At its best, Star Trek: Discovery is a thrilling, emotionally-charged space drama that deeply invests in its lead character’s path to becoming a righteous space hero. At its worst, it’s a cloying, self-important product that is mortally afraid of hurting its audience’s feelings. Discovery’s fourth season finale, “Coming Home,” contains so much of all of the above that it might be both the best and worst episode the series has ever released.
Two for Flinching
“Coming Home” opens right where we left off, in the midst of a total disaster. Just when it seems that Captain Burnham and the diplomatic envoy have made a communications breakthrough with Unknown Species 10-C, Cleveland Booker’s ship decloaks, detaches from Discovery’s hull, and makes a break for the DMA’s power source with Ruon Tarka at the helm. If Tarka steals the power source, it’ll trigger a deadly ecological disaster. Book and Commander Jett Reno are being held prisoner onboard, and the only way for Burnham to salvage the peace talks and prove to the 10-C that they’re not in cahoots might be to blast her partner out of the sky. Otherwise, the populations of both her home worlds, Earth and NiVar, will be wiped out in just under four hours. The teaser is a frenzy of frantic characters working fast and cool spaceships doing cool spaceship things. Federation HQ itself, which we’ve always assumed was stationary, morphs into a starship to participate in the evacuation effort over Earth, under the command of Admiral Vance and our old friend Lt. Sylvia Tilly. They’re scrambling to save the populace as the first wave of debris reaches Earth orbit, but they’re equipped to rescue hundreds of thousands, not billions.
The first half of the episode sets up a string of high stakes calamities and, with credit to writer/showrunner Michelle Paradise and director/producer Olatunde Osunsanmi, the danger feels totally real. They set up death flags for character after character, and even as they’re each miraculously saved, it seems as if the storytellers are merely storing up momentum for one, powerful punch to the audience’s collective gut. First, in order to escape the 10-C’s captivity and pursue Tarka’s ship, Discovery has to critically overload their spore drive, meaning that their journey back to Federation space could take decades. Once they’re free, Reno successfully beams to Discovery, only to deliver Michael a grave message from Book: “Your man loves you; do whatever it takes.” Next, Detmer volunteers for a suicide mission to knock Book’s ship off course using a shuttlecraft, but General N’doye steps up to replace her as penance for assisting Tarka. The plan works, and N’doye even survives, but now Book and Tarka are spinning towards an inevitable impact with the inner wall of the 10-C’s hyperfield. Book manages to bring Tarka to his senses, and Tarka diverts the last of the ship’s power to try and beam him back to Discovery, to Michael, and-
Book’s transporter signal flashes on the bridge and blinks out as his vessel bursts into flames outside. Michael’s barely-contained breakdown at the loss of her partner is Sonequa Martin-Green’s most spectacular bit of acting in the series to date, moving through shock, denial, and incredible pain before forcing herself mentally and physically back into the captain’s chair to complete her mission. It’s halfway through the episode and Burnham has already endured her “needs of the many” moment, made the terrible sacrifice that she wasn’t prepared to make at the start of the season, and now she has to make it count for something, to save the galaxy in his memory. It’s the kind of moment Star Trek legends are made of.
Oh, don’t worry. They’re absolutely gonna fuck it up.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Stopping Tarka earns Discovery another chat with the 10-C. Discovery is led into a gas giant, and Burnham, the Federation delegates, and the entire bridge crew gather on a habitable platform to meet the 10-C face to giant jellyfish face. Thanks to a remarkable offscreen breakthrough, the delegates no longer need to puzzle out mathematical representations of their ideas to communicate with the 10-C and can now trust their technology to properly translate the full text of their heroic speeches into pheromone chains and flashing lights. I don’t begrudge the storytellers this shortcut — it’s Star Trek after all, where nothing is more powerful than extemporaneous oratory. Captain Burnham conveys to the 10-C the pain of Book’s loss and the danger of it happening again to everyone present. The 10-C understand, and they agree to move the DMA before it destroys another world. From Vance and Tilly’s perspective, we see some of the debris that had been approaching the Earth reverse its course, preventing any further harm.
Even as relief washes over the Discovery crew, Burnham is still deeply bereaved, and the 10-C can sense it. She explains that one of the men killed in the crash was someone she loved very deeply, which apparently reminds the 10-C that they forgot something — they intercepted a transporter beam during the crash, not certain what was inside, and have been storing the pattern in stasis. They reconstitute Book, and he and Michael share a tearful embrace. Book looks his planet’s killers in the eye and tells them that simply moving their mining operation to an unpopulated area isn’t enough, since the DMA leaves toxic waste behind wherever it goes. They need to stop using it altogether, even if it means they can no longer maintain the shield around their star system. Book’s speech is also convincing, and the 10-C agree to permanently cease their boronite mining. For good measure, they even open a wormhole and send Discovery all the way home to Earth, sparing the crew a years-long trip back from the edge of the galaxy. Everyone goes home happy.
And, I’m kinda mad about it.
It’s not that I have some sadistic craving for characters to suffer or die. Killing off a character can often be a cheap shortcut to drama, an empty demonstration of story stakes. (See: this week’s episode of Discovery’s sister series, Picard.) It can also be a way to punctuate a meaningful story, to give it gravity and authenticity. Let’s compare this storyline to its closest analog in the franchise, the beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk enters that narrative believing that he can cheat his way out of loss, and when he discovers he’s wrong, his closest friend sacrifices himself and shows him how to face death. Spock doesn’t just save Kirk’s life, he restores it, he gives it a new value, and Kirk is a more complete person at the end of the film than at the beginning. Spock’s death makes the story, and while it’s undone in the sequel, it takes the entire sequel to undo it and Kirk and the Enterprise crew sacrifice everything in the process. Then they spend the whole next film winning back those losses. If you kill off a character, create a powerful moment of loss out of their death, and then undo it within the next twenty minutes, that’s cheap. That’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
There’s a reason why Book’s apparent death plays so well in “Coming Home,” and it’s not just that Sonequa Martin-Green is a very good actor. This season opened with Burnham stubbornly refusing to accept the possibility that she may have to sacrifice some of her crew to complete a rescue mission. It’s not that she can’t cope with failure, it’s that she can’t cope with a qualified success. It’s that same Kirk hubris glimpsed in The Wrath of Khan and exaggerated to cartoonish levels in Into Darkness. In the finale, Burnham faces a situation in which she can only save the galaxy by sacrificing the person she loves most in the world, and she finds the strength to do it. Moreover, the entire season has also been about Michael and Book’s love and faith in each other enduring even as they find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict. Book’s final message to Michael is that he loves her and he trusts her to let him die if that’s what she has to do. She does her best to save the day and save her man, but she can only have one and she chooses correctly. She learns a difficult lesson and fulfills Book’s faith in her at the same time. It’s truly powerful, maybe the closest any Star Trek work has ever come to reproducing that end-of-Wrath of Khan magic, and then they immediately undercut it.
Book’s death made me sad. Seeing Michael in pain made me sad. Good! Stories about heroes saving the day are more powerful when saving the day costs them something. That’s how heroism works! It’s fucking hard! Getting Book back doesn’t mean Michael Burnham isn’t a hero, but it cheapens her heroism. After thirteen hours of escalating danger and galactic jeopardy, the Discovery gang goes home without a scratch. Even Tarka gets the possibility of a happy ending, as he makes a last-minute attempt to use the impact of Book’s ship against the hyperfield to power his interdimensional transporter. After Book’s return, I half expected the 10-C to somehow restore his home planet, too.
The President of Planet Cringe
In the epilogue, we allow the characters to smile and hug and unclench after their harrowing mission. (I like that they hug! I’m not a monster!) Stamets and Culber pack for a romantic getaway, Saru and T’Rina decide to go steady, and the bridge crew sets off for a vacation on Earth. Book is sentenced to an indefinite term of community service for the crimes he committed with Tarka, helping to resettle refugees who were displaced by the DMA. (I like this demonstration that the 32nd century Federation favors restorative justice, but this is exactly what Book would be doing if he’d gotten a full pardon, so it does not count as a Price Paid in the story sense.) Michael and Book share one sweet moment before he’s taken away which assures us that, however long he’s gone, their relationship will endure. This scene is nice! I like them together! Book should still be dead.
The season closes with one of the cringiest scenes in Discovery history, and this is a show that regularly tests my tolerance for cringe. Federation HQ remains over Earth, like Spacedock was in the old days. There, Captain Burnham, General N’doye, and Federation President Rillak await the arrival of the unnamed President of United Earth, who has been referred to a few times over the course of the episode. Her identity has been framed as a reveal, and when the CGI door to her CGI shuttle opens, it’s… former Georgia state representative, gubernatorial candidate, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams! The character has no name, so I’ll just be calling her President Stacey Abrams, as that’s obviously who we’re meant to be seeing. Even if you don’t know who she is, the quality of her performance quickly gives away that she’s a celebrity doing a cameo. Abrams congratulates Burnham and company on the important work they’re doing, and announces that United Earth is ready to rejoin the Federation right now with no terms. Earth coming back into the fold is the “Coming Home” of the episode’s title, the culmination of Discovery’s mission to restore what was lost in the Burn, but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in it because I’m too busy thinking about how goofy it is that Stacey Abrams is here.
While I always want Star Trek to engage more in political issues, giving a prominent and aggrandizing cameo to a political figure is uncomfortably masturbatory. The creators of Star Trek: Discovery get to pat themselves on the back by having a well-regarded Democrat express her gratitude to their lead character for “everything [she’s] accomplished.” Abrams gets to be called “Madame President” on a high-profile television show during the first week of her new campaign for Governor of Georgia. (This very morning, The New York Times printed the headline “Why Stacey Abrams Isn’t Embracing Her Democratic Stardom (So Far).” MF she just went on Star Trek and played THE PRESIDENT OF EARTH!) Star Trek using any politician in this way (and vice versa) is embarrassing at best. The only version of this that I could imagine working would be with someone whose historical legacy was already firmly established, and since Congressman John Lewis is no longer with us, my list of acceptable casting choices is “Do Not Do This.”
Step One is Admitting I Have a Problem
In a way, Star Trek: Discovery is the perfect show to watch as a critic. It’s often a lot of fun, sometimes enriching, and, on rare occasion, very fucking good. But, no matter what, it always, always offers me something to complain about. It shows me a good time, but never leaves me totally satisfied. As someone who writes about television on a weekly basis, it’s an irresistible cocktail. But, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, what I’d really like to do is love this show. I’d like to be able to recommend it to people without a bunch of caveats about which seasons aren’t so good or how you really can’t compare it to Deep Space Nine. But, four seasons in, it doesn’t look like Discovery is ever going to get there for me. It’s just a show that I watch obsessively, not a show that I love.
“Coming Home” is the ultimate Discovery episode in that it contains the feeling of the entire series in the space of 60 minutes. Its highs are in the stratosphere, its lows are about at the knee, but the climbs and drops are so dramatic and frequent that I feel like I’ve spent the last hour riding a roller coaster rather than watching a very medium TV show. I’m sweaty and tired and my head hurts, and as soon as the park reopens next season I am getting right the fuck back on.