We need to talk about “Lethe,” last night’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery has been getting tighter with each episode, but in last night's "Lethe," the show turned a corner into addictively good storytelling. There were a couple of standout moments, plus an evolving conspiracy theory involving Klingon spies. But the best part was that we finally saw one of the show's key arcs, which is how the Federation emerged out of planetary separatism.
Spoilers ahead! Go watch the episode and come back!
Logic extremism and hope
In previous episodes, we've already sensed that this Star Trek series would be more darkly psychological than its predecessors. Our main characters are complex and conflicted, much like the fledgling Federation itself. In "Lethe," we saw how this aspect of the story could take us to truly interesting places.
Burnham's adoptive father Sarek is on his way to peace talks with the Klingons when a "logic extremist" pulls a futuristic suicide bombing on their shuttle. Wounded, Sarek reaches out to Burnham—via the soul bond he created with her long ago—to bring her back from death after a similar attack from the same extremist group. When Burnham is yanked into Sarek's mind, she learns something horrifying about him. Burnham has gained admittance to the Vulcan Expeditionary Fleet, but the head of the fleet tells Sarek that Vulcans will only admit one non-Vulcan to their ranks. So Sarek has to choose which of his semi-human kids can get into the fleet, and he chooses Spock.
All this time, Burnham thought she had failed. But it was actually Sarek who failed, and, in fact, the entire power structure of Vulcan society failed her by being illogically xenophobic. What's incredibly compelling about this subplot in the episode is that it fills in a much-needed political backstory on the Vulcans (they have militant separatists, and even their mainstream politicians are xenophobic against humans); and, at the same time, it explores an intensely personal aspect of Burnham's relationship with her father.
The political and the personal are perfectly melded, and they show us something we hadn't quite realized until this point in the series. We know the Klingons are struggling with nationalism, racial purity movements, and civil war. We know the humans are struggling with similar problems. And now it's clear that the Vulcans are, too. The central struggle in this show will be how to forge peaceful alliances across cultures and species, despite militant separatism.
During the Sarek revelation, Discovery felt like a true Star Trek show. It offered us an impossible vision of hope, where good people like Burnham fight for peace against all odds. And we know they succeed too, because we've seen all the other Star Trek shows. Things are terrible, but we can do it!
About that freaky-ass fungus stuff
Another thing that happened last night was that mycelial genius Stamets went full Dr. Jekyll. With the space tardigrade gone, he's using his own body and brain to power the mycelial drive. Last week, we saw indications that this might lead to some bizarre places. Stamets looked into the mirror and left the bathroom… but his reflection remained in the mirror for a few beats before leaving.
Presumably, this is the mirror universe being born, or something similar. When you mess with the fungus that underlies the structure of space-time, things are going to get "fucking cool," as Stamets puts it. But one guy's "fucking cool" is another guy's agonizer, if you know what I mean.
One of the delightful things about Discovery is the way it embraces the fundamental weirdness of the science in Star Trek. There's always been goofy stuff lurking at the fringes of every series, whether it's characters "de-evolving" into giant grubs and having sex or a transporter accident creating a sad, angry version of Riker who still wants to marry Troi. Now, the central conceit of the show is weird science. Discovery is a science vessel, powered by glowing spores, whose powers are creating trippy, bizarro effects that force us to question what's real.
At the end of Lethe, Lorca gives Burnham a staff position on the science team, so our point-of-view character is now a science officer too. Science and uncertainty rule the Discovery, and we're right in the middle of it.
And now, the Ash Tyler conspiracy!
We're getting into double spoiler territory here, so proceed at your own risk.
I'm pretty sure that Captain Lorca is almost completely evil. I was on the fence, but fellow Ars staffer Cyrus Farivar convinced me that my deep suspicions are true. It all started when Lorca trusted some rando hottie named Ash Tyler in Klingon prison, broke out with him, and then left Harry Mudd behind to be tortured to death. Even though Mudd was a jerk, leaving him behind wasn't just anti-Star Fleet. It was anti-human. WTF, Lorca.
It got a lot worse last night, though. Though Lorca knows next to nothing about Tyler, he appoints the dude Chief Security Officer. And then he nearly kills his admiral-with-benefits Cornwell, right before sending her off into what he surely suspected was a trap. When the Klingons capture her, he suddenly gets all fussy about Star Fleet rules and says he won't go after her unless his superiors allow it. So, basically, the moment Tyler arrived on the scene, Lorca went from untrustworthy to out-and-out bad buy.
If you're a Trek fan, you've probably already heard the rumors about Tyler's true identity, which I am fairly certain are true. In a nutshell, it appears that the same actor, Shazad Latif, is playing both Tyler and the white Klingon separatist Voq (the son of no one). It sure looks like CBS hastily attempted to cover this up by creating a suspiciously fake-looking IMDb page for an actor called Javid Iqbal (not to be confused with Pakistani Supreme Court Justice Javed Iqbal), who has done nothing in his life other than play Voq. But Latif is in the credits for the episodes with Voq in them, and the cat is pretty much out of the bag here.
On top of all that stuff, the last episode featured Voq deciding to give up "everything" to prove that he's the rightful leader of the Klingons. His pal L'Rell sends him to the "Matriarchs of Mo'Kai" for help, who probably have access to technologies that will make Voq look like a super hot dude. Klingons have been altering themselves to look human since TOS days, so it's actually in canon.
If you watch last night's episode knowing that Ash is really Voq, everything becomes darker, sadder, and more horrifying. Burnham is actually learning about what it means to be human from an anti-human xenophobe. (Plus, Voq has to save the life of the woman who murdered his mentor!) Lorca has placed the Federation's secret weapon-ship in the care of his greatest enemy.
Not only is this pleasingly screwed up in the way psychological thrillers often are, but it's also my favorite new Internet fan community conspiracy. Are Ash and Voq the same person? Is this some crazy misdirection on the part of CBS? Either way, I'm all the way in.
And what about that final scene? Is this the mirror universe?
I just wanted to point out that the final scene of this episode MIRRORS (sorry, I had to) the final scene in last week's episode. Stamets looked in a mirror and a different Stamets looked back. As "Lethe" ended, Lorca looked at his reflection in a portal and… is it possible that good Lorca was looking back? Because when the camera panned behind Lorca, he had his gun jammed in the back of his pants. Is the gun-crazy, paranoid Lorca actually evil, mirror universe Lorca?