Star Trek Discovery season 4 episode 11: “One step forward, two steps back”

Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 4, episode 11 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…

There are less than 29 hours until Ni’Var and Earth get pummelled by the Dark Matter Anomaly. Burnham and her away team have put on their spacesuits and walked towards the camera in slow-motion, channeling Armageddon as if the universe depended on it. The stakes could literally not be higher… so it’s probably not the best time for Discovery to roll out one of those all-too-frequent season 4 episodes where nothing much happens.

After last week’s installment took Discovery beyond the galactic barrier and suggested the show was building to an epic finale, the ship takes a detour to a dead alien world that used to belong to Species 10-C. Like Disco’s previous casino excursion, it sucks so much narrative drive from the story arc that Ni’Var president T’Rina’s pre-mission remark that, “I cannot express a greater need for urgency than what you already know” feels like some kind of joke.

It’s a shame because ‘Rosetta’ starts with such promise. Burnham, Saru, Culber, and Detmer jet down to a former gas giant transformed into a rocky wasteland in the hope of gathering some intel on the power behind the DMA – and, in a rare turn of events, the captain’s even managed to convince the ever-skeptical Federation president that first officer Saru’s superhuman senses make it essential for him to tag along too. 

The world they discover is like something out of Alien or Prometheus, a strange landscape littered with mysterious artifacts and bones with such low density that their owners probably floated among the clouds.

This is an important development for Star Trek. As far back as Spock in the original series, most of the aliens in the franchise have looked like humans with bits of rubber glued to their face or ears – in fact, it’s such a long-running cliché that The Next Generation episode ‘The Chase’ gave fans a knowing wink by creating an ancient common ancestor for humans, Vulcans, Cardassians and more. But, like Borg-bothering CG creations Species 8472 (from Voyager), this tiny glimpse at Species 10-C suggests a rare but welcome departure from Trek’s standard model.

There’s an additional complication to spending time in Species 10-C’s backyard, however, as Saru, Culber, and Burnham – but not, bizarrely, Detmer – experience terrifying visions of the planet’s hellish fate. It’s an intriguing horror angle to the story that, sadly, fizzles out before it has a chance to become interesting.

Because, in what’s become one of Discovery’s most annoying habits, Burnham and co solve a series of seemingly insurmountable problems with implausible speed. Where a mystery might have kept Geordi and Data occupied between ad breaks on the Enterprise-D, the Disco team need a fraction of the time to realize their suits aren’t geared to filter out a new hydrocarbon that no one has seen before – and then fix the problem with a flick of a switch.

Pretty soon these pheromone-like chemicals have turned into the Federation’s salvation, as the away team makes some massive leaps of logic to reason that Disco can communicate with Species 10-C using shared emotional experience. Turning the hydrocarbons into an unlikely Rosetta stone – yes, Saru Exposition, Burnham is “referring to the ancient Earth artifact” – is a brilliant idea, a welcome shift from the cosmic fix-all of the universal translator. But the Eureka moment happens so quickly, with so little of the working shown on screen, that you can’t help feeling an intriguing storyline has been wasted. Arrival devoted an entire movie to deciphering communications from a radically alien species, with themes that feel tailor-made for a transfer to Trek. Now, however, with the season entering its endgame, there’s no time to explore one of the most promising ideas the show has had.

While the away team is busy playing genius on Planet 10-C, the episode conjures up spurious reasons for Book and Tarka to get some screentime. Tarka still believes that cutting off the DMA’s power source is the best way to save the Alpha Quadrant so – having bared his soul last week – he reactivates his default setting of ‘devious’. Reasoning that the best way to get inside the 10-C’s protective hyperfield is to hitch a ride on Discovery’s hull, he hatches a scheme to turn off Zora’s sensors in critical areas of the ship. 

At the end of a rather static heist, the duo manage to outwit the genius, self-aware computer – but there are consequences. Earth ambassador Ndoye, who’s been skeptical about Burnham’s mission from the start, is now an ally, a spy on board Discovery feeding them information. But they also have a hostage, in the form of sarcastic engineer Jett Reno, who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Tarka was busy making mischief. Having been AWOL for most of the season, it looks like she picked the wrong week to come back to work.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 beam onto Paramount Plus on Thursdays in the US and Crave in Canada. UK viewers can watch episodes on Pluto TV.

The Verdict


2 out of 5

Star Trek: Discovery season 4 episode 11: “One step forward, two steps back”

It’s yet another case of one step forward, two steps back, as Discovery’s ongoing struggles to build any kind of momentum continue. After this week’s adventures, the scene should be set for opening hailing frequencies with the owners of the planet-killing DMA – but in this frustratingly stop-start season, it’s impossible to be sure.

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