Scanning for spoilers now, Captain…
So far, "Star Trek: Discovery" has fallen short of our expectations. Writers have put too much emphasis on technobabble to move the story along, and the pacing of each episode has been uneven, resulting in a finale that more often than not feels rushed. In fact, the storytelling as a whole has lacked focus on character development, ultimately disconnecting viewers from the characters.
By this point in Season 1, we'd already had two episodes with the enigmatic, charismatic Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson), including "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" (Season 1, Episode 7) — arguably one of the best episodes of the first season. No Season 2 episodes have yet stood out that much, and no other character has proven as memorable as Mudd.
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With Spock and Burnham taking us to Talos IV last week, we were left wondering how the story was going to negotiate this potential minefield of established "Star Trek" lore — and even why the story had taken us here. Is this just fandom for the sake of fandom, or was a trip to Talos IV really necessary?
The answer to that will no doubt be debated for some time. While "Star Trek: Discovery" represents an updated "Trek" and an attempt to bring it to a new generation, is a throwback like this meant to gratify the established fanbase, or was it aimed at encouraging younger viewers to now explore the original series? Probably a bit of both.
However, the most important takeaway from the latest episode, "If Memory Serves," is that it handled this questionable venture into "Trek's" past well — very well, actually — and has consequently given us the second-best episode of this season, closely following "New Eden" (Season 2, Episode 2).
It begins with the "Previously on Star Trek" segment, which has been restyled as a retro look back at the events of the original series' pilot episode, "The Cage." It cuts nicely back to Pike (Anson Mount) on the bridge of the USS Discovery as he worries in his logbook monologue voice-over about Cmdr. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finding Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck) before the top-secret Starfleet unit Section 31 does.
Speaking of Section 31, the power struggle between Capt. Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Capt. Leland (Alan Van Sprang) continues to brew. Georgiou instructs Pike not to participate in the search for Burnham. Instead, she tells him to keep the USS Discovery where it is and to salvage parts of the modified probe that attacked the shuttle craft.
Pike has turned out to not only be a strong, standout character, but also one that the viewers have begun to warm to. He's firm but fair and has successfully carved out his own unique style of command — a significant accomplishment given that his peers include the likes of James Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway and Jonathan Archer.
He also seems to be adopting something of a father role for both Burnham and Lt. Tyler (Shazad Latif), as each deals with their own current set of issues.
Meanwhile, the shuttlecraft with Burnham and Spock approaches Talos IV, and they drop out of warp to find themselves staring down the throat of a black hole. Naturally, Burnham reacts and tries to pull up, but Spock steps up to the console and pushes her hand down on the throttle, taking the tiny spacecraft through the swirling vortex.
As we suspected might happen, the Federation fugitives are not stretched by the forces of gravity until their bodies split apart. Instead, the black hole vanishes, and they find themselves in orbit around Talos IV … and the opening credits roll.
Aboard Discovery, poor Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is having a hard time getting Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) to adjust to … well, being back alive. He's clearly not the same warm and fuzzy Dr. Culber we once knew, and he has some issues to work through, not the least of which is confronting Tyler — who, as Voq, was the one who snapped his neck in "Despite Yourself" (Season 1, Episode 10).
On the surface of Talos IV, Burnham tentatively steps out of the shuttle, unsure of what to expect. The modern re-creation of the planet is done well, down to the iconic singing blue plants — no Styrofoam sets here. While waiting inside the shuttle cockpit, Spock is visited by Vina (Melissa George), the last survivor of the crashed Federation survey ship, the SS Columbia, and the woman with whom Pike shared the events of the "The Cage." Burnham returns, phaser drawn, and Vina explains some of the background story, adding that the Talosians wish her no harm and would like to meet in their natural habitat, under the surface of the planet.
Burnham and Spock beam down, and we see the modern interpretation of the Talosians, which again is tastefully done. Thankfully, exposition is kept strictly to the necessary amount, and the Talosians' prognosis is that Spock is "experiencing time as a fluid, not a linear construct, and conventional logic has not helped him interpret such an experience."
Straightforward medicine will not help Spock's condition, and he knew that the only option was to seek the assistance of the Talosians. They will put Burnham in Spock's mind so she can see things for herself, but they ask in return that they can observe the "entire conflict between them, during childhood, the defining experience, the wound that Burnham inflicted" for their own understanding.
While keeping in line with the fact that the Talosians actually study life-forms in this way, as we saw in "The Cage," it also provides a convenient opportunity for us to observe this moment in the siblings' history. Reluctantly, Burnham agrees.
Through the power of flashback, we learn that the Red Angel first appeared to Spock when he was a boy, shortly after Burnham had run away from home. It showed him that her death was imminent and exactly where to direct their mother and father to find her, thus changing her fate. Much more recently, it appeared to him once again, and this time, it showed him the end of all life in the galaxy.
There are a couple of subplots running simultaneously with the Spock story arc, the most interesting of which is Culber's struggle to readjust to normal life. However, another subplot that might prove to be significant later is that Lt. Saru (Doug Jones) discovers that someone aboard the USS Discovery has accessed the transceiver array and sent three unauthorized, encrypted sub-space transmissions.
On Talos IV, Spock seems to be able to hold an exchange with Burnham. The dialogue is well written, as the conversation quickly turns to a confrontation over events past and present. Spock says that, during his last encounter with the Red Angel, he sensed that it was human and that it felt lonely and desperate.
The Talosians can once again place Burnham inside Spock's mind. She sees him in his cell on Starbase 5. Two guards and a doctor enter, and Spock overpowers them, rendering them unconscious using the Vulcan neck pinch. But he does not kill them, confirming what Burnham and Pike believed all along: Spock is not a murderer.
Back on the Discovery, Culber confronts Tyler and clearly wants a fight. In a scene that's handled well, the two square off in the ship's mess, and we find ourselves rooting for Culber to smack seven bells out of Tyler; after all, he deserves a little payback. What could've easily turned into an over-choreographed exhibition of unrealistic martial arts moves is actually portrayed as two normal people fighting, both of whom aren't terribly good at it.
Saru sensibly stops anyone from interfering and lets the fight run its course. Pike naturally has a few words with Saru for doing that, but the discussion yet again demonstrates why he's such a great captain. He's an intelligent and empathic mentor who offers sound advice based on the wisdom of his own experiences, and this is effectively conveyed through good dialogue.
We stay with Pike as he enters his ready room and Vina appears. It's an emotional moment for him — he hasn't seen her in two years. The scene is beautifully handled as Pike struggles with this utterly unexpected and overwhelming experience, but time is against them, as the Talosians can only project her so far for so long. They also project Burnham, who shares her information with Pike, and they wonder what ulterior motives Section 31 has.
Pike immediately orders the Discovery to Talos IV, but the spore drive has been sabotaged. Tyler is implicated in both this and the sending of those unauthorized, encrypted sub-space transmissions — though he says he didn't do it — so he's confined to quarters. The crew plots a course to Starbase 11 and plans to veer off halfway and run silent to the Talos system, hopefully throwing off any Section 31 vessel that might be tracking them.
It's crunch time on Talos IV, as Burnham has to share her memory of the falling out that she initiated with Spock to "protect him," per her agreement with the Talosians. This is a part of the story arc that has never sat well. Why did Burnham have to be related to Spock? They could just as easily have been childhood friends, each one seeking the other out at Vulcan kindergarten because they were "different." But no, we have to go wading into "Trek" lore with our Starfleet size 10s and get tangled up in the threads of history. We accept this relationship now, largely because we have to — and because of good, believable performances — but it will always feel like something that was unnecessary.
The attempt to throw off the pursuing Section 31 vessel has been unsuccessful, and the Discovery has been followed to Talos IV. Both ships attempt to beam Spock and Burnham back at the same time, so one of them has to disengage their transporter lock before they're pulled apart at a subatomic level. Pike reluctantly backs down, so Spock and Burnham are beamed aboard the Section 31 ship. Obviously pleased with this result, Leland bids Pike adieu and hastily warps out of the system — except a shuttlecraft has been detected leaving the surface of Talos IV and approaching the Discovery.
In a not-entirely-unpredictable-but-nonetheless-effectively-understated switcheroo, the Talosians project the image of Burnham and Spock onto the Section 31 ship, while the real Burnham and Spock escape in the shuttlecraft. Clever, clever.
This is an enjoyable episode that finally has us feeling impatient for more.
We're now past the halfway point in the season, and just like Season 1 did at this stage, "Discovery" seems to be picking up the pace. However, unlike in Season 1, no one has any (credible) clue yet as to how this is going to unfold. You may remember that last year, theories about the relationship between Voq and Tyler were beginning by now, and some already speculated that Lorca might have been from the Mirror Universe.
Fingers crossed, then, that the Red Angel turns out to be a worthy, well-thought-through surprise and not some ultra-esoteric whimper that leaves us deflated and disappointed.
The first season of "Star Trek: Discovery" is available to stream in its entirety on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Netflix in the U.K. "Star Trek: Discovery" Season 1 is available now on Blu-ray.
The second season of Star Trek: Discovery consists of 14 episodes with no midseason break. It airs on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the U.S. and on the Space TV channel in Canada; the rest of the world can see it on Netflix on Fridays.
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