Good Retcons and Bad B-Plots — Star Trek Discovery’s “Lethe”

One of the most challenging things one can do when creating serial narrative is retroactive continuity, or retcon: filling in a gap or establishing something about a character or situation that was previously unknown.

When done properly, it can bring an entire character into focus. (To use a comic book example, when Magneto was established as a Holocaust survivor.) When done improperly, of course, it can be disastrous. (To use another comic book example, establishing that Norman Osborn raped Gwen Stacey, and she mothered children from that.)

Star Trek has, over five decades, engaged in such retcons any number of times (my three favorites are establishing that Worf accidentally killed someone as a teenager, that Bashir was genetically enhanced, and that Troi had a baby sister who died), and in “Lethe” we have one of their most successful.

Way back in 1967, we first met the characters of Sarek and Amanda in “Journey to Babel.” In that episode, it was established that Spock turned down going to the Vulcan Science Academy, instead choosing to enlist in Starfleet. Because of that decision (which was later dramatized in the 2009 Star Trek), Sarek and Spock stopped speaking to each other.

Now, many might think this makes Sarek kind of a jackass. I certainly did, as this is a crappy reason to stop talking to your own son. But then, in the same episode, Sarek made racist comments about Tellarites and it was also established that he kept the truth about a serious heart condition from his wife. So, while Mark Lenard imbued the character with tremendous gravitas, it doesn’t change the fact that he was a jackass.

Discovery has already established that Burnham was Sarek’s ward. Some have complained that it’s ridiculous that Spock would never have mentioned this foster sister, which ignores the fact that Spock never mentioned that his Dad was a famous Vulcan ambassador until that ambassador was standing right next to him on the Enterprise, or that he was engaged to be married until he was half-dead from the effects of pon farr and then only after practically being put in a headlock, or that he didn’t mention his half-brother until he was standing right next to him on the Enterprise. An open book, Spock ain’t.

In “Lethe,” we get some fascinating revelations about Burnham that do an excellent job of moving her character arc along. But we also get a new insight into the greater tapestry of the Star Trek universe—and, not coincidentally, get the first good reason why this series should take place in the TOS era as opposed to long after the 24th-century spinoffs. We find out that the VSA was only willing to accept one of Sarek’s “experiments” (the delivery of the word with maximum distaste was beautifully done by Jonathan Whittaker as the director of the academy), and Sarek chose Spock over Burnham. And then Spock went and rejected going to the VSA, choosing Starfleet instead.

And, because Sarek is a jackass, he kept that all to himself—just like he kept his heart condition to himself, and just like 100 years later, he’ll keep his Bendii Syndrome to himself—and let Burnham (and Amanda, and probably Spock) believe that Burnham washed out of the program, and then when Spock refused to sign up (something that could even have been motivated in part by the VSA keeping his foster sister out), Sarek just stopped talking to his son.

I absolutely love this development, because it adds texture to the Spock-Sarek relationship, including their later inability to speak to each other as established in the “Unificationtwo-parter.

Plus, Burnham makes tremendous progress in this episode. She realizes that she’s trying a little too hard to mold Tilly in her own image, and backs off on her rigorous training of her. She also actually smiles (pretty sure this week is the first time Burnham has cracked a smile on screen), and makes a new friend in Tyler.

Star Trek Discovery episode Lethe

Tyler is also integrated into the crew, made the new chief of security to replace Landry. There’s a fan theory floating around that Tyler is actually a surgically altered Voq (the actor credited as Voq has done no publicity, has no other credits on IMDB, and his last name is Iqbal, which is Shazad Latif’s birth name—the whole theory of Voq/Tyler is spelled out in this post on Trek Movie), and we get some minor evidence of it here. In the “previously on” scenes, we see Voq conversing with L’Rell, a scene that doesn’t have much bearing on this episode, and Voq nods and then raises his head when he hears something that surprises him. Then, later in the episode, Lorca makes Tyler chief of security, and Tyler nods and raises his head in the exact same way. (Voq did it also when T’Kuvma made him torchbearer in “The Battle at the Binary Stars.”)

It’s a pity the B-plot is such a disaster. The minute Admiral Cornwell threatened Lorca’s position, you knew something horrible was going to happen to her. I honestly expected her to be killed by the Klingons, not captured, and I’m grateful that Kol sees her as a valuable hostage, as I like Jayne Brook’s performance as Cornwell a great deal. But still, this was a really hoary and predictable and lazy writer’s trick to create artificial suspense and then restore the status quo unconvincingly. I also find it impossible to credit that the only reason why Lorca hasn’t had his command taken away from him is because everyone’s blinded by his brilliance except for Cornwell, who’s a lover of his. That just doesn’t track.

Star Trek Discovery episode Lethe

Still, it’s good to see Burnham’s redemption arc continue apace. It’s also fun to see the Burnham-Tilly relationship progress, and the new hippy-dippy Stamets (he really does sound like he’s done shrooms—which he kinda has) is hilarious. Having said that, there’s no explanation for how they use the spore drive to get to the nebula, since the tardigrade’s gone. Is Stamets still plugging himself into it to make it work? And I’m extremely disappointed at the lack of Lorca’s reaction to Saru and Burnham freeing the tardigrade at the end of last week. That was a blown opportunity.

Oh, and shirts that say “DISCO”? Really? Somehow, I can’t see Sulu and Chekov jogging through the Enterprise corridors in shirts that say “ENTER.” Or Janeway and Torres jogging through Voyager corridors with shirts that say “VOYA.” Or Kira and Dax jogging through Defiant corridors in shirts that say “DEFI.” Or— Well, you get the idea…

However, this episode does wonders for the main character and does a superlative job of integrating the storyline into the greater tapestry of the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek Discovery episode Lethe

Keith R.A. DeCandido has achieved his thirddegree black belt. Man, is he tired…

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