Star Trek: Discovery
Discovery has proven itself a number of times this season. One episode revealed its personality and emotional range, another its ability to take big new sci-fi risks worthy of a legacy. But this week’s installment goes unusually bold, and it pays off in spades: “If Memory Serves” finds Discovery dipping explicitly into the existing canon for the first time, to incorporate the actual events, rather than just the characters and fan-service references, of Star Trek’s first, failed pilot, “The Cage.” It demonstrates the newest show’s ability to do what its predecessors did with their predecessors, to spin what we already know about Trek in a way that feels respectfully new, even going so far as to dignify the now-corny 1960s material with which it set itself up to intersect.
Whereas the original series’ attempt to incorporate its false start into its narrative is pretty cruel and weird — with Pike returning in two-parter “The Menagerie,” albeit confined to his “beep-beep machine,” as my friend calls it — Discovery’s return to the home of the big-headed, powerfully psychic Talosians gives Pike and Spock’s original adventure monumentally more legitimacy, without ruining anybody’s life. I’m not convinced we really needed to go to Talos IV to “fix” Spock’s nervous breakdown, and I’m still incredulous that we all just casually trusted the Talosians after everything Pike and Spock knew all too well about their illusion-scamming habits. But the episode — in particular its production design and script, but also some positively Kubrickian cinematography — goes a long way toward justifying the choice to bring the two original Trek stars into the Disco fold.
So, yes, we all go to Talos IV. This is some Inception–ass psychic exposition, so hold onto your butts: turns out Spock needed the Talosians’ help to put his brain right after the Red Angel — which he confirms is definitely a human from the future — appeared to him in a second dream (recall that the first one came when he was a child, when it helped him prevent Michael’s would-be gruesome death-by-monster), invited him to a remote ice planet, and encouraged him to mind-meld with it. Very normal! Not at all the behavior of a pervy sexual predator in the AOL chat room of space-time! Through said mind-meld, Spock sees the future the Red Angel came from, in which a veritable nuclear armageddon takes out most of the galaxy; then he short-circuits due to the Red Angel’s experience of space-time being “fluid” and his own logic-dependent psyche demanding it be linear.
Somehow, the Talosians heal said psyche with the help of Vina (Melissa George), the human woman from “The Cage” who was rescued by the Talosians and now works for them in exchange for them hiding her deformities with iLLuSiOnS. (She and Pike were also a thing, but more on that later.) Burnham needed to be there, I guess, because she had to provide “context” to his healing process? It’s kind of vague — seems to me like she actually needed to be there because he uses her awful childhood betrayal as a psychological cornerstone, and now he’s just obfuscating — but at this point I just went with it, since the emotional and intellectual ROI was about to get very good.
Maybe it’s because I’m an older sister to a younger brother, but I found Spock’s whole breakdown to be suspiciously selective in terms of when he would push through and help Burnham and when he would shut off again. His prickly reception to Burnham’s reconciliation attempts, however, is perfect. Ethan Peck and Sonequa Martin-Green truly radiate Big Sibling Energy as they bicker, with Spock nitpicking Burnham’s logic until she finally throws up her hands and takes a perfectly timed potshot at his beard. (She’s wrong, of course. The beard works just fine.) And the unpacking of their relationship offers some of the smartest subtext this show has yet to produce.
In exchange for their unscrambling services, the Talosians demand payment: Michael and Spock must take them on a tandem trip down memory lane, to relive their devastating childhood falling-out — their “defining experience.” Talosians are basically emotional chupacabras: Their existence is built on vicarious emotional experience, which is why they conned the Enterprise crew in “The Cage.” (Since then, it seems they’ve at least learned the value of consent.) “You want to experience our pain? Why? For your entertainment?” Burnham asks, horrified. “This is how we understand. How we survive,” the leader responds. “Survive another way!” she snaps. It’s the first in a trio of moments this week that are unusually subtle (for Trek, anyway) in how they comment on contemporary issues of injustice and trauma. Talosians’ way of “improving” themselves, of course, is that of our own society: We, too, put the burden on the oppressed to repeatedly perform and relive their suffering in service of educating the privileged. (Burnham eventually consents, at Spock’s urging, to save him.)
Five minutes later, the second moment: As Michael tries to apologize in the middle of their rehashing of the Red Angel conundrum, Spock cuts her off. “No. I am not here to absolve you, Michael Burnham. This is not about your feelings.” “I risked everything to bring you here,” she protests. “It does not surprise me that you see it that way,” he responds, “but it was I who brought you here — to see what I have seen.” While the parallel doesn’t quite line up for me personally — again, I found Spock’s whole deal to be a bit spiteful; they were children, and Burnham is obviously deeply contrite — the exchange is nevertheless a note-for-note recreation of the well-worn complaint of a privileged ally wanting a cookie for doing the right thing, and it’s a smart way to frame their dynamic. What Michael said as a child to push him away — basically that he’s a cold, half-breed freak who could never love anything, though it could not have possibly been farther from the truth about that sweet lil’ boy (Liam Hughes) — was heinous, and indeed a “defining experience,” no matter how much Spock denies it. The interspersing of Martin-Green and Peck recreating the children’s argument as adults (and breaking my cold, dead heart in the process) makes that much obvious. I just hope they can cry and work it out and hug by the finale; otherwise my therapist is going to have an irritating few weeks.
The third moment belongs to the tragic, albeit perhaps inevitable, breakup of Culmets. Stamets has been trying desperately to get back to whatever fantasy version of their relationship he created in his mind after Culber’s death, steamrolling over the latter’s obvious discomfort at being in a body he doesn’t recognize. Then again, this isn’t exactly new; Stamets always sort of took Culber for granted, which Culber points out before finally yelling, “What’s normal about this? … You want me to pick up where we left off but you have no idea — !” In its first season, Discovery proved it could navigate the delicate terrain of sexual assault metaphors with Tyler’s own body dysphoria and possible “violation” by L’Rell; now that’s coming out again with Culber, who clearly went through a traumatic physical experience and now — like so many assault victims — is dealing with the second trauma of feeling alienated by his own body. Stamets means well, but expecting things to go back to normal is like Cardinal Sin No. 1 of being the partner (or even friend!) of someone who has gone through something that traumatic.
Meanwhile, on the bridge, a few developments: Against Section 31’s express orders, Discovery has followed Spock and Burnham to Talos IV, thanks to some Talosian FaceTime, which projects Vina into Pike’s ready room to convince him to come pick them up. Anson Mount does some delightful work here, giving us a refreshing dose of Emotionally Blindsided Pike at the sight of his long-lost love; it’s a compelling, if thin, moment of tenderness we hadn’t yet gotten from him. He takes a fully unsettling leap of faith, though, trusting her and the Talosians to help them save Spock and Burnham and evade Section 31’s grasp, becoming fugitives from Starfleet as they rush to prevent galactic apocalypse — unsettling not only because, again, why are we blindly trusting Talosians, but also because it puts Pike in a weird position where he’s just made a personally motivated call that put the entire Discovery crew at risk. Luckily it worked out this time, but now we know that he can be manipulated in this way. And just when I was starting to trust our new stepdad!
Personal Log, Supplemental:
• There are Space Roombas on Star Trek, now. Someone on this show’s crew is a Star Wars nerd and I want to know who’s responsible for these droids.
• This week is full of exceptional dialogue, but honorable mention must be made of this hall-of-famer from Saru: “The Starfleet Manual offers no regulatory guidelines for interactions between humans with Klingons grafted to their bones and a ship’s doctor returned from the dead.” Our post-vahar’ai Kelpien friend is sounding more like a reckless Starfleet captain every day.
• Pike/Tyler (Pyler? Tyke? Talk to me, shippers) vibes are out of control again this week, with Tyler admitting to Pike that he was in love with Burnham and Pike doing a little smile thing at the idea of Tyler being an actually lovable person who doesn’t really like Section 31 but sticks with it because it’s the sole remaining vehicle in which he can do any good. Unfortunately he’s later forced to relieve Tyler of duty and confine him to quarters after the crew discovers his Section 31 codes have been used to pass petabytes of information to an unknown source via subspace transmission, and also to sabotage the spore drive? This was obviously Airiam, who has been hacked by the future, but this is how the plot thickens.
• But a challenger in the ship wars approaches in the form of Culber/Tyler?! After yelling at Stamets, Doctor Reborn lays into the former Klingon in the mess hall — understandable, since he killed him and all — and they fight to a stalemate. Culber says, while literally in Tyler’s arms, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” to which Tyler responds, looking him dead in the eye with that goddamn face of his, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” At this point I’m not sure whether there is a soul in this galaxy Shazad Latif could not have sexual chemistry with, but I am certainly not interested in finding out.