For the past few weeks on Star Trek: Discovery, the storytellers have struggled to deliver self-contained adventures while still dedicating time to advancing the season’s ongoing character arcs and mystery plot. There’s still not quite as much meat on the bone as I’d like, but “The Examples” succeeds where the past two episodes failed, portioning out ample time to its “problem of the week” while also upping the stakes of the season as a whole.
Michael Burnham vs. the Carceral State
When the planet-destroying gravitational anomaly nicknamed the DMA threatens an inhabited asteroid chain, Radvec, Discovery is sent to lead an evacuation effort. It should be a simple race against the clock, with a small fleet of Starfleet ships beaming up the settlement’s 1200 citizens and getting out of range before interference from the anomaly makes transporters inoperable. Naturally, there’s a complication — Discovery learns that six people are trapped inside a security field, unable to reach an evacuation zone. The colony’s magistrate (Jonathan Goad, Reign) informs Captain Burnham that these are “the examples,” a group of criminals sentenced to life in prison regardless of the severity of their crimes. This is imagined as a deterrent against crime in general, though it’s not really clear how that works, particularly given that Radvec has about the same size population as a suburban high school. In any case, this sets up a classic Star Trek culture clash, as the magistrate demands that Discovery leave the prisoners behind. If the DMA continues along its current heading, they’ll be killed.
Captain Burnham will have none of this, and immediately sets off with Book to break the examples out of prison. On the one hand, this is a cool bit of vintage Trek heroism straight out of the James T. Kirk playbook. Let’s face it, Jean-Luc Picard would have spent half the episode considering whether or not to break Radvec’s body of laws and might very well have left the prisoners to die in the name of the Prime Directive. On the other hand, the Radvec justice system being so obviously cruel that no reasonable viewer could support it robs us of a good Star Trek ethical dilemma. Suppose the examples were not, as we’re initially told, all the perpetrators of nonviolent, borderline victimless crimes, but a range of offenses both excusable and heinous carried out under a variety of circumstances. Do they all go, do they all stay, or does Burnham become the arbiter of who deserves a pardon and who doesn’t? What might that say about the very nature of retributive justice? The effort to save the examples also doesn’t add any cost to the grander mission, which goes off without a hitch under the offscreen supervision of Lt. Commander Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon). In short, it’s an easy call and it costs nothing, which I think is a missed opportunity.
That’s not to say that there are no interesting wrinkles to the story. To get to the prison, Burnham and Book have to fight their way past a horde of giant robotic beetles that shoot spinning saw blades at them, and that’s good fun. Once they’re inside, the prisoners’ leader Felix (Michael Greyeyes, Wild Indian) demands that Burnham promise not to return them to the prison if the colony survives its brush with the DMA. Otherwise, they’d rather make a run for it and take their chances. Burnham’s limp assurances of Federation political support are parried, and she eventually promises them all asylum aboard Discovery. But after the first batch of them is beamed away, the prisoners’ leader Felix confesses that, unlike his comrades, he’s actually a killer. He believes that he belongs behind bars, and neither Burnham nor Book can convince him to step out of the prison’s transporter jamming field. Burnham could force him to come back to Discovery, but chooses to respect his decision. Felix perishes when the DMA’s gravitational force pushes the entire Radvec asteroid chain into its sun. Later, Burnham fulfills Felix’s dying wish by returning a precious family heirloom to the daughter of the man he robbed and killed, completing his penance.
Michael Greyeyes gives a charismatic performance as the weary Felix, but we don’t spend enough time with him for his death to hit as hard as the direction implies that it should. Luckily, there’s cause to believe that Burnham’s decision to allow him to die will have more interesting repercussions on the ongoing story arc. Book accompanies Burnham on the rescue mission as part of his quest to prevent the DMA from taking more lives. Burnham leaves Felix on the planet out of respect for his wishes, but it wounds Book nevertheless, and he ends the episode brooding over a drink in Discovery’s pub. Book’s recovery from the trauma of his planet’s death has been a consistently engaging subplot all season, and this looks like the turning point when Book moves on from the “pain and guilt” phase of grieving into “anger and bargaining.” And wouldn’t you know it, there just might be someone for him to bargain with…
Let’s Talk Tarka
While studying the DMA, Commander Stamets witnesses something unprecedented — the anomaly completely disappears and then reappears four seconds later, having traveled 1000 light years. (This is why the threat to Radvec came with so little warning.) The Discovery crew is forced to draw the terrifying conclusion that the DMA isn’t a natural phenomenon at all, but a force that’s being deliberately created and guided by some advanced intelligence. Admiral Vance runs through a shortlist of godlike aliens from Treks past who have the means to do something like this — the Metrons (TOS), the Iconians, the Q, (both TNG), and the Nacene (Voyager), but none of them have done anything like this before. Given Discovery’s recent run of Enterprise nostalgia, it’s surprising that they don’t mention the Sphere Builders, whose whole deal is generating enormous spatial anomalies, but it’s too early to start developing wild fan theories. As always, I hope the answer to the mystery is something that can be guessed using only clues in the current story rather than knowledge obtained from other series. (I will, of course, keep on the lookout regardless.)
To help analyze the latest sensor data on the DMA, Vance recruits Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle, The Expanse), a renowned but arrogant Risian scientist. Tarka is plainly bad news from the moment he comes onboard, a descendant of our modern day crop of wannabe Tonies Stark. After the early seasons of Discovery made two separate flattering references to Elon Musk, it’s refreshing to see them depict this character type as irritating and potentially dangerous. He’s a particularly bad influence on Stamets, who feels compelled to prove that he can keep up. Tarka goads Stamets into conducting a dangerous experiment to reproduce a miniature version of the DMA aboard Discovery. Captain Saru shuts down the experiment mere seconds before it can destroy the ship, leaving Tarka frustrated and Stamets shaken by how easily the encounter has brought out the worst in him. Shawn Doyle’s performance as Tarka is excellent, perfectly conveying the type of brilliant asshole who people are drawn to up until the very moment they’re repulsed.
After the DMA experiment is aborted, Tarka finds his way to the Discovery bar, where he meets an angry, seething Cleveland Booker. Tarka thinks he’s getting closer to learning who’s responsible for the anomaly, which is a subject of great interest to Book. A teasing look at a mysterious scar on Tarka’s neck, symbolic of his own violent past, implies that we’re only just getting to know this character, and personally I’m here for it. Tarka seems positioned as a bridge antagonist, someone who can stir up some conflict for the middle third of the season and warm us up for the real Big Bad. He’s been on the show for one episode and already has interesting friction with Stamets, Book, and Saru, who he casually disrespects during the experiment. Now that things have smoothed out between Burnham and President Rillak, Tarka might make for a fun new sparring partner for her as well.
Our C-plot this week sees Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) struggling to maintain his professional composure under the crushing weight of the Discovery crew’s psychic baggage. Since becoming the ship’s counselor, Culber has been handling an ever-increasing workload as the crew copes with the loss of Kwejian and the looming threat of the DMA. Now that the DMA has been proven to be an act of willful violence rather than an act of nature, Culber can no longer find words of comfort for himself or for his patients. Because every therapist needs a therapist, he places a call to the stoic Dr. Kovich (guest star David Cronenberg) in the hopes of getting a brutally honest assessment of his own condition. Kovich tells Culber something he doesn’t expect to hear — that he’s overloading himself with work because he’s racked with guilt over having returned from the dead back in Season 2. Everyone around him is coping with loss or the fear of loss, but he’s gotten a second chance at life that virtually no one else has ever had. The only way he can keep from hating himself is to dedicate this second life to helping others, but now he’s buckling under that strain.
Once again, Wilson Cruz makes the most of a one-on-one with a new scene partner, even if Cronenberg seems like he’s mostly here to collect a paycheck. Lately, my only criticism of Culber as a character has been that, since the jump to the future, his perfect, patient demeanor has dehumanized him a bit. In only a few minutes of screen time, this subplot subverts and deconstructs that perception. Carrying this much weight for others is not easy for him, and he has his own pain to contend with. Culber immediately feels more like a complete character rather than a very charming rubber duck. (Do this for Gray next, please.) It’s also sweet to see him and Paul unpack their difficult day together at home towards the end of the episode, playing like a real partnership and not a Main Character and a Supporting Character.
While the three story threads in “The Examples” only interweave towards the end of the episode, they’re each responding to the same game-changing revelation. The prison break action plot is the direct result of the DMA’s sudden, deliberate change in position, and features the anomaly’s first casualty since Kwejian. Stamets and Tarka approach the issue on a scientific, problem-solving level and peel back a layer of the mystery. Culber’s emotional response is just as urgent, driving home the shock at the very idea that someone did this. Someone with unfathomable power shattered a thriving planet for reasons we don’t yet comprehend and can do it again whenever they want. Culber’s job isn’t to defeat this villain (at least, not directly), but to think about it all the time, which is a relatable position for viewers coping with massive existential threats over which we have precious little influence. This connection makes the continuing story of the DMA crisis all the more compelling.