Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 9 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Whenever Star Trek is running short on inspiration, there’s always a reliable fallback option in the locker – recycling elements of The Wrath of Khan. Quite often, attempts to relive Trek’s finest hour fall flat (see Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek into Darkness), but sometimes the 40-year-old formula comes up trumps.
‘Rubicon’ isn’t in the same league as the classic movie, of course, but some familiar tropes ensure this episode is a significant improvement on its momentum-sapping predecessor.
As in The Wrath of Khan, a super-intelligent psychopath (Ruon Tarka) has his hands on a dangerous weapon of mass destruction, while the episode’s theatre of war (the interior of the Dark Matter Anomaly) is eerily similar to the Mutara Nebula. It’s also anchored to similar philosophical themes, with the need for compromise a neat substitute for that famous line about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. The packaging may have changed, but this is familiar territory.
After last week’s installment engineered a pointless diversion to delay an assault on the DMA, Discovery belatedly dives into the action – even though the emotionally compromised Burnham is the last person who should be dispatched to bring in her partner, Book. To be fair, the script does everything it can to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the scenario, and this is one time when embracing implausibility enhances – rather than detracts from – the drama.
Also, Admiral Vance makes the smart move of sending Burnham into the unknown with a minder. Conveniently, the new recruit is an old friend from the 23rd century, as Commander Nhan – the Barzan security officer who opted to stay behind on her homeworld in season 3 – effortlessly slips into ‘special guest star’ mode. Now working for Starfleet security, her mission brief involves making the big calls if, and when, Burnham can’t deliver.
The captain’s world-weary “let’s fly” proves her heart isn’t really in it when the ship leaves Starfleet HQ, and her sentiments are seemingly echoed by the crew. Rhys’ sympathy for Book’s cause almost causes him to come to blows with Bryce as they pilot a shuttlecraft to intercept Book, Tarka, and their dangerous payload – if Dr. Culber wasn’t on hand to use his super-charged counseling skills, things could have got nasty.
Unfortunately, the doc isn’t quite so much help when it comes to dealing with Tarka’s defense system, a ship-eating energy field so devilish that not even its creator can turn it off. If Discovery still hired old-school Trek redshirts, chances are one of them wouldn’t have made it home – luckily, everyone on this particular trip is deemed important enough for the sort of last-ditch beam out that would make Galaxy Quest proud.
While the only significant casualty is the unfortunate shuttlecraft, the incident does highlight the tensions between Book and Tarka. This was always a marriage of convenience, but ‘Rubicon’ plays up their very different motives and rules of engagement. Where the self-confident Tarka is so desperate to get home he’ll do anything to destroy the Anomaly, Book – as we’ve suspected all along – cares just as much about protecting innocent lives.
It’s this humanity that Burnham is looking to exploit, as she spends the episode hunting for reasons to stop Nhan taking the logical course of action, and blowing Book and Tarka to smithereens. Burnham and Book’s entertaining game of interstellar cat and mouse ultimately plays out like a safety-first version of The Wrath of Khan’s final act, as the two ships dance around each other while refusing to deliver killer blows. There are some wonderfully inventive moments here, enough to make you think the sequence could have been stretched out significantly. Who knows, maybe some budget has been put aside for later in the season?
Continuing the Wrath of Khan analogies, the scenario gives Book and Burnham the chance to have deep-and-meaningful moments without ever standing on the same deck. Their heart-to-hearts across the Anomaly make last week’s decision to contrive a meeting in that nightclub even more bizarre – for all the many flaws in this inconsistent season, the relationship between Burnham and Book remains the show’s emotional anchor.
The episode’s resolution couldn’t be more Star Trek, as science wins the day over brute force. Using a bit of maths to work out how long the Anomaly’s likely to stick around isn’t particularly sexy, but it’s in the finest traditions of The Next Generation.
It’s also the perfect way to resolve the episode’s philosophical themes: Book agrees to give the Federation another week to make first contact with Species 10C, while Nhan learns the important lesson that choices aren’t always binary. She’s the latest in a long line of characters who’ve been ‘improved’ by spending time with the impeccable Disco crew – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her taking up permanent residence on the bridge in the near future.
Tarka, meanwhile, refuses to follow anyone else’s rules, and – despite Book’s withdrawal – unleashes his bomb anyway. There’s a degree of schadenfreude when he learns the power source he craves is on the other side of a wormhole, but it proves short-lived when the Anomaly is instantly replaced by DMA 2.0. The Federation is going to have some serious negotiating to do on this one – hopefully it won’t get in the way of Saru’s long-distance romance with Ni’Var president T’Rina.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 beam onto Paramount Plus on Thursdays in the US and Crave in Canada. UK viewers can watch episodes on Pluto TV.
3.5 out of 5
Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 9 review: “Successfully recycles elements of Wrath of Khan”
Discovery riffs on The Wrath of Khan and, while ‘Rubicon’ isn’t in the same league as the classic movie, it’s a step in the right direction for this topsy-turvy season. Let’s treat this episode as the mid-season premiere, and pretend last week didn’t happen.