Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 2 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
So what is it? After announcing its arrival in spectacular, planet-obliterating style last week, the mysterious mass of destruction that’s threatening the Federation gets title billing and a lot more screentime. 'Anomaly' also ups the emotion on the season opener, as Book struggles to come to terms with the loss of his family and his homeworld, Kwejian.
The result is a slightly jarring mix of hard sci-fi and clunky introspection that fails to coalesce into a coherent whole. Ironically, the cold vacuum of space is where the episode comes to life, the visually stunning, Christopher Nolan-like elements of the story more accomplished than the soul-searching on the Discovery bridge.
A whopping five light years across and leaving carnage in its wake, the anomaly that destroyed Kwejian instantly forces itself to the top of Starfleet’s agenda. Evacuation plans for the worlds in its path are rapidly put into place, but with the Federation still a shadow of its pre-Burn self, the threat of civil unrest looms large. It’s time, then, for Discovery to spool up the spore drive once again, for a mission to research the hell out of this undefinable invader.
For all the disruption the anomaly is causing for the Federation, its effect on the guilt-ridden Book is even more profound. As he obsessively plays back footage of the spooked birds and debris that were the prologue to his planet’s destruction, the flickering images of the episode’s opening may leave you wondering if you need to adjust your set.
Unsurprisingly, he’s desperate to take a lead in the research mission, leaving Michael Burnham with a quandary: yes, Book’s experience makes him the logical candidate to pilot his shapeshifting ship into the gravitational maelstrom, but perhaps his fragile emotional state makes it too dangerous for him to go. Burnham’s responsibilities as a Starfleet captain and as Book’s partner are suddenly in direct opposition.
Luckily for her, Saru has left behind his advisory role on Kaminar to dispense fortune-cookie wisdom at her side. He’s turned down the command of the USS Sojourner (named after Nasa’s late-’90s Mars rover) to return to Discovery as Burnham’s first officer, and the reassignment feels rather contrived. All the hugs and “old friend” exchanges suggest they’ve forgotten how Saru fired Burnham as his own number one in season 3 episode 'Scavengers' for her failure to follow orders. Is that now just water under the bridge? Or is this the writers’ effort to imitate the Kirk/Spock dynamic of the original Star Trek, with the more impulsive captain receiving advice from their alien BFF/Jiminy Cricket? If the latter is indeed the case, it’s been a convoluted journey to get there.
Though it’s not a particularly surprising development, seeing as most of Discovery’s crew are trending towards sainthood. Like Saru, Dr. Culber has evolved into an oasis of implausible calm and competence, so skilled in everything he does that he’s becoming too good to be true.
Not only is he fulfilling a role as ship’s counselor for Tilly (the events of recent months have taken their toll on even the ship’s most upbeat officer), he’s about to come good on his promise to give Gray a physical form. Yes, the new artificial body is cunningly explained away by referring to the "Soong method" – an 800-year-old technology that, fans of Star Trek: Picard will recall, had a spectacularly restorative effect on a certain former Enterprise captain – but surely the process shouldn’t be quite so easy? The promise of a new form is a joyful moment for Adira and Gray that doesn’t feel earned, especially when you compare it to the long-running sagas of Data and the Doctor’s efforts to become more human on The Next Generation and Voyager.
The increasingly pivotal Culber also has a role in the away mission to the anomaly, hooking Stamets up to the hologram that will fill in for him at Book’s side. (Side note: If Starfleet officers can now hook themselves up to a real-time holo-version of themselves, surely that makes all future off-ship adventures null and void? Why would any responsible commanding officer put a human in harm’s way if a hologram can do the job just as well?)
The trip into the anomaly is predictably eventful. Book’s ship takes something of a pounding, but it’s even worse for Discovery, waiting outside in the supposed ‘safe zone’ – the bridge crew being thrown into the air by malfunctioning artificial gravity shows off some truly inventive VFX work. Under normal circumstances, a commander would pull their people out, but Book is so obsessed with gathering data that he’d give the CEO of a social media company a run for their money.
He’s also dealing with visions of his late nephew, Leto, and the fact he’s sitting next to the worst (virtual) co-pilot imaginable. It makes sense that Stamets still has issues to work through after his entire family were nearly lost on the dilithium planet in season 3 episode 'There is a Tide…' – who wouldn’t? – but surely a decorated Starfleet officer would be disciplined enough to stop talking about it for a couple of hours? Otherwise he wouldn’t be on the mission. The whole storyline feels like emotional beats are being crowbarred in at the expense of the story.
That said, there’s no doubt the true star of 'Anomaly' is the entity that gives the episode its name. Recent Star Trek series have dealt with threats from Klingons, Borg, Romulans, rogue AI, and criminal cartels, but none of them are quite as chilling as this vast, unknowable object – all the background talk of real-life physics such as black holes and gravitational waves only adds to its mystique. The unexpected change of direction identified at the episode’s end reveals a 'monster' that can’t be reasoned with, and we’re pretty sure it doesn’t feel pity or remorse either. Getting the Federation out of this mess is going to require a lot more than diplomacy…
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 from November 26