You don’t watch a Star Trek episode called ‘Kobayashi Maru’ and expect everything to be plain sailing. Since its first appearance in The Wrath of Khan, the infamous driving test for starship captains – an exam so tricksy that even the legendary James T. Kirk had to cheat to beat it – has been synonymous with the no-win scenario.
And while Michael Burnham, the USS Discovery’s newly installed commanding officer, has repeatedly made it clear she won’t settle for anything but victory – most notably in the show’s season 3 finale – it’s no surprise when events take a turn for the worse in the final act of this season premiere.
That’s a marked contrast with an all-action pre-credits sequence that replicates the giddy sense of fun of JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek – doing its best to splurge a standard episode’s CG budget in 10 minutes. Burnham and Book are on a mission to bring dilithium back to the people – and the people back to the Federation – but their humorless hosts are not in the mood for gifts. In fact, this is the antithesis of a smooth negotiation, as a series of misunderstandings about Starfleet’s motives lead to an inventively madcap chase across the planet’s surface.
It’s effectively a crash course in Discovery, as this race of “butterfly people” – their effervescent wings are a VFX triumph – pursue their visitors with extreme prejudice. As the sequence plays out you learn about the post-Burn status of the reborn Federation, get to see most of the freshly-promoted Discovery crew in action (many of them enjoying their new, Trek-standard multicolored uniforms), and a technobabbly solution to a problem with the planet’s magnetic field. For the sake of balance, we also get a glimpse of some of the show’s clunkier tropes – the numerous self-congratulatory glances between shipmates, and the fact it usually takes them seconds to solve a problem that has perplexed others for decades.
The newly elected President of the Federation, Laira Rillak, is impressed enough to invite them – with the exception of Saru, who’s still helping out as a “great elder” on his homeworld, Kaminar – as guests of honor at the launch of the new Starfleet Academy. Rillak also takes the opportunity to make a sly dig at present-day Earth’s dependency on fossil fuels, and flag the construction of the Archer Spacedock – a fun reference for Star Trek: Enterprise fans.
Celebrations are curtailed, however, when a distress call from Deep Space Repair Beta 6 pulls Discovery back into action. The mission is in the vicinity of Kwejian, a coincidence of galactic proportions, seeing as Book has travelled there to participate in a coming-of-age ceremony for the nephew we met in season 3 episode ‘The Sanctuary’. Why does Book no longer wear a vial of tree sap around his neck? Looks like we’ll have to wait until later in the season to find out…
The mission comes with additional pressure for Burnham, when the president invites herself on board as a not-so-silent observer. Given Burnham’s history of insubordination and rule-breaking – not to mention her protests against having a politician standing over her shoulder – this is unlikely to be a straightforward in-and-out rescue.
And so it proves when Discovery finds a space station spinning dangerously out of control, under the command of an almost comically inept commander. The concept of Murphy’s law – if anything can go wrong, it will – appears to be influencing the cosmic order, as Tilly and Adira beam over to assist.
Inverted gravity, inoperable doors and an onslaught of frozen methane provide the perfect opportunity for regular Discovery director Olatunde Osunsanmi’s to show off some amazing space action, and he delivers spectacularly with shots of Discovery and the Deep Space station spinning through space in balletic unison. It’s also Burnham’s chance to take an impromptu crack at the Kobayashi Maru, and it’s safe to say she doesn’t pass with flying colors.
Her decision to abandon the bridge to head out on a spacewalk, along with her complete inability to grasp standard Star Trek mathematics – that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – tell Rillak everything she needs to know about the Discovery captain. In short, for all Burnham’s many strengths, she’s not the right person to command the new starship Voyager, and its experimental Pathway drive. The president acknowledges that, yes, Burnham has luck on her side, but sooner or later that luck is going to run out. (And let’s be honest, the fact that Burnham makes time for an excessive number of uniform changes over the course of the episode – four by our count – can’t have helped her cause.)
Come the end credits, Burnham has been given the starkest possible reminder that she can’t always save the day. After Book’s ship has limped back to Discovery, a scan reveals that Kwejian has been destroyed by a vast gravitational anomaly, with Book’s family presumed dead. It’s a powerful introduction to what we already know to be the principal threat in season 4. The good news is that Saru’s time on Kaminar is seemingly coming to an end – Burnham could probably do with her old friend’s help some time around now.