Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Spock returns on a frustratingly familiar Star Trek: Discovery

Illustration for article titled Spock returns on a frustratingly familiar Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: Michael Gibson (CBS)

“If Memory Serves” opens with something of a tease. In a handful of clips (introduced by the Netflix logo, which briefly made me wonder if I’d loaded the wrong screener), the episode attempts to recap the plot of “The Cage,” the unaired Star Trek pilot that featured the original version of the Enterprise crew, including Captain Pike. The clips are charming enough, and there’s a brief sense of possibility; of thinking that Discovery, in fully acknowledging its debt to the past, might be interested in trying to do something new with it. Maybe instead of poorly thought out world-building, we’re going to get something with actual consideration behind. Or, hell, why not throw us a “Trials and Tribble-ations” style romp? This show has always had a good sense of humor.


Technically speaking, “If Memory Serves” is trying to do something new, if only in the sense that isn’t simply remaking “The Cage.” A large part of this episode is a sequel to that pilot, checking back in with Vina and the Talosians as Spock tries to put his brain back together. And it’s just… it’s just bad. It’s very bad, and more than anything it underlines how empty this new show is fast becoming; how much of its promise has been squandered on an inane fixation with the past; and how little it has to offer at this point, beyond a likeable (under-used) ensemble cast and increasingly pointless pieces of fan service.

I’ll start with the positive: the new (new) Spock is fine. Ethan Peck gets to do a bit more than just babble to himself this week, and, while his performance isn’t remarkable or revelatory, it’s far from embarrassing. I have some qualms on how this version of the character is written, but they’re based largely on a reveal about his past with Burnham. Apart from that, he’s just the supremely confident, slightly sarcastic and condescending Spock that showed up regularly on the original series. Peck isn’t Leonard Nimoy, and Nimoy’s Spock is one of the greatest character turns in the franchise (and, I’d argue, in television in general), so he can’t really be blamed for failing to make much of an impression. He’s entirely acceptable in the role as is, and while his work doesn’t justify the character’s inclusion in the season, I can’t imagine a performance that would’ve.

But apart from that… Look, not every story needs a sequel. Can we agree on that? The original “The Cage” worked quite nicely in terms of plot; the pilot got canned and retooled (which was a good call; if nothing else, Anson Mount is an excellent reminder of a what a charisma vacuum Jeffrey Hunter was in the same role), and because television is a cannibal, the parts were reused for the original series, thus ensuring it would remain in continuity for years to come. Talos IV is the sort of planet that the original Enterprise used to visit all the time—a place with a good hook that could generate a fun hour of television, and then it’s on to the next place. We don’t need to exhaust every premise just because we can.

Although really, suggesting “If Memory Serves” is trying to exhaust anything beyond my patience is giving the writing more credit than it deserves. Because this isn’t an attempt to understand the Talosians or give us closure on Vina’s story. That would be bad. But what we get instead is arguably worse; a drive-by exploitation of Trek lore that serves no greater purpose than to nudge us in the ribs and whisper “hey, remember that? Remember that? Remember it?” and nothing else. I can’t imagine how this would play for someone who has no knowledge of “The Cage.” For someone who does, it offers nothing new beyond a chance to see a different actress in a role and aliens with some higher quality prosthetics, all of which simply exist to distract us from the fact that this series has hardly anything to say.

Spock tricks Burnham into taking him to Talos IV because he think the aliens can fix his brain. Turns out, they can, and are willing to do so in exchange for a chance to “experience” Burnham’s memory of betraying Spock. We’ll get to that in a second (spoiler: it’s not good!), but here again we see Discovery’s insistence on making Star Trek smaller; on re-using old ideas in ways that simply regurgitate the past rather than commenting on it. The Talosians are far less interesting than they were before—instead of the awkward, stiff, and priggish creatures who wanted to use humans as breeding stock, we get a bunch of bland grey things who like getting high off strong emotion. In the original episode, intense emotion—particularly, intense anger—caused them pain. Is that no longer a concern?


But I’m getting into plot nitpicking, which is tricky ground for criticism. Sloppy, poorly conceived narrative can often lead to a lack of internal consistency, but getting bogged down by it is the reviewer version of treating the symptoms and not the disease. If the Talosians had been just the same as before, this would still be a pointless. There’s no story here, and no new beats that you didn’t already know from “The Cage.” Even the efforts to reconnect Vina and Pike come off badly. She’s a tragic figure, but treating their relationship like a star-crossed grand romance (as it was in “The Menagerie,” although at least there were mitigating circumstances there) is absurd. There’s no emotional weight to her and Pike exchanging misty glances, regardless if you’ve seen the original episode. It’s purely a mechanic for information, probably intended to distract us from just how empty that information ultimately is.

Here’s what we learn from Spock: the Red Angel appeared to him as a child and helped him save Burnham’s life through the magic of time travel. He started getting visions again, busted out of confinement when Section 31 came to grab him. He didn’t kill anyone, which isn’t a surprise so much as an inevitability, and managed to mind meld with the Angel, during which he learned that it’s human and that it’s working to stop the destruction of the entire universe from something that looks an awful lot like the time traveling probe the menaced Pike and Tyler last week.


Given how much time the season has devoted to the Red Angel it would almost have to be something with this grand scope. Except it’s not really particularly exciting, is it? Universe-threatening machines (hmmmm, gosh I wonder what that could be) seems like an every-other-week kind of occurrence at this point, and the season has done an absolutely horrible job at building this mystery up in a way that was interesting or suspenseful. There was no sense of discovery, no rising tension as people first dismissed the idea as a coincidence and then gradually realized they were fucked. Nope, it seems half of Starfleet was obsessing over those Red Angel sightings before we even heard about them, for no real reason beyond “the writers know this will be important later.”

Then there’s the reveal that Burnham’s big betrayal of Spock was just a variation on the old “kid runs away from home and yells at beloved dog not to follow them” trick, this time with young Spock in the place of the dog. I didn’t expect that the angst between them would have a satisfying payoff, but this is even more disappointing than I’d imagined. It’s not a legitimate conflict. For one thing, they were kids. For another, it’s not a real fight. Adult Spock even acknowledges that it was a tactic, and the idea that they’re still estranged over this is absurd. Yes, calling Spock a “half-breed” is loaded language, and I’m sure he was upset as a boy, but it’s not really a conflict when it the resolution comes built in, is it? Burnham and Spock don’t really even need to have a heart to hear at this point. There’s nothing she needs to reveal to bridge the gap between them.


Back on the Discovery, the show once more leans into trying to make Tyler seem like a complicated character, even when he had the only thing interesting about him surgically removed in season one. Thankfully Hugh Culber’s efforts to adjust to resurrection are more promising; the actor does a great job of just not really being comfortable anywhere, and the (temporary, I assume) breakdown of his relationship with Stamets is a real heartbreaker.

The episode ends with the Talosians helping Spock and Burnham escape back to the Discovery, so we can at least put this regrettable detour behind us. Section 31 continues to be the main threat, albeit one that has Starfleet’s support, which means that the entire Discovery is now on the run for deciding to protect Spock from brain dismemberment. That sounds exciting, and I appreciate that the show is trying to build up some urgency. But I don’t really trust it to do anything interesting with that urgency, besides boldly going places we’ve all been before.


Stray observations

  • It’s the Borg, right? The threat the Red Angel is trying to prevent is the Borg. That’s the least interesting answer, anyway.
  • Any guesses on who the time traveller is? I honestly don’t know and I’m afraid to ask. (Although the fact that he or she went out of their way to change history and save Burnham’s life is interesting.)
  • In the original episode, Vina explains that she looks horrible because the Talosians found her injured after her ship crashed and put her back together without knowing what humans were supposed to look like. Here, she says it’s because this is just how she looked after the crash. So, we went from a chilling and sad explanation to a forgettable one. Good work, show.
  • This is a small point, but if someone pulls out the full “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” quote this season, I’m gonna lose it.