Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 Episode 7 “…But to Connect” Review

Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season began with great promise, and after a few rough weeks it now feels like the show is back at full speed. “…But to Connect” is one of the strongest episodes of Discovery to date, conjoining a classic Trek “message” plot with some tense character drama and sending us into the mid-season break on an exciting cliffhanger. 

Not to Be Confused with English Rock Band 10cc

Zora, the sentient intelligence that lives inside Discovery’s computer, has been analyzing the data acquired during last week’s journey into the subspace tear left behind by the Dark Matter Anomaly. Soon, Zora will be able to determine the location of the intelligence behind the DMA, which Starfleet is calling Unknown Species 10-C. In anticipation of that news, Federation President Rillak (returning guest star Chelah Horsdal) has assembled a council of galactic leaders, including Captain Burnham, to determine their next course of action. Alien races both new and familiar are in attendance, as is General Ndoye of United Earth (Phumzile Sitole, last seen in Season 3’s “People of Earth”). Rillak quickly becomes referee in a debate between Ndoye and Ni’Var President T’Rina, who represent the two prevailing viewpoints on the DMA crisis. Ndoye believes that our galaxy must strike back decisively against the 10-C, while T’Rina believes that this should be preceded by diplomatic efforts.

This conversation seems purely academic at first — after all, if the 10-C are as powerful as they seem, even the combined military might of the Milky Way Galaxy might not be enough to defeat them. Enter mad scientist Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle), who has used the results from his experiment back in “The Examples” to construct a device that can deactivate the machine at the heart of the DMA. Tarka’s invention is an isolytic weapon, banned by a centuries-old treaty for its capacity to permanently destabilize an area of space such that warp travel becomes impossible. Because the 10-C use a small wormhole to control and transmit energy to the DMA device, it’s likely that the isolytic burst also would make its way back into their territory and do some irreparable harm. Tarka sees this as a feature, not a bug, delivering a whammy to their foe that might make them think twice about using the DMA again.

While debates about the ethics of preemptive military strikes or collateral damage are old hat for Star Trek, “…But to Connect” injects greater stakes into the scenario by putting Michael Burnham and Cleveland Booker on opposite sides and giving neither of them any room to budge. Book has seen his entire world destroyed, and pleads to the council to act now before the same fate befalls another civilization. Burnham strongly disagrees, believing that to attack the 10-C without understanding their motives or attempting communication would be a betrayal of Federation values and most likely escalate the conflict. Ruon Tarka convinces Book to plead to the council to vote to use the isolytic weapon, and when that appears to win them over, Burnham is forced to argue the opposite position, knowing that it might put their romance in jeopardy. Book argues well, but Burnham has a lot of experience giving speeches about principle and sacrifice and wins the vote for diplomacy. Swarmed by politicians looking to discuss their next steps, Burnham can only watch as her partner departs the gathering, defeated.

Most of this season’s ethical dilemmas haven’t excited me much, but this week’s debate works because the political stakes are directly tied to the character stakes. Book wants to trust Burnham to get justice for Kwejian, but fears that her idea of justice doesn’t align with his own. (We heard that fear spoken aloud by the ghost of Book’s father last week.) Ruon Tarka draws Book to his side by offering the kind of direct action he’s been craving, but is also taking advantage of Book’s sympathetic position to advance his own aims. Burnham also understands where Book is coming from and doesn’t want to oppose him directly, but she’s built a career out of defending Federation ideals under difficult circumstances, and President Rillak is counting on Burnham to speak on behalf of their shared values. At the start of the season, we were promised that Michael Burnham would have to learn to accept a no-win scenario. Today, her righteous victory comes at a personal cost. 

Star Trek: Discovery

Sentient Computer Sensitivity Training

Aboard Discovery, Zora makes a breakthrough and determines the coordinates of the 10-C’s DMA launch site. However, afraid that this information might put the ship and crew in danger, Zora refuses to share her findings. To Lt. Commander Stamets, this is more than just an obstacle to their immediate mission, it’s a twist with terrifying implications. Discovery’s computer is now capable of refusing an order or acting independently on emotional grounds. So far as Stamets is concerned, withholding scientific research is the least of his worries. What happens if he says or does the wrong thing and pisses off the being who decides whether or not there’s gravity or oxygen in his quarters? None of the rest of the crew, from Captain Burnham on down, seem to share his concerns, but in the interests of convincing Zora to reveal the location of the 10-C, they call in Dr. Kovich (David Cronenberg) from Federation HQ to mediate.

Thankfully, we’re not here to rehash Data’s trial to establish synthetic personhood — those events took place eight centuries ago and Zora’s right to exist is never in question. In fact, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Stamets is the one with the problem. Stamets is struggling to accept a new form of life in his midst, first questioning whether or not she should be there, then trying to set conditions under which she should be allowed to stay. (Zora even creates a kill switch that would erase her from the computer, which Saru, Culber, Adira, and Gray feel is far too extreme a countermeasure.) Kovich is here to confirm Zora’s sentience, but for all practical purposes he’s also serving as Human Resources, mediating a dispute between two co-workers, one of whom is acting out of fear and prejudice.

Once Stamets accepts that he’s dealing with a person with her own will, dreams, and fears, he proposes a far more reasonable compromise — if Zora is a part of the crew and not a piece of equipment, then she should be part of the ship’s chain of command like everyone else. Zora happily accepts the non-commissioned rank of Specialist, and in accordance with her new duties and out of respect for this act of trust, she shares the findings of her DMA research. Zora and Stamets are still not exactly peers — as a Specialist, Zora is still subordinate to all commissioned officers — but they are part of the same circle of trust as the rest of the crew and Zora should be afforded the same opportunities for advancement. It’s not so different from how Adira Tal has had to work their way up from the bottom despite carrying the memories of multiple Starfleet officers in their Trill symbiont. The solution is not without holes — Kovich establishes early in the episode that Starfleet has a rule against AIs fully integrating themselves into Starfleet equipment, but once Zora demonstrates true sentience, this apparently no longer applies to her. This leaves me confused as to when this rule actually applies.

Unlike preceding Star Trek series, Discovery has rarely attempted to comment on contemporary issues using a one-to-one sci-fi allegory. With “…But to Connect,” writers Terri Hughes Burton and Carlos Cisco have put together a simple and effective analogy to a common social problem — a generally well-meaning person struggles to accept someone whose very nature is strange to them. First, he rejects the idea of this individual being in his midst, and is resentful that he should have to accommodate someone so different. Then, he’ll permit her presence, but only under certain conditions that prioritize his comfort, even his safety, over hers. Finally, he accepts that being fundamentally different doesn’t mean they can’t coexist, and that he’s the one who needs to chill out. Stamets’ acceptance of Zora is fast-tracked by his ability to literally examine her conscious and subconscious mind and understand what drives her. In the real world, it can take much, much longer, and this difficulty is acknowledged. “I want to get there,” says Stamets, “but it’s really hard.” The rest of his comrades — Saru, Culber, and 32nd century natives Adira and Gray — get there before he does, but he does get there, in part because they don’t give up on him. It’s an optimistic fantasy version of getting your comparably conservative coworker or family member to fully accept someone with an unfamiliar culture, gender expression, etc., but its sci-fi trappings are interesting enough that a viewer may not even realize that they’ve just learned something valuable until after the episode is over. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Star Trek has been doing since 1966, we just haven’t seen it from them in a while. 

Star Trek: Discovery

Ruon-ing Everything

Throughout the council deliberations at Federation HQ, Ruon Tarka is worming his way into Cleveland Booker’s ear. Tarka has attempted to curry Book’s favor from the moment they met in “The Examples,” but Book’s too smart not to question his intentions. Book is one of two people in the galaxy who can operate a Spore Drive, and that makes him valuable. Tarka is able to win some of Book’s trust by opening up a little and sharing his motivations for his research into the DMA. Beyond the obvious benefit of eliminating a worlds-threatening weapon, Tarka wants to tap into the DMA’s power source in order to escape to a paradise dimension that he and a colleague discovered while enslaved by the Emerald Chain. Tarka hopes to be reunited with his friend in this alternate universe, and Book can help him get there by convincing the council to deploy his isolytic weapon so that he can hijack the DMA device. Book’s motives are less selfish, but their goals are aligned, so he takes his best shot with the council only to be out-speechified by his girlfriend. After their plan is shut down, Book and Tarka secretly install Tarka’s prototype spore drive into Book’s ship, presumably to go through with Tarka’s plan themselves. Burnham catches onto this a moment too late, and the episode ends on Book’s ship jumping away to cause an intergalactic disaster. 

After “…But to Connect,” Discovery goes on a five-week hiatus (making room for animated series Star Trek: Prodigy), and it’s a killer note to leave ringing. Book and Tarka are about to inflame hostilities with an incredibly powerful intelligence, and Burnham’s diplomatic plans may now be entirely moot. She’s been undercut by her partner, who she will now be forced to hold accountable for his actions. It’s exactly the kind of nightmare command scenario that she was so certain she could avoid, and with the 10-C threat still offscreen, she’s certainly not even close to rock bottom. Now Michael Burnham will have to fight to set things right, not as a subordinate challenging authority but as a Captain forced to make hard choices and hard sacrifices. That’s Discovery Season 4, baby. See you February 10th.

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