All season, the producers of Discovery have seemingly tried to incorporate more classic Star Trek flavor into the new show’s recipe. The results have been mixed, as Discovery’s format of juggling self-contained stories alongside chapters from ongoing arcs hasn’t always allowed for the old school “dilemmas of the week” to be fully fleshed out. This time around, writers Anne Cofell Saunders and Brandon Schultz nail the balance perfectly. “Stormy Weather” has as basic a Star Trek plot as you can dream up, the kind you could pull off on any preceding series, and then executes it in a way that is uniquely Discovery.
Much Ado About Nothing
In their latest effort to understand the nature of the Dark Matter Anomaly (DMA) that some unknown intelligence has been using to destroy entire worlds, Discovery enters a tear in subspace that’s been left in its wake. Once inside this strange pocket of space, Discovery’s instruments and crew are baffled by the complete lack of anything inside, only an unseen outer edge that destroys anything that touches it. The absence is so complete that Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) can’t safely pilot the ship out of it. If they don’t find a way back to real space within about 30 minutes, the void will collapse in on Discovery and destroy it. The situation is grave enough that Burnham, demonstrating some of the command maturity she’s developed over the past few episodes, actually admits that they’re in over their heads and orders a Spore Drive jump. This doesn’t work. Nothing seems to be working, in fact, but like so many Discovery episodes, the solution relies on a character gaining a better understanding of their emotions.
Sometimes what makes a story exciting can have more to do with structure than substance. The past few episodes have suffered a bit from being composed of shorter, mostly self-contained subplots that each have a minimal number of complications. Since the episode bounces between them, they don’t always seem slight on first viewing, but when examined individually (as I’m tasked with doing each week) they are revealed to be a little on the thin side. Remove the cutaways to other subplots, and each one is like an expert playthrough of a video game stage or a series of successful attribute checks. “Stormy Weather” takes a simple problem and makes it complex by forcing characters to confront it from a variety of angles and do some trial and error while its severity escalates. This makes the challenge they face seem serious and complicated even though it’s really just a bunch of made-up Space Bullshit.
Of course, Trekkies are known for obsessing over made-up Space Bullshit as if it were real, and therefore able to puzzle out solutions to one episode’s problem using some gimmick from a different episode that the writers have forgotten about. As the Trek franchise gets older and the canon gets bigger, it becomes harder and harder to invent space tech problems that we haven’t seen solved already, and “Stormy Weather” is the 817th episode of Star Trek overall. So, imagine my absolute delight when one of the characters’ final technical hurdles is bested by a trick that Captain Montgomery “Scotty” Scott invented on a Next Generation episode that aired in 1992, reintroduced in a way that seems logical rather than pandering. “Stormy Weather” gives us an ideal version of a Star Trek Space Quagmire, one that seems legitimately grave and is resolved via teamwork and growth from characters who are smarter than you.
Getting Yelled At from Beyond the Grave
When Discovery first becomes trapped in the subspace void, Captain Burnham calls down to the Spore Lab for an emergency jump. Since Lt. Commander Stamets is busy scanning the void, backup spore drive operator Cleveland Booker steps into the booth and attempts to take Discovery back to headquarters. The void’s special properties keep the ship from jumping, but Book briefly makes contact with some sort of energy from the void itself. While in shock from the failed jump, Book hallucinates that he’s being tormented by his late father (Rothaford Gray). Book’s father (or at least, Book’s image of him) is a cruel, angry man who worked for the Emerald Chain hunting the same animals that Book dedicated his life to protecting. The manifestation of Bad Dad becomes an opportunity for Book to confront his fear and anger face-to-face and reassert his faith that Michael will lead him to answers and justice for Kwejian.
For the moment, though, it’s Book that has the answer to Discovery’s immediate predicament. During the aborted jump attempt, the energy that Book bounced up against left trace particles in his brain that could only have come from the Galactic Barrier at the outer edge of the galaxy. This means that whoever sent the device that created the DMA into Federation space did so from outside the Milky Way. (This all but guarantees that the villains are someone we’ve never met before.) It also means that, if Discovery’s sensors can detect particles from the barrier inside the void, that would indicate a subspace puncture point through which the ship might be able to escape. Book has been desperate for ways to help stop the DMA, and now he gets to play a vital role, which no doubt helps to center him when faced with the personification of his self-doubt. After last week, I’d hoped that we might spend a bit more time with Bitter Book, creating a bit more interpersonal conflict within the crew, but letting Book work out his issues via a psychic therapy session is fine for now. I suspect Book will still have to struggle with his desire for vengeance once Discovery actually encounters the baddies who butchered his home world.
While the amount of time that’s been dedicated to Book this season is entirely welcome, the Discovery writers room is still struggling to flesh out the rest of the bridge crew that’s been neglected since Season 1. For most of the series, characters like Bryce, Rhys, and Owosekun have been purely procedural, which has been a bit frustrating. Last season gave helm officer Detmer a hint at an emotional arc that the audience mostly had to fill in for themselves. This season the storytellers have developed a habit of giving the neglected bridge officers brief personal monologues that interrupt the action of an episode and offer snippets of backstory. This week it’s Owosekun’s turn to expound about a traumatic incident in her past, and it’s more or less out of nowhere. I want very much to know more about her and the rest of the bridge crew, but this hurried “tell, don’t show” approach is almost worse than nothing. Owo episode or GTFO! The exception to this rule has been Lt. Commander Bryce (Ronnie Rowe), who has been contributing to the action on the bridge in a way that makes him feel more real even though we still don’t know him very well.
Zora the Explorer
“Stormy Weather” is the first Discovery episode to prominently feature Zora (voice of Malignant star Annabelle Wallis), the personality that has been gradually awakening within the ship’s computer ever since the crew downloaded an ancient, absurdly huge data cache in the Season 2 episode “An Obol for Charon.” (She was actually introduced first in the must-watch Short Treks episode “Calypso,” set in the distant future.) Zora revealed herself to the crew in the Season 3 finale, when she helped them retake Discovery from the Emerald Chain. In a few scattered moments early this season, too brief to warrant discussion in my reviews, characters have remarked on Zora’s increasingly human-like behavior. At the end of last week’s episode, she offers her condolences to Captain Burnham on the death of a guest character and Burnham pretends not to feel weird about how the computer has feelings now.
This week, when Discovery is trapped in a completely void pocket of subspace, Zora freaks out from the sudden lack of sensation from the surface of the ship, which is essentially her body. While the rest of the crew tries to find a way back into normal space, Gray Tal (Ian Alexander) attempts to help Zora recover her composure. This is a clever use for Gray, whose Trill Guardian training stresses harmony between mind and body and who is adjusting to a new synthetic body himself. It’s also exciting that this episode pairs up two characters who we’re just getting to know. Zora has been in the background for a year now, and while we’ve spent more time over the past season or so with Gray, he’s only recently been able to exist as anything other than an appendage to Adira. I’m still waiting for Gray to develop anything resembling a flaw, but letting him demonstrate his value and play support to someone other than Adira is a good start.
This subplot also shows us a side of Burnham that I’ve been wanting to see more of, the Captain on the Bridge. Even since her promotion, Discovery’s storytellers have continued to contrive ways to get Burnham off the ship and into the middle of the action, but that’s not really her job anymore. I like Action Michael plenty, but putting her in command is an opportunity to do new things with her character, to force her to manage problems from the center seat and trust her crew to carry out her plans rather than executing them herself. “Stormy Weather” is just what I’ve been looking for in that regard, as Burnham not only leads the crew from the bridge during their attempts to escape the void, but also helps to mentor and guide Zora through her emotional breakdown and prepare her for a dangerous mission. The only way to save Discovery is to fly it through the void’s puncture point with shields down, which would superheat the ship well beyond survivable temperatures. This means that Zora will have to pilot herself solo while the crew hides safely in the transporter pattern buffer. Only Michael remains corporeal for the trip, barely protected by an EV suit, and Michael and Zora support each other through the dangerous escape attempt. (Zora distracts the both of them from the threat of death by singing “Stormy Weather,” which combined with the spectacle of the burning starship scraping against subspace, gives the climax some 2001 vibes.)
By the end of “Stormy Weather,” Burnham has become comfortable with her ship playing host to a sentient A.I., and is grateful for her presence. Zora represents a new angle through which Trek can explore artificial life, one of the franchise’s favorite topics, but I’m just as excited by what she represents as a foil for Burnham. I’m not saying that every Star Trek captain needs a synthetic mentee who likes to sing, but it does seem like an important rite of passage.