Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Episode 1 Review: “Kobayashi Maru”

When Star Trek: Discovery debuted in 2017, it was a dark, violent prequel series with a serious case of Game of Thrones envy. The show has been reshaped and retooled over three seasons, shedding its original tone and setting in favor of a far-flung, optimistic future centuries beyond the rest of the Star Trek franchise. Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is now tasked with helping to restore the once-mighty United Federation of Planets to its former standing as the galaxy’s most respected government, conducting diplomatic negotiations and rescue missions in the classic Starfleet idiom. Having seen the four new episodes provided to critics, I can report that Season Four feels like a natural continuation from the year prior, indicating that showrunners Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman (who share writing credit for the season premiere with Jenny Lumet) may finally be content with the direction of the show.

And for the most part, so am I. Discovery has become a strong synthesis of the elements that attracted multiple generations to Star Trek, combining the high emotion and visual flair of the Kurtzman- and J.J. Abrams-produced reboot films with the unabashedly dorky “I fucking love science” appeal of The Next Generation era. Discovery’s direction (led by producer/director Olutunde Osunsamne), production design and visual effects continue to impress to the extent that it makes Paramount’s plans for more feature films seem redundant. Sonequa Martin-Green remains a magnetic and sympathetic lead, though it seems as if this season is already treading familiar ground for her character. So far as the premiere “Kobayashi Maru” is concerned, Discovery’s fourth season is off to a great start, offering action, character drama, and the series’ familiar brand of sentimentality. 

Recap and spoilers begin below.

Star Trek: Discovery

I Can Go Twice as High

Last season, the crew of the USS Discovery investigated the cause of the Burn, a massive energy burst that spontaneously destroyed most of the galaxy’s dilithium (the primary fuel source for space-faring civilizations) and led to a new dark age of space. Discovery not only solved that mystery, assuaging fears that such an event might happen again, but also found a massive new cache of dilithium with which to get society back on its feet. The fourth season premiere picks up with Captain Burnham sharing this bounty as a peace offering to a former Federation world. (My screener does not have subtitles so I cannot attempt the alien species’ proper name, but Star Trek aliens usually have a prominent gimmick and theirs is that they’re really into butterflies.) The Butterfly People are understandably suspicious of a Federation Starfleet officer showing up on their planet offering free dilithium, and after a silly cultural misunderstanding, the negotiations break down and Burnham and her partner Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala) end up running for their lives. 

This opening feels familiar, closely mirroring the light adventure prologue of the 2016 film Star Trek Beyond. However, where in that story Jim Kirk beams away in frustration, here Michael Burnham buckles down and jeopardizes her life to complete the mission. While taking cover from the butterfly people’s phaser fire, Burnham notices that their flight and firing patterns are erratic and confused. She calls up to her science team aboard Discovery, who determine that the aliens’ natural magnetic navigation is upset and that the network of satellites designed to correct the problem are out of juice. Burnham orders Discovery to quickly refuel the satellites, which gives the butterfly people their balance and aim back. She gambles that they’ll recognize this as a gesture of trust, and it pays off. Not only does Burnham survive, but she wins over their Emperor Lee’u (Alex McCooeye, Letterkenny) and opens the door for a continued relationship with the Federation.

These ten minutes are a great appetizer for the season, reintroducing most of the main characters doing what they do best — solving problems. Discovery excels at procedural cross-talk, conveying its Starfleet crew as a well-coordinated cadre of super-geniuses who can talk through a complex puzzle in mere seconds. We get a taste of the Federation as the superhero of governments — one that prioritizes taking care of people over protecting itself or its power —  and of Burnham as the embodiment of that ideal. We also see Burnham’s Kirk-like daring, and her tendency to throw herself into the action rather than to remain safely in the Captain’s chair. This preference to endanger herself over those under her command is deconstructed later in the episode.

Star Trek: Discovery

I Would Simply Name My Space Station After a Captain Who Did Not Commit Any War Crimes

With the Burn behind them, the Federation is rebuilding and recommitting its Starfleet towards its original goal, the peaceful exploration of space. Captain Burnham gets the honor of addressing the first new class of Starfleet Academy cadets in over 150 years, and witnessing the grand opening of the new Archer Spacedock. (Its unveiling is underscored by an arrangement of “Archer’s Theme” from Star Trek: Enterprise, and, goddammit, I got choked up. I don’t even like Jonathan Archer! Such is the power of nostalgia.) Burnham’s speech is followed by another by new Federation President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal, The Man in the High Castle), who Burnham suspects is trying to ride Starfleet’s positive momentum to benefit her own political image. When Discovery is called away to respond to a space station’s urgent distress signal, Rillak invites herself along, much to Burnham’s frustration.

Discovery comes to the aid of Deep Space Repair Beta 6, which has been sent into an uncontrolled spin by an unknown spatial phenomenon. Burnham dispatches first officer Lt. Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and young prodigy Ens. Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) to the station, where they cooperate with the anxious Commander Nalas (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Kim’s Convenience). This is Adira’s first away mission and they’re understandably nervous, though this episode continues Discovery’s long tradition of conveying nervousness by having characters ramble uncontrollably which wears pretty quickly. This used to be Tilly’s role on the show, but now she’s grown into a more composed and confident officer. Adira has assumed Tilly’s old role as the New Kid, but they prove themselves steady in crisis when the station is pelted by a cloud of frozen methane. Commander Nalas fares far worse, losing his cool until he’s talked down over the comms channel by President Rillak, who soothes Nalas with an improvised speech about the beauty of his home planet. These local references are complete pandering bullshit — Rillak has never been to Nalas’ world — but they distract him for long enough to keep him from endangering himself or the rest of his party.

Captain Burnham, on the other hand, eats danger for three meals a day, and when the station’s escape pod becomes obstructed by debris, she volunteers herself to hop in a (rad looking) Worker Bee and clear it. Rillak challenges Burnham’s decision to leave the bridge of her ship during a crisis, but Burnham stands firm. She disembarks and successfully clears the way for the escape pod to make its first of two round trips from the station to Discovery, even completing the task by hand when her Worker Bee is totalled by a collision. Nalas, Tilly, and Adira agree to wait for the pod’s second lap, but this puts Discovery in grave and immediate danger. Burnham refuses to leave without them, again butting heads with the President, and while the pod does make it back to Discovery, it arrives concurrently with a massive chunk of ice. The impact claims the lives of Nalas and two unseen Discovery crew members. Adira, Tilly, and nine of the station crew are rescued successfully.

Star Trek: Discovery

Punch Up Til You Hit God

After the conclusion of the DSRB9 rescue mission, President Rillak finds Captain Burnham in her office, where she’s grieving the three dead officers. Rillak reminds Burnham that she saved nine people from the station, a net win, but Burnham is unwilling to accept a qualified success. Rillak reveals her true purpose for coming aboard Discovery — to evaluate Burnham for the command of one of Starfleet’s new, upgraded starships. Burnham’s psych analysis indicates that the loss of her parents as a child has given her a stubborn, compulsive need to save everyone at any cost to herself. Rillak has now witnessed that firsthand, and sees this as a potentially dangerous failing for a leader. This isn’t the first time Burnham’s been accused of having a messiah complex, but here Burnham claims that this is a feature, not a bug, and that her service record backs that up. Time and again, Michael Burnham has taken huge gambles that have paid off. Rillak maintains that this trend is unsustainable, and that sooner or later Burnham will have to accept failure.

Every season has given Burnham a new authority figure to whom she must prove herself. She’s won over each of her existing doubters one by one — her foster father, her dead mentor’s doppelganger, and Starfleet Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) — and has finally gotten command of her own ship. While this could have been an offramp to allow Burnham to cope with being an authority to be challenged for a change (a role Picard, Sisko, and Janeway each had to play from time to time), the storytellers have chosen to immediately give her a new high-status rival in President Rillak, who is expected to recur all season. It might have been nice to explore the new dynamic brought on by her command rather than placing her in essentially the same position as always, just one link higher on the food chain.

Still, Rillak’s reservations about Burnham’s command have the potential to mature into an interesting character arc for our lead, provided that the writers follow through with it. Burnham is a sponge for suffering and responsibility. She’s become accustomed to, even proud of the burdens she carries. But, as Rillak puts it, leadership is about knowing what weight is yours to carry and what isn’t. As Will Riker often reminds Captain Picard on The Next Generation, a Captain’s place is on the bridge, meaning sometimes someone else needs to beam down to the dangerous planet or pilot the shuttlecraft through the ion storm. When push comes to shove, can Michael Burnham send another officer on a mission that means almost certain death? I’m not eager to see Michael suffer yet another deep personal loss — she’s been the galaxy’s punching bag for long enough — but “Kobayashi Maru” seems to set up no other pathway. In order to learn the lesson she’s being asked to learn here, she’s going to have to allow, perhaps even order someone else to make a terrible sacrifice, and to learn to live with that decision.

I’m reminded of an axiom of Picard’s which is the single most valuable life lesson that I’ve ever taken from Star Trek: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

Star Trek: Discovery

And Speaking of Loss…

While Discovery is on its rescue mission, Book visits his home planet of Kwejian, where his young nephew Leto (Luca Doulgeris) undergoes an important rite of passage ceremony. We met Leto and his father, Kyheem (Ache Hernandez), last season, when Book made amends with his long-estranged family. Now, Book gets to participate in a sweet ritual celebrating each Kwejian’s intimate connection to their planet. Afterwards, he watches this beloved, precocious child run off into the woods, a wholesome moment depicted with slow motion and soft focus and oh, yeah, this kid is definitely toast. Moments later, birds flutter in a panic, foretelling some doom too grand for human or Kwejian perception. Book lifts off in his small spaceship to investigate and bears witness to an awe-inspiring gravitational anomaly that shatters Kwejian’s moon and knocks Book unconscious. In the episode’s final minutes, Discovery finds Book adrift in his ship, and scans confirm the tragic destruction of the planet Kwejian.

This sets up the new recurring threat promised by the season’s trailers, a massive spatial anomaly of unknown origin and boundless destructive potential. This will be the third season in a row in which Discovery’s overarching storyline is about investigating a strange astral phenomenon, and while that might sound tired on paper, it’s really just Star Trek being Star Trek. The heroes of Discovery are scientists, and the Red Bursts, the Burn, and now this gravitational anomaly are science problems. Their investigation requires travel and cooperation with various factions, which lets us continue to explore strange new worlds and have episodic side adventures along the way.

This kind of world-shattering threat also has some thematic resonance. In the episode’s other short subplot, Captain Saru (Doug Jones) communes with his planet Kaminar’s ruling council and encourages them to use their share of the newfound dilithium to reach out to the stars rather than to turn inward. This is a debate being held on planets across the galaxy who have been forced into isolation for a century and now have the means to reconnect. The anomaly (of which they are unaware) is the kind of massive environmental threat that one cannot simply defend oneself from, it has to be actively addressed as a larger community. Just as it’s an engine for the story, this gravitational anomaly might also be a catalyst for the full restoration of the United Federation of Planets. 

“Kobayashi Maru” gives the storytellers a lot to work with in the coming season. Now that Discovery has settled into itself, the challenge will be to capitalize on its more interesting ideas and to keep the series from feeling like it’s on rails. Once the new Star Trek series, Discovery is now one of four with a fifth due next year. Discovery must make sure not to become too settled, or else it might have trouble standing out in the crowd.