Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Episode 11 “Rosetta” Review

This week on Star Trek: Discovery, Michael Burnham gets bad vibes from an alien graveyard, Ruon Tarka kidnaps a respected stand-up comedian, and Keyla Detmer gets a traumatic backstory of her very own. “Rosetta” is a strong episode that inches us closer to the season’s climactic confrontation but loses points for a clumsy three-minute subplot in which a guest star gets a lecture from his supervisor. 

Catching Feelings

The USS Discovery has 29 hours to locate and negotiate with Unknown Species 10-C before their giant cosmic mining equipment lays waste to Earth and Ni’Var. Their research indicates that the 10-C are concealed inside a massive energy field that the ship may not be able to penetrate. Moreover, Captain Burnham is concerned that, even if they can get Discovery inside, they may still lack the ability to communicate with the 10-C. It’s not mentioned often, but Burnham’s specialty is xenoanthropology, and her expertise tells her that they need to try and gain some cultural context on the 10-C before they attempt contact. Ease of communication between species is often a given on Star Trek thanks to the convenience of the Universal Translator, and I’m excited by the idea that extragalactic exploration and diplomacy will be more complex, and that these aliens will be more “alien.” Classic Star Trek was hampered by the need to portray most aliens as humanoids with bumpy foreheads (to the extent that The Next Generation created an in-universe explanation for it), but Discovery has the benefit of contemporary visual effects and a new area of space to populate with more bizarre and imaginative creatures, beginning with the 10-C.

En route to the hyperfield, Discovery finds a planet that may have been the 10-C’s homeworld. It’s a former gas giant turned to rock by some sort of cataclysmic impact, but what remains may offer some insight into its former inhabitants. Captain Burnham, Mr. Saru, Dr. Culber, and Lt. Commander Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) take a shuttlecraft down to one of the planet’s surviving structures in search of 10-C technology or other artifacts. They soon realize that some of what they assumed to be architecture is actually bone, and that they’re walking through a graveyard for an otherworldly species of Lovecraftian scale. One by one, the crew begins experiencing heightened fear responses and audiovisual hallucinations of the terrifying natural disaster that pulverized the planet. At first, they’re unable to explain it, until they realize that a hydrocarbon dust they encountered on the planet’s surface is penetrating their EV suits. Later, by a smaller set of remains, they find a second set of hydrocarbons that fill the away team with a sense of safety and warmth that they’re able to recognize as a child’s love for their parent. This, they realize, is evidence that the 10-C communicate not through speech, sign, or telepathy, but through pheromones, and collecting enough unique samples might provide a basis for translation.

Star Trek: Discovery

This A-plot benefits from obvious effort from all involved, from our four actors, writer Terri Hughes Burton, directors Jeff Bird and Jen McGowan, and the production design and visual effects teams. The 10-C settlement looks like nothing else we’ve seen on the series so far, and leverages the production’s new Mandalorian-style LED graphics walls to great effect. Every member of the away team has a specific reason for being there, and they each have a different, character-specific response to having their emotions affected by a strange outside force. For Saru, who is affected first, it’s an unwelcome reminder of the constant anxiety he experienced before he went through his vahari’ai transformation. For Culber, it’s an obstacle to his own practiced professional calm as a therapist, which has been cracking under stress since the start of the DMA crisis. Burnham goes into problem-solving mode and helps to keep the crew on task, but for once she’s not the team’s superhero. Instead, it’s Detmer, who manages to avoid the fear pheromones and keeps her famous cool, but is taken aback when she relives the warmth and safety experienced by the 10-C’s children. Detmer, we learn, grew up tending to a parent with a stressful mental health issue and never felt that kind of peace during her own upbringing. Discovery has struggled all season to sneak in bits of backstory and characterization for the underserved members of the bridge crew, and that’s always what it’s felt like — sneaking it in. This time it’s a natural extension of the story, teed up by a tiny subplot in which Ensign Adira takes note of how cool Detmer is and seeks out her friendship.

Unlike last week’s contrivance at the Galactic Barrier, this pit-stop on the way to finally meeting our antagonists feels like more than just a cool-looking obstacle to be defeated using technobabble. Not only is the 10-C nursery mission very much in line with the show’s overall themes (a sign lights up and the studio audience lifelessly recites my catchphrase, “Star Trek: Discovery is a show about feelings”), but it also forces the Discovery crew to brace themselves for a challenge to their philosophy. Burnham believes deeply that if people reach for each other, they can always come to an understanding. She has felt the 10-C’s pain over the loss of their planet and the love they have for their families, so surely they’re capable of understanding the threat they pose to her home. But, as both Culber and Saru point out, there’s also every reason to believe that they do understand what they’re doing and simply don’t care. Apathy is an obstacle that Burnham is unprepared to confront, and she may have to. Of course she’ll find a way — this is Star Trek and talking always wins, eventually — but I like the way this stages the climax of the series as a philosophical and emotional struggle.

It’s Hard Getting Around When You’re Invisible to Automatic Doors

While Burnham and company are down on the planet’s surface, Book and Tarka hatch the next phase of their scheme to steal the DMA’s power source. Burnham has been ahead of them every step of the way, and there’s no sense trying to find a way into 10-C space before she does. Instead, Tarka develops a piece of malware that will allow Book’s ship to attach to Discovery’s hull without being detected and sneak inside the hyperfield along with her. The catch: the software has to be installed manually, which means the two of them will need to beam aboard and physically connect to Discovery’s computer without being detected. Book and Tarka launch a reverse-heist, crawling through service ducts wearing gadgets that hide their biosigns from the ship’s sensors.

While sneaking around, Book overhears United Earth General Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole) criticize Burnham’s decision to delay their journey to the hyperfield in favor of a fact-finding mission on the planet below. Ndoye voted against the diplomatic mission in the first place, and Book thinks he can convince her to assist their plan to disable the DMA by force. Book arranges to meet Ndoye in private, and she agrees to be their eyes and ears aboard Discovery, but only on the condition that Book and Tarka wait to take action until after she confirms that the diplomatic effort has failed. Book and Ndoye are on the same page — they have confidence in Burnham, but refuse to wager billions of lives on the mercy of mass-murderers. Tarka isn’t part of this conversation, and we all remember what happened last time he was told to wait for the Federation to talk things through. He’s not going to let this end without getting his hands on that power source. Will Book take precautions this time around to prevent Tarka from blowing everything up?

In the meantime, Tarka is searching Discovery for the best place to plant his device and ends up following Commander Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) around Engineering. Tarka lures her away from her station by sabotaging a replicator, but she returns faster than expected and catches him in the act. At the end of the episode, Book returns to his ship to update Tarka on his meeting with Ndoye and is surprised to find that Reno is now their prisoner. This obviously complicates their plans, as the crew is bound to notice that one of their senior engineers is missing. Reno is famously crafty, and will likely only remain trapped behind that force field for however long she feels like it. Reno’s capture is also a reminder of how much Discovery has changed over the years. If this were Season One, Tarka would have probably murdered Reno and not told Book about it. Dark, violent twists like this happened a bit too often in that first year, but would feel wildly inappropriate in the show we’re watching now. 

Star Trek: Discovery

We’re Not Calling You Out, We’re Calling You In

Overall I’m quite content with this episode of Discovery, but there’s one very small, very strange subplot that’s driving me a little crazy. It begins towards the beginning of the episode, during the scene in which the Federation delegates gather in the shuttlebay to see the away team off on their mission. First, Ni’Var President T’Rina (Tara Rosling) impresses upon them the urgency of their task, speaking in the expected eloquence of a politician. Next, Starfleet linguist Dr. Hirai (Hira Kanagawa) flatly adds “In other words: Make the trip count, don’t screw it up.” His demeanor isn’t terribly tactful, but it’s not hostile, either. In a show as emotionally heightened as Discovery, Hirai’s attitude barely registers as anything. Nevertheless, there’s a pregnant pause in the conversation and General Ndoye looks at him with shock, as if he’s just said something hateful. We cut to Federation President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) as well, but she doesn’t seem to be reacting to this, to the extent that this shot feels like coverage to allow the editor to cut between two takes of Ndoye rather than something we’re supposed to register. We do not see the away team’s faces or get any indication that they have been affected by what Hirai has said. Then we move on. Okay.

Eight or so minutes later, we get a second scene in which Rillak sits down with Hirai at Discovery’s bar and admonishes him for his attitude. I can see what she (and the writers) are getting at here. Hirai is behaving as if this crisis is an intellectual exercise, and being dispassionate about a threat that may soon wipe out billions of people is insensitive to those close to the victims, including herself and Ndoye. It reminds me a bit of seeing random American Twitter users post matter-of-factly about the war in Ukraine during the past week as if it’s just something happening on TV; Your sparkling analysis is helping no one. The problem is that we barely know Dr. Hirai and haven’t seen enough of him to establish the pattern of behavior that requires intervention. We see a single incident of him being sort of curt, and we jump immediately to an intervention. (Damn. It is like Twitter!) The message also gets confused because his corrected behavior at the end of the episode shows him curbing his negativity, not his insensitivity. He makes a skeptical appraisal of the value of the away team’s findings, and after a look from the President, tacks on some half-hearted praise. Once again, we get no indication that the away team even gives a shit about his approval, and Ndoye, the original injured party, is not even present to witness his attitude adjustment. Despite Rillak’s satisfied expression, nothing has actually been accomplished.

Discovery often employs the language of group therapy and online sensitivity discourse, and while this can often be cloying, I understand the value in depicting Star Trek’s evolved Future Humanity as not only more intelligent but more emotionally attuned. This subplot, however, plays like a corny, toothless training video from Discovery’s HR department about how criticism has limited value in a high-stress situation and we really don’t have a place for your negative attitude in the workplace, Brian. I swear, this subplot feels as if it exists because someone in the writer’s room had an axe to grind about a coworker and invented a straw man on whom to take out their frustration.

Other than this entirely excisable three minutes, that’s another mark in the “win” column for Discovery, and with only two hours remaining in the season, I imagine things are about to heat up significantly.