Feb 25, 2019
Star Trek: Discovery “Lethe”
Previously on Star Trek: Discovery: Michael Burnham was Starfleet’s first mutineer, yadda yadda yadda, she grew up as Sarek’s “ward”, blah blah blah, Captain Lorca brought her to the USS Discovery which is the only Starfleet ship with a super-duper spore drive, etc etc etc—look, if you’ve seen any prior episode, you’re already extremely familiar with most of what gets covered in the previouslies, but at least we’re also reminded of General Kol who disrupted Voq’s plans to reunite the Klingon Empire, and we’re also reminded of how Capt. Lorca and Lt. Boytoy escaped from a Klingon prison vessel.
On what I assume to be the planet Vulcan, Ambassador Sarek and “Adjunct V’Latak” board a shuttlecraft. Though, if this really is Vulcan, I’m not sure what to make of the big moon in the sky. Unless this is that mysterious “Delta Vega” planet that Old Spock was marooned on in Star Trek ’09.
Sarek tells V’Latak to set a course for the “Cancri system”, and when V’Latak asks about the nature of their diplomatic mission, Sarek says it’s better he not know.
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Cut to Discovery, and another zoom-in on the ship brings us to a corridor where Michael and Tilly are jogging. And as they jog along, Burnham has a comical hopping gait. Is this how Vulcans run? Burnham says Tilly has to push herself if she hopes to reach her stated goal of becoming captain one day, and even dismisses Tilly’s suggestion that she can just move up in rank based on her “personality”.
To which Tilly replies, “That’s just something people with no personality would say,” but immediately realizes she inadvertently insulted Burnham once again. Also, I must admit the “Disco” shirts the ladies are wearing threw me for a moment until I realized they’re supposed to stand for “Discovery”.
Burnham says if Tilly improves her speed enough, she could earn a “physical commendation”, which could mean a transfer to a “Constitution class like the Enterprise,” which could then put her on the “first officer track”. Which seems to imply that at least at some point, Tilly aspired to become the Enterprise’s first officer. Just think: the Big Three on TOS could have been Kirk, McCoy… and Tilly. Only in my dreams.
Burnham adds, “Cadet to captain, just like that.” That’s odd. Why is she summarizing the plot of Star Trek ’09 for us?
Cut to Lorca and Lt. Boytoy fighting Klingons in a holographic simulation, which pretty much means the Discovery has a fully functional holodeck, 80-90 years before holodecks were treated like new technology on The Next Generation. Sure, I could use the animated series episode “The Practical Joker” to handwave this away (it depicts what’s basically a holodeck on Kirk’s Enterprise), but if I keep trying to rationalize all the tech on Discovery that’s more advanced than anything seen on TOS, that’s all I’ll end up doing in these recaps.
Once the two are done fighting holographic Klingons, it’s revealed that Lorca was able to kill 24 Klingons, while Boytoy was able to take out an impressive 36. Lorca starts asking Boytoy questions about his personal background, and since it seems this character will be sticking around for a while, I guess I’ll take the time to look up his character’s actual name, which is… Lt. Ash Tyler. Okay then. And yes, I realize there’s a lot of online speculation about who this character really is, but this episode only depicts him as a loyal Starfleet officer and doesn’t hint at anything else, so I’ll just stick with that.
Eventually, Lorca offers Tyler the position of Chief of Security, recently vacated after the previous chief satisfied her death wish by releasing a gigantic killer creature from confinement for no particular reason. Lorca says that he’s seen how Tyler is able to fly, shoot, and “fight like a Klingon” (hmm, maybe there is a hint, after all), so why not offer a senior position to somebody he met a week ago?
Back on Sarek’s vessel, he notes they’re close to their destination, and yet the ship hasn’t dropped out of warp. So V’Latak sticks a needle into his arm that causes all the veins in his body to start glowing. Which means he’s turning himself into a human bomb, much like in that episode of Enterprise where religious fanatics took over the ship by sticking needles into their arms and also turning themselves into bombs. But I’m guessing the inspiration here is more likely suicide bombers in general, mixed in with that Extremis thing from Iron Man 3.
It seems V’Latak is a fanatic as well, and he believes this mission is in conflict with “true Vulcan ideology”, and he’s blowing himself up to prove “logic” is the one true way and he belongs to some faction that wants Vulcan to withdraw from the Federation. He explodes and the ship is disabled.
In the mess hall, Tilly and Burnham have post-workout antics at the food replicators, with Burnham being all Vulcan-like and ordering the computer to synthesize a meal with the “correct ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fat” and Tilly reacts with, “Oh my god, you are so scary!” I slowly feel myself getting back on the Tilly bandwagon during this episode. And there’s a strange moment where the computer replicates the meal and announces these are “two appetizing and nutrient-filled burritos!” Like, what? Computer, chill. You don’t need to sell somebody on a meal that was made to their exact specifications.
Tilly then spots Ash Tyler eating alone and she’s already splooshing for him. She’s heard he was able to kill six Klingon warriors and “I kind of feel like that makes him even hotter!” She goes to sit with him, and Burnham is obliged to join them. Like everyone in Starfleet, Tyler has already heard of Burnham, the famous mutineer, but it seems he’s only interested in judging people in the “here and now”.
He offers up his hand, and Burnham shakes it, and she momentarily gets a look like her Spidey Sense is warning her about Tyler. Instead, it seems she’s getting a psychic vision of Sarek being mortally wounded, and she grabs her gut and collapses to the floor.
As established in a previous episode, Burnham and Sarek have a psychic link, due to Sarek passing on part of his katra to Burnham when she almost died as little girl. In Psychic Space, Burnham sees Sarek and goes chasing after him, only to end up in one of Sarek’s memories.
This particular memory finds lots of Vulcan parents milling about with their kids. Also milling about are Sarek, Burnham, and Sarek’s wife Amanda Grayson, previously played by Jane Wyatt and Winona Ryder and Cynthia Blaise (look it up), and now being played by Mia Kirshner, who 16 years later I can still only think of as Terror Mandy from 24. What’s that? She was on 6 seasons of The L Word? Pssh.
In the memory, Sarek breaks the news that Burnham will not be accepted into the “Vulcan Expeditionary Group”. Burnham is humiliated and apologizes for not being good enough, and Sarek assures Amanda that they can find a place for Michael in Starfleet, “where requirements are less extreme.” Which nicely explains the flashback in an earlier episode where Sarek pushed Burnham into a Starfleet career, whereas his previous appearances in this franchise made it clear he holds a rather dim view of Starfleet.
Then Sarek turns and sees the current version of Burnham in his memory, and yells at her that she shouldn’t be here, because this is “my mind!” He then flings her off into the distance like Agent Smith punching out Neo.
Burnham wakes up in Sickbay, and explains to Dr. Culber and Tilly and Captain Lorca about how she almost died when she was young, until Sarek transferred part of his katra to her, and now they’re linked. We also learn that the attack at the Vulcan Learning Center when she was a girl was actually the work of “logic extremists”, who wanted to kill Burnham because they didn’t want humans integrated into their culture, and this is obviously the same group behind the attack on Sarek’s ship.
Burnham thinks that Sarek is probably dying, which is causing him to form an involuntary psychic connection with her. She pleads with Lorca to help her find Sarek.
Cut to Lorca on the holographic horn with a Vulcan Starfleet admiral named Terral, who confirms that Sarek’s ship was attacked and lost in a nebula. Terral also explains that Sarek was heading to meet the Klingons, specifically two houses that are “independent” of Kol, in an attempt to make an end run around Starfleet to try for a peaceful resolution to the war.
Lorca says they’re going to rescue Sarek from that nebula, and Terral starts to complain about following proper “protocol” in the rescue, so Lorca just ends the transmission and grabs a fortune cookie from the bowl on his desk.
That means it’s Black Alert time again as the Discovery jumps to the nebula. Does this mean Lt. Stamets strapped himself into the spore chamber again? I assume so, but no one mentions it.
They don’t detect a signal from Sarek’s ship, so Burnham suggests using herself to locate Sarek. Down in Engineering, Stamets reacts to the idea of creating some sort of “synthetic mind meld augment” by calling it “Groovy!” He’s acting even goofier than usual, which is presumably an after effect of his experiences traveling the mycelial network all across the universe. He talks about how “this katra stuff is way cool”, but they would have to travel into the nebula for this mind meld machine to work. And they can’t do that because, and I quote, “[explode-y sounds with his mouth]”. It appears traversing the known universe is like getting hold of some really, really good weed.
Burnham says she can take a shuttlecraft into the nebula, as long as she can bring along Tilly for “moral support”. And no, she’s not being sarcastic. Lorca says she needs a good pilot to get her there, and he knows just the man for the job: Ash Tyler, of course.
Lorca then learns Admiral Cornwall is about to pay a personal visit to the ship. What? Wait a minute. The ship just used the spore drive to get to this nebula instantly. But the admiral’s ship was in the vicinity the whole time? Come on, guys, if you’re going to act like the Discovery is the only ship that can get to these remote locations in time, at least stick with that concept from scene to scene. Or maybe the Discovery was already so close to the nebula that it didn’t even need to use the spore drive to get there, which might be even dumber.
In Lorca’s ready room, Cornwall yells at him for launching an “unauthorized rescue attempt” using a mutineer as well as a prisoner of war who was just freed a week ago. She’s also pissed off about Stamets engaging in “eugenic manipulation” by injecting himself with tardigrade DNA to get the spore drive working again. Lorca defends all of this in the usual way, saying that “rules are for admirals”, and not for a maverick such as himself who’s on the front line fighting a war.
He then calls her “Kat”, and whips out a bottle of scotch. He brings up their personal relationship and says they should stop talking like Starfleet officers and “start talking like friends.”
Meanwhile, the shuttlecraft carrying Tyler, Burnham, and Tilly is flying through the very psychedelic nebula. Burnham is upset because she’s seen Sarek’s dying thoughts, and they’re all about how she wasn’t good enough to get into the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. She was supposed to be his proof that “humans and Vulcans could co-exist, as equals”, but instead she’s become his “greatest disappointment”.
Tilly then hooks her up to the mind meld machine, which is of course some random prop that Burnham sticks to the side of her face. After a brief jaunt through Psychic Space, Burnham returns to the same memory, only this time she sees Amanda handing a book to the younger version of herself: It’s a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Continuity! Amanda makes Burnham promise she’ll never forget “that you’re human, too.” Too? Did they just copy and paste a conversation between Amanda and Spock? Because Burnham is entirely human. Also, isn’t it a little weird that this is supposed to be Sarek’s memory and we’re seeing things that only Burnham and Amanda could have witnessed?
Sarek comes over and again breaks the news that Michael’s application to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group was rejected. Amanda is heartbroken, but Sarek’s all like, hey, no human has ever served in the VEG before, so this was a long shot anyway, right?
Current-Michael calls out to Sarek in the memory, and he comes over to attack her again. But this time, she fights back with some Vulcan-Fu, and now the Matrix overtones are complete. The two have a martial arts fight, and in my head I’m trying to picture Mark Lenard circa TOS breaking out the jujitsu like this, and coming up empty. Back in the shuttle, Tilly gets some strange readings, so Tyler orders Tilly to take Burnham out of the mind meld.
At first, Tilly refuses, saying Burnham told her not to pull her out no matter what. But then Tyler says, “I outrank you,” and that’s pretty much all it takes for Tilly to pull the plug. Good ol’ Tilly, always coming through in the clutch.
Meanwhile, “Kat” and “Gabriel” are toasting each other with a “single malt, straight from the motherland.” They reminisce about old times, and a prior romantic relationship. Kat says she’s been worried about his erratic behavior of late, what with disobeying orders and such, and she knows he hasn’t been the same since the Buran. That would be the ship where he supposedly killed his entire crew to prevent them from being captured by the Klingons, but I’m guessing Kat doesn’t know about that. (Which makes it all the more bizarre that he would just blurt out that info in the previous episode in the presence of Tyler and Mudd, two men he barely knew.)
Kat reminds him he was being tortured by the Klingons a week ago, and now he’s already back in command. She asks, “How do you feel about that?” No surprise, Kat is a former psychiatrist, and Gabriel wonders if they’re “back in session”.
He adds, “Because if I have your undivided attention for 50 minutes, I can think of a whole bunch of other things we could be doing.” And while saying this, he puts his hand on her knee, and in case you don’t get what’s going on here, there’s even a sexy sax in the background. Though as far as the dialogue goes, I must admit I’m just going by the closed captions, because I was pretty sure he said “15 minutes”, which seemed like a strange thing to boast about. Regardless, Kat takes off her Starfleet badge, which I guess is the prelude to them doing it.
Back on the shuttlecraft, Tyler wants to take them back to the Discovery, but Burnham refuses to abandon Sarek. So Tyler provides the key to solving this mystery: He says he’s been near death himself, and he would have never fixated on how somebody disappointed him; instead, he says, when you’re about to die, you think about “what you wish you’d done differently!”
So Burnham puts the device back on and goes back in. She again witnesses the memory, and she and Sarek again have a big Vulcan-Fu sparring match, but this time, Burnham tries to reason with Sarek. She asks about the secret he’s trying to keep, and why he’s fixated on how she failed him. Sarek finally admits that he was the one who failed, and shows her the full memory.
She gets to see the conversation between Sarek and the guy in charge of the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, where VEG Guy points out that not only has Burnham excelled, but so has Sarek’s son Spock. VEG Guy worries that letting both Burnham and Spock into the Expeditionary Group would allow too many “non-Vulcan” members into its ranks. Sarek protests that Spock is Vulcan, but VEG Guy reminds him that Spock is “half-Vulcan”, and even calls him “another of your… experiments.” So it comes down to Sarek’s Choice: He can push for Burnham to be allowed into the VEG, or he can push for Spock, but not both.
And so, he chooses Spock over Burnham. Current-Burnham wonders why he didn’t just tell her the truth all along. He says it’s because Spock eventually decided to join Starfleet, meaning his heart-wrenching decision was ultimately for nothing. Sarek didn’t want to admit he done goofed, so he kept it to himself, even though it meant Burnham felt like a failure her whole life.
As he admits to feeling “shame”, he keels over with bright neon green blood pouring out of him. Burnham does the mind meld on Dream Sarek, which eventually causes Real Sarek to wake up on his ship and hit a button on a console that alerts the Discovery to his location.
In Lorca’s quarters, it seems he and Cornwall have just finished doing the deed. He’s asleep as she examines the scars on his back, including an odd triangle-shaped one. This causes Lorca to suddenly wake up in a state of panic, and he holds her by the throat and pulls a phaser on her. And according to previous episodes, that red light on top indicates he has the thing set to kill. Wow, what a guy.
He apologizes and grunts, “I’m not used to having anyone in my bed!” Hey, and so are most Trekkies, I would imagine, but most of them don’t sleep with guns under their pillows.
She freaks out, understandably, and finally realizes Lorca is totally fucked up, despite all the psych evaluations he’s passed. In fact, she calls him “pathological” and realizes this whole seduction was just an attempt to get her to “back off”. But now she’s realized that she’s can’t leave the Discovery, Starfleet’s most powerful weapon, in the command of a “broken man.”
After she storms off, Lorca gets word that Ambassador Sarek has been rescued. Down in Sickbay, Burnham tells Lorca that there’s no way Sarek can meet with the Klingons in his present, weakened condition. So Lorca suggests, you know, just off the top of his head, that Admiral Cornwall can go meet with them instead, and she can also bring a very small envoy so as to “not rattle the Klingons”, in an attempt at making peace. Hmm.
Lorca then offers a bridge post to Burnham, along with an official title: “Science Specialist”. Burnham accepts, and talks about how grateful she is to serve under Lorca. She then goes to talk to Sarek, who’s playing dumb about the big revelation from his memories. But she says sooner or later, they’re going to talk about it, because that’s what “families” do. Sarek replies, “Technically, we are not related.” Oh, Sarek, never stop being a bundle of joy.
In the mess hall, Burnham synthesizes a glass of green tea, which the computer voice chirpily declares to be an “exceptional source of antioxidants, alkaloids, and amino acids!” What the hell is wrong with this ship’s computer? It’s like it’s been infected by infomercials.
Ash Tyler offers Burnham a seat at his table, and she confesses to wanting to cry, but having to smile, and feeling angry, and wanting to love, and she feels hurt and also hope. “What is this?”
Good ol’ understanding Ash Tyler says, “It’s just… being human.” Burnham is touched, and oh man, I’m now 100% convinced this guy is going to turn out to be so very evil. She seems taken completely off-guard by this remark, as if in her (at least) seven years of serving with other humans in Starfleet, the concept of conflicting emotions never occurred to her. Finally, she reaches out to shake hands with him for real.
Meanwhile, Admiral Cornwall has traveled to Cancri IV, to meet with those Klingon leaders in Sarek’s place. To no one’s surprise, the Klingons turn on her, and slit the throats of the men in her envoy. Kol himself appears in holographic form to say in Klingon that he had hoped to capture a “high-ranking Vulcan… but she is so much better.”
Back on the Discovery, Saru informs Lorca that Admiral Cornwall was just captured. Lorca simply says to inform Starfleet and wait for further orders, which confuses Saru, because he’s used to “alternative thinking on these matters”, but eventually he relents and goes to notify Starfleet.
Lorca then looks out the windows of his cabin, and we pan down to that same phaser, now tucked into his waistband, making it clear that he basically engineered Cornwall’s capture to preserve his status as captain of the Discovery.
This is one of the better episodes yet, though it still feels mostly adequate. Frankly, it’s an episode that I hope won’t be remembered that well by the time the season ends.
I think it’s mainly because this episode hinges on a dilemma (Sarek’s Choice between Spock and Burnham being allowed into the Expeditionary Group) that’s not really worth all the build-up. After visiting and revisiting this memory from multiple angles, we’re led to believe something horrible happened. But instead, it’s just a dad deciding to give one kid a better career than the other. Okay, so Spock is Dubya to Burnham’s Jeb. And?
Also, any depth in this plotline is completely dependent on knowing about Spock and Sarek’s relationship, as well as Sarek’s disdain for Starfleet, which were both established long before this series was ever conceived of. So it feels like a bit of a cheat.
And yes, it would appear the ship’s captain is a total scumbag, a criminal, and mentally deranged. But is he really that much more deranged and criminal than the typical Starfleet admiral we’ve seen on most Star Trek shows and movies? Even though Lorca is captain, he appears to be occupying the Insane Admiral role on this show, while Burnham will presumably be taking on what’s usually the captain’s role of leading the charge against him. Which means it’s likely this series is setting up a situation where Burnham has to mutiny against her own captain, again. Which might be pretty interesting, actually.
I also appreciated how, other than the talk about the mind meld machine, this episode was pretty light on the technobabble; the solution to the crisis was Burnham trying to understand how Sarek thinks, instead of coming up with some silly invention at the last minute. Though, the reveal of Sarek’s Choice feels a bit revisionist. It seems to imply Spock was the first (or one of the first) half-Vulcan, half-human hybrid, which is really not the impression I got from TOS. After all, in “Journey to Babel”, Kirk isn’t able to immediately figure out that Sarek is Spock’s father, even after meeting his human wife, suggesting Vulcans hooking up with humans isn’t all that unusual. It’s a bit of a retcon, though mostly a minor one.
And finally, for those who are wondering why this episode is called “Lethe”, which is a word never spoken in dialogue: it’s a word that literally means “forgetfulness” and “concealment” in Classical Greek, which sums up Sarek’s memories in this episode.
Next week: Possibly a remake of TNG’s “Cause and Effect”? And possibly romance between Burnham and Ash Tyler? And the totally expected return of Harry Mudd? I’m there.