This season of Discovery has been slower-paced than earlier seasons, with the show peeling back the layers of its story with deliberation. I know some people are probably complaining about it, but I've enjoyed the greater emphasis on character moments that has come as a result. It's the reason I particularly enjoyed the first season of Star Trek: Picard (and just as a reminder, the second season of that program starts March 3, and I will be there). Of course, it certainly helps to have an actor the caliber of Patrick Stewart portraying those character moments. There are no Sir Patricks on Discovery, but Doug Jones comes within shouting distance, as does Sonequa Martin-Green (at least when she isn't whispering her lines, a truly annoying acting tic I wish she would get rid of). In this episode, the actor portraying the supergenius Ruon Tarka, Shawn Doyle, steps up to give an affecting performance as we see the full story behind him and the friend he is trying to use the DMA's power source to go "home" (an alternate universe) to. In the process, he turns the character from a raging asshole to a tragic raging asshole. I still don't like him, but I do hope he gets what he wants in the end.
This is revealed in a series of flashbacks as Book and Tarka, regrouping after the setback of "Rubicon," return to the planet (and the now abandoned Emerald Chain work camp) where Tarka was held to retrieve some hidden programmable matter that will enable them to pierce the galaxy's energy barrier. (This terminology was a bit inconsistent, as Tarka referred to it by the former label and Book kept calling it "antimatter," which are two very different things.) We see Tarka's friend, an alien named Oros, who Tarka was forced to work with to build a dilithium-free warp core (and spy on, as we learned at the end). The two were confined together for two years, and their relationship gradually changed from antagonistic to friendship and perhaps love. (Although that was a bit ambiguous; there was one scene where Tarka comforted Oros after the latter was thrown into a PTSD-induced panic at the sounding of an alarm, and later on as they're working out their final calculations for the interdimensional transporter, we see them lying side by side on their sleeping mats, which have now been pulled together. The way Tarka speaks of Oros gives me the impression they were indeed lovers, but I suppose it could also be interpreted as a very close friendship.) They finish the interdimensional transporter and attempt to use it to escape, but despite all the power it's drawing on, it still isn't enough; the attempt fails and the guards rush in, beating both of them in the process and injuring Oros. Tarka overpowers one of the guards and uses his weapon to rip the Emerald Chain restraints out of both his and Oros' necks, and tries to carry the smaller man away with him. But Oros is too injured to move, and he insists that Tarka flee. A week later, there is a massive power surge at the base and the surviving personnel begin leaving. Tarka returns from the cave where he had hidden to find Oros gone, and he thinks the alien succeeded in his work and transported himself to his alternate universe. In the ten years since, Tarka has pursued a single-minded goal: to build and power his own interdimensional transporter and join Oros in his Kayalise, his people's paradise.
(Which also makes me think the two of them were more than friends. Not many people would put forth so much effort, and sacrifice so much, to be reunited with a "friend.")
These scenes reveal the depth of Tarka's vulnerability and pain, hiding under the prickly egotistical exterior. Book calls him an asshole, he later admits it, and it's absolutely true; but this episode shows him to be a little more than that.
As far as the Discovery storyline goes, the first contact mission to the 10-C is fast-tracked, and Discovery leaves with the contact team and President Rillek herself on board. She was the Federation's top ambassador for twenty years, and she turns power over to the vice president and insists on accompanying the delegation. This gives Rillek and Burnham a chance to work out their issues; in some interesting scenes between the two of them, they recognize each other's boundaries and come to a place of understanding and mutual respect. This character development also turns on the (rather unnecessary) heightening of stakes. The new DMA, replacing the previous one Tarka and Book blew up, is many times more efficient than its predecessor, and as Discovery heads into the energy barrier a final message from Admiral Vance reaches them. The new DMA has moved its mining location to the Alpha Quadrant, and its reach will shortly begin affecting Earth and Ni'Var. This strikes me as unneeded and a bit over the top; the situation was quite dire enough already. But it does serve as the impetus for Rillek and Burnham to settle their conflicts over leadership.
For those grousing about nothing happening, there is a fair amount of excitement in this episode, as Discovery makes its way through the galactic barrier. After boiling the usual pseudo-scientific Star Trek technobabble down to its essence, they end up penetrating and surfing a series of soap bubbles on the energy barrier's waves until they are carried beyond it. (Never mind that the galactic energy barrier is in itself absurd, a remnant of the original series.) They emerge into extragalactic space in one piece and set course for the DMA's hyperfield, and Burnham notes there is also a planet within two light-years of its location.
Saru and Ni'var President T'Rina also get a few scenes together, as Saru approaches her before Discovery leaves and tells her he would like to take her up on her offer of dinner. He also admits his feelings, in his restrained, methodical way: "When last we spoke, you suggested we might share a meal. I would very much like to take you up on that offer. But Discovery is leaving very shortly, and as you know we may not....[return, he doesn't say] so I thought I should tell you while I'm able how much our new friendship has meant to me, and how much I've enjoyed working with you. In any event, I feel as if there could be something here, perhaps more than a friendship?"
T'Rina doesn't get a chance to answer, as one of her aides comes up and interrupts them. But she ends up on Discovery anyway, as the Ni'Var delegate doesn't arrive at Federation headquarters before Discovery has to leave and she decides to board in the delegate's place. Which Saru discovers as he walks the ship's corridors with Dr. Culber and is gobsmacked. (Culber immediately realizes what happened: "You said something to her, didn't you? Good for you.") Later on, after Rillek reveals the news of the new DMA moving into the Alpha Quadrant to the entire crew, Saru seeks T'Rina out to tell her how sorry he is, and she asks him to sit with her: "I would appreciate your company. I find you a comforting presence."
Stamets' adopted daughter Adira also returns before Discovery leaves, and like any new dad, he gushes over their presence and embarrasses the heck out of them. He later apologizes and says he's always going to reach out to them if he sees they're hurting, which is a thing his own father never did with him. Adira accepts this: "I have been warned."
This series of character moments basically makes the episode for me. It's not quite the strongest episode of the season, and I'm sure it will end up being the calm before the storm. Book and Tarka are on their way, after all, and there's that planet close to Species' 10-C hyperfield which I'm sure will figure prominently in the final three episodes of the season. But I for one have greatly enjoyed this season's greater emphasis on character, and I hope it continues.
(Almost forgot. One more thing: at the beginning when David Cronenburg's Kovich is holding his strategy meeting with Burnham, Vance, Saru and a few new characters who will make up the diplomatic delegation, he notes, perfectly deadpan: "It's nice that they're all so eager for a three-hour tour outside the galaxy." Somebody is a Gilligan's Island fan.... )