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Star Trek: Discovery keeps its eye on what Trek does best – problem-solving

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 12

Michael Burnham and company work step-by-step to make contact with an alien race.

Star Trek thrives in problem-solving mode. Put your best and brightest in the same room. Force them to figure out some seemingly impossible, life-threatening puzzle. And marvel as they nevertheless find a clever solution. That formula works so consistently because it honors the franchise’s devotion to scientific inquiry while giving viewers the chance to play along at home. There’s a simple elegance to it that cuts across different eras and series.

Of course, it’s not easy to figure out how to communicate with a species so unlike our own, the problem du jour in Star Trek: Discovery’s penultimate episode. The show pulls a great deal from films like Contact and Arrival when tackling the idea. But there’s a reason so many memorable sci-fi stories have explored what starting an extraterrestrial dialogue might look like. Bridging the gaps in communication and understanding between species with no common reference points would be an incredible challenge. Discovery joins that proud tradition here as its characters rise to that challenge.

On the other side of the communication gap sits (or rather, floats) the titular “Species Ten-C”. Burnham and her crew manage to gain entrance to their system-wide “hyperfield” by spraying the “peaceful” hydrocarbon dust the away team uncovered last week. In return, the extra-galactic race encloses the Discovery in a cosmic bubble and wrangles them inside. Suddenly, our heroes must uncover how to actually talk to their erstwhile captors now that they’ve breached the interstellar wall.

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 12
Pictured: Tara Rosling as T’Rina, Doug Jones as Saru, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham, Chelah Horsal as President Rillak and Hiro Kanagawa as Dr. Hirai of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

The progress on that front is slow and deliberate, a canny approach by the writers. Species 10-C won’t (or can’t) return any of the Discovery’s hails. Beyond the initial pheromone signal of “We come in peace,” Burnham and company remain uncertain how to convey their intentions to this alien race. The breakthroughs, commendably, come in dribs and drabs, as the mission’s leaders take time to consider how to make this all-important meeting of the minds successful while the DMA bears down on their homeworlds. The interactions that follow (including a disappointingly murky glimpse at the 10-C) are appropriately basic and tenuous.

The Discovery brain trust must first come up with an appropriate “gift” to get their captors’ attention. Then they’re tasked with deciphering a cocktail of different compounds and a confounding pattern of flashing lights in order to sniff out some linguistic structure. When they realize it’s a series of math equations, they struggle to figure out how to respond in a way that signals they’re sentient lifeforms and not “monkeys with a rock.” And when their intelligence is established, they must decode and construct a series of mathematical rebus puzzles to convey their deeper, more urgent sentiments. It’s a steady build in understanding and capability that plays out as naturally as it can amid the artifice of television.

Granted, some of this happens a little too easily and conveniently. Discerning that a mixture of compounds and light-flashes can be decoded to form an alphabet and key seems like it ought to take days, not minutes. The speed with which they’re able to figure out how to send reciprocal messages using math would make Tilly blush. And as much as Star Trek is built on elaborate technobabble being reduced to comprehensible metaphors, the analogies to everything from music to Lincos that pave the way toward key epiphanies feel too simple for what should be such a tough task.

That formula works so consistently because it honors the franchise’s devotion to scientific inquiry while giving viewers the chance to play along at home.

But there’s still meaningful, steady progress along the way. At every step, Burnham, Saru (Doug Jones), President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), Dr. Hirai (Hironobu Kanagawa), and many more put their heads together and reason through the question at hand. Seeing smart folks pool their talents and insights to unravel a scientific mystery is enervating and one of the pillars of Star Trek.

Unfortunately, the B-story featuring Book (David Ajala) and Tarka (Shawn Doyle) drags the proceedings down yet again. The good news is that Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) is here and has the honor of delivering the theme of the subplot with her characteristic dry sarcasm, but also a rare earnestness. Jett warns Book that people make questionable choices when they’re in pain, particularly when chasing someone they’ve lost. There’s truth in the sentiment, made vivid with a bit of backstory for Reno, and it’s a potent wake-up call for Book in a key moment.

At the same time, though, the episode uses her engineering knowhow to reveal that Tarka’s plan to uncover the DMA’s power source would not only lead to an implosion of Species 10-C’s hyperfield, but that the ensuing aftershock would travel through the wormhole and wreak havoc on the Alpha Quadrant as well.

It was probably inevitable that Discovery’s season finale would involve something flashier than the good guys calmly resolving the DMA threat with Species 10-C over tea. Nevertheless, it scans as profoundly cheap that suddenly our heroes aren’t just worried about extragalactic aliens reacting harshly to perceived aggression but now must stave off yet another interstellar doomsday device poised to destroy everything we know and love. There are assuredly ways to create drama that don’t involve the threat of galactic destruction at the hands of a single main villain.

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 12
Pictured: Shawn Doyle as Ruon Tarka of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

“Species Ten-C” confirms that Tarka is, in fact, our villain for the season, another development that feels like too much. Seeing his backstory play out helped give the character depth. And Reno’s parable of what people are capable of when they’re wounded and grieving provides emotional justification. But his willingness to let an entire species die, and destroy billions more lives from his corner of the universe, verges on a cartoony, mustache-twirling evil that doesn’t comport with the more human side of Tarka the show’s tried to present to this point. 

That story choice also lets Book off the hook. Suddenly, Cleveland Booker (the fifth!) is no longer deciding between whether to take action to eliminate an existential threat versus waiting to allow the peace process to work. Instead, he’s choosing between his noble friends reaching for connection to avert disaster and a plain villain willing to commit genocide to make his escape. 

The change flattens the moral complexity of the situation, which is a bad tack for any plot, but a Star Trek story especially. Plus, trying to dredge up a “deep friendship” between Book and Tarka to amplify the sense of betrayal doesn’t track when they always seemed more like allies of convenience than good buddies. None of this works.

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 12
Pictured: David Ajala as Book and Tig Notaro as Reno of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Thankfully, the main story in “Species Ten-C” does. There’s a joy experienced by character and viewer alike each time Burnham and company figure out the next step to connecting with their extragalactic counterparts. There’s an extra thrill to encountering a new race that seems so unique and alien, forcing our heroes to think outside of the box and solve problems of language and comprehension that cannot be fixed via the Universal Translator.

So when Species 10-C offers the crew of the Discovery a doorway, an invitation to commune on a deeper level, the episode delivers both sentiments in spades. Decoding 10-C’s confusion over the attack on the DMA (and sharing the group’s own pain and terror in a way their benefactors could understand) carries the twin pleasures of solving the puzzle and forming a bond across communities.

Of course, such peace can’t last. Tarka has to play the baddie, imprison Book and Reno, and burn a hole in 10-C’s bubble in a fashion that makes the alien race question whether Burnham and company are negotiating in good faith. That too is a problem to solve, albeit one that’s likely to play out in fist-fights and explosions rather than devoted colleagues using their wits and trust in one another to save the day. Such are the graces only a prelude to the finale can provide. But seeing Starfleet officers in problem-solving mode once more is still a treat, no matter how fleeting it may be.

Ensign’s Log:

  • This week on T’rEmma, Saru feels put off when President T’Rina (Tara Rosling) seems harsh with him in public despite their affections; Burnham explains that it’s just an annoying Vulcan social cue, and the couple seem back on the same page after T’Rina expresses her “personal fondness” for our favorite Kelpien. It’s low stakes but still adorable.
  • This week on The B-Team Report: Burnham brings in a trio of her crewmates to consult on the pheromone/light-flashing problem, and their insights prove the key to solving the issue. Hooray for the backbenchers!
  • Burnham and Saru having another Dead Poets Society-style roar fest is meant to be cute and endearing, but comes off like corporate-mandated fun.
  • Dr. Culber helps Zora work through a feeling that something is off, implied to be the numbing in her sensors perpetrated by Tarka. It’s still a little odd to work through ship’s engineering problems like emotional problems, but also roundly wholesome.
  • Jett Reno powering a hidden communicator with chewed-up black licorice is just plain cool.
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