If last week’s Star Trek: Discovery was the show’s most successful attempt at making Michael Burnham’s personal life the main character of the show in a fun way, “Rubicon,” episode nine of season four, is finally the achievement the show has longed for since its very beginning: the chance to make that personal involvement work in a high-stakes, high drama scenario.
Now that the fun dancing around each other is over for now and the chase is truly on between Discovery and Booker and Tarka as they both race towards the DMA — and potential first contact/conflict with the mysterious Species 10-C — everything has gotten a bit more serious in “Rubicon.” The Discovery crew is under a lot more stress, as divided as Michael herself is about whether or not they should be forcefully trying to stop the anomaly from mining boronite and destroying planets without a care in the world, or trying to find a peaceful way to begin contact with an unknown civilisation. Michael’s personal stakes in stopping her partner have now become an operational issue, with Admiral Vance assigning a “neutral” third party from Starfleet Security — returning former Enterprise security chief turned Discovery tagalong Nhan, played by Rachael Ancheril — to the ship to ensure tough decisions can be made should Michael be compromised. And even aboard Book’s ship, the relationship between him and Tarka has started breaking down, cracks in trust emerging as Book feels the weight of his conflict with Michael even more, and Tarka starts operating for his own gain.
“Rubicon” mines all this tension for everything it’s worth, just as it reveled in the lighter humour in “All In” last week, making it something of a fascinating pair of episodes as foils to each other. The conflict has remained the same — Discovery has to stop Booker and Tarka from attacking the DMA’s control unit — but instead of this being a looser, less Starfleet-y approach to dealing with antagonism from allies, letting our heroes lighten up a little in the process, everything in “Rubicon” is laced with the lingering shadow of what failure will mean for either side. No one is getting out of this clean regardless of whether or not Michael stops Book, or Tarka’s weapon stops the DMA — it’s game time, and from the minute that game stops, “Rubicon” doesn’t let up.
What makes it fascinating though is that it still centres Michael and Book’s personal bond throughout all this cat-and-mouse chasing, as Discovery hunts Book and Tarka down from hidey-holes to the DMA itself. In the past, Michael’s emotions and her personal relationship to the crisis at hand have left her vacillating, unable to really extricate herself and deal with the task at hand. Here, as she was last week, Michael is still emotionally invested in saving the love of her life, but as she makes repeatedly clear to Nhan and the rest of the crew, she’s now grown enough in herself and in her leadership to be able to commit to finding the solution she needs to. And in doing so, instead Michael takes her personal and intimate knowledge of Book and uses it to her own gain. She draws on their shared history to play his own tricks against him, avoids being undercut by his non-traditional tactics, and is able to guess every one of his moves — even after he disables the sneaky tracker she implanted on his ship last week.
It’s great, because Book really is the strongest foil Michael’s had in the show since her push-and-pull relationship with Emperor Georgiou — but instead of something like that, where antagonism gave way to great care eventually, Michael and Book’s rivalry here just makes them something of a mirror match, and it’s a joy to watch. Discovery clearly revels in it too, as the final battle between the two ships at the edge of the DMA leads to some of the most fun action the show has ever delivered, utilising the the fact that both ships have access to Spore Drive tech to offer a dizzying, dazzling array of shots at they jump-dance around each other firing torpedo volleys, both sides willing to bare their teeth if not fully sink them into the other. It’s a brief conflict, but one that truly feels like Discovery is finally leveraging the technological freedoms this 31st century setting has provided it to deliver something that you don’t typically see in Star Trek combat.
So it’s perhaps a shame that this Michael/Book rivalry has to end so quickly, but this is Star Trek after all — the series loves conflict resolution much, much more than it does conflict. Making a final appeal to his emotions by sending herself out in a shuttle, Michael successfully manages to convince Book to stand down, both knowing thanks to some calculations from Zora aboard Discovery that they have time before the DMA is expected to move again. But for as well as the duo know each other, neither know Tarka well enough to assume that he’s bound by the limitations of Federation protocol and manner — so he promptly takes the pause in action as a chance to fire his weapon anyway, destabilising the DMA and leaving both Book and Michael in shock.
It’s perhaps a little cheap — Tarka being the one to go rogue undercuts the importance of having a character we actually know and like in Book having been the one to go against the Federation’s wishes in the first place. It also conveniently absolves both Book and Michael’s place in the conflict, placing the escalation of events solely on Tarka’s shoulders. Especially as it turns out Tarka, who we’ve been told in an exceptional scientist, is made to look like a fool when he’s shocked to discover that the power source to the DMA he expected to find after disabling the anomaly just… isn’t there. But even if the resolution of this chase over the last few episodes pushes Michael’s interior conflict out of the way of wider events, the resolution we got was still a satisfying one for both her and Book. It went great lengths to show how far Michael has come as a character, making decisions that in prior seasons would’ve been too much for her to bear, but not losing her sense of righteousness and willingness to look for the most balanced solution in the process.
But now at least, with that personal conflict settled for now — it remains to be seen what kind of punishment Book might face for his part in all this, even if blame can largely be put on Tarka’s shoulders — things are allowed to get even more tense, on a much grander scale. Species 10-C shows just how far beyond even this advanced 31st century Federation it is by responding to the DMA’s seeming destruction by promptly setting up a new DMA in its place, heralding the uneasy opening to first contact, and now the Federation and Michael are left in the grim prospects of starting that dialogue off on the worst possible footing. If “Rubicon” was a tense escalation on a personal scale, the stage is set for that escalation to have interstellar ramifications — but at least we know, having faced her toughest match up yet, Michael will be ready to answer.