The second episode of the season shines when it focuses on Book processing his grief for his destroyed homeworld.
One of pop culture criticism’s current running jokes is that every genre film and T.V. show, no matter how colorful their origins, is all about trauma and grief these days. There’s a germ of truth to it, even if the sentiment oversimplifies things. Everything from WandaVision to Star Wars: The Clone Wars to a cornucopia of “elevated” horror films has ruminated on what it means to lose what’s most important to us and stumble along the road to recovery. The conventional wisdom, that no one just does a wild adventure story anymore, isn’t unfounded.
But the willingness of modern genre stories to examine the consequences and, more importantly, the personal impact of those grand adventures, is a good thing. It’s jarring, in hindsight, how little Princess Leia seems to be affected by her home planet’s destruction in A New Hope. The shift from pulp heroes to modern ones has given writers and directors license to let their characters stop and mourn these sorts of losses. With “Anomaly”, Star Trek: Discovery aims to do just that while packing in enough excitement to avoid any accusations of descending into the doldrums.
It evades the Leia problem with Book (David Ajala), who is devastated by the loss of Kwejian. He’s obsessed with what he might have done differently to save his family and his home. He hallucinates dying birds and the image of his young nephew. And he won’t grieve or cry or otherwise react to his loss beyond stewing in it. His partner, Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) can’t reach him, because he’s so deep in his pain that nothing can.
Oh yeah, and while Book’s in mourning, there’s still a giant black hole wreaking havoc across the galaxy! One of the best features of “Anomaly” is how it balances its meditation on Book’s grief with a clear, Trekian problem for our heroes to solve. Here, that means uncovering a mysterious black star drifting through space and sucking up entire worlds as it tears a path of destruction. It’s up to Discovery to jump to it and collect whatever data they can. Our heroes hope the mission will allow the Federation and its allies to neutralize the danger, warn those threatened, and calm an antsy interstellar community still wary after The Burn.
The dilemma puts Burnham in a classic “needs of the many vs. needs of the few” situation.
“Anomaly” relies on a venerable Star Trek trick — marrying the practical and the personal. The anomaly is surrounded by a dangerous debris field that the Discovery needs to whiz through to gather the data it needs. But the ship is too big to safely navigate the field, and there’s too much interference to gather the data remotely. Discovery’s best option is to use Book’s ship, which is small and durable enough to survive the field. There’s just one problem—the best person to fly it, Book himself is in no state to pilot.
The dilemma puts Burnham in a classic “needs of the many vs. needs of the few” situation. Does she put someone she loves at risk even though he may not be ready for the challenge because he is the most qualified to do the job? Or does she forbid him from leading this mission given his state of mind, thereby reducing its chances of success? Book or no Book, the questions are these: What will best serve Starfleet’s goals? What might the choice cost Burnham? How might her personal attachments affect her decision? These are the questions great Trek is built on.
Into the swirl of options comes Saru (Doug Jones), with a wizened middle ground to offer his fellow captain. While it’s a little awkward that Saru’s back on the Discovery at all, the loss of Kwejian provides a solid excuse for him to return to Starfleet, and Su’Kal’s blessing from last week eases any personal hesitation. But his turning down a commission of his own in favor of becoming Burnham’s first officer feels like something that needs to happen for Discovery’s purposes rather than in-universe purposes. But hey, Will Riker turned down more than one commission because The Next Generation wasn’t ready to lose a major character. There’s space for Discovery to do something similar.
And besides, Saru’s presence is lovely. His tribute to Philippa Georgiou and the importance of having a second set of eyes you can trust is heartening. His split-the-difference solution to permit Book to go, but with a tether so he can be pulled back if things get out of hand, is a sharp way to manage the risk. And his sage advice to Burnham on when to speak to Book as his partner and not his captain proves key to the mission’s success. Doug Jones continues to soar in the role, and I’m glad to have our favorite Kelpien back.
Saru’s recommendation also brings Book and Stamets (Anthony Rapp) together. It’s a good idea, if only for the acknowledged awkwardness of the pairing. Their energies are different and there’s not a ton of common ground between them, either in how they carry themselves or how they relate to the rest of the crew. Focusing on Book and Stamets as an unlikely duo is a unique, challenging storytelling play.
“Anomaly” steers into the skid, delving into why the two might not naturally get along, but also spotlighting the facets of their identities and histories that unite them. For practical purposes, Book and Stamets are the only two people who can catalyze the spore drive. More to the point, though, they’ve also both suffered profound losses and dealt with a sense of helplessness in the aftermath.
Stamets’ losses were reversed, of course. But when Stamets sees Book, he sees someone who saved his family, a living reminder of how he was unable to do the same. They can bond in that space of being powerless, of wishing they could have done more, and help forgive themselves in the process. The twosome doesn’t always work on a scene-to-scene basis, but the emotional calculus of their team does.
The crisis of the week is a metaphor for Book’s grief.
And it’s the emotional breakthroughs that drive this outing. Make no mistake, “Anomaly” brings traditional Star Trek problem-solving to the fore. The strange gravitational aberration hits the Discovery in unexpected ways (replete with some cool, gravity-defying effects on the crew), giving Book and Stamets a ticking clock and giving Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Adira (Blu del Barrio), and Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) the chance to come up with the usual technobabble-as-metaphor solutions to the problem. There’s ship-threatening calamity at every turn here as the crew drifts and dodges their way through a possible catastrophe.
Naturally, they find the answer just in time. As unknowable as this interstellar aberration is, its energy bursts function like a wave. And if Book can just guide his ship onto the right gravitational eddy, he can surf his way to safety and capture the data necessary to inform the Federation’s plan for this potentially cataclysmic threat. But poor Book is stuck in a spiral of survivor’s guilt, unable to focus and taking reckless chances with the specter of what he’s lost still looming over him.
So Burnham reaches out to the person she loves. She connects with him on a private channel so they can speak intimately. She tells him what happened wasn’t his fault, that she’s here for him no matter what, that he can do this.
The crisis of the week is a metaphor for Book’s grief. He cannot make it go away. But he can ride it out until he reaches a better place with the care and compassion of those who love him, those who are there to let him know he has a lifeline waiting for him on the other side. It works as both text and theme, as Burnham’s pep talk gives Book the focus he needs to escape the spatial deathtrap, and the emotional comfort to accept his grief. It’s a deft technique.
The execution isn’t perfect though. Discovery is, commendably, an emotional show. It’s interested not just in the adventures or scientific phenomena for their own sake, but also in the impact these events have on the people going through them. But amid its efforts at realism, many moments can feel oddly detached and unreal. There are big capital-A acting scenes that aim for the right target in terms of sentiment, and yet which end up flat when balancing the feeling necessary to make it land. Everything in “Anomaly” is sound in its sentiments, but outside of Saru’s scenes, the episode rarely finds the right gear to make things truly affecting.
It doesn’t help that, despite the strong throughline, “Anomaly” is also a cluttered episode. In addition to Book’s mourning process, the dangerous mission, and Saru’s grand return, there are scads of other subplots and = aftermath and setup Discovery decided to work in. None of it is extraneous, exactly, but it also diminishes the clarity of purpose in the hour and with them the episode’s pacing and impact.
Still, “Anomaly” accomplishes what it sets out to do. It admirably dramatizes Book’s darkest stretch. While the episode’s events don’t see him “get better,” he recovers just enough to return and seek help. When he opens up to Burnham and finally, he lets his emotions spill out, he starts to accept his loss, and with that acceptance begins to heal.
Acknowledging its stumbles in the execution, I admire Discovery for taking the time to explore Book’s complicated grieving process, tie it to the latest threat, and watching him push through both with the help of Michael as a captain and a friend. There’s been a lot of loss in the real world between the last season and this one. Confronting the difficult feelings that tumble out amid such hardships, rather than turning away from them, is good for Book, good for us, and good for Star Trek.
- Speaking of knowing when to ask for help, I’m encouraged by Tilly’s storyline in the episode. She’s feeling the pressure of her promotion and the uncertainty of where to go from here. Her moment of asking Culber (Wilson Cruz) to talk with her about it as a professional is one of the most human and relatable interactions in this episode.
- Adira and Gray’s subplot here, where Adira’s reminded of losing Gray (Ian Alexander) on the cusp of his chance for “reincorporation,” feels a tad out of place, even though the material itself is good. Discovery commendably extends the longstanding Trill/transgender metaphor with Gray, as he’s able to choose a body with only those parts that are him, and there’s good stuff there. I just wish the material had more space to breathe.
- Gray’s android body-hop also references the execrable finale to Star Trek: Picard’s first season. Culber explains that while Gray’s a special case, immortality through consciousness transfer didn’t turn out to be a viable option for folks in the twenty-fourth century and beyond. When you have to rely on a sister show to tidy up your plot extravagances in incidental dialogue, the culmination of your season-length narrative might have a problem.
- Tilly’s interactions with Adira are also a small but memorable high note here. Tilly’s testy with her charge and fears she’s starting to sound like Stamets. But her colleagues remind her that the young ensign’s just trying to impress her. Tilly gaining some perspective as she assumes this new role makes for a good character beat.
- Stamets seems copasetic with Burnham, even if there’s some lingering awkwardness with his “out the airlock” comment. So who knows if we’re ever going to fully resolve the discord that seemed to linger between the two of them at the end of last season?
- I worry we’re reaching a point where Discovery’s tech is too advanced for non-cataclysmic threats to pose a problem. We’re awash in programmable matter, remote holograms, upgraded spore drives, instant beaming, robot helpers, sentient ships that can name themselves, and so on. Star Trek needs at least some limits, and problems out heroes can’t just future-tech their way out of. Hopefully it doesn’t become too much.