'Discovery' fully clicks into the philosophy of Star Trek with its fourth season finale

The franchise loves its humanism.


The following contains minor spoilers for season four, episode 14 of 'Star Trek: Discovery.'

Season four has been an interesting one for Star Trek: Discovery. The show finally embraced a more episodic format, only to slide back into an ongoing storyline in the back half of the season. But today’s finale once again promises a return to the things that make Star Trek, well, Star Trek. And, while Discovery also made those promises at the end of last season, there’s more reason to believe that this time the changes will stick.

It starts with the fact that while the major threat this season began as a spatial anomaly (known as the Dark Matter Anomaly, or “DMA”), it was discovered to be merely a harvesting tool used by a previously unknown species, one the Federation calls the 10C. It may have seemed harmless to the 10C in its role as farmers, but the Federation found itself in the role of a rabbit in front of a plow. The DMA destroyed Kwejian; both Ni’Var (née Vulcan) and Earth were next.

The crew of the Discovery on the bridge

In previous seasons this would have shifted Starfleet into action hero mode, and some characters did advocate for a more assertive and violent approach. But instead of merely jumping into the fray we got lots of… arguing. This may not sound exciting, but it’s always been one of the things Star Trek does best: people discussing conflicting ideas. Some advocated for a peaceful solution and that was ultimately the course decided upon, since it was closest to the Federation ethos of peace and exploration. In other series this might seem like a terrible idea, but Trek is supposed to be, in theory, a utopia. This kind of thinking is one of the cornerstones of the franchise.

There are those who disagree, spearheaded by Cleveland Booker and Ruon Tarka. But while their actions turn them into antagonists, they don’t become villains. We’ve seen this in previous shows like The Next Generation and Voyager, where terrorists like the Maquis were treated with empathy. In Discovery it’s even more at the forefront given Book’s status as a main character, but also the series’ ethos as the Star Trek show that’s all about feelings. While the show sometimes takes flak for all the crying, here the emotional elements feel well balanced, with everyone’s motives clearly articulated both to each other and to the audience. It’s easy to understand each character even if you disagree.

And understanding is the lynchpin of the plot here; the 10C are not carbon-based lifeforms and they don’t communicate like humanoids do. It’s a classic Star Trek problem, as seen in episodes like “Darmok” or “Amok Time.” So last week’s episode was dedicated to the crew and assorted ambassadors methodically working through mathematical and chemical solutions to build a working bridge language. They managed to establish to the 10C that there were problems with the DMA, opening up the door to further negotiation in this week’s episode.

“Coming Home” has a lot of meanings in the context of the actual episode. There’s the threat of the DMA heading toward Earth, there’s a number of scenes set in our solar system involving returning character Sylvia Tilly, and reconciliation between Michael Burnham and her lover Cleveland Booker, the person who grounds her in the 32nd century.

President Rillak, Michael Burnham, Adira and Paul Stamets

But there’s also meaning in that the episode is where Discovery finally reconciles itself as a Star Trek show, making its highest point of drama not the struggle to evacuate a doomed planet, or the attempts to stop Tarka’s plan, but the actual face-to-face (so to speak) discussion with the 10C. It’s nothing like the action-based approach of the Abrams films or even earlier seasons that dealt with war and time travel and evil sentient computers. It’s diplomacy. It’s a lot of talking, and sitting around and talking about feelings.

And some of those feelings are what you’d call… environmentally minded. It isn’t enough that the 10C merely stops destroying planets that house sentient life. The fact is, the DMA also creates pollution and that needs to be stopped as well. With Earth in immediate danger it seems like an unreasonable ask at the moment, but it’s also very much in the ethos of Star Trek to consider one’s general societal and galactic impact as well. The core of Star Trek is humanism and social justice, and so many classic episodes deal with issues of identity, civil rights, and environmental issues. Discovery has spent so much time dealing with one huge violent crisis after another that it hasn’t had time to do simpler humanist metaphors, and bringing that in at the end here seems to indicate a desire to deal with those issues more in upcoming seasons.

The entire denouement makes that promise: The Federation is growing in strength, the Discovery crew is taking some time off for themselves, and a very special guest toward the end seems to be the show making its politics clear to those segments of the audience who love to decry “woke Trek.” Star Trek has always been woke, but Discovery has only dipped its toe into the water in previous seasons. With its fifth season on the horizon, it’s ready to plunge fully in.