WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 premiere, "Kobayashi Maru," now streaming on Paramount+.
Star Trek: Discovery has made copious callbacks to The Original Series -- setting the first two seasons in the same timeframe, reprising familiar antagonists like Harry Mudd, and even casting its own version of Spock. And though the Paramount+ series catapulted itself almost 1,000 years into the future, its Season 4 premiere shows that some elements still persevere through all that time.
The episode in question is titled "Kobayashi Maru." That is the name of a test given to cadets in Starfleet Academy; considered a necessary rite of passage before becoming Federation officers. The trial involves its takers attempting a rescue mission while under attack from Klingons, with the intention not to suffer a single casualty. It's namedropped by Michael Burnham at the end of the episode, as the captain is debriefing the recent intense events with Starfleet President Rillak.
In the scene, Burnham discusses the feeling a cadet experiences upon failing the test. It makes one hyper-focus on the results, trying to make sure they're the one person to beat the impossible odds. Rillak has no background at Starfleet Academy, but seems to be well-studied in the prior practice. She adds that, in her opinion, the Kobayashi Maru teaches a future officer how to ultimately accept the concept of "failure" and mitigate the impulse to control things that you cannot.
The Kobayashi Maru was first brought up during Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, hailed by many as the best of the 13 films across the Star Trek universe. While we see Admiral James Kirk proctor a run of the test in the movie, we hear that he was the only person in Starfleet history to actually pass it, confounding the very intention of the impossible test.
It's later revealed how Kirk could do what every other person in Starfleet history could not: he cheated. After failing the Kobayashi Maru two times prior, Kirk secretly reprogrammed the computer to win the unwinnable situation. The stunt made Kirk something of a legend, earning him a commendation for original thinking. And while some may consider that cheating immoral, Kirk's reply to any naysayers would be that he simply doesn't believe in a no-win scenario.
It's clear that Michael Burnham has brought shades of James Tiberius Kirk into the 3200s. Her actions in the Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery premiere very much speak to someone who thinks they can have their cake and eat it too. When faced with a group of Starfleet personnel stranded aboard a space station that's sent into disarray by a gravitational anomaly, she puts herself and the ship on the line to get every last person aboard safely. She even leaves the U.S.S. Discovery to pilot a small shuttlecraft herself, earning some looks from Rillak.
And that's where it comes back to the Kobayashi Maru. According to Rillak, Michael still lacks some necessary skills to become a truly world-class captain. To her, being ready is being able to weigh the consequences of a decision and "make the hard call." Through what the president has seen, Michael needlessly takes risks to try to win what seems like unwinnable situations, and one day it could have catastrophic results.
Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 releases new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.
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