I’m tempted this week to review CBS All Access’ streaming platform instead of the episode in question. I haven’t had an issue with the much-maligned CAA thus far and have managed to watch five episodes of Discovery without hiccups and with excellent video quality, but “Lethe” basically spent every other minute buffering for me, resulting in a disjointed, low-res viewing experience. Say what you want about streaming being the future of television viewing, but broadcast, cable, and satellite never had problems this bad.
“Lethe” delves more deeply into the relationship between Michael Burnham and James Frain’s Sarek, introduces Mia Kirshner as Sarek’s wife Amanda, and ratchets up a conflict between Lorca and his old pal Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook). It also shows us a Vulcan radical, demonstrating that the emotion-suppressing race can be driven to extremes even by logic. One of the screenwriters is Joe Menosky, who wrote TNG’s highly regarded “Darmok,” so it’s hard to question the Trek bona fides on this one even if they do show Vulcan with moons in its sky (so did Star Trek – The Motion Picture in its original theatrical release version of course).
The episode opens with some lavish views of Vulcan as Sarek and a Vulcan aide leave on a diplomatic mission, which turns out to be a meeting with the Klingons—but Sarek’s aide turns out to be a Vulcan extremist who sabotages the mission, leaving Sarek injured and stranded inside a nebula, reaching out to Burnham with his mind, a callback to the mind meld, and the sharing of Sarek’s katra, that occurred when Burnham was injured by a similar attack as a child. There’s some confusion for me here as dialogue seems to indicate that Burnham’s childhood crisis was also a result of an attack by Vulcan extremists—wasn’t it established as an attack by Klingons? Did Burnham go through two childhood life-endangering attacks and two Sarek mind-melds? The idea of the Vulcan attack, and of Vulcans summarily rejecting the idea of a human being integrated into Vulcan society, is more interesting, if uncomfortably reminiscent of the grumpy, trouble-making Vulcans of Star Trek Enterprise rather than the more aspirational Vulcans of TOS. Casting new Vulcans who aren’t Leonard Nimoy or Mark Lenard continues to be a challenge for the franchise, and the range of Vulcan acting styles on display in “Lethe” is at times bewildering. As Sarek, Frain seems far more emotional and sarcastic than Mark Lenard, but by the time he is rescued and reclined on a diagnostic bed in sickbay toward the end of the episode, he actually conjures up strong memories of Lenard in TOS’s “Journey to Babel.” But the kid playing the Vulcan extremist is far less convincing, as is his cartoonish makeup and eyebrow job. But Discovery does have a very promising and interesting new Vulcan in Terral (Conrad Coates), a sleekly bald Vulcan of Color and high ranking Starfleet officer who appears via hologram to debate Lorca about his decision to take the Discovery on a rescue mission to find Sarek—Coates is highly convincing and we can only hope to see more of this character.
“Lethe” works to incorporate Lorca’s recruit from last episode, Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), into the story as Tyler volunteers to pilot the shuttle rescue mission into the nebula, with Burnham using a neural enhancer to strengthen her telepathic bond with Sarek so the crew can locate him. Fans are theorizing that Tyler is a Klingon spy, although he certainly seems helpful here and winds up bonding with Burnham over dinner by episode’s end. The upshot of the Burnham story reveals that Sarek was forced to decide which of his “children” would enter the Vulcan expeditionary force since the Vulcan leadership grudgingly allows only one “partial Vulcan” to attend. Sarek tells Burnham that she failed in her application to the group, but actually, Sarek chose Spock (who of course, threw that back in Sarek’s face by joining Starfleet) and lied to Burnham about the outcome. Sarek’s guilt over that decision haunts him and creates the memories that Burnham revisits inside Sarek’s mind, allowing her to relive her own memory of the incident from a different perspective.
It’s an interesting take on Burnham’s position in Sarek’s family that adds another dimension to his relationship with Spock (who’s name-dropped along with the Enterprise here), and the finale finds Burnham endeavoring to get more comfortable with her own human emotions.
The side story with Lorca is less satisfying, although it adds ever more mystery to Lorca’s background as he seduces his old admiral buddy, only to alarm her when she finds odd scarring on his back and realizes he’s sleeping with a charged phaser under his pillow. By the end of the episode, with Cornwell captured after replacing Sarek on the diplomatic mission to the Klingons, it looks like Lorca has not only continually lied to her, but that he’s intentionally avoiding rescuing her in order to keep her doubts about him secret from Starfleet. That’s cold, man. Lorca’s decisions to promote both Burnham—Starfleet’s most notorious mutineer—and Tyler, a potential Klingon plant who passes a cursory background check by the captain, certainly put the guy’s judgment in question at the very least. “Lethe”’s problem is the integration of the Lorca B story—yes, this seems much more like the old “A story, B story” format of previous Treks even though the Lorca story does key off Lorca’s decision to rescue Sarek—the pacing of the rescue story is decidedly at odds with Lorca’s scenes with Cornwell, with the couple given plenty of private time for a big argument, evening drinks and sex in Lorca’s cabin. Then again, maybe it just seemed that way due to All Access’ constant buffering.
Written by Joe Menosky and Ted Sullivan
Directed by Douglas Aarnioski