Star Trek: Discovery continues to build its own interesting interpretation of the Star Trek universe as it adds character backstory, as well as hinting a more familiar aspects of the franchise.
The opening moments of the episode embody a lot of what the series is about, and the things that are dividing fans over how they feel about the show. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) not only mentions the Constitution Class starship but the most famous one of all time, the Enterprise. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and Lt. Tyler (Shazad Latif) get to shoot Klingons on a holodeck. Sarek (James Frain) gets his shuttle bombed by a Vulcan Logical Extremist terrorist.
The Enterprise namedrop is fan service, pure and simple, though it does add to the idea that Discovery is part of the larger Star Trek franchise, not just it’s own separate entity. The appearance of a holodeck will annoy some, as this technology isn’t supposed to be around yet; however, the Discovery is a super advanced science/warship, so if any ship is going to have one it’s the Discovery.
The introduction of Vulcan terrorists is something that doesn’t seem to fit with the original version of the Vulcans, especially with the hopeful original series outlook on the future, but feels very much at home in a series that plays on a lot of modern fears of terrorism, war, and racial purity.
Whilst some may dislike Star Trek: Discovery for these kinds of decisions, I can’t help but feel that it helps make this new depiction of the Star Trek universe feel like a more layered and interesting place. Star Trek can’t just be an adventure of the week show exploring new planets anymore, it needs to tell stories that the audience can identify with and relate to, and this episode does that in spades.
The war with the Klingons is pushed to the backburner as we spend some time learning more about our characters, Burnham and Lorca in particular, seeing that they’re both quite tragic and damaged people. Through her connection to Sarek, Burnham learns that her adoptive father was put in a horrible position in the past, forced to choose only one of this not quite Vulcan children, Burnham and Spock, to go through into the Vulcan Expeditionary Group.
Whilst James Frain played a very stereotypical Vulcan in the first two episodes of the series we get to see him bring so much more to Sarek here. The subtle, barely controlled anger, shame, and guilt that he feels for essentially betraying his adoptive daughter by choosing to favour his biological son, the refusal to talk about the matter afterwards; it gives an incredibly nuanced performance in what would have been very cold and robotic with another actor.
These scenes not only give us a closer look into Burnham’s past, showing how much more emotional and human she has become since living on Vulcan, but also give her the opportunity to grow as a character, with a clear difference between her at the start of the episode and by the end.
We also learn throughout the episode that Captain Lorca is a lot more damaged than we were already led to believe. We learnt in the last episode that he killed his former crew rather than let them fall into Klingon hands, and that he’s refusing to fix his eyes as punishment for this, but here we see that he’s suffering on a much deeper level.
When his friend, Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) visits him on the Destiny to tell him off for launching his rescue mission for Sarek we discover that she’s also there to find out if Lorca is really fit for duty, using her past as his friend, and as a psychologist, to see if he’s suffering from PTSD following the events of the last episode. Whilst initially able to allay her fears, even getting the Admiral into bed with him, we see that Lorca is far from fine, pinning Cornwell to the bed and shoving a phaser into her face when she wakes him.
We’ve had damaged captains on Star Trek in the past, Jean-Luc Picard and his trauma with the Borg, Benjamin Sisko and the loss of his wife, but we’ve never seen a leader so broken and psychologically traumatised as Lorca. The scene where he pins Cornwell down and holds a weapon to her is shocking, and a genuine surprise, and Cornwell makes us realise that perhaps he only slept with her to try to make her think he was okay, and perhaps the same when he assures her he would get help.
This idea that Lorca is a manipulator isn’t something new, and is compounded further when he suggests that Cornwell take Sarek’s place on his mission to hold peace talks with the Klingons. Did Lorca guide Cornwell into a scenario he believed could lead to her capture or death to save his command?
‘Lethe’ manages to deliver some of the best character development the series has given so far, and continues to set the series apart from other Star Trek shows of the past. With so much back story still to be explored, and now the added possibility of having to save Admiral Cornwell, Star Trek: Discovery continues to allow itself room to grow whilst delivering high quality television.
Star Trek Discovery airs on Netflix every Monday in the UK. Let us know what you think of the season.