I’ve already said this, but I want to repeat it: I really, really love the “giant eye” design for the DMA. We get a partial reason as to why the anomaly looks the way it does in “The Examples” (it’s controlled by a device deep inside the field), but the impression that it creates is honestly justification enough. Discovery has reliably flashy effects work, sometimes beautiful, often noisy to a distracting degree, but the show has rarely been capable of instilling this kind of dread. Few shows are. I have no idea how intentional it is, but it’s striking and memorable in a way that stands out from the usual visual noise, and that’s something worth appreciating.
As for the rest of this episode… well, as is so often the case with Discovery, the broad outlines of a reasonable plot are here. The DMA vanishes from one spot in space, only to appear in another almost instantaneously, endangering a colony held by the Emerald Chain, and raising serious questions as to just what in the hell is going on. While Michael and the crew work to rescue the colonists (including a group of prisoners that the Emerald Chain government is more than happy to let die), Stamets and a guest star scientist, Tarka, run simulations of the DMA to try and better understand how the anomaly works. Meanwhile, Culber gets a lecture from Doctor Cronenberg on self-care.
Funnily enough, that last bit, which is really more of a footnote than an actual storyline, rings truest to me. The current season has had Culber doubling down on being ship’s counselor and its medical doctor, first helping Booker work through his grief, then talking Tilly through her existential crisis, and now assuming the difficult job of helping the colonists adjust to the fear and stress of losing their homes. It’s a lot, and it doesn’t give him much time to be an actual person; the strain is starting to show, so he reaches out to Cronenberg for advice on how to balance everything. Cronenberg flat out tells him that he needs to find some time for himself, or else he’ll have a breakdown and be useless to everyone.
It’s all pretty straightforward and obvious, but it’s handled with an ease and a directness that feels earned. Culber’s saintly qualities have been well-established, and it’s frankly ridiculous that he’s forced into the position of doing two demanding jobs at the same time. I appreciate the comparatively low stakes of the situation, and how, at least so far, the show hasn’t tried to lean into it to make it more dramatic. (You could say the same of Tilly’s departure arc; it wasn’t subtle, but someone realizing they’re unhappy in their job is a completely reasonable development, and, melodramatic Space Camp rip-off aside, it was handled with a decent amount of maturity and common sense.)
“Obvious” is the watchword for the rest of the hour as well, with less effective results. Michael’s decision to rescue the six prisoners that the Chain is willing to leave for dead isn’t a bad call, exactly; it’s in character for her, and it fits with the general “save as many lives as you can” of the Federation. But the way she immediately assigns herself and Booker to the job feels decidedly un-captainlike–hell, just the fact that Booker is always hanging out on the bridge so they can flirt is weird. On another show, I would have faith that this was part of an intentional arc, with the main character needing to learn how to keep her personal life and her professional life separate; on Discovery, though, it just comes across as Michael getting what she wants and that being an unquestionably good thing.
Which, okay, sure. The real issue here is the supposed moral dilemma represented by the prisoners Michael and Booker rescue. When they arrive at the prisoner (after shooting up a bunch of mechanical beetle things), the leader of the group gives a speech about how they’ve all been locked up for minor crimes. He criticizes the Federation for refusing to help them before, and refuses to leave unless Michael can find some way to guarantee their freedom.
I get what the episode is trying to accomplish here–reminding us of a larger context, showing how the Federation exists in a universe with a variety of other political organizations, and giving us a sense of how much Michael et al are needed to help undo the injustices of those other groups. But it’s childishly simple in a way that makes it nearly impossible to take seriously. None of the prisoners have any inherent character beyond their obvious symbolic value, not even the leader who does the most talking, an almost comically noble figure who ultimately chooses to stay behind and die because he once killed an innocent man. This is supposed to make him even more noble, I think, but is really just the show’s way of avoiding a more complicated emotional beat–the mess takes care of itself, so to speak.
It’s lazy writing, really, morality as a problem taken out of a textbook and designed to leave no real lasting impact whatsoever. Take the final scene of Michael giving the surviving daughter of the man the prisoner killed the family heirloom he stole; it’s presented with all the signifiers of a moving resolution, but there’s nothing really resolved here, nothing that actually matters. The show has a great talent for emotional manipulation, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t make for effective storytelling. It creates moments, but no plausible tissue to connect them beyond an endless satisfaction with itself, a tautology of narrative in which things matter because we’re told they matter, and that ought to be enough.
Sometimes it works. The sidestory, which has Tarka, Stamets, Saru, and Jet (Jet!) using large amounts of power to create a mini-DMA, at least offers a compelling guest star to drive things forward, and the DMA is interesting enough that I’m happy to learn more about it. I question the timing and logic of the choices here–it seems ill-advised to be using inordinate amounts of power (at a level six on the “do not do this” scale, according to Jet) while the ship is engaged in a difficult rescue mission–but then, Discovery isn’t really about logic. It’s about motion, and the build of these sequences, which ultimately end in confirming Tarka’s theory, keeps things going at a good enough clip that it’s easier to simply go along for the ride.
Then there’s the reveal at the end: Tarka may know more about what’s going on than he’s let on. And he’s got a suspicious circular scar on the back of his neck. I’ll be honest: I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out what that scar signifies, as it’s clearly meant to be significant. I apologize if I missed something obvious (feel even freer than usual to roast me in the comments below). The Borg? Control? Some third thing? Whatever it is, it’s probably not friendly.
- There’s a very small beat with one of the bridge crew asking to be put in charge of the rescue efforts while Michael and Booker go off and have an adventure; we later learn that said crew member wanted to be involved because the Federation rescued him and his family from a natural disaster when he was a child. It’s a reveal that’s clearly supposed to be heartwarming, but came across as rote to me.
- There’s been a low-key runner this season about the Sphere data, an artificial intelligence merged with Discovery’s operating system, and its developing personality. I expect that’s going someplace, but no idea where just yet.