"If Memory Serves" is an episode that takes the qualities that are hallmarks of Discovery and employs them to tell a satisfying story. Against all odds, they've taken these disparate elements — prequel backfilling, strange old worlds, retcons on classic characters, impressive production values, vibrant and stylish filming techniques, Red Angel timeline shenanigans, Section Freaking 31 — and stitched together an episode that ultimately works because of performances and emotional resonance. It's an absorbing and immersive dialogue-heavy outing that's also a breathless plot and an homage to the franchise. And it's the first episode of this series to reach greatness.
There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. Somehow, it doesn't. I'm not saying it's perfect, but this hour had me in its spell from beginning to end. It starts with a "Previously on Star Trek" montage that breaks the fourth wall because they are showing scenes from "The Cage" with Jeffrey Hunter as Pike (which were filmed in 1964), before then cutting directly to Pike on Discovery, as if we were catching up with him during a mental flashback of someone else. This may be a knowing wink to the audience, but sometimes you need a wink to remind you of what we're really talking about here, which is a meditation on Trek's own myths.
Burnham and Spock are on their way to Talos IV, which looks like a black hole before disappearing as one of the Talosians' illusions. From here we get a landing sequence that uses current-day visual effects to envision a TOS planet — simple rock formations but more convincing than those old '60s sets. Even those vibrating blue plants that create the ambient "alien planet noise" are here. Burnham smiles at the sound they emit as she touches them, as Spock once did.
Vina (Melissa George), the human woman from "The Cage" who is partially real, but partially an illusion, guides Burnham underground to meet the telepathic Talosians, who connect the dots for us. Spock has returned here because he needs the Talosians' help to heal his mind, which was scrambled because of its inability to decipher past, future, and present as a result of the temporal-shifting experience caused by the Red Angel. We get a peek into Spock's mind, where we learn he has become aware of an apparent galactic scourge from the future which will kill entire civilizations. This sounds ludicrous and, yes, it is, but never underestimate this series' ability to somehow ground insanity with the steadfast conviction of characters who believe what they are hearing and saying. Discovery somehow makes the loony seem plausible.
This is an episode that slows down for dialogue scenes (and it helps that it's 53 minutes, which makes a difference). I liked the give and take between Spock and Michael, which reveals a great deal of snark and bitterness beneath the all-business surface. With Spock, everything plays like a logical riddle with an undercurrent of masked resentment. With Burnham, it's "I made a big mistake, but I'm helping you now, so just forgive me already!" These two have some healing to do.
In matters that are only slightly more grounded in the Discovery workday, Culber is reaching a breaking point over having returned from the dead as someone with all his past life's memories, but an understandable belief that he is no longer himself — that he's not right. He can't feel things the way he thinks he should. His relationship with Stamets? He has so utterly lost belief in it that he simply declares it over, right then and there. Meanwhile, he keeps seeing Tyler in the corridors.
In a sequence of inevitability that so obviously had to happen I was beginning to worry the writers of this show might skip it with one of their patented narrative gaps, Culber goes to confront Tyler in the mess hall, and picks a fight seeking pure catharsis — and also to see if he can "bring out" Voq from within Tyler. Tyler, to his credit, understands what is happening and kind of rolls with the punches. Kind of. Saru says the fight "must be allowed to play out" because of the bizarre circumstances, which leads to a great little amusing sequence where Pike admonishes Saru for allowing a fight in a Starfleet mess hall. Saru responds with all the reasons why this particular scenario is just not normal ("humans with Klingons grafted to their bones and a ship's doctor returned from the dead") — and it's hard to argue with the pure lunatic logic of his decision.
After being so generally pleasant and milquetoast in his limited screen time last season, Culber here reveals a truly compelling, tortured, transformed persona that is vividly portrayed. I had no idea Wilson Cruz had this in him based on his previous episodes, but watching all the psychological scars gradually boil over in this performance is compulsively watchable. Really good stuff.
Meanwhile, Anson Mount continues to be terrific as Pike. I like just watching him think. Trek history states he's going to have to go back to the Enterprise eventually (before meeting his untimely disfigurement, whenever that is), but I'm really hoping they find a way to keep him on Discovery for an extended period, because he has quickly become one of the most likable captains in Trek, and I'd like to see what more they can do with him. (That likability comes with a very easygoing approach to command authority, and I'd perhaps like to also see what his tougher edges look like.) He gets a significant scene here that ties back to "The Cage" when Vina appears to him to covertly call the ship to Talos IV in a way that avoids Section 31's spycraft. In addition to moving the plot forward, the scene takes on an evocative quality in its style and performances.
But "If Memory Serves" is clearly pushing to pay off the big reveal of that day Burnham hurt Spock as a child, and we get to see that replayed for the Talosians. What's interesting is that this big reveal was already mostly revealed with Michael's speech to Amanda in "Point of Light." What Michael said there was mostly what had actually happened; "If Memory Serves" merely dramatizes the memory and adds the underlying emotion of it all. And the moment works powerfully, if you can accept it for what it is — two children, one trying to protect the other in a perhaps misguided way, by saying very cruel things that proved to be a formative turning point in his emotional/logical journey.
This is perhaps one of Sonequa Martin-Green's best performances on this series, in an episode that has a lot of standout performances — including a promising one from Ethan Peck as yet another rendition of Spock, although I want to see more of it under more normal circumstances before I commit. And while I still have questions (like: Did Spock and Michael never speak after that day as children? Did Michael actually run away, never to return — surely not — and if so, to where?), the scenes here were more than enough to carry me to the story's emotional destination. We visited the planet of "The Cage," but everyone's real prisons are their own memories.
Some other thoughts:
- The Talosians' final illusion gambit that thwarts Leland in his failed attempt to steal Spock right out from under Pike is nicely done. It's expected, but no less satisfying for it. Meanwhile, Georgiou is always pleased whenever Leland is losing. Her long game seems to be to take over when Leland's failures eventually get him canned, but I still don't know what she actually wants to accomplish here. Does she really want Section 31 career advancement for its own sake?
- Did they really have to play the "eradicate all life in the galaxy" threat card? Couldn't something even slightly smaller have been sufficient?
- Spock saved Michael as a child after a vision from the Red Angel revealed her imminent death. Hmmm.
- Someone — presumably the hacked Airiam — sabotaged the spore drive, and Tyler is getting blamed for it. Pike relieves him of duty and confines him to quarters.
- For defying Section 31, the Discovery crew finds themselves as fugitives. I'd like a clearer picture of how Section 31 fits into this era's structure of Starfleet and the chain of command. I'd really like to see Pike escalate this up the ladder and see how Starfleet Command handles an open conflict between divisions. I don't know if that's in the cards, because this show is so laser-focused on just what's happening in Discovery's immediate orbit.
- Too. Much. Lens flare. It's distracting. This is something these producers learned from J.J. Abrams that I wish they'd unlearn. I'm fine with it here and there, but this is just too pervasive.
- "If Memory Serves" is a good choice for a title because (1) it's a classic Spockian saying that also considers the memories of its main characters going back to childhood and (2) it comes in an episode that asks us to go all the way back to the franchise's original (and originally unaired) pilot.
- The first time I watched "The Cage" was probably in the late 1980s. It was either a VHS release or TV broadcast of the episode in partial black-and-white. Wikipedia informs me this was probably based on a 16mm reference print of the episode used when the original color negative was still thought to have been lost during incorporation of the footage into "The Menagerie." Excepting more recent viewings of "The Menagerie" (which itself was probably 15 years ago) I probably haven't seen "The Cage" in its entirety since that B&W version 30 years ago. If memory serves, that is.