This review contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season four, which are available on Paramount+, or on Pluto TV internationally beginning November 26th, 2021. The first four episodes of the season were watched for review.
In the fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery, a horrible anomaly could pose a threat to anyone, and little is known about what the nature of the occurrence might be, or whether there’s anything that can possibly be done about it.
But against this dramatic and large-scale backdrop, Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, who also gets a Producer credit this season) must continue to boldly lead her crew into the unknown… even as those closest to her face their own personal demons, which just might lead them down different paths than Burnham herself must follow.
Everyone Looks Incredible
But first, let’s discuss the incredible uniforms! When I attended the virtual premiere of Disco‘s fourth season last week, the chat was filled with positive reactions to the new outfits worn by the crew in this season, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
Remember how for the last few season of The Next Generation, Picard’s uniform was hardly ever buttoned up? Well, in this season of Discovery, the uniforms are essentially the polar opposite of that: sleek, stylish, and colorful, everyone looks incredible – the costume department has really outdone themselves, and you will notice.
The costumes have been an element of the season that I have personally been excited about since the very first trailer, and rest assured that they deliver in a big way (with loads more potential for incredible outfits later in the season… I’m crossing my fingers for dress uniforms).
Disco Promotions All Around
I also enjoyed the fact that, after the climax of the previous season, everyone on the Disco’s bridge crew has received a promotion. This is an excellent choice, one that underscores that the hard work and efforts of individuals should be duly recognized (and an antidote to those of us who are still smarting over the unfair treatment of certain characters when it comes to promotions in past series – justice for Harry Kim).
And while there’s no question that Burnham earned her position as Captain of the Discovery (earned it a long time ago, in fact), there is still the thorny issue of how to handle Saru (Doug Jones). This character has undergone some incredible development since his first appearance in the pilot of the series, and it is a delight to see him sharing scenes with Burham again – and furthermore, bringing him back on-board as Burnham’s number one is a clever and well-executed way to ensure “Mr. Saru” (great nickname) is on the bridge, allowing his excellent perspective to inform the crew’s decision-making.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Tilly (Mary Wiseman). She has long had her sights set on the Captain’s chair, and this promotion is just what she wanted… right? With the oppressive expectations of her mother nearly a millennia in the past, Tilly finds herself facing a personal crisis. However, seeing how she copes with her nuanced emotional journey is handled well, giving her the chance to work through her concerns with other members of the Disco crew.
Meanwhile, Adira (Blu del Barrio) has been promoted to the rank of Ensign (Lower Decks! Lower Decks! Lower Decks!). This leads to an important storyline for them, as they must learn how to better connect with other Ensigns (and other people in Starfleet in general). While they might be pretty comfortable being themselves when they’re around Gray (Ian Alexander), who has literally been sharing their headspace for the past season, connecting with other people represents Adira’s undiscovered country. Fortunately, both of these subplots are given due time to develop, with Gray’s story taking on a life of its own.
Legitimate Trans Rep
An essential element of this season is the continuation of the story of Gray. In the second episode of the season, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) is hard at work building a body for Gray, so that he can leave the body of Adira (Blu del Barrio) and instead have a body of his own.
This subplot succeeds on multiple levels. First of all, there’s continuity: this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Soong’s technology be used to build a body for a human (although Culber informs us that the success we saw in Picard was somewhat unusual, making the procedure fairly rare).
Furthermore, the way Gray’s transition is handled makes sense with the existing continuity – we’ve known since the Deep Space Nine season six episode “Profit and Lace” that, thanks to Federation technology, transition is a procedure that is quick, easy, and available (with dialogue in that episode confirming that HRT continues to be utilized).
But one of the best things about Disco‘s scenes involving Gray’s new body is how adroitly they handle trans rep. Although there is plenty of fertile metaphorical ground to be mined here, with Gray opining that a body will finally allow people to “see him,” a sentiment that many trans viewers are likely to connect to their own experiences with transition, Gray’s transition is treated as a procedure that is distinct from the “building of the body.” We see Gray specifically ask Culber to accommodate his transition during the construction of his body, signifying that it is a distinct procedure.
Disco avoids a pitfall that many other science fiction stories fall into by ensuring that the fact that Gray is trans is treated as separate and distinct from his non-human characteristics. The scene sticks the landing by including Gray’s transition as an additional element of building of the body – a procedure that is entirely separate from the idea of constructing his artificial anatomy.
How do you live your life when you live in interesting times? With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic looking more and more like it may be a permanent fixture on our planet, it’s a question that should regularly loom large in all our minds. In the fourth season of Disco, the characters are facing a similar question as they grapple with the Anomaly, which has already caused untold devastation to some members of the crew (and which could strike anywhere else at any time – no one is safe).
Disco answers this question by affirming that, even in the face of such dramatic circumstances and unlikely odds, we must continue to do what’s most important: to continue to expand our scientific knowledge, to turn our attention inwards and continue to work on ourselves, and to reach outwards and connect with others (even when others make that more difficult than it seems like it should be, as Captain Burnham and Book (David Ajala) experienced in the opening sequence of the fourth season premiere).
However, it would be impossible to discuss the realities of a situation like this without examining loss, and Book experiences devastating tragedy in the very first episode. What follows is a careful and tender examination of how he copes (or, in some cases, does not cope) with the horrible occurrence that has befallen his homeworld.
In particular, I appreciate that this subplot doesn’t over-simplify Book’s struggle to accept the tragedy, even allowing him to backslide in a way that calls to mind the fact that healing from loss rarely takes the form of a straight line. Furthermore, it makes it clear that healing is a process that takes place not just within Book, but between Book and his fellow crewmembers, many of which step up to the plate in order to offer their assistance as Book mourns his family and planet.
But while devastating loss and crushing uncertainty may be unavoidable, Disco sends the message that building something with one another is still worthwhile. One of the concrete ways that this season models this philosophy of continuing to build in the face of adversity is the re-launch of Starfleet Academy.
As we see in the first episode of the fourth season, the Academy is being revitalized – an important development, which, along with inauguration of the Archer Spacedock, demonstrates that Starfleet is drawing inspiration from the past as they look towards the future, all in spite of the setbacks it has undergone. It has indeed been a long road, getting from there to here, but these developments make it clear that those within Starfleet are not ready to give up yet.
While many worlds may continue to be skeptical of the Federation and question whether or not it is possible to unite across planets, Disco has an answer for those who might consider abandoning the Starfleet mission in the face of this adversity: hope still exists and connection is still possible, but the only way we can achieve that is through hard work (including on ourselves) and by striving to better understand those who are different and/or disagree with you.
It seems like it’s a simple message, but it’s not: just look outside your window if you need confirmation. But Star Trek: The Original Series was borne of the late 1960s, with its optimism intentionally offering a counterbalance to the political and social uncertainty of the time. Disco continues that ethos as we head into the middle of the very uncertain 2020s.
Disco Season Four Now Streaming
“Our prime obligation to ourselves is to make the unknown know,” said Gene Roddenberry. “We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are.”
The fourth season of Disco takes this sentiment to heart, foregrounding the characters’ journeys to discover the unknown in the depths of space, within themselves, and within one another. Furthermore, the series recognizes that these goals remain important – and perhaps even essential – in the face of the Anomaly, or whatever horrifying uncertainly might be lurking just outside your front door.
Disco’s fourth season never suggests that getting to the future will be easy, but it does demonstrate that it will be worthwhile. And hey – it might be worth it just for those incredible uniforms.