Old, New, Borrowed, and Red—Star Trek: Discovery‘s “If Memory Serves”

It is rare that a “previously on” segment at the top of an episode will make me squee. Generally it’s just there as a reminder of what happened before and a primer on what will be important in the episode that the scenes are a prelude to. It’s paperwork, setting you up for the story to come.

But this week, Discovery made me squee—and also geeble and bounce and generally nerd out something fierce—when they kicked the episode off with a retro-style “Previously on Star Trek,” using the 1966 logo for the show, and then showing scenes from “The Cage.” They pretty much sold me on “If Memory Serves” from that moment forward. (It also was a big middle-finger to those who insist that Discovery simply must take place in an alternate timeline, as this firmly places this new show in the same timeline/continuity as the other six TV shows and the first ten movies.)

Luckily, the episode itself lived up to that tease.

Last week, I said I was looking forward to seeing Anson Mount’s Pike deal with being exposed once again to the Talosians and this week’s trip to Talos IV gave me all I was hoping for. But even before that, the cut from Jeffrey Hunter in the scenes from “The Cage” to Anson Mount on the bridge of Discovery was magnificent. I thought the casting of Mount was perfect when it was announced, and “If Memory Serves” just reinforces that.

But what really got me was the look on his face when the image of Vina appeared in the ready room. That was the moment I was waiting for, and Mount managed to show a tremendous range of emotions in that one instant: shock, confusion, desire, anger. His trip to Talos IV had a huge impact on him, and Mount shows us every emotion that this puts Pike through. I’m not one for soulmates, in fiction or in real life, but it’s obvious that Pike and Vina believe that they are each others’ soulmates, and the tragedy of their separation is etched on Mount’s face.

We get more new castings of old roles in this, the biggest being Melissa George as Vina. Some of Discovery‘s recastings have been lateral moves (Rebecca Romijn’s Number One, replacing Majel Barrett), some have been good if not quite as great as the original (James Frain, not as good as Mark Lenard—though he’s light-years better than Ben Cross), and some have been improvements (Mia Kershner, eclipsing Jane Wyatt and Winona Ryder). This is the first that truly fails, though it’s not so much George’s fault, as Susan Oliver was simply stellar as Vina. It would be hard for anyone to live up to that, and George really doesn’t. She does fine, mind you, it’s just mildly disappointing.

Talos IV is beautifully re-created, managing to evoke the broken mountainous landscape of “The Cage” while actually looking like an alien world instead of a sound stage and a matte painting with rocks strewn about. We even get the singing plants that stop singing when you touch them, a lovely callback. And the update to the Talosians’ makeup is also perfectly fine. I did notice that they avoided showing us the back of their heads, so the reason why I called them “buttheads” last week is not obvious. Having said that, they’re still buttheads for other reasons, as they exact a very nasty price from Burnham in order to get them to help sort out Spock’s mind. One of the ways in which the Talosians were impressively alien in “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” was the weird-ass makeup design, plus using male voices and female actors to play them. Twenty-first-century prosthetics make that much work not necessary, but the writing leans into the Talosians being emotional voyeurs, eager to experience life through others, that ability having atrophied in their centuries below the surface as telepaths. Remember, these guys kidnapped a whole mess of aliens for their little menagerie.

(Burnham’s setting a course to Talos only results in the computer telling her that the sector is forbidden, ditto Discovery heading there later. There’s no mention of a General Order, nor of the death penalty as a punishment for going there. This lends more credence to my theory: while Pike’s trip to that planet resulted in it being quarantined and classified, General Order #7 won’t be put into effect until after this season of Discovery, and may well be due in part to the events of this season.)

This is a superb episode, which manages to cram a great deal into its running time, without ever feeling rushed or overstuffed. We get revelations about the Red Angel, furthering the pitfalls of Culber’s resurrection, more intrigue with Section 31, revisiting Talos IV, showing us how Saru has changed since losing his fear ganglia, and finally explicating the rift between Burnham and Spock.

Speaking of Spock, we also finally get Ethan Peck really playing Spock, as opposed to just muttering a lot, and he nails it. Like Zachary Quinto before him, he’s not impersonating Leonard Nimoy, but he matches the late master’s body language and tone. I particularly like the economy of movement when he decides to escape the loony bin, calmly moving through the cell distributing neck-pinches and such.

I want to pause a second and sing the praises of Discovery‘s fight choreography, which has been stellar and suited to the people involved. The phaser fights in the Mirror Universe last season were all superlative. Georgiou’s fights all are perfectly tailored to Michelle Yeoh’s mad martial arts skillz. And the two fights in this episode each fit the participants, with Spock calmly taking his opponents down with efficiency, a minimum of fuss, and economy of movement (ditto for when Spock wordlessly forces Burnham to fly through the Talosians’ illusory singularity). Meanwhile, the Culber/Tyler fight in the mess hall is a (deliberate) mess, as Tyler tries to simply defend himself, and Culber is wild and undisciplined.

I was more than a little stunned by Saru’s response to two people fighting in the mess hall, to wit, to let them fight it out. Pike calls him on it, but gently. Saru himself points out that code of conduct regulations don’t really cover how a resurrected human should deal with confronting the human/Klingon hybrid sleeper agent who killed him. Besides, they both needed the catharsis. Pike agrees, as long as it’s a one-time thing, and he also mentions that the old Saru would never have acted that way. I have to say that I’m glad that Saru’s changes are being done subtly rather than the overt snottiness and insubordination we got in “The Sound of Thunder.” He should still be Saru, after all, but one with more confidence, and who will sometimes make mistakes. It helps having someone as subtle and magnificent as Doug Jones in the role of course…

Speaking of mistakes, Burnham, it turns out, made a doozy. The rift between an adolescent Burnham and a younger Spock came about because Burnham tries to leave home to keep Sarek and Amanda’s home safe from logic extremists who have targeted the ambassador because of the presence of humans and halfbreeds in his home. Spock doesn’t want her to go, so Burnham responds like a teenager: cursing Spock out and calling him names to get him to let her go.

As a revelation this is—okay? I guess? I mean, I can see how that would affect pre-adolescent Spock, but the fact that he still holds a grudge against Burnham about it decades later is more than a little ridiculous for someone who values logic over all. Though it does show why Spock went so far in the direction of choosing his Vulcan heritage over his human one, since his favorite human acted like a total creep to him…

Having said that, we do finally get Mount and Peck in a room together, and you see the respect and the friendship there. Pike’s loyalty to Spock has been muted by Burnham’s more familial relationship with the franchise’s most popular character. This episode reminds us quite nicely that this is a relationship between captain and officer that was deep enough for Spock to commit several crimes in order to aid Pike.

We also get a more significant look at Zombie Culber, and it’s not encouraging. Culber has the memories of Hugh Culber, but not the emotions that go with them—he knows what his favorite food is supposed to be, however he can’t summon any joy at eating it. Worse, Stamets is trying way too hard (not that you can blame him even a little bit) to bring things back to normal. Except “normal” isn’t Stamets waiting on Culber hand and foot, normal is Stamets spending way too much time in his lab. For that matter, “normal” isn’t having the guy who killed you be temporarily assigned to the same ship you’re on. (Not to mention that “normal” doesn’t usually include being resurrected from the dead.)

What’s great about the mess-hall sad-fight between Tyler and Culber is that it shows up how much alike the two of them are. Neither knows who they really are anymore. I’m really curious to see where this all goes. Star Trek has generally been dreadful at dealing with the likely psychological consequences of someone coming back from the dead (e.g., Spock following Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Uhura following “The Changeling“), and I’m glad that they’re finally rectifying that with Culber. We already saw last year that you can’t go back to the way things were, and Stamets and Culber are getting a nasty lesson in that now.

And then we find out that mysterious signals are being sent from Discovery and the spore drive has been sabotaged. Evidence points to Tyler being responsible for both, though he denies it. One assumes that Airiam—who has been compromised by the Probe From The Future—is involved. (Based on the previews, Airiam’s possession will come to a head next week, and I’m really glad they’re not stretching that out too long.)

There are still lots of questions here. Who’s the Red Angel? Who sent the probe back that is now infiltrating Airiam? Why has Spock been framed for murder? (Not that there was any doubt, but it’s nice to have formal confirmation that all Spock did was neck pinch a few folks.) How will our heroes save the galaxy? (We know they will, as we know the Trek universe is around for at least another millennium thanks to “Calypso,” not to mention Voyager‘s “Living Witness.”)

Keith R.A. DeCandido is quite sure that using footage from “The Cage” in the “previously on” segment won’t slow down most of those who insist that Discovery is in an alternate timeline, like, say, the one of the Bad Robot movies, but we can hope. Keith will be at Emerald City Comic-Con next weekend in Seattle. Find him mostly at Bard’s Tower, Booth 1121, alongside a bunch of other authors, among them Mercedes Lackey, Larry Dixon, and Jonathan Maberry, as well as the occasional bit of programming.

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