About 80% of this week’s Star Trek: Discovery was perhaps one of the most thoughtful and engaging episodes the series has ever done — perhaps even one of its most wonderfully Star Trek-y tales. The other 20% saw the dread inevitability that next week is a big bang season finale and decided it really needed to undermine that incredible work a little.
That sounds perhaps a little harsh, but “Species 10-C,” the 12th and penultimate episode of Discovery’s fourth season, matched some of the boldest sci-fi storytelling the show has ever done with a subplot that has increasingly become a thorn in the side of the back half of the season: the cycle of lies and betrayals that has become Tarka and Book’s uneasy “friendship.” A friendship, of course, that has been obviously set up to split apart practically since Tarka first met Book, and now has had to do so with explosive consequences to set up suitably dire stakes for next week’s finale.
But let’s get to what works with “Species 10-C,” which really is for the most part a very sizeable chunk of the episode. Last week saw Michael and her team explore the remnants of the titular species’ homeworld, uncovering an unconventional emotional-biological way they could communicate with the mysterious, highly advanced species threatening to inadvertently tear Ni’Var and Earth apart. “Species 10-C” largely focuses on the science and diplomatic tools Discovery can use to put that revelation into action. It’s genuinely fascinating stuff, because for all the whizz-bang action Discovery often excels at, it’s so rarely had the chance over its four seasons to dedicate extended periods of time to just a purely investigative, theoretical, and science-y as hell premise.
Sure they’re not sitting around a desk in a captain’s ready room for the most part, but it’s people! Talking to each other! Experimenting! Offering theories! Trying to figure out a puzzle that they relish because they’re incredibly smart Starfleet officers! Yes, the 10-C’s highly advanced society might make a lot of that science more rooted in fantastical elements that rely on technobabble and Discovery’s usual strong performances to carry it through the details, but there is enough meat there that it genuinely feels like you’re watching Burnham, President Rillak, Saru, the bridge crew, and the rest of the Federation’s diplomatic team work through this scientific problem. It’s incredibly classic Star Trek, and it really works in a refreshing change of pace and scale for the series.
It also works because, for the most part, that scientific headspace is still connected to the very human heart of Discovery, and this season’s running commentary on the power of connection, communication, and shared understanding brings people together on scales personal and metaphysical. After all, the scientific problem the emotional hydrocarbons the 10-C start using to form basic communications with the Discovery crew are all about feeling in their purest form — conveying joy, fear, sadness, and hesitance as each side pokes and prods at a First Contact scenario unlike anything Star Trek has seen on this scale before. Being in tune with those emotions, and knowing when to confide them in the people around you, has been something Discovery has always been about, and we see it throughout this episode as well. Michael and Saru sharing a de-stressing scream session together before braving the unknown, Zora opening up about her own uneasy feelings to Stamets and Dr. Culber, even Book and Tarka’s degrading alliance (we’ll get to all… that in a bit), or the still fleeting sparks of romance between T’Rina and Saru — in big ways and small, “Species 10-C” is all about the vitality of being able to share these most basic instincts to feel, so that we can all better understand each other. And it comes so close to triumphantly celebrating that, after Michael’s team figures out a way to use a mathematical bridge language to talk to the 10-C, and make clear to them that the DMA is something doing horrifying damage back in our galaxy.
But everything has to go wrong, because this isn’t the season finale, but the precursor to one. All that hard work, all that wonderful science-y exploration, it all has to go out the window and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, because you need the 10-C to be at odds with Discovery’s crew, to have dire stakes for the finale. This is created, of course, by the fact that Book and Tarka finally make a move to forcefully disable the DMA, having been sneakily cloaked and attached to Discovery’s hull for the last two episodes. Or it’s more really Tarka, who, at this point has shockingly turned on Book to forward his own goals. Who could’ve possibly foreseen that Tarka would lie to Book about the threat his plan really has if it doesn’t work? Who could’ve foreseen that it might not work in the first place? Who could’ve possibly foreseen that all this would end with Book realising what a massive mistake he’s made siding with the rogue scientist?
The answer is literally everyone except Book apparently, whether it’s us, whether it’s Michael’s crew, whether it’s the captive Reno (speaking for all of us literally every time she brings Book over to her impromptu holding cell on his ship to go “hey this guy’s going to like, get everyone killed? Are you… seeing this?”), whether it’s Tarka himself. Their entire journey together has been about Book making a big show of how much he trusts Tarka, only for Tarka to almost immediately abuse that trust to do something aggressive, selfish, or more often than not a little mix of both — and, equally more often than not, it’s failed to work out for him. He was wrong about the DMA’s power source, he’s been riding off Discovery’s passage to the 10-C rather than figuring it out himself. And now the grand plan that he wants Book to be forced into trusting — tearing a way out of the 10-C’s native “hyperfield” with a violent explosion, in the hopes he can sneakily deactivate the DMA’s power source along the way — is what kicks off at the worst possible time for Michael and Saru’s negotiations with the 10-C, putting the species on a hostile stance right at the moment of potential peace.
If all this wasn’t so inevitable (Discovery has basically been screaming that Tarka is up to no good since the first second he slinked on screen), it might have been a little less infuriating to watch the series set up another big stakes finale like this. But the fact that the show had to pull this ripcord now, after an otherwise fantastic episode that played to the series’ emotional and cerebral strengths, undermines everything that came before it. The stage is set for another one of Discovery’s trademark explosive finales, consequences be damned — but at least we only have to wait a week to see if it was worth this penultimate stumbling block.