STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Review: 1.06 “Lethe”

The show's first "character" episode explores the contents of its two leads' heads.

We're finally getting into the swing of things in Star Trek: Discovery, and that feeling couldn't be more welcome. We know the chalk-outline shapes of all the characters, and this week’s episode, “Lethe,” does some filling-in of those outlines. Specifically, those of Michael Burnham and Captain Lorca, who as the two biggest characters you would have expected to be more three-dimensional by now. Better late than never, and luckily, there's some really interesting psychological depth to be plumbed.

“Lethe”’s A-plot deals with the fallout from a suicide bombing on board a Vulcan vessel bearing Ambassador Sarek to a peace negotiation with the Klingon Empire. Turns out Vulcan society is kinda fractured, with an anti-Federation (specifically anti-human, it seems) faction growing in strength. That’s very interesting and kind of un-Vulcan, and likely to be investigated in a later episode.

What are very Vulcan, however, are mind-melds; accordingly, Sarek’s injuries in the bombing re-initiate the link between his mind and Burnham’s last seen in the two-part premiere. Burnham collapses in the Discovery mess hall, transported psychically into Sarek's memories - specifically, of his appeal to the Vulcan authorities for Michael to be accepted into the Vulcan Service. It's clearly a painful memory for both of them, and it also gives Michael a clue as to how to rescue her adopted dad - the adopted dad we all know will survive well into the 24th century.

One scientific breakthrough and one dangerous shuttle mission later, and we're into the meat of the episode. Although her conflict with Sarek - who wants her out of his mind - starts out with a psychic fight scene depressingly reminiscent of The Matrix, we quickly get into some rather interesting human/Vulcan drama. Misinterpreting the dying Sarek's memory as fueled by disappointment rather than love is a very Michael Burnham thing to do, and of course she's wrong. Sarek's regret is directed only at himself, for failing to do right by both his “not-quite-Vulcans” - adopted human daughter Michael, whom he failed to get into the Service, and half-human son Spock, who chose Starfleet anyway. 

For Michael, that revelation is less about her dealing with daddy issues than it is about her own sense of self-worth. Learning of Sarek's own self-loathing makes Michael feel a little less alone in hers - one of the truest-feeling developments for the character thus far. Coupled with the memory of her mother's advice to nurture the humanity that's causing her conflicting emotions, it's a sign of real growth for our steely-eyed protagonist.

Captain Lorca's development, however, is more of a regression. Admiral Cornwell returns to the ship, and after a few drinks, we learn that she oversaw Lorca's psych evaluations following his destruction of his former command. We also learn that there's some sexual tension between the two of them, and soon enough, they're having space sex in Lorca's space bed. Dang, Star Trek! First you're dropping the F-bomb, now you're gettin’ jiggy wit it?! This is a new generation.

Where Lorca and Cornwell's grossly unprofessional sex ends, the good stuff begins, dramatically speaking. Lorca has a minor anxiety attack, turning a phaser on his superior officer and revealing just how unstable he really is. He spins a classic line of “I’m sorry, I need help” - the kind of platitudes spouted by narcissists adept at playing on other people's sympathies - but Cornwell sees through his bullshit, calls him on his psych-eval fakery, and actually takes command of Discovery away from him. That last part is played strangely low-key, with Saru sliding into command and Lorca just hanging in his quarters. He's got a gun, though, so he won't stay there for long. Psychologically speaking, this is pretty interesting - even if it isn't Star Trek in the classic mould. Lorca's becoming less cartoonish and more palpably dangerous with every week.

The final significant bit of plot concerns the peace negotiation with the Klingons, which to absolutely nobody's surprise turns into a slaughter and the second kidnapping in as many weeks - this time of Admiral Cornwell, standing in for Sarek. It's all Kol's doing, and in the process he welcomes another house to his united Klingon Empire. I like Kol; he's the only Klingon character with any pizzazz, and I can totally see the Empire uniting under him. How Starfleet will respond to Cornwell's capture remains to be seen: Lorca tells Saru to play it safe and wait for orders, but it's hard to believe he doesn't have something up his sleeve. Is he trying to make Saru second-guess himself? Does he have his own rescue planned? Is he willing to sacrifice the one superior officer who knows the truth about his psychological state in order to get his command back? Let's find out next week, maybe.

Finally, some stray thoughts:

  • Ash Tyler is totally Voq (the albino Klingon), right? A fan theory got brought up in the comments last week, and for once, I’m pretty convinced. If you recall, actor Shazad Latif was originally cast as a Klingon before being shuffled into his Tyler role; meanwhile, Javid Iqbal, credited as Voq, appears not to exist outside the show, with no social media presence and no other screen credits. Voq himself hasn’t been seen for a couple episodes, having been sent away to “lose everything” - possibly including his Klingon-ness - at the hands of a mysterious Klingon matriarchy. Tyler first showed up in a Klingon prison, after Voq’s disappearance. As established on Star Trek: Enterprise, the Klingons have a history of genetic alterations, and even surgically speaking, they totally could have turned Voq into Clem Fandango the way they turned one of their own into Arne Darvin in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” back (or rather, ahead) in the day. And Lorca’s line “you fight like a Klingon” is way too on-the-nose to be a coincidence. What do you think? Do you see a resemblance around the eyes? Tyler’s rapid ascent up the ladder on Discovery - and in Michael's esteem - could very well be cause for concern.
  • Discovery’s official workout gear has “DISCO” emblazoned onto it, which should make for the most confusing-to-outsiders cosplay on the show. Does Enterprise's say “ENTER”? What about “VOYAG”? Or the poor crew stuck with “EXCEL”?
  • What’s with Discovery’s replicators/food-slots appraising crewmembers’ choice of meals? I don’t need you to tell me my burrito’s nutritious and tasty when I’ve already ordered it. Bizarre.
  • Apparently, the Discovery has a holodeck. Granted, it’s specifically referred to as a training facility, and it’s tiny, but in function, it’s...a holodeck. SMDH, guys.
  • It’s funny hearing people talk reverently about the Enterprise and Constitution-class ships on this show when Discovery (a Crossfield-class vessel) is patently so much more advanced.
  • No mention of Lt Stamets’ rather odd character moment that closed out last week’s episode. Is he now Mirror Stamets? What’s going on? His single scene this week had him acting more openly sarcastic and critical than usual, including a reference to a “psychic hit of speed,” charting yet more brave new words for Star Trek. Have we had non-sci-fi drug references on these shows before? 
  • How exactly are they still using the spore drive, anyhow?
  • The episode’s title - “Lethe,” referring to the river of forgetfulness and oblivion in Greek mythology - has actually been used twice in Roddenberry-affiliated material: as a character name in Original Series episode “Dagger of the Mind,” and in an episode title of Andromeda.
  • On that note: how great are the episode titles on this show, in general? “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” a couple weeks ago was unspeakably grim, and next week’s time-loop episode is titled “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” The sanest man, perhaps, but what about the sanest woman…?
  • Three more episodes until the season break. The way the show’s going now, I’ll be fully invested in this show right around the time it cuts off for the holidays. Bollocks.