Anomalies. What Star Trek fan doesn’t love an anomaly? I love ‘em, you love ‘em, Starfleet bridge crews definitely love ‘em, and Discovery is no exception. But Discovery is still the show it has been from the start, which means its approach to exploring the unknown of the week is going to be much, much more dramatic than its predecessors would’ve dreamed of being.
“Anomaly,” on the surface, could just be any classic plot-of-the-week on your standard Star Trek, distilled to its most basic description: the crew travel to, and investigate, the titular mysterious anomaly. In fact, it’s even a two for one deal, because in doing so it’s also that classic “two characters who don’t like each other are forced to go on an away mission together, which goes wrong and they learn to have an understanding of each other by the time they make it out alive.” It’s reductive, to be sure. But for the first time in a while — between the high-stakes end of season three’s finale and season four’s contemplative, but still highly dramatic opening last week — Discovery is giving itself the chance to just be a Star Trek show.
It’s not a breather, however, as this is still Discovery — and for better or worse, that means that it can’t simply just be Star Trek, it has to be on it, and the “it” here is “incredibly high stakes stressful drama oh god everything is blowing up aaaaaaah.” That’s really what Discovery brings to the table in a way its predecessors didn’t. The Enterprise or Voyager crew might treat two binary black holes generating gravitational fluctuations with a detached scientific curiousity, because it’s really what we’ve been taught to see Starfleet’s heroes as: calm, collected, and very interested in Space Stuff. Discovery’s crew and its new captain are similar, but over the last three seasons they’ve also been allowed to be more human about it in the process. Which means when the inevitability of things going sideways starts to happen in “Anomaly,” not only do they do so to incredibly explosive effect, but the crew is put through a physical, mental, and emotional wringer to boot, leaving you almost just as exhausted as they are when everything comes to a close.
This sounds like a bad thing — and might be to some detractors who still don’t like that Discovery’s bridge crew aren’t that prim-and-proper about the wild nonsense they’ve put up with. But as Lower Decks has proven, albeit to a much more comedic rather than dramatic effect, there is a kind of charm and catharsis to watching Starfleet officers reckon with the completely insane, cool, science-y, and cataclysmic stuff they face week in, week out by just having kind of a scream and shout about it. If Discovery is going to be the kind of sci-fi show where the stakes are so intensely high all the time — the anomaly in “Anomaly,” of course, is a threat to the entire galaxy, and our heroes’ reward for exploring it is only to discover that it could destroy any planet, anywhere, at any random direction — then every once in a while, taking the time to see its characters reckon with the emotional exhaustion of even something as humdrum as a scientific investigative mission with those stakes can be incredibly rewarding.
And for the most part, “Anomaly” is that. Even before things get bad as Discovery sends Book’s ship to explore the titular anomaly for more data, Michael finds herself struggling to connect as either captain or partner to Book himself, still devastated by the loss of his homeworld Kwejian last week. Playing on the lessons she struggled to articulate with President Rilak in the premiere, “Anomaly” becomes about the times when a captain does need to be in flux in a dangerous situation, about when to be the detached leader making decisions with your head, and when your heart is needed to connect to your crew and get them through in one piece. Michael also finds herself with the blessing of Saru’s return to the Discovery as first officer, an emotional rock that gets her through the danger of navigating a stellar object that could, at any moment, fling her crew and ship apart in a hail of sound and fury. Finding those rocks among the crew becomes vital the more explosive and panicked “Anomaly” becomes — Stamets, holographically dragged along for the ride to acquire scanning data in Book’s ship, desperately tries to make his rock the disgruntled Kwejian, who rightly points out that they’ve barely spoken to each other before. Tilly, trying not to crack under the pressure elevated on her by her promotion and the lingering fallout of her rescue-mission-gone-wrong last week, almost breaks snapping at Adira, who likewise is still processing their perceived failures last week on that same mission. And Book himself, raw and lost after the death of his homeworld and family, struggles to find that his rock is ultimately Michael, not until it’s almost too late.
In showing all these fracture points with these characters — emotionally and, darkly funnily, almost literally, as Dr. Culber spends most of his time this episode running around the bridge with his new 31st-century medical gear, letting him almost instantly heal gaping head wounds and cracked ribs with a few waves of a tool — throughout what would, in classic Star Trek, be a kind of every-week scientific occurrence, Discovery reminds us of the kinds of human, emotional turmoil that is the reality of a life in an organisation such as Starfleet. We can joke about how crazy it is these figures usually approach life-threatening cosmic weirdness like it’s administrative bureaucracy in other Trek shows, but Discovery’s preponderance for big stakes and big emotions shows just how stressful and dangerous like in Star Trek can really be. And crucially, it follows up with a cathartic release when the immediate threat is over, and our heroes make it out of the anomaly’s fringes in one piece. We get to see, over the closing minutes of “Anomaly,” characters like Tilly, Adira, Book, Stamets, and Michael release the intense emotions they’ve just build up and had to let simmer over the course of the episode, and crucially see them doing so by confiding honestly in the friends around them, giving them paths forward to heal and move on from their current rawness.
“Anomaly” might not do much in terms of advancing Discovery’s current major overarching plot, and its ability to turn even the most simple of Trek premises into high-stakes, cinematic action wildness might be a little too exhausting for some. But acknowledging the stresses of those stakes every now and then within the text and within its characters, and reminding us all of the need this crew has in leaning on each other to get through the act of just existing in Star Trek: Discovery’s world, definitely makes it worth bearing through the gravitational ups and downs.