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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe”

On a mission of peace, Sarek’s shuttle is damaged by a Vulcan extremist’s bombing, leaving him lost and on the brink of death, adrift in a nebula.  His mental link with his ward Burnham allows her to sense his peril, but how can she find him lost in the vast nebula?  Meanwhile, Captain Lorca’s old friend Admiral Cornwell begins questioning his mental state.

Putting aside a lot of the baggage that continues to weigh down this series (the pointless prequel setting, the disregard for Trek continuity) and taken on its own, “Lethe” is a pretty strong episode, probably my favorite episode so far since the opening two-parter.  The episode is anchored by two strong character stories, both of which I found compelling.  This gives this episode both a narrative focus and an emotional underpinning the last several episodes have been lacking.

The episode’s main story is the way Burnham is forced to wrestle with her complicated relationship with her adoptive father Sarek, and the many ways in which she sees herself as having disappointed him.  We have seen hints of this before, such as the early flashback of young Burnham in the Vulcan learning center, and here we see that Burnham’s human heritage led to her being rejected from acceptance into the Vulcan Expeditionary Force.  Time after time Burnham has striven to be the figure of Vulcan perfection she believed Sarek wanted her to be, and time after time she failed.  This episode begins to explore just what that did to her, and how that shaped the broken person she is now.  At the same time, the episode builds to an emotional crescendo in which we also see Sarek’s shame at the ways in which he feels he failed Burnham.  This leads to head-spinning continuity problems, which I will discuss in a moment, but emotionally this is a rich central story for this episode.

The show has danced around the existence of Spock so far, but I loved the way the show dealt with Spock head-on in that climactic scene with Sarek, in which we see that he was forced to choose Spock over Burnham by the Vulcan leadership.  And in a rare example of the show paying attention to Star Trek continuity, it was neat to see how the way Spock would later turn down the Vulcan Science Academy (an established piece of backstory that was a key element of the beginning of the 2009 rebooted Star Trek film) made Sarek feel that his impossible choice was all for nothing.  That is clever, character-based storytelling.

In the secondary story, we see Admiral Cornwell fly out to Discovery to confront her old friend Captain Lorca after he (ridiculously) disobeys and hands up on a different Starfleet Admiral.  Finally, we see a character becoming concerned about Lorca’s questionable behavior!!  When she storms out of his quarters, finally realizing what a sociopath Lorca is, it was a fist-pumping moment for me as an audience-member who has been questioning Lorca since his very first scene on the series, and also a heartbreaking moment between these two former friends (and, I guess, former romantic partners).  I like the way this episode developed, even in very brief moments, the picture of the relationship these two had clearly shared at some point in the past.  These scenes gave Jason Isaacs his best stuff to play so far in the series, and he was terrific.

Saru was on the sidelines this week, which is a bummer, but most every other Discovery crew-member gets some nice moments to shine this week.  I loved Lt. Stamets’ druggy, cheerful scene with Lorca and Burnham when he was tasked with creating another crazy gadget, this time to tap into Burnham’s mental bond with Sarek.  Cadet Tilly continues to grow on me, and I enjoyed the jovial way she deals with the stoic Burnham; the way she walked right up to the newly-rescued Lt. Tyler (the same way she didn’t shy away from befriending Burnham in the first place) and the way she did her best to help Burnham during the rescue mission.  And though I have serious worries about the obvious way the writers seem to be setting up Tyler’s character (which I will get to in a moment), l really enjoyed most of his scenes this week, particularly the moment in the shuttle in which he helps Burnham realize why Sarek keeps returning in his mind to a painful memory from her youth.  I also enjoyed most of Lorca’s scenes with his crew this week!  I likes his the way he was stern but also rather patient with the loopy Stemets, that he gives Burnham zero pushback to the idea of rescuing Sarek, and (while his actions might turn out to be self-serving), I like his later explanation that he did it for her, because he wants a crew around him who will also have his back.

I loved the look of Vulcan in that early scene, and I liked the Vulcan shuttle, particularly that first look we got at its interior.

So what didn’t I like?

Let’s start with some of the thuddingly obvious plotting that stuck out like a sore thumb.  Admiral Cornwell discovers some of what Lorca has been hiding and determines, wisely and accurately, that Lorca has no business being in command of a starship, let alone the Federation’s “secret weapon”.  And then she ridiculously tells no one and, OF COURSE, gets herself captured so she can’t act on that knowledge.  COME ON.  This is head-poundingly stupid.  She doesn’t file a report before she leaves on her super-dangerous solo mission??  She doesn’t call another Admiral to tell him or her what she’s learned??  This is insanely dumb, amateurish writing for the show.

I also object to the obvious ways the show seems to be obviously setting up Lt. Tyler as a spy.  I wondered, last week, whether he was actually the albino Klingon Voq in disguise.  Then, only minutes into this episode, Lorca tells him “you fight like a Klingon.”  Sheesh!!  (On the other hand, Tyler acts very human for much of the episode.  Would a Klingon have the insight that Tyler shares with Burnham during that critical moment on the shuttle?  If he does turn out to be Voq in disguise, I am going to have questions as to how that stiff Klingon could have possibly learned to act so convincingly human in so short a time…)

Also — it’s one thing for Lorca to accept Tyler and allow him to become a member of his crew.  But he is immediately made Chief of Security??  Wow! (I guess that’s why they killed off Landry a few weeks ago, to make room for Tyler to assume her role.  I don’t like seeing the writing be so obvious like this.)  This reminds me of one of my complaints about the 2009 Star Trek, in which it seemed like the huge ship had no middle management, and suddenly cadets Kirk and co. were promoted into leadership roles over what one would have assumed would have been scores of other qualified officers already serving on the ship.  That’s weak story-telling.

Meanwhile, this week in continuity problems:

* Turns out the Discovery has a holodeck, which Lorca and Tyler use for combat training.  NO.  NO.  There were NO holodecks in this era of Star Trek.  This was a NEW technology a hundred years later in Next Gen.  (Remember how astonished Riker was at how convincing the holodeck was, in “Encounter at Farpoint”?)  (And YES, this Star Trek geek is well aware that a Holodeck-like “recreation room” was featured on the Animated Series episode “The Practical Joker,” set 13-14 years after Discovery, but in my mind that episode was superseded by what we later learned in Next Gen.)

* The episode presents Burnham as being older than Spock.  When confronted by the older Vulcan, Sarek says Spock won’t be ready for the Science Academy for several years.  But we know from “The Cage”/”The Menagerie” that Spock was serving on the Enterprise under Captain Pike, long before Kirk took command.  I would think Spock is probably on the Enterprise now, during the events of Discovery.  That feels to me like Spock and Burnham should be around the same age.

* Staying in this topic, while Sarek’s revelation that he feels shame and regret at the choice he made with Burnham is a lovely moment in this episode, it doesn’t seem to fit into what we know of Sarek and Spock’s relationship.  Spock chose Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy, which, as per the Classic Trek episode “Journey to Babel,” led to the two men not speaking for over a decade, a rift that wasn’t fully healed until Sarek’s sort-of apology to Spock at the end of Star Trek IV.  It doesn’t track for me that Sarek could reach this understanding with Burnham here and still be unable to look in the same way at his actions with Spock for another decade or two.

* For that matter, this episode shins a light on the problem inherent in this ret-con idea that Sarek had a human child as his ward.  What IS Sarek’s thing with humans, anyway?  That Sarek tried to twist both Burnham and Sarek into perfect Vulcans, which they could never be and so which caused them both years of emotional turmoil, is sort of horrible!!  It was sort-of understandable with Spock, who was genetically Vulcan, even if only half-Vulcan.  He could conceivably be capable of being like other Vulcans, and so it’s not monstrous for Sarek to push Spock to be so, even if in hindsight he shouldn’t have done so.  But how could any sentient, reasoning being expect Burnham to be as perfectly logical and unemotional as a full Vulcan, let alone as capable of such extraordinary scientific acumen?  It is twisted that Sarek would push her towards this impossible goal, and twisted that Amanda would go along with it.  This damages these two beloved characters in ways I do not believe the show intended.

Other comments:

* How is the Discovery still using the Spore Drive??  Is Stamets continuing to pilot the ship himself??  This seems, frankly, insane.  It’s one thing to buy that he would do that once, to rescue their captain.  But now this is the regular way of doing things??  It’s ludicrous to me that no one on the ship would object to this (even if crazy/evil Captain Lorca is OK with it).

* It was a huge problem on the last Trek show, Enterprise, that most of the Vulcans acted very un-Vulcan-like, prone to all sorts of emotional outbursts and very illogical behavior.  And so it is somewhat concerning in this episode that we see most Vulcans other than Sarek acting, well, very irrationally, from the suicide bomber in the opening to the bigoted, cruel Vulcan elder at the end who worries about contaminating Vulcan with humans.  What happened to Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations??  On the other hand, I like the way Discovery seems to be shaping up to be a show built on confronting and condemning extremist behavior, and I like the way the show looks to be exploring that sort of thinking among Klingons, now Vulcans, and also humans (cough Lorca cough).  If the show is able to develop these ideas, this could wind up being an important thematic element and an important reason-for-being for the show.

* I liked the calm way the Vulcan bomber detonates his device, and the way he raised his hand in the Vulcan gesture as he does so.

* I liked the way this episode explained the confusing elements of Burnham’s childhood flashbacks in the premiere.  We see that it was not Klingons who bombed the Vulcan learning center, but other Vulcans!  That straightens out the confusing timeline of the premiere’s flashbacks (in which we learned that Sarek rescued her from a Klingon attack but then seemed to see the attack come later, when she was already under Sarek’s care).  It would have been nice had those flashbacks not been presented in such a confusing manner in the first place, but I am glad this episode straightened things out.

* The show continues to play fast and loose with my understanding of the Vulcan katra, and Burnham is mighty chatty about something that, from Star Trek III, seemed to be something Vulcans were extremely secretive and private about.

* This episode introduced Mia Kirshner as Amanda Grayson.  24′s Naked Mandy is Amanda!!  I would not have predicted that.  Ms. Kirshner was OK, though I felt she lacked a bit of the dignity and grace that Jane Wyatt and Winona Ryder gave in their previous work as this character.

* I laughed every time the ship’s replicator gave a description of the food items being served.  Also: nice to see a Star Trek character eat a breakfast burrito!!

* Last week’s list of great Starfleet captains was thuddingly obvious; this week’s mention of the “Constitution Class” U.S.S. Enterprise made me smile.  (Though it reminds how the look of Discovery does not gel at all with the look of the classic Enterprise.)

So, in summary, this episode still had a lot of problems and things I wish had been cleaned up before the episode was produced.  On the other hand, this was the show’s most solidly compelling episode since the premiere.  Let’s hope subsequent episodes continue this shift in this positive direction!

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