HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Season 4’s premiere certainly promises an interesting season, even if some of the story beats felt a touch rushed in the episode’s hour long runtime. “Kobyashi Maru” structures Michael Burnham’s first run in the Big Chair as an exploration of just how far she still has to go to be a good captain, but the episode acknowledges that she isn’t on the only one. Saru also continues to struggle with his competing desires to return and make a home of Kaminar and to return to his home on Discovery. Sylvia Tilly, now a lieutenant, too must decide who and where she wants to be in this rockier future, and Book will have to work through a significant amount of personal tragedy. “Kobayashi Maru” sets a number of themes in motion, the way a good premiere should, and while it is very definitely a premiere, the episode still manages to be a solid episode in its own right. Buckle up, folks. Season four is going to be some kind of ride.
The episode opens with Burnham and Book attempting to make a second First Contact, a state of affairs that must be the Federation’s new normal, with the Alshain, a species of humanoid “butterfly people.” The Alshain seem skeptical of Burnham’s promises of “no strings attached” aid from the Federation, and once they discover Grudge, their paranoia ratchets up to outright hostility. Burnham and Book turn and run to avoid being shot, but Burnham refuses to return fire, despite Book’s better judgment. While fleeing, Burnham deduces that the Alshain cannot seem to fly correctly, and she enlists her crew’s aid to determine why that might be. Stamets, Tilly, and Adira conclude that the satellites the Alshain have been using to compensate for the planet’s shifting poles, which they use to navigate during flight, have shut down due to a lack of power. Burnham orders the satellites repaired, while she and Book run to the ship. Once aboard, they gift the Alshain with dilithium, and the Alshain Emperor thanks them for their generosity in the face his people’s violent reception. Burnham reiterates that the Federation will render aid, “no strings attached.”
The Discovery returns to Federation headquarters so that Burnham can not only attend the reopening of Starfleet Academy but also introduce the Federation President as the guest speaker. She confesses to mistrusting President Laira Rillak before saying goodbye to Book. He leaves to return to Kwejian to attend his nephew’s coming of age ceremony. On Kaminar, the governing council, comprised of both Kelpiens and Ba’ul, discuss how best to use the Federation’s gifted dilithium. Undecided, they turn to the Great Elder to hear his words of wisdom, and the Great Elder reveals himself to be Saru. Saru recommends that they look to the stars rather than solely focusing on their own people. Su’kal recognizes that Saru wishes to return to Discovery, and he asks Saru to do just that.
Admiral Vance calls Burnham in to see him because Starfleet has received a distress call from a distant repair station. He orders Burnham to take the Discovery to go and render aid. President Rillak informs Burnham that she plans to accompany the Discovery. Burnham protests, but Rillak overrules her. Vance reminds Burnham that the President technically doesn’t need Burnham’s permission.
Book fares better, having been welcomed with open arms by Kyheem. He, Kyheem, and Kyheem’s son Leto go to the world tree, which will be the site of the ceremony. Kyheem asks Book to do the honors, and Book conducts the ceremony. He explains to Leto that the tree’s roots run all the way through Kwejian and that the sap Leto will carry in the pendant he will receive connects him to Kwejian. Book adds his blood to the pendant so that Leto will carry his family with him as well, which is why Leto must never remove his pendant. Leto asks why Book lacks a pendant of his own, and Kyheem informs his son that the story of Book’s pendant is one for another day. As Leto runs off to join his friends, something disturbs the birds.
Discovery drops back into regular space and finds the station spinning wildly out of control. After deducing that a gravimetric disturbance caused all of the station’s problems, Burnham orders Tilly and Adira to beam over with programmable matter to help the station’s commander, Nalas, and his crew make the necessary repairs. However, frozen methane begins pelting the station and the Discovery, so Burnham changes the mission parameters from repairing the station to evacuating it. Circumstances prevent use of the transporters, so Adira, Tilly, and Nalas gather up the crew and move to an escape vehicle. Unfortunately, wreckage from the damaged station prevents the vehicle from leaving. Detmer suggests that she take a vehicle to go and remove the debris, but Burnham says she’ll do it. Rillak asks if that’s the best choice, and Burnham says that she believes it is.
Burnham takes the vehicle over and gets most of the debris dislodged, but more debris strikes her vehicle, destroying it. An emergency EVA suit deploys, and Burnham heads to the site to remove the remaining blockage by hand. On the station, Nalas begins to panic and wants to try something else, but Tilly reminds him that doing so would be fatal. Nalas disagrees and pulls a phaser on Tilly. Rillak talks him down by reminding him of his homeworld, and Burnham finishes her task, meaning the vehicle can depart. The station’s crew boards and departs for the Discovery, leaving Tilly, Adira, and Nalas behind. The vehicle discharges its burden and returns, but the debris has begun coming faster. With Discovery running short on power, the ship runs the risk of destruction, but Burnham orders Discovery to remain in order to give Tilly, Adira, and Nalas time to board the vehicle and return to Discovery. Rillak expresses her disagreement, and Burnham demands to know if Rillak plans to remove her from command. Rillak demurs.
Back on Kwejian, Book has been circling the planet in his ship to try and ascertain what disturbed the birds, but he can find nothing. Kyheem calls him home for supper just as the space around Kwejian begins to warp. Something strikes Book’s ship, and the last thing we see in the viewscreen is the planet beginning to break apart.
Flashing back to the station, the escape vehicle makes it back to the station, and the three Starfleet officers rush aboard. As the vehicle departs, power runs out, and Burnham orders the ship to prep for Black Alert. Just before the vehicle can enter Discovery’s shuttle bay, debris hits it, but the vehicle makes it far enough for Discovery to leave regular space. After a short jump, Discovery drops back into regular space to perform repairs and ascertain the extent of the damage. In the shambles of the shuttle bay, Culber finds Adira and Tilly fine, but Nalas has perished. Rillak finds Burnham in her ready room, reflecting on the ship’s losses—three dead and four wounded. Rillak reminds Burnham that ten survived to go home. She also explains that Burnham cannot save everyone and must learn to accept certain losses, invoking the Kobayashi Maru. Rillak has removed Burnham from her short list of commanders to take on the new Voyager with its second-generation spore drive.
Burnham disagrees, but the arrival of Book’s damaged ship forces her to pause their discussion. Book tells Burnham that something has happened to Kwejian. Owo inputs the planet’s coordinates, but there’s no sign of the planet. Rhys scans farther afield and finds the planet light-years from where it should be. The Discovery goes to investigate and finds all that remains of Kwejian, and Book realizes that he’s all that’s left of his world.
“Kobayashi Maru” provides an explosive season opener for Discovery’s season four in a literal sense as the production did not skimp on the pyrotechnics. However, it also sets up a conflict between Burnham and Chelah Horsdal’s Federation President that promises to follow Burnham throughout the course of season four, flowing in a nice parallel to the one between Vance and Burnham last season. In many ways, the conflict between Burnham and Rillak stems from the same root issue, Burnham’s recklessness, and I’m really looking forward to seeing season four finally address that issue. Rillak makes her case extremely well, and it’s important that she argues that Burnham is not yet ready and not that she never will be. Despite Burnham’s accomplishments to this point, Burnham has not truly been in command. She has relied mostly on herself, but she does not hesitate to risk everyone in desperate gambles. Thus far, she’s been lucky, as Book reminds her. Rillak reminds her that her luck may run out, forcing Burnham to make the hard call.
This is not new ground for Trek. Troi found herself sending a holographic La Forge to his death in “Thine Own Self” as she struggled with the Bridge Officer’s Test. The lesson there was the same one that Rillak believes Starfleet intended the Kobayashi Maru to teach, and she’s correct that Burnham has not yet internalized that lesson. Rillak is also correct that this is a matter of experience, but Burnham isn’t yet ready to hear that. I suspect we’ll see more development on that theme as the season progresses.
I also hope to see more of Rillak because she’s a fascinating character. Burnham immediately believes that she’s just a politician, someone there to check boxes and make speeches. However, Rillak demonstrates that she’s more than that. There’s an entire world of experience hidden behind her simple statement that she flew cargo for her father, and Burnham, having survived for a year in the post-Burn future on her own, should appreciate what Rillak is trying to tell her. She doesn’t, however, as she’s too wrapped up in her own issues to listen. Burnham thinks too much in black and white, right now, whereas Rillak operates in a much greyer world. That’s why Burnham demands to know if Rillak has read Nalas’ file, because the idea of objective truth matters to Burnham. Rillak pointedly asks her if that’s what really matters in this moment, and Burnham has no answer.
Importantly, the episode allows Rillak to demonstrate her competence in the face of Burnham’s mistrust, lending additional credence to Rillak’s analysis of Burnham as a captain. In what could have been a teaching moment, Rillak tells Burnham that she has learned to meet people and circumstances where they are, and she does just that. Rillak so unsettles Burnham that she reverts to her Vulcan upbringing. Discussing herself as the “logical” choice to go and remove the debris reflects that reversion, and her posture even shifts to that impossibly perfect Vulcan straightness in a fantastic moment of physical acting by Sonequa Martin-Green. Rillak picks up on that shift which is why she later adopts Vulcan language regarding the needs of the many versus the needs of the few. She’s trying to meet Burnham the same way she met Nalas, revealing herself to be a savvy and capable leader as well as a solid antagonist for Burnham.
Su’kal exhibits similar savvy when he reminds Saru that Saru’s life doesn’t have to involve choosing between Kaminar and Discovery or Su’kal and Burnham. He reminds his adoptive father that he can balance these competing desires. Saru tells him that “One cannot have all the lives one desires,” and he’s right so long as one conceives of these lives as being mutually exclusive. Su’kal reminds him that they don’t have to be. If asked to guess, I think that’s how season four is going to address the tension between Burnham and Rillak. Yes, Burnham should lead with the intention to bring everyone home, but that intent must be tempered with reality. Just as Sarum must learn to let Su’kal stand on his own feet, so too, must Burnham learn to step back and let others accept the risks inherent in their lives as Starfleet officers. Even if balance does not turn out to be one of season four’s big, unifying themes, “Kobayashi Maru” makes a good case for its necessity.
The episode also explores family and the importance of interconnection as themes. Su’kal acknowledges explicitly that Saru has become his family. While Stamets and Culber haven’t quite yet done the same with Adira, their concern for Adira clearly falls into the paternal category. Even Vance gets to reconnect with his family. Of everyone, Tilly remains alone, and it’s so hard to see her struggling to figure out what’s next for her in that vacuum. Perhaps she’ll bond with Book who is, after the destruction of Kwejian, just as much an orphan as the rest of the crew. I certainly look forward to seeing how these emotional scars will impact them as the season progresses.
Even if I’m getting tired of watching planets get destroyed in Star Trek, “Kobayashi Maru” has me really excited about season four.
Four Cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- In case you’re wondering, the Trekker’s Delight livestream is still tonight, so watch the Unimatrix 47 twitter feed for more information on that.
- So much of this episode reminds me of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The Alshain sequence calls back to the Nibiru, but they also share similar themes about the impact of experience on the captaincy.
- This episode is possibly the most quotable I’ve seen yet. “Why is there always a cliff?” “Do we honor our interconnection?” There’s so much good writing in this episode.
- Y’all! We saw a tribble move under its own power!
- The Archer Space Dock moment featured one of the musical themes from Enterprise, which was a nice touch.
- While I like the message contained in Burnham offering aid to the Aslhain on the Federation’s behalf, something about the “we’ll help you even if you don’t want our help” feel about the whole endeavor made me slightly uncomfortable. Yes, the Federation means well, but respecting species’ autonomy is important, too. The Federation and Star Trek in general haven’t always been great about respecting that line.
- Newly promoted Ensign Adira is adorable when she channels her inner Tilly.
- Gray is going to get a body, which we knew from Culber’s log on Instagram. Wanna bet the cyberneticist will be a Soong?
- Burnham’s dress uniform reminds me of the Monster Maroon. Speaking of uniforms, I like the redesign. It feels very much like a throwback to the original series while maintaining the TNG-era color change.
- With regard to the controversy, I’m updating the hashtags for these columns to include “spoilers” to protect international viewers as they can no longer watch simultaneously with U.S. viewers.