In the sixth episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, Burnham must make a risky decision in order to save her father; Lorca also makes a risky decision but it’s… it’s so fucked up, y’all. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of trauma and PTSD.
HELP ME, THIS WAS SO EMOTIONAL
I want to start this off with a little joy before I get into the heavier elements of “Lethe.” I have no idea if what little we see of Stamets is a preview of who he’ll be in the future, or if we just saw the side affects of him taking the place of the tardigrade. I could see either explanation being canon, and either way? Literally one of the most delightful things on the show so far. Up to this point, Stamets had a personality that tended towards condescension and abrasiveness. And aside from playfulness we see when he was in his quarters with Dr. Culber, he’s not exactly someone I would call funny? Again, it could be possible that there’s a period post-travel where he’s loopy—like he’s high off the myceliar network—but I don’t care. I loved it GIVE ME MORE.
I love that there are elements of an episodic story here, yet so much of what we witness surrounding Burnham and Sarek is based on things brought up in other episodes. One thing that’s becoming one of my favorite parts of Discovery is the burgeoning friendship between Cadet Tilly and Burnham. It feels so natural, y’all, not forced or constructed for a specific plot purpose. So when Tilly said that Burnham is her mentor? I believed that. I didn’t question it for a moment. Seeing Tilly comment on how hot Ash Tyler was? And basically setting up Tyler and Burnham? The training sequences? Burnham acknowledging that she wasn’t being the best mentor she could be? I loved ALL of this shit. ALL OF IT. It’s also not lost on me that Burnham was basically taking social advice from one of the most socially anxious people on the whole ship, and that just warmed my heart.
Anyway, glad that warmed my heart because the rest of Burnham’s plot in “Lethe” EVISCERATED ME. Holy shit, y’all, I wasn’t ready for this? The review for the first episode still hasn’t gone up on the site at the time I’m writing this, so I have no sense what other folks in the fandom feel about how Discovery has changed canon. But I feel like this episode justified the whole long-distance mind-meld even more than its previous appearance. It allowed the writers to do a deep dive into a pivotal moment in Burnham’s life, but also granted us a perspective we otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sarek’s brush with death gave Burnham a glimpse of a specific moment in her life: the day she was rejected from the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, much to the disappointment of Sarek. Burnham’s nature vs. nurture takes on a new meaning with this part of her story. We finally find out more about who bombed the Vulcan Learning Center: a group of terrorists/extremists who believe humans are inferior and should have nothing to do with Vulcans.
Thus, this story is all about the complications of identity. Burnham is human, but raised in a culture where most people probably believe that humans offer no value to their world. Even if the majority of Vulcans find the extremist group ridiculous, I think it’s plausible that there’s a casual prejudice operating here. As we’ve seen over these six episodes, Burnham constantly struggles with what kind of person she should be. Should she be more logical like her Vulcan upbringing, or should she—as Amanda suggests—stay more in touch with her human side? How does she know in any given situation what she should do?
Here, it’s her Vulcan connection to Sarek that allows her to know that he is gravely injured. A connection, mind you, that she received because she literally died. LITERALLY. So yeah, it was so damn poetic that as Sarek slipped from life, he unconsciously activated this connection with Burnham. Unfortunately, in his dying moments, Sarek appears to be reliving the moment when Burnham failed to get into the Expeditionary Group, making this an utter nightmare for Burnham to live through in order to get in contact with him. In hindsight, it’s even more clear why Sarek rejected Burnham from his mind: BECAUSE HE KNEW SHE WOULD LEARN HIS TERRIBLE SECRET.
I’m still reeling from where this episode went and how it built up both Burnham and Sarek as characters. Because holy shit, the emotions! All this time, Sarek allowed Burnham to feel like she disappointed him, when the truth is that Sarek was forced into a nightmarish decision: Send either Burnham or Spock to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. Only one would be allowed, and yes, it was because both people were human (either in part or in full).
Do I understand why Sarek chose to lie? Maybe. I definitely need to hear more from him and am looking forward to that eventual chat that Burnham promised him, but for now, I think that it was better to let Burnham discover the truth and have her sit with her feelings on it. It gave way to that electrifying scene at the end of the episode where she opened up to Tyler about how she felt towards her father. I also think this is going to be a huge step in her journey toward accepting herself. There’s a freedom that comes with realizing that a parent cannot be who you need them to be, and I speak from experience. (Thanks, therapy!) Ultimately, I found that this whole element of the script elevated what might have been a fairly traditional rescue plot into something far more compelling. The character growth was more important than the suspense! BRAVO.
And to think: all of that doesn’t hold a candle to how disturbing Captain Lorca’s plot is. I do want to acknowledge that as upsetting as Lorca is here, I think there’s like… I don’t know. A hint of an explanation? The problem I’m running into is that at this point, I only know what Lorca is like in the present time, and I know he experienced something deeply traumatic about seven months before he showed up on Discovery. Generally, I have no reason to distrust Admiral Cornwell, and she gives the impression that Lorca used to be different. If that’s really the case, then Lorca wasn’t always like he is now, and I wonder if his behavior is rooted in that experience with trauma. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions. Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about this episode was that after Lorca blew off Admiral Tarel (I don’t know how to spell it!!!), Admiral Cornwell showed up practically immediately in order to try to reign Lorca in.
There’s a parallel here I can’t ignore: Both Lorca and Sarek are men who manipulated people rather than tell the truth. While Sarek did this to avoid revealing that he chose his son Spock for the more prestigious career option, Lorca manipulates Cornwell because he doesn’t want her examining him or his methods too closely.
Lorca takes it a step further, though. You know, I actually believed him when he apologized to Cornwell and admitted he had a problem, right before she left his quarters. If anything, that was probably the most honest he has ever been about himself. However, once he found out that Sarek wouldn’t be able to complete his diplomatic vision, he saw an opportunity, one that would most likely eliminate this loose end he now had in his life. He knew that the Vulcans had a better relationship with the Klingons, and he knew that the very presence of Federation humans would likely aggravate the Klingons as well.
He thought she would die, didn’t she?
That was pretty much confirmed once he refused to go after her, despite that Saru correctly noted how often the Discovery approaches things in non-traditional ways. Suddenly, the rules mattered. They couldn’t take risks. And for the moment, Lorca’s secret is far, far away from anyone she can tell it to.
IT’S SO FUCKED UP, Y’ALL.
The video for “Lethe” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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