TO THE WINNERS GO THE SPOILERS
I can’t start this review of the series finale of season four of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, “Coming Home,” without first commenting on the biggest news item stemming from it: the appearance of Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and progressive political activist STACEY ABRAMS as the President of United Earth.
Abrams’ appearance has been all over the media, from Variety to the Washington Post, as it’s being widely reported that she is a HUGE Star Trek fanatic. Indeed, it seems her one condition for appearing was that she be shown only her lines in the script and told nothing else about the episode or season…as she wanted to watch it all as a fan without spoilers!
Now, if you’re the kind of person who purposefully leaves the “ic” off of “Democratic” when using the word as an adjective for the party, it’s likely you were quite pissed off when you saw her…assuming you even recognized her (which, I admit, I didn’t at first). Many of the more outspoken conservative fans are already complaining of blatant “stunt casting,” although Star Trek is full of celebrity cameos—even political ones like the prince (now king) of the country of Jordan along with political activist Tom Morello (both of whom appeared on Voyager). Here’s a meme I got off of Facebook showing many of the famous faces who cameoed on Star Trek over the years…
Of course, the arguments being given justifying complaints of “unfairness” are that none of the folks pictured above were actively running for political office when they appeared on Star Trek. As it happens, neither was Stacey Abrams at the time she was contacted by the production. In fact, her scene was filmed back in August of last year and she didn’t announce her second run for governor of Georgia until December. By then, the episode was long past being able to be re-shot, especially since Abrams appears with multiple other actors on screen.
So any way you slice it, there’s no way to legitimately criticize this without sounding like a redneck and/or a racist. And indeed, those complaining the loudest are mostly the same people who ridiculously insist that (don’t laugh) there is an underrepresentation of straight, white, male human characters on the show…without realizing how idiotic and ignorant that makes them sound! (Strange that these people never seem to have complained about there being an underrepresentation of Black, Asian, Latino, female, gay, or alternately-identified gender characters on other Star Trek shows before this, huh?)
Anyway, these folks can be as pissed off as they want; the episode is in the history books. The Star Trek series that distinguished itself for being the first to feature a Black female as the lead actress has also now featured a Black female known for registering hundreds of thousands of African Americans in Georgia to vote and very likely is the reason that the Democrats were able to establish a majority in the U.S. Senate in 2021. Heck, she might be the next governor of Georgia and could even become the first Black female president of the United States at some point. Of course, after being the president of United Earth, becoming POTUS might be a bit of a demotion!
Those who aren’t determined to hate on the show or hate on wokeness in general or hate on prominent Black people in particular actually noticed that Abrams gave a pretty decent performance for a politician. This is because she attended a performing arts magnet high school in Georgia and appeared in and directed plays both there and in college. Pretty cool, huh? (Well, cool for us liberals…sorry-not-sorry if you’re one of the pissed off people.)
But sadly, most of the rest of “Coming Home” was yet another Discovery season finale that failed to impress me—although this finale (and indeed, the entire season) was their strongest yet, in my opinion. But let me tell you why I found the rest of the episode underwhelming…
TOO MUCH TELLING, NOT ENOUGH SHOWING
I’ve said it before: mediocre writers tell, good writers SHOW. Why does that make such a difference? Because the writers who show trust their viewers to be intelligent, focused, and thoughtful. Simply telling me everything leads to stuff like this…
Oh, and this, too…
Wait, one more and you’ll be ready to watch the episode…
By the way, everything you just saw WILL be on next week’s test, so everyone please remember to study!
Now, I will credit the director for moving the camera around constantly and having people either walk really fast or even run a little. So at least all of that exposition was exciting to watch—so exciting, in fact, that it wasn’t until I set the “in” and “out” points of those four clips that I realized how much I’d missed!
And isn’t that kinda the point? If you need to communicate THAT much information, and it’s delivered so fast that most viewers can’t take it all in, then do you really need all the exposition in the first place? After all, don’t you also have 90 seconds of “Previously, on Star Trek: Discovery…” before the episode even starts?
AND SPEAKING OF TALKING…
Most of the time, it’s much more interesting when the characters DO something rather than just SAY something But let’s take a look at the major confict resolutions of this episode:
- Ndoye realizes the error of her ways – Michael tells her that Tarka took Book hostage and Rillak tells Ndoye that communication with the 10-C was working. Ndoye sees the light.
- Tarka realizes the error of his ways – Thanks to a pep talk from Reno and Book, Tarka begins to soften just a little…soft enough for Book to knock him out (I guess that counts as doing something). Then another pep talk convinces Tarka to use the ship’s remaining energy to transport Book to Discovery and save him while Tarka either sacrifices himself or else gets reunited with Oros—we’re never told (or shown) which…and honestly, I don’t much care. But Tarka sees the light.
- Species 10-C realizes the error of their ways – First of all, I need to say that the “translator” improved REALLY quickly from 5+4=9 to translating, “Our appearances and experiences differ, yet we all seek happiness, freedom, security, equality.” That’s a lot of words from just a few short conversations using sixteen hydrocarbons and a bunch of blinky lights as a guide! But hey, it’s enough to convince the 10-C to stop drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge or setting off DMAs near planets populated with sentient life. So Species 10-C sees the light. Oh, and they return Book back to Michael with minimal late fees. (Book return…get it?)
- Species 10-C realizes the error of their ways, part two – With Book back, it’s time for him to have his turn to give a speech. And he takes the 10-C even further. After a thousand years of powering their hyperfield to protect themselves, two minutes of impassioned speech from Book is enough to make them completely drop their only way of effectively defending their race. And in case you didn’t catch it, Book mentions that building walls won’t protect you. One assumes that Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the U.S. are not on the same page as Book when it comes to building walls.
IT WASN’T ALL BAD EITHER
Believe it or not, I can say a few nice things about this episode, too. So let me go on record with the following compliments…
The scenes with Tilly and Vance were excellent...
Let’s face it, there wasn’t much that Tilly and Vance were going to get to do this episode other than give the audience a chance to see the jeopardy going on back on the homefront. Of course, Tilly and Vance both need to appear heroic, strong leaders amidst what is surely mass planetwide panic. And those scenes were decent, albeit predictable and expected.
However, then comes the ominous quiet as the inevitable end approaches. Leaving Tilly alone with Vance to share a quiet, introspective moment over whiskey (what, no scotch?), provided a fascinating bookend to the Tilly character arc on Discovery. And remember that this episode was written at a point when no one on the production knew whether or not Discovery would be renewed for a fifth season…so this could very well have been the SERIES finale!
Seen in this way, Tilly’s arc is pretty amazing to think about. Four years ago, she was an awkward cadet, almost afraid of her own shadow, and completely intimated by officers of higher rank. She would stammer, talk too much, and make inappropriate attempts at jokes. And while not as memorable, Tilly also struggled to relate to her mother.
Now, as Tilly’s apparent swansong on Discovery arrives, she is talking one-on-one with the commanding admiral of Starfleet, calmly and confidently, as an equal. She has no regrets and feels her life has found purpose and meaning. She even acknowledges her mother’s love. And Vance shares things with Tilly, as well, in what they assume will be their final moments.
It was a band-on-the-Titanic scene, providing a brief, unexpected respite for the viewer from the dramatic tension and chaos going on elsewhere. Book had just “died,” and so this gave the audience a short pause to process that before getting back to the dramatic tension with the 10-C.
“Ending” the series—just in case—was nice to see…
As I said, the writers didn’t know if they would be getting a fifth season, so this episode had to wrap things up with a pretty bow. And it did. While I felt there was a little too much “everybody gets a puppy!” in the episode, the fact is that most of these folks have gone through absolute hell for four seasons, almost non-stop. So while I know some fans think there has been too much hugging on this starship (“It’s not very military!” they say…although maybe a little more hugging would mean a little less PTSD?—just sayin’), I think they earned this one…just like Kirk and crew jumping into San Francisco Bay after rescuing the whales (and Earth) at the end of Star Trek IV earned a little celebration. Give ’em a victory lap, folks!
Oh, and give ’em a vacation, too. In the long history of Star Trek, vacations/shore leave have been mentioned and show many times, from Kirk, Spock, and McCoy at Yosemite National Park to Picard (and others) visiting Risa to Ben Sisko taking some time off to go home to New Orleans. The Discovery crew, though, seems to get no time off. So taking a few moments at the end of the episode to show the crew planning some long-awaited shore leave was very humanizing and welcome.
My only complaint (and yeah, I said I wasn’t going to complain in this section) was that, once again, the writers chose to TELL us this (rather than show it) during a two minute long voice-over montage that provided yet more exposition to wrap up whatever loose ends were remaining: the 10-C cleaning up their mess, the crew getting much-needed R&R, Saru and T’Rina getting their relationship going, Book off to Europa for community service, and the Federation once again growing and thriving.
Granted, this long voice-over was also intended to potentially wrap up the entire series, so it was understandable that they would do something like this. But telling us about their vacation planning rather than showing it was, for me, a little less satisfying.
SO YOU THINK YOU COULD DO BETTER, JONATHAN?
Back in college, working as a summer intern at the Ogilvy & Mather Direct advertising agency, my supervisor once told me: “Jonathan, if you don’t have a better suggestion, then you don’t really have a right to criticize someone else’s idea.”
But fans do that a lot with Star Trek (and other sci-fi). We certainly know what we DON’T like, and we’re not shy about sharing those opinions! But seldom do we make specific suggestions about how to fix the problems we complain about. At best our suggestions are vague. “Make it more like real Star Trek …” or some such undefined direction.
So allow me to buck the trend and suggest some more specific ways this episode could have been better, and see if you agree…
Show more of the actual destruction of Ni’Var and Earth
Yes, the sky was falling (literally), but all we saw were a bunch of extras running around in the background of Starfleet HQ’s ops center. I realize that showing millions of people on the surface of Earth and Ni’var and Titan running for their lives would quickly blow the budget. But maybe show at least a few groups of extras beaming up and being quickly hurried to holding areas on some ships or even in other parts of Starfleet HQ (if you don’t want to build new sets). Or show some meteorites getting through Earth’s shield and hitting a city or two. If you want us to feel the impending doom headed for these planets and colonies, show us, don’t just tell us about what’s happening down there as we watch from space.
Give the 10-C some motivation
I’m still left wondering why the 10-C were so scared and paranoid in the first place. Aren’t you? A couple of weeks ago, I predicted that they has been hunted by other races—or rather, their children were—because their “love” hydrocarbons were a powerful narcotic. Heck, this was even foreshadowed with Culber remembering the peace he felt briefly inhaling those particles on the 10-C planet, and how he so desperately wanted to feel like that again. Imagine other species a thousand years ago destroying 10-C nurseries just to harvest the purest form of the “love” dust directly from the babies. How horrible! But if you wanted motivation for being so terrified that they’d need to build a hyperfield around their entire solar system to protect themselves (and power it), that would be very believable. Without it, Species 10-C are just oil drillers who don’t realize how much damage their efforts are doing to the environment. And conveniently, a two-minute speech from Book convinces them to stop and come out of hiding. Think that’d work here on Earth in 2022?
Make T’Rina the translator
Considering all the challenges in communicating last episode, the sudden effectiveness of their translator seemed extremely implausible to me. But what if, instead, T’Rina’s telepathy was the communications conduit? I know the episode briefly touched on just that, but imagine if that was the only way they could break the language barrier? But because the 10-C use emotions to speak, the stress on T’Rina’s psyche would be excruciating. Saru could protest, promising to find another way to communicate, but there would be no time. T’Rina would show her bravery in volunteering, and Saru would be stressed out the whole time. Eventually she passes out or screams or cries or something, and Saru begs Michael to tell T’Rina to stop because it’s destroying the woman he loves. But T’Rina manages to compose herself just long enough to acknowledge her love of Saru, and takes strength from him to hold onto her “self” as she sinks deeper into the overwhelming mind-meld. T’Rina becomes the sacrifice, although she could just barely make it through and need Saru and his love to help her recover back to full health. Wouldn’t that have felt more satisfying than their 90-second conversation standing at the window and then looking at the flowers at the end during Michael’s voice-over?
Choose a villain and stick with him or her (or them)
I know it’s cliche, but audiences love to root against a villain. Unfortunately, the writers fell into the trap of falling in love with Ruon Tarka, and so he went from being a dastardly, irredeemable bad-guy to becoming a crying, self-sacrificing hero at the end. But what if Tarka had simply gone off the deep end, a religious zealot who believed he was going to heaven to be with his loved one, and damn anybody who tried to stop him? That way, Reno could have done something more than talk and watch everything (her character was kind of wasted in this episode). And maybe Ndoye could have managed to get on board and help subdue Tarka. Imagine if it had taken the three of them acting together to take out Tarka, Reno was the one who tried to engineer a solution, and with time running out, she found she couldn’t. Someone has to pilot the ship away (or whatever), and Reno is going to do it. But Book (not Tarka) becomes the one to nobly sacrifice himself in order to get the others back (while Michael tries to get a transporter lock on him), and BOOM! Suddenly, Book’s “getting off with a slap on the wrist” for helping to nearly destroy two Federation planets might feel a little more appropriate.
Anyway, woulda-shoulda-coulda. Discovery season four is now complete. And as many complaints as I’ve had these past few episodes, I still maintain that this was their strongest season so far. On the other hand, that’s like saying, “Well, it’s the largest state in New England.” (Non-Americans and people who were bad at geography might not get that joke, so here’s a map.)
However, I still plan to watch season five. And if Paramount+’s announced Starfleet Academy series starts airing starring MARY WISEMAN as Instructor Tilly, I’ll watch that, too.
I watch because, even when a Star Trek series struggles, I’m still a fan. And to me, Star Trek means HOPE. Discovery did get better as more episodes were produced. Perhaps that trend will continue. I still believe in a place called Hope.
Until next season, my friends…