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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Light and Shadows” and “If Memory Serves”

We’re at the midpoint of season two of Star Trek: Discovery.  I’ve been enjoying these episodes a lot more than I did season one, so that’s encouraging.  (Though the episodes are still burdened by a stunning disregard for Star Trek continuity and frequently lazy storytelling.)  Let’s dig in:

Episode 7: “Light and Shadows” — Burnham returns to Vulcan where she is finally able to locate Spock, while the Discovery attempts to rescue Pike and Tyler, who are trapped on a shuttlecraft within a temporal anomaly.

The biggest event in this episode is that we finally get to see Spock.  I am glad the show has stopped teasing us regarding Spock and that finally he is on the show and Burnham has found him.  It’s hard to judge Ethan Peck’s performance as Spock yet in this episode, as he doesn’t get much to do other than mumble incoherently.  It’s distressing to see Spock in such an out-of-his-mind state, but I’ll withhold judgment until I see where this all is going.  I’m not sure quite what to make of the revelation that Spock, as a child, had to overcome a learning disability similar to dyslexia.  I suppose there’s nothing canonical that explicitly contradicts this, but I’m not sure I understand the point of adding this major element to Spock’s backstory that we’ve never heard of before.

More distressing is the depiction of Sarek and Amanda.  The two have a tense argument over Spock, where all sorts of elements over Spock’s childhood and the difficulties that the human Amanda and the half-human Spock had growing up on Vulcan come into play.  On the one hand, it’s interesting to see an exploration of what I can see would have been the many, many hard aspects of life on Vulcan for Amanda and her half-human son.  On the other hand, I hate the implication that Amanda and Spock were mistreated by Sarek.  Amanda slaps down Sarek by accusing him of never being willing to live with her and Spock on Earth.  I hate this.  It suggests that Amanda was weak and subservient to Sarek’s wishes, that she was forced to live on Vulcan because Sarek wouldn’t live on Earth.  I never ever saw their relationship that way.  Ever since the characters were first introduced, walking side by side, with their fingers interlocked, in the Original Series episode “Journey to Babel,” I always saw them as partners.  Is it weird, perhaps, that the human Amanda chose to live her life and raise her son among the unemotional Vulcans?  Sure!  But I always saw that as HER choice.  My assumption was that she and Sarek made their life choices TOGETHER.  The suggestion here that Amanda was almost forced to live on Vulcan is unpleasant, and feels like a complete contradiction of what we know of these characters.

(Also annoying?  The show doesn’t allow Sarek and Amanda to resolve their argument.  After that tense scene, Burnham leaves Vulcan with Spock, and we never see them again.  I do hope this gets resolved more before the end of the season.)

What’s good?

Every episode seems to wow me more than the one before in terms of how beautiful this show looks.  I continue to be delighted to see Star Trek realized at such a high level in terms of the show’s production quality.  We are treated to a number of dazzling shots of Discovery in orbit of Kaminar, and all of the action with the shuttlecraft and the weird mechanical cephalopod that threatens it are very well done.  But my favorite visual moment in the episode is the stunningly gorgeous shot of Burnham’s arrival, via shuttle, to Vulcan.  Very cool.  While this show has totally bungled the Klingons, it’s done right by the Vulcans, as I really like the look of the Vulcan ships, buildings, and other props and costumes.  I loved seeing a recreation of Surak’s kir’shara in the cave in which Spock was hiding, as well as the reference to “katra stones”.  (Some might complain about the idea of rain on Vulcan, but it must rain on that planet sometime, so I can go with it.)

Tilly just seems to become more lovable each week.  I love the comment about Saru’s trying to get her to stop swearing, and I love her joy at adding the word “time” to any phrase to make it sound cooler (ex.: “the time-bends”).  Best line of the episode was her exclamation: “you know how I get around violations of causality.”

I love Stamet’s exhortation to Tilly to “believe in the power of math.”  Star Trek should always be about the power of science and teamwork to solve problems.  I like this a lot.

Pike continues to be great, stepping into full-hero mode by piloting the shuttlecraft himself.  I like that he questions Tyler and pushes back at Tyler’s nagging that as a “Section 31 liaison” that he has authority on the ship.

Mirror Georgiou is depicted in a more nuanced way than the one-dimensional villainy we’d seen so far, as she helps Burnham get Spock off of the Section 31 ship.  I hope this continues.  I loved the (staged) Georgiou-Burnham fight.

What’s not so good?

The show continues to exhibit a laziness in its storytelling, in which the show doesn’t bother to connect the dots or adequately explain how or why things are happening.  After Spock’s being on the run for half the season, how did he get back to Vulcan undetected?  How did Amanda find him?  Why on Earth would Burnham even consider trusting Section 31 over Pike and her friends & colleagues on Discovery?

This is even more an issue with the Pike/Tyler temporal anomaly story.  Temporal anomalies became an overused cliche on the 24th-century-set Star Trek shows (Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager), but I still smiled to see a new temporal anomaly pop up here.  I love that most Discovery episodes tend to have a super-fast pace, which keeps things exciting and tense (very much in the style of J.J. Abrams’ Trek movies).  But again and again I want the show to slow down, take a breath, and actually bother to explain to the audience what is happening.  How was that temporal anomaly created?  (Nothing like this happened at any of the other “red burst” sites the Discovery has visited so far this season.)  What was happening to time inside the anomaly?  (It’s not enough to just say “temporal anomaly” — I want to know what that means, and how time is fractured inside the anomaly.)  I can accept that Stamets, because of his exposure to the spore network, has a unique perception of time and space.  (This was established in the Mudd time-travel episode last season, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”.)  But how exactly did Stamets use that ability to locate and rescue Pike and Tyler?  What exactly did he do?  By not actually explaining any of this, the show undermines everything else that it does well in this exciting, beautiful-looking sequence.  There winds up not really being a story here for us to follow, just a lot of whizz-bang exciting moments and images.  For me, that is not enough.

By the same token: I like the idea of having Pike and Tyler find common ground during their adventure in the temporal anomaly, but the episode doesn’t spend nearly enough time with this story.  For this to be effective, we needed to see more of the two men bonding, and of them actually working together to solve the problem and stay alive.  It’s like we got the “Cliff’s Notes” version of a better, longer story.

Leland is responsible for the deaths of Burnham’s parents?  Ugh.  Not everything and everyone on this show needs to be connected to Burnham.

My main complain with the previous mostly-terrific episode was the ending.  When I learned at the start of this episode that Discovery was hanging around in orbit of Kaminar, I was pleased, because I expected that perhaps this episode would follow up on the repercussions of the transformation of the entire Kelpian society. But, nope, this isn’t addressed at all, we still have no idea if the Kelpians and the Ba’ul are now at war, and Saru seems to have no interest whatsoever in what’s happening to his sister and his fellow Kelpians down on the planet.  I am stunned.

The episode ends with Airam apparently compromised by the A.I. probe from the future.  I hope this leads to our discovering more about what Airam actually is.  In a very weird moment, the future A.I. is depicted by three red dots in a triangular pattern, which is the symbol for Brainiac, the DC Comics super-villain who is an evil A.I. from the future.  Was this intentional…?

Final note: I was intrigued that the future-suited “red angel” has been added to the opening credits.  Interesting…

Episode 8: “If Memory Serves” — Spock and Burnham head to Talos VI so that the powerful telepaths there can repair Spock’s damaged mind, and we finally see the event that caused the rift between Spock and Burnham.  Meanwhile, the newly-resurrected Dr. Culber has a lot of trouble returning to his “normal” life.

Captain Pike surely had as many adventures as captain of the Enterprise as Captain Kirk did, though we only actually saw one of them, in the first, rejected pilot for the Original Series, “The Cage” (which was later repurposed as the two-part episode “The Menagerie”).  So, on the one hand, it seems ploddingly obvious that, so soon after bringing Pike onto Discovery, we’d return to Talos VI, site of the events of “The Cage”/”The Menagerie.”  On the other hand, I loved seeing the Talosians and Vina again, and it was logical that Spock would believe that the Talosians could repair his mind.  I thought the return to Talos was very well handled, and over-all I thought this was a great episode.

I thought the Talosians looked and sounded terrific, honoring their original look from 50 years ago but also updating it to match the look of Discovery.  (It’s funny, Discovery has actually done a pretty great job with the look of most of the classic Trek aliens — it’s only the Klingons that I feel they have bungled, which is a shame because the Klingons have been the most prominent aliens on the show.)  I love that we even got to see a pulsing in the veins on the Talosian’s big heads when they were using their powers, just like in the Original Series.  I liked that we were able to see how powerful the Talosians are, as they create a vivid black-hole illusion around their planet when Burnham and Spock’s shuttle approaches; they can allow Burnham and Vina to communicate with Pike across many light-years; and they are able to trick Section 31, allowing Burnham and Spock to slip away (a twist I predicted, but was happy to see nonetheless because it made perfect sense as the method of Burnham & Spock’s escape).

I enjoyed seeing Vina again, and I loved her tender scenes with Pike, in which we see that they’ve both left quite a mark on the other.  I like that the episode acknowledged the moment at the very end of “The Cage” in which we see that the Talosians have created an imaginary Pike for Vina to live out her days with.  (That moment actually wasn’t included in “The Menagerie” — it was actually repurposed in that episode to depict the grievously wounded Pike being restored to “imaginary” health and vigor.  So it’s nice to learn that this is what actually happened… and it’s a bittersweet reminder than, about 10 years in the future, a terribly injured Pike will be reunited with Vina.)

I loved seeing the classic singing blue plants from “The Cage” again!  Their look was nicely updated.

I absolutely loved the episode’s opening “previously on Star Trek” sequence, which showed clips from “The Cage”!  What a surprise that this continuity-averse show would show actual clips from an Original Series episode!  (My only quibble is that I didn’t like the awkward slide-away/flip-away editing method used for the clips in that sequence.  It felt like someone amateurish playing with an aughts-era Adobe Premiere setting.  It seemed out of place and distracting to me.)

It was weird to see a whole group of Starfleet Admirals conversing with Section 31 agent Leland (and Georgiou) so openly, but since Section 31 is being (incorrectly) depicted on Discovery as an official branch of Starfleet, I guess this makes sense in the context of the show.  Though it’s still weird that these Admirals so easily go along with Leland’s evil plans.  It’s interesting to see Mirror Georgiou manipulating events to give herself an advantage over Leland… though she’s been getting the upper hand on Leland all season long, so this is getting boring.  It’d be nice if Leland was actually smart and effective — he’d be more of a threat, then.  On the plus side, I’ve been enjoying Georgiou more these past two episodes than I had been previously.  I loved her comment that, in her universe, after the Talosians tried to use their telepathic powers on her, she “blew them and their stupid singing plants off the face of the planet.”  Nice!

I am glad that things aren’t magically back to normal for the newly-resurrected Dr. Culber, though it’s a bit weird that they’ve waited three episodes to show us these scenes.  Stamets and Culber’s return to their shared quarters feels like it would have happened the next morning after Culber returned, but that was three episodes ago.  It’s painful seeing the divide between these two men who used to love one another, but this is good drama and I am interested to see where this goes.  Saru’s decision to let Culber and Tyler fight it out in the middle of the mess hall feels like an action unbecoming the ship’s first officer, but I am glad the show is showing how Saru has changed after evolving into his new self… and I am glad Pike called Saru on this choice.

I was intrigued that a conversation between Leland and Georgiou seemed to confirm that “Control,” which heads Section 31, is an A.I. (which is in line with what was established in David Mack’s novel Section 31: Control, but which had never before been discussed on-screen).  That’s a nice bit of continuity.  But in this week’s most egregious example of ignoring established Trek continuity, the Burnham/Spock flashback in the desert of Vulcan’s Forge takes place in… a forest?  What??

At the end of the episode, we finally see a flashback to the event that drove a schism between Spock and Burnham.  (I am not sure why the Talosians, who seem to be very helpful and accommodating for the rest of the episode, so cruelly insist on Burnham’s reliving this memory as the price for their services…)  Burnham was afraid that her presence put Spock in danger, so she ran away and, to keep young Spock from following her, she called him nasty names.  Ugh.  After a half-season of teasing Burnham’s secret shame, this is what we get?  First off, the show has never done a good enough job explaining exactly who or what these “logic extremists” are for us to understand or empathize with why young Burnham feared that her life was still in danger.  And secondly, this is such a cliche scene — one character being mean to another only in order to protect them — that I feel very underwhelmed that this is the deep dark secret Burnham has been hiding.

Which brings me to Spock.  Once the Talosians restore Spock’s mind (we still don’t know why contact with the red angel damaged Spock to such a degree), we get to see how Ethan Peck is going to play the character.  He’s decent, but I’m not bowled over.  He doesn’t look or sound at all like Leonard Nimoy.  Mr. Peck does a decent job so far of showing us Spock’s Vulcan logic and also the emotions underneath.  But his Spock feels a little too “generic Vulcan” so far.  We’ll see where this goes.  My main objections lie not with Mr. Peck’s performance, but in how Spock is being written.  I don’t like seeing how cruel and uncaring Spock is to Burnham.  Adult Spock clearly does understand why young Burnham did what she did — that Spock is unable or unwilling to forgive her, or even to be civil to her, feels very out of character with the Spock we know and love.

Spock’s mind-meld with the red angel revealed to him that enemies from the future (to whom the robotic cephalopod that attacked Pike & Tyler’s shuttle in the previous episode appears to be connected) will wipe out the galaxy if they’re not stopped.  The red angel appears to be trying to fight against these bad guys.  (Though I’m not sure how the red angel’s fighting against these future enemies connects to its helping young Spock save young Burnham from a chomping monster years in the past — was that done by the time-traveling red angel just to get Spock on its side?  I’m also not sure how/why the red angel seems to have almost destroyed Spock’s mind after its mind meld — was that completely unintentional?)  So, wait, we have bad guys and good guys from the future fighting a war across time that spills into Star Trek’s past and present?  Wow, this sounds exactly like the unresolved “temporal Cold War” storyline from Enterprise!  Is that a coincidence, or are they actually picking up that storyline?  If the latter, I’m not sure what to think.  I would love for that story-line to get a proper resolution someday.  (Though it was brought to a conclusion in Christopher L. Bennett’s wonderful novel Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock.)  On the other hand, I am shocked that this Star Trek show, which is theoretically aimed at bringing new fans to the franchise (its wanton disregard for Trek continuity shows that it’s not aimed at the hard-core pre-existing fans), has nevertheless dug so deeply into obscure Trek story-lines like spending a huge chunk of time in the Mirror Universe in season one and now, in season two, perhaps dipping back into Enterprise’s “temporal Cold War.”  I am stupefied as to the decisions made by the people running this show.

We’ll see where this all goes…!

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