Gabriel Lorca is like the Schrödinger's Captain of Star Trek. Either he's a well-intended military man who bends the rules for the greater good and has gone a little crazy because of traumatic events — or he's an amoral self-server willing to sell you out and do who-knows-what-else to save his own ass. You can read the clues of "Lethe" both ways and come to either conclusion. The series seems agnostic on the character so far because it wants to shroud his motivations in mystery and play the long game.
Again, this can be frustrating. I don't have to root for the guy to necessarily get something out of watching him. But I feel like I should at least know I have enough information to make some sort of moral judgment about his actions. But the series is vague and doesn't seem to believe there's merit in having the truth be in the details; instead, the mysteries are in the fog.
Consider what we learn this week. When Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) comes aboard the ship, she tells Lorca that Starfleet has serious reservations about his mental state given the circumstances around the destruction of his previous ship, the USS Buran. We still don't know why he didn't go down with that ship, which would've been expected, but let's assume for the moment his intentions were noble. Lorca writes off as inconsequential his PTSD from this event, as well as that from his torture at the hands of the Klingons in "Choose Your Pain." Yet he sleeps with a phaser under his pillow and goes berserk when awoken in the middle of the night. We see this because he's sleeping with the admiral; they go way back to a long-ago we-were-so-much-younger-back-then time when, she says, he wasn't nearly this tense, edgy, and off-kilter.
The midnight freak-out is seen as the final straw for Cornwell, who announces to Lorca her plans to go back to Starfleet with a report that he has gone off the deep end and has no business commanding a starship. Lorca begs her not to do this, and we see, for once, a crack in his armor. But neither she, nor we, can know for certain if it's genuine vulnerability (though I lean toward believing it is) or the act of a desperate man trying to hang on to what he wants. When Lorca subsequently suggests she take over Sarek's failed mission to play envoy to a Klingon peace feeler — and she's then captured because it was a trap used to capture a high-ranking Federation representative — we can't be sure if that's what Lorca was hoping would happen and he's an opportunist trying to prevent Cornwell's report to Starfleet — or if his intentions were more benign. He also doesn't take on one of his typical rogue missions to go rescue her, which even Saru halfway expects. So is Lorca leaving her at the mercy of the Klingons because it's in his own personal interest to do so, or because he honestly doesn't want to put the ship in danger in light of their earlier conversation? You can make a case for both readings, and I don't know that the story itself picks one (though I'm leaning toward the former).
This is a fairly radical way to approach characters, especially the captain, on Star Trek. I readily admit I find Lorca interesting and watchable (and well-played by Jason Isaacs) and want to know where this is going. But this is also risky because we are essentially deferring "true" characterization to the larger arc, whatever that might end up being. In the meantime, we're being dragged around by a plot that's not exactly humming along smoothly because of all the bizarre gaps. (There is, for example, no follow-up expressing Lorca's thoughts on the whole matter of the tardigrade's release. It's like the whole incident is ancient history that no longer matters.)
The other storyline here involves Sarek's failed mission to conduct the diplomatic meeting with the Klingons. En route in a Vulcan ship, the other Vulcan who accompanies him turns out to be a member of a radical Vulcan "logic extremist" faction who blows himself up to stop Sarek from engaging the Klingons. (To what end, I'm not sure. And how was Sarek's mission so easily compromised by a fringe movement?) Sarek survives but is critically injured, and Burnham is able to sense Sarek's injury through her connection to his katra (first established in "Battle at the Binary Stars"), which they share because he once saved her via a mind-meld when she herself was critically injured in an extremist attack. (Vulcan extremist attacks; that's a new one.)
Burnham believes she must communicate with him through their shared connection in order to save him, using some Stamets-rigged technology as sort of a mind-meld booster/connector that allows her to link directly into his mind from afar. The two of them even engage in Matrix-like VR fights which represent his struggle to keep her out because he's protecting a personal secret about her that brings him shame. The Matrix notions are forced and silly, as if someone thought it would be cool to have a Sarek/Burnham Brain Fight (sans Tuck Buckford) to add a little action to the dialogue-heavy mix. But fortunately the story is able to milk this for some reasonable characterization by the end. I kept wondering when this series would finally invoke the Son of Sarek Whom Shall Not Be Named, because it quickly reached a point here where not discussing Spock was looking like a case of stubbornly willful avoidance.
Fortunately, the whole thing turns out to be about Spock. The academic induction of humans (or half-humans) was deemed by the Vulcan elitists to be Sarek's "experiment" to essentially infuse non-Vulcan DNA into Vulcan society, something they didn't think much of. As a compromise they granted him the choice of one, but not both, to enter the Vulcan science academy. (This whole premise seems at odds with the Vulcan "IDIC" philosophy — but so always has the idea of Spock as a somewhat-outcast for being half human.) So Sarek chose blood over Michael. This further explains why Sarek was particularly irate when Spock later chose Starfleet over the science academy. As something that provides a troubled piece to Michael's backstory in a way that shows similarities with Spock and also ties into that iconic character's established history, this is actually pretty good.
What's lacking here is cohesion and drive. "Lethe" is okay, but it doesn't reach takeoff velocity. Everyone in this show seems to be off in their own universe tackling their own piece of the story, and occasionally their paths cross in order to give us the sense this is a single starship and crew. It's the Game of Thrones approach to plotting. But that approach doesn't make as much sense on a show where the characters are supposedly on the same team and occupying the same space. And while that team seems to be gradually built here, the pockets of isolation still feel off.
To change gears, let's talk for a moment about CBS All Access, the streaming platform that (for U.S. viewers) sits at the center of CBS's entire strategy for this series and presumably beyond. The stream Sunday night was so awful that it was honestly hard to concentrate on the episode for anything other than the utter failure of its broadcast presentation. CBS should be embarrassed, and I am embarrassed for paying them money. And from what I've heard, I didn't even have the worst experience out there. (I had constant stuttering video and dropped frames lasting for about two seconds at a time, and a low-quality bitrate that was rarely in HD, but I was able to watch the show without major delays or audio issues. Apparently some couldn't watch the show at all without the stream completely stopping.)
I wouldn't blame anyone who experienced these issues for canceling their subscription immediately, because it's just not acceptable for a streaming service in 2017. (For the technical record, I stream using the CBS app on a Samsung Galaxy S5 that's connected to a Google Chromecast that's connected to my HDTV. As a test immediately after this episode, I used the same setup using the Netflix app and I had absolutely no issues and perfect HD.)
As a service that supposedly hopes to play with the streaming big boys, CBSAA (the Android version, at least) has failed in these opening weeks to showcase itself along with the launch of its flagship series. While my previous experiences have not been nearly as bad as Sunday's, none have been of Netflix caliber, and most, even the ones that actually streamed mostly in HD, had at least some video stuttering issues. I hate to even spend time on this in my review, but given the way this series is being released is a central part of it, it seems only fair to comment on it so those who might buy the service (who haven't already) know what they are potentially getting.
Some other short takes:
- My rating for this week's CBSAA stream: (Not zero, because I was able to watch the show without serious delay or interruption, but the quality was consistently poor.) I may be reporting on this regularly for a while.
- More plot gaps: The Discovery jumps at least once in this episode, and it's not made clear that Stamets is hooking himself up to the spore drive to do so (although presumably he is, or there's otherwise no explanation), or what anyone thinks of that as a regular practice. In the one scene he has, Stamets seems extra high/goofy, but there's no follow-up yet of the long-term consequences he might face. I expect there will be.
- I'm questioning my certainty that L'Rell was on the Klingon ship we saw last week. I'd talked myself into believing it was her, because the actress' name appeared in the end credits and the always reliable Memory Alpha seemed to confirm it, but it makes less and less plot sense the more I think about it — unless the grand conspiracies about Voq and Tyler (which I have my doubts about) turn out to be true. On the other hand, surely they wouldn't burn her face and also leave her alive if she were some random character. (The Klingon prosthetics make recognizing non-albino individuals difficult; maybe burning her face will actually help in that regard.) Do we have consensus that was L'Rell?
- The Discovery has a holodeck that Lorca and Tyler use for some Klingon video-game kills. Count me on the list of people who don't care one iota if holodecks have been possibly retconned into this century. I see no reason they couldn't have existed in an earlier form here even if we didn't actually see one until TNG.
- Lorca is ready to name Tyler his security chief, based on some conversations they share during their holodeck blast session. Cornwell is not so sure about this. Lorca says Tyler's story "checks out." Hmmm.
- Lorca offers Burnham a permanent position on the bridge as a science specialist. I like that they are building the team here (and the Burnham/Tilly scenes also do a reasonable job of keeping the background relationships alive), but the lack of connective tissue still makes it feel like there are pieces missing to this relationship in between Lorca's "Context Is for Kings" speech and now. I go back to Lorca's non-reaction to Burnham's decision to set the tardigrade free. Did he come to realize it was a good idea? Or accept it while believing it to be a bad one? Either way, the writers are not looking back.
- Burnham and Tyler connect in a low-key scene at the end in what is clearly setting us up for some 'shipping. But the scene works. Like I said, it's good to build some camaraderie.
- Nice to see Trek veteran Joe Menosky return to the franchise with a writing credit.