“Star Trek: Discovery” blends traditional Trek with the show’s emotional focus

As the ship deals with a mysterious spacial anomaly, the crew deals with their own personal issues and the ascendance of a new life form – Discovery itself.

There are few Star Trek plots more traditional than, “We’re trapped in a weird pocket of space and have to brainstorm our way out!” Almost every previous show has done it in one form or another, and it’s easy to see why. It presents a classic problem-solving scenario, and it’s one that pits even the most battle-hardened crew against something unknown, forcing them to find creative solutions with clear stakes.

At the same time, it’s hard to think of a more on-brand story for Discovery than “What if a starship had emotions?” More than any other series in Trek history, Discovery is concerned with what its characters are feeling in a given moment and how their psyches hold up under the pressure of seismic shifts and substantial traumas. Interrogating how that same approach might take root when their primary mode of transportation begins to have feelings itself is a surprisingly natural move for the show.

So the combination of the two both takes a page from Star Trek’s past and points the way toward Discovery’s future. Our heroes barrel into a subspace rift left behind by the latest DMA incursion. They find themselves trapped in a blank void, where sensors and navigation become useless. The way out is unclear, and the realm’s edge is rapidly closing in on them. The setup has all the trademarks of a conventional Trek problem: a weird spatial phenomenon, a unique obstacle to overcome, and a ticking clock.

“Stormy Weather” makes it fun to watch Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her crew struggle to understand and escape this unfamiliar setting. There’s a clear purpose in tow — to analyze the latest “crime scene” left by the DMA in order to gather more clues as to what’s happening. And it requires the team to do some time-tested Starfleet troubleshooting. The crew must think, rather than blast, their way out of a tense situation, with increasing urgency as the risks escalate. The nuts and bolts are good here.

Pictured: Anthony Rapp as Stamets of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

The wrinkle is that while all of this takes place, the Discovery’s computer, now named Zora (Annabelle Wallis), is experiencing difficult emotions for the first time. The story thread picks up the brief mention of this idea in the last episode and runs with it. Zora admits to feeling fear when the usual methods by which they experience the world become blotted out. They also express guilt and trepidation over whether they’re capable of saving the crew in this tricky environment.

The deftest move the writers make is to pair Zora with Gray (Ian Alexander) while both are working through the same sorts of issues. Gray is focused on honing his mind-body connection so as to stay oriented in his new form, but the adjustment has its bumps. Zora, for their part, is processing strong emotions for the first time, confessing to feeling a similar numbness amid the void’s blanking of their sensors, which creates its own kind of stressors.

Highlighting the shared challenges of the two is a canny choice, one part and parcel with the franchise’s spirit of finding common grounds between disparate life forms. What’s more, it gives Gray the chance to feel useful, as helping Zora not only allows him to aid the crew in some way but also to train as a Trill Guardian, playing in the intersection of science and spirituality that role requires. The key turn comes when Gray plays a meditative game with Zora and the two bond over it, demonstrating how the act helps provide focus even in emotionally overwhelming situations.

That’s the theme of “Stormy Weather”. So many characters find themselves confronting challenging feelings and must figure out how to cut through them, withstand them, or even use them to make it out of voids both literal and figurative. That certainly applies to Book (David Ajala). After an ill-fated attempt to use the spore drive to leap from the void, the resulting energy feedback plagues him with taunting visions of his dead father.

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

Guest performer (and Slings and Arrows alum) Rothaford Gray does stellar work in the role. He’s instantly convincing and plausible as Book’s disapproving father, speaking with a conviction and chastising tone that makes their relationship feel lived-in despite his quick quasi-magical arrival. His presence sets up an internal conflict for Book, one the one-time courier’s already been fighting since the season began: stick with Michael and Starfleet’s cautious bent or follow his father’s principles to take action and seek vengeance.

Book’s challenge is, in a strange way, the same as the one affecting Zora. As Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) explains, his brain is being overclocked with the energy from the failed jump, dredging up these ghosts for poor Book to contend with. He too has to find a way to focus despite that noise, to decide what will be his rock amid an ocean of grief and anger. And like Zora, he ultimately chooses Michael.

The writing isn’t flawless here, but there’s power in Book rejecting the demands of a hidebound father he resents, instead coming to embrace the partner he truly loves. It’s heartwarming to see Book express those feelings to Michael before they take another wild swing at saving the day.

That longshot is the culmination of all three story threads here. Studying the energy signatures in Book’s brain reveals the charge originated from somewhere beyond the Galactic Barrier. That, in and of itself, is an intriguing reveal. It not only ties this season to a recurring concept from The Original Series but posits that the DMA comes from a people the Federation’s never encountered before. (So not the Kelvans, then?)

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 6 Recap
Pictured: Ian Alexander as Gray of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

More immediately, seizing on this energy signature dovetails with Zora realizing they can sense something within the void, thanks to Gray’s assistance in focusing. The combination of these two breakthroughs allows Burnham and company to develop a type of subspace sonar that can guide them out of the rift. Discovery’s creative team crafts a clever tapestry in “Stormy Weather”, tying Book’s psychic experience, Zora’s awakening, and Burnham’s problem-solving into one interwoven answer to the problem.

The catch is that in the process of escaping, the Discovery’s shields would fail and the heat of reentry would render the ship uninhabitable. Good news, though! The crew can simply stay in the transporter’s pattern buffer while Zora pilots them out. (Shades of Scotty!) Frankly, it’s a bridge too far for this episode. The choice stacks another convenient technical fix on top of an otherwise better-earned solution to the major problem.

Despite that, “Stormy Weather” ends up in a good place. There’s something poignant, even meditative, in how Burnham becomes the sole humanoid physically present aboard the ship during the escape attempt. Her slow-motion walk down the corridor is more cheesy than epic. But her heart-to-heart with Zora over how to persevere despite an emotional overload is intimate and affecting. Again, the show’s dialogue continues to be clunky, especially in these big moments. And yet, there’s conceptual weight in Burnham, who’s learned how to orient herself despite great losses and psychological damage, helping Zora learn how to balance emotion and action in a baptism by literal fire.

Star Trek Discovery Season 4 Episode 6 Recap
Pictured: Sonequa Martin Green as Burnham and Doug Jones as Saru of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2021 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Of course the captain and her ship succeed in breaking free of the void and live to fight another day, but that’s not really the point. The point comes via the family trees both Burnham and Zora construct in the aftermath, a symbol for how their connections to others and desire to protect them gives each a purpose and direction, one which helps them stay focused even in the face of tremendous fear and great hardships.

Let’s be real. A primary vessel that can be afraid of the unknown or overwhelmed in tight spots is a terrible idea in practical terms. It’s compelling, however, in terms of the story.

So much of Star Trek is about problem-solving, how human beings rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure in the face of unfathomable challenges. But it’s also about how we navigate a universe filled with new life forms, many of which may be evolving before our eyes. Zora fits the bill. Piloting a spaceship that can feel may not be the best plan for a danger-courting crew. But it’s engaging to watch our heroes find an ally who is at once new and old and guide them out of darkness and into the fractious realm of sentience and sentiment.

Ensign’s Log:

  • Once again, it’s not much, but the B-team bridge crew thankfully receives a little more color for the second week in a row. The moment where they hold hands before beaming into the pattern buffer was particularly nice.
  • Saru consults Starfleet logs and namedrops the Enterprise and Voyager when contemplating how to deal with the subspace rift du jour. It’s mainly an excuse for more exposition, but hey, nice to see the continuity acknowledged.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Zora briefly mentions the Ba’Ku from Star Trek: Insurrection, and it’d be better for everyone if we never discussed that in canon ever again.
  • Book and Stamets’ unlikely yet pleasant friendship continues here, and I’m glad it’s not forgotten.
  • When Kirk’s Enterprise encountered the Galactic Barrier, it caused trouble for crewmembers with any sort of psychic powers. That portends interesting things for Book.
  • Between the song “Stormy Weather” here and “Funny Face” in the Short Trek “Calypso”, we’re slowly but surely starting to pin down Zora’s musical tastes.
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