Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Episode 4 Review: “All is Possible”

In a previous episode review, I praised Discovery for having found a balance between its own identity as a fast-paced, emotionally-charged adventure show and the themes and superficial trappings of a more traditional Star Trek series. This week, however, Discovery’s growing resemblance to Treks past works against it. “All is Possible” juggles two A-plots that would each be at home on The Next Generation, but because they’re both crammed into the same episode, neither has any of the complexity that made the classic series so interesting.

We’ve Put the Director of Eastern Promises in Charge of Solving Our Morale Problem

Lt. Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is stuck in a rut. Ever since she was nearly killed on an away mission in the season premiere, Tilly’s been trying to figure out what’s missing in her life, stepping out of her comfort zone in the hopes of stumbling upon some profound revelation. In a therapy session, Dr. Culber suggests that she break her routine by visiting Starfleet Academy, where the new class of cadets is struggling to socialize and work as a team. Dr. Kovich of Starfleet Command (cult filmmaker David Cronenberg) hopes that members of the Discovery crew could set an inspiring example, as they come from a more optimistic time. Tilly answers this call and takes command of a trio of cadets for a brief training mission. At Culber’s request, she brings Ensign Adira along in the hopes of building up their confidence. 

The story setup has some clear contemporary parallels — due to COVID-19, an entire generation of young people has spent a portion of their most formative years in confinement, and while experts are pretty certain that children will adapt and recover from the time they’ve lost with their peers, the scenario has still inflamed social anxiety among young adults. Tilly’s three cadets — Gorev (Adrian Walters,The Handmaid’s Tale), Harral (Seamus Patterson, Channel Zero), and Sasha (Amanda Arcuri, Party of Five) — have spent their entire lives in a galaxy splintered by the Burn, and they’re now unaccustomed to interacting with people from other worlds and species. A story about these characters learning to communicate and find value in each other has the potential to be poignant and interesting.

Unfortunately, the story takes a turn for the hackneyed, with the team’s shuttlecraft crash-landing on a hostile planet. (Even in the 32nd century, the odds of a Starfleet shuttle reaching its destination without incident are still somewhere around 15%.) The shuttle crash is such a cliché that Cadet Harral assumes that it’s part of the training exercise, but the danger is real, and so is the hungry space monster outside. The scenario plays out exactly as you would expect — the cadets bicker about how best to survive, reveal their prejudices towards each other, and then realize that they have more in common than they’d assumed. Adira manages to find their cool during the crisis, and Tilly demonstrates an aptitude for relating to the cadets and rallying them together.

Predictability is not enough to damn a story by itself (at least, not for me), but the survival plot has no flavor to speak of. The three new characters are each paper thin, particularly the human Cadet Sasha, who gets a single character detail and nothing to do. Gorev is a Tellarite who has suffered under the rule of the Emerald Chain and therefore hates Harral, an Orion, but changes his tune once he learns that Harral is One of the Good Ones. (Gorev’s voice is also very obviously dubbed and sounds like a Kenan Thompson SNL character.) There’s a well-rendered CGI monster out to get them, but I’d have happily sacrificed the action plot entirely in favor of more time and energy spent examining the characters and adding more texture to their conflicts. If only this episode had provided enough room for both. (To see a similar story pulled off more successfully, check out “The Galileo Seven” from The Original Series.)

Star Trek: Discovery

Ni’Var Say Ni’Var

While Tilly and Adira are away on their Academy mission, Discovery remains in orbit of Ni’Var, which is in final negotiations to rejoin the Federation. Captains Burnham and Saru have orders from Federation President Rillak to simply sit quietly and bear witness as she and Ni’Var President T’Rina dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but T’Rina throws a last minute wrench into the proceedings. T’Rina insists that Ni’Var be permitted to immediately leave the Federation at any time, citing the Federation’s failure to tend to the needs of its individual member worlds in the years leading up to the Burn. Rillak can’t permit this precedent, as she’d then have to offer the same to every other member. Neither leader can budge and negotiations fall apart.

This turns out to be the real reason for Burnham and Saru’s presence at the summit — to serve as a backchannel for communications and as a third party who can present a compromise so that neither Rillak nor T’Rina has to do it themselves. Burnham suggests that an independent committee regularly reviews the relationship between the Federation and each member world, not just Ni’Var, and volunteers to participate in it. Since Burnham is both a Starfleet officer and a celebrated Ni’Var citizen, Rillak and T’Rina can both agree to this without losing face with their respective political machines.

The process allows Burnham and Rillak to develop some trust in each other and for Saru and T’Rina to advance their slow-burning romance plot, but the actual political situation is too simple to be interesting. There is a single complication, and it has an easy solution. This may not be as ripe for drama as the shuttle crash plot, but the Ni’Var negotiations might also have benefitted from being the subject of an entire episode, either presenting Burnham and Saru with a more complex problem to solve or letting the character subplots contribute to the story tension instead of alleviating it. (The Next Generation has a bunch of episodes about peace negotiations that become personally complicated, like “The Vengeance Factor” and “The Perfect Mate.”)

Playing in an Emotional Sandbox

As in the case of last week’s episode, “All is Possible’s” most effective subplot revolves around Cleveland Booker coping with his grief over the destruction of his planet, Kwejian. Book is now in session with the ship’s counselor Dr. Hugh Culber, who is establishing himself as the crew’s MVP this season. In a show that is usually more about long emotional journeys than some Disease of the Week, pivoting Culber to managing the crew’s mental health has proven to be a very wise move. Actor Wilson Cruz excels at this new role, and the show benefits from the opportunity to let him play one-on-one scenes with more of his castmates. (Scenes of two characters sitting six feet apart from each other are also very attractive to a production operating during a pandemic.) The Discovery writers room, this week represented by Alan McElroy & Eric J. Robbins, also has a good handle on writing therapy dialogue, which combined with Cruz’s performance makes Dr. Culber by far Star Trek’s most convincing counselor. 

Culber asks Book to approximate a Kwejian healing ritual by creating a sand sculpture using programmable matter. Book gives it a try, but becomes frustrated that it doesn’t nearly approach the truth of the ritual, which involves empathic communication with the flora and fauna around him. Culber explains that this is the point — Book will never feel the things that he felt on his home planet ever again, and if he’s going to move forward and heal, he’ll have to accept that and find joy and relief in what he can still feel. It’s another baby step in Book’s ongoing grieving process, which is why this ten-minute subplot feels more satisfying than either of the longer ones — it’s appropriately scaled. Two weeks ago, when Book’s loss was the freshest, we dedicated an entire episode to it; last week it was the B-Plot; now it’s the C. It’s an appropriately backwards application of the Levitz Paradigm that dedicates less time to a problem as it becomes less acute. The story of Book’s pain gets smaller as the wound closes.

Star Trek: Discovery

The First Live-Action Ms. Frizzle

Speaking of ongoing story arcs, “All is Possible” brings the slow-simmering subplot of Sylvia Tilly’s quarter-life crisis to its conclusion. In the season premiere, we see Tilly experience a brief moment of self-doubt as she ponders her plans for the future. Over the following two weeks, Tilly’s desire to shake up her routine and try new things gradually became a more prominent subplot. Finally, after her experience with the cadets in “All is Possible,” Tilly returns to Discovery to tell her friend and captain Michael Burnham that she’s decided to take on a full-time teaching position at Starfleet Academy. Tilly confesses that her recent promotion to Lieutenant shook her deeply, reminding her that she joined Starfleet as an immature young woman in part to prove a point to her mother. Tilly’s been through a lot since then, and her mother — who has now been dead for about 900 years — will never see her sit in the captain’s chair. The time has come for her to reassess her life and to follow her heart to a new career as a teacher. After a tearful goodbye with Michael and the rest of her closest shipmates, Tilly disembarks from Discovery indefinitely.

While I do find the shuttle crash plot to be pretty half-baked, Tilly’s decision to leave the ship still feels entirely natural to me. Mary Wiseman has brought a different brand of vulnerability to her character this season. It used to be that Tilly didn’t feel fully confident in her work or in her social skills. Now that she’s overcome those obstacles, she finds that she’s still not happy. Building up Tilly’s departure over four weeks, culminating in a sweet scene opposite Michael, helps to sell her departure as a character-driven development, even though its purpose in the story is currently unclear. The news is also softened by Tilly’s assurances that Michael (and, presumably, the audience) will still “see her around Federation HQ,” meaning that Mary Wiseman probably isn’t leaving the show outright.

Wiseman is the scheduled guest on the official Discovery aftershow, The Ready Room (which has likely already premiered on YouTube by the time you read this), and will probably clarify how much of Tilly we should expect to see going forward. As such, there’s no sense in my speculating about it now. I can only comment on the text of the episode, and assume that this is goodbye for a while. Though the season so far provided enough runway for Tilly’s departure to work on a character level, this episode specifically did not feel enough about Tilly to make for a satisfying send-off. For contrast, when Wil Wheaton left the cast of TNG, his character Wesley Crusher was the indisputable star of his final episode as a regular character. (Come to think of it, “Final Mission” also starts with a shuttle crash and ends with a series regular leaving for Starfleet Academy.) As a farewell to a character who’s been with us since the beginning, “All is Possible” is comparably underwhelming.