Star Trek Discovery revisits Star Trek’s origins yet again in “If Memory Serves”

If the main problem of season 1 of Star Trek Discovery was that it often seemed to forget that it was supposed to be Star Trek and not Game of Thrones in space, the main problem of season 2 is that it relies too much on Star Trek nostalgia, particularly Original Series nostalgia (my thoughts on previous episodes of Star Trek Discovery can be found here, BTW). Sometimes, this works well – for example, I was highly skeptical of bringing in Christopher Pike, but Anson Mount has given Pike characterisation and charisma that Jeffrey Hunter’s blank slate was missing in his two and a half appearances in the original series. At other times, Star Trek Discovery seems to check off locations and characters of the Original Series just to show that they’ve been there. “If Memory Serves” is an example of the latter.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut!

Last week’s Star Trek Discovery ended with Michael and the still largely catatonic Spock taking off to visit Talos IV, the planet where Star Trek began all those year’s ago in the unaired Original Series pilot “The Cage”. And just in case you’ve forgotten where you’ve heard the name Talos IV before or had mistaken the planet for the eponymous (but without Roman numerals) villain from Captain Marvel, Star Trek Discovery‘s handy “Previously on…” recap shows some clips from “The Cage”, complete with vintage Star Trek logo. It’s nicely done and the cut from Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike on the bridge of the Enterprise to Anson Mount’s Pike on the bridge of the Discovery works particularly well.

As for why Spock wants to go to Talos IV, it turns out that he believes that the telepathic Talosians can put his mind back together after contact with the Red Angel (more on that later) shattered it. On Talos IV, Spock and Michael meet another call-back to “The Cage”, Vina, a disfigured human crash victim who lives on Talos IV after the Talosians saved her life and put her back together wrong. Vina and via her the Talosians explain to Michael that Spock’s mind was damaged by a mind meld attempt with the Red Angel who is a time traveller. Now it was clear that Vina still had to be on Talos IV, since that’s where she was in “The Cage” and that’s where she will still be in “The Menagerie” several years in the future. And the make-up and costume design team did a great job in making actress Melissa George look like 1960s Vina, just as the whole production design team did a great job of making Talos IV and the Talosians look like updated versions of the planet we first saw in “The Cage”. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder why Vina needs to be in this episode at all, except to provide some nostalgic fan service and cause Pike to get misty-eyed, when he suddenly gets a call from her, since he and Vina had a brief affair during the events of “The Cage”. Now maybe it’s just me, but I never got any sense of a grand star-crossed romance between Pike and Vina. To me, she always was just another mini-skirted planet girl of the sort that Kirk would seduce every other week or so. Of course, due to his short tenure, we never saw Pike seducing mini-skirted planet girls with the same abandon as Kirk did and Vina featured prominently in his two and a half appearances in the original series. Nonetheless, I don’t quite see the point of her presence here.

The Talosians are willing to help to help Spock, but – being the same dome-headed arseholes they’ve always been – they demand a price. For those who’ve forgotten, the Talosians are psychic vampires, too (though at least back in “The Cage”, strong emotions like anger hurt them), so they want to see Michael’s memories of just what caused the rift between her and Spock. And Michael, being worried sick about her adoptive brother, complies and we finally see just what it was that drove Michael and Spock apart. Yes, “If Memory Serves” finally gives us some answers to some of the overarching mysteries of this season. Too bad, that those answers usually don’t justify the build-up.

So basically, what happened was that a teenaged Michael tried to run away from home, both because Sarek’s family was being targeted by Vulcan logic extremists (who are still the most ridiculous terrorist group ever – they love logic so much that they’re willing to engage in completely illogical violence to protect it) and because Sarek and Amanda are pretty crappy parents. Little Spock, having decided that his parents are awful and that he’d rather stick with his adoptive sister, tries to tag along, but Michael doesn’t want him to go with her for his own good. So she calls him names. Okay, so some of the things Michael says are pretty mean – she calls Spock a half-breed and freak of nature who isn’t worth bothering with and says that he can’t possible love her, because he’s not human enough to feel love – but that doesn’t change the fact that Michael’s big dark secret and the cause of her approximately two decades long rift with Spock is basically a childhood squabble among siblings. And yes, I understand that little Spock felt hurt by Michael’s harsh words, but to be still angry about something like that after two decades does seem a little silly and also not at all logical. Never mind that adult Spock understands exactly why Michael did what she did, but still decides to be pissed about it, which seems remarkably petty of him.

And talking of Spock, “If Memory Serves” is the first episode where we actually get to see Spock in full mental capacity (well, sort of), after Star Trek Discovery has teased his imminent arrival all season long. Oh yes, and Spock did not really kill those three doctors (as if there was ever any doubt) – Section 31 did to set him up and get their hands on him. Now Ethan Peck (grandson of Gregory) does his best to channel Leonard Nimoy and definitely has chemistry with Sonequa Martin-Green (and I loved Michael’s jab about Spock’s silly hipster beard). However, he is no Leonard Nimoy, but then who is? And while we only see Spock and Pike together aboard the Discovery for a brief scene towards the end, that scene nonetheless hinted at the deep friendship and loyalty that would cause Spock to risk his life to help Pike in “The Menagerie”. Oh, and while a warning that “This planet is quarantined” flashed on the computer screen of Spock and Michael’s shuttle, there is no mentioned that breaking this quarantine is punishable by death. So either, they have retconned that fact (well, it was always somewhat ridiculous that an advanced society like the Federation would not just retain the death penalty, but deploy it for something as comparatively minor as visiting the planet of the jerky domeheads) or something will happen in the final few episodes of the season to change that.

Oh yes, and about the Red Angel – yes, this episode really does give us answers – it turns out that the Red Angel is not just a time traveller, but also that they are trying to warn Starfleet and the Federation of an imminent threat that will wipe out the entire Federation, a threat that looks uncannily like the mutatated future space probe that menaced Pike and Ash Tyler in last week’s episode. As threats go, this one is pretty hollow, because we obviously know that the Federation won’t be wiped out and will be around for another two hundred years at the very least. Never mind that the idea of rogue planetkiller weapons and malevolent mutated probes isn’t exactly new to Star Trek – also see V’ger, Nomad and the Doomsday Machine. Nonetheless, the development is intriguing enough to pique my curiosity.

Meanwhile, back aboard the Discovery, Dr. Hugh Culber is handling his resurrection not at all well. The fact that Stamets desperately tries to pretend that everything is normal, when it most definitely isn’t, doesn’t help either. And since the Discovery doesn’t seem to have a therapist on board, counsellors only coming in during the Next Generation era, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out, Hugh Culber is left pretty much alone with the trauma of being murdered, spending several months inside the magic mushroom network and then being resurrected in a brand-new body that just feels wrong. And so Culber breaks up with Stamets in a heartbreaking scene and then goes to find Ash Tyler, who killed him in an outbreak of Voqness, to beat the shit out of him in the mess hall. Ash’s responds with remarkable restraint – he basically defends himself and nothing more – even though I’m pretty sure that even without being a Klingon surgically altered to look human, former security chief and current Section 31 agent Ash Tyler could beat Culber, a non-combatant and member of the medical corps, easily. For that matter, I’m surprised that Culber can remember what happened during his death and who killed him at all, considering it was a surprise attack that Culber had no way of seeing coming. But then, this whole mess with Culber, Stamets and Ash is mainly due to season 1’s addiction to stupid “shocking plot twists(TM)” anyway.

Several other members of the crew want to break up the fight, but Saru stops them and claims that the fight if necessary for Ash and Culber to get their hostility out of their system. Pike isn’t at all happy with this – he doesn’t want his officers to fight in the mess hall – and points out that Saru would have reacted very differently before his threat ganglia fell off and he lost his ever-present fear. Talking of which, I’m not sure I like this new fearless Saru – and I had only just come to like him after spending much of season 1 disliking him.

But there is more trouble brewing aboard the Discovery, for when the ship tries to use the magic mushroom drive (which they were never supposed to use again about five different times), they find that it has been sabotaged and will not work. Now to everybody who has seen the previous episodes it’s pretty obvious that the culprit is Lieutenant Airiam, the cyborg crewmember who was infected with some kind of virus by the mutated space probe – you know, the one that is going to wipe out the Federation, if the Red Angel is to be believed. But Pike immediately blames Ash Tyler for the sabotage, because once a double agent, always a double agent, and has him confined to the brig. It certainly seems as if Ash Tyler has inherited Michael’s position of “everything that ever happened is his fault”. Now I didn’t like everybody blaming Michael for everything in season 1 and I don’t like everybody blaming Ash for everything in season 2, especially since the Discovery crew treated Ash pretty well in the last few episodes of season 1, even though he actually had done a lot to make them distrust him, unlike Michael. I’m also getting the impression that the Discovery production team really don’t know what to do with Ash, which is why his characterisation is all over the place this season.

The episode ends when the Discovery finally reaches Talos IV to pick up Spock and Michael. And rather than hand Spock over to Section 31, who still want to dissect his brain, Pike – once more passing the “What would Commander MacLane do?” test – decides to take the Discovery on the run, Section 31 hot on their heels.

Once more – and I feel I’m repeating myself here – “If Memory Serves” is not a bad episode of Star Trek Discovery. And my not-so-positive view of the episode may be coloured by the fact that I was pretty ill, when I watched it. But while it’s good to finally get some answers to the questions Discovery has been teasing us with all season long, the answers themselves are underwhelming. Spock and Michael’s fall-out was merely due to a sibling spat and the Red Angel is trying to prevent an armageddon that we know won’t happen anyway.

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4 Responses to Star Trek Discovery revisits Star Trek’s origins yet again in “If Memory Serves”

  1. Bonnie McDaniel says:

    For me, the performances pretty much carried the day. Anthony Rapp, in particular, knocked it out of the park–his bewilderment and heartbreak was palpable. The kid playing young Spock (I’ve forgotten his name) was good too. And Anson Mount continues to impress me. Also, the closing scene of Georgiou hoisting Leland on his own petard and walking away, leaving him high and dry, was delicious.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, the acting is consistently great and Anthony Rapp is a standout, as always. And I had completely forgotten to mention the scene was Leland and Georgiou, which shows how ill I was.

  2. Steve Wright says:

    The Talosians’ mental illusions are so pervasive and so insidious that anyone who’s come into contact with them has to be considered a potential puppet of Talosian psychic influence, and therefore a threat to the Federation and the galaxy as a whole. That’s why the Talos IV death penalty exists.

    It’s certainly not there to add spurious jeopardy to the pasted-together plot of “The Menagerie”, since without it the story would run “Spock breaks regulations to get Pike to a nice retirement home, and is punished by two weeks’ suspension of chocolate rations”. No, no, no. Insidious Talosian psychic influence, very dangerous stuff. Definitely.

    • Cora says:

      Sure, Talos IV is dangerous. A lot more dangerous than surgically altered Klingons pretending to be Starfleet Lieutenants, Vulcans who mindmeld and nerve-pinch left, right and center, Cyborg Lieutenants possessed by an evil computer virus from the future and the evil empress of an alternate universe strutting around as a Section 31 agent.

      But yup, I agree that “The Menagerie” is a mess (even if it won a Hugo in the year it aired), which is why I’m mystified that it seems to be such a legendary episode.

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