Star Trek #1553: The Galactic Barrier

CAPTAIN'S LOG: Tarka goes through his back story, the Discovery through the Galactic Barrier.

WHY WE LIKE IT: As usual, Burnham, but Hiram is a hoot.

WHY WE DON'T: Weird physics. Tarka's underwhelming stakes.

REVIEW: Episode 10 of the season asks us to invest in Tarka's plight, which is a big ask. Though not an entirely unsympathetic villain (his massive ego has made him relatively fun to date), we still want him to fail, which makes us resent that investment. That's for starters. We also have to accept that despite his big talk to Owo about "you don't know loss", his story isn't all that powerful. Is it in character? Yes. Is it a loss to blow all other losses out the airlock? It really isn't. Perhaps it's because the focus is on the wrong thing. Forced to work on dilithium alternatives by the Emerald Chain, a bromance blossoms between him and another scientist who is secretly working on an interdimensional transporter not just so he can escape the prison camp, but our universe entirely. And not just that, but so that he can reach "Home", a parallel world that is paradise according to his people's myths. Might as well be the Nexus (or perhaps should have been), because it sounds bonkers. Tarka takes it on faith that his pal Oros succeeded after they were separated, and there's guilt there as well for having snitched on him before they became friends, and so the "loss" feels like it's the loss of Oros. But to make sense of earlier comments, it has to be the loss of a promised paradise, very much like Soren trying to re-enter the Nexus. But would we buy into a techno-babble obsession all by itself? It wouldn't be anymore engaging, but then watching flashbacks of a couple of guest characters playing number games while they cuddle isn't exactly exciting either.

To his credit, Book almost puts this goober off his ship, and is only drawn back in because Tarka has the technical skill to get them through the Galactic Barrier est into Ten-C space so he can destroy the DMA projector. And he wants answers from the close-vested Tarka before he goes further, so the empath needs an emotional story to connect with the scientist. There's no indication that he's being especially manipulated, and perhaps a "truthful" flashback to show Tarka betrayed Oros to reach "Home" himself, etc. might have provided more thrills, who knows. The promise of some action, from a courier ship hovering around the old camp where Tarka needs to get programmable anti-matter, doesn't amount to anything, so the whole subplot feels like it could have been a single scene with a bit of exposition and we wouldn't have missed much.

If the episode needs this secret origin stuff, it's because the 10th leg in Discovery's mission to deal with the DMA is a pretty slim one, and it has its own problems. It's in fact so slim that we spend a lot of time on the ship prepping for departure. It's important because this "third act" is going to have its own cast, and see the ship cut off from Federation HQ until the close of the season. To make an appeal to the Ten-C, there are delegates from many worlds, including General Ngoye of Earth, President T'Rina of Ni'var (it's awkward because Saru confesses feelings, but there's no time for that and is left hanging), and President Rillak herself (because - groan - someone HAS to be on the bridge questioning Burnham's decisions 'til the end of time). We're also introduced to linguist Dr. Hirai, played by ubiquitous Canadian actor Hiro Kanagawa (if a genre show was made in Canada, there's a good chance he's been in it) and he's quite funny, laughing at jokes during serious meetings, always snacking, etc. It's Spock's detached scientific curiosity, but without a sense of occasion and a sense of humor. I wish we'd have gotten more of him. As for crew, Adira is back after being away to get Gray settled, their scenes with Stamets supposed to be endearing but coming across as if he's treating this grown person like a teenager (one of the best things about Season 3 is really dragging in Season 4, i.e. the ship's LGBTQ+ family, though Culber talking about how he met Stamets is very cute). And then there's the curious case of Lt. Christopher, brought in to replace Bryce who is... suddenly leaving? What happened there? Apparently a role on The Porter opposite Alfre Woodard, but his last scene is weird - Ronnie Rowe Jr. has a noticeable lisp which made me think he was ill or dentally injured in some way. Glad to hear it was for a better role. Worse is that they didn't seem prepared for his disappearance because Christopher (Orville Cummings), though he's been in the background since the start of the season, is the same physical type and might as well be reading lines written for Bryce.

The ticking clock keeps shifting throughout the episode, which is kind of messy. We had a week before the DMA moved at the close of the previous episode. At the top of this one, we learn that it's really 12 hours because Tarka's destruction of the DMA device replaced it with a better model that sucks up boromite faster. It'll take 2 hours to prep, so Discovery really has 10 hours before the DMA moves. And just before they lose contact with the Federation, it does move, and moves to the Alpha Quadrant where it will start affecting Earth and Ni'Var destructively in 71 hours. It's all in service of creating a first conflict between Burnham and Rillak. Michael wants to tell the crew that the planet that's home to most of them - to clunkily force the point home, they have a chat about Earthbound vacations when the mission is over - because they will fight harder to succeed, and she believes in transparency. Rillak sees the political pitfalls and panic setting in with the delegates and wants to withhold the information. In the end, she relents (like I said in last episode's review, this trope almost always ends with the guest star backing down or being ignored), but I like the last scene where Rillak, who has her own loved ones in the Earth system, seems taken with Burnham's wisdom. It's not gonna stop her from arguing all her calls though.

And then there's the Galactic Barrier. This was always a crazy concept. Somehow there's a bright pink energy barrier around the Milky Way, but we can't see it from here? And despite the visuals, we can't fly over or under it? In the Original Series' (second) pilot, it further turns humans with ESP potential into gods. It's insane and non-scientific. Discovery changes the visual effect to something a little less garish, but ups the ante in terms of weirdness. To cross it, the ship has to cover itself in anti-matter, then jump into giant corpuscles that make the interior of the barrier something out of Fantastic Voyage. What is this, the galaxy's bloodstream? And when you're not in a stable bubble, you see everything in under-saturated tones. Well, sure, why not? Weird environments, a bit of jeopardy, etc., but it's essentially a game of Frogger, writ large.

Why have a one-minute expository speech when you can stretch it out to a full episode?

REWATCHABILITY - Medium-Low: The season's low point as it feels like it's vamping for an extra episode.