The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, S4E5, “The Examples” (written by Kyle Jarrow and directed by Lee Rose)
Occasionally Star Trek will grapple with difficult decisions, moral quandaries about life and rights that have deep meaning in real situations. Sometimes the show boils the answers down to something a bit too simplistic. But, even with that caveat, this is often where the franchise shines. By allowing the Captain to consider these quandaries and then make a decision that is difficult and sometimes even questionable, it allows the shows to have a resonance they wouldn’t have if it was all Starship battles and alien hostility.
In Star Trek: Discovery S4E5, Captain Bunham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is faced with one of those decisions. The Discovery has been sent to lead an evacuation of a mining colony and six of the people are locked away in a prison, doomed by the Emerald Chain adjacent leaders to die with the colony if the Anomaly erupts. Several regular characters, such as Lt. Commanders Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Owosekun (Oyin Oledejo) are not on the bridge, and do not appear in the episode due to real life filming protocols, so there are a bunch of new shifts in place—and a computer message informing everyone that shifts are all changing— and new characters everywhere.
This does mean we get to spend a little more time with the main bridge crew members who are still around. Some backstory and development is finally given to Lt. Commander Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon). It turns out Rhys was saved from a similar type of event by the Federation when he was young and is driven to help these people. I like the idea of Discovery slowly doling out more and more about all of the crew members, even if it still never gives them the full focus that would really make them seem essential.
While Rhys leads the actual mission, Burnham will not accept this obviously immoral plan to let the prisoners die, so she and Book (David Ajala) go on a mission to save the prisoners. It would have been interesting to see the Captain grapple with whether it is right to go against the laws of the culture they are assisting at all, but unlike say Captain Picard, it was always clear that Burnham was going to break that rule. The society is also led by a breakoff of last season’s big bad, the Emerald Chain, so the rules and regulations are considered wrong by everyone. All of the action and decisions are rather cut and dry until Burnham and Book get into the prison and are faced with some additional challenges from the prisoners themselves.
The prisoners refuse to be saved unless Burnham grants them asylum under the Federation. It turns out that the prisoners have been locked away for life no matter what their offense. To serve as “The Examples” for the rest of the colony. The morality of releasing the prisoners is never in question, it would have been again to the show’s credit to have at least some of them deserve their sentences and while obviously still deserving to be saved, maybe be trying to manipulate the situation in such a way that rescuing them would have caused some danger or pain. Instead there was only one right answer, and Burnham was able to avoid even running afoul of regulations by finding the specific diplomatic fine print to save them.
Thankfully, the plotline wasn’t quite that straightforward as, after the others leave, Felix (Michael Greyeyes) the leader of the prisoners, informs Burnham that he is in prison for murder and wishes to stay and fulfill his sentence. Burnham has to decide whether she will force him to leave anyway, or allow him to essentially commit suicide by gravitational anomaly. In the end, she allows him to follow his wishes. Unfortunately, this leads to about a five minute long speech from Felix to the whole Discovery crew about how sorry he was for what he did and how he wants to make amends. The speech and redemption narrative could have worked, but something felt off about all of it, and there was something off putting about having this particular character played by a Native American actor that plays into long time stereotypes (that Star Trek has long had a hand in perpetuating).
The far more effective and entertaining part of Star Trek: Discovery S4E5 is the continued focus on Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and his crisis of faith. Culber is losing his ability to help everyone find the positive aspects of life and to work through their trauma because he is becoming overworked and overwhelmed. We get to see him have his own therapy session with Dr. Kovich (David Cronenberg), which is a great scene cutting through all of Culber’s nonsense. Cronenberg has been a great addition to Star Trek: Discovery because of his minimalist, no nonsense approach to acting and this character cuts through so much of the artifice and constructed personality of the other characters. In this case he bluntly tells Culber that he feels guilty for being brought back to life when no one else gets a second chance. But that guilt will cause him to hurt everyone if he doesn’t take a break.
There is real significance to this exchange for the audience too. All of us are trying to keep afloat in a world that has been shaken to its core and that has us on edge and engaged in a harrowing amount of work and psychological pain at all times. In order to truly live, we have to be able to let go. Wilson Cruz always plays Culber as sympathetic and relatable, but the flashes of intensity here, first anger at Kovich for this assessment and then realization at its truth, are really exceptional work. We all can relate to Culber and his pains because they are the pains we all face, and Cruz is able to make that seem even more real in his performance.
Finally, Star Trek: Discovery S4E5 actually spends some time working to resolve the main season issue of the anomaly itself (which has been coined the Dark Matter Anomaly, DMA, on the show, so I’m going to start referring to it as such). Starfleet has sent in one of their big wig scientists, Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) to help Commander Stamets (Anthony Rapp) figure out what the DMA actually is. Tarka is a classic Star Trek archetype, the self-absorbed, obnoxious, brilliant scientist. Which is sort of Stamets’s place as well and it is always fun to see Stamets have to confront that side of himself. Also, and most importantly, they are assisted by none other than Jett Reno (Tig Nataro) as they do their experiments.
Nataro was not able to film with the rest of the cast for most of the season, so it seems likely Reno’s scenes will be fleeting, but the character brings a welcome blast of humor and humanity to the proceedings every time she appears. Eventually Tarka and Stamets make some progress with the DMA by creating a scale model and nearly blowing up the ship. Which is only saved by Reno and Mr. Saru (Doug Jones) being on hand to stop the madness. Tarka also reveals himself to have way too much knowledge about the anomaly, and to have been a servant of whoever created it at some point, so real progress in the area seems to have been made.
Star Trek: Discovery S4E5 is probably not Discovery at its best, but it was still an episode filled with exceptional moments and great Easter eggs. That is the great thing about the run of the show now that it finally seems to have found its place and footing in the universe, and in the Star Trek canon, even when it is a little off, it is still exceptionally well crafted. As the season moves into the second half Star Trek: Discovery has set itself up to explore some interesting questions about civilization and the crew.