The latest episode of Star Trek manages to pull off the near-impossible; act as a sequel to the original TOS Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, as well as a ‘logical’ (forgive the pun) continuation of Star Trek: Discovery’s own current “red angel” storyline. It does so with enough style, elegance and nostalgia to make this latest Star Trek my new favorite of the season to date, if not the entire series.
**** TALOSIAN-FOREHEAD SIZED SPOILERS!! ****
It opens with a “previously on Star Trek” using edited events from the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” (using actual footage as well). It’s a nice way to bring viewers up to date on the events of “The Cage” (which is vital to the current episode) and wash us in a wave of Trekkie nostalgia. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
The story then cuts to Star Trek: Discovery’s present (several years after the events of “The Cage”) and picks up from last week’s episode, where Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) rescued her foster brother Spock (Ethan Peck) from the clutches of the shadowy Starfleet organization Section 31. Section 31’s operatives, Leland (Alan Van Sprang) and mirror-Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), are holo-conferencing with Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and S31 operative Tyler (Shazad Latif) aboard Discovery. All parties want Spock and Burnham back in custody for various reasons. Georgiou usurps Leland by suggesting directly to a Starfleet admiral that they leave Discovery in place instead of letting them actively join the search (giving S31 the lead). The admiralty agrees. Leland seethes. You could cut the tension with a knife.
Speaking of tension, Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is trying to reacclimate his back-from-the-dead lover Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) to their domestic life together, but Hugh seems distant and and rebuffs every gesture of affection shown to him. Hugh is back (his memories are fully intact), but perhaps he is no longer his old self (?). Matters aren’t helped when he spots his ‘killer’ Tyler (nee: Voq) in a corridor. To be continued…
Meanwhile Burnham and Spock take their shuttle to Talos IV, the one ‘forbidden planet’ in the galaxy (see: TOS’ “The Menagerie”). Dropping out of warp, Burnham panics when the shuttle appears to be caught in a black hole (!). Spock comes out of his catatonia long enough to force her to land through the black hole, which turns out to be a massive illusion, courtesy of Talos IV’s brainiac inhabitants.
The shuttle safely lands and Burnham looks around, as a still-woozy Spock remains in the shuttle. Apparently they are no longer seen as a threat by the elusive natives.
Encountering the same singing plants as the Enterprise crew, Burnham turns to see an apparently human woman enter the shuttle. Burnham aims her phaser at the woman, who reveals herself as “Vina” (Melissa George, ably filling in for the late Susan Oliver), a ‘friend’ of Pike’s. Vina tells Burnham that the Talosians wish to see them below the surface, and she supplies the coordinates to their underground city.
Burnham takes Spock and uses the shuttle’s transporter to beam beneath the surface…
…where she meets the Talosians and the ‘real’ Vina; the one on the surface was another illusion, designed to summon them below (a nice nod to how Vina originally lured Pike into captivity in “The Cage”). Burnham meets the native Talosians … atrophied mental giants with incredible powers of telepathy and illusion. The Talosians were a once-advanced, star-traveling race whose planet was decimated by war, thousands of centuries ago. Burnham asks the Talosians if they can help Spock, with whom they’ve been in contact. They can, but they wish to probe her mind and learn more of Spock’s trauma. Burnham consents to their probing of her mind, but only if they allow her to see Spock’s thoughts first. The Talosians agree.
Burnham finally sees the visions that have drove Spock to his current mental state.
Flashback to Spock, at the Starbase mental hospital, receiving news that Starfleet has found flashing signals matching the map he had drawn from memory since childhood. He is not insane. He was having a premonition. Ready to discharge himself, Spock is restrained by the starbase doctor, who tells him he is going to be remanded to the custody of S31. Realizing they’ll never let him go, Spock nerve-pinches his captors and escapes. With Burnham as his mental ‘witness’, she clearly sees that he did not murder them, as he is being charged.
We also see Spock’s own attempt to mind-meld with the red angel, who may be nothing more than a human time-traveler who is trying to desperately prevent a future galactic cataclysmic event that will “end all sentient life in the galaxy.”
We see visions of the Federation planets destroyed by what appears to be fleets of missiles. This horrific, but possibly preventable vision of a galaxy-wide apocalypse is what has driven Spock to his seeming state of madness, as he has struggled to find the red angel in the hopes of obtaining answers that will somehow avert this doomsday future.
Much happens onboard the idling Discovery as well, as Paul attempts to make a home-cooked dinner for Hugh that ends badly. Hugh is unable to make Paul understand that while he has Hugh’s memories, he doesn’t feel like the Hugh Culber that Paul remembers; that Hugh Culber is dead. Hugh storms out of their quarters and makes his way to the mess hall, which is appropriately named, as things soon get very messy.
An enraged Hugh angrily confronts his ‘killer’ Tyler, who meekly tries to defend himself by saying his Klingon half (“Voq”) is responsible. Hugh isn’t buying it, as he goads and bullies Tyler into unleashing his Klingon half in order to give his anger a focal point. The two men fight. Saru (Doug Jones), the ranking officer on scene, actively prevents the crew from interfering, recognizing the catharsis at work.
After their scuffle, Saru is rebuked by Pike for not stopping it. Saru justifies his lack of interference, saying that it was cathartic and necessary for both men to get it out of their systems. Pike agrees to let it go, but warns Saru to never let something like that happen again on his watch.
Alone in his ready room, a disbelieving Pike receives a ‘call’ from his former ‘cellmate’ and lover Vina. It’s a bittersweet reunion, as Vina tells him the Talosians have astral-projected her in order to tell him that Michael and Spock are safe on Talos IV, and they need the Discovery to get them. It’s clear that both still have strong feelings for each other, as Pike tenderly caresses her face. The Talosians also allows Pike to briefly communicate with Michael and Spock, but the their power to maintain such projection over great distance is limited. Pike realizes that he needs to fire up the spore drive and get the ship to Talos IV, before Section 31 does the same. There isn’t a lot of trust between Pike and S31, which is later justified.
After the fight in the mess hall, as 23rd-century floating equivalents of Roombas attempt to clean up after the combatants, Stamets tries vainly (again) to comfort the despondent Hugh, who can’t simply jump back into his old life as if nothing happened. It’s a heartbreaking moment as Hugh breaks up with Paul…just as the commander is ordered to engineering to attempt a jump to Talos IV with an emergency use of his spore drive.
The jump fails, as Tilly and Stamets immediately realize that the spore drive has been sabotaged. Saru confirms that a number of scrambled subspace communications have been sent from the saboteur; Section 31’s onboard operative, Ash Tyler. This is the final straw, and Pike orders Tyler confined to his quarters. Tyler warns the captain that S31 is already aware of their plan, and will likely follow them to Talos IV. Pike has no doubt. Discovery proceeds to Talos IV at warp in a race get Spock and Burnham back aboard, before the S31 vessel trailing them can do likewise.
On the surface of Talos IV, Burnham and Spock must live up to their end of the bargain, as they allow the Talosians to explore the source of Spock’s trauma with Burnham.
When she was younger, Burnham ran away from the Sarek family home because she felt her presence was responsible for bitter racists attacks being directed at Sarek and his family (as we saw in S1’s “Lethe”). Her teenaged self lied to her younger brother, making him belief that she ran away because she didn’t want to live with a ‘freak’ like him. A crying Spock tells his older sister that he loves her, and that he wants her to help explore his human half. She tells the tearful half-Vulcan child that he is incapable of love.
Burnham’s painful rejection of Spock as a child (based on the logical need to save him from potential racist attacks) is what caused the current Spock to utterly divorce himself from his human half; seeking only logic, and following a strictly Vulcan way of life.
Meanwhile, Discovery and the Section 31 vessel warp over to Talos IV and arrive in orbit. Both ships scan for Burnham and Spock’s life signs on the surface, and both have them in their transporter locks…threatening to tear the two of them apart if one vessel doesn’t release its lock first. A final visitation from Vina in Pike’s mind convinces him to release Discovery’s transporter’s lock (and say a proper goodbye to Vina as well). With Pike’s seeming acquiescence, Section 31’s transporter eagerly beams up Michael and Spock. Georgiou and Leland take the two into custody… but soon the prisoners disappear right in front of their eyes. The two fugitives were a Talosian illusion, as were their bio-signs and even the transporter lock.
Instead, their shuttle is received in Discovery’s hangar deck, where Pike is reunited with his science officer from the Enterprise, as well as his current second officer from Discovery. Pike notices a slight smile on Spock’s face…
On the bridge, with the crew reunited, Pike orders them to get underway.
A most vivid “Memory.”
“If Memory Serves” is Discovery’s equivalent of Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations,” as unabashed sentimentality for TOS Trek directly plays an active (and important) role in a current Star Trek story. The return to Talos IV sheds light into three main characters (Spock, Burnham and Pike), and the Talosians themselves play a clever role in the story, too.
The reimagined Talosians’ physical appearances are perhaps my biggest nit with the episode; the reimagined Keeper now appears much more strong and masculine, while the original character was frail and atrophied (and ‘he’ was played by elderly actress Meg Wyllie, with a voice dubbed in by the late Malachi Throne, who also played Commodore Mendez in “The Menagerie”).
That nit aside, there are many wonderful touches throughout, such as the return of the singing plants (giving Talos IV its familiar and eerie vibe) as well as many other original sound effects used for “The Cage.” Shooting at what appears to be a local Canadian rock quarry gives nice scope to the barren surface of Talos IV, which was previously realized on a indoor soundstage over 54 years ago (“The Cage” was originally shot back in December of 1964).
Another welcome compensation is a bit of strong casting with well-known actress Melissa George (“Grey’s Anatomy” “The Good Wife”) in the plum role of the Talosian’s sole human ‘specimen’ Vina (previously played by the late Susan Oliver). George brings an eternal sadness, pathos, and even a touch of vanity to her performance that feels very authentic; though Vina’s full-on grotesque makeup (when the character’s true appearance is briefly revealed) is a bit minimized compared to the almost horror-movie quality of the original.
Melissa George’s interpretation of Vina left no doubt in my mind that I was seeing the same character from over 50 years ago, just as Anson Mount’s Captain Christopher Pike perfectly synchs up with that of the late Jeffrey Hunter.
This was the big reunion of Pike and Vina that my not-so-inner fanboy had been secretly wanting to see for many years. With a pair of top-tier talents bringing these characters back to life, I was not at all disappointed. Yes, it’s arguably the stuff of fanfic, but who cares? It serves to add a bit more emotional oomph to an already powerhouse story. Besides, how would it have felt if Pike returned to Talos IV and didn’t see Vina somehow? It just wouldn’t be right. The characters had to meet again, even if only as projections.
Seeing Spock and Michael share this traumatic and life-altering episode from childhood arguably justifies something I’d long believed to be an error… the impulse to make “Star Trek: Discovery” yet another prequel to TOS Star Trek (the previous being 2001-2005’s “Enterprise”). Given his older human sister’s painful rejection of the young Spock, his later quest to be more Vulcan than human makes even more sense now. The more I see of Ethan Peck in the role of Spock, the better I understand his casting. Peck’s resonant voice and lithe physicality serve the Spock character well. He appears to have grandpa Gregory’s acting chops.
Back to the future.
Despite the avalanche of TOS sentiment evident, there is a lot of forward momentum and progression to the main story as well. The mystery of the ‘red angel’ has a deadly new urgency lacking in previous installments. There is now the suggestion that the angel may also be a human time traveler trying to ‘reset’ history. Does this suggest that Discovery truly is, s I’ve long maintained, an alternate timeline that will later align with TOS? We’ll see.
The Talosians’ power of illusion is used smartly to outwit Section 31, though I love Mirror-Georgiou’s throwaway line of how her native universe dealt with the clever Talosians. Culber’s return to the land of the living doesn’t go as smoothly as the heartbroken Stamets so desperately wanted. Speaking of which, Culber’s murderer Ash Tyler (“Voq”) gets a bit of overdue comeuppance, and he is also revealed to be something of a snake in the grass. I really think it’s high time they just tossed him in the brig, but I suppose Pike’s confining him to quarters works (for now).
Even Saru gets in a nice scene with Pike, regarding his new confidence since shedding his threat ganglia and liberating his people (“Sounds of Thunder”). His bolder decisions, as well as his overall confidence in himself is refreshing to see. Doug Jones is, as always, terrific.
I half-expected this episode to be little more than a trip down Trek memory lane, but it was much more than that. Like Deep Space Nine’s “Trials and Tribble-ations”, the nostalgia isn’t just for its own sake; it is done smartly while advancing the current story in a compelling way. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk. Kudos to writers Jay Beattie and Dan Dworkin, as well as elegant direction by T.J. Scott. “If Memory Serves” is a sentimental journey that never takes its eyes off the prize.