Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 4 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
With the Anomaly once again relegated to a supporting role, ‘All is Possible’ shifts the spotlight to a long-standing member of the Disco crew. And while the episode is neither explosive nor memorable, it may have greater ramifications for the future of the show than anything the unstoppable mass of destruction can throw at the Federation. In short, Discovery won’t be the same after this week’s events, and the writers’ room may have to make some serious adjustments to cover for the loss.
The increasingly busy Dr. Culber is back in ‘ship’s counselor’ mode, and as well as giving some meditation tips to help Book deal with his grief, he has few ideas for guiding Lieutenant Tilly out of her malaise. It turns out that Kovich – the bespectacled, tie-wearing Federation operative played by horror legend David Cronenberg – has been given something of a character makeover, and in this new, (slightly) cuddlier incarnation he has a special team-building assignment for Tilly.
Since the Burn was remedied and warp travel re-established, new Starfleet recruits have been struggling to get used to interacting with colleagues from other worlds – a strangely poignant theme in the wake of Covid lockdowns around the world. Tilly’s job is to take a bickering group of cadets – along with a reluctant Adira – on a routine shuttlecraft mission, to help foster a sense of camaraderie. After all, Tilly is probably the most affable people person in the entire history of the Federation, so if she can’t get them singing from the same hymn sheet, no one can. Even so, most of them respond to Tilly’s sunny demeanor with the confusion of someone who’s been handed a page of complex differential equations, and asked to solve them before lunch.
Of course, Star Trek training missions rarely go to plan, and little time passes before a rogue gamma-ray burst sends the shuttle hurtling towards an uninhabited moon. To make matters worse, the weather is hostile to human life, and the indigenous life is not only extremely hungry, it’s attracted to the energy signatures emitted by every single piece of tech in their lockers. How will they send out a message to catch a ride with the nearest starship without becoming lunch?
What goes down on the moon’s surface plays out like an episode of Lower Decks, only with most of the gags surgically removed, and none of the cartoon’s knowing sense of irony about Trek’s occasional forays into cliché. It’s no surprise, then, when one of the cadets dies within seconds of impact, or when the survivors let pre-conceptions about their colleagues get in the way of functioning as a unit – these rookies will do anything they can to have the last word. Tilly, meanwhile, is her usual engaging self, gradually persuading them to work together despite impossible odds, and some scary ice that freezes your legs in real-time. She even comes close to sacrificing herself for her protegés, but the USS Armstrong arrives just in time to beam them out of trouble.
The experience is all the catalyst Tilly needs to rethink her career and, come the end of the episode, she’s requested a transfer to work at Starfleet Academy.
While Tilly is busy course correcting her life, Captain Michael Burnham is further expanding her impressive but increasingly implausible resumé – now she can add "diplomat" to traitor, scientist, savior of the universe, and Die Hard-style action hero. The Federation’s negotiations with Ni’Var have hit a bureaucracy-shaped brick wall, and with the big bad BMA (Black Matter Anomaly) inexplicably sidelined – where did the urgency of season 4’s opening episodes disappear to? – its most significant involvement is prompting the Vulcans and Romulans to demand a get-out clause be added to their treaty with Federation. (For anyone who’s been paying attention throughout five years of planet Earth’s real-life Brexit saga, a lot of the dialogue used will feel incredibly familiar – another example of Trek’s long history of bringing contemporary allegory to a distant-future setting.)
The Federation president’s rather leftfield approach to the talks is to draft in Burnham and Saru to “remain silent and look official” as observers during the talks, clearly forgetting that it’s just a few short weeks since she told the captain she was “not ready” to command a prototype ship. Still, if we’ve learned anything from Discovery’s one-and-a-bit seasons in the 32nd century, it’s that the Burnham and her crew are significantly better at, well, everything than even the best and brightest they meet on their travels, and she rapidly comes up with a ‘third way’ that nobody else had thought of over the course of months of negotiation. Discovery has now reached the point where its core characters – particularly Burnham, Saru, and Culber – are more solutions to problems than actual people. Now one of the most important questions facing the crew is how Burnham is going to find time to fit in her new role on the Ni’Var/Federation oversight committee, on top of her regular captaining, exploring, universe-saving, and – almost definitely – a bit more Die Harding.
But an even bigger challenge for the show is how it fills the void Tilly’s departure leaves behind. While the writing team has carefully seeded the character’s disillusionment and desire for change – the scene where she tells Michael that her promotion to lieutenant was the worst day of her life is emotionally powerful stuff – they’re also losing one of Discovery’s most likeable and engaging characters. With Georgiou having also left for pastures new, there could be a humor deficit in a show that’s now in serious danger of becoming a lot less fun.
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.