Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2 Episode 8
“If Memory Serves”
Star Trek: Discovery revisits the first aliens ever encountered in the franchise when Michael takes Spock to Talos IV in an effort to heal his fractured mind.
Nostalgia is really big these days. Hardly a day goes by without some project being greenlit with the intension of capitalising on nostalgia in order to make money out of audience familiarity. This episode makes for an odd example of that as “The Cage” is one of the more obscure properties to draw on. It was the unaired pilot for The Original Series that was significantly retooled to become the iconic crew of the Enterprise commanded by Captain Kirk. The footage of that episode was then recycled for a two parter called “The Menagerie” which largely features the crew of the Enterprise sitting around watching “The Cage” while a story justifying doing so interrupts periodically.
In this episode Burnham takes Spock to Talos IV at his instruction without knowing why at first. It turns out that Spock believes their mental capabilities will be able to make sense of the chaos that engulfs his mind and return him to coherence. The return to Talos IV is immediately filled with nods to “The Cage” with the ambient sound playing in the background on the surface of the planet being caused by the singing plants that made Spock smile in “The Cage”. Even the smile is referenced by Burnham reacting in the same way. This is a good example of nostalgia as it has meaning for fans while serving as an introduction for this planet the majority of the audience will have no knowledge of.
Unfortunately there are some bad examples of nostalgia here as well. For this plot to work there seems to be foreknowledge of “The Cage” required which is less than ideal considering that episode belongs to a different show that happens to share some of the same characters. For me it’s fine because I know the episode well enough but I wonder how those who haven’t seen it will get on with it as it does act more or less as a direct sequel to it in some respects.
The most prominent connection is through Pike who was the one imprisoned during the events of “The Cage” so that he could breed with their captive female Human, Vena (played here by Melissa George). He is clearly still haunted by this particular experience and has unresolved issues surrounding it. The episode doesn’t quite do enough to sell this on its own merits as it comes across as an event from Pike’s past that isn’t fully explained. Anson Mount and Melissa George have great chemistry bit it feels as if much of the heavy lifting is to be done by the admittedly cool “previously on” that summarises “The Cage”.
My knowledge of the events of “The Cage” actually works against this connection as there was no real evidence of the romantic angle in that episode. Pike was constantly resistant to being a prisoner and saw Vena as being part of that system. In this episode he regards her as if she is his long lost love which very much compliments her feeling so that their first scene together can be emotionally charged and tender. This works really well from an acting and character standpoint for the purposes of this episode but not as a direct sequel to “The Cage”.
The Talosians have also changed since then. They have changed from malevolent to benevolent in order to suit the needs of this story. Spock wants to be brought to them because he knows they can help him and they are willing to do so as long as their asking price is paid. In return for helping Spock they want to live the memory of the moment that their relationship was fractured, something that Burnham refuses to do but is brought around to the idea when Vena points out that they will take the payment by force if they have to.
For the most part the Talosians act as a plot device enabling certain things to happen without actually becoming characters in their own right. In some ways this is a waste of their appearance if you’re part of that section of the audience familiar with them but for new viewers their purpose is very clear and well used. Allowing Burnham to relive Spock’s memories to explain what got him to this point. His time in the asylum is showcased along with his escape so that he doesn’t fall into the clutches of Section 31. That memory depicts him incapacitating the guards rather than killing them meaning that either the deaths were fabricated or Section 31 killed those people in order to frame Spock. Either way, Section 31 are very much framed as being the main antagonists at this point in the season as they are persistently proving that they can’t be trusted.
Most interesting about this memory is Burnham’s reaction to it. She reiterates the point that Spock is supposed to have killed those people causing Spock to point out that her faith in him hasn’t changed even when met with overwhelming evidence. This either means that Burnham has trouble trusting Spock or that he assumes by default that she will think the worst of him. There’s not really enough evidence either way to come to any sort of conclusion but as a reminder that friction exists between them it’s really effective. Burnham is literally seeing the facts as they played out but still has her doubts. Hopefully this will be explored in some way as part of their reconciliation.
The reason for Spock’s mental break is that he encountered the Red Angel and no longer experiences time as a linear progression of events. His mind can’t handle non linear time so the experience began to drive him insane. Burnham is needed because she can provide personal context for him to help reorder his thought patterns into something workable. As explanations go it’s neither here nor there but it provides a valid narrative reason for both parties to take an active interest in repairing the rift that exists between them. Burnham is the only one who can help Spock because she’s family but there are problems with that because they don’t see eye to eye and haven’t for years. This makes for good drama that grounds the more fantastical elements on display.
Spock’s connection to the Red Angel delivers the largest info dump on the subject we’ve had. We see Spock’s perspective on the first time the Angel appeared to him. It has already been mentioned that Spock told his parents where Burnham was when she ran away as a child and prevented her death by enabling their parents to find her before she could be killed. This was direct intervention on the part of the Red Angel that allowed Burnham to survive therefore changing the timeline as it was supposed to play out. This raises a question over whether this show exists in an alternate timeline to The Original Series that exists because of the intervention of the Red Angel which would make this show as disconnected as the recent movies. While I recognise this as a possibility I don’t believe this to be the case as the “previously on” opening clearly indicates that this episode takes place in the same universe that the events of “The Cage” took place in. It’s certainly possible that those events would have happened without Burnham being around for most of Spock’s childhood but tying this episode to those events specifically through that old footage sends a clear message on the part of the writers who also establish that Burnham helped to shape Spock’s character in fundamental ways. I’ll come back to that last point later in the review.
His second encounter with the Red Angel was prior to the red bursts appearing across the galaxy. The Angel came to him on a remote planet and allowed him to mind meld with it in order to see the upcoming dangers. This is where it gets less interesting as the stakes are now at the point of galaxy wide destruction which is fairly boring as an endgame as it’s something that is featured all too frequently in science fiction. Now the crew of the Discovery are tasked with preventing life as they know it from being wiped out but some unknown assailant likely from the future. Granted there are personal connections to those stakes through Spock and now Burnham but it’s a bit of a waste of an enduring mystery to have part of the answer be an apocalypse scenario.
The Red Angel is also noted to be Human by Spock who is able to conclude that about its identity. My thinking is that it’s a future version of Michael Burnham who witnessed the destruction depicted here and is taking steps to prevent it. This explains why the Red Angel appeared to Spock and is focused on sending the Discovery to locations where it can be of use. These actions suggest a personal connection to those involved which points me in the direction of Burnham since she’s the focal point of the show. Another possibility is that the Angel is a future version of Spock and that the current version of him is only picking up on the humanity within his future self.
One mystery that is entirely resolved is what Burnham did in order to create this rift between Spock. It has already been established that she hurt him in the past because she was afraid he would be endangered by Vulcans against the notion of Humans living on their planet. The memory shows Spock fixated on Burnham because she offers a tangible connection to his Humanity and can teach him how to understand it. He wants to hear about Earth and live there with her one day but Burnham wants to keep him safe so makes some really cutting remarks about him designed to make him want to be away from her. Most significant is calling him a “weird little half-breed” which seems to put the final nail in the coffin in terms of their childhood relationship.
This is somewhat disappointing as it doesn’t really come across as the life affirming conflict that it needs to. It’s true that Burnham said some really awful things to Spock but it is also highlighted that Spock ends up understanding the reasoning behind it even if it did have a profound impact on him as a child. Also, they were kids so the fact that they are still estranged even given the benefit of adult understanding is ludicrous and makes for a forced conflict that really doesn’t need to be happening. Having this event be the catalyst for Spock devoting himself to the Vulcan way of doing things and renouncing emotion in favour of logic makes Burnham a significant part of his life as she is part of the foundation of the man fans know him to be. Some may consider this to be sacrilege but I don’t really have a problem with it as Spock still has plenty of agency and it doesn’t affect the constant conflict that exists between the two sides of his being.
The depiction of the memory itself is really well done. Cutting between the young and present day versions of the characters as an indication of how formative this one conversation was for both of them is really nice visual touch and the acting across the board is excellent. I may not agree with the importance of the memory itself but there’s no denying how the actors portrayed it.
Based on this episode it’s hard to tell how good Ethan Peck is at playing Spock. This isn’t a negative comment on his performance as he does a great job but it’s too early to tell if his version of Spock pays appropriate tribute to Leonard Nimoy while being equally owned by Ethan Peck. Having this be an earlier version than the one depicted in The Original Series allows a lot of freedom as he still has a great deal of development to go through before getting to that point though I’m not sure how I feel about a Spock that’s helped to save the entire galaxy prior to The Original Series but time will tell on how that plays out.
There are a few things happening on Discovery that compliment the Burnham/Spock story. Section 31 are making it very difficult for Pike to take any sort of action though that doesn’t stop him as it has previously been established that his loyalty to his officers extends beyond Starfleet protocol. Section 31 take it upon themselves to handle the investigation and have Discovery tasked with the busy work of cleaning up the wreckage of the probe from last week. Pike’s interpretation of those orders is excellent as he manages to follow them while running his own investigation on Spock and Burnham. His way around this makes a lot of sense as he has a big crew and doesn’t need everyone working on the same thing so can assign different tasks to other members of the crew. Pike makes it clear to Tyler that he’s still following orders but won’t ignore a problem involving members of his crew. This is something he isn’t happy with but also can’t do anything about.
Ultimately this leads to a blatant breach of their orders when Pike takes Discovery to Talos IV to pick up Spock and Burnham. Leland’s ship is on their tail and instigates a stand-off over who gets to beam them up. This further demonstrates how morally questionable Section 31 are as they willing to let Spock and Burnham be ripped apart by warring transporter beams rather than let them return to Discovery. It’s a fairly stupid threat as it means that they would never have access to the information either but it also demonstrates that they can’t be negotiated with and would never compromise. There is an alternative thanks to the Talosians which leads to a hilariously satisfying moment where Leland ends up being tricked. All of this further confirms that Section 31 are being set up as the main antagonists of the season by way of setting up how they function in the future. Georgiou’s persistent attempts to discredit Leland will likely factor into this in some way and are immensely fun to watch.
Discovery being on the lam at the end of the episode accomplishes a couple of things. For one it highlights that Pike’s loyalty to his officers is greater than his adherence to orders and for another it shows how his command style encourages loyalty to whatever course he decides to take. I suspect they won’t be fugitives from Starfleet for very long but it’s enough to show that Pike doesn’t agree with Section 31’s way of doing things and sees going against orders as being the only way to make that clear to his superiors. Orders are somewhat less important with the fate of the galaxy at stake and it’s good that Pike knows that.
Tyler faces a few problems on Discovery in this episode. One of which is being framed by Airiam to cover up whatever it is she is doing after being infected by a virus. All the evidence points to Tyler through his command code which takes advantage of how easy it must be to not trust him. Pike wants to give him the benefit of the doubt but can’t when his ship is in danger so takes the necessary steps to lessen the danger to the ship and crew. This is on the back of the greater understanding that they achieved last week and how open Tyler is with him in regards to his relationship with Burnham in this episode. Despite this Pike has to consider the safety of those under his command so if there’s any chance that Tyler is being dishonest then he has to do something about that.
Culber’s resurrection also creates a less than comfortable situation for Tyler with him being the one responsible for his death. Culber is understandably struggling with the prospect of being alive after being dead and is finding it difficult to adjust to being on the Discovery. This makes for the strongest characterisation in the episode as it digs into what it might be like coping with coming back to life. The episode that brought him back established that the body he’s currently inhabiting isn’t his old one as it had to be recreated using matter outside of the Mycelial networks. This means that Culber’s consciousness has taken up residence in an identical body to the one that housed it before but it feels completely different. His main problem is that his memories don’t sync up with his sensations which makes him feel wrong. He knows what his favourite food is, knows what it felt like to be in a relationship with Stamets and understands what his role on the ship once was but since those memories were experienced by his previous body they feel wrong to him.
Stamets doesn’t help matters as he fails to understand exactly what Culber is going through. It’s not his fault as he couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to have your consciousness downloaded into a newly minted body free from all the wear and tear associated from the previous one. This creates an issue as Stamets tries to force Culber into being comfortable in his presence through exposing him to everything he favoured before he died. His efforts only end up making the situation worse and Culber reacts angrily causing the breakdown of their relationship which makes for an appropriately heartbreaking moment. Stamets doesn’t really help this situation as he comes across as a little pushy even if his heart is in the right place with Culber’s best interest at the forefront of his mind. Despite that he isn’t really making an effort to empathise with Culber’s situation and is working on the assumption that he will eventually settle back into his life which definitely doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s perfectly understandable given the circumstances as it would be difficult to figure out how to approach something like this. Of course the lack of a therapist on hand is something of an oversight as is allowing Culber’s murderer to wander the halls and serve on the ship.
The confrontation between Culber and Tyler works really well as it’s a culmination of the frustration being felt by Culber in his new life. Perversely Tyler is the only one who might be able to understand him as he knows what it feels like to be an imposter in his own skin. At this point Culber isn’t prepared to discuss this rationally and seeks him out to pick a fight. Saru sees this as necessary and lets it play out where Tilly shows real command chops by looking to break it up which quickly highlights the two schools of thought on this situation.
Tilly’s viewpoint is obvious but time is given for Saru to explain to Pike why he felt it had to happen. Pike agrees to overlook the incident given how unusual the situation is but also makes it clear that it won’t be tolerated again as he can’t have the crew beating each other up to solve disputed. It’s a great example of Pike’s capability as a leader as he makes decisions on when to show leniency but makes it clear that there is a line to be observed. Small moments like this are great for building his character and highlight how much Saru has changed following his evolution.
A compelling episode that delivers pay-offs to some of the open questions across this season and retains strong focus on how they relate to the characters. The trip to Talos IV -complete with a cool “previously on” segment summarising the events of “The Cage”- makes for both good and bad fan service. Visual references to that episode work really well but in terms of narrative there seems to be too much reliance on having seen the episode to truly understand what’s going on here. A lot has been changed from “The Cage” in service of this plot such as Vena and Pike being established as star-crossed lovers which contradicts how their relationship left off and the Talosians themselves being changed from malevolent to benevolent for the purposes of this story. In terms of the narrative presented these work well as Pike is shown to be haunted by a mission in his past and the Talosians provide a mechanism for the problem of Spock’s muddled mind to be solved. The depiction of Spock’s connection to the Red Angel is really interesting though I find myself less than enthusiastic about the Galactic apocalypse stakes that now exists. The memory of the beginnings of Burnham and Spock’s rift is less than interesting as well as it doesn’t feel significant enough to derail their relationship for this long. It does offer a reason for Spock’s adherence to logic and rejection of emotion but given that he acknowledges the reasoning behind what Burnham did it feels as if this is a forced conflict. The depiction of the memory through cutting between the young and present day versions of both characters was effective though as it shows the lingering effect it has on both of them.
Pike’s interpretation of being ordered to stay put and study the probe makes for a great way for him to continue looking into Spock and Burnham. Section 31 are being further depicted as antagonists with a less than altruistic agenda and Pike’s lack of trust in them makes for a great showcase for his values. Eventually defying orders to retrieve them and going on the lam shows that his loyalty is to his officers first and that his command style makes the crew willing to follow him no matter what. Tyler faces a few problems in this episode with Airiam framing him to cover up whatever it is she’s doing and dealing with Culber’s understandable animosity towards him. Their confrontation is really well handled while allowing for a brief yet effective showcase of Tilly’s command instincts. Pike’s capability as a leader is also shown through him recognising when to show leniency while also making it clear that there are protocols to observe. It also acts as a quick showcase for how much Saru has changed. Culber dealing with being alive once again is the strongest characterisation in the episode. Stamets is trying his best to help but doesn’t really know how to approach it and Culber is dealing with his memories not syncing up with the sensations of his new body. The lack of a therapist and the fact that his murderer is allowed to wander the halls certainly doesn’t help. It’s unclear where this will go but perversely Tyler seems best placed to understand what Culber is going through.
- the depiction of Spock’s memories
- visual references to “The Cage” making for strong fan service
- further showcasing Pike’s command style
- Culber’s difficulties acclimating to being alive again
- strong characterisation from Culber, Stamets and Tyler around how to deal with this situation
- continuing to establish Section 31 as an antagonist
- seemingly relying on having seen “The Cage” to truly understand this episode
- contradicting some of the details in “The Cage”
- the Galactic destruction stakes being introduced
- the reason behind Spock and Burnham’s rift being underwhelming
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