Burnham's ta'al

An Imperfect Past Begets an Imperfect Future in “If Memory Serves”

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.
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Well, that was the mother of all call-backs.

While I did expect that discovery would do a quick summary of the events in “The Cage,” I was not expecting a full-on video montage featuring the iconic intro to the series, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I squealed with glee. The title here works two ways—first, the episode asks us to remember the unaired Original Series pilot episode and also plays on this episode’s plot. Spock and Burnham arrive on Talos IV expressly to ask the Talosians to use their powers of telepathy and illusion to rummage around in Spock’s mind and perhaps help Burnham and Spock make sense of the chaos. The episode’s B-plot in turn concerns Culber’s attempt to wrestle with the memory of a life he no longer feels that he can quite inhabit.

While I understand that “The Cage” is really the only TOS episode that features Captain Pike, I find it an odd episode to invoke in 2019. Part of the reason is that the premise of the episode is painfully outdated—Vina, the only survivor of a crash, chooses to remain on Talos IV because she prefers to live a fantasy life in which she is beautiful and able-bodied rather than return to society as the Talosians reconstructed her. Even though the episode makes clear that the Talosians abused her, she declines Pike’s offer to return her to the Federation, despite her feelings for him. Vina’s character in the original episode is very strongly grounded in the unfortunate beliefs that women have worth in so far as they are attractive to men and that Vina’s life is better spent in a fantasy world than to live with a disability. While I would have been happy to see the episode grapple with that history, the script continues with that same narrative by attempting to convince us that Vina and Pike are still star-crossed lovers. The episode even features a very long shot of Melissa George’s legs that is cringeworthily out of place.

The Talosians as a species were awful; in the original episode, they sought to use Vina and Pike as breeding stock to create a new race to serve them and repopulate their planet. Their 2019 versions are still terrible in that they demand that Burnham relive the argument that caused the rift between her and Spock. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that we finally get to see it, but on the other, the Talosian’s price seems drastically inappropriate. They come across as emotional vampires that are preying on Burnham’s pain, and they use Spock’s sanity to coerce Burnham to let them have it. Apparently, Spock is experiencing time not as a linear construct but as a fluid reality, and his logic renders him incapable of handling the experience. They make clear that Spock will go permanently insane if the Talosians do not do whatever it is they’re going to do, so Burnham agrees.

The Talosians then pull Burnham into Spock’s mind, showing her not only the events in the psychiatric facility (Spock of course murdered no one) but also the apocalyptic vision granted to Spock by the Red Angel. Then, turning to Burnham, to the surprise of no one, the altercation that caused a years-long rift between the adoptive siblings is that Burnham called Spock a half-breed and abandoned him in a misguided attempt at saving his family from the Logic Extremists. This is the source of a grudge that Spock has been nursing for literal years. Y’all, Discovery’s Spock is petty. Admittedly, these kinds of silly squabbles often do separate real families, but while I understand that this is a much younger Spock, the pettiness seems strange. What saves this entire premise is the chemistry between Ethan Peck and Sonequa Martin-Green. Their timing as they snipe at each other is perfect, and they really feel as if they’re estranged siblings. When Spock grates out that of course Burnham would need to see the events at the psychiatric facility, Peck really sells Spock’s hurt, anger, and ultimate resignation that his sister does not inherently believe in his innocence. It’s a fantastic scene, almost despite itself.

The B-story is less objectively ridiculous, and Wilson Cruz is fantastic as a Dr. Culber who has lost a sense of self. Stamets brings him back to their shared quarters, and he’s pulled out all the proverbial stops. He’s playing Culber’s favorite music, has prepared Culber’s favorite dishes, and is doing everything he can to make his partner feel loved and comfortable. Unfortunately, what he’s actually doing is rushing Culber into returning to a status quo that Culber doesn’t quite fit, and Culber pushes back. He goes wandering the ship, looking for an outlet for his anger. He finds Tyler in the mess hall, and he confronts Tyler, eventually brawling with him. His rage with Tyler is both understandable and unfortunate as Tyler remains the only individual on board with an intimate understanding of what it’s like to feel as though you’re living someone else’s life. It’s a fantastic sequence as well as one that is emotionally rewarding for the audience. Saru allows the altercation to proceed, with the understanding that this fight is something that needs to happen.

Ultimately, that understanding marks Discovery’s divergence from previous Trek installments. Gene Roddenberry declared in the TNG series Bible that there would be no interpersonal conflict because he believed that by the 24th century, humanity would be beyond petty disagreements. Discovery acknowledges that we likely will not be. We will still be grounded in bias, in our hurts, and in our conflict, but this episode reminds us that we have a duty to work through these issues for the greater good. Despite my qualms with parts of the episode, “If Memory Serves” is probably my favorite episode of the season thus far.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Discovery crew copes with being on the run. Pike makes a bold move by refusing to surrender Burnham and Spock to Captain Leland. Georgiou seems to be foreshadowing something regarding Control with her remark that in her universe, the tactical system answered to her rather than the other way around. Leland plays it off, but it’s certainly ominous. We’ve also confirmed (again) that the Red Angel is a time traveler, and I’m not overly pleased with the Chosen One-ish narrative that’s building up. The Talosians somewhat redeemed themselves by helping Spock and Burnham escape, but fooling Leland into thinking he’s caught them. Again, this was a very satisfying episode.

Stray Observations from the Couch:

1. Fun fact—Ethan Peck is descended from Hollywood royalty. He inherits his name and a bit of his bone structure from his paternal grandfather, Gregory Peck.
2. I like that Burnham’s reaction to the singing flowers mirrors TOS Spock’s. “The Cage” was filmed before the decision was made to have Spock adhere to logic, so Leonard Nimoy smiled at the flowers.
3. A bit of history: as mentioned above, “The Cage” was meant to be the pilot episode for the Original Series, but NBC rejected it as they deemed the story too cerebral. The footage was re-used in the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”
4. At the conclusion of “The Menagerie,” Pike returns to Talos IV to live with Vina after a horrific accident confines him to a mobile life-support system that allows him to communicate only in yesses or nos. On the one hand, yay, love! On the other, ick.
5. Have I mentioned how much I love Georgiou? Because I really, really do. The coffee bit is great.
6. I’m underwhelmed by Admiral Patar. Her logic is questionable.

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