Say goodbye, Spock.
Full spoilers follow for this episode.
If anyone doubted that Star Trek: Discovery could successfully marry the old with the new, combining all the modern tech and Peak TV stylings of Disco with the groovy, classic sci-fi of The Original Series, “If Memory Serves” exists to wash away those misgivings as if they were nothing but a Talosian illusion. The episode, which also finally gives us Discovery’s proper iteration of Spock, brings together multiple elements from the very first Star Trek story and easily braids them with the modern series.
Which isn’t to say that “If Memory Serves” is a perfect episode, but after 50-odd years Discovery has finally given us a follow-up to the unaired TOS pilot “The Cage,” not to mention a prequel to the two-parter “The Menagerie,” which is something many fans have no doubt often pondered, and perhaps even feared, as those Original Series segments are still held in such high esteem.
And yet, it makes sense that the Discovery would visit Talos IV, as the original story involving the telepathic, veiny-headed aliens was in fact a Captain Pike tale. It was Jeffrey Hunter’s version of Pike who was captured by the Talosians, with the hope that he would breed with another caged human, Vina, in order to provide a new wellspring of human experience and memories that they could psionically siphon and live on. Of course, Pike eventually escaped… and Star Trek was reconceived with a different captain before it finally went to series.
Still, here we are, blasting off with this strange episode via a “Previously on Star Trek” that actually recaps the events of “The Cage” with zany footage from the old show, while also adding in some oddball transitions and video trickery to drive home the 1960s of it all. At first glance one might think this methodology betrays the Discovery producers’ discomfort with the source material, but ultimately it works just fine to get the viewer up to speed before smash-cutting from Hunter’s face to current Pike actor Anson Mount’s. “The Cage” isn’t just a half-century old story at that point, but instead something that happened to Pike just a couple of years ago. And it’s an experience that has stayed with him.
Mount is great in this episode, channeling the Pike of “The Cage” — the somewhat haunted, troubled captain — while still maintaining his own lighter spin on the character. He doesn’t get any real scenes with his former tormenters, the Talosians, but instead spends his time with Vina, or the image of her anyway. Now played by Melissa George (Susan Oliver originated the role for “The Cage”), Vina visits Pike on the Discovery to help connect Burnham and Spock with their captain. But during their first brief reunion, you realize that she’s not just there on business. How could she be? Vina explains to Pike that since the events of “The Cage” she has spent a lifetime with the illusory Pike created by the Talosians. “I’m glad… I’m glad you’re not alone,” he responds, and in that moment you know that the pair are destined to actually spend their lives together. Eventually.
It’s Burnham and Spock, however, who actually land on Talos IV, the forbidden home of the Talosians, and Discovery recreates the planet fairly impeccably. Yes, it’s updated, and actually looks like a real alien world now rather than a Styrofoam set. But it still has those Talosian singing plants that Spock famously smiled at in “The Cage” — and which, in a nice nod, Burnham smiles at here. Perhaps more importantly, the sound of that singing is also reproduced for this episode; it’s an aspect of The Original Series that we tend to take for granted now, but which originated with that first episode as a sort of “planet ambience” sound. As Star Trek matured past TOS, the subsequent series used this trick less and less often, but it works terrifically to set the scene for “If Memory Serves” while also hitting that sweet nostalgia spot for longtime fans.
Our introduction to the planet is also quite exciting, with Burnham being tricked into thinking the shuttle is getting sucked into a black hole before Spock forces them through the illusion. It makes sense that the reason Spock has been so out of sorts is because of his attempt to mindmeld with the Red Angel — who we learn here is a time-travelling human — which resulted in his experiencing time as “a fluid construct,” thereby scrambling his brain. And of course, who better to sort that out than the Talosians?
Speaking of which, of course those classic Trek aliens also needed a facelift, and I think the design settled on here does them justice for the most part. We still have the big heads and the veins, but instead of throbbing from special effects air tubes, they now glow and pulsate via CG. Still, the old trick of casting women in the roles and dubbing them with male voices, which gave the viewer a slightly disoriented feel on the old show, would’ve been nice to replicate with this incarnation. We do get to see Vina in her true form, however, which is surprisingly on point, including facial scar, hunchback, and bad hair day! (George even approximates the husky and damaged voice that Oliver delivered.)
Once Burnham makes her deal with the devil, agreeing to share her painful memories of Spock with the Talosians, they fix the addled Vulcan up fairly easily. That leads to our first scene between brother and sister where he is in his right mind, and it’s a beaut as they snipe at each other like true siblings — with an air of Vulcan logic and to-the-pointness — before the argument culminates in Burnham’s lethal jab: “Do you actually think the beard is working?” Spock’s not sure after that!
But the emotional thrust of this relationship comes later, when we finally learn why they’ve been estranged for all these years. It seems that the young Burnham, fearing that logic extremists would attack her adopted family, ran away from home, but her younger brother tried to stop her. The flashback to Burnham’s memory of the event is effective, as the scene switches between the child and adult versions of the characters while Burnham lashes out cruelly at Spock. “You promised you would teach me the ways of Earth and maybe we could live there one day,” cries the boy, revealing another part of Spock’s past that we never knew about.
And you know what? It works. Some may say this is sacrilege, retconning Spock’s back story. But it’s effective dramatically, a sad moment that shows us why the Vulcan chose to fully submerge himself in logic after being wounded by his emotions. What doesn’t work quite as well are the logistics of it. Spock has held a grudge for all these years over that? Just that? Even though he eventually grew to understand why Burnham did what she did?
The jury is still out on Ethan Peck’s take on Spock. As seen here, he feels a little bit too much like James Frain’s Sarek, but then he gets that slight smile on his face when reuniting with Pike and it’s like… whoa. (Although this doesn’t quite line up, in terms of the timeline, with the smiling Spock from “The Cage.”)
Somehow there’s even more going on in this episode beyond Talos IV. Doctor Hugh is in a bad place, acting like a total jerk to Stamets. But who can blame him? Not only was he dead, and then living in Spore-ville, but now he has to share a ship with the guy who killed him! (Really Starfleet, you couldn’t have assigned a different Section 31 officer to the Discovery?) Wilson Cruz is appropriately off-putting with this new spin on Hugh, and you gotta feel for Anthony Rapp’s Stamets.
It’s also interesting that Hugh and Tyler wind up facing off, since as Tyler points out, he knows something about having an identity crisis. Hugh’s troubled state of mind is driven home in a variety of ways, including a bird’s-eye shot of him in a turbolift where the walls are improbably closed in around him. Compare that moment to a later shot of Pike and Saru on the turbolift where they have plenty of elbow room, and then some.
In fact, there’s a lot of visual trickery at play in this episode, including a liberal use of the wide-angle lens that seems to convey that the Discovery is being watched or otherwise infiltrated by the Talosians’ minds, even when the crew is not aware of it. There also seems to be more lens flare than usual, as well as some charming moments, like one shot of a lonesome Talos IV that dissolves to the action on the planet in a very “Cage”-like fashion, or the communication between Pike and Burnham where one side of Pike’s ready room just sort of opens up to reveal the alien planet. Very old school.
Tyler, meanwhile, whose back and forth with Pike had seemed to reach an armistice last week, is now completely on the outs, apparently framed by the creepy and possessed Airiam. This aspect of the ongoing Red Angel story still feels like a drag, as there’s nothing inherently interesting or suspenseful about Airiam being corrupted. For one thing, we don’t really even care about her as a character. Also, if the May story is any indication, it’ll likely be resolved neatly in a few episodes anyway.
That this entire extravaganza of an episode culminates in a Burns and Allen joke is fairly mind-boggling, and pretty terrific. Discovery is now positioned to embark on the final half of its season with its full cast of characters finally in place, some key details revealed — the end of all life in the galaxy is at stake — and the ship and her crew now on the run as fugitives. Awesome.
Questions and Notes from the Q Continuum:
- “In some ways Captain Pike never left.”
- So there’s no death penalty for going to Talos IV yet?
- Would Vina really know Spock? Wasn’t he just one of several crewmembers from the Enterprise who beamed down to the planet in “The Cage”?
- “She was not entirely disinterested in me.”
- Check out Tilly’s head bob from behind her console! “Come into my office.”
- Flying Roombas for everyone!
- I do believe that’s a “The Cage”-era transporter sound effect when Fake Spock and Burnham beam onto the Section 31 ship.
- Section 31 wants Spock’s memories of the future, right?