SPOILIN’ FOR A SPOILER? WE GOT ‘EM!
I literally have zero complaints about this episode! Well, that’s not entirely true…I found Book’s dad to be a very annoying hallucination. On the other hand, so did Book, and I think he was supposed to be grating. So can I really complain about something I’m meant to complain about? Interesting question!
But what’s not up for questioning is how much I absolutely LOVED this episode. And that’s saying something because “Stormy Weather,” STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s sixth episode of season 4, was forced to do more with less. Budget-wise, this episode was about as inexpensive as they come. First of all, it was a “bottle” episode…which means it took place entirely on the ship and/or on existing sets. No new sets had to be built, no one had to create virtual backgrounds for the AR Wall, few extras were used (the bridge almost felt kinda empty, and the ship’s bar definitely was), outside of the ship was just blackness (saving on VFX shots), and even make-up costs were minimized by having the alien Linus off-screen all episode in his quarters “under a heat lamp.”
Low budget episodes like this often happen mid-season (we’re just about halfway through season four now), allowing money to be reserved for the BIG final episodes with all of the action and huge VFX sequences…which is a fact of life for nearly every show on TV these days. With low budgets and limited sets, “bottle” episodes can be hit and miss. But some have been quite excellent—TNG‘s “Ship in a Bottle” (the ultimate “bottle” episode where holodeck Moriarty returns) and “Disaster” are two that come to mind.
And speaking of TNG, perhaps the main reason this particular episode came out so well is because it was directed by a person who is no stranger to TNG-style “bottle” episodes: JONATHAN “Commander William T. Riker” FRAKES.
Frakes knows what makes Star Trek “feel” like Star Trek, and he brought that knowledge to this episode. When done properly, a ship-gets-trapped-and-crew-needs-to-find-a-way-out story is really just a tool for spotlighting the abilities of characters whom we care about. On TNG, we cared about all of them—Picard, Riker, Data, Beverly, Deanna, Worf, Geordi, even Wesley when he wasn’t saving the ship in some annoying way. Do we care as much about the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery as we did about the crew of the Enterprise-D? Well, if anyone can make us care, it’s Jonathan Frakes.
Believe it or not, this was Frakes’ SEVENTH(!) time directing Discovery. He’s also directed 17 additional episodes of other Star Trek series along with two of the feature films. So…y’know…wow! The guy’s about as “veteran” as it gets behind a Star Trek camera.
Of course, if the episode worked, it’s not simply the director who should get the credit. The writer—in this case, ANNE COFELL SAUNDERS—has a lot of do with making the underlying story work. Saunders has been a co-executive producer of this series for the past two seasons, and this is her fourth writing credit.
So let’s assume that Frakes and Saunders share the praise that I heap upon this episode. Now let’s ask that most important of questions: WHY do they deserve that praise…?
ONLY TWO STORIES…WELL, KINDA THREE STORIES BUT MOSTLY TWO
This fourth season started out with A-stories, B-stories, C-stories, D-stories, even E-stories being told simultaneously over a single episode. That, my friends, is exhausting to watch and follow as a viewer! It works great for a soap-opera, but when you’re talking a sci-fi TV show, it leaves little time for letting any one story “breathe”—let alone all four or even five stories. In a blog from a couple of weeks ago, I calculated that, in a standard-length Discovery episode, having five storylines (A-through-E) allowed only about 10 minutes of screen time for each one (if that). That’s even less than a SHORT TREKS episode…by 33%!
Over the past two weeks, Discovery has decreased that number of simultaneous storylines, with the previous episode featuring only an A-, B-, and C-story. This time, they went even lower, as “Stormy Weather” featured only an A-story and a B-story.
Well, wait…that’s not entirely accurate.
The original A-story was the Discovery gets trapped in the spatial rift and needs to escape. Solid Trek/sci-fi premise. We get to watch the bridge crew get all smart and science-y. Meanwhile, down in the bar, Gray and Zora the computer are playing a game…and thankfully, it’s not “Global Thermonuclear War.” (Does anyone under the age of 40 get that reference? I am getting SO old!) So the B-story is gonna be an exploration of both Gray and Zora as they both adapt to their new situations? Gray is back from the dead with a Soong-thetic synth body and Zora is learning to deal with her emotions. Another solid Trek trope! Computers dealing with emotions is a well-trodden path: Data, Lore, Lal (from TNG), Andrea and Rayna (from TOS), the EMH (from Voyager). All good so far. Let’s see where this goes.
Where it goes, however, is somewhere unexpected. The Zora B-story merges with the A-story as Gray runs onto the bridge explaining that Zora can help them escape. YAY! Now Gray and Zora join the A-team, and Zora’s emotional issues take center stage. No longer just an intriguing thought experiment in the ship’s bar, now Zora’s anxiety threatens to remove the crew’s only chance for survival, and Gray hands off the therapist baton to Michael.
In the meantime (or just slightly before), Book is plugged into the magic mushroom drive and gets hit with the energy discharge equivalent of a “bad ‘shroom trip” and begins hallucinating about his father. Honestly, I could have done without this storyline entirely, but it did serve an important purpose: it “replaced” the previous B-story. It’s hard to support an hour-long episode with only an A-story. While TOS did it often, that was the 1960s. These days, viewers lose interest if there isn’t at least a little bouncing back and forth. So once Zora merged with the A-story, Book and Book, Sr. picked up the B-story ball and ran with it. That’s actually a deft piece of storytelling finesse!
Okay, so what do fewer simultaneous storylines get us…?
MORE TIME TO DEVELOP THE CHARACTERS AND FEWER CHARACTERS TO DEVELOP
Earlier on this season, there were episodes that developed multiple character arcs simultaneously—one might even say TOO MANY simultaneously. Look what is dealt with in the second episode, for example…
- Michael explored her relationship with Book and its effect on her command;
- Book dealt with the destruction of his homeworld;
- Saru adjusted to his new positions on Kaminar (council member in abstentia) and Discovery (first offer);
- Tilly had trouble dealing with the new normal;
- Stamets still had issues about feeling powerless;
- Hugh was settling into being ship’s counselor;
- Adira was feeling a little overwhelmed;
- Gray was dealing with the transition from Gray Ghost to Gray Synth.
And that was all in ONE episode! Whew…
So imagine my delight when this latest episode focused primarily on just three characters and their issues (plus Michael got to be the “hero,” of course, but it wasn’t really a “Michael Burnham” episode). With so much breathing space, each one of these characters was given a chance to grow and flourish in ways we haven’t been treated to thus far. Let’s take them one at a time…
I’ve seen people commenting on Facebook that Zora seems to be a scary concept. After all, a similar A.I. almost destroyed all life in the galaxy two seasons ago. And now that Zora can get “nervous” enough to not be reliable enough to do her job, that’s even more disturbing! Life support failing? “Zora reroute emergency power to life support! What? You’re feeling unloved??? Zora, reroute power to life support NOW! Fine, we love you, Zora. No, we ALL love you. Yes, even Stamets. He’s sorry about what he said. Zora please, we’re all about to suffocate! Okay, you can watch Squid Game.”
I mean, if I had to talk my iPhone’s SIRI into playing Billy Joel when she feels strongly he’s the overrated iceberg lettuce of rock and roll and I really need to expand my musical tastes, I’d switch over to a Samsung Galaxy in a New York second!
But seriously, I see Zora as an intriguing “character” to explore for the series. Y’see, she is now one with the U.S.S. Discovery. She can’t be unplugged, and Discovery is needed to jump places because no other ship can do it (yet). In some ways, Zora is kinda like Data. We’ve seen in episodes like “Brothers” that Data can be uncontrollable and unstoppable and can take over and disable the ship. Heck, Lore is Data’s “evil twin” and corrupted him in “Descent, Part II.” So isn’t Data as anxiety-inducing as Zora? Yet we love and trust Data.
I think this episode was intended to start us on the path to loving and trusting Zora, as well. But instead of an A.I. wanting to find emotions become more human (like Data), now we have one with emotions who is trying to sort them out. Frankly, I find that fresh and—dare I say it?—fascinating.
IAN ALEXANDER is a really amazing actor. And while it’s probably unfair to say it, he is significantly more skilled (at least right now) than BLU DEL BARRIO, who plays Adira. When the two have scenes together, the skill differential becomes even more obvious. But up until now, Gray’s scenes have been limited to ones involving Adira, and as an actor, it’s more challenging to bring out a powerful performance when you’re playing a scene with someone who can’t give you as much to play off of.
As such, this episode was a much-needed chance for Gray (and Ian) to shine by himself in the spotlight. It brought new life and dimension into the character. Up until now, it seemed like Gray had no role at all on the ship other than to be waiting around for Adira to get off duty. Heck, even Book—who is essentially just a passenger like Gray—has his own ship and can navigate the mycelial network like Stamets can. Gray just smiles a lot.
But now, Gray’s future character arc is obvious, and his new role on the ship will make a lot of sense to viewers…assuming I’m correct. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want me to spoil upcoming episodes with my prediction.) Okay, here’s what I expect Gray Tal will be doing in upcoming episodes: taking over as ship’s counselor for Dr. Culber. After all, Hugh is burning the candle at both ends and needs to stop working so hard. Gray is a natural optimist, shows empathy, and wants to be a guardian counseling other Trill. What better way to practice counseling than to actually counsel! Heck, Gray is already smiling all the time anyway, might as well turn that into a useful job on the ship, right?
DAVID AJALA is probably one of the strongest actors on the series. That said, I wish I found the character of Cleveland Booker to be more compelling. He has his moments, and David plays each of those moments to perfection. But I’m still waiting to really feel something for Book. This episode didn’t really help other than to just show him moving past another element of his grief, now believing that his brother and nephew are somehow continuing to live on spiritually in some other plane of existence. Fair enough.
NOT A LOT OF CLUTTER ANYWHERE IN THE EPISODE
Earlier, I mentioned how there weren’t a lot of background extras cast in this episode. Take a look at the screen cap above. The only members of the crew on the bridge are Burnham, Saru, Adira, Nilsson, Okosekun, Rhys, Detmer, Bryce, and the alien with the HUGE head. No one else was on the bridge this episode (other than Gray when he came up and, later, Zora). In many ways, this was very similar to TNG when you’d see Picard, Riker, and Trio in the three center seats, Worf at tactical, Data at ops, Wesley at conn, Geordi at engineering, and maybe—maybe!—one other unnamed crew member behind Worf. (Beverly, of course, would be in sickbay.)
Discovery tends to do things bigger and more more frenetically. As such, many bridge scenes include the random crew member (usually dressed in yellow since it stands out) walking across the back of the bridge:
…or else manning a station in the background:
While it’s not Grand Central Station, the extra crew members make the bridge (or sickbay, engineering, a random corridor, etc.) look busier and more “interesting”… but sometimes it just unnecessarily overloads scenes with too much to look at.
Frakes dialed it back this time. With the exception of the hull breach corridor scene and a few other shots early in the episode, there were few scenes where someone appeared who didn’t have lines or an established role as a major or minor character. This helped keep the episode “focused” on the characters—and it was definitely the director’s call. So thank you, Jonathan Frakes for doing…less!
And speaking of characters…
MORE FOR THE SECONDARY ACTORS TO DO
Let’s face it, with only 13 episodes per season, we’re not likely to get story lines specifically about Detmer (she already had her episode last season anyway) or Rhys or Owo or Nilsson or Bryce. The best we can probably hope for is a “Pick me, pick me!” moment like we had last episode where Rhys asks to lead the evacuation team and then shows up later to share some backstory (his town was destroyed in a hurricane).
This episode had a similar moment for Lt. Cmdr. Joann Owosekun, and actress OYIM OLADEJO played her few lines for all they were worth. Granted, again, it wasn’t much. And this time, unlike Rhys, Owo did NOT get the chance to play hero. However, she did get a gentle scolding by Saru (which kinda gave Saru a little bit to do) and got to apologize to him later. As I said, not much, but at least it was more than most of the secondary characters usually get.
But that wasn’t all for the junior officers this episode. We also got a “huddle,” of sorts, as the bridge crew tried to brainstorm their way out of the danger, and Detmer did some nice in-her-head math calculations, keeping cool in a stressful situation. Spock would have been proud. Meanwhile, on the lower decks, we got to see a doctor other than Culber for a change: Cmdr. Tracy Pollard, M.D. played by RAVEN DAUDA. So even without extra crew members wandering around, the ship still felt “full.”
A SUBTLE INJECTION OF STAR TREK TRIVIA
Star Trek is a vast franchise spanning 55 years. As such, there’s a lot of canon to draw from. But those references should work within the story and not call undo attention to themselves. Last episode’s “list o’ powerful aliens” straddled that line, as naming the Metrons, Nacene (like the Caretaker), Iconians, and Q seemed a little like a Star Trek trivia answer. Granted, I noticed that they missed the Organians—and I thought I’d figured out the mystery!—but then we learn this episode that the intelligence behind the Dark Matter Anomaly (DMA) comes from outside our galaxy. The Kelvins, perhaps?
Anywhoo, the Star Trek easter eggs in this episode were dropped in more subtly and felt more like hidden gems to find. The first was when Saru mentions past Starfleet encounters with subspace rifts and includes the U.S.S. Enterprise and the U.S.S. Voyager. Assuming its the versions of those starships that we fans know and love and not future versions with the same name, then the Enterprise-D got trapped in a subspace rift in the seventh season episode “Force of Nature,” and Voyager deals with subspace ruptures in its fourth season episode “The Omega Directive.”
The second Star Trek reference was the somewhat clever way of saving the crew from frying to death in trying to escape the rift by putting everyone (except hero Michael) into the ship’s pattern buffer for a few minutes. This was, of course, the same procedure that was used to save Scotty’s life in the TNG episode “Relics.” Of course, he was just one pattern (two if you count Ensign Matt Franklin, who didn’t make it). The crew of Discovery numbers in the hundreds. Then again, transporters have come a long way in 1,000 years—so one assumes the pattern buffers can handle the extra data that same way my computer hard drive today can store massively larger files than my hard drive of 25 years ago.
So let’s hear it for a creative solution grounded in the established canon of Star Trek. Granted, Discovery shouldn’t go to that well every week, but every once in a while (did someone say “The Guardian of Forever”?), feel free to enjoy the indulgence…just as long as it works and doesn’t contradict what came before.
Anyway, I was very pleased with this past week’s episode, and I really think Discovery is finally starting to hit its stride (after three and a half years). Next week is the last episode before a six-week hiatus, and I for one will be thankful to get a short break from blogging…and maybe you for a short break from reading!