Expected Utility — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Rubicon”

One of the things I particularly love about Discovery is something that was established when the titular ship first appeared in “Context is for Kings”: it’s a science ship. Most of the main characters are science nerds, and indeed Burnham, Saru, Stamets, Reno, Adira, and Tilly are all science geeks of the highest order.

What’s fun about “Rubicon” is that the events are driven by knowledge: Burnham’s knowledge of Book, Book’s knowledge of Burnham, the science of the spore drive and the interior of the DMA, and a math problem that Stamets and Zora work out.

And we get a devastating ending.

Most of this episode sees our heroes making smart decisions and taking actions that are thought-out and not reckless, and also trying to do their best not to harm anyone. Both sides of this fight—Discovery and the rest of the Federation vs. Book and Tarka and their big-ass weapon—are in this to save lives primarily.

Discovery first tries to board Book’s ship covertly, using the tracker Burnham put in last week to find them, and they try to board. But they’re done in by a security protocol Tarka put in that even Book didn’t know about. It almost destroys the shuttle that contains the boarding party of Saru, Culber, Bryce, and Rhys. Book is appalled—and actually helps Burnham rescue her people—but the element of surprise is gone.

The chase continues to the DMA itself, and the race is on to find the control center, as that’s what Tarka wants to blow up.

Because there’s an obvious conflict of interest in Discovery going after Book and Tarka given the relationship between Burnham and Book (and, indeed, between the ship’s entire crew and Book), Vance sends in someone to backstop Burnham: Nhan.

This is a brilliant move. Because of the spore drive, Discovery is the only ship that can get to Book and Tarka in time. And they can’t just replace the entire crew. So they send Nhan—last seen in “Die Trying” last season, and now back in the saddle as part of Federation Security, a welcome return of Rachael Ancheril to the show. She’s someone Burnham (and the rest of the crew) knows and trusts, she doesn’t really know Book all that well, and she’s security, so she’ll do what’s right.

I like this notion a lot, because it takes a cliché of the franchise and makes it far less annoying. The outsider who messes with our heroes’ mojo is a tired Trek trope (“A Taste of Armageddon,” “The Pegasus,” “Much Ado About Boimler,” etc.), and Discovery has been good about mostly avoiding it (with exceptions, like this season’s premiere, “Kobayashi Maru”), and that continues nicely here. Nhan is a professional doing her job, and she and Burnham and Saru have several intelligent—if sometimes intense and argumentative—discussions about how to proceed. Nhan has the authority to relieve Burnham if Nhan thinks she’s compromising the mission, but she never has to take that step.

In particular, I like that Burnham is completely transparent with the crew: she lets them know right away why Nhan is there and what she is empowered to do.

One of Burnham’s strategies is to try to figure out how long the DMA will remain in this spot. Now that they know its purpose is to mine boronite, Stamets and Zora are tasked with creating a mathematical model based on how much of the boronite in the area it’s mined to figure out how long it will need to remain in this particular location before it finishes the job. And Burnham’s strategy—which Nhan goes along with, though she needs to be talked into it—pays off, as they determine that the DMA will be here for another week. That gives the Federation seven days to try a diplomatic solution, after which they can try Tarka’s crazy-ass plan.

 

The problem here is the one part of the episode that doesn’t work: Tarka. Early on, Culber points out that the wild card in all this is Tarka—they know Book is, at heart, a good person, but Tarka’s an issue here. That’s brought into sharp relief when the security protocol that Tarka installed in Book’s ship nearly gets four people killed.

And then the rest of the episode is spent completely not taking Tarka’s single-mindedness into account. This is a problem, since in the end Tarka’s the one who fucks everything up, an outcome that was so predictable that Culber actually predicted it, and yet none of our heroes took it into account when dealing with Book and Tarka throughout.

 

Which proves fatal. After Book agrees to wait a week, Tarka goes ahead and beams his isolytic weapon into the DMA’s control center. After everyone busted their ass to find a peaceful solution, Tarka plays the wild card and blows everything up anyhow.

This made me crazy, because as we’re watching this, both my wife and I were screaming at the TV, “Don’t just worry about Book, worry about Tarka.” And nobody worried about Tarka and he screwed them.

However, this is slightly made up for by the fact that Tarka’s plan winds up being a disaster on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. His plan was to use the DMA’s power source to travel to the alternate universe he and his friend found—but there’s no sign of the power source after he detonates the device, and he realizes belatedly that the power source is on the other side of the subspace corridor through which the DMA is sending the boronite to Species 10C.

The bigger issue is that, after the DMA is blown up, Species 10C just sends another DMA to replace it. Because when your dredge breaks down, you don’t stop mining, you bring in a new dredge to finish the job. (In a cute touch, the ship that detects the new DMA is the U.S.S. Mitchell, which I’m guessing is a tribute to the character of Gary Mitchell, who was a victim of the Enterprise‘s encounter with the galactic barrier—just outside of which Species 10C is currently hanging out—back in the original series’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)

The revelation that the DMA is just a piece of mining equipment already indicated that Species 10C is very very far advanced from the Federation, and the dismissive ease with which they dealt with Tarka’s destruction of the DMA is an even bigger indication. These guys probably view the Federation the way you or I would view a colony of ants. Or maybe a bunch of amoebae…

One of my favorite lines in any Trek production is something Picard said to Data in the TNG episode “Peak Performance“: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” The Discovery crew was pretty good at doing things right here, and they still lost, admittedly in this case because they did make one mistake, to wit, underestimating how much of a selfish asshole Ruon Tarka is. And Tarka himself made no mistakes when it came to the execution of the plan that he proposed back in “…But to Connect,” but it still fails utterly.

I’m heartened to see that the crew isn’t all united against Book and Tarka. Rhys—at least in part motivated by the backstory we learned about in “The Examples“—is very much on Book’s side, and he gets into arguments with Nilsson and especially Bryce on the subject.

Saru does important work reminding everyone to stay on mission when Bryce and Rhys get into their first argument on the subject, and indeed playing the role of rational peacemaker is Saru’s function throughout the episode—he keeps Nhan and Burnham on point, for starters, and is the one who gets them to try to find a middle ground. Doug Jones, as always, kills it both here, and in his other little bit of business.

The latter is an absolute delight, moving forward with a theme that’s been running since Ni’Var President T’Rina was introduced in “Unification III,” to wit, the spectacular chemistry between Saru and T’Rina. The latter helps Saru with some meditation techniques at the top of the episode, and the holographic communication ends with T’Rina inviting Saru out on a date. The mission precludes Saru being able to answer immediately, but it takes Culber giving Saru a metaphorical clubbing over the head to convince him to say yes. The two of them are an adorable couple, and Doug Jones and Tara Rosling have been magic every time they’ve been on screen together.

This is an episode that is equal parts frustrating and wonderful. On the one hand, it’s true to Discovery’s mission statement as a ship of science, and the crew tries to use their brains to solve the problem. More to the point, they try very hard to maintain Trek‘s trademark compassion, finding solutions in which the fewest number of people are hurt or die.

On the other hand, they totally should’ve seen Tarka’s final gambit coming.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the contributors to the anthology The Fans are Buried Tales, edited by Peter David & Kathleen O. David, currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter. It’s about a bunch of cosplayers snowed in at a convention who gather in the bar and tell stories in character for who/whatever they’re cosplaying as. Keith’s is “The Carpet’s Tale” (the cult of the Marriott carpet lives!!!!). Besides Keith and Peter, other Star Trek prose stylists contributing include Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Aaron Rosenberg, John Peel, Rigel Ailur, and Robert T. Jeschonek. Please consider supporting it!

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