Star Trek: Discovery (S4 Review): Big Improvements Each Year


Star Trek: Discovery concluded its fourth season and I have thoughts. Long story short: I’m frustrated. Long story long: keep reading…

***Spoilers for Discovery Seasons 1-3***

Captain Michael Burnham and crew continue their mission: to rebuild the Federation one world at a time, and spread goodwill across the galaxy. But a new threat (called the DMA) threatens to shatter an already fragile status quo. This “DMA” can destroy entire suns, then disappear in an instant. Where did it come from? What’s its purpose? And can it even be stopped?

Discovery is an abusive show to watch… Every year I hope it gets better, and every year it disappoints me! I’ll give Discovery this: it DOES improve with each season. But why do I continue to watch? I dunno. I’m a masochist for my entertainment.

To be clear: the show isn’t terrible. And I generally do enjoy it. This season actually had me invested before it fell apart at the end! I just get peeved because Discovery has so many cool concepts that fail to excite in execution.

I have two main problems with this show, which have been true since Season 1: the dialogue is boring, and I hate its season-long arcs. I accept the characters’ conversations in principle. Good, emotionally investing character work is the backbone to any good show. But MOST shows sprinkle that stuff alongside a compelling plot. Discovery has basically always put conversation first and story second.

This results in a show where most of the scenes feature expository rants, as characters share their feelings with one another. It gets dull and repetitive quickly. But the show’s been this way for four seasons. Why did I expect it’d change now?

Star Trek shows have always been more talkative than action-packed, but the dialogue used to be more intelligent. There’d be philosophical conundrums to solve, and fascinating moral implications to the characters’ decisions, and you’d come away from each episode pondering its contents. Most of the conversations on Discovery feel like I’m watching a therapy session. Sure, much of it is relevant (to an extent). But it’s a classic screenwriting failure of “telling” rather than “showing”. These characters are constantly telling us what they think instead of putting their thoughts to action.

My second problem: Discovery follows modern television’s trope of season-long story-arcs. This isn’t a problem unique to Discovery. I hate this trend across the board. But it’s especially annoying in a Star Trek series, as part of that franchise’s appeal was its episodic nature. Instead of boldly inventing new sci-fi conundrums every week, Discovery comes up with one decent idea per season and half-asses all the others.

Discovery’s crew prepares for a dangerous mission to an alien world.

What else do I have to complain about? Ah yes. The action is often dull– that is, when there’s ACTUALLY some action. CGI ships getting knocked about by interstellar forces CAN be cool. But there wasn’t much variety in the danger’s execution. I believe that’s because Disco. barely fights intelligent beings who could counter the crew. S4’s action scenes mostly saw Discovery enter dangerous space for a mission, then try to push through it or back out.

The biggest exception to this was the ending. And even that was a let-down because the “badguy” hardly fought back. All of the above resulted in a general lack of tension.

Oh yeah– the other major problem with the action: there were never any consequences! Discovery didn’t used to be shy about killing off characters. Multiple regular crew members died in the first couple years. Nowadays everyone wears a thick layer of plot armor. The series loves to act like the stakes are huge, but nobody we care about is ever in in genuine danger!

I can’t be TOO harsh with them for the above point, ’cause most shows have similar issues. Except (without spoiling things), Discovery S4 tries to have its cake and eat it too. And the way they treat death tends more towards the frustrating than acceptable.

Discovery season 4 wasn’t what I’d call “bad” though. It had a lot of redeeming qualities as well! So I’m gonna stop complaining (momentarily) to cover those points.

First up: I LOVE the new uniforms this year… And that’s it. Just kidding.

Discovery was nearly the antitheses of Star Trek for the longest time (mostly Season 1). Very little about its early seasons felt right to me. Of course everyone’s opinions on “proper” Star Trek will vary. Except there’s a certain tone every series up till 2005 knew how to balance. The new stuff (with the exception of Lower Decks) is off-kilter.

Yet Discovery moved in the right direction when Pike Captained the ship in Season 2, and shifted ever-closer in S3 when they aimed to rebuild the Federation. And they’re nearly there this year. It’s SO close to old Trek without quite getting there. I’ll take it though. Discovery’s slow embrace of old Trek improves the show with each outing. Maybe they’ll finally nail it next year!

The vibe is more hopeful, the crew isn’t so angsty, and there’s less gratuitous swearing. Moral philosophy gets a better showcase, plus there’s a new focus on teamwork and deliberation.

Four seasons into this series and I’m FINALLY learning the names of Discovery’s bridge crew! I’m happy they got more than a couple lines per piece this year. Some of them even had meaningful roles in a few of the episodes– particularly Owosekun. They’re still far from well-rounded characters, but now I view them as more than background dressing.

The DMA mystery compelled me for most of the season! It may have worn its welcome (as I mentioned above) but the premise was cool. I loved watching the Federation’s best scientists and minds analyze this thing to slowly learn its purpose. Once again: the story espoused the value of teamwork and science– which this world desperately needs more of in these isolating cynical times.

I’m also glad that Discovery managed to find political nuance to this issue. There were multiple ways to handle the DMA once they found out its purpose. And both had merit. Of course the writers clearly took a side on the issue– one which I’d have chosen, personally– but they made a compelling argument for the other as well. The “good” way was inherently a riskier decision and not guaranteed to generate results. And, when you’ve got a phenomenon which can destroy entire solar systems, results are a MUST.

It was refreshing to witness respectful political debates. I’ve all but forgotten what that looks like. That’s what Star Trek always has and always ought to do: show us a version of ourselves which we can aspire to become. I’d rather be the polite society that can peacefully disagree rather than the one we are now: “If you don’t agree with me you’re evil.” And don’t act like that’s an over-exaggeration…

Let’s break down the main character stories now. Burnham seems defined by her need to fight against authority, even as a Captain. Only now she argues with the President of the Federation and Admiral Vance. Last season I would have torn her behaviour apart (and it’s still often inappropriate). But I accept her outspokenness considerably more that she’s ACTUALLY in charge of something. The President is a good foil for her, by the way.

Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Booker (David Ajala) and Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) stare seriously at something off screen.

Burnham’s finally learned to pass the ball to her teammates sometimes. She takes advice, concedes the occasional defeat, and places the needs of the many above those of the few (or the one). I quite like the changes Captaincy has brought to her character! All in all she’s more comfortable and easy-going this year. And her arc feels more earned than in the past.

Sonequa Martin-Green continues to nail her performance! I love how she plays Burnham with a certain duality. There’s a warm and charming side to the character from her human upbringing, and an icy tactical side honed from her time on Vulcan (now Ni’Var). I’d say the warm outweighs the cold this year. But that’s a nice change from earlier seasons.

The stand-out story of this season was Booker’s (David Ajala). Most characters on Discovery I still don’t care a great deal for, but Booker became a fast favourite of mine in S3 (my second-favourite to be exact, only behind Saru). He remains charming and likable as ever.

Except this year he deals with a tragedy which threatens to break his spirit. He suffers from grief, anger, and need for revenge. Book’s anguish creates emotional instability and results in radical decision-making. Yet I appreciate how mature he remained, even when his world-views began to clash with those around him. He fought for his say but was never disrespectful or condescending. I knew he was going down a dark path but I still rooted for him!

Saru (Doug Jones) –AKA the best character– didn’t get a meaty story this season. He wrestled with finding the balance between Starfleet and his new ambassador role on Kaminar. But we didn’t get to see this dilemma play out meaningfully.

And he finally got a love interest. They were cute together. I enjoyed that story because of how “adult” it felt. Saru and his SO were a will-they-won’t-they pairing based on mutual respect and enjoyment of one another’s company– less so sexual attraction. And that’s a welcome change of pace to what I usually see in entertainment.

Tilly (Mary Wiseman) finds new purpose as a mentor to Starfleet cadets. She’s never been confident in her position aboard Discovery. But this year she gets to explore a job she likes and finds rewarding!

Much more time is spent fleshing out Adira and Gray. There’s some big developments between them. I’d care more if I liked Gray (Ian Alexander), but something about him doesn’t work for me. Can’t explain well what it is. Maybe it’s that the character is written so surface-level? He’s always been more of a plot device than a person with motivations. And he’s strangely lacking in flaws.

Adira (Blu del Barrio) is cool though! Their confidence continues to grow with new challenges. And they develop new relationships with their colleagues. Not much more to say about that story. It’s just OK.

Paul (Anthony Rapp) doesn’t get much to do this year either. He mostly acts as a support system for Adira and Hugh.

Speaking of Hugh (Wilson Cruz): he arguably got more screen-time this season than any of the others! I’m glad for that because I’ve always felt the character was under-served in the past. His main concern this year is to settle into his role as Discovery’s psychologist.

I still don’t know why it took Discovery so long to get a full-time psych… Yeah, I realize Kirk’s Enterprise (from the same era as Discovery began) did not have a psych that we saw on screen. Yet Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise did (near 100 years before Kirk). So it should have been Starfleet policy by that point in time… Even if it was never set in stone, it’s not as if the writers of Discovery haven’t taken massive liberties with the canon already!

I digress: Hugh struggles to bear the weight of the ship’s problems on his shoulders. And his responsibilities make Hugh spread himself too thin. It’s a good story about how mental health professionals need their own care as well.

The last character I’ll mention is Zora (Annabelle Wallis) –Discovery’s AI. She gains more personality/ sentience throughout S4. I’m always down for a decent “computer gains a mind of its own” story! I wouldn’t exactly call the premise original but it’s a good take on the concept. Zora is a good character with some great potential going forward.

The coolest part: because she’s sentient, she has to focus her attention on certain things at one time like an organic brain. And her focus can be manipulated. I don’t know if I’ve seen that before.

Discovery Season 4 was entertaining enough, most of the time. All my complaints aside, the show is still alright. And I’m bound to tune in either way for season 5.

It’s possible my Star Trek fan bias makes me harsher on this show than other critics might be, but Discovery Season 4 is still Worth a Watch for most audiences.

What’s the best Star Trek series and why? What did you think of Star Trek: Discovery Season 4? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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