Star Trek: Discovery Teaches Lessons Old and New in “All Is Possible”

Star Trek Discovery S4E4 Recap Featured

The latest episode clicks when it offers the kind of meat and potatoes Trek tropes fans love.

I’m a sucker for when Discovery returns to solid meat-and-potatoes Star Trek concepts. The group of squabbling crewmen who find unity when it counts, despite their differences, is a franchise classic. (See: “The Galileo Seven” from The Original Series.) Another fond chestnut is a pair of civilizations whose talks have reached an impasse and need a creative solution. (See: roughly a fifth of The Next Generation’s episodes.) Even the troubled soul turning to the ship’s counselor for help has its roots in time-tested tropes. 

So “All Is Possible” clicks when it deploys those setups. The rhythms of Tilly (Mary Wiseman) leading a cadet-filled away team mission gone awry, or Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones) having to back channel-mediate a compromise between the Federation and Ni’Var, both come easy. The way Discovery goes about these stories isn’t flawless, but the foundation is strong, strengthening the episode even when certain choices falter. 

Tilly having to manage Adira (Blu del Barrio) and a crop of disagreeable cadets who are all figuratively (and in one case, literally) still quite green forces her into an instructional role. Her initial enthusiasm and get-to-know-you games come off a little too camp counselor-y, but watching her wrangle these young recruits, still remembering when she was so new, has meat to it. 

Of course, this is a Star Trek, so no away mission, even one meant to be a tame team-building exercise, can proceed without disaster striking. Their ship veers off course and crashes into “the wrong moon,” a frozen tundra with breathable oxygen and dangerous predators. Shades of Star Trek ’09! The premise works, not only to force Tilly to whip this ragtag bunch of newbies into shape so they can reach safety and call for help, but also to lead them to Bondi and find common ground. 

Star Trek Discovery S4E4 Recap Saru Burnham
Sonequa Martin Green and Doug Jones hold court. (Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.)

“All Is Possible” is a little too blunt and didactic in the attempt. The cadets themselves are familiar types, with vaguely Breakfast Club-esque disputes. Similarly, their objections to working with one another and arguments about what to do next aren’t exactly novel. And the “hooray for metaphors!” moment where they work together to pull Adira from the ice is fairly stock. 

But the simplicity of the challenge works. Tilly and company have to reach the top of the hill to signal a nearby ship. They have to escape a rampaging, mitosis beast. Most importantly, they have to stop arguing long enough to work together to accomplish all of this despite the exigencies of the situation. There’s a clarity to their circumstances and objectives, which buoys this plot even amid some predictable beats. 

The same’s true for Burnham and Saru’s storyline. Ni’Var is on the cusp of rejoining the Federation. But at the last minute, Ni’Var leader, T’Rina (Tara Rosling), throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Her people demand the right to unilaterally exit from the Federation whenever it likes, a condition borne of lingering ill feelings in the lead-up to The Burn. Federation President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) rejects the request out of hand, insisting that such a condition would destabilize their union and unduly favor Ni’Var. Without some seemingly impossible compromise, this long-hoped-for reunion will be thwarted…unless, of course, Saru and Michael spring into action! 

Their politicking is fun. Once more, the show presents a clear goal and clearer hurdles, with our heroes having to work around the limitations of both sides to reach a solution. The Discovery’s top officers discern that both Rillak and T’Rina want to compromise, but factions within their own delegations are constraining them. 

The execution isn’t always perfect, but there’s much to admire in Discovery’s willingness to gaze out at the uncharted portions of the map and set off for what new possibilities may be waiting. 

Sniffing out this information builds on two key relationships from season 4. One is between Burnham and Rillak, who continue to have a low-key contentious dynamic that provides successes for both. Michael’s not a diplomat, but she’s learning the game, whether she wants to or not. Her realization that Rillak brought her here under false pretenses to solve a political problem is an interesting note for both characters. 

The other is between Saru and T’Rina, who have the most adorable courtship this side of the wormhole. Their chaste affection is quaint but endearing. Simple gestures like the Ni’Var leader arranging for Saru to have traditional Kelpien tea are touching. And the two meditating together makes for a simple act of compelling intimacy. Discovery’s romances have been hit or miss, but sign me up for more of these two elegant dorks flirting with one another. 

The catch is that the answer to this diplomatic solution is the same thing it always is on Discovery — Michael herself. She and Saru discover that both sides need a third party to propose a compromise so each can save face. Burnham and Saru suggest an independent committee periodically review each civilization’s membership to ensure all are satisfied with the arrangement. The answer is mainly procedural and bureaucratic, but it’s satisfying to the delegates because Burnham will serve on the committee as a citizen of Ni’Var. 

The solution is elegant. The temptation is to roll your eyes at Burnham once again being just special enough to bridge divides and achieve the impossible. But the wrinkle of Rillak using her in some sense, leveraging Michael’s foot in both camps for political goals, adds complexity to the situation. Diplomatic machinations and finding common ground between contentious parties is classic Trek, and while the solution here doesn’t blow you away, it does fly that familiar flag well. 

Star Trek Discovery S4E4 Recap Staments Burnham
Sonequa Martin Green and Anthony Rapp enjoy Federation food. (Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.)

Finding common ground is Tilly’s mission too. She forces the cadets to talk to one another, learn about one another’s backgrounds, see one another as human beings, and not merely rivals from different planets and upbringings. That’s vital for the generation of future Starfleet officers who grew up during the isolationism of The Burn. Overcoming differences, learning to trust one another, and witnessing heroism and self-sacrifice is essential if the new blood injected into Starfleet must replenish the organization as it steps into a more connected world. 

It’s enough for our heroes to survive disaster (thanks to teamwork and Tilly drawing away the attention of the beastly fauna) and for Kovich (David Cronenberg) to offer Tilly a spot as an instructor at Starfleet Academy. It’s a decisive turning point in Tilly’s “Find my Purpose” storyline here. Kovich’s speech about this future needing the example these 23rd refugees set is, once again, a little too on-the-nose, but you can see this role working for Tilly. She may not want to be a captain anymore, but she’s been through the same challenges as these kids. She knows what it takes to make it through the most formidable challenges the galaxy can throw at you. And she’s seen a glimpse of what Starfleet can be at its best, a vision she can pass down to those who’ll follow her. 

It’s also a bold move for the series as Tilly moves off the Discovery. Of course, she’ll still be around Starfleet HQ, but “All Is Possible” treats this as a goodbye, or at least a major transition. What her life will be like as a teacher, whether it will give her the fulfillment she needs, remains to be seen. But it’s the kind of challenge we’ve only seen Keiko O’Brien take up before, and it’s one worthy of Tilly’s talents. 

And look, who knows if she’ll actually stay at Starfleet Academy. The big moves on this show — unforgivable mutinies, tragic deaths, departures for home planets — have a way of being undone. But the direction Discovery points for Tilly is admirable. She dreamed of being a captain from the first time we met her. And yet, when she became a lieutenant, her first big step toward that goal, it felt wrong to her. 

Star Trek Discovery Recap The Team
Mary Wiseman leads the team. (Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.)

There’s something relatable in that. For Tilly, Starfleet was a way to show up her controlling mother. Now her mom’s gone, and all that’s left for Tilly is deciding what she wants, not in relation to someone else, but for herself. “All Is Possible”’s stock beats may not perfectly sell the point, but it’s exciting to see her try her hand at teaching and spotlight a part of Starfleet we’ve only had glimpses of before. The big picture choices here, from Michael wading into the political to Book (David Ajala) communing with his grief, or Tilly embracing the unknown, succeed. 

The expected and familiar has a certain ease and allure. A substantial part of why many watch Discovery is an affection for fifty years of Star Trek, with a setting, sense of exploration, and set of archetypes we already know and like. There’s a reason those elements have endured for so long, and it’s worth holding onto them. 

But people, and franchises, have to keep growing and changing, or they can easily become complacent and unsatisfied (or unsatisfying). The spin “All Is Possible” puts on familiar Star Trek stories don’t break much new ground or even necessarily wow on their own terms. They do, however, point the series toward new places, new challenges, and new adventures to expand the bounds of the franchise. The execution isn’t always perfect, but there’s much to admire in Discovery’s willingness to gaze out at the uncharted portions of the map and set off for what new possibilities may be waiting. 

Ensign’s Log

  • I’m glad to see the show continuing to explore Book’s healing process after losing his family and Kwejian, but the whole “This therapeutic technique is stupid!/No wait, I’m doing it, and it helped!” routine was too rote. 
  • I am, however, intrigued at the hints of something still troubling Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), which seems like the seed for meaningful character work. 
  • There’s “making your theme a little too plain,” and then there’s having one of your characters own a snow globe with the episode’s title and message on it. 
  • The conflict between the young Orion and a member of a species treated poorly by the Emerald Chain is a strong element here. The tension, mistaken assumptions, and newfound understanding between them is another piece of classic Trek. 
  • Adira’s social awkwardness is endearing, and I like their undercurrent of growth through the season so far. 
  • I know I’ve complained about Discovery’s tech going too far, but a snore frequency eliminator sounds like a dream. 
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