Star Trek: Discovery fixes a key character upon piercing “The Galactic Barrier”

Star Trek Season 4 Episode 10 (Paramount+)

Highlighting a roguish scientist’s backstory buoys a journey into the unknown.

One episode. That’s all it took. Suddenly, Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) is more than just a walking quip-machine fresh off the scruffy rogue assembly line. Now he’s a man who’s been through something unimaginable, who lost someone he loved deeply, and who, in the throes of guilt and regret, will do anything to get him back.

We knew these details before, more or less. Tarka already explained that he was chasing after a close friend, that he wanted to go “home” to another universe to find him, and that he’d survived an Emerald Chain work camp. But when this sort of thing’s muttered over a synthale, it’s all just another tragic backstory monologue, without any form or feeling. Seeing it in flashbacks, though, as Tarka’s connection to another soul blossoms and then is ripped away, makes it real in a way not even the best wistful speech could.

It helps that in those flashbacks (and the frame story that surrounds them), Tarka isn’t just a dispensary of smart remarks and bog-standard hubris. For once, he seems like a genuine human being. The boundary-pushing scientist looks shell-shocked to return to the site of his captivity, wide-eyed and rattled by the sense memory of the place in a way that’s unprecedented for the character. When he’s bonding with Oros, his fellow prisoner in an Emerald Chain propulsion lab, he’s friendly, empathetic, even nurturing. There are layers to him we’ve barely seen before and certainly never experienced so viscerally.

Star Trek Season 4 Episode 10 (Paramount+)
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.

That’s the beauty of showing rather than telling, even if it takes until the season’s tenth episode. Tarka does explain to Book (David Ajala) what the two years with Oros meant to him and why he returns to this place every year. But for most of this episode, we actually see two people forced together by circumstance. We watch as they help one another fall asleep with the comforts of popcorn reading the golden ratio. We witness Tarka soothe Oros during a traumatic episode. And we hear Oros speak longingly of paradise and “home” in another dimension while Tarka takes his friend’s dreams to heart.

In short, we’re there for it. The story of two people who become unlikely friends in captivity and forge unshakable bonds in the process is a cliché. Despite that, taking time in “The Galactic Barrier” to tell a complete story of love and loss makes the characters involved seem more fully formed, their motives clearer, and their purpose in the broader arc of the season more meaningful.

That’s especially important as Discovery takes a big step forward in that arc. The time has come for Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), her crew, and a collection of esteemed Alpha Quadrant representatives to venture through the titular Galactic Barrier in the hopes of making first contact with Unknown Species 10-C. Reaching this extragalactic race is all the more important, when they receive word the DMA is now bearing down on Earth and Ni’Var.

Taking time in “The Galactic Barrier” to tell a complete story of love and loss makes the characters involved seem more fully formed.

Much of their journey is pragmatic yet flashy. The Discovery must traverse the barrier using a series of conveniently-located spatial cells that can move back and forth across the galactic membrane. It’s mainly an opportunity to spout reams of technobabble, let sparks fly, and indulge in the appropriate color grading shifts to signify the negative energy our heroes encounter. (Though everyone aboard must have low ESP ratings since we don’t get another Gary Mitchell.) The peril is mostly perfunctory, but there’s an undeniable thrill at play when these battle-tested officers explore something genuinely new while piercing the bounds of the galaxy itself.

Still, the focus of the journey is less on the otherwise unprecedented dangers with nonetheless standard solutions, and more on the improved working relationship between Captain Burnham and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal). In contrast to their first mission together, the two have agreed to mark their respective territories, and manage the areas where their authorities might overlap with much more grace and aplomb.

Granted, it’s not necessarily clear why their dynamic has improved so much. Maybe it’s simply learning and adapting to one another’s working styles over time. But they commiserate together as equals and even offer each other comfort in the face of the threat which now looms over the Alpha Quadrant.

Star Trek Season 4 Episode 10 (Paramount+)
Pictured: Wilson Cruz as Culber and Doug Jones as Saru of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a signifier of growth in their professional and personal relationship. Burnham recognizes where Rillak, with loved ones in harm’s way, needs a sense of control in the face of so much that’s beyond it. She asks the civilian leader to break the news to her crew and offer them a bit of inspiration. Michael even tells her, “You’re my President too,” in a low-key heartwarming moment. There will almost certainly be more friction to come, but “The Galactic Barrier” dramatizes this positive change in the two leaders’ ability to work together well.

Providing comfort when someone else needs it most, with a bond forged in the aftermath, provides the thematic undercurrent of the episode. Burnham finds a way to console Rillak when the President’s worried about her mother and her partner, and it helps melt the remaining ice between them. Saru (Doug Jones) is anxious that he’s overstepped his bounds when telling President T’Rina (Tara Rosling) that he hopes to become more than a friend, only to be welcomed when he soothes her after the bad news circulates. The event that cements Tarka and Oros’ connection happens on much the same terms.

That thematic resonance makes it just as hard when we see those bonds dissolved in violent, heartbreaking terms. Right at the moment when Oros and Tarka are prepared to make the jump to another dimension, a pair of Emerald Chain brutes pounce on them. They (conveniently) announce that Tarka had been conspiring with them from the beginning, promising to spy on Oros in exchange for his freedom. Theirs is a friendship founded on a preemptive betrayal.

But there’s something profoundly human about an unexpected connection and an effort to regain it at any cost.

Tarka’s story turns out to be one of guilt over past sins, of phony efforts at closeness which accidentally become real, of regret over leaving behind someone you love. An injured Oros sends Tarka away, for fear he would slow his companion down. He forgives the confidante forged in such fire. But Tarka can’t forgive himself. The ghost of the person he loves still haunts him brings out a side of him we’ve never seen before and clarifies his actions over the past several episodes.

Those are the rewards that such committed character work brings. None of the stories here are flawless, and the dialogue still suffers in places. But there’s something profoundly human about an unexpected connection and an effort to regain it at any cost. The effort makes Tarka a better character, and “The Galactic Barrier” a better episode, as Discovery reaches beyond the limitations of both.

Ensign’s Log:

  • Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is overzealous in trying to support Adira (Blu del Barrio) in a potentially tough spot, because his dad wasn’t there to support him. Their scenes are overly blunt and even a tad sitcom-y, but the sentiments are sweet enough to make up for it, something true for much of the material in this corner of the show.
  • Speaking of sweet, in the latest chapter of Pulsars and Prejudice, Saru seems like an adorably nervous middle-schooler when T’Rina doesn’t immediately reciprocate his affections. His awkwardness is made worse when they conveniently end up stuck on the ship together. Eventually, though, she tells him she finds his presence calming, which is Vulcan for “I’m passionately in love with you.” So keep it up you crazy kids!
  • In our Weekly B-team Report, Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) is off to go work with Kovich (David Cronenberg). Good for him!
  • Kovich assigns the Discovery a quirky new linguistics expert who’s constantly eating for some reason. Cool?
  • The Galactic Barrier doesn’t look like it did when Kirk’s Enterprise encountered it, but hey, who among us hasn’t had work done since the sixties?
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