Back in the days when Star Trek was episodic television, each individual series would feature a variety of different flavors of stories. Even on Deep Space Nine, the darkest and most grimly serious of the classic Trek shows, the heavy material would be contrasted by light, pointedly silly comedy episodes. The aim of contemporary Trek seems to be to distill each of the franchise’s constituent ingredients into their own container. Discovery is an arch action-adventure show, Picard is supposed to be a mature character drama (but is bad at it), and Lower Decks is goofy and tongue-in-cheek. Lower Decks has successfully injected real drama into each of its season finales, but Discovery has been less adept at mixing camp or comedy back into its own formula. This week’s episode, “All In,” has high stakes both for our characters and the galaxy at large, but runs into trouble when it attaches those stakes to a plot that feels better suited to a “light hijinx” type episode.
Breakin’ the Law, Breakin’ the Law
We return from our mid-season break with the galaxy on the brink of disaster. Captain Burnham’s boyfriend Cleveland Booker and Tony Starkalike Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) have stolen an experimental Spore Drive and defied the Federation government to construct a weapon that could strike back against the mysterious extragalactic threat known only as Unknown Species 10-C. Book was under the impression (as was I) that they already had everything they required to build and deploy the weapon, but Tarka still needs a quantity of isolynium, a rare and dangerous compound that will be very difficult to procure without attracting the Federation’s attention. Since he no longer has government resources at his disposal, Tarka needs Book’s experience and connections as a courier to track some down.
Tarka is a user, no doubt, and has selected Book as his partner because no one else has the skills he needs, but the storytellers are careful not to frame Book as a mere accomplice or stooge. Book is just as dedicated to defeating the 10-C, and he needs Tarka to do it. No one’s being manipulated — this is a partnership. Book is prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison if it means preventing the 10-C from tearing up another planet, but Tarka is convinced that, once they succeed, public support will force President Rillak to pardon them for their crimes. (For precedent of this, see: James T. Kirk’s entire career.) Race and class bias are ostensibly eliminated in the Federation, but the episode still plays on a subtext familiar to the audience. Book is a working class Black man who has committed a crime out of desperation and is gravely certain that he’ll be punished; Tarka is a famous white intellectual who thinks he’ll get a slap on the wrist for committing war crimes. From our view here in 2022, it’d be hard to argue with either of them. On Star Trek, only one of them should be proven right, though narratively speaking I expect Tarka to be cosmically, mortally punished before he ever sees trial.
If anyone looks like a stooge in this scenario, it’s Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr), who handpicked Tarka for the Spore Drive project, gave him unfettered access to Starfleet materials, and is now left holding the bag for his betrayal. He and Burnham both get a dressing down from President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), Vance for unwittingly aiding Tarka’s escape and Burnham for not sensing her partner was about to go rogue. Rillak, though frustrated, is able to accept that neither of them is to blame for the incident, but rejects Burnham’s request to chase after Book herself. Instead, Burnham is assigned to gather intel on the 10-C in the hopes of making first contact before Tarka can finish his weapon. Vance secretly orders Burnham to find a way to complete both missions, to pursue data on the 10-C and cut off Book from the needed isolynium at the same time.
Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run
“All In” runs into trouble when the characters arrive at the setting of most of the episode’s action, which is a riverboat casino whose secret entrance is the mouth of a holographic sea monster. This in itself rules, and should signal that we’re in for a light adventure episode, except that the storytellers can’t commit to “All In” being silly because the stakes for the characters are too fraught to trivialize.
Book believes he can procure some isolynium from Haz Mazaro (Daniel Kash, Jane the Virgin), a casino owner and black market trader. Haz is the first element from this episode that seems like a foreign object from 1990s Trek. Like a lot of aliens on both old and new Trek, he’s realized using a full-head prosthetic makeup, and Daniel Kash gives a necessarily physical, stagey performance to work through five pounds of foam rubber. He’s an affable gangster, in business for himself but not particularly malicious. In small doses, Haz is pretty enjoyable; he reminds me a lot of Lorne on Angel, a big silly character who you can also take seriously when you need to. But, over the course of the episode, Haz’s schtick gets a little tired. The first time Haz utilizes a strange alien idiom that neither Book nor the audience has the context to understand, it’s clever, and it’s played as a clear comedy beat. After all, how many times has an alien on Star Trek been puzzled by some Earth expression? Turnabout is fair play. By the fifth time he does it, I’ve had enough, but we haven’t leaned far enough into comedy for a character to cut him off and say “Alright already, I get that this is your thing.” (For better or worse, this is exactly what Beckett Mariner of Lower Decks would do in this position.)
Haz greets Book as a friend, then shakes him down for all the latinum Tarka’s brought with them in order to settle an old debt (which refers back to Book’s introduction at the start of Season 3). Haz’s casino is in a deliberate communications dead zone, so there’s no going to an ATM. If Book wants to buy isolynium before someone else tracks them there, he and Tarka will have to pay for it by using their skills to identify which of Haz’s clients has been cheating at table games. This is an incredibly slight subplot, but it does require Book and Tarka to work together to solve a problem, building some trust and reinforcing their cooperative relationship. The culprit turns out to be a capital “C” Changeling, the likes of which we haven’t seen or heard from in canon since Deep Space Nine ended in 1999. It’s a cheap pop, but it works on me.
Do the Hustle!
While Book and Tarka pick away at their sidequest, Burnham has surmised that Book would go to Haz’s casino barge to find isolynium, and comes up with a solid pretense to go there. There’s a planet close to the edge of the galaxy whose telescopes are in range of 10-C space, but they have no relationship with the Federation. They do trade with the Orions, and so does Haz Mazrro. Burnham could probably go to any number of Courier depots to purchase the star charts she needs, but going to see Haz gives her the chance to either talk Book out of buying the isolynium or to buy it out from under him. It’s a plausible, if convenient happenstance that allows Burnham to pursue both of her objectives. But when she gets to the casino, Burnham comes up short of Haz’s asking price for the isolynium, which has inflated since there are now multiple interested parties. They, too, will have to scare up some quick cash.
As her backup on the away mission, Burnham has brought along Lt. Commander Joann “Owo” Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), one of the Discovery bridge crew who has appeared in over 40 episodes but has been starved for any kind of development. Out of Season 4’s attempts to show a little love to its neglected co-stars, Owo’s role in “All In” is the most successful so far because, rather than simply having her exposit on her history or interests, she plays an active role in the story. Cut off from the Federation’s piggy bank, Team Disco needs to find their own way to make some quick scratch at the casino, so Owo accepts an open challenge from a rude prizefighter twice her size (stunt actor Warren Scherer), with Burnham as her promoter. And Burnham is an awful promoter, giving her officer the embarrassing nickname “Oh, Wow!” Owosekun. This sounds like a comedy beat, but isn’t framed as one, and of all the potentially funny ideas in this episode, it’s the only one I can’t believe they whiffed. Michael Burnham, the hyper-competent three-time savior of the galaxy, finally stumbles across something she’s bad at, and it’s something really stupid. That’s funny! Are we not supposed to acknowledge that she’s bad at this? I don’t understand.
Owo loses her first two matches, and each time begs her captain to let her prove herself and compete one more time. Oyin Oladejo and Sonequa Martin-Green’s performances during the prizefighting subplot are super overstated, which is likely on purpose — it turns out that the characters are, themselves, acting, as Owo is hustling to inflate the betting odds against her so that they can clean up when she finally wins. The trouble is that, since the audience is kept in the dark about their scheme, it just seems as if Oladejo and Martin-Green are acting poorly. Their exchanges aren’t convincing on a first viewing, but they’re also not over-the-top enough to be amusing after you know what’s what. The fact that Owo is throwing her fights is so obvious from the outset that we’d have been better off knowing from the beginning and leaning into the fun of their scheme instead of playing it for drama.
But once again we run into the problem that we have to take Owo’s kickboxing match seriously, because there’s too much riding on it. Not only does Burnham need to buy that isolynium to prevent the creation of a deadly weapon, but she is also trying to prevent the man she loves from digging himself into a hole so deep that even she can’t pull him out of it.
I Wanna Hold ‘Em Like They Do in Texas, Please
Since both Book and Burnham meet their commitments to Haz at roughly the same time, Haz decrees that the fate of the isolynium be resolved in the “traditional courier fashion,” a game of Lionian Poker. (Lionian Poker appears to be Texas Hold ‘Em except with all of the community cards laid out at the start of the game so there’s only a single round of betting, which is a good way to suck all of the nuance and strategy out of Texas Hold ‘Em.) Haz has even lined up two more players, each a former Emerald Chain agent who would presumably use the compound to even more disastrous ends. Burnham can’t talk Book out of pursuing the isolynium, but she does convince him to covertly team up to rig the game against their new opponents. The pair runs the table by communicating through secret signals until they’re the only players left.
On the one hand, this is a way to briefly put Burnham and Book on the same side and remind them, and us, that they’re a good team with a lot of history. This relationship is part of the jeopardy of the story and it’s important that the audience value it and see that the characters value it, too. On the other hand, this episode’s idea of “secret signals” is a montage of Burnham telling loud, long-winded stories at the table, acting her butt off. It could not be more obvious that she’s trying to pull something. Once again, either Martin-Green is giving a bad performance, here, or Burnham is, but since there are no consequences to Burnham being a bad actor, it’s hard to tell. Martin-Green typically delivers exactly what Discovery calls for, so my instinct is to blame directors Christopher Byrne & Jen McGowan for mismanaging the tone of this scene, and perhaps the episode as a whole.
Once the game comes down to the two of them, the maybe-comedy is again dismissed, and we get a dramatic, much more compelling final hand between Burnham and Book. As always, Martin-Green and Ajala are terrific together, aptly portraying two people whose loving relationship has reached an impassable obstacle. When Book pushes all in (a flush over Michael’s straight), he knows he’s won the prize but feels rotten about it. Just like the rest of the grim task ahead of him, it’s about what he has to do, not what he wants to do. As for Burnham, she can only feel sorrow for Book even as he gets away with the isolynium. She’s still confident that she’ll find a way to stop him, but she may no longer be able to save him. Back at Federation HQ, Burnham reveals to President Rillak and Admiral Vance that she’s hidden a tracker on the isolynium, which means she’ll get another shot at foiling his plans next week.
The uneven episode ends on a suspenseful note, as Burnham’s new star charts reveal another wrinkle in the mystery of Unknown Species 10-C. The DMA hasn’t just been threatening ships and planets, it’s been taking something with it. Burnham and Lt. Commander Stamets now theorize that its purpose is to mine large amounts of the rare spaceborne mineral boronite, which the 10-C use as the source of their awesome power. This means that DMA isn’t a weapon, but a massive mining tool. Not only does this potentially recontextualize the Federation’s conflict with the 10-C, but it increases the likelihood that Book and Tarka’s attack will lead to war. Discovery has upped the level of urgency on both the personal and galactic emergencies, but this was certainly a strange route by which to get there.