are living together in peaceful harmony. They have also been completely isolationist since the Burn, and Saru gives an impassioned speech to convince them that they should rejoin the galactic community.
This is a good season opener, but not without some irritating flaws. After setting up some very fascinating tension between Stamets and Burnham at the end of last season, there’s no actual sign of it in this episode. Yes, it’s many months later, but at least some acknowledgment of it would be nice. And the deaths of Kyheem and Leto as well as that of the Beta 6 station commander are manipulative as hell, and I didn’t really appreciate it—though the former two at least are likely to have a significant impact on Book going forward.
Speaking of those two, while the return of Luca Doulgeris as Leto and Ache Hernandez as Kyheem is irritatingly short-lived, we’ve got some other folks back from last season whom we should be seeing more of past this week: Oded Fehr is back as Admiral Vance (who’s very sweetly reunited with his family). Blu del Barrio is now in the opening credits as Adira, and we’ve also got Ian Alexander as the image of Gray. Bill Irwin’s Su’Kal is doing very well on Kaminar, and the entire bridge crew is back as well. I’m especially loving the double act of Owosekun and Detmer at the front of the bridge, and I really hope those two continue to develop; the banter between Oyin Oladejo and Emily Coutts is letter-perfect.
Even with the flaws, this is a good opening. Let’s hope it continues…
Keith R.A. DeCandido will be one of the author guests at Philcon 2021 this weekend at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He will be doing programming, including panels, a reading, and an autographing. See his full schedule here.