Impulse Control: Discovery ‘connects’ to big questions…

The mid-season finale has some heavy-duty questions about life, the universe and personal choice...

The Federation organises a vast meeting of its members and other interested parties as they evaluate what to do about the Dark matter Anomaly that is causing such devastation in the galaxy. Noting that there’s a disparity between the random destruction and the belief that there must be some sort of control behind it, there are differing views as to what should happen next. Should an effort be made to reach out to the force behind the DMA and seek more answers as to what is happening or should a pre-emptive strike be made against the anomaly and those behind it? Both points of view carry value and consequence by action or inaction…

On board the Discovery, there’s good news and bad news as ship’s computer  ‘Zora’ calculates the origin point of the destructive force… but refuses to give up the co-ordinates to the crew. Zora’s reasoning is that it will endanger the ship and crew that her evolving programming still prioritises. Stamets, well aware of the growing implications of having an AI that doesn’t follow orders warns of the implications even beyond the current problem.

So begins a complex, moral discussion with profound implications about the rights to life and safety… one arguably as important as the discussions going on elsewhere…


There’s little doubt that the final episode of Discovery before its brief January break asks the BIG questions about actions, reactions and accountability.  This season has been a little inconsistent with the elements it decides to prioritise and bring to the fore, but the anomaly’s effects are now being used as both a mystery and a maguffin for looking at the choices people make. For all the furrowed-browed investigations, we’re starting to look at effects rather than cause. We still have almost no idea what it is, where it will go next and whether it will actually appear in an episode or simply be referenced again (a lot like the problem with the recent Doctor Who mini-series) but the show is starting to use it as a lever and pivot to show the gaps between people’s attitudes and responses.

The ‘parliament’ of Federation decisions provides interesting and valid if flawed positions. The two options seem to be a peaceful approach an unknown that has already been responsible for massive loss-of-life in the hopes of avoiding further blood-shed or to attack and destroy the device that it seems to be using for such devastation. The truth is that neither seems particularly wise. Whole star-systems have been obliterated and it’s entirely reasonable that entire races, not just Book, want retribution as much as answers… and that they baulk at what could seem flimsy, idealistic attempts in the wake of pre-emptive acts of war. The other side of the equation is that the Federation would be stupid to go in without attempting to find out answers first… that the devastation may not be intentional (its randomness seemingly not a particularly useful weapon) and, pragmatically, acting aggressively could be waving sticks at an agitator with a trigger-happy nuclear device or no sense of what they’ve done.  Burnham and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) stance is, at least, keep your powder dry and know your enemy first – and once again the prime politician using Burnham to handle the heavy lifting.  The logical decision would be to ready the weapon but to not use it until much more is known, but – of course – drama requires that things don’t always go to plan.

The episode allows both Burnham and Book to respectively and respectfully stand their ground while clearly wishing they could reach out to the other. Book makes an observation that will undoubtedly have been voiced by some viewers… that the Burnham that is now voting for a peaceful approach to the anomaly is the same one that once ignited a cosmic war against the Klingons. Her answer is that she knew a lot about the Klingons and nothing of ‘Unknown Species 10-C’ which seems like a feint in the direction of the wrong windmill…Burnham was too impulsive and demonstrably wrong back then and the price was high… the far better answer  – and one which might have better exemplified the show’s mission statement – is that Burnham has finally learned some of the life-lessons and become a better leader (after numerous lucky scrapes and conveniences along the way).

Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) remains an intriguing character, very driven and not remotely trust-worthy and yet an expert in igniting motivations in others to get his desires realised. He’s Marvel‘s Tony Stark blended with Lost in Space‘s Doctor Smith with all the implications that conjures up. Even if the series was to contradict some of its established lore, there are far too many obvious holes in Tarka’s story to Book about his past, parallel universes and waiting for un-named friends… though Tarka knows exactly what emotional strings to pull to get Book onboard. There’s an inevitability about that aspect – it’s pretty clear early on in the episode on their path and what the climax of the episode will be, though the consequences remain unclear, even from the preview of upcoming episodes. Played right, Tarka could be a nuanced, classic character so it will be interested to see how this plays out in the longer term.

It’s true that as a viewer, one would not baulk at blowing a bomb out of the sky but might feel uneasy about actual aggression against a form of life. It’s that underlying difference that feeds into the episode’s other thread…

As noted before, the evolution of sentient AI as a sf-staple usually ends its story with an apocalypse or a sacrifice – there’s very rarely any middle-ground… so it was always troubling what direction Discovery would take Zora, the ship’s now fully-aware computer.  (Trek has raised some core issues itself with entries as diverse as V’ger’s action The Motion Picture and the examination of Data in The Next Generation). We know from the flash-forward in the Calypso entry of Short Treks that Zora apparently survives long into the future, but it was never clear the context in which she did so. The simultaneous story here essentially explores all those options – an unapologetic parallel to the war/peace decisions being made elsewhere. And again, there’s no easy answers – just lots of opinions based on intangibles. Nobody in the operations room is essentially right or wrong. Stamets, basing his position on demonstrable examples,  is entirely correct in the dangers of a self-aware computer system, particularly one already refusing to follow orders on which lives might rely. That it’s Stamets desire to find not just a convenient solution to the immediate dilemma but also one that satisfies bigger concerns going forward is a neat piece of writing that doesn’t wholly resolve every issue but provides a way for that progress to happen. The technicality that Zora is no longer merely an AI but a new life-form and one that agrees to be a member of the crew bound by rank, could be considered a get-out, but it speaks to the matters of trust-and-verify and as such is as important as the so-called ‘A’ story of the week.

Very much a ‘talky’ episode of Discovery, it does so responsibly, giving fair voice to opposing and considered arguments on key issues and not marching in with obvious template solutions and luck to save the day. It’s the kind of episode that will encourage debate amongst viewers and that’s no bad thing. How the show resolves and continues these issues in the remaining episodes – returning in February – will be key to evaluating the series as a whole.

'Star Trek: Discovery S04 Ep7 - But to Connect'  (Paramount+ review)
'Star Trek: Discovery S04 Ep7 - But to Connect' (Paramount+ review)
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