Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 10 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Ever since Captain Kirk’s original five-year mission, going where no one has gone before has been part of Star Trek’s mission brief. And yet it’s an aspiration the franchise often fails to make good on – whether Starfleet travels to the distant future or the other side of the galaxy, the technology, aliens, and interstellar phenomena they encounter tend to look remarkably familiar.
As Discovery passes ‘The Galactic Barrier’ that gives the episode its name, however, you believe that Star Trek is genuinely embracing the unknown. "Space has never felt this empty," says Lt. Cmdr Rhys after the Disco crew make it to the extra-galactic void. "Or this quiet…" His obvious trepidation is countered by the instinct for exploration that’s hardwired into the crew’s DNA. This is quintessential Star Trek, and in a season more memorable for its variable quality than its storytelling prowess, that’s a good place to be.
There’s a tangible Next Generation vibe as the team comes together to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Can’t use the spore drive to get through the antimatter maelstrom that lies at the edge of the galaxy? Don’t worry, Starfleet’s finest can hatch an alternative plan in an (almost implausibly fast) instant, using multicolored space bubbles (powered by wonderfully impenetrable technobabble) to make it to the other side. As the ship plunges into the cosmic lava lamp, Disco has never felt so, well, disco.
The trip is also a reminder that in the absence of chief humor officers Tilly and Reno – coronavirus travel concerns meant Tig Notaro was only available for a few episodes this year – Stamets has become a much-needed source of jokes in a show that often forgets to have fun. As a prediction of success, "Cautiously optimistic… ish" has pleasing echoes of Scotty’s pessimism in the original Enterprise’s engine room.
‘The Galactic Barrier’ is also the episode where season 4 truly embraces its arc plot. Ever since the Dark Matter Anomaly announced its arrival with the destruction of Kwejian, the show’s been dancing around the threat, taking random trips to casinos when it should be pushing the story forward. Diversions are no longer an option, however, now that DMA 2.0 is chewing up boronite much faster than its predecessor. Earth and Ni’Var both stand in its path, and chances are they’ll be Anomaly food in less than three days.
Suddenly, Discovery’s trip outside the Milky Way has evolved beyond a first contact mission, with the clock ticking and the fate of billions in the balance. Since JJ Abrams blew up Vulcan (now rebranded as Ni’Var) in his first alternative timeline Star Trek movie, there’s no guarantee either world will survive. Indeed, if there’s one thing this episode makes clear, it’s that every single character in the show is in the firing line – while Discovery traditionally finds a way for everybody to make it out alive, perhaps Species 10-C and their intergalactic mining operation will be one threat Burnham can’t Die Hard her way out of.
The question, then, is who finds themselves in the most perilous position? With Vance, Kovich, and Bryce staying home at Starfleet HQ, some familiar faces could end up casualties of the DMA. Kovich’s top-secret project – his vast work portfolio appears to have shifted yet again – clearly has a pivotal role to play, but what is the Federation’s best-dressed man up to?
That trio aside, however, almost everybody who matters in the 32nd century is on board Discovery, in a who’s who of the Federation and friends – and it’s clear that some of them are there for dramatic, rather than practical, purposes. So while it’s understandable Ni’Var would want to send someone on the hottest diplomatic ticket in history, it’s clear the main reason T’Rina is on board is to up the romantic tension now that Saru has laid his cards on the table. And, after an entire season of (politely) butting heads with Burnham, riling the captain seems a more plausible reason for President Rillak’s presence on the bridge than her diplomatic prowess. Either way, with Discovery now out of Starfleet communication range, it bodes well for the series that that life on the ship won’t all be peace and harmony.
There is a third group in the mix, of course, as Book does his best to ditch Ruon Tarka after the scientist’s unilateral decision to detonate his doomsday machine. Against all the odds, it turns out that Tarka has a new weapon in his locker – a previously unseen capacity for humanity. With the stakes increasing and the Federation’s days potentially numbered, a flashback-heavy detour to find a stash of programmable antimatter – this week’s addition to Tarka’s improbable collection of magical McGuffins – could have felt like an unnecessary detour. But the story of his relationship with a fellow scientist is genuinely touching, and makes it painfully clear why he’s so desperate to jump universes. Even so, rooting for Tarka is a strange feeling.
Assuming Book and Tarka join Discovery on the other side of the barrier, the pressure is on Species 10-C to deliver on their enormous promise – after all this build up, surely they can’t just be actors with prosthetics stuck to their faces. Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season is finally promising to make good on Captain Kirk’s famous mission statement – now it’s time to deliver.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 beam onto Paramount Plus on Thursdays in the US and Crave in Canada. UK viewers can watch episodes on Pluto TV.