SPOILERS AHEAD … AND BLUE SINGING PLANTS AND FAIRLY-INVASIVE THERAPY WITHOUT THE COMFY COUCH …
Hands up everyone who loves dredging up really super-traumatic memories?
And again, those of you who like doing that in a dank cave-like structure underground on restricted Federation planet Talos IV – the very same one featured in the first of two pilots for Star Trek: The Original Series “The Cage” (1965; it didn’t premiere on TV until 1988) – where you have taken your adoptive Vulcan brother on his less-than-lucid say-so in the hopes of (a) saving him and his sanity and (b) finding out more about the Red Angel who may be from an apocalyptic future and may be good or may be bad or who knows really.
Right, no takers? Then, my friends and Star Trek Discovery-watching peeps, you are no Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) who not only hid and outran Section 31 ships, which are ridiculously fast and lethal, but raced to Talos IV to see if the Talosians, who weren’t really very touchy-feeling therapeutic last time around and more let’s imprison humans and breed them, can help Spock (Ethan Peck).
It’s a mission with a lot on the line, not least the fact that Section 31 is muttering “mutiny!” about Burnham (yes, AGAIN), and yes, that Burnham and Spock are not exactly the poster children for happy blended families and have what sounds like a graveyard of skeletons hiding in their collective past.
To Burnham’s palpable reluctance, the Talosians preferred method of dealing with Spock’s issues – and don’t forget they have met with Spock and Pike before during the events of “The Cage” where the current Discovery captain also fell in love with a human captive on the planet Vina (played in 1965 by (Susan Oliver and now by Melissa George) – is to burrow into the Vulcan’s psyche and project memories in his sister’s mind the painful years of years past that led to their estrangement.
What fun, huh?
Turns out, not so much; while we are given searing insight into the events of one long ago night when a runaway Burnham tells her clearly-besotted new brother, who is eager to indulge and explore his human side, that she doesn’t actually love him and think he’s some sort of grotesque oddity.
She doesn’t mean it, of course, and her cruel words are intended to keep him safe by making him retreat to a safe emotional journey and not follow her; she thinks that by leaving her adopted Vulcan family behind that she can spare them attacks by the logic extremists who are xenophobically and bitterly-opposed to any human or alien “polluting” of Vulcan purity.
She is actually doing it from a kind and good place but doesn’t fully comprehend that while the danger she is real, her solution is not a good or right one – she is only a little girl, after all – and that by saying what she says to Spock, she will cause a rift that will haunt them into their adult years and which spurs Spock to embrace his logical side to the near-exclusion of his humanity.
Big ramifications for what must seemed like a very small decision.
But as we all know the “Old Yeller” approach, which basically involves saying the opposite of what you feel to make someone abandon you before you or someone elese hurts them because of their association with you (or something like that) always comes at a great emotional cost.
Quite how big isn’t clear to Burnham until Spock’s memories are shared with her and he sees hers too and they both come to realise what each was really feeling at the time.
But as well all know, and “If Memory Serves” does a beautiful job of portraying how insight might be instant but healing is not, especially not after the passing of so many years and the accrual of so many scars, while you might intellectually realise your memories don’t fully represent the full extent of the facts, getting your emotions to come along for the ride is another thing entirely.
It’s unclear whether true healing will come between the two but Burnham’s willingness to lay everything on the line for her brother, her deep regret at what happened between them, and Spock’s trust in her when he was at his most lost and vulnerable, indicates that whatever the damage, the bond between them is deep, sustained and true.
In what is quickly becoming a hallmark for this brilliantly-conceived and executed series, the emotions were movingly-articulated and felt real and powerfully true.
That is partly a tribute to Sonequa Martin-Green who is superlative in the role of Michael Burnham, giving her vulnerability, smarts and an enduring capability to handle any situation as needed, and the writing which goes for nuance and subtlety over big, epic emotional manipulation every time.
It makes for wholly satisfying viewing (as does Vina’s appearance to Pike on Discovery via some form of Talosian projection, which underscores the deep connection between the two, even all these years later) and fortunately for the ongoing storyline that the Red Angel is human and visited Spock as a child, in the process giving them a vision that helped save runaway Burnham’s life.
Even more alarmingly, it is also revealed that Spock has been shown a glimpse of a nightmarish future in which the founding worlds of the Federation such as Andoria, Earth and Vulcan are destroyed by an overwhelmingly large fleet of spacecraft.
It’s frightening but a newly-lucid Spock – here’s to invasive shock therapy by the Talosians! – does tell Michael it can be prevented … so no pressure then?
Elsewhere, Dr Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) transition back to the land of the living is not, understandably, going all that smoothly.
Feeling like he’s a facsimile of himself, he struggles to feel like he is really him, aware intellectually that he’s Hugh Culber, that his husband Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and is beyond grateful for the miracle that has brought him back from the dead, and that he was a man of many talents before his untimely death at the hands of Lt Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) but not feeling like any of it is actually him.
It’s agonising and heart wrenching to watch and you feel desperately for Culber, who is a man out of time and place, and Stamets who wants everything to be as it was but keeps being confronted, violently in some cases, that that will never be the case.
The tragedy is watching the great disconnect for the miracle of what is and what might be, all too aware that bridging these two feels damn near impossible, especially when Culber seethes with fury at the fact that Tyler is still walking around the ship.
For all the agony, anger and sadness, there are a particular moment of levity in the midst of all the existential angst.
After Tyler and Culber get into a fight in the ship’s mess, one that is allowed to proceed by a newly-violence approving Saru (Doug Jones), he and Pike are discussing what happened when the captain says Saru should’ve gone by the book to resolve the friction between the two combatants.
Saru rather sagely, and winningly, remarks that there really isn’t a proscribed procedure for resolving entrenched differences between a human with a Klingon grafted onto him and a dead man brought back to life after existing in the mycelial network to which Pike can only give a knowing, wry grin.
It’s a rare light break in an episode where all kinds of deep emotions are flying back and forth, people are confronting what feel like intractable gulfs between them and someone (psst! it’s a possessed Lt. Cmdr. Airiam, played by Hannah Cheesman) is sabotaging things left, right and centre.
Thing is, at the end of “If Memory Serves”, we know more about all kinds of things, the storyline has been moved along and, rather ominously the stakes have been raised in suitably epic fashion.
- Next week on Star Trek Discovery in “Project Daedalus” …