Star Trek only does stunt casting occasionally, and their track record is sometimes good (Dr. Mae Jemison in TNG’s “Second Chances”), sometimes bad (Melvin Belli in the original series’ “And the Children Shall Lead”), and sometimes indifferent (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Voyager’s “Tsunkatse”).
This week, they did it again with the great Stacey Abrams—the politician and voting rights advocate, and avowed Star Trek fan—making an appearance as the president of United Earth. It makes for a nifty coda to a strong, if flawed, season finale.
There’s a lot to like about this episode, starting with the triumphant return of Mary Wiseman as Tilly, alongside two of her cadets from “All is Possible,” Harral and Gorev. They’re assisting Vance with the evacuation of Earth, being done with Starfleet Headquarters, which is mobile, and a whole bunch of ships. They get as many people offworld as they can before the DMA renders the planet uninhabitable.
It’s great to see Tilly again, and she gets to kick butt and make good suggestions, and help save the day. There’s a great scene with her and Vance drinking Risian whiskey (ironically, a gift from Tarka) and talking about life where Tilly expresses happiness with where her life has taken her. She’s come a long way from the motormouthed cadet of season one and it’s great seeing her relaxed and confident.
That scene happens when everyone else has abandoned the mobile HQ and the two of them are staying on board to provide covering fire on the debris that’s pelting Earth, which they don’t expect to survive. Except they do.
One of Star Trek’s most annoying (to me, anyhow) tropes is characters going on a suicide mission and then not dying. No fewer than six people volunteer to die in this episode—Vance, Tilly, Ndoye, Book, Detmer, and Tarka—and only one of them actually does die, and it’s the asshole nobody likes anyhow. The only one of these that’s acceptable to me is Detmer because while she volunteers, Ndoye bigfoots her, wanting to make up for her helping Tarka and Book last week by volunteering to take a shuttle to act as a missile to damage Book’s ship enough to stop them.
But Ndoye survives the attack, as do Book and Tarka, though we are led to believe that they both die shortly thereafter. Tarka really does die, after finally being willing to admit to himself that Oros is probably dead, and Book seems to die in mid-transport as Book’s ship goes boom.
However, Book was saved by Species 10C, who didn’t know what the transporter was, and intercepted it, putting it in stasis. They bring Book back during the best part of the episode, the second attempt at communication between 10C and our heroes.
After Discovery stops Tarka from going through with his crazy-ass plan, 10C is willing to talk again. The entire diplomatic team (with the exception of the never-named Ferengi who has been strangely absent this and last week) and the entire bridge crew, as well as Dr. Pollard (but not Reno, who disappears from the action after she beams back from Book’s ship) all meet 10C, who are giant fiery beings who seem to be a collective. Not, we are quickly told, like the Borg, but they don’t have a sense of individuality either. It takes some doing to explain to 10C about individuality, about why Burnham is sad, about how the DMA is affecting the galaxy. I love that Burnham invites the whole crew, as it reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the first regular episode of the original series, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” when Kirk says to Bailey, “The face of the unknown—I think I owe you a look at it.” This is what Starfleet is all about, and Burnham doesn’t keep that sense of wonder to herself and the contact team.
That scene—like the similar scene in “Species Ten-C” last week—is magnificent, Star Trek at its finest. Saru provides the translations, with an algorithm provided by Stamets, Adira, and Zora, and while Burnham gets the lion’s share of the speechifying, it’s not just her. Rillak is the initial spokesperson for the Federation, and in the end it’s the newly resurrected Book—the one person there most harmed by the DMA—who very eloquently explains to 10C (who never do get a proper species name) why what they’re doing is so horrible.
This is very much David Ajala’s episode. He’s still hurting so very much from Kwejian’s destruction, but he has finally, belatedly, come to realize that more violence is not the solution, talking is. And he also rejects Tarka’s offer to come with him to the alternate universe, even though Tarka thinks he’s sweetening the deal by saying that Kwejian’s probably intact in that universe. Backed by Reno, who has an epic rant about how they may look the same and act the same and laugh the same and cut their sandwiches diagonally the same, they’re not the same, Book then is able to finally get through to Tarka that Oros is gone and that he has to accept the loss instead of trying to twist the universe to his will for a reunion that will probably never happen.
While Book’s come to Jesus speech is pretty good, that Tarka actually gets together with Jesus is less convincing. Shawn Doyle is very good at Tarka’s assholiness; not so much at his having a sad catharsis. I wish the episode had spent more time showing us Tarka’s process to realization, but Doyle’s poor showing on what we do see may mean we’re better off with the abbreviated version.
In the end, though, the day is saved the way the best Star Trek always saves the day: with compassion, with understanding, with talking. The appeals by Rillak, Burnham, and Book all get through to 10C, who genuinely did not realize that any higher life forms were being harmed by their dredge. They are apologetic and recall the DMA, saving Earth and Ni’Var (and also Vance and Tilly), and also are willing to clean up the mess made by their subspace rifts.
The best part of this is that, while the immediate threat is neutralized, it’s only really the beginning of the conversation between 10C and the Federation.
And while Book doesn’t die, he doesn’t get off without consequences—he is sentenced to community service, working on the reconstruction efforts on worlds harmed by the DMA. This is the perfect sentence for him, as it allows him to do some good, and the right thing to do when you’re going for justice rather than punishment.
In the end, we get the Abrams cameo as the President of United Earth, which is now eager to rejoin the Federation. (In a voiceover, Burnham mentions that Tellar never left the Federation, and Andor was in negotiations to rejoin. Earth only just joins in this episode, and Ni’Var didn’t join until “All is Possible,” which means that throughout the Burn, Tellar was the only founding Federation world still in the Federation. That’s kinda cool, actually…) We end on a note of hope, with the Federation continuing to be rebuilt and with more new worlds to seek out.
The episode is beautifully filmed by one of the show’s best directors (and one of its executive producers), Olatunde Osunsanmi. 10C is a gloriously alien species, and the look into their world is superb. The effects crew does a great job showing the Starfleet HQ zipping through space.
And the acting is superb, as always. In particular, I like the rapport that has developed between Sonequa Martin-Green and Chelah Horsdal as Burnham and Rillak. There’ve been a few too many times that it’s tilted in favor of Burnham these last few episodes, but in this particular episode, they’re a great team, playing off each other, supporting each other, and working very well together. I particularly like their conversation in the ready room, a deliberate mirror to the one at the top of the season in “Kobayashi Maru,” which they reference.
Tig Notaro also has some great bits in the early part of the episode, though she’s, as I said, strangely absent from the latter portion. But Reno’s conversations with Book and her rant at Tarka are great moments for the character. Saru and T’Rina also move forward in their relationship, which is a joy to see mainly because Doug Jones and Tara Rosling are so incredibly adorable together—seriously, if you put a match between the two of them, it would light by itself—and watching them be all polite and thoughtful and circumspect is tremendous fun to watch.
And, it should be noted, that one of the ways in which the day is saved is by Book remembering that he jiggered the force fields on the ship to allow for a cat door for Grudge. Knew Grudge would save the day in some form or other. She is a queen, after all…
The finale is not perfect. Everything wraps up a little too smoothly, and with too little by way of permanent consequences. For all that Ajala is brilliant in his plea to 10C, to seemingly kill him and then bring him back is the worst kind of emotional manipulation. While I appreciated that T’Rina decided to try a mind-meld to communicate with 10C, that particular action didn’t really contribute all that much to the solution, and the scene where Discovery tries to break out of the orb by overloading the spore drive went on about a minute too long.
Still, it was very much the right way to end a Star Trek season: with peaceful contact resulting in stronger relations and lives being saved.
Keith R.A. DeCandido will do an overview of the fourth season next week.