Star Trek: Discovery S01E06 Recap: 'Lethe'

One of the main arguments against Star Trek: Discovery that I've had the hardest time wrapping my head around is the idea that it doesn't "feel" like Star Trek to some fans. Never mind that we haven't really seen enough of it to properly make that assessment yet, or that most of the Star Trek series struggled in the early-going to find their proper voice, or how, to be quite frank, it's a stupid, meaningless gatekeeping argument when what "feels" like Star Trek can mean any number of subjective things to different people across fifth years of shows and movies. I do understand that for many, myself included, Star Trek can be a very personal thing that a lot of people associate very deeply with, and that not getting exactly the kind of show you wanted out of Discovery right off the bat can be an alienating proposition.

But I hope that "Lethe" is the episode that turns it around for some. I've thoroughly enjoyed everyone of the half-dozen episodes of Discovery so far, but "Lethe" felt unique in many ways. It's probably the most character-focused episode of the show to date, adding some much-needed depth an backstory for Michael Burnham and Captain Lorca, even retconning a very interesting detail about Sarek. All the while providing a couple of important developments on the Federation-Klingon war.

The episode revolves around a rescue operation to save Sarek, who is wounded and stranded on a ship in the middle of a nebula, after a fanatical Vulcan sacrificed himself to stop Sarek's efforts to integrate other races into Vulcan culture. Sarek reaches out to Michael through their katra connection, so Lorca goes against Starfleet orders and tasks Michael with finding her mentor. Once they get close enough, however, Sarek's subconscious pushes back against Michael, afraid for her to see a shameful memory from Sarek's past. As it turns out, Sarek was faced with an impossible choice between allowing Michael into the Vulcan fleet, or his biological half-human son Spock. Sarek chooses Spock and lies to Michael, which lingers with her to this very day. And as it turns out, it was all for nothing, as Spock himself inevitably chooses to join Starfleet as well.

This is very important character work for Michael, whose actions are further contextualized with more scenes from her and Sarek's past. It's a humiliating moment for Michael, as she's unable to suppress the emotions Sarek has taught her to push down, and a shameful one for Sarek, faced with a choice with no logical answer. It's kind of low-hanging fruit for Michael's character, as it shows us how she has perennial issues with trying to satisfy a father figure who is really just trying to keep a secret from her. Where this story really impresses is how it kind of explains to much of Sarek's relationship with Spock. There's always been this underlying apprehension between them. The various shows and movies that have depicted this has generally relegated this apprehension to Spock being mixed race, or choosing Starfleet over a life on Vulcan. Discovery firmly plants the reason as being the latter, and specifically because Spock made Sarek look the fool for having two children with human blood good enough for Vulcans but deciding that humanity and the Federation were more interesting.

"Lethe" also introduces us to the idea of a fanatical Vulcan. While I feel like Star Trek has tackled ideas similar to this in the past, let's assume that it hasn't, and revel in how it totally makes sense within the context of Discovery's more brutal themes that from the beginning haven't shied away from tackling fundamentalism, religion and terrorism. I think a Vulcan fundamentalist suicide bomber makes sense in this context. For a race that claims to have successfully repressed their emotions, they often seem to exude a boastful kind of pride, dangling their superiority over the heads of the lowly humans they've chosen to usher to the stars. To have their way of living invaded by even one (or in this case, one and a half) human is not the image that some Vulcans would want to project. And Sarek is a powerful Vulcan who appears to be able to do whatever he wants, so forcefully removing him from the picture may seem like the only logical course of action for some.

Elsewhere, there are actually consequences following Lorca's incarceration on a Klingon prison ship, as he receives a visit from Admiral Cornwall, who we find out is a former therapist and proceeds to bed Lorca in order to evaluate his mental state. Her suspicions that Lorca might not be up to the task of ushering Starfleet's most powerful weapon is confirmed when he pulls a weapon on her which he just so happens to sleep with under his pillow. But before Cornwall can do anything about it, she is taken captive by the Klingons as the meeting Sarek was trying to attend turned out to be a trap. This time, Lorca isn't so quick to mount a rescue operation.

What I love about this show is how it presents ideas that some might view as antithetical to the Star Trek that they know, but then goes to great lengths to justify them. Burnham isn't the perfect Starfleet officer because she exists in this state between human and Vulcan that has truly damaged her emotionally. Lurca isn't your prototypical Starfleet captain, but that's because it's war and desperate times call for desperate measures, and because he's manipulative and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he thinks he's owed and to get the job done. He's coy enough to fill the father figure void that Burnham so desperately needs, thus accumulating another ally.

And the subtext of all this is that something still seems to be amiss on this show. There's, of course, Stamets, who acts super weird in his one scene, one episode removed from becoming the ship's new tardigrade in their spore drive jumps. And Lorca himself, who doesn't act like a Starfleet captain. It would be easy to chalk it up to the trauma he's faced, between losing the crew of his previous ship and most recently being a Klingon prisoner, but it still feels like the show has something up their sleeve when it comes to this character. The way he looks at his own reflection is weird, as is the way he accumulates allies among his crew, yet keeps his danger-sensing first officer at arm's length (to the point where he's barely in any episode that doesn't involve him not interacting directly with his superior office). We know there's a Mirror Universe episode coming up, and while that may seem like too obvious of an answer at this point, the fact that a question revolving around a secret being kept by the show is interesting in and of itself.

Outside of said secrets, "Lethe" is a great and much needed character-driven episode for Star Trek: Discovery which follows certain story beats that may be familiar to some of the show's detractors, all while keeping what we've loved about this new direction for the show. So it gets 8.5 renegade vulcans out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • No Voq again this week, which will only further fuel speculation that Ash Tyler (who is now the ship's security chief) is actually said Klingon in disguise. But it felt as if the show was leaning into that speculation this week, so now I don't know what to think, especially with both Stamets and Lorca also acting weird. They literally say that Ash "fights like a Klingon" and they question his knowledge of where Seattle is.
  • This week in Federation technology: a holodeck (which makes sense for an advanced, militaristic science vessel), food synthesizers that give you fun facts about what you're ordering, and workout t-shirts that say "DISCO" on them.
  • The episode title bears its origin from Greek mythology. "Lethe" is one of the rivers of Hades representing forgetfulness and concealment.
  • "Lethe" was co-written by Joe Menosky, who has written on Star Trek since The Next Generation, and is credited with one of the most celebrated episodes of TNG of all time, "Darmok"
  • Big Enterprise name drop this week. Only took six episodes. Lots of talk of Spock as well, obviously, and we get to see the debut of Mia Kirshner's Amanda Grayson.