Review: 'Star Trek: Discovery' Stays Bold in Season 4

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 19, 2021

As Capt. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finally takes the big chair, "Star Trek: Discovery" launches into its fourth season at a full-on gallop.

The show returns with the same mix of action-adventure, humor, and slightly ridiculous set pieces that have characterized the past couple of seasons. It's now five months after Burnham and company solved the mystery of the galaxy-spanning "Burn" (a disaster that decimated the Federation and made warp-speed travel a rare and coveted thing). Burnham and her crew, despite being displaced in time and not native to the intricacies of 32nd Century interstellar politics, are on a mission to reassemble the grand alliances of the Federation, world by world. It's a sometimes-tricky assignment; as the season opens, Burnham — with unofficial crew member, adviser, and love interest Cleveland "Book" Booker (David Ajala) at her side — finds herself in the middle of a diplomatic overture gone wrong, as the Alshain, a prickly race of "butterfly people," take affront at her every word. (The final straw? Perceived cruelty to Booker's cat, Grudge.) A chase ensues, with energy weapon discharges flying all around and a cliff looming in our heroes' path. ("Why is there always a cliff?" Burnham and the viewer cry simultaneously, a moment that cleverly winks at, and coaxes you to pardon, the use of a tired trope.)

This opening, combining cliche and cockiness, sets the tone and signals that the show isn't about to abandon the momentum it's built up over the past couple of seasons. It also lays out what will likely be the season's driving emotional arc: Burnham, while astonishingly competent, is still green as a commander and as a denizen of the far future, a fact that the new Federation president, Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), zeroes in on and unsparingly emphasizes. Joining Burnham on Discovery for a chance to observe the newly-minted captain in action during a rescue mission to a space station in distress, Rillak proves a formidable critic — and a potential mentor — to Burnham, pointing out her blind spots and weaknesses.

Others in the crew continue on their own arcs, as Saru (Doug Jones) shepherds Su'kal (Bill Irwin), a fellow Kaminarian, back into their race despite Su'kal's long lifetime of isolation (and his unwitting role in the Burn). Non-binary crew member Adira (Blu del Barrio) and their significant other, Gray (Ina Alexander) — or rather, the ghost of Gray, whose mission this year is evidently to gain a new body — put in an appearance, with Adira assisting Tilly (Mary Wiseman) on a mission that tests the skills of them both. Book, meantime, returns to his home world to continue the process of reconciliation with his brother that began last season.

Many of these narrative pieces are addressed only enough to remind us of the story threads that are set to go forward, and they sometimes feel dropped in as a promise of things to come, but overall the episode proves itself a strong place to start from, and it earns its provocative title. ("Koyabashi Maru" is shorthand, in Trekdom, for a problem with no good solution.)

And boy, do our heroes have problems: An unknown cosmic phenomenon is suddenly endangering everything in its path; not just space stations, but entire planets, are at risk. Once again the galaxy is in dire peril from an overwhelming threat, and once again Burnham (and an authority figure against which she can test herself) stands at the crux of events, poised to save the day.

It's a formula, and the series' writers don't try to hide it; but it's a formula that's been working well, especially for the specific tonal niche that "Discovery" occupies. (Think Saturday morning serial from the '40s, but with eye-popping modern production values and visual effects.)

The takeaway? So far, the outline of Season Four seems very much like the same general shape in terms of story and plot that we've seen "Discovery" cling to since Season Two. But the Denebian slime devil is, as they say, in the details, and the details are endlessly imaginative and reliably compelling. In short, welcome back and buckle up: It looks like we're in for another fun ride.

"Star Trek: Discovery," Season Four, is streaming now at Paramount Plus.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.