Nomen certainly est omen with the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery, because “Saints of Imperfection” very much highlights the many flaws of the show, all of them carry overs from the mess that was season 1. Furthermore, season 2 also seems to establish the pattern of one good episode alternating with a not so good one. So after last week’s excellent “An Obol for Charon”, we now get the very messy and imperfect “Saints of Imperfection”. For my takes on previous episodes, go here BTW.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
“Saints of Imperfection” opens where “An Obol for Charon” left off, with the Discovery still searching for Spock and Sylvia Tilly missing and presumed dead. Okay, so we and Stamets know that Tilly isn’t really dead, but everybody else is mourning her and Michael delivers a heartfelt eulogy for her first (and for a long time only) friend aboard the Discovery. It’s a lovely speech, but as Zack Handlen points out, it’s also a little much after Michael’s tearjerking reaction to Saru’s “death” (don’t worry, he got better) only last episode, especially since we know that Tilly isn’t really dead, but was kidnapped into the magic mushroom drive instead. But then Star Trek Discovery seems determined to give our tear ducts a workout to the point of feeling manipulative. Now I’m not much of a movie cryer, though science fiction and fantasy films tend to affect me more than traditional movie tearjerkers such as Love Story, Titanic, My Girl, Terms of Endearment, The Champ, Doctor Zhivago, etc…, all of which mostly just annoy the crap out of me. But even in the science fiction and fantasy genre, Star Trek isn’t normally something that makes me cry (not even Wrath of Khan, probably because I saw it after some of the latter movies, so I knew that Spock gets better), unlike e.g. Star Wars, which has a few moments which get me every single time, or the various Marvel movies. Therefore, the experience of getting misty-eyed at a Star Trek of all things show is both new and ever so slightly annoying to me, since I don’t think I cried at Star Trek since some episodes of the original series I saw as a very young girl. “Spectre of the Gun” stands out, because they kill Chekhov (don’t worry, he gets better, too) and he was my favourite.
But before launching into the inevitable search for Tilly, the Discovery crew is still busily searching for our other missing person, Spock, who is on the run after first checking himself into a psychiatric hospital because of recurring nightmares and then escaping and supposedly murdering three doctors in the process (The Spock we know would probably say, “This is illogical”, because it is). This time around, the Discovery actually manage to track down the shuttle Spock stole. But when the shuttle is brought aboard, the person who emerges is not Spock, but Empress Philippa the Merciless in her cool Section 31 leather outfit. What is Philippa Georgiou doing aboard Spock’s shuttle? Supposedly, Section 31 were also tracking Spock, only to find the shuttle empty and Philippa Georgiou just stayed aboard, because… Honestly, don’t ask, because this doesn’t really make any sense.
In a review of season 4 of Outlander, someone said about the fan favourite character of Lord John Grey, “He just pops up wherever the plot requires him to be”, which in the case of Outlander means Scotland, Jamaica and North Carolina, specifically Fraser’s Ridge and River Run. Philippa Georgiou or rather the evil mirror universe version is very much the Lord John Grey of Star Trek Discovery (even though she’s very much the opposite of the steadfastly noble Lord John in every other way) – she pops up wherever and whenever the plot requires her to, regardless whether this makes sense or not. And though it makes zero sense for Philippa Georgiou to show up in Spock’s shuttle, the plot requires her to pay a visit to the Discovery, so here she is. Coincidentally, Michael staring expectantly at transporters or shuttle ramps, waiting for Spock to show up, only to get someone else (Pike, Amanda, Mirror Georgiou) is something of a running gag this season. And as Camestros Felapton points out in his review, this constant Spock teasing is getting ridiculous at this point.
Unfortunately, Mirror Georgiou – though as far as everybody else is concerned she is the real Philippa Georgiou (even if Pike seems to sense that something is off about her and asks Michael about that) – has no idea where Spock is either. And indeed her reason popping up this time is not to facilitate the search for Spock, but to reintroduce another familiar face from season 1. Cause it turns out that Starfleet has detected tachyon emissions near the Red Angel signal bursts, which worries them so much that they have assigned Section 31 to cooperate with the Discovery on tracking down the Red Angel bursts and locating Spock – not because he supposedly killed three people, but because Starfleet would really like to know what Spock knows about the Red Angel. The Starfleet orders are delivered by another familiar face, by the way, namely Admiral Cornwell, Gabriel Lorca’s ex and surprisingly genocide-happy Starfleet admiral. Why would Starfleet assign its Black Ops division to investigating the sort of cosmic phenomenon that its regular exploratory vessels normally deal with? Who cares? None of this makes any sense whatsoever.
Because Philippa Georgiou is too busy strutting around her Section 31 ship, looking sexy in black leather, and her commanding officer Leland (yes, he actually has a name) is too busy looking pained and having some tense conversations with Pike (apparently, they went to the Academy together or something), the Section 31 liaison assigned to the Discovery is none other than Ash Tyler, Michael’s on/off lover, who is also a surgically altered Klingon formerly named Voq and single Dad of a Klingon baby currently being raised by monks. Yes, the entire subplot of Philippa Georgiou popping up in Spock’s shuttle served the sole purpose of bringing back Ash Tyler. Though except for Michael, no one is happy to see Ash and Pike doesn’t want him on the ship at all. But then, Ash used to be a double agent, albeit an unwitting one, and he did kill Dr. Culber in an outbreak of Voqness in one of the dumbest plot twists in a season full of dumb plot twists. Plus, the fact that no one except Michael wants Ash aboard gives Shazad Latif the chance to look tortured some more. Actually, the fact that both of them are terribly tortured characters is maybe why Michael and Ash make such a good couple. Though I suspect hanging out with them will get very depressing very fast.
But for now, tense conversations and moral dilemmas regarding the ethics of working with Section 31 have to wait, because there is still the missing Tilly to recover. Stamets manages to convince Michael that Tilly is not dead. Together, they investigate the pod in which “May”, the spore ghost, wrapped Tilly and find that it is a transporter of sorts and deduce that Tilly must have been abducted into the magic mushroom network. They decide to go after her and since Pike is the sort of Starfleet captain who actually takes Starfleet’s supposed ethics seriously, he goes along with Stamets and Michael’s plan to use the Discovery‘s magic mushroom drive to teleport them into the spore network in a manouevre that is very much like the one that killed off the entire crew of the Discovery‘s sister ship way back in episode 3 of season 1. However, if Stamets theorises that if they crash the Discovery only halfway into the magical mushroom dimension, they have an hour to rescue Tilly before the ship is eaten by the fungus spores. It’s an insane plan, but Tilly is in danger and – so Pike announced to the whole ship over the intercom – Starfleet never abandons anybody to their fate. This is probably also why Pike is so very pissed off when it turns out that the cloaked Section 31 ship has been hanging around and watching all the time without helping the Discovery.
Meanwhile, Tilly and her new spore ghost friend May are exploring the magical mushroom world. It turns out that May is really an alien being and citizen of a civilisation inside the spore network (according to Keith R.A. DeCandido, May’s people are called the jahSepp). However, the jahSepp are in trouble, because a monster is attacking the spore network and endangering their civilisation. Tilly, being another Starfleet officer who actually takes the stated ethics of her organisation seriously, promises to help, as do Michael and Stamets, once they crash into the mushroom world and are reunited with Tilly.
So the monster hunt is on. And once more, there are some parallels to episode 3 of season 1, where a Discovery away team including Michael and Stamets embarked on a monster hunt aboard a Starfleet vessel half eaten by fungus spores and found not a monster precisely, but the tardigrade. The monster threatening the jahSepp is no more a monster than the tardigrade was one. However, “Saints of Imperfection” gives us not the return of the tardigrade, but the return of Dr. Hugh Culber, Stamets’ husband/life partner (most reviewers seem to assume they’re married, but I don’t recall any official confirmation in the show itself). For those who missed season 1, Dr. Culber was murdered by Ash Tyler in an outbreak of Klingon rage and later reappeared as a sort of ghostly guide to lead Stamets home, when he was lost inside the magical mushroom network, something which happens with alarming frequency in Star Trek Discovery.
Stamets initially assumed that his encounter with Dr. Culber in the magical mushroom world was only a hallucination. Now however, it turns out that Hugh Culber’s spirit/soul/whatever you want to call it was sucked into the magical mushroom world, because Stamets was still connected to the spore drive when he discovered Culber’s dead body and so his overwhelming grief transported Culber into the mushroom world. Here, he found himself under attack by fungus spores attempting to digest him and fought back, somehow accidentally infecting his environment and endangering the jahSepp. Okay, so none of this makes any sense, but then this isn’t the first or even the worst example of Star Trek dishing up complete and utter nonsense to bring back a beloved character (The Search for Spock – the movie, that is – anyone?). And the reunion between Stamets and a desperate and traumatised (not to mention somewhat grubby and unshaven) Culber is so sweet and so well played by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz that you honestly don’t care that the way they got there makes zero sense. Besides, the “monster” which turns out to be just a misunderstood alien life form is a classic Star Trek plot.
There is one more roadblock to the long awaited return of Dr. Hugh Culber, because it turns out that unlike Stamets, Michael and Tilly, Culber can’t leave the magical mushroom world. However, May has a solution and proposes using the pod, via which she abducted Tilly to reconstruct Culber’s body. Unfortunately, this means that May has to remain behind in the magical mushroom world forever, which leads to a tearful good-bye from Tilly, who by now considers May her friend, even though she’s an alien mushroom creature. And then Stamets finally gets to hold the reconstructed body of the love of his life in his arms again. Of course, Culber is very likely deeply traumatised by everything that happened to him. And knowing that the man who killed him the first time around is back on the ship probably doesn’t help either. But that’s a problem for another episode, cause for now we have one of the best couples in all of Star Trek (two, if you include Michael and Ash) finally reunited and there’s not a dry eye in the house.
“Saints of Imperfection” is not actually a bad episode of Star Trek Discovery, just a very imperfect one. And indeed, I enjoyed myself quite a bit while watching it. It’s the sort of story that should not work, but somehow does, largely due to the excellent performances of Discovery‘s cast, particularly Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz. The problem is just that once you start to think about this episode – e.g. for writing a review/recap/long ramble about it – everything falls apart and you realise that most of the events in “Saints of Imperfection” – from Philippa Georgiou’s deus ex machina’s like reappearance to Hugh Culber’s resurrection via magical mushrooms – make no sense at all and basically only happen to patch up yet more of the mistakes made in season 1.
James Whitbrook points out that this episode is all about love – love between partners, love between friends, hell, even love between siblings, for Michael is still searching for her lost brother – and even aired on Valentine’s Day. Now Star Trek is not really an emotional franchise and love is not an emotion any Star Trek has much dealt with and if Star Trek did venture into the realm of romance on occasion, it usually didn’t do so very convincingly. But as someone who likes a side order of romance with my science fiction, I’m happy for Star Trek Discovery to deliver all the feels. Though maybe hold off on the magical mushrooms next time, okay?
I’m not entirely sure why the episode is called “Saints of Imperfection”, though the title is very much a mission statement for the entire show. Because Star Trek Discovery is a very imperfect show, whose frustrating flaws are papered over by great characters and an excellent cast, a dollop of emotion and a hearty dose of sheer weirdness. In fact, what most distinguishes Discovery from other Star Trek shows is that it’s often imperfect, very emotional and very weird.