When Star Trek: Discovery premiered on what was then called CBS All Access, the show was a bold, dark, innovative reinvention of the Star Trek franchise. Shows, and even some of the movies, had been serialized before. Discovery‘s willingness, though, to seemingly obliterate its premise every episode led to jaw-dropping moment after jaw-dropping moment. It was purposefully alarming, purposefully divisive, but also helped launch Paramount’s next generation of Star Trek series that now includes Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy and the soon to come direct spinoff series Strange New Worlds.
But on the just debuted fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery, the series isn’t dropping shocks-a-minute; instead, with the crew established and the characters beloved, the series is now taking the time to lead boldly not with surprises, but with tremendous amounts of heart.
In the new season (the first four episodes were provided for review), the crew of Discovery is now firmly established in a far-flung future, nearly 1000 years after the events of Seasons 1 and 2. Last season, they figured out what caused The Burn, a massive event that isolated the galaxy and nearly wrecked the Federation. When we pick up in “Kobayashi Maru”, the Federation is slowly rebuilding, the galaxy is reconnecting, and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is captain of the ship.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean that Burnham isn’t still going on away missions and saving the day whenever she can. But thanks to the addition of a new character, Chelah Horsdal’s politically inclined Federation President Laira Rillak, she’s being challenged to think about things a different way. How can Burnham lead her crew if she’s also constantly throwing herself in the way of danger? Is making herself the only one who can solve problems a way of choosing the best resource; or is centering the narrative around herself a way of avoiding responsibility, by taking all of it? It’s a fascinating discussion that doesn’t just test Burnham, it also takes to task the rogue adventurer nature of every captain in the Star Trek franchise for the past several decades.
That’s not to say that Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 is a political clash of ideologies, though that plays heavily into the season as it moves forward. Instead, the promising nature of the rebuilt Federation comes crashing to a halt thanks to the season premiere’s cliffhanger — and spoilers past this point — which sees the destruction of Cleveland “Book” Booker’s (David Ajala) home planet of Kwejian. This isn’t the first time a planet’s explosion has kicked off a Star Trek plot, most notably the destruction of Vulcan in the 2009 Star Trek film. But here the tragedy isn’t the start of a rollicking adventure, it’s something that all the characters feel; most notably Book, though it touches every corner of the galaxy. And the fight here, at least in the early going, isn’t against some vengeful enemy or mad scientist; it’s a light years wide anomaly, which provides an impossible scientific challenge and stretches every member of the crew to their limits.
If you thought a massive, unknowable force coming for everyone is reminiscent of a certain pandemic we’re still in the middle of? You would be correct. That is, in fact, the direct analogue the show is working with this season, from the strapped scientists trying to solve the problem, to the populace of the galaxy reacting in big ways; some helpful, some extremely combative. But like the best of Star Trek, this season attempts to use COVID as a starting point, versus a one to one analogy. You can see the inspiration, but it’s not distracting.
What Discovery gets right, though, is the enormous well of emotion that infused everyone, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. It’s tough to watch at times, particularly when it comes to Ajala’s heartbreaking performance, or Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets desperately trying to fix this problem all by himself. But what you get more than anything else is that after fighting the Mirror Universe, villainous AI, and being flung into a future where everyone they knew are all long dead and gone, the crew of Discovery are now each other’s family. There’s even families in that family, thanks to Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tal (Ian Alexander), who have essentially been adopted by Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). But those bonds extend to the rest of the crew, too, including a more emotionally stable Saru (Doug Jones), and Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who is trying to find her own place during these tumultuous times. Even the rest of the crew on deck gets powerful one on one moments to express their feelings about what’s going on in the universe, to stand up and be counted and make a difference.
Mind you, it’s early going. The first four episodes definitely throw some twists at the crew as they try to figure out what the anomaly is, and how to stop it. And there’s every possibility that a vengeful enemy or mad scientist could be behind it, once the season continues. There also are big changes and shake-ups in store, but even those are treated with more depth of emotion and heart than you might have seen in the cold, combative first season of the show. When Discovery began, they were at war with an enemy, but also with each other and their basic natures. In Season 4, the crew of Discovery is united, whole, and providing comfort and hope both to each other, and to a world that needs that right now. Maybe that’s the most radical reinvention of all.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Thursdays on Paramount+.
Where to watch Star Trek: Discovery