Episode Title: “Lethe”
Air Date: October 23, 2017
Not much, if I’m being honest, and what did happen made very little sense.
I’m not one to complain about betrayals of Star Trek continuity, as I wouldn’t recognise one if it bopped me over the head with a phaser. Burnham is Spock’s adopted sister? And that has never been mentioned before? I don’t give a shit. But so much wacky nonsense occurred in this episode that now my lack of broader Star Trek knowledge is the least of my problems – I don’t even know what’s happening in this continuity.
Well, how can you? Nobody is behaving consistently. I complained last week about the show continuing to let the plot dictate the characters rather than vice versa, and this week’s episode, “Lethe”, took that to an extreme. Sarek (James Frain), on a diplomatic mission to broker peace between the Federation and the Klingons, had his ship sabotaged by a Vulcan traditionalist movement who are pissed off at his attempts to integrate humans into Vulcan society. Why they’d do this now, on the precipice of galactic war, is anyone’s guess. But an episode must happen somehow, so here we are.
Back on the Discovery, Burnham, thanks to her telepathic connection to Sarek’s “Vulcan soul”, the correct name of which I can’t remember, is hospitalised. She can feel her adoptive father’s suffering, and works out rather quickly that he’s close to death and must be rescued. Stamets, who has become more flamboyantly homosexual as shorthand for the repercussions of his fungal trip last episode, very quickly builds a device that allows Burnham to enter Sarek’s mind and talk him back into consciousness. This involves, predictably, both characters working to improve their frosty relationship.
So what’s wrong with that?
In broad terms, nothing. It’s a fine idea. Yes, it’s a little marred by contrivance, but this show has already established a format, which means one mini-story each week as the overarching narrative develops in the background. We don’t have time to spend multiple episodes building plot devices, and I’m thankful for that. The show continues to be breezy and compelling, for all its flaws, but it’s starting to lose any sense of long-term impact thanks to how offhandedly it’s treating characters and their motivations.
For instance, in the flashback sequences, we learn that Burnham was trying to gain access to something known as the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. She’s eminently qualified for this, after graduating from the Vulcan Science Academy with honors, but she’s held back by her being human – which, it’s explained to Sarek, is a big issue. And because Sarek also has a half-Vulcan son, Spock, who is presumably going to grow up and follow a very similar career path, the Expeditionary Group can’t be seen to invite two “experiments” into their ranks, so Sarek is forced to choose. He chooses Spock, and tells Burnham that her application was unsuccessful.
None of this makes sense. It characterises the Vulcans as needlessly small-minded and xenophobic, it makes Sarek seem like an arsehole and an idiot, and it reveals the most intrinsic part of Burham’s character – the feelings of resentment and inadequacy she fosters as a result of her “failure” – is built solely on a writer’s contrivance. It’s also revealed that a grown-up Spock fucked off and joined Starfleet against his father’s wishes anyway, thus making this entire thread even more moot and ridiculous.
I get the sense that’s not all.
Far from it. While Burnham, Tyler and Tilly are off on the rescue mission, Admiral Cornwell turns up on the Discovery to chastise Captain Lorca for a variety of offenses that include mounting an unauthorised rescue mission, using a mutineer and a prisoner of war to conduct said mission, overlooking that his chief engineer dabbled in eugenics manipulation, and immediately retaking the captain’s chair despite being tortured on a Klingon prison ship just last week. This wouldn’t be so egregious if the Federation hadn’t already sent the Discovery on multiple (successful) rescue missions, if the Discovery wasn’t, by their own admission, their most advanced ship and the only one capable of carrying out these missions, and if Lorca hadn’t accomplished just about everything he’d been assigned to do thus far. His command has been pretty excellent, if you ask me.
Cornwell already knew about most of this, let’s not forget. It isn’t news. She knew a convicted mutineer was on board. She knew Lorca had been captured. But now she decides to turn up personally to tell him how concerned she is with the behaviour that she already knew about. And she’s so concerned with him that she decides to drink whiskey with him, have sex with him, and then get angry when he panics at her fondling his battle scars in the middle of the night. We’re supposed to believe that Lorca is unfit for duty? This woman’s delirious.
Did anything work?
As contrived as it is, I really liked the idea of Burnham infiltrating Sarek’s dying thoughts to help him come to terms with his most regretful decision. It allowed Sonequa Martin-Green to operate on a level other than sad or annoyed, which has been a long time coming, and really, it’s just an intriguing sci-fi idea. Even this was undermined, though, as after his rescue Sarek refuses to acknowledge the revelation or how much it affected Burnham emotionally, despite acknowledging both in a prior scene. “Technically, we’re not related,” he says to her. What a prick.
Gotta admit though, I do continue to enjoy the secondary exploits of Tilly and Tyler. The former’s coming into her own as an individual and continues to be amusing; the latter is extremely likable, but evidently much, much less trustworthy than he says. It’ll be interesting to see what the show does with him. I just hope it makes some kind of sense.
I should mention that at the end of the episode, Admiral Cornwell attends Sarek’s peace negotiation in his place, and is promptly captured by the Klingons. Lorca for once decides to obey proper protocol, and refuses to mount a rescue without authorization from Starfleet. Thus, his psychological evaluation is delayed, and he maintains his command. He’s clearly on his way to the antihero status I’ve already predicted, but it’s probably going to end up a less impactful heel turn than she show’s writers intend, because I already see his point.
Should we keep watching?
I guess. It’s undeniable that we’re progressing from nitpicks to substantial plot holes here, but I’m hoping it’s all in service of some bonkers character swerves and wacky sci-fi shenanigans. This version of Star Trek might be creeping beyond the point where anyone can take it seriously, but it still has the cast and budget to at least do some mad shit with all its outlandish ideas. I can tolerate nonsense in the service of fun. We’ll just have to wait and see how ridiculous Discovery is willing to get.