Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 12 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Even in a season as all-over-this place as Discovery’s fourth, an episode titled ‘Species Ten-C’ had to bring the mysterious owners of the Dark Matter Anomaly out of the shadows. And while we never get a proper sighting – arguably a smart move, seeing as they could never realistically live up to the hype – this instalment delivers, granting Captain Burnham and the Disco crew an audience with the creatures who’ve been giving the Federation sleepless nights.
For all its wrong turns and pacing issues this season, this is also a welcome reminder that Discovery hasn’t forgotten how to be a Star Trek show. Indeed, when it comes to seeking out new life and new civilisations, you don’t get a purer distillation of the franchise’s long-standing mission statement than the crew’s attempts to open hailing frequencies with a species so unknowably alien that conventional methods of communication are a dead end.
Although Burnham misses the opportunity to channel her inner Flash Gordon by yelling, “Book, I love you, but we only have 15 hours to save the Earth”, ‘Species Ten-C’ leaves you in little doubt the clock is ticking on Star Trek’s highest stakes first contact mission since V’Ger showed up in The Motion Picture. But attracting the attention of the 10-C isn’t quite as simple as knocking on the door of their hyperfield, an enclosed space so vast that it would stretch all the way from the Sun to Mars if relocated to our Solar System.
Luckily, the crew have a plan so ingenious you can almost forgive the implausible speed of last week’s deductions about the hydrocarbons they found on an abandoned world – this is the Trek-does-Arrival storyline the previous episode hinted it could be. Dr Culber and Dr Hirai have translated each of the chemicals into a particular emotion – terror, love, sadness, curiosity, peacefulness – so they can dispatch a delegation of DOT droids to carry a message of “we come in peace in chemical form” to their hosts.
What follows is effectively a grab bag of ideas from classic science fiction, beautifully choreographed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, who’s established himself as Discovery’s go-to director for its most ambitious episodes. The amorphous tentacles that emerge from the hyperfield to engulf Discovery are scaled-up versions of the pseudopod from The Abyss. There are also echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact – as well as Arrival – as communication efforts make use of light shows, morphing CG balls and the 10-C’s painstaking reconstruction of the Discovery bridge, built to make the crew feel at home in a hostile environment.
But how do you spark up a chat with a species so technologically advanced that even 32nd century humans seem like monkeys with primitive tools in companion? It’s such a mind-boggling challenge that even the normally unflappable Burnham admits she’s out of the depth, before geeing herself up with an extraordinary scream-off with her BFF, Saru – that it’s “not even close to the weirdest thing that’s happened today” says it all.
The conversations with the 10-C are by some distance the smartest thing we’ve seen in this season, as Federation President Rillak, Ni’Var President T’Rina, Burnham and Saru get down to negotiations via an intriguing mix of chemistry, mathematics and emotions. When Burnham works out how to describe the residents of Discovery by means of the percentages of gases in the atmosphere, it’s a magnificent piece of science fiction storytelling, the sort of moment that could get every science officer in the history of Starfleet punching the air in admiration.
Unfortunately, the big sci-fi ideas are left to do the heavy lifting in an instalment that’s let down by its clunkier character beats. When Burnham assembles the bridge crew in a circle to brainstorm Discovery’s next move, it feels like she’s holding a management seminar in space. And Zora’s presence on the ship becomes more and more implausible – why would any captain allow their ship‘s computer to become distracted by unsubstantiated hunches? Even Data could turn off his emotion chip when things got a little hairy.
But the biggest problem with the episode is Ruon Tarka, who – despite the show’s recent efforts to provide some justification for his actions – is now the sort of moustache-twirling villain who’d be at home in a Roger Moore Bond movie. His desire to traverse universes to get to the man he loves is well documented, but the fact that he’s prepared to risk the deaths of the 10-C, Discovery and much of the Alpha Quadrant – at least Earth scientists will have a month to save themselves, he callously reasons – stretches the limits of credibility even further than Earth ambassador Ndoye’s continued support for his crazy schemes.
It’s a shame that Tarka has become so two-dimensional, seeing as the scenes between Book and Jett Reno on Book’s ship are highlights of the episode. Okay, Reno isn’t quite as funny as usual, but Tig Notaro proves there’s much more to the character than comic relief, and her clever appeals to Book’s better nature have seemingly brought him back on side.
If only clever bargaining – and liquorice – were enough to lure Tarka away from the dark side, but come the episode’s end, he’s used a plasma explosion to smash out of the membrane encasing Discovery. Had the character been better developed, the consequences of his unilateral actions less extreme, the season’s endgame might have felt less contrived. Tarka’s actions here, however, suggest that the only reason for his existence is to act as an agent of chaos, stirring things up with the 10-C.
- Picard is also back! Make sure to read our review for Star Trek: Picard season 2 episode 1 as well as its five-star second episode.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 beam onto Paramount Plus on Thursdays in the US and Crave in Canada. UK viewers can watch episodes on Pluto TV.
4 out of 5
Star Trek: Discovery season 4 episode 12 review: “A welcome reminder that it hasn’t forgotten how to be a Trek show”
The cleverest episode of the season makes as much progress with the Anomaly and the 10-C as the previous 11 instalments combined – if only the contrived, dramatically convenient actions of self-proclaimed genius Tarka were quite so smart.