Warp Factor Trek

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Jonathan Frakes returns to the Director’s chair for a lower-key but much more focussed episode – which is appropriate, considering the subject matter, and plays as if it’s, in some ways, a reflection of how the audience reacts to the more scattershot kitchen-sink episodes. (Where was this creative team when Chris Chibnall was planning the finale of the Doctor Who: Flux miniseries?)

We start with Discovery prepping to enter the subspace void left by the DMA last week, in search of clues as to the origin of it. Meanwhile, something is needed for Gray to do while Adira is having her first day on the bridge, and Zora the computer is an obvious source of concern because, well, never mind HAL 9000, even Starfleet has history of sentient computers going homicidal, such as Nomad and the M5 unit, as well as Control.… Book, meanwhile, is keen to get going on hunting down and killing whoever or whatever made the DMA, and we also see the welcome and long overdue reappearance of Grudge. The Queen of Space has been absent for too long.

Book and Grudge (CBS-Paramount)

Before forgetting, let’s make a quick note of the nice reprise of last season’s Federation HQ theme when all the bridge crew are called to station in a nice montage of screen wipes… It’s also interesting that, very early on, there’s a line that whatever created the DMA will be something new to the Federation, despite the heavy scattering of possible old enemies teased in dialogue and in visuals over the past few weeks, and the fact that the ship is immediately dropped into a void left by the DMA which is a completely energy-free, empty, unscannable void just like the one surrounding the space amoeba back in the TOS episode “The Immunity Syndrome”.

This void is slightly different in that, instead of being an expanding area with the life-sapping creature at the centre, this is a shrinking void with no reference points, whose edge destroys anything that comes into contact with it, starting with a Dot. This element of the mystery is more reminiscent of the crossover point between E-Space and N-Space in the Doctor Who story Warriors’ Gate, though without the mirror gateways, and the void being dark, not white. A shrinking void also being familiar to the crew of Voyager, of course.

Attempting to jump away using the Spore Drive causes Book to be injured, and sparks in him a hallucination of his father to argue with, because the Mycelial Network in the void is damaged. We know from Season 2 that mycelial hallucinations might not be just that, as the dead Hugh Culber was still extant in the network and so returned, which means that despite Culber’s official diagnosis of brain interference causing hallucinations, who knows whether maybe the empathic Kweijians might not still exist there somewhere.

Book facing the hallucination of his father (CBS-Paramount)

In any case, this gives us some great backstory for Book and his family and amulet, all delivered with brilliant acting from David Ajala (and good support from guest star Rothaford Gray, all but channelling Tony Todd) and Frakes’ assured direction. This is how you do backstory and get the audience to pay attention to it and invest in it. Sadly, we still get a small annoying infodump backstory, this time for Owosekun.

As well as giving Ajala another chance to shine, Book’s hallucinogenic daddy issues also provide a vital clue to the source of the Anomaly: the particles messing up his brain are from the Galactic Barrier (the one at the edge of the galaxy, from way back in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, though there’s no sign of Book developing silver eyes and a god complex), meaning the DMA came from outside the galaxy, just like the giant space amoeba, for those keeping track, and also the Doomsday Machine, the Kelvans, Korob and Sylvia, etc.

Gray in Discovery‘s lounge (CBS-Paramount)

In addition, Zora the computer isn’t able to get results from sensors and so enable the ship to escape, but Gray, being a Trill Guardian in training, and also acquainted with having a new form, encourages her to learn to focus and so not be overloaded. Sensory overload is certainly a mental health issue that affects real people, and this is presumably this week’s real-world comparison to how people are dealing with a changing world, beyond the more obvious universal issues represented by Book’s character arc.

Here, far from being a homicidal AI, Zora is encouraged to learn how to process her new emotions, and this leads to a wonderful two-hander sequence in the finale, bonding and getting chemistry between Michael and Zora, and between Sonequa Martin-Green and Annabelle Wallis, the latter of whom is the voice of Zora.

In the end, Zora, Gray, and the crew figure out how to get out of the void, but it will require shutting down life support, which means the whole crew will need to be sheltered somewhere. Where? Refer to one Montgomery Scott, retired. Or at least to his Starfleet records, discovering that longevity in a pattern buffer is well possible! One finale with only Michael and Zora later, and Bob’s your uncle.

Rating: 5/5

Frakes has knocked it out of the park here; he gets awesome performances and chemistries out of the cast, tells the story nice and clearly, and with some great visual flair; when the ship is stuck in the void, and spotlit, it has never looked so much like a real physical object, and the nonverbal parts of the performances are the best so far this year.

The episode’s downsides come back to the arc writing, sadly, and probably the Covid regulations. There’s still a reliance on one-anecdote infodump backstories for the Bridge crew, and it’s really, really strange that literally nobody pauses to think that the DMA might be something unleashed by accident or otherwise not really falling into the category of “weapon whose users must be hunted down.” Maybe that’s something the writers want to keep a surprise, but it’s incredibly un-Trekkish for no character to have thought it.

Still, overall, easily the best episode so far this season.

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