The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery S4E10, “The Galactic Barrier” (written by Anne Cofell Saunders and directed by Deborah Kampmeier)
Star Trek: Discovery S4E10, “The Galactic Barrier” keeps slowly moving us forward, toward the inevitable confrontation with species 10-C. The long buildup without lots of action-oriented, distracting, other plots may not be what everyone wants from the show, but I love that the creative team has decided to focus almost entirely on the quest to find this mysterious alien species and to have all of the other plots be related to this overall goal.
The lack of random “encounters of the week” is also finally allowing Discovery to focus on character development beyond Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the more that happens, the better for all of us. Though “The Galactic Barrier” also continues the strange saga of Season 4’s cast turnover, which is certainly not what the show needs.
Due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Discovery has already been working with a streamlined cast. Episodes have split their focus between various crew members so much that scenes like those throughout Star Trek: Discovery S4E10 of everyone on the bridge, doing their jobs, have been sporadic at best. And so far this season Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Grey (Ian Alexander) seem to have left the regular cast for good, while Adira (Blu Del Barrio) and Jett Reno (Tig Nataro) have both been gone for long stretches.
Now in “The Galactic Barrier” Lt. Commander Bryce (Ronnie Rowe) decides to stay behind and work with Dr. Kovich (David Cronenberg) instead of going beyond the barrier with the rest of the crew. Bryce has been a super part-time player all season, and Discovery still (notoriously) has not spent anywhere near enough time developing his character, but it was still a blow to see him go. One of the joys of Star Trek is that we get to spend time with skilled and enthusiastic people, learning and growing with them. We have really only just started getting to that point with Bryce, and now it seems we never will, which is a shame.
Lt. Christopher (Orville Cummings) seems poised to take over as communications officer. This could be a great opportunity for the show to work him into the main cast. Because of the super fragmented way the show started, and the emphasis on Burnham above all else, there has not ever really been a standard Point of View character on the show since the early days with Tilly. It would be really fun to follow Christopher as he started to make his way in the upper echelons of the crew after having been basically a substitute previously.
The plot of S4E10 remains in pretty slow motion. The new DMA is much larger and more powerful than the original, putting an ever greater part of the galaxy at risk. The Federation sends Discovery to cross the Galactic Barrier that since Star Trek: The Original Series has served as the (nearly) uncrossable boundary keeping all of our activities within the Milky Way. This is a diplomatic mission, the main idea is to try to make official contact with 10-C and to try to reason with the species, so the ship is filled with Ambassadors and Dignitaries who want to have a seat at the table in the discussions.
Ultimately winding up among these dignitaries are both N’Vari president T’Rina (Tara Rosling) and Federation President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal). T’Rina winds up on the trip due to the appointed ambassador not being able to make it to the ship before it needs to take off for the mission. Rillak’s reasoning is more complicated. She determines, probably correctly, that she has to be there as the representative of the largest and most powerful entity from our side of the barrier. (Though her own ancestry does beg the question, what happened to the Cardassians? And the Klingons for that matter.) This decision comes with considerable risk though. By taking on this mission Rillak is putting the Vice President, who we viewers have never seen or heard of, in charge of the Federation. It seems likely that this decision will be at least as long-lasting and impactful as the negotiations with 10-C themselves.
This means that Rillak and Burnham are once again put together in command on Discovery. Both seem to have grown significantly since the events of “Kobayashi Maru”, having learned to trust each other and understand the other’s motivations, at least to an extent. I have loved Rillak since her introduction, though each and every week I worry that the creators will embrace the cliches and turn her into a conniving political villain. At least so far, she remains steadfast in her actual beliefs. She is opportunistic and calculating, definitely, but those traits are entirely in the service of the Federation. Horsdal also portrays the character with considerable gravitas. She commands the screen and everyone around her, even when she has questions or concerns.
This makes her scenes in conflict with Burnham really spark. Burnham sees her place in the world in much the same way, and both try to get logic to be their driving force, but neither of them is all that great at the Vulcan practice. Instead, they seem to succeed by the force of their wills, and their talents. But each has a different underlying set of principles. For Burnham, her personal connections, her mother, Book, and the Discovery crew are the ones for whom she will do anything. She respects the Federation, but she has shown time and again that any time that they tell her to do something she doesn’t like she just won’t do it. For Rillak the end result has to be what benefits the most people, success is a great strategy, not individual tactics, or any individual pieces.
Just before Discovery enters the barrier and is cut off from all communication, they receive an encrypted message from Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr). Burnham and Rillak learn that the DMA has already jumped and (in an unnecessary attempt to up the tension) the core of the Alpha Quadrant, the Federation’s main base, is at risk. If they can’t complete the mission in mere hours, then Earth, N’var, Titan, and all the other core planets will be destroyed. This leads to those fundamental differences between Rillak and Burnham once again coming to the forefront.
They spend a few tense scenes debating whether to reveal this information to the crew. These debates are at the heart of many of the best Star Trek plots, with both characters having good intentions but coming to completely opposite conclusions. Burnham, of course, thinks everyone should know, both because she hates secrecy and because the feelings of the crew are of primary importance to her. Rillak is afraid the mission will be compromised if people start to despair, particularly the diplomats who don’t so often face the deaths of everyone they love. Burnham, thankfully, understands this is up to Rillak and gives her time to decide what to do.
Discovery enters the Galactic Barrier and the whole action scene is a beautiful one.
The show excels at depicting these fantastical events. The ship travels by entering some sort of bubbles of matter that can protect it as it encounters the other dangers in the barrier. It is well established that Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) is a great pilot—and I live for the looks she and Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) give each other every time Detmer pulls off a cool move—but this seems exceptionally easy to accomplish. As they are entering the most dangerous phase the whole crew, oddly and out of character, start dreaming of their favorite vacation spots on earth. That this schmaltzy nonsense is what makes Rillak decide to tell everyone about the danger of the DMA is the low point of the Star Trek: Discovery S4E10.
In the subplot, Book (David Ajala) and Tarka (Shawn Doyle) are still on the run after Tarka’s misguided destruction of the original DMA. They decide they will also traverse the barrier, and I’m sure they will succeed next week, meaning that in two weeks this will have been done more times than in the entire history of the galaxy up until that point. Of course, that isn’t the weirdest part of this storyline. Far weirder is the notion that the show is still trying to make us care about Tarka.
Doyle has played Tarka with the utmost contempt for everyone around him. The character’s defining features have been arrogance and petulance to the point that it was hard to believe him when he claimed he was actually doing all this to find his long-lost friend. In Star Trek: Discovery S4E10 we finally get to see Tarka’s time as a slave of the Emerald Chain and his relationship with that friend Oros (Osric Chau). It turns out that everything he said is true, and that he is doing this out of a deep and abiding love for his friend. That certainly makes Tarka more loveable; unfortunately, it doesn’t really make him more interesting. The flashbacks play out with no suspense and little surprise. Book’s emphatic nature may make him care for Tarka but, sympathetic backstory or not, he is still too one-dimensional for me.
At the end of Star Trek: Discovery S4E10, Discovery is through the barrier, the crew knows the stakes of the mission, and they finally get close enough to the domain of species 10-C that contact seems to be imminent. The stage is certainly set for the last few episodes of Season 4 to be quite spectacular.