USS Discovery

Anomaly: On the Experience of Grief

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

The portrayal of grief forms the basis of my greatest ongoing complaint with 90s Trek. Despite attempts by the show to deal with it (I’m looking at you, “The Bonding“), these stories tend to be one and done, meaning that the characters spend precisely one episode navigating their grief process before moving on to the next adventure. Grief, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way, no matter how much we wish it did. Star Trek: Discovery has received more than its fair share of criticism for going entirely in the other direction, and while I don’t think a lot of that is deserved, I do think “Anomaly” represents a true exploration of grief on a level we’ve never seen from the franchise before. Star Trek’s best story telling focuses on its people and how they work together, and “Anomaly” takes that tradition and pushes it forward by allowing its characters to be people in a way we’ve never seen before.

Plot Ahoy!

“Anomaly” opens with Book sitting in his ship, drowning in grief and shock at the loss of Kwejian. The screen flashes to images of Kyheem and Leto as Book appears to be reliving his experience of Kwejian’s last moments. Michael Burnham attempts to offer comfort, but Book remains unmoved. Later, in her Ready Room, Burnham greets a returned Saru with pleasure. He asks if she’ll take him as her first officer, and she happily accepts. Later, Discovery’s brain trust attends a briefing featuring President Rillak of the Federation, President T’Rina of Ni’Var, and at least one other head of state and offers their theory that the anomaly responsible for the destruction of Kwejian is a pair of binary black holes.

Having ascertained that the anomaly should appear in the Riscot system next, Discovery jumps into place in order to scan it for more information. However, while the anomaly still presents as a black hole, the gravitational Doppler shift is more powerful than it should be, which renders their initial plan for data acquisition unworkable. Book suggests taking his ship into the accretion cloud to collect the data, and Burnham, worried about Book’s mental state objects. Book asks to speak with Burnham privately and informs her that as he isn’t a member of Starfleet, he’s not bound by her decision. He’ll go whether she wants him to do so or not.

In Sick Bay, Gray, Adira, and Dr. Culber all crowd around the body Culber has constructed for Gray. Gray admits to feeling guilty for his happiness, but Culber explains that life must continue, even in the face of such horrific devastation. Gray asks Culber to remove a mole from his hand, explaining that during his first transition, he had other things on his mind but wants to make this body perfect. Culber agrees.

Saru joins Burnham in her ready room, and she talks through her decision with Saru. He validates her concerns and offers a suggestion. Saru also observes that Burnham may be obsessing over her own tragedy resulting from the crew losses in the attempt to rescue the station crew. Burnham agrees to Saru’s proposition, sidesteps his concerns about her mental state, and goes to Engineering where she tells Stamets that she wants to send him with Book on the mission as a holographic projection. She explains that Discovery will attach a programmable matter tether to Book’s ship. In the event that Book runs into more trouble than anticipated, Discovery will reel him back out of the accretion cloud via the tether. Stamets activates the transmitter and finds himself on the bridge next to a very grumpy Book who clearly views Stamets as an unnecessary minder.

They head into the cloud and discover that the debris in the accretion cloud is not particulate so much as enormous chunks. However, Discovery has her own problems as unanticipated gravitational waves slam into the ship. The waves cause damage sufficient to knock out the artificial gravity generators, and the crew quickly realizes the waves are too dangerous for Discovery to remain close enough to the anomaly for the tether to work as anticipated. Burnham asks Stamets whether he has enough data, and he tells her no. While Stamets speaks with Burnham, Book finds himself distracted by hallucinations of the young Leto running around his ship.

Stamets brings his attention back to the situation at hand, and Book recommends Discovery release the tether even though he’s effectively flying blind. Burnham complies. Stamets and Book squabble, resulting in Stamets admitting that Book reminds him of his own powerlessness to protect his family from Osyraa. Book relents, and they focus on the task at hand. Fortunately, Stamets concludes his scans, but interference renders communication with Discovery impossible. Book will have to get the data back to the ship for it to have any use, but collisions with the debris have nearly crippled his ship. Bryce suggests Book surf one of the gravimetric waves out of the cloud.

After failing his first attempt, Book loses himself in another hallucination. Burnham tries to reach him, and she does but only just. Book catches the wave on her mark this time and successfully rides it out of the cloud. Stamets assures Book that he’ll find out what caused the anomaly for Book. Back aboard Discovery, Book finally breaks down and begins to grieve the loss of his family, allowing Burnham to support him. Tilly, having asked Culber for an official counseling session regarding her own feelings of strangeness, finds Saru and informs that the anomaly changed directions while Discovery was nearby for no reason her knowledge of science can explain. Saru asks if that means they cannot predict where the anomaly will appear next, and Tilly solemnly tells him that it does.

Analysis

While it’s a touch early to opine, “Anomaly” certainly seems to be setting up these maybe black holes as a metaphor for the pandemic in which we still find ourselves. While epidemiologists could and did predict the spread of the virus, the average person’s experience of the coronavirus mirrors the Federation’s experience of the anomaly. It’s an undetectable killer that travels according to no set pattern that Tilly can as yet discern; there’s no way to predict where it will strike next. More importantly, no one can really do anything to prevent the anomaly from destroying entire planets other than hope. The anomaly is therefore an unseen terror that will now haunt everyone in the quadrant, which is why T’Rina recommends that the relevant governments prepare for civil unrest. Frightened people do not make rational decisions, and I can imagine nothing more terrifying than the knowledge that there is something out there capable of appearing out of nowhere to destroy planets. While certainly, there exist actions that people can take in order to minimize the risk of contracting the coronavirus, the lack of any real control over the situation serves as a catalyst for the anxiety and fear we’ve seen evolve over the course of the last two years. I suspect we’ll see the exact same emotions portrayed onscreen as everyone races to find a solution to the problem posed by the anomaly.

Considering this metaphorical backdrop, “Anomaly” sets up both the problem, which is comprised not only of the anomaly itself but also the damage it leaves in its wake, and also the solution, which in true Trek form is collective action. For all that “Anomaly” explores the personal and isolating nature of grief through Book’s hallucinations and self-imposed separation from those who would offer their support, the episode returns to the theme of community not as an antidote but rather as a support structure. Saru comments to Burnham that everyone must take their own path to work through grief, but significantly, he never specifies that the journey must necessarily be a solitary one.

The episode casts Stamets as a metaphorical stand-in for everyone who has ever struggled with the desire to offer support while not knowing precisely how to accomplish it, and that’s a stroke of genius. We’ve all been in that situation, and if Stamets can take Culber’s advice and reach Book in the depths of his grief, anyone can. Culber wisely tells his husband to let Book guide him as to what support Book needs. Book’s experience of grief will be unique to him, so there is no set way to offer comfort. Thus, Culber can’t tell Stamets what approach to take because there are no easy answers here, but what Stamets can do is offer his presence and his assurance that Book is not alone. He has a community on which he can call, and that’s ultimately what brings Book back to Discovery.

T’Rina’s offhand comment that the crisis currently facing the quadrant will require contributions from all allies presents another side of this theme. She immediately recognizes that everyone will have to work together to get through the coming disasters, expanding their concept of community to include everyone who lives in the affected area. I appreciated this as a callback to Saru’s argument before the council on Kaminar. Having Tilly follow in Keyla Detmer’s footsteps to call on Culber’s services as a counselor also ties in nicely with this theme because she’s pulling on the resources in her community and asking for help. Tilly doesn’t have to cope with her own mental health crisis alone any more than Book does. Even though Tilly’s story has been relegated to C-plot in “Kobayashi Maru” and “Anomaly” having her take that step represents a huge move by Trek. Yes, it’s a logical outgrowth of the franchise’s overarching themes of community, but actually showing these characters having to ask for help to process the emotional fallout from the events of their lives sets Discovery apart from all other franchise installments in the most positive of ways. I look forward to seeing how the show will continue to develop these themes.

Rating:

Four and a half cups of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. I see the reference to the final episode of Picard there. I liked the reference, but I think the show didn’t have to spell everything out quite so explicitly. We get it.
  2. Yes, they borrowed “Mr. Saru” from “Mr. Spock.”
  3. I kind of feel like Stamets was too emotionally available in this episode. Yes, he makes an awkward joke about Burnham shooting him out of an airlock last season, but where is his rage? I was expecting him to have to work through that.
  4. I love that the show’s acknowledging Adira’s issues with Gray’s death. Letting them admit that the business with Nalas brought up those feelings is right in line with the rest of the episode, but it was also a nice break from using them as comic relief.
  5. Grudge continues to be a queen.
  6. I don’t cover it above, but Burnham makes a big leap forward in this episode. She steps back and lets her people do their jobs. More importantly, she steps back and lets Book make his own decisions, and that’s growth as a captain, folks.
  7. I’m pretty sure Gray acknowledged himself as trans in this episode, and I love how it was just a matter of fact observation.
  8. I know I mentioned this in the “Kobayashi Maru” review, but I think the franchise needs to stop destroying planets. We’ve lost Romulus, parts of Qo’nos, alternate Vulcan, and now Kwejian. I don’t want planetary destruction to become a trope here. It’s serious, and it should be treated as such.
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