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This week’s Star Trek: Discovery measures the distance between ourselves and the unknown

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 7

“…But to Connect” expands Trek’s definition of life in tidy but heartening ways.

On paper, the two main stories of “…But to Connect” have nothing to do with one another. On the one hand, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Book (David Ajala), and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) are part of an inter-planetary assembly. They and other diplomats must decide whether to seek out the creators of the DMA with forbearance and diplomacy or merely try to blow the damn thing up.

On the other, Kovich (David Cronenberg), Saru (Doug Jones), Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Culber (Wilson Cruz), Adira (Blu del Barrio), and Gray (Ian Alexander) debate how to handle the fact that Zora (Annabelle Wallis) refuses to give them the coordinates of the DMA’s source and, more to the point, may have become sentient. On the surface, the two issues don’t have much in common.

But in effect, they ask the same question — what are our values? More specifically, what do we do when we encounter the unknown? Do we threaten it, discipline it, or otherwise respond with hostility and fear? Or do we show trust, aim to learn more, and proceed with hope for mutual understanding?

This is Star Trek, so the answer isn’t much in doubt. But it’s the debate that matters. More than that, the lifeblood of the episode is the way the positions taken and the conclusions reached reflect and spur the people making them. The arguments our heroes and villains offer are rooted in their experiences, which makes them more compelling than mere abstract policy points.

Pictured: David Ajala as Book and Shawn Doyle as Ruon Tarka of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

To that end, Burnham comes at the issue from the perspective of someone who was there when it was still a United Federation of Planets. She came of age within Starfleet and became a true believer in its mission and its principles.

So when it comes time to decide what to do about the DMA and its extra-galactic creators, she errs on the side of compassion and, of course, discovery. She compares the DMA to insect species that gobble up resources in preparation for metamorphosis, yet act without malice. Having learned firsthand the benefits of achieving an understanding before acting, she champions a cautious, diplomatic, and above all peaceful approach.

Book, on the other hand, grew up in a much harsher galaxy, one where sitting and waiting rather than taking action could get you killed by those who viewed comity as a weakness. Beyond that, he’s both an avenger and a pragmatist here, wanting to punish those who took away his planet and his people, while also seeking to ensure no one else has to suffer the same fate. So when Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) offers a plan to destroy the anomaly, Book becomes his champion.

In truth, the dilemma here is a little too simple. There are good points on both sides of the debate when it comes to “Unknown Species 10-C could be unaware of the consequences and deserve an altruistic approach” versus “Their anomaly is destroying lives on a massive scale and needs to be neutralized at any cost.” But when Tarka suggests using subspace-destroying weapons to do the deed, or hallowed species invoke the Prime Directive and other key Federation values, the framing of good vs. evil is a little too black and white. 

The arguments our heroes and villains offer are rooted in their experiences, which makes them more compelling than mere abstract policy points.

There are more shades of gray, however, in the situation aboard the Discovery. Kovich, Saru, Stamets, and Culber do the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like This Zora?” routine, and raise the sort of deep philosophical questions Star Trek specializes in when deciding how to handle a sentient vessel.

To the point, there are practical reasons why you might not want your primary mode of transportation to be a conscious lifeform. A ship subject to emotional whims and able to refuse orders when they object could be a problem, even if they profess to love and care for everyone aboard. On the other hand, any safeguards against such possibilities risk putting another sentient being on a leash, cabining their agency, and otherwise violating their rights in a way you’d never do with a humanoid.

There too, where the crew members stand on the question depends on their personal histories. Stamets survived the threat of a villainous A.I. in season 2. So he’s naturally skittish about artificial intelligence on a ship-wide, potentially destructive scale, after seeing how the entire universe was nearly destroyed. (And hey, maybe he’s read up on the similar threat from the first season of Star Trek: Picard). When you’ve witnessed the damage an unbridled A.I. can cause, it’s natural to want guardrails and failsafes when your vessel is refusing to comply.

The opposite’s true, though, for Adira and Gray. They’re both, in their own ways, new expressions of life. Adira is the first human Trill host and Gray underwent the rare (lone?) successful humanoid-to-synth transition. They’re natural champions for the idea that just because something is unfamiliar to us or we don’t fully understand it, doesn’t mean it deserves any less consideration or fewer moral rights than the things we know and can wrap our minds around. Everyone’s opinion here is laudably rooted in their own experiences.

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 7
Pictured: David Cronenberg as Kovich and Sonequa Martin Green as Burnham of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimately, the episode’s answer on how to deal with Zora is a little too tidy, but also heartening, and one which embodies the best of Star Trek’s ideals. Granted, the notion of Zora as a “new life form” — and therefore not subject to Starfleet’s prohibition on installed A.I.s — seems like a cheat. Likewise, Kovich revealing that he was never truly considering “extracting” Zora, but merely deciding whether to reassign Stamets (a stance the chief engineer ultimately agrees with), is too neat and too easy. It’s good for Star Trek to be aspirational, but grounding that optimism in the scruffier aspects of humanity is a virtue as well.

Here too, though, there’s harmony in the final resolution. The brain trust decides to manage Zora’s ability to cause harm in the same way they do for all sentient beings — by inviting them to join Starfleet. Zora can become part of the chain of command, take the oath, and commit to not use their abilities unilaterally or for harmful purposes in the same way, say, Data once did. 

There are still practical reasons why having a vessel with feelings and a subconscious and a self-selected purpose might be a bad idea. But it’s rousing, if nothing else, to see Starfleet officers once again recognizing the birth of new life, and embracing it rather than rejecting it, a tack that results in a rousing sense of mutual trust. (Not to mention the coordinates our heroes were after).

Those coordinates are especially important after Burnham convinces the assembly to vote in favor of seeking measured first contact rather than a more defensive/destructive posture. She has President Rillak in her corner, who’s diplomatically bound to remain impartial, but nudges Michael as a stalking horse to successfully advance the Federation’s preferred position (and pull her deeper into the political realm in the process). While Book, who speaks for the contrary view, is backed by Tarka, who wants to bend the rules in the name of getting results.

It’s good for Star Trek to be aspirational, but grounding that optimism in the scruffier aspects of humanity is a virtue as well.

Tarka’s still a tad annoying, but he’s given a more interesting motivation here. Part of his reason for wanting to build the DMA-demolishing bomb is so he can use the same power source to jump to another universe. He wants to leave behind the miseries he’s known in this realm, find his partner, and escape to somewhere untouched by such cruelty. Even for a stock rule-breaker like Tarka, what the Emerald Chain put him through in the past spurs his stance, and his choices, in the present.

It also further drives a wedge between Michael and Book, particularly after the assembly’s vote goes in Michael’s favor. From the very first scene of this season, the couple’s been at odds over whether to hold steady or fight back. The philosophical distance between them has only widened, now matched by a physical distance. As much as the political drama here is a bit too binary and obvious, the aftermath feels more real than the wholesome-yet-Pollyanna finish to the Zora plot. Regardless of the vote for peace, Book and Tarka can’t just sit idly by and let the DMA continue its path of destruction. So they go rogue, as a political choice costs both Michael and Book something personal. There’s power in that too.

How we respond to the unknown defines us. Do we use it as a reason to bend our usual principles or decide it’s all the more important to hew to them? In the face of uncertainty, do we affirm that which we believe in most deeply, for ourselves and for others, or do we lash out and try to wipe away the things we don’t understand? The experiences of Burnham, Book, Stamets, Adira, and the others point the way toward their answers to these questions. Some of them come together in the glow of mutual understanding, and others cannot escape the gravity of those past hardships, and find themselves even further apart.

Ensign’s Log:

  • I appreciate butterfly-like Alshain from the season premiere and General Ndoye from last season appearing at the assembly after Burnham’s efforts to bring them back to the fold. These small results of her actions allow the show’s themes to play out on a smaller scale as well as a cataclysmic one.
  • Stamets’ group hug with his partner and two surrogate kids when Gray leaves for the Trill home world is more endearing than his misguided attempt at a clandestine group hug with Kovich.
  • I’ll confess — I don’t know what pronouns to use for Zora. Stamets uses “she” and Adira, understandably, uses “they”. We’ll have to see what Zora picks.
  • Three episodes later, and not so much as a hint of Tilly. I’m impressed at Discovery’s commitment to the change, even if she’ll almost certainly reappear eventually.
  • I’m 100% ready for Saru and President T’Rina to open a bed and breakfast together. 

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