Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 Episode 4 Review – Face the Strange

A twisty time loop offers a teachable moment for Commander Rayner as Discovery tumbles through its past—and future

Photo: Paramount+

This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 Episode 4

Time travel has been a staple of science fiction ever since the genre was invented. And Star Trek has always been curious about the concept—from the basic rules of how it works to the widespread impact caused by the tiniest of changes to history. From The Original Series’ classic “The City on the Edge of Forever” to Strange New Worlds’ more recent Lower Decks crossover “Those Old Scientists”, the franchise is full of time travel stories. But Star Trek: Discovery has played around with the concept more than most, from season 1’s Harry Mudd episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” to the headache (and potentially paradox) inducing Red Angel plot that saw the Discovery launched hundreds of years into the future at the end of season 2. 

To be fair, season 5’s “Face the Strange” time travel shenanigans are a bit more straightforward, if not particularly subtle about the larger aims of the episode. Rayner’s still going through what might be called an adjustment period as he settles into his new role as Discovery’s first officer, and finds Burnham’s insistence on feelings and meaningful emotional connection to be an annoying and inefficient way to command.

What Discovery doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that part of the reason Rayner is so interesting as a character is precisely because he’s such a fish out of water amongst this group of people who regularly engage in the professional equivalent of braiding each other’s hair at sleepaway camp. (Let the man be cranky, for goodness sake!) And let’s not kid ourselves, despite the fact that it all works out for them this week, he’s also not wrong. Michael’s crew is undisciplined and overly familiar and don’t respect things like “chain of command” or “basic boundaries.” Yes, for the most part that’s worked out pretty well for them. But it’s also not exactly aspirational, or even particularly safe behavior, and Rayner’s not a bad person for pointing that out (or not liking it). 

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That said, no one is likely all that surprised that this episode is essentially a Teachable Moment from start to finish and pretty much solely exists to Impart the Value of Emotional Connection to a man who doesn’t enjoy engaging in small talk. But, thankfully, it also offers an intriguing twist on the always delightful time loop trope, and in doing so is much more entertaining to watch than it probably should be. Yes, everything gets resolved in peak Discovery fashion—Rayner must convince a disgruntled season 1 era version of Michael to trust that her journey ultimately gets better—but it’s also a surprisingly deft way to examine just how far this series’ central character has come from her first moments onscreen. 

The premise of the hour is pretty simple: Determined to beat the Discovery crew to the next clue, L’ak and Moll have smuggled a time bug on board the ship, a creepy-looking insect-like device leftover from the temporal war. It paralyzes ships by freezing and cycling them through time until it runs out of power, a process that could take weeks or months to play out. Thanks to this little (literal) bugger, Discovery’s now stuck hurtling through various snippets of its own history in the same place, and Burnham and Rayner—who were in the process of transporting just as the first loop hit and thus are unaffected by it—have to learn to work together to stop it before their enemies beat them to the next clue. 

Well, the two of them and Stamets, who also exists out of time because of his tardigrade DNA and is aware of the looping going on, a sentence that is truly as ridiculous to type as it is to read. This show sometimes, y’all. Rayner’s expression when told about the tardigrade situation is how I often feel if I think too hard about the specifics of some of these plots.

Anyway, while our heroes try to figure out the pattern to the various time jumps and how long each will last, we’re bounced through some of Discovery’s greatest narrative hits. Burnham and Rayner find themselves on the bridge of the ship during its trip through the wormhole to the 32nd century, in dry dock as it’s being built, and in the midst of the crew’s battle with Section 31’s sentient AI, Control, before being yanked away again. There’s a blast back to Gabriel Lorca’s time in the captain’s chair (though, sadly, Jason Isaacs doesn’t make an appearance) and even a quick trip to the future—one that’s apparently full of destruction and death because Moll and L’ak managed to snag the Progenitors’ secret technology and sell it off to the highest (presumably terrible) bidder. All the more motivation for our heroes to figure out how to dislodge the time bug without destroying the ship or killing themselves in the process!

They’re successful only when Michael realizes she has to tell the Klingon War-era crew that she’s from the future and trust that the bonds she’s forged with them will be enough to convince them to help her. It works, of course, because this episode exists to teach Rayner a Valuable Lesson, but not before Michael must confront some uncomfortable bits of her past: namely, her obvious lingering feelings toward Book—that David Ajala basically appears in this episode solely to be shirtless is peak fan service—and her messy personal past as a mutineer. Michael, undoubtedly, has come a long way from the rash, furious girl who accidentally got her mentor killed and started a war. (And no matter how insufferable you might find Burnham now, whew, this is a timely reminder that she used to be so much worse. Growth is possible and real!) 

That Rayner ultimately uses the personal information Michael gave him—and the very specific story about how lost Michael had felt when she first came aboard Discovery—to convince her past self to allow him to save the future is this show at its most try-hard. But at this point, that either works for you or it doesn’t, and “Face the Strange” is an entertaining enough hour that the convenience of its resolution isn’t even as annoying as it probably ought to be. 

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With just 10 episodes in its final season, your mileage may (and likely will) vary when it comes to the usefulness of including an episode like this one, which doesn’t do much in terms of moving the larger story along. (In fact, it’s very clearly filler meant to cover for the fact that with just five pieces in the puzzle the crew is chasing, they literally can’t find a clue in every episode!) Technically, almost nothing of any significance happens during this hour.

Adira seems remarkably fine for someone who just went through a surprise break-up. Saru and T’rina are entirely absent, so it seems safe to assume their engagement news didn’t cause some intergalactic political incident. And I guess Dr. Culber must still be sleeping off the whole Trill symbiont possession thing. We learn nothing new about the Progenitors or the tech they left behind. And though Moll and L’ak at least appear in this episode, all we learn is that they want to be free and together, and somehow the payday from finding the god-like technology before Michael and the Federation do is going to ensure that. Can’t wait for the flashback episode that fills us in on that particular misunderstood backstory, is what I’m saying.


4 out of 5