Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 5 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
In the wake of a pair of disappointing episodes that sent Discovery’s fourth season veering a tad off course, the first few minutes of ‘The Examples’ feel precision engineered to get Trek fans back on board. Not only do we get fun callbacks to the USS Janeway, the NSS T’Pau, Denobula, and Wolf 349, comfortingly familiar phrases like "massive ionic fluctuations" and "strange spike in X-ray radiation" are thrown around subspace as if they’re going out of fashion.
Far more importantly, however, the planet smashing Dark Matter Anomaly – currently the most compelling ‘character’ in the show – is well and truly back on Starfleet’s scanners. Unfortunately, it’s not behaving as it’s supposed to. Natural phenomena aren’t supposed to vanish and reappear 4.2 seconds later, 1,000 lightyears away, so the only logical explanation is that something – or someone – created it.
With the super-intelligent Metrons, Nacene, Iconian Empire, and Q – plenty more deep dives for old-school fans there – quickly crossed off the list of suspects by Admiral Vance, the DMA’s artificial nature is a brilliant, chilling twist that adds to its growing mystique. But who are the unidentified Species 10C controlling it? And what do they want with the Alpha Quadrant? Have they arrived to declare war on the Federation, or are they simply clearing the way for a hyperspace bypass as the Vogons did in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode struggles to deliver on the brilliance of its cold open. It doesn’t take long before 'The Examples' regresses into Trek-by-numbers plotting, as its two main storylines – an arrogant scientist visiting Discovery, and a rescue mission with a moral twist – devolve into a mish-mash of middling The Next Generation episodes.
That said, Captain Jean-Luc Picard traditionally delegated leading dangerous away missions – in this case, saving the residents of a colony who suddenly find themselves in the path of the DMA – to someone else. But if we’ve learned anything about Michael Burnham’s command style over the last few weeks, it’s that she’d much rather be diving into high-risk adventures than giving orders on the bridge, so she and Book beam down to the colony to co-ordinate the rescue. Burnham even finds some positives in the tight, three-and-a-half window of opportunity before the Anomaly strikes – though we’re not sure "We do our best work when it’s close," is what anyone would want to hear from their captain.
In the TNG tradition, however, this isn’t a standard extraction mission. The sticking point is a small group of prisoners known as 'The Examples', and on public display to remind fellow residents that crime doesn’t pay – a troubling tradition carried over from the Emerald Chain era. The local magistrate suggests leaving them to die, but obviously such a notion isn’t going to fly for Burnham. If only they wanted to be rescued…
Despite their protests that, if they leave, they’ll simply be reincarcerated, Burnham once again shows that 23rd Century diplomacy trumps its 32nd Century counterpart. But there’s still one holdout, as the one guilty man among the group decides to see out the remainder of his sentence, even though it means certain death.
There are some interesting philosophical questions asked by the mission, but you can’t help feeling this is the sort of story Star Trek can do in its sleep – and has done many times in the past.
There’s a similar sense of déjà vu back on board the ship, where rock star scientist Ruon Tarka is clashing egos with Discovery’s own Commander Stamets. Entertaining he may be, but the crude, arrogant Tarka (played by Shawn Doyle, whose dad Jerry was one of the stars of Babylon 5) also specializes in making other people feel awkward – whether he’s mocking Saru’s feet or endangering Discovery with his experiments.
He reckons he’s worked out how to build his own Anomaly, and – after the best use of mashed potato model-making since Close Encounters of the Third Kind – constructs a scale model of the DMA in Engineering. What could possibly go wrong?
While keeping experiments “within safe parameters” rarely goes according to plan in Starfleet, the episode never quite delivers on the danger. There are clear echoes of Dr. Otto Octavius’s ill-fated fusion experiments in Spider-Man 2 when the mini-Anomaly threatens to tear the ship apart, but here, safety-first Saru is there to hit the kill switch as soon as things get a bit dodgy – sensible and good for the VFX budget, but neither exciting nor dramatic.
The test run results in two major outcomes. First, it’s now clear that the Anomaly has an object of immeasurable power at its center. And second, working alongside Tarka helps the self-centered Stamets realizes he’s not the easiest man to work or live with – which is good news for his long-suffering husband, Dr. Culber.
Because having been carrying the entire crew’s burdens on his shoulders – surely in the 32nd Century Starfleet can find a way to share the chief medical officer/counselor roles between two people? – Discovery’s guardian angel has finally admitted he needs help. And while Kovich – Starfleet’s David Cronenberg-shaped officer-without-portfolio – needs to work on his far-from-cuddly bedside manner, he does make Culber realize he’s got plenty of his own demons to deal with. Coming back from the dead is going to leave some emotional scars, after all.
Possibly the episode’s biggest contribution to the season, however, is the return of Tig Notaro as Discovery engineer Jett Reno. Arguably the most sarcastic officer ever to serve in Starfleet, she’s the crew’s only significant source of humor now that Tilly’s relocated to Starfleet Academy.
But spare a thought for Patrick Kwok-Choon, who plays Discovery’s tactical officer Lt Cmdr Gen Rhys. When he read in the script that Rhys had volunteered to assist in the rescue, he must have thought it was a rare chance for one of the supporting players on the bridge to get their moment in the sun. So imagine the sense of deflation when he realized his only other contribution to the episode would be telling Burnham and Book that Starfleet had rescued his family from a hurricane. As Detmer, Owosekun, Bryce, and Nilsson will tell you, serving on Discovery’s bridge is often a thankless task.
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.