Star Trek: Discovery season 4 episode 12 “Species Ten-C”
After a quick stop at a nearby planet to help learn the context for communicating with Unknown Species 10-C, Discovery finally arrives at the hypershield, where the crew exercises keen intelligence and fascinating problem-solving to start communicating with the alien race.
In the last episode, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her away team discover that 10-C communicate emotion via chemical compounds, an important discovery as this is the cultural context for which the Milky Way residents can approach 10-C. In “Species Ten-C,” Discovery reaches the hypershield, the massive construct in space that houses 10-C following their escape from their nearby doomed homeworld. Immediately, the hyperfield flexes our imagination, as we are told it is the size of Mars’ distance from the Sun, and that it holds three gas giants. Unfortunately, we are only told this information, not shown it, so we’ll hope the visual spectacle comes later. Or perhaps the show’s producers plan to purposefully hide the hyperfield’s interior for some dramatic reason?
Discovery first tries to send a few DOT robots, loaded with the “peaceful” pheromone, to the hyperfield to help convey the crew’s intentions, but the hyperfield swallows the DOTS in a plume of what looks like water, and Discovery is next. Despite their attempt to flee, the ship and its crew are pulled into the hyperfield and encased in an orb that blocks their view of… well, anything, and the orb is reportedly bringing them to one of the planets. How, then, are the crew supposed to initiate contact?
The crew knows that 10-C values boronite, the material the Dark Matter Anomley is harvesting back in the Milky Way. So, Burnham suggests launching a bit of boronite out of the ship as a gift, hoping that 10-C takes that as a communication request. It works, and soon a member of the 10-C shows itself (kind of) right outside the shuttle bay doors. Being able to finally see 10-C is what we have been looking forward to for a long time, but since we actually don’t see much of the alien at all in this episode thanks to the gas planet’s atmosphere around Discovery, we bet the true, actual reveal – the one where we’ll get a good sense of what 10-C looks like – is still coming.
We won’t detail in its entirety the intricate process through which Burnham, President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal), Dr. Hirai (Hiro Kanagawa), and the rest of the first contact delegation learn how to communicate with the 10-C, but it involves quite a few elements, such as mimicking light patterns to establish fundamental comprehension, matching 10-C’s light shows with a three-dimensional representation of their hydrocarbons, and assigning symbols to the various hydrocarbons to form mathematical equations. Rest assured the process is really fascinating and, importantly, grounded in real-world math and science; for example, Burnham likens the math-based language the delegation decodes to the real-world Lincos, a type of constructed language posited in 1960.
Star Trek, especially Berman-era Star Trek, established its own framework for understanding its science. Thanks to the amazing imaginations of the various production crews, Star Trek‘s futuristic science feels like it makes sense, even if all these characters say is technobabble nonsense. Part of this futuristic science is the universal translator, which magically takes care of language barriers. In “Species Ten-C,” there are numerous methods of pattern-recognition, language interpretation, and math-based solutions that Burnham and her crew use to explain to the 10-C that they are, in fact, sentient and intelligent; this is a welcome change from every other first contact scenario we’ve seen in this franchise. Suffice to say, it’s smart writing by writer Kyle Jarrow, and watching the crew solve this communication barrier is definitely a highlight of not just this episode, but season four thus far.
Also commendable is the diverse number of viewpoints Burnham enlists to ultimately solve the language barrier. There is a scene where we have Burnham, Saru (Doug Jones), Zora (Annabelle Wallis), President Rillak, Doctor Hirai, President T’Rina (Tara Rosling), and bridge officers Lieutenant Commander Kayla Detmer (Emily Coutts), Lieutenant Commander Nilsson (Sara Mitich), and Lieutenant Christopher (Orville Cummings), all offering their own input that ultimately helps the crew arrive at a communication solution. Burnham said to Detmer in the last episode that they will complete this journey “together,” and it’s turning out she was right. It’s a wonderful display of teamwork.
10-C is apparently also impressed with how the Discovery crew is able to prove their intelligence, as it sends a shuttle to the delegation. The away team President Rillak ultimately decides on is herself, Burnham, Saru, and President T’Rina – all people who offer a particular skillset to first contact, or represent those worlds that are in immediate danger thanks to the DMA.
One person does leave the group during their communication efforts, however: General Ndoye (Phumzile Sitole), as she has a different mission: keeping Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) and Ruon Tarka (Shawn Doyle) informed about what Discovery‘s crew is doing. Book had contacted the general earlier because he was looking for her to enact a plan to allow Book’s ship to launch off its hiding place on Discovery‘s hull and travel to the other side of the hyperfield. On the other side is what Tarka is looking for: the DMA power source. Unbeknownst to Book, Tarka knows more about the consequences of pulling the plug on the DMA’s power source than he lets on.
Thanks to incredulous eyesight and incredible comprehension by the captive Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), the Discovery engineer tells Book that he is being played; Tarka is actually well aware that removing the DMA’s power source will collapse the entire hyperfield, dooming anything and anyone inside it. Tarka does not share this information with Book, as such a discovery would surely trigger Book to not allow the plan to move forward, and how else, then, would Tarka reunite with his friend, Oros? Having Reno observes Tarka’s calculations from her holding area is pretty convenient, we must say, but alas it leads to Book confronting Tarka about this new information. Not that we actually see Book confront Tarka.
Which leads us to a major critique of this episode: why didn’t we see Book approach Tarka about the destructive nature of removing the DMA’s power source? Let’s consider the situation: Tarka and Book have teamed up as two people who are suffering from their own respective pain. They are bonded in a deep way, and by Tarka not sharing the true ramifications of his plan, this counts as a major betrayal of the friendship and partnership the two men have formed. Book would be understandably hurt by Tarka’s secrecy, but we don’t see that exchange play out. This storyline jumps from Reno telling Book that Tarka is hiding something, to Book reacting with anger toward Tarka for keeping this information from him. What a missed opportunity! This would have been a great moment for Doyle, who has so ably played Tarka, and it would have been a watershed moment for the relationship Book and Tarka have built across this entire season.
“Tell him to show you the math. His equations won’t make any sense, but the look on his face will. Like I said, pain makes people blind. You need to make this right.” Reno to Book about Tarka’s secret plan to collapse the hyperfield.
In any case, the confrontation between the two men ends up with Tarka taking control of their ship and Book being held in the same holding area as Reno. With the help of Ndoye, Tarka launches Book’s ship off Discovery and further into the hyperfield, which seriously messes up Burnham and company’s first contact efforts. When Tarka launches the ship, the small first contact delegation had already boarded the 10-C shuttle and transported to a replica Discovery bridge, where more communication exchanges were playing out. The away team was able to successfully invoke a “fear” emotion regarding Milky Way residents and the DMA, and 10-C was able to express the “sadness” emotion at that revelation – indicating that they understand the destructive nature of the DMA. It’s a huge development that is sabotaged by Tarka’s sudden action. The away team is transported back to the real Discovery bridge, leading Burnham to tackle the unexpected threat Tarka presents.
Taken together, “Species Ten-C” presents the most substantial development in the 10-C storyline yet, as Discovery‘s crew finally are able to communicate, albeit simplistically, with the extra-galactic civilization. We want to express major kudos to this show for taking such a deep dive in the fine details of first contact; most times, first contact between different cultures in Star Trek is a standard affair accomplished with the magic universal translator. Here, Discovery is completely shaking up the concept, and uses intelligent science and mathematics to accomplish this. With this in mind, “Species Ten-C” feels like a fresh take on what this franchise can offer, even after hundreds and hundreds of episodes.
There is only one episode left in this season, and there are many questions to be answered. What will happen now that 10-C knows its DMA incites terror in Milky Way residents? Will Tarka’s plan to destroy the DMA power source, and therefore destroy the hyperfield itself, be successful? Doesn’t this kind of qualify him as a madman, someone who is okay with sacrificing countless lives in pursuit of his goal? Will Book and Burnham eventually reconcile their relationship, especially now that Book will fight to stop Tarka? And as always, we’re wondering how Discovery ended up crewless in space as seen in “Calypso“; will that be answered this season?
- While most communication in Star Trek takes place on the bridge in front of the viewscreen, Discovery’s producers were wise to move the 10-C encounter to the shuttle bay. The expansive view granted by the wide bay entrance is appropriately dramatic for communicating with a species as big as the 10-C.
- Why didn’t anybody recognize or acknowledge that General Ndoye had wandered off in the middle of a vital first contact situation?
- Why didn’t Zora recognize the warp nacelle sabotage General Ndoye conducted?
- Zora asserts that she doesn’t feel right, and ultimately, it’s because of Book’s ship attached to her hull and the numbing device used to hide it. The ship was attached for 25 hours or so; why didn’t she bring this up earlier?
- Book reveals in this episode that he took his mentor’s name, Cleveland Booker, as per the courier tradition of carrying the trust associated with a name. Our Book is the fifth person to bear this name.
- President T’Rina rudely shuts down Saru when he speculates about what 10-C’s motivations are for entrapping Discovery, but everybody else in this episode, including the president herself, speculates at one point or another.
- Doctor Hirai references 10-C being on level two (or greater) on the Kardashev scale, the real-world method of estimating technological advancement, first proposed by a Soviet astronomer.
- There’s a continuity error around 30:47 in this episode, for those who enjoy such things, where the position of Saru’s hand changes from shot to shot.
- Is there some wonky editing going on around 34:09 when Book and Tarka are fighting? The scene begins with Book smashing through a display that is seemingly on the bridge, but then the next shot is him walking toward the bridge via that short little hallway.
- Why doesn’t Rillak question why General Ndoye asserts she would be better off not traveling on the 10-C shuttle? We know Ndoye wants to stay behind to help Book and Tarka, but of course no one else knows that.
- While it’s never a bad thing to express your emotions, as this show is apt to emphasize, Burnham’s conversation with Saru before they depart on the 10-C’s shuttle seems a bit out of place. She asserts that she feels like everything is “slipping through my fingers,” but why exactly does she feel that way? She and her crew just broke a major barrier in communicating with the 10-C, and the promise of further communication is nigh; shouldn’t she feel elated?
- 25 or so hours go by from when Reno is kidnapped to when Culber takes a cursory look at the engineering floor grate and discovers her combadge. No one noticed the badge before? And Zora didn’t realize a Discovery crew member was staying in the same place for more than a day?
- The camera fully orbiting Burnham in the last shot of the episode is a great touch by director Olatunde Osunsanmi, as a major wrench was just thrown in Burnham and company’s efforts to communicate with 10-C, and that’s not even counting the emotional investment Burnham still has in Book.
The fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery stars Sonequa Martin-Green (Captain Michael Burnham), David Ajala (Cleveland “Book” Booker), Doug Jones (Commander Saru), Anthony Rapp (Lt. Commander Paul Stamets), Wilson Cruz (Dr. Hugh Culber), Mary Wiseman (Sylvia Tilly), Blu Del Barrio (Adira), and Ian Alexander (Grey).
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada. Internationally, the series is available on Paramount+ and on Pluto TV in select markets.
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