One of Star Trek: Discovery’s biggest themes has always been the importance of togetherness in times of crisis — from Klingon wars to Mirror Universe incursions, from being flung into the future to the conflict with the Emerald Chain, it’s a topic the show has proselytized time and time again. It’s a lesson worth repeating some times, but in some cases, returning to it can feel like it’s just spinning the wheels.
“The Galactic Barrier,” the 10th episode of Discovery season four, feels much more like the latter than the former, as Burnham prepared the crew to breach the known edge of the galaxy and finally come face to face with the 10-C, the mysterious species behind the Dark Matter Anomaly. Spread between the events aboard the ship as it navigated the galaxy’s edge (sorry, wrong franchise) and Tarka and Book’s own attempts to find a way to do the same after they went even rogue-er last week, there’s little in the way of forward momentum here as the season gets closer and closer to its conclusion, even if some forward momentum is a rather literal loose description of the episode’s plot. The Discovery starts the episode at one end of the galactic barrier, and finishes it on the other side.
So in between that little, literal forward movement, what is there to give “The Galactic Barrier” some thematic meat on its bones? A lesson that Discovery loves, and has already told multiple times this season, let alone across the various crises Burnham and her crew have faced in the show at large: putting aside differences and having faith in the people willing to stand next to you in a crisis is what will help things turn out all right. From Burnham and President Rillak (who signs herself up for Discovery’s potentially one-way trip to first contact as the Federation’s former top ambassador), to the lingering romantic subplot blossoming between Saru and Ni’Var’s President T’Rina, from Tarka and Book, to the flashback-revealed bond Tarka had with his former fellow Emerald Chain prisoner Oros, the episode is focused on these pairs of people and their initially rocky connections with each other being strengthened in the face of impending crisis.
Rillak and Burnham, for example — hardly the most friendly of pairs after the former has, several times this season, frustrated Michael as she manoeuvred the Discovery captain for her own political agenda — find themselves butting heads again when they are sent confidential information mid-mission that the DMA has moved into the Sol system, and is just days away from doing irreparable harm to Ni’Var and Earth. Rillak wants to keep the information from the crew, Michael wants to tell them so they know the true stakes of the already high-stakes first contact mission they’re on, and once again the duo’s loggerheads are over the mantle of command, civilian or otherwise, and trust in the people whose job it is to follow them. Meanwhile, as Tarka and Book return to the Chain encampment the former escaped from at the cost of leaving behind one of his only friends, we get to learn the rogue scientist’s backstory and just why he’s willing to risk so much to find a way to stop the DMA and flee to the life he had imagined with his former scientist friend. Surprise! It’s another story about two people who at first, couldn’t trust each other — Oros, because he was looking for a way to escape the Emerald Chain to a parallel universe; Tarka, because he was assigned to work with the engineer as, initially, a secret Chain plant to gauge Oros’ loyalty — finding common ground and ultimately persevering through a crisis with the strength of their bond.
“The Galactic Barrier” is this lesson told time and time again, in scales big and small — even the otherwise light-hearted will they/won’t they awkwardness between Saru and T’Rina becomes poignant, when the Kelpian offers to sit with T’Rina and comfort her after learning that Ni’Var is under threat of destruction. And it’s not necessarily a bad lesson for Discovery to teach — it’s been a vital theme across the entire show. But it’s one this season alone has leaned on multiple times already, stretching out its wider plot arcs to keep returning to this well. Each time it does so again, without really having much more to say than “it’s good when people work together when the shit hits the galactic fan,” the impact of that ultimate message feels undermined. In season four, we’ve already had this lesson put at the forefront of the show’s storytelling with Michael and her mother, and then again when the Federation decided to vote for peaceful first contact attempts with the 1o-C just a few episodes ago. It’s also powered the rift between Michael and Book, as they’ve gone down their divergent paths to find a way to stop the threat of the DMA.
With just a handful of episodes left in the season to tackle some pretty vital elements — we still know nothing about the DMA’s real purpose, or the species behind it, still with its unofficial designation — this rehashing of familiar themes and not really having more to say about them feels like Discovery is just treading water before it enters another, presumably explosive endgame. Time will tell as we head into these final few episodes of the season if taking another break will help or hinder the larger story Discovery is trying to tell. With the crew on 10-C’s doorstep at last now, there’s no more time to go over lessons the show has well and truly learned — only time to put that teaching into practice.