“Kobyashi Maru” is a provocative start to season 4 of Star Trek Discovery.
Despite taking a PR black eye thanks to the way Paramount+ ran roughshod over fans outside the U.S. this week, Star Trek: Discovery successfully launched its fourth season with the high-stakes, action-packed episode “Kobayashi Maru.”
Five months after “That Hope is You, Part 2,” Captain Michael Burnham speaks at the first Starfleet Academy opening convocation in 125 years.
But this celebration of the Federation and Starfleet’s rebirth is cut short by a distress call from a deep space outpost. The station has been hit by severe gravitational distortions. Admiral Vance orders Discovery to jump to the station and render aid. Over Burnham’s objections, new Federation President Laira Rillak insists on coming along.
Discovery manages to stabilize the wildly spinning station. Lieutenant Tilly and Ensign Adira Tal beam over to assist Nalas, the outpost’s commander, with repairs. But a huge, displaced cloud of frozen methane starts hitting and damaging the station and Discovery. Interference prevents Tilly, Adira, and the station’s crew from beaming out, and debris blocks the launch path of the station’s escape vessel.
To clear the debris, Burnham—over President Rillak’s objections—takes a worker bee herself into the ice cloud. Ice strikes the worker bee, exposing Burnham to the vacuum of space. Fortunately, 32nd-century technology includes on-demand, programmable matter EVA suits! Burnham removes the remaining debris while Rillak “talks down” Nalas, who wanted to lead the others on what would surely have been a futile climb to another deck of the station.
As Nalas, Adira, and Tilly take the last evacuation flight to Discovery, ice slams into the ship’s shuttle bay just as it jumps away. Nalas dies in the accident, as did two of his crew, although nine others survive.
Rillak tells Burnham she was evaluating her as a possible captain for the Voyager, but has decided Burnham isn’t ready. Burnam tells Rillak she wouldn’t have accepted the reassignment, but asks her to define “ready.” “The willingness to accept all potential outcomes of a command decision,” Rillak tells her, “and an ability to make the hard call regardless.” She acknowledges Burnham’s bravery as “huge swings of the pendulum,” but adds “there is a very fine line between a pendulum and a wrecking ball.”
Suddenly, Book arrives. He was back on Kweijan for his nephew’s coming of age ceremony, but left to investigate a gravitational distortion like the one that affected the space station. Book’s ship was also hit by methane ice. Now, Kweijan is “hundreds of thousands of kilometers” from its coordinates—burning, and being ripped apart.
Is Captain Michael Burnham ready to be a captain?
“Kobayashi Maru” gives Star Trek Discovery fans the hopeful renaissance of the Federation and Starfleet last season promised without promising smooth sailing.
The episode begins optimistically. Its B-plot, which doesn’t get much screen time, shows us Saru and Su’Kal on Kaminar, arguing the planet should rejoin the larger galaxy. Su’Kal also urges Saru to return to Starfleet, because the Kelpien captain has helped Su’Kal find happiness.
And things look promising in Starfleet, too. The new Archer Spacedock—which contains a ship that appears to be the Voyager-J, but now evocative of the Protostar on Star Trek: Prodigy—is unveiled (to the strains of composer Dennis McCarthy’s “Archer’s Theme” from Star Trek: Enterprise). The first class of the resurrected Starfleet Academy includes humans and aliens, including a Tellarite and, in the background, the much-scrutinized “new look” Ferengi. It’s all an exciting blend of old and new.
The new, presumably season-long threat to the galaxy isn’t in itself all that compelling. Yes, the gravitational distortion is brilliantly realized on screen. (I especially liked the several disorienting, upside down camera shots.) Its dangerous potential is self-evident.
But it’s President Rillak (played by Chelah Horsdal) who truly signals trouble ahead for Michael Burnham. When Rillak announced her intent to accompany the Discovery, I thought, as Burnham does, we might be meeting another in a long line of Federation politicians and bureaucrats who only get in the way. But Rillak seems to be a savvy leader and keen judge of character.
She says Burnham hasn’t learned the lessons the Academy’s Kobayashi Maru test is designed to teach (hence this episode’s title). Like James T. Kirk before her, Burnham sees herself as “immune to failure.” At this point we can only wonder whether, like Kirk in Star Trek II, Burnham will come up against the hard truth that no one is.
Commander Nalas (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll) emerges as a foil of sorts to Burnham. Nalas is desperately concerned for his crew, and is willing to take incredibly high risks to save them. But Tilly, Adira, and Rillak must all steer him away from his reckless impulses—and even then, he does not survive the episode.
Does Nalas represent the road that might be awaiting Burnham this season, if she does not learn the Kobayashi Maru’s lessons? Only the rest of Star Trek Discovery season four will tell.