TV reviews

Star Trek: Discovery 2×08 – ‘If Memory Serves’ – Review

Memory can be a tricky thing. Sometimes, it can cheat, and it seems that the makers of all Star Trek since 2009 onwards have relied heavily upon that: it doesn’t matter that Captain Kirk no longer looks just like William Shatner, or the bridge of the USS Enterprise looks like an Apple Store (with added lens flare). Just forget the franchise used to try to adhere strictly to continuity (where it suited), and enjoy all the pretty colours and soothing lights. Playing fast and loose with continuity became pretty much the playbook.

With that in mind, it’s somewhat of an odd stylistic choice to begin ‘If Memory Serves’ with a montage. But not just any old montage: one that begins ‘Previously on Star Trek‘. That’s not on Star Trek: Discovery, but Star Trek. When you have a property of this longevity, that could be a sure sign of either a massively unwieldy infodump, or potentially the longest recap in history. In actuality, it fell somewhere in between, but it’s not a recommendation by any means.

With the cliffhanger revelation last week of Spock needing to return to Talos IV, the recap went about as far back as you can go with Star Trek continuity: all the way back to 1965’s unaired pilot, ‘The Cage’. It’s an odd call for several reasons. Firstly, it’s been cobbled together with all the flair and professionalism of a duff fan video, like you see on YouTube, from the use of the original series logo in a cheap-looking video effect caption, to some hamfisted visual wipes between clips. It’s the sort of amateurish rubbish which you’d expect someone to be resoundingly laughed off a Media Studies course for if they’d dared to submit it.

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And then, there’s also the jarring contrast between the archive clips and what we’re used to seeing now. Over the years, Trek has done a reasonable job maintaining a visual continuity across the franchise – if they needed a classic series Constitution class vessel, they’d rebuild the bridge as it looked on TV war back in the 1960s, with bright primary colours, chunky sliders and knobs, and the whole ten yards; they didn’t try to pretend that the ‘reality’ of the show looked different, they instead mostly embraced it, as a nod to the fans. Continuity, dressed as affectionate tribute or homage. No retconning, or attempts to modernise. And it worked.

The nearest equivalent would be when there was a ‘Previously on Doctor Who‘ caption in the Christmas special ‘Twice Upon A Time’, where they flashed us all the way back to 1966, and the finale of William Hartnell. They opened up with actual clips of the story ‘The Tenth Planet’, before doing a segue into a recreation of the sets, costumes, etc., by way of a morph effect between black & white footage of Hartnell himself into colour footage of David Bradley, trying to bridge the gap as much as possible. They even went as far as doing faithful recreations of sets and costumes, with no attempt to make it look more current. Warts and all.

Star Trek: Discovery‘s flashback opener, however, brazenly rubs in your face just how much what you’ve been watching here fails to resemble the Trek of years gone by: along with the obvious lack of resemblance between Leonard Nimoy and Ethan Peck, or Jeffrey Hunter and Anson Mount, there’s the fact that the clip of the Enterprise bridge is in no way even close to resembling the look or feel of the Discovery visual style (or budget). It’s all rather jarring, and makes you wonder just why they want to make it so stark a reminder, rather than just leaving it to memory. As it’s on streaming services, you could’ve just had a link to ‘The Cage’ for watching at your own leisure separately, should you wish. Not confront you with it in a way you can’t avoid. It’s either brave or foolish for a series to openly point out its own shortcomings.

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Given the fact that the surface of Talos IV had originally consisted of a soundstage in Burbank, they at least tried to make it look as exotic and otherworldly as they could. When we see it here, however, it’s just a bloody quarry. Proper Doctor Who territory here, except that at least Who -for the most part – tried to hide it. Here, they shoot it in such a way that it’s clearly a quarry. Even the addition of replicas they’ve made of the singing blue plants from ‘The Cage’ don’t help, and look out of place compared to the Talos IV which we saw back then. For a show which is pretty expensive, they’ve made this alien world look incredibly cheap.

And there’s another odd thing: the conflict between updating the look of something, while simultaneously trying to respect and recreate what’s gone before. It’s a real pushmi-pullyu, not heading in either of these directions particularly successfully. Why bother to change the planet’s surface and the look of the Talosians so much, yet go to all the trouble of using the very same sound effects for the flowers, or the Talosians’ use of their mental powers? It falls rather uncomfortably between two stools, and fails to be the fan service it seemingly endeavours to be. A halfway house that both isn’t a slavish recreation, nor an attempt to wholly reinvent (like the Klingons in The Motion Picture – a rare ground-up visual reinvention), so it ends up being an uncomfortable hybrid.

Memories are this week’s theme, largely centred around Spock (Ethan Peck)’s broken mind and jumbled recollections – as it turns out, not only of past events, but also of the future, due to his having mind melded with the Red Angel, leading to his grip on causality to have been severed. In exchange for restoring Spock’s neural balance, the Talosians wish to experience Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green)’s own memory of her betrayal of Spock back when they were children, creating the rift which still exists between them. It’s a way of exploring their backstory, and at least tries to be visually interesting by flashing between child actors as Burnham and Spock, and Peck and Martin-Green.

Pike (Anson Mount)’s remembrance of his time on Talos IV is uncomfortably stirred when the Talosians send him a projection of Vina (Melissa George), the human survivor he encountered back during the events of ‘The Cage’, and who he apparently still carries a torch for. It looks as though the writers are doing their very best to give him a motivation to return to Talos IV (in ‘The Menagerie’) after he later becomes disfigured and disabled in an accident, so what better way than establishing that Pike is still in love with Vina (and vice versa)? That’s Star Trek: boldly filling continuity gaps since 1966.

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Anson Mount may in fact be Discovery‘s MVP this season, as he’s managed to flesh out Pike into a fully rounded character, something which wasn’t managed in ‘The Cage’, with his rampant sexism and rather one-note world-weariness, which made him come over as rather underdeveloped and shallow. Bruce Greenwood had a good stab at redressing the balance in the two JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot films, but ended up getting unceremoniously offed in Into Darkness. Seriously, in just what reality can this guy catch a break? Still, Mount manages to play Pike with a quiet dignity, and as a calm voice of reason, even when faced with difficult decisions, such as – in this very episode – effectively committing an act of treason. Pike could easily rise up people’s lists of favourite Captains in Star Trek by the end of the season, and deservedly so.

Memories are also a significant problem for Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who both have to live with the knowledge that one killed the other previously, and now have to share the same vessel. Never before has a starship felt quite so small. It seems that, for poor Culber, spending nearly a year in an altered state of reality isn’t conducive to an easy return to the land of the living. Cruz deserves due credit for managing to convincingly give us a drastically altered Culber, now unable to live a normal life, feeling disjointed and removed, despite having full recall of how things used to be. As hinted at in ‘The Sounds Of Thunder’, Culber is a changed man, and you can feel the heartbreak of poor Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who got the love of his life back via a miracle, only to end up losing him once again, it seems.

The Red Angel storyline gets another push here, as we finally stop being Spockteased by the production team, and get to see everyone’s favourite Vulcan restored to full working order. If only Ethan Peck’s performance was up to snuff, but sadly it seems that his idea of how to play Vulcan is to fail to emote or express himself in any way for much of the episode. Look at Nimoy’s performance as Spock: there’s so much going on beneath the surface, and he never plays Spock as just a bland and monotonous flat deliver. The closest that we get with Peck is Spock’s latent anger towards Burnham (which may go some way towards explaining why he never mentioned her before – they just don’t get on), and a hint of a smile after being reunited with Pike at the end. Oh, and the famous quizzical eyebrow. Other than that, Peck’s Spock lacks the charisma of the original, but as he’s been broken much of the time, and only just been returned to full working order, it may be best to wait and see how things pan out.

Last week’s B-plot – the Discovery probe returned from the future with lethal enhancements – seems to link in with what we know about the Red Angel being a time traveller, so it would be some really dumb plotting if the two elements weren’t linked in some way. So far, nobody has discovered that Lieutenant Commander Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) has been infected by the probe before it was destroyed, and this looks set to play out over the coming weeks, so at least we’re getting to see more of the secondary bridge crew getting some attention, and not before time. Seriously, I had to look her up online: I didn’t even know what the character’s name was before that. Still, it’s very much the Michael Burnham Show, so screw y’all minor characters, I guess.

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The probe is no doubt linked to the Red Angel’s vision of an apocalyptic future, where all life in the galaxy is wiped out, giving the Discovery crew a mission to try and change the timeline; it appears the Red Angel already changed history once, by making sure young Spock saved the life of Burnham as a child, when she was originally meant to die. The internet’s rife with theories as to who or what the Red Angel is, but at well over halfway through the season, we’re still no nearer knowing any substantive answers, only more and more questions. You can’t help but have a sinking feeling that the payoff will end up being far less interesting or creative than the actual resolution of the mystery, much like a Steven Moffat story arc for Doctor Who.

All in all ‘If Memory Serves’ is neither fish nor fowl; not completely original enough, nor sufficiently slavishly adherent to the overall continuity of Star Trek. Let’s just hope that the season as a whole doesn’t end up being something we would much rather forget.

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