Four seasons in, Discovery has finally settled on the show it wants to be. After the production chaos of the first two seasons (there are twenty-three producers credited with the show at this point) and the soft reboot of the third, the fourth season finally stands confidently on its own two feet. It acknowledges that there is a legacy to be built on, but does not devour its own tail in trying to reference previous Trek at every opportunity. Yes, we have a return for the Ferengi, and the union of Vulcan and Romulan culture, but this is all background, and the focus is now on an original story. And to be honest, it’s probably the best story Star Trek has told in a long while.
A fourth season means a fourth captain, as this time Burnham is in the big chair. This resolves on my issues with earlier seasons, as now she sits at the centre of the in-universe hierarchy as well as the narrative one. It now makes sense that she is the one making the decisions. There is definitely a place for Star Trek shows which do not revolve around a captain, but Discovery has struggled with this in the past. By finally putting the main character in charge of daily affairs, a lot of what follows feels a lot more natural.
Discovery has a massive cast, especially given the sort of closely personal storytelling it prefers. This season we bid farewell to Tilly and Gray (at least for the time being), while Culber, Stamets, and Saru take a slightly reduced role. I can’t help but wonder if COVID restrictions played a part in the shuffling of screen time, but ultimately I do think it works in the shows favour. The best thing this fourth season does is not adding new characters. Yes, Shawn Doyle arrives at the brilliantly arrogant Tarka, but this is a supporting role rather than a new addition to the major players.
So who does get the screen time? At long last, it’s the bridge crew. Detmer, Owo, Rhys, Bryce, and Nilsson all have great moments throughout the series, and ‘All In’ is a powerhouse outing for Owo in particular. Adira steps into the gap left by Tilly’s departure, and they essentially play an improved version of the role. Gray might leave mid-season, but not before Ian Alexander puts in some great performances. But the majority of the heavy lifting is done by Burnham and Book. And while I don’t have a bad word to say about the acting, I do think this relationship exposes Discovery‘s biggest flaw.
One of the core pieces of advice any storyteller is given is to give the story personal stakes for the main character. This is advice that a lot of Star Trek hasn’t really employed in the past. Picard was rarely personally invested in the planet of the week, he was just doing his job. Episodes with high personal stakes such as ‘The Measure of the Man’ were the exception rather than the rule. Discovery changed that. Right from the start, this was Burnham’s story. It was about what mattered to her. The show can’t be faulted for that. Since the nineteen-eighties TV has become a lot more personal and character driven. We’re only following trends here. But at the same time, Discovery wants to tell big, epic stories. The world is in danger, the galaxy is in danger, the future is in danger. It’s an escalation that is fundamentally at odds with introspective character-focused narratives. The Dark Matter Anomaly and the mystery of Species 10-C is one of the most brilliantly Star Trek ideas of the past few years, and would have stood perfectly fine without adding personal stakes. But no. In the opening episode, Book’s homeworld is destroyed, and the finale sees the threat of the same happening to both Earth and Ni’Var (formerly known as Vulcan). It’s a connection that is at best contrived, and adds nothing more than false urgency. This would be a terrible thing to befall any habitable planet. Why strain credulity by making it one that viewers and main cast have a connection to?
While the DMA storyline does run through the entire show, Discovery is slowly shifting to more episodic storytelling, which is always nice to see in modern television. Two of these stand out for me. ‘All In’ is the space casino episode that would have felt obligatory in any other series, but in Discovery feels fresh and fun. As well as showcasing Owo, it does exactly what Discovery should be doing at this stage: exploring new and unfamiliar worlds. ‘Rosetta’ is another example of this joy, and even if the technobabble does feel resolved a touch too quickly, it’s great to see the crew exploring strange new worlds at long last.
But the highpoint for me is ‘Stormy Weather.’ It’s the closest modern Star Trek has come to a bottle episode. It throws the crew and ship into a lifeless void, and then lets them think their way out of it. There’s precious little action, just great dialogue. And the best of that dialogue is a conversation between Gray and Zora. In this single scene, Doscovery puts to rest any fear that the spirit of the franchise is lacking in modern incarnations. On the one hand, it’s an honest chat about the struggles of being transgender. On the other, it’s about an artificial intelligence exploring its own sense of identity. I find one of these much more interesting than the other, but the beauty of the scene is that it does both. Both sides are valid interpretations. You can read it as a modern day social issue, or just a fun scientific concept, and let the other be subtext. Star Trek is not always a subtle show, and Discovery can be more brash and noisy than most, but this scene cements ‘Stormy Weather’ in its place as my favourite episode of the franchise since the 2016 renewal.
Some of the character interactions can be suffocating wholesome, and the overabundance of shaky cameras and five-second shots will infuriate me until the day I die, but in its fourth season, Discovery truly sets itself as an equal to the shows of years’ past. I don’t think we’ll ever get the storytelling of the past back, but if we can get this close, and add in all the lessons and techniques of the present, then the future is looking like a bright place.