HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“The Examples” also feels a little slow considering the pace of the season, but the episode still manages to each into the TNG playbook for a more-or-less easily resolved moral dilemma. I do mean TNG-era quite literally, here, because the conflict shares a number of similarities with Lwaxana’s struggle in “Half a Life.” Ergo, if you find mentions of suicide triggering, please take care of yourself and possibly skip this review.
“The Examples” features two major plots, like most Star Trek episodes; the A-plot concerns Michael Burnham’s efforts to evacuate the Akaali colonists off of an asteroid that may or may not be in the path of the DMA. The B-plot features cranky Stamets working with long-time rival Tuon Tarka, a genius Risian scientist who has been working not only on the DMA but also the next-generation spore drive. There’s also a smaller C-plot that provides some resolution to Culber’s emotional arc, and I’ll address each of these below.
Burnham’s Rescue Efforts
After watching the DMA blink out of existence only to reappear elsewhere, Jett Reno and Paul Stamets deduce that the DMA is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, which increases astronomically the level of horror the DMA inspires in everyone. As a result, Starfleet Command asks Ruon Tarka to assist Stamets in his efforts to understand the DMA, over Stamets’ vociferous objections. However, the current movement model for the DMA identifies a former Emerald Chain colony as potentially being in the potential destruction zone within the next three hours. Admiral Vance deploys the Discovery to spearhead the immediate evacuation efforts.
The Discovery jumps to the asteroid, where evacuation efforts are already underway. The colony’s chief administrator capably liaises with Burnham to evacuate those few colonists remaining on the asteroid surface, and the Discovery does one final scan for lifeforms to see if anyone has been left behind. The scan reveals six people still on the surface, and when Burnham asks the administrator why those six have been left to die, he merely shrugs and explains that he sees no reason to rescue them because they’re criminals. They’ve been imprisoned to set an “example” for the rest of the population as to what will happen should they commit crimes of any severity.
Horrified, Burnham refuses to let that stand, so she and Book beam down to the asteroid’s surface and attempt to breach the prison. After some clever maneuvering, they break into the prison and find the six Examples confined to six stand-alone cells. Felix, a human-presenting entity, explains to Burnham that the colony’s punishment system is unjust and explains that everyone else has been sentenced to life imprisonment for minor crimes ranging from stealing bread to feed family members to counting cards in a tongo club. The prisoners mistrust Starfleet’s motives in rescuing them, so they initially refuse to accompany Burnham and Book back to the Discovery. Burnham stumbles onto the idea of offering the prisoners asylum, which will trigger a Federation review of their respective cases with a likely result of commuted sentences and time-served. The prisoners find that arrangement acceptable and agree to return to the ship under Federation protection.
Book and Burnham rush everyone out past the transportation barrier and have them beamed aboard the Discovery. However, Felix refuses to leave the prison, explaining that he feels that he earned his fate. Book demands that Burnham force him to come to the Discovery, but Burnham argues that they should respect Felix’s agency. Just before the DMA’s interference manifests, Burnham and Book beam to safety, though Burnham orders the Discovery to stay within comms range of Felix as long as possible. Felix asks if she’ll listen while he talks about his crime, and she agrees. Felix confesses to having murdered a man on the colony who had offered him help and a meal. He also stole the man’s lalogi orb, in which the Akaali record their family histories, which is the one item he gave Burnham for safekeeping.
The DMA approaches, and the asteroid is destroyed, with Felix still on the surface. Book is clearly unsettled by Felix’s death, but Burnham is able to return the orb to the murdered man’s daughter.
Stamets and Tarka
While the rescue mission continues in the background, Stamets and Tarka build a to-scale model of the DMA, based on the assumption that the item has a control mechanism. Stamets initially dislikes Tarka intensely because Tarka has refused to speak to him about the spore drive Stamets created, but Stamets finds his curiosity piqued by Tarka’s experiment. They work together to build their model, and despite the intense power drain, they come very, very close to recreating the DMA. However, their model requires intense amounts of power both to generate the model and also for the containment field necessary to keep the model from ripping the ship completely apart.
Saru orders them to shut the model down because the containment field weakens far too much for Saru’s liking, so he orders Reno to shut down the experiment. Tarka protests, but Stamets accepts Saru’s order with comparative equanimity. Importantly, however, Tarka’s model, as long as it lasted, acted exactly the way the DMA does, including accreting dark matter and creating a subspace rupture. Later, Stamets admits to Culber that Tarka is a genius, but his single-minded focus frightens Stamets.
Culber and Kovich
Dr. Culber schedules a meeting with the mysterious Kovich because Culber himself needs a bit of counseling. Kovich bluntly breaks down Culber’s issue, explaining that he’s struggling with being alive after having died. However, no matter how miraculous his return to life, Kovich insists that Culber is only human and therefore needs to rest and to give himself a break. Culber ruminates on Kovich’s advice, and even though he discusses it with Stamets, Culber does not make a final decision.
I have to admit that the prison-break plotline is kind of thin on substance, which is why they spend so much time on the actual break-in and discussing the technical details of the prison. The episode does a solid job of maintaining the tension, mostly due to the arbitrarily created deadline, but there’s never any real question as to whether the DMA will destroy the colony or if the balance of the prisoners will accompany Burnham and Book to Discovery. Felix, however, provides a twist to what would have otherwise been a fairly bland primary plot when he refuses to leave. Even then, the performance by Michael Greyeyes provides the necessary backbone for the story, without which the episode would slide into simple filler territory. He imbues Felix with a believable gravitas, rooted in guilt and grief, that makes his suicide hit all the harder. I do wish that there had been more time to tease out the issues of agency that Book and Burnham start to discuss, but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of that conversation because I refuse to believe that the writers are relying on a speed-run through “Half A Life.”
Book’s desperate need to save Felix and his ultimate failure to do so clearly affects him; perhaps Book now needs to save as many people from the DMA as he can in order to make up for Kwejian. If that’s the case, he will come back to Burnham to discuss whether respecting Felix’s agency was the right call. That frustration may also leave him vulnerable to Ruon Tarka’s machinations. At the episode’s conclusion, Tarka clearly angles to get face time with Book while Book grieves at the bar. Tarka, as we saw with his willingness to risk the ship’s destruction in order to test his model, lacks the empathy required for him to approach Book just to offer support. Tarka clearly has an agenda, and there’s nothing to guarantee that his pursuit of that agenda won’t result in harm to our collection of main characters. We are talking about a man who vaporized a caracal as a child, and his concern was not for the dead cat but rather for proving his theory.
Tarka serves as a brilliant foil for Stamets, showing just how far Stamets has come as a character over the course of the previous three seasons. Stamets, too, was a scientist too wrapped up in his work to bother with social niceties. Like Tarka, Stamets occupied a space outside normal crew interaction, but he’s definitely grown into a much more rounded individual. Even his pseudo-feud with Jett Reno is, at this point, an expression of friendship. When juxtaposed with Tarka’s suspect interest, the depths and quality of Stamets’ concern for Book becomes all the more apparent. The last shot we see of Stamets, he’s holding his husband’s hand after having a serious conversation about where they are emotionally. It’s a scene of connection and community that highlights Tarka’s solitude.
Tarka also serves as a warning of what could happen to both Stamets and Culber if they don’t step away from their obsessive tendencies. The episode points us in that direction by having Culber and Kovich discuss Culber’s own stress levels, and that’s a neat use for Kovich as a character. I also really like that Discovery as a show continues to engage with the very real emotional fallout tied to the DMA. Both scientists occupy the metaphorical space of the professionals rushing to find treatments for COVID in 2020, and Culber serves as a particular stand-in for the medical professionals struggling to keep pace with the pandemic’s growth. I hope the show continues to explore how both Stamets and Culber cope.
Unfortunately, despite the more solid elements in the episode, the overall weakness of the prison-break plot gives “The Examples” a midseason filler feel. Hopefully, “Stormy Weather” will offer a bit more in the way of progress.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- All of the races Vance mentions as potential DMA-creator candidates are references to greater Trek canon, which is nice.
- When we got a glimpse of the back of Tarka’s neck, did anyone else have a flashback to “Conspiracy?” I sure did. I really, really hope they aren’t bringing back the slugs.
- Also good on Burnhaam for not taking it when the Magistrate wants to complain about how the prisoners are housed with everyone else. I liked the note on grace and how he’ll need some of his own.
- I’d like to say that the colony’s penal system feels ridiculous and would be unworkable, but I’m not entirely certain I can do that and still be honest.