So, last week, a planet blew up. That’s going to have consequences on a macro and micro level, and to Discovery’s credit, “Anomaly” does its best to deliver on both. The fact that it’s far more effective (or at least, more comprehensive) at the latter isn’t really a surprise at this point. This is a show that’s always been more invested in devoting time to the emotional lives of its ensemble than it has been at creating a consistent, plausible universe, and while I can be frustrated with that (to me, universe-building is one of the great strengths of the Trek franchise), I can’t pretend it’s unusual, or that the series hasn’t been exactly this for three plus years now. At times, it’s an effective approach, offering a vision of the future where co-workers routinely check in with one another, are constantly aware of their internal lives, and value support and openness as much as they value scientific progress.
I can get behind that. I do wish that the show managed the balance a little better, though. “Anomaly” devotes the bulk of its runtime to the fallout from Kewjian’s destruction, and, in concept at least, most of the developments make sense. We see Booker stunned into near catonia, replaying footage from just before he left his home world over and over again, trying to make sense of what happened while Michael does her best to comfort him; later, we learn that the destruction was caused by a gigantic gravitational anomaly, and that the anomaly is still active. The Federation holds a group meeting with leaders from various other planets, discussing their next move. People are understandably upset, but Discovery is on it, heading towards the anomaly to take readings in order to try and predict its next move.
So far, so good. The anomaly turns out to be… weird. That’s really the best way to describe the response; there’s a bit where Captain Burnham switches the visual field to a “polarizing spectrographic filter,” and all of a sudden a bunch of swirling dots become a big sea of blue swirling dots, and this is very impressive. The big problem is that Discovery can’t get close enough on its own to take the necessary readings, so Booker volunteers to fly his ship in for a closer look.
Michael is conflicted about this, believing as a captain that Booker is the right choice for the mission, but worried as a romantic partner that Booker is pursuing this for maybe not the healthiest reasons. Saru, who’s returned to Discovery, encourages her to listen to her captain brain, while also suggesting that they put in some additional safety protocols, and Stamets is assigned to go along for the ride in holographic form.
The real meat of the hour, then, is Booker and holo-Stamets making a near suicidal dash through the anomaly, taking readings while Discovery struggles with its own problems. There are some nifty special effects here, including a couple of free-gravity sequences where everyone on the Discovery bridge gets tossed up in the air, even though we are repeatedly told that shouldn’t be happening.There’s a crisis point, and Michael needs to get through to Booker in order to help him guide his ship out of the anomaly at the last minute, retrieving all that precious, precious data and forcing him to confront how broken up he is inside about the whole “my home world is gone” thing.
Last week’s premiere felt a bit messy in its focus, needing to stall with the space station crisis before it could deliver on the planet destruction which would prove to be the real hook of the season. This week’s episode fares better; it’s more focused, and the emotional and dramatic arcs are better connected. We start with Michael trying to get through to Booker and him refusing to hear her, and we end (more or less) with her finally reaching him, and him taking the first tentative (and presumably absolutely fucking miserable) steps towards grief and, hopefully, recovery.
It’s a progression I wasn’t immediately on board with, as it initially seemed like Michael was less worried about Booker, and more worried that Booker wasn’t letting her help, as though the only way she could frame the problem was to see how it related to her. But by the end, both actors manage to sell the relationship in a way that’s effective and even moving.
I’m less sure about the episode’s other detours. While I appreciate that this Trek makes more effort to understand the psychological impact of working in deep space and constantly dealing with increasingly absurd threats, it can lead to an off-putting sort of self-absorption at times; and while it’s perfectly fine to have characters (even likeable characters) who are ridiculous solipsistic messes, it can be unclear whether or not Discovery recognizes that constantly fixating on your own problems while the universe is being broken down into component parts around you isn’t the most endearing quality in a protagonist.
Take Stamets. Stamets, we already know, can be uptight and nebbishy and awkward. That’s fine, and it suits Anthony Rapp’s bug-eyed, perpetually shocked acting style. But when Stamets is tasked with accompanying Booker on the mission into the anomaly, it’s not entirely to his credit that his first concerns are the social uncomfortableness of being stuck working with Booker for an extended period of time. In a way, it’s refreshing to hear someone come out and acknowledge that, no matter how friendly and supportive a group gets, there are still people in it who just don’t ever really get along. And since Stamets explains most of this to Culber, his partner, it makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes him look kind of, well, ridiculous. The guy’s planet just went kaboom. Maybe you don’t need to worry about whether or not you can manage small talk.
Even worse, when Stamets arrives on Book’s ship in holo form, he immediately tries, uncomfortably, to “chat.” Now, I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be funny, or at least that the show understands Stamets is acting strangely; but part of the problem with Discovery’s efforts at emotional truth is that it strives so hard to make sure every beat lands that it often ends up overshooting the mark. Stamets and Booker working together is clearly intended to be an odd couple pairing that eventually pays off with them bonding, and that’s fine, a time-honored dramatic tradition which is almost always satisfying when it’s done right. But Stamets is just such a complete mess that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to take it seriously when Booker eventually tries to meet him halfway.
None of this is bad in concept, but it feels like all the settings are off just enough to strand the show in a kind of emotional uncanny valley, where it’s possible to understand what the writers and actors are trying to convey, but often difficult to actually believe any of it. Tilly learning how to be a good mentor to someone? That makes sense and is a good character beat for her. Tilly doing this in the middle of a ship-threatening crisis, right after Doctor Culber literally explains to her exactly what’s going on with Adira? Less so. And I’m completely nonplussed by the on-going “let’s find a new body for Gray” storyline.
There’s a lot of metaphorical heavy lifting going on (the “previously on” at the start of the episode showed Culber reassuring Gray’s ghost “We’ll find a way for you to be seen, truly seen, by everyone”), but in terms of actual in-universe context, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is Gray a Force ghost? How is he going to be incorporated into a robot body? And most of all, why is any of this happening? We’ve already had at least one prominent resurrection on this show, and while I understand it’s a time-honored Trek tradition, it should at least be treated as an important event, and not just, hey, why not, let’s do a thing.
But that, too, is part of Discovery’s whole vibe. It’s one I’m often frustrated with, but every so often the show is capable of generating an image or a moment that sticks with me. The last moment of “Anomaly” is a stunner. Tilly tells Saru that, according to the data that Stamets brought back, the anomaly actually reacted to Discovery’s arrival, changing course when the ship approached it; which means that it’s going to be impossible to predict its next move.
Worse, it means there’s likely some kind of intent behind it, an intention of near unfathomable size and scope capable of destroying planets at will. The camera pulls back to give us the clearest view of the anomaly yet, and it’s… some kind of shape. Like a ship. Or a closed eye. Whatever it is, it’s terrifying, and I’m excited to see what it does next.
- I can’t tell if the show recognizes Michael is being pushy in her attempts to comfort Booker, or if it’s entirely sympathetic to her efforts; it may be a matter of personal taste, but trying to push someone to experience grief in a way that you recognize seems in bad taste to me.
- Gray’s new body is based on the research we saw back in Picard.
- Something’s going on with Tilly. She thinks Saru got taller (he didn’t) and later talks to Dr. Culber about some kind of problem that she’s not ready to discuss openly yet. I wonder if they’re setting her up to leave the show? (I haven’t heard any behind the scenes info, this is pure speculation.)