The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Forget Me Not” (now available for streaming on CBS-All Access) continues the winning streak we’ve seen in the previous three installments of this series’ stronger, more confident third season under new showrunner Michelle Paradise. That this previously stumbling series seems to have found its footing in year three reminds some of us older Star Trek fans of those days when The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all struggled to find their own footing in their freshman and sophomore seasons. Like its precedents, DSC seems to have finally found its niche, boldly exploring an unseen century in Star Trek canon.
Written by Alan B. McElroy, Chris Silvestri, Anthony Maranville and directed by Hannelle M. Culpepper, “Forget Me Not” sees the crew taking new passenger Adira back to the Trill homeworld to access the blocked memories of her implanted Trill symbiont.
“Forget Me Not.”
The story begins from the fresh perspective of ship’s doctor, Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), who is recording a log on the physical and mental health of the crew. Culber has found stress levels on the ship to be very high, as the crew have been forced to flee the familiarity of their own 23rd century into a largely unknown 32nd. Of particular worry to the physician is the well-being of helm officer Lt. Kayla Detmer (Emily Coutts), who is still reeling from trauma incurred following a head injury during the ship’s recent crash landing.
Also of concern to Culber is new passenger Adira (Blu del Barrio), a teenaged human United Earth Defense Force officer, who is carrying a Trill symbiont within her, but is unable (or unwilling) to access the symbiont’s memories. The symbiont, Tal, was one of the last leaders of Starfleet, and might offer clues to the now secret location of Federation Headquarters, which is no longer on a newly isolated, xenophobic Earth (metaphor for the US and UK’s current brands of reactionary leadership). Culber confers with his patient and with Captain Saru (Doug Jones), and the decision is made to spore-jump Discovery to the Trill home planet for help. After delivering his report on the crew’s condition to Saru, Culber later privately meets with First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green). Culber suggests Burnham might be a perfect choice to accompany the nervous Adira down to the Trill home world, as Michael’s experience in adjusting to new circumstances might yield emotional support (Michael spent a year alone in the 32nd century waiting for her shipmates’ return). Michael agrees to join Adira on Trill.
Note: The detached, Vulcan-raised Michael we saw in season one would not have been up to Culber’s request, as she was still figuring out her own way among her fellow humans, let alone offering any of them emotional support.
Spore drive engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) then uses his unique interface to jump Discovery to the Trill planet, where they are greeted by a hologram of the Trill spiritual leader Commissioner Vos (Andrew Shaver), who welcomes the vessel… Trill’s first contact with a Starfleet vessel in centuries. Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) later approaches Stamets about using dark matter to interface with the ship’s vital spore drive, as a backup in case Stamets is ever unavailable (a wise precaution, since Stamets was nearly killed at the end of season 2) . Feeling a bit proprietary over his spore drive jump system, and his unique ability to interface with it, Stamets sourly shoots Tilly’s suggestion down–reaffirming his lover Culber’s belief that everyone aboard is deeply stressed out.
Michael and Adira’s shuttle arrives on Trill and they are met by a delegation of Trill ‘guardians’ (those who tend to the symbionts) as well as Vos and planetary leader Pav (Karen Robinson). The Trill are stunned to learn that the being carrying the Tal symbiont is human, something considered to be an abomination within Trill culture. An ill-prepared Adira fails to impress the elders when she is unable to even recite the names of her Tal symbiont’s past hosts.
Note: The Trill were a people known to Burnham’s native 23rd century, though it was not widely known that a portion of their race were symbiotically joined with a parasitic ’symbiont’ living inside of them–that fact only became common knowledge in the 24th century, with TNG’s “The Host” and DS9’s Jadzia Dax. The Trill orthodoxy’s reaction to a human ‘abomination’ carrying a symbiont also indicates that the planet’s culture, like Earth’s, has also become very xenophobic following the Federation’s post-Burn decay. Humans have been seen hosting Trill symbionts before; in TNG’s “The Host” we see Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) temporarily hosting Federation ambassador Odan through a vital negotiation, until his body rejected the symbiont and a native Trill host was needed. There was also the alternate future seen in DS9’s “Children of Time”, where the symbiont within Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) lived on within a half-Trill/half-human host (Gary Frank). In DS9’s “Rejoined” we learned that the Trill consider resuming old romances with past lovers in new host bodies to be taboo as well–a thinly-veiled metaphor for gay relationships. LGBTQ representation was sparse in mid-1990s television. For the record, “Rejoined” aired two years before “Ellen” officially came out in 1997, and while not perfect, it was still trailblazing TV for its time. That DSC has both two regular gay characters and a non-binary actor in a sizable role shows we’ve made some progress in the past 25 years.
As the elders actively shuns Adira, Burnham decides it’s time for some ‘cowboy diplomacy’ as she whips out her phaser, stuns them all, and then takes Adira with her to find the symbiont pools in the caves of Mak’ala on their own.
Note: Not sure how I felt about Burnham taking a phaser so quickly to the planet’s leadership, but in hindsight it makes sense for her character, who has changed a lot in the past year working as a rogue courier with Cleveland Booker (David Ajala). So while Michael’s new approach might startle those who are used to Starfleet characters negotiating their way out of intractable situations, it makes a lot of sense with who Burnham is now. She’s probably taken many such shortcuts in order to survive in the 32nd century.
Michael surprises Adira with her unorthodox solution, and they flee on foot until they find an ally in Guardian Xi (Andres Apergis), who agrees to take them to caves of Mak’ala. Xi realizes the planet’s lack of available hosts and guardians means the Trill will have to embrace new types of hosts for the continued survival of their few precious remaining symbionts.
Arriving at the Caves of Mak’ala, Michael is awed by the ancient beauty of the cave’s bioluminescent pools, where the symbionts live. Adira was hoping the place would feel familiar to her, but it isn’t quite ringing any bells yet, as her Tal symbiont’s lifetimes of memories remain locked up. Michael reminds Adira and Xi of their ticking clock–the imminent arrival of the temporarily stunned Trill leadership. Xi and Adira get down to business.
Note: The set is a somewhat faithful recreation of the Mak’ala caves, as seen in DS9, but scaled up with the greater (though not unlimited) production budget afforded to DSC. Like the series’ recent recreation of the NCC-1701 Enterprise’s sets, the result is a nice mix of old and new; as if we’re seeing a familiar place with new eyes, which we are, since each new Star Trek show reinterprets elements of earlier Treks.
Changing into a traditional gown for entry into the pools (as we saw Jadzia Dax do in DS9’s “Equilibrium”), an uncomfortable Adira goes into one of the pools, where it’s hoped her symbiont will commune with the other symbionts, allowing Adira access to Tal’s locked memories. Guardian Xi helps her by monitoring the symbiont’s isoboromine levels (whatever the hell those are…). Floating in one of the pools, Adira’s eyes go white…
As Discovery maintains her orbit over Trill, Captain Saru (Doug Jones) heeds Dr. Culber’s earlier words about the crew being on edge. Consulting the ship’s computer, Saru asks it for ways to bring the crew together. Getting a litany of unimaginative ideas, the computer suddenly takes on a different personality, one that is much more personal and lifelike. Addressing his question, the crew suggests more shared activities, as well as good old rest and recreation. Among the recommended ideas are a banquet of the ship’s officers, as well as a good old fashioned Buster Keaton movie.
Note: Buster Keaton, of course, is the famed silent movie era comedic actor whose slapstick antics were legendary, placing him in the same beloved status as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
The banquet sees Saru preparing a magnificent spread of various alien foods and wines for his officers, including wily Section 31 operative Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Before eating, Saru offers a toast, making the meal a symbolic thanksgiving for their continued survival and well-being in a hostile new century. So far, so good, but…
Things quickly go to hell as ongoing tensions within the crew seem to explode. During a friendly game of haikus, a visibly disturbed Lt. Detmer (who is dealing with acute post-traumatic stress disorder) begins crafting wildly inappropriate wordplay about Stamets’ blood spattering on the decks following his life-threatening injury last season. This explodes in a bitter rivalry between pilot Detmer and lone spore-driver operator Stamets, whom she resents for his self-importance. Tilly and Stamets also get into a verbal tussle over his refusal to hear her dark matter interface theories for his spore drive. An angered Stamets abruptly leaves, his lover Dr. Culber follows after him. The tense dinner is completely ruined as the uncomfortable officers begin filing out one by one…
Philippa is the last one remaining, quipping, “Well, at least the wine was good,” before getting up and leaving as well. Saru’s vision of a shared banquet with his officers ends in utter disaster.
Note: The writing of this scene slyly captures the often tense family exchanges stereotypical of the infamous US Thanksgiving holiday, where families are often united under duress, despite delicious food. Poor Saru learns this the hard way. The dinner usually becomes a collision of politics, religion or other differing attitudes, making Thanksgiving a dreaded time for many. This is the first time since TOS’ “Charlie X” where we’ve seen any reference, however indirectly, of American Thanksgiving (not to be confused with Canadian Thanksgiving in October).
Things aren’t going any better on Trill either, as a fully submerged Adira hasn’t risen yet. Michael wants to dive into the pool to find her. However, the awakened Trill leadership enters the caves, and forbids Michael to enter the pool (they’re probably still a mite peeved with her stunning them, too). Xi appeals to his fellow Trill, and they relent, only for the health of the rare symbiont within Adira. Michael dives into the pool, encountering Adira in a virtual environment where they are surrounded by glowing, living tendrils which reach out for Adira. Not having the experience of a Trill, Adira assumes the tendrils wish to harm her, not realizing it’s a representation of her symbiont trying to commune with her thoughts. Michael calms the frightened young woman, who then allows the tendrils to access her memories, which she is terrified of reliving.
The reason Adira is reluctant to relive those memories becomes clear as we see her previous attempt to find Federation headquarters aboard a sub-warp generational ship. Adira was in a relationship with a young Trill named Gray Tal (Ian Alexander, a transgender actor), the previous host of her Adira’s current symbiont. Gray carried the Tal symbiont after Admiral Senna Tal (Kenneth Welsh) passed away years before. With the consummate skill of several lifetimes within his memory, Gray plays the cello for his beloved Adira, who gifts him with a handmade quilt telling the story of their life together. Their romantic evening comes to a horrifying end, as a collision shatters the hull within their quarters. Emergency forcefields maintain hull and atmospheric integrity, but not before Gray is impaled by shrapnel. Summoning automated medical drones, Adira desperately tries to save him, bloodying her handmade quilt, but Gray’s diagnosis is fatal; however, the Tal symbiont within Gray is healthy, and will remain so if it can be transferred into a viable host soon.
Note: Such emergency transplantation of Trill symbionts was also seen in the aforementioned TNG episode “The Host” as well as DS9’s “Image in the Sand”, where it was revealed that Jadzia’s Dax still-living symbiont was removed after Jadzia’s death. As the symbiont was being shuttled back to Trill, an inflight emergency necessitated its hurried transfer into Ezri (Nicole de Boer). Since Ezri Dax was not a candidate for symbiosis, she had no special training for being a joined Trill, much like Adira.
Adira selflessly offers her own body for the procedure, and the medical drones perform the surgery as Gray dies. Facing this painful memory and moving on from it allows Adira to access Tal’s memories, as well as the memories of five previous Tal hosts, including Admiral Tal, the last leader of the Federation. She is formally welcomed into the Tal ‘family’ of hosts, several of whom are Starfleet officers of different eras. The virtual Gray reaches out to Adira, as they embrace once again…the most important part of himself is still alive within her.
Note: The idea of carrying the dead within us as memories kind of echoes my own thoughts of ‘life after death.’ They live on as long as we do. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) put it best when he said of his (temporarily) late friend Spock, “He’s really not dead… as long as we remember him.”
Soon their collective memories will come flooding into her, including the memories of her deceased lover Gray. Adira makes her peace with her newly revealed past selves, as she and Michael emerge from the pool together, gasping for air (don’t ask me how two human beings were able to stay submerged in liquid for so long… ). When asked by the Trill leadership the names of her hosts, Adira calmly names each one, including Senna and Gray. When Pav offers to personally mentor Adira, she politely declines, believing that the Tal symbiont within her wants her to continue looking for the Federation aboard Discovery. Michael and Adira leave, but with the hope of someday returning to welcome Trill back into the Federation.
Note: In addition to the gray futuristic uniform worn by the elderly Admiral Senna Tal (Kenneth Welsh), we see several other futuristic variations of Starfleet uniforms, including a red and black variant which appears to come from the late 24th century, as seen in Star Trek: Picard.
Back aboard Discovery, Dr. Culber is in sickbay finalizing his report on Adira when he is approached by Detmer, who now takes him up on his earlier offer of help. Detmer acknowledges that pilots, by nature, tend to more “macho” (i.e. self-reliant, inscrutable), but realizes that her PTSD is an issue that cannot be dealt with alone. Dr. Culber is glad Detmer chose to seek treatment. Both are then called away when Captain Saru announces on the intercom that he has a ‘surprise’ waiting for the crew in the main shuttle bay…
Note: I very much appreciate how DSC deals with mental illness in this episode, which has been unfairly stigmatized for far too long. Just because it’s not visible, like a broken arm or a large tumor, doesn’t make mental illness imaginary or easily dismissible. This is something that Star Trek, for all its past progressiveness, has rarely gotten right–until now. Too often characters would experience intense traumas (see: Miles O’Brien’s entire Starfleet career) and just shake it off an episode later, or wring it all out in a single cathartic act. Here’s hoping we don’t see Detmer simply cured with a hypospray in the next episode. Mental health is an ongoing challenge, and not so easily fixed.
Once again taking the computer’s advice, Saru holds an impromptu movie night in the ship’s shuttle bay with the screening of a Buster Keaton silent comedy. It’s just what the doctor ordered, as the laughter of the crew soon fills the bay. Even the cynical Philippa seems to be enjoying the show as she nibbles on a few kernels of popcorn from a Starfleet-issue popcorn bucket (here’s hoping those buckets go on sale someday…I want one for my own movie nights!). Saru speculates that since the ship’s computer assimilated the sphere data from last season, it has become protective of that data (we saw this when the ship refused its own self-destruct order). Now Saru believes the computer is doing its best to keep its living occupants safe and happy, hence its helpful suggestions. Whereas the formal banquet was a catastrophe, movie night appears to be just the ticket.
Note: Discovery’s computer’s protective instinct, even its appreciation for ancient Earth movies, is forecasting the computer’s eventual evolution as the benign guardian we saw in the Short Trek, “Calypso,” where an abandoned Discovery welcomed a lone passenger with a steady diet of good food, relaxation, and the 1957 romantic musical, “Funny Face.”
The final scene sees Adira telling Michael that with Admiral Senna Tal’s memories awakening within her, she now has an algorithm which will help them locate Federation headquarters. After Burnham leaves, Adira begins to play the cello, just as Gray used to. Gray then appears to Adira, teasing her that her bowing needs work. Adira’s relationship with Gray continues– two lovers sharing a single body.
Continuing a Strong Season.
Non-binary actor Blu del Barrio (blazing new trails for Star Trek) hit the ground running after their strong introduction in the previous episode “People of Earth”, which introduced the human character Adira. Adira’s current Tal symbiont had been passed from host to host over multiple lifetimes, including Adira’s late boyfriend Gray (Ian Alexander, a trans male actor). Some may think Gray’s death is just an extension of the hoary ‘kill the gays’ cliche, as appeared to be the case when Dr. Hugh Culber was killed off in season one, only to be awkwardly resurrected (by mushrooms and a tear) a year later. Unlike Culber however, Gray Tal was introduced with the intention of killing his body off. This was Gray’s raison d’être. The essence of the character, the symbiont, lives on within Adira. This represents a new kind of relationship never explored before in Star Trek– two lovers sharing a single body. I’m intrigued to see where this goes.
Note: In fairness, the merging of V’ger, Decker and the Ilia-probe in 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is superficially similar, but was never explored after the initial merging.
The episode also explores some of the ongoing Trill issues seen nearly a millennia earlier in Deep Space Nine’s 24th century–specifically a shortage of symbionts to join with viable hosts. Due to “the Burn,” many Trill symbionts living in their respective hosts were stranded far from their home world, where they died without ever passing into new hosts, or in cases like Tal, being forced to relocate into non Trill hosts. As Adira Tal, actor Blu del Barrio complements DSC’s cast of characters, but doesn’t overwhelm them. Ian Alexander is memorable as well, and I’m glad the character of Gray survives within Adira in a way which will remain ‘visible’ to us. The two actors will be our window into this joined existence-relationship.
Note: The DS9 episode “Facets” briefly touched on the notion of living within the body of a loved one, when Jadzia learned former host Curzon Dax had a crush on her, but that was not a mutual relationship…more like an old man’s fancy.
Both Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT) and the elegant Michael Chabon-scripted Short Trek, “Calypso,” showed characters losing themselves in old movies for a night of pure escapism (popcorn included). The idea of a starship crew enjoying movie nights together in the shuttle bay feels especially relevant now, since many movie theaters are still closed or at limited capacity during the COVID pandemic. In fact, my wife and I recently bought a digital projector during the pandemic, and have enjoyed masked, COVID-safe outdoor movie nights with a handful of our close friends. That Saru took the now seemingly sentient ship computer’s advice (another nod to “Calypso”) by screening a classic Buster Keaton silent comedy is a tribute to the power of movies. As the late Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “movies are a democracy in the dark”–they reaffirm our own emotional reactions while providing a sense of community. They also allow us to take a break from ourselves and live vicariously through others in a safe, shared experience. On ENT, the ship’s movie night felt like an afterthought. On DSC, movie nights together may prove to be essential for this temporally dislocated crew to build community and bond with each other.
Note: We recently screened “The Nightmare Before Christmas” for my neighbor’s kids a couple of weeks ago, with everyone (masked) sitting on portable chairs in our driveway facing the screen near the garage door (much like Discovery’s shuttle bay). It was a lot of fun!
With a much stronger emphasis this year on character-building over plot mechanics, his formerly coltish series now feels ready to race with the best of Treks past.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is around 236,000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact timeline for a vaccine so, for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!