Star Trek: Discovery ends a few eras in a strange course-correction episode
Thirteen months ago, Star Trek: Discovery killed a delightful character for no good reason. As Hugh Culber, Wilson Cruz was an unfussy breath of fresh air on a show full cosmic melodramatics. His couple chemistry with Stamets (Anthony Rapp) had a playful old-married quality. He looked great in that snazzy white medical uniform. And then he was dead, his neck snap-crackle-popped by poor body-gurgled sleeper agent Ash (Shazad Latif).
Hugh’s death always felt like a shock tactic, a wowza cliffhanger with zero buildup and no follow-through. I guess you could say Culber’s death was an Important Turning Point for Ash and for Stamets. But even in that direction — reducing Culber to a notch in somebody else’s plot arc — the show whiffed. Ash wasn’t entirely to blame for his own murderous actions. Stamets was very sad, but his sadness got lost in season 1’s hyperkinetic shuffle. He became a brilliant megascientist reduced to plugging dimension-hopping fungal particles into his wristhole while everyone else got to go play with the Terrans and the Klingons.
And sometimes he briefly mourned. For no reason, turns out! In Thursday’s “Saints of Imperfection,” Culber returns. Science tells us that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged. And TV Storytelling tells us that a character cannot fully die if they perish in close proximity to a fungalized life partner with a biophysical connection to an alternate reality where up is down and death is life. So the Discovery crew discover Culber inside the mycelial network, gone full Cast Away.
This is an interesting idea for an episode! An old friend/loved one, rediscovered after who-knows-how-long living in a freakish reverse dimension. And, here’s a cool twist: Hugh’s mere presence is destructive, eradicating the world around him. Fleeing monsters, the sorrowful victim becomes a monster himself.
Unfortunately, the return of Culber gets lost in a narrative 10-car pileup. “Saints of Imperfection” is another entry in the Spock Drinking Game: Characters say Spock’s name a total of 14 times, which by my napkin estimate is twice more than the Vulcan’s name was uttered in the original-series classic “Balance of Terror,” back when Spock was an actual character and not a mere plot point. Spock still doesn’t appear, but Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her Section 31 cadre are on his renegade tail. She brings a friend: Ash, who takes up residence on Discovery to coordinate between the two ships. Meanwhile, Tilly (Mary Wiseman) has a deepening connection with Mycelial May (Bahia Watson), the extradimensional visitor who needs help rescuing her glowing screensaver universe.
All this plus some curious bookending narration from Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) that sounds oddly elegiac. “I envy those who can believe there is a greater hand writing our story who chooses to keep chaos at bay,” she concludes. “If there is a greater hand leading us into an uncertain future, I can only hope it guides us well.”
There were greater hands writing this story. This episode, the fifth of season 2, seems to mark the end of the period when Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg were showrunning Disco. That may explain the finale-ish vibe in Michael’s closing narration — and it lends an odd poignance to an episode that mostly seems dedicated to fixing last season’s mistakes. Hugh is alive again, hooray! Ash doesn’t have to feel sorry for killing him anymore, huzzah! The mycelial network is closed forever, I think, let us never speak of this galaxy-hopping ultra-invention ever again!
Or maybe the behind-the-scenes drama doesn’t explain anything. The episode’s written by Kirsten Beyer, a longtime Trek ace who wrote Voyager spinoff novels before joining the Disco staff. And, like every other hour of this season so far, it feels like an attempt to balance the longer serialized saga of this season with a snappy episodic plot. The latter never lands. Culber’s return gets squeezed into millisecond personality shifts: from traumatized Robinson Crusoe to speechy self-sacrifice in three scenes or less! It’s wonderful to see Cruz and Rapp back together again, and their final farewell hits a deep well of emotion — but that emotion gets undercut when some helpful space magic resurrects Hugh via space blob. The sudden-onset friendship between Mycelial May and Tilly comes out of nowhere, too. Perhaps more screen time could’ve helped these subplots, but then we would’ve lost all those scenes where people say “Spock” back and forth.
There are some intriguing teases forward here. Section 31 operates as the dark inverse of the usual Starfleet philosophy. Georgiou is already engaged in mutual blackmail with her commander, Leland (Alan Van Sprang), reminding him darkly of what he did “six years ago in Danover [misheard, possibly Hannover] to the wrong ambassador.” Their operation stands in sharp contrast to Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and his crew, who represent “the shining beacon of righteous conduct” that defines the dream of Starfleet.
Credit to Anson Mount, man: Pike has become one of the better things about Discovery. He’s not, from what we can see, a grim modern hero struggling with internal demons and tragic backstory. He’s just — for now, for now — an effective commander balancing playful curiosity with a tough moral code. That’s an interesting character to throw against Section 31, a shadowy outfit deplorable enough to work with Georgiou, a fascist emperor who was only recently hard at work enslaving her entire known universe.
I remain unconvinced that Disco has much of a handle on Section 31, though. CBS All Access is already planning a very trendy spin-off about this shady outfit, so all their black-ops activities feel less “morally ambiguous” than “way cool!” By episode’s end, Pike and Leland come to a mutual understanding. “My path is sometimes clearer than yours,” Pike tells the man who did the wrong thing to the wrong ambassador six years ago. Here’s hoping for more principled conflict down the road.
Also, um, I think the Red Angel might be a time traveler?
What Airiam Said This Week: Incredible! Two lines from Hannah Cheesman’s robo-officer!
“A predetermined course with no set endpoint?”
“The hull of the port nacelle is too compromised!”
Star Trek: Discovery