SPOILERS ARE THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE!
I was originally going to title this blog “Close Encounters of the 10-C Kind,” but I felt it more appropriate to share my mix of reactions in the same way that Species 10-C communicated in ratios of their pheromone emotions. And if you don’t know WTF I’m talking about, then you haven’t watched the penultimate episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY‘s fourth season, “Species 10-C.”
This episode was a true conundrum for me when it came time to try to think of how I felt about it. On the one hand: GREAT EPISODE! On the other hand: DREADFUL EPISODE!
You see my problem?
LET’S START WITH INTRIGUING
One of the most far-fetched aspects of Star Trek over the decades is just how convenient first contacts tend to be. Throughout the first four TV series, it seemed that, no matter where you traveled in the galaxy, everybody looked mostly human (just maybe a strange forehead or ears here and there), and they all either spoke colloquial English immediately or else could learn it quickly or have it universally translated. And it kinda spoiled us fans, didn’t it? Of course, without such tropes, we’d have to spend the majority of each episode just figuring out how to communicate, and that would leave little time to tell compelling sci-fi stories.
Granted, Star Trek did have a few episodes that focused on communicating when the universal translator wasn’t up to the task. Most notably, the excellent Next Generation episode “Darmok” devoted the entire storyline to Picard and the Tamarian captain trying to find a way to understand each other because the languages were just too different for the universal translator to figure out.
Unfortunately, if you think too hard, even a wonderful episode like “Darmok” collapses under the weight of strained credulity. Obviously the Children of Tama were able to communicate beyond simple metaphors. After all, how can you build a starship without saying something like, “Pass me that #3 hexagonal hyper-spanner…”? And in order to say, “Uzani, his army with fists closed,” you have to know the words “army,” “fists,” and “closed.” In other words, the universal translator should have been able to do better than it did.
But hey, it still made for a great episode dedicated to bridging a language barrier. And so it was for “Species 10-C.” It was fascinating watching the methodical process of trying to bridge such vastly different methods of communication. But again, you kind of have to turn off your brain to accept how far-fetched the concept is…
If you think too hard, you’ll realize that, in order to produce their language, Species 10-C need to PRODUCE hydrocarbons. That is a physical substance, meaning that, eventually, a member of Species 10-C would become physically SMALLER if they talked too much…or else simply run out of hydrocarbons and have to hydrocarb load before continuing. When we speak, we expel the air we’ve already taken in. We don’t produce some material that will eventually run out.
Also, once again, you run into the problem of not being able to say something as simple as “Pass me that #3 hexagonal hyper-spanner…” without making a very specific mix of hydrocarbons and blinking your lights in the just the right way. It seems to be a very impractical and inefficient language for such an advanced society.
However, I will give the writers credit for at least making the language—and discovering how it worked—extremely intriguing. In that way, it was reminiscent of such sci-fi classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and Arrival. In those films, the most interesting and most memorable aspects were watching the main characters figure out ways to communicate with the strange aliens, either through music, math, color, symbols, or intuitive deduction. And indeed, that was the most engaging part of this episode, as well.
In many ways, this kind of reasoned scientific method and deductive analysis is something that has been sorely missing from a series called “Discovery.” How often do Michael and her crew actually DISCOVER things? And yet, Star Trek was founded on the concept of exploration and discovery. One might have expected a little less of the ol’ “pew! pew!” on such a show, but that kind of nerding out could get boring week after week. On the other hand, there’s been almost none of it…until this episode. Indeed, I suspect that’s why many people on social media are saying such positive things about this episode—and honestly, had it been mainly that (and Jett Reno), I’d probably have had few if any complaints. Unfortunately…
HERE’S WHAT ANNOYED ME THE MOST
I already mentioned the fact that Species 10-C must create hydrocarbons in order to “speak,” and that giving a long lecture or performing a lengthy play or musical could literally leave the 10-C speaker without the ability to communicate until they recharge or whatever. Humans can strain our voices, yes, but all we do is produce vocal vibrations with the air we breathe, not generate physical matter.
But along those same lines, I found it a little illogical that Species 10-C could be so advanced and yet NOT be aware that others communicated using different technology. After all, the galaxy is full of races and species who speak with sound and broadcast with electromagnetic transmissions on various frequencies. Even if that’s not Species 10-C’s preferred way to communicate, you’d think that such a technologically superior civilization might have encountered others and figured out ways to translate sound into olfactory-plus-light communication. It just seemed odd to me that a spaceship would be required to spray pheromones at a giant energy wall (decorated quite artistically, I might add!) just to knock on the door. Heck, many spaceships can’t actually spray particles in the vacuum of space because it’s a vacuum and the particles would instantly disperse and probably freeze.
But it wasn’t only that. While the writers tried very hard to “hide” Reno’s abduction from the crew until the very end, it just wasn’t plausible. I understand that, in order for the whole kidnapping plot to work, no one could suspect Reno was missing. But gosh darn it, she’s just too important to the crew! In an emergency situation, if Scotty or Geordi suddenly went missing, dontcha think SOMEONE would notice??? Yeah, I know that everyone was really busy, but she’s a full commander, and when you’re at that rank, people report to you. If Reno has essentially disappeared and no one else has seen her, they are duty-bound to tell someone. After all, the ship can be a dangerous place—maybe she fell out of a turbolift!—and Reno could be hurt. So yes, I was annoyed at that.
But nothing annoyed me more than the primal scream!!!
Up until now, a number of fans have criticized the show for too much hugging, too much kissing, and too much crying. Personally, that hasn’t bothered me much because I’m a hugger myself, and yes, I do cry. Play me “The Inner Light” with Picard’s flute at the end or “The Visitor” when Sisko realizes that the older Jake has decided to sacrifice himself to save his father, and I will bawl every…single…time. It’s all right to cry, and to hug, as far as I’m concerned—even on a Federation starship.
But I draw the line at screaming.
Yeah, I know some people do it to relieve stress. Back at college a million years ago, Cornell students used to gather on the arts quad for a nightly primal scream before dinner. But in the captain’s ready room of a starship? C’mon! Imagine Picard or Janeway doing that…or Archer during the third season of Enterprise when he was under all that stress. Granted they weren’t exactly crying or hugging, either, but I can much more easily imagine Kathryn Janeway giving a crew member a hug than doing a primal scream with Chakotay in her office.
It’s funny, but as I was watching the episode and got to the primal scream, my wife Wendy was in the kitchen. When I finally realized what was about to happen, I reached for the remote and it fell. I couldn’t pick it up in time to turn down the volume, and suddenly the sound of Saru screaming filled our house. Wendy came rushing in from the kitchen, “What the hell was that????” I barely got the sound lowered before Michael then had her scream. Did the episode really need that?
Honestly, I don’t think it did, and the scene felt contrived and unnecessarily forced. Against all odds, they’ve managed to make enough progress that the doorway has just appeared, and they’re getting ready to go inside the metallic egg thingie. And THIS is when Michael take Saru aside and tells him, “I feel like everything is just slipping through my fingers…” Really??? I’d feel like you guys finally have a chance to communicate! Great job, Michael!
Frankly, I think this was a moment (the primal scream) in search of a scene. The writers—who probably use the primal scream themselves fairly often—wanted Michael to do one with Saru. And so, they wrote a scene for it. Very self-indulgent.
Oh, one last thought about the scream. Remember: Tarka was the one who suggested the idea to Saru. Tarka ain’t exactly the most stable, admirable guy in their social orbit at the moment. After all, he’s the one who deployed the weapon just as Book agreed to wait for a week for the diplomats. So, um, maybe Saru might want to take advice from someone a little less prone to reckless impulsivity?
Okay, as long as I am airing the Festivus grievances, two final things annoyed me this episode. The first was a very minor thing that, if you think about it, wasn’t really that minor. Quick quiz time: if Kirk and Spock leave the Enterprise, who takes command? Scotty, of course! Or if Scotty is needed in engineering, command goes to Sulu, right? Picard and Riker leave, command goes to Data. Janeway and Chakotay leave the ship? Tuvok’s in charge. Now the real quiz: Burnham and Saru both leave Discovery…who has the conn? Last episode, Michael gave command to Nilsson (the thin blonde bridge officer). Okay, good. Now, at least we know the chain of command.
Except we don’t. This episode, with Michael and Saru both in the space egg, Rhys was left sitting in the captain’s chair…with Nilsson at her station. Geez-Louise! This isn’t third grade where each student has their turn to dismiss the class for recess. Chain of command means chain of command. Yay for Rhys, but pick a second officer and stick with her, him, or them!
And last but not least, I was annoyed when President Rillak invites President T’Rina and General Ndoye to come on board the space egg to continue the first contact. T’Rina agrees, but Ndoye declines, saying, “I’m of greater use here on the outside.” Seriously? What exactly have you done other than shooting down nearly every suggestion that others have made and talk abut how little time is left and how scary all this is? To me, that is NOT useful. Yeah, I know what she really meant was “I’m more use to Mr. Book and Mr. Tarka as their mole,” but I honestly did a spit-take when she said that line.
And now, I move from annoyance to frustration…which is kinda similar to annoyance but still different.
A FEELING OF FRUSTRATION CAME UPON ME…
When I watched Tarka – At this point, the writers have finally decided which way to go with the character: villain. For a while, they toyed with “tragic-and-relatable villain” by showing us his backstory and trying to make us feel his pain. And I tried, I really tried, to just go with it. But I couldn’t. Tarka is so obviously obsessed with getting reunited with his—let’s just say “engineering partner”—that he’s willing to literally leave mass destruction in his wake.
He cares about no one but himself…to an epic degree. Yes, Tarka has the personality of an a-hole, but now he has no morals or conscience either, making him a dangerously epic a-hole. So even if Tarka has some kind of revelation in next week’s finale and nobly sacrifices himself as atonement for his sins and transgressions, I still won’t give a crap. The writers have truly poisoned the well for this character, despite actor SHAWN DOYLE’s amazingly powerful performances.
When I watched Book – And here’s the problem with the writers taking Tarka down: they’re taking Book down with him. They say you can judge a man (or a woman or a non-specific gendered individual) by the company he/she/they keep(s). Well, if that’s the case, then the Dread Pirate Roberts—er, I mean Cleveland Booker—is a dangerous a-hole, too.
I mean, I could have been convinced to offer him redemption if he’d parted ways with Tarka after the whole launching-the-weapon-just-as-Michael-got-Book-to-agree-to-wait had made him realize, “Holy crap, what have I done???” Or maybe coming back to his ship and finding a kidnapped Reno behind a force-field might have been his last chance for a comeback. Had he helped her then, I’d have given him some credit. But no. Book’s obsession runs just as deep as Tarka’s.
So instead, Book’s tipping point was finally—FINALLY???—realizing that Tarka lied to him all along. Well, duh! Tarka’s lied to Book and gone behind his back multiple times. So not only is Book an a-hole, he’s a clueless idiot, too! And it’s not even that Book has finally seen Tarka for the terrifying narcissist he is. Nope, Book is pissed off because Tarka lied…to BOOK! In other words, Book comes across as a bit of a narcissist, as well, because he feels personally betrayed, not simply because Tarka is putting billions of lives at risk.
And only then does Book decide to turn on Tarka, and of course (who didn’t see this one coming?), Book gets his butt royally kicked. So when Book and Reno save the day (or whatever) next episode, I won’t be seeing Book as having finally come to his senses so much as having taken WAAAAY too much time to finally come to his senses.
When I watched the bridge crew share their ideas – Or more specifically, I felt a feeling of frustration when they all beamed back to the bridge. These people are obviously brilliant thinkers, and they work great as a brainstorming team. So why not just keep them all where the action is? Yes, I know the writers only brought them down from the bridge for that one scene so the “little guys” could get some meaningful screen time. And at least the writers are finally giving them that.
But this is a situation requiring all the best minds on deck—specifically the hangar deck—as the clock is ticking down. Why leave these people on the bridge? Obviously, other crew members can man those posts, and the personal site-to-site transporters can place those officers back at their stations faster than Burnham can say, “Red Alert.” So thanks for the scene, writers, but oh how frustrated I was that it was only one short scene.
Whenever I watched General Ndoye – This was just lazy writing, pure and simple. While Tarka at least had the whole tragic backstory, Ndoye was simply used as a one-note character: scared, aggressive, the perfect dark-side apprentice pawn for Darth Tarka. (Too far?) The character was annoyingly negative in every scene where she interacts with Burnham and Rillak and the other good guys. And she has even less suspicion about Tarka than Book does. She just blindly accepts what Book tells her. So Ndoye is not only an a-hole, but she’s a gullible, naive a-hole.
When I watched Jett Reno – Oh, don’t get me wrong! Each time I see TIG NOTARO on the screen, it’s like eating a double chocolate sundae while lying on a cloud and getting a full body massage by purring tribbles. (Don’t ever repeat that—people will judge you.)
But there is only so much you can do with a character while she is standing in “time out” separated from all the action by a force field. And so, we got to watch Reno snarkily pontificate while chewing on black licorice…which, it turns out, is the engineering equivalent of bamboo and coconuts for the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. So with this deus ex glyceride, Reno can now send a message to Discovery once Book provides her his access codes. But isn’t she holding a communicator chip? Does such a thing not work without sugar and acid to conduct electricity? That seems odd.
Basically, the writers wanted to do something to make Reno look brilliant and resourceful, and the best thing they could come up with was black licorice. That, some snarky comments, and the story of her keeping that wounded officer alive because his eyes were the same color as her dead wife…that was what we got to see Reno do this episode. At least it was something, but frustratingly not much.
And of course, next week’s finale will have to give us Reno plus bringing back Tilly and Bryce and Dr. Kovich to do, um, something important, plus having Ndoye realize the error of her ways, plus moving Culber’s self-doubt/stress storyline forward, plus maybe showing some of the bridge crew doing something, plus giving us a bit more of Sa’Rina (man, I hope they don’t kill her off—please let that relationship grow/go somewhere!)…all while defeating Tarka and somehow having Michael Burnham save the day by brilliantly convincing Species 10-C that the Federation really is good people.
Tune in next week for the unforgettable conclusion…same Trek time, same Trek streaming channel.