Three seasons of Star Trek: Discovery have led us to expect an epic journey from this cast and crew, and Season 4 delivers. It’s thrilling and cerebral, only occasionally frustrating, and lives up to the Disco promise of rich characterization and stories that are deeply empathetic and moving.
The Show (Light Spoilers)
Anyone just coming into Discovery will require the aid of a “previously on” here. Not only is each season of the show one long serialized novel for TV, but this season picks up from the rather dramatic status quo shift of Season 3. The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery has traveled from the 23rd century to the 32nd century and embarked on a long project to reunite the estranged worlds that make up the United Federation of Planets. At the end of the first episode of Season 4, that mission is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious gravitational anomaly, which kills planets faster than you can say, “That’s no moon.”
The consequences are immediately and deeply personal for David Ajala’s Cleveland “Book” Booker, who joined the main cast last season. Between tiny, painfully truthful scenes and big, epic swings of the plot, Ajala emerges as the season’s MVP. At the same time, Book’s arc highlights the incredible range of series star Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, now Discovery’s captain. Burnham and Book’s romantic relationship is seriously put through the wringer, as each settles on a very different approach to ending the threat posed by the anomaly. Fortunately for those of us who love this pairing, the show pulls off an impressive balancing act, and neither character appears foolish or mean, regardless of the viewer’s opinion of who is right in this conflict. Even as their choices bring each other pain, you understand why they make them, love them all the more for it and keep hoping they’ll find some way to work things out.
However, as brightly as Martin-Green and Ajala shine, Discovery remains very much an ensemble show, like all great Trek. The anomaly is a fantastic scientific puzzle, not unlike the “mysterious red bursts” that were the throughline in Season 2. Solving it, and coping with the fallout, requires the full talents of the show’s entire regular cast, as well as a number of excellent new and recurring characters. We meet the Federation’s President, Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), a sharp woman of human, Bajoran and Cardassian descent, and spend quite a few early episodes wondering if she’ll turn out to be an ally or an obstacle. We’re also treated to the return of General Ndoye of Earth (Phumzile Sitole) and President T’Rina (Tara Rosling) of Ni’Var (which you may remember as the planet Vulcan). T’Rina’s plot line this season with Mr. Saru (Doug Jones) is the steamiest chaste romance you can’t even imagine and entirely a delight.
We also get to spend a lot more time with the precious queer family that is Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tal (Ian Alexander). Cruz in particular really gets to show off his impressive depth and fantastic warmth. Expanding on a role first explored in Season 3, Dr. Culber is now serving not only as the Discovery’s Chief Medical Officer but as her Counselor as well. While the idea of one crew member working those two jobs simultaneously stretches credulity, Culber’s arc is nevertheless compelling, as he takes on personal responsibility for everyone else’s grief and trauma. If that sounds incredibly unhealthy, that’s very much the point. Cruz speaks on the Blu-ray special features about how important it was for him to honor the hard work and sacrifices made by so many real-world medical and mental health workers throughout the COVID pandemic, and it shows. Mental health workers have talked at length about the sharp uptick in anxiety and depression symptoms in the general population. Disco does a yeoman’s job of exploring a similar collective trauma in just a few short scenes per episode.
First and foremost of those frustrations mentioned above — not enough Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Her story takes a somewhat jarring left turn partway through the season, leaving her sidelined for most of the episodes. While we continue to hope a spinoff is being developed around our favorite Disco character, the episode setting up her departure is one of the series’ weaker as a whole. It suffers from jarring tonal shifts, including an Original Series-style “redshirt” death to set up the stakes, which is not given nearly enough weight in the wrap-up. That sort of thing was to be expected in 1960s episodic television, but it lands with a clunk these days. And the B-plot of the same episode sees Burnham and Saru navigating an overly simplified political conundrum, a rare instance where it feels like Discovery is dumbing things down for the viewers.
Immediately following Tilly’s exit, an episode about Discovery’s attempt to evacuate a prison colony squanders some very meaningful real-world resonance. What could have been a thoughtful commentary on the thousands of incarcerated persons who died in U.S. prisons during the pandemic gives way to a tired story of a seemingly noble man who believes the crime he committed is too great for him to ever re-enter society. While the writers may well have intended viewers to see this man’s story as the tragedy it is, the execution seems just as likely to reaffirm many people’s belief that those who commit certain crimes will never truly be able to function in society again. And it’s all the more disappointing when the prisoner in question is played by Michael Greyeyes, one of the few visibly indigenous actors to appear on the show. His performance is beautiful and compelling, but he deserved a better story.
Meanwhile, the prison episode’s subplot introduces Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle), who will serve the remainder of the season as both the major antagonist and a foil for Book. He’s at his worst in this first appearance, where he comes off as a sociopathic tech bro. He displays more depth and empathy in later episodes (and we eventually get a surprisingly touching backstory), but all of this just makes his single-mindedness more frustrating. From that clumsy first appearance to the final episode where he suddenly describes the goal he’s been pursuing all along very differently, it never feels like the writers quite managed to pin down who they meant Tarka to be. He feels just shy of a full three dimensions, despite a soulful and ultimately moving performance by Doyle and wonderful interplay between Doyle and Ajala.
But despite these issues, there are beautiful character moments even in those two weak episodes (4 and 5). The entire cast is never less than electric. And like all the best Star Trek, Discovery asks great questions. Does intent matter when bad things are done for good reasons or from ignorance? Where’s the line between heroism and recklessness? What’s the difference between a hard-earned coping skill and an unhealthy trauma response? What is the purpose of the justice system — rehabilitation of the offender or reassurance for the rest of society? Is any truly intelligent AI destined to go Skynet on all our asses? Episode 7, the season’s literal and figurative centerpiece, is just two ethical debates among two different sets of characters, an episode that would bring a philosophy professor to tears of joy.
The season just gets better from there. There’s a delightful casino episode, which gives Oyin Oladejo’s Joann Owesekun time to shine and a new nickname. There’s the most complex and fascinating first contact with an alien species this side of Arrival. And then there’s the season finale, which gets past a wobbly first act to deliver a stunning thematic and emotional payoff. You’ll cry, you’ll cheer, you’ll feel like Star Trek in its purest form has just been injected directly into your veins.
Without a virus storyline anywhere in sight, the weight of COVID is still keenly felt throughout the fourth season of Discovery. It’s a story about grief and trauma, and whether their effects harden us or drive us to reach out to help others. The previous Discovery season was filmed before the pandemic and just happened to tell a story about disconnectedness and hope that mirrored the time during which it aired. This season was written and filmed in the midst of lockdown, before the development of COVID vaccines. For the most part, the crew and cast knew precisely what they were doing and did it superbly.
As is typical for Paramount+ Star Trek home releases, the fourth season of Discovery includes deleted scenes, a charming commentary track for the season finale with Martin-Green, Ajala, showrunner Michelle Paradise, and director Olatunde Osunsanmi (both found in the episode menu for individual episodes, not under “Special Features”), a gag reel and several excellent behind-the-scenes documentaries. “The Voyage of Season 4” is an hour-long overview of the whole season, full of cast and crew interviews, but never more entertaining than when you’re watching Martin-Green fight to keep a straight face as the special guest portraying the President of Earth is being interviewed beside her. “The Toll It Took” explores the practical and emotional challenges involved in filming during the pandemic for this very huggy, connected cast and crew — including the not-so-secret origin of the Disco Dungeons & Dragons group, https://msha.ke/discodoesdnd/. “Creating Space” explores the show’s use of augmented-reality technology (the “AR wall”) in the most recent seasons. And in “Being Michael Burnham: The Captain’s Log,” Martin-Green opens up about some intensely personal realizations and challenges brought into sharp focus by the combination of the pandemic, becoming a Star Trek Captain and losses and joys in her personal life. As impressive as her performance is when you’re simply watching the episodes, it’s all the more stunning when you see what was happening behind the scenes.
Rachael and John Derrick both grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation but have very different opinions on Data. Under the name John Clifford, John wrote and directed a one-act play, The Dream in Question, as well as several short plays for sci-fi conventions. He grew a Riker beard during lockdown and Rachael insisted he keep it. Rachael worked in journalism and international education before becoming a therapist, a choice that had almost nothing to do with her infatuation with Deanna Troi. They live with their son and two cats in Indianapolis. Their first novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman reliving her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.