Five episodes into its second season, and Star Trek: Discovery is still working on getting the balance of serialization and standalone right. I appreciate that—it’s a tricky model to work with, and the show’s continued interest in offering smaller stories inside of its larger one is a point in its favor. Yet the rhythm is still off for me, and an entry like “Saints of Imperfection” is a perfect example of why. There are beats in this episode that should’ve worked like gangbusters, moments of emotional tension and release that could’ve been absolutely stunning. But the execution is off. In its desperate need to constantly press forward, the show rushes to the high points without ever bothering to build up the connective tissue that makes those points matter. The result is like watching a perpetual trailer for a story that never quite arrives.
For instance: we pick up this week with Burnham (and the score) offering a mournful dirge at the apparent loss of Tilly. Putting aside the fact that Tilly isn’t actually dead, having another attempt to jerk at our heartstrings immediately after the Saru fake-out last week is misguided at best. It’s a microcosmic expression of the show’s general approach to drama: everything up to 11, all the time. And it’s fucking exhausting. When every event happens at full volume, the individual value of those events is lost. It turns into a never-ending stream of adrenaline stimuli, without any real understanding what it means to build stability and depth into a fictional universe.
The point of the opening is arguably to put Tilly’s disappearance on hold for a few minutes (everyone thinks she’s dead except Stamets! And, y’know, the audience) so we can jump back to the plot everybody really cares about, Section 31 and the adventures of Evil Georgiou (who is, of course, the only Georgiou we have, although the episode does get some mileage out of Pike having known the good universe version) and, heaviest of sighs, Ash Tyler. The shuttle Discovery has been tracking turns out to have been a ruse, and so now we get dragged back to some of the worst choices of the previous season. At least the Klingons never show up.
I don’t mind Georgiou; like any reasonable person, I love Michelle Yeoh, and she’s clearly having fun, and it’s a not-terrible dynamic to play around with. But Ash Tyler is such an absolute drag. The show insists on portraying him as some ambiguous, tragic figure who only Burnham truly understands, but ambiguity only works if it feels like there’s an actual truth hiding somewhere. In this case, it’s just a handsome guy looking sad and getting glared at, and the continued insistence on his and Burnham’s romance—which was already arbitrary to begin with—is a dead end. Ash’s sole defining trait last season, the secret twist that he was actually merged with a Klingon (or something to that effect), is gone, and without it, he’s… well, I don’t really know what he is.
But all right, fine, Burnham has feelings for him so I guess he had to come back at some point. Why now, though? And why does the episode try and do his, and Georgiou, and Section 31, and Tilly’s adventures in the mushroom kingdom, and the return of Dr. Hugh Culber?
Oh yeah, I buried the lede here, partly to avoid spoiling any causal browsers, and partly because that’s more or less how the show plays it: we spend most of the first part of the episode dealing with the new Section 31 stuff, and then following Tilly as she struggles to understand what Mold May wants out of her, until Burnham and Stamets find a way into the spore network, and we learn that the threat to the network that May is freaking out over is actually Culber, or some version of him, struggling to survive in an environment that’s designed to break him down into component parts for recycling.
I don’t object to Culber coming back. His death is still pretty ridiculous, a desperate attempt to create dramatic tension that also had the unfortunate effect of fridging one of the few relationships that actually positively distinguished Discovery from other Treks (at least in concept; I find Culber and Stamets pretty generic in practice, but it’s still a point in the show’s favor that it had an openly gay and stable relationship). Reviving him doesn’t exactly undo the damage, but it does mitigate it a little, and there’s potential drama in seeing what this new Culber is like—how much he remembers, and how difficult it will be for him and Stamets to pick up their relationship again.
But boy, this is a half-assed way to do it. While I appreciate the surprise, and Stamets did remind us that he saw Culber in the network, the actual justification just reconfirms the idea that the spores are basically magic, a wildly ambitious concept that the writers have decided to use as catchall for just about anything. In a way, this does harken back to original Trek, which often leaned into the “sufficiently advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic” rule, but at least there, it stuck to telling individual stories, where each new God Like Being could appear, mess things up a bit, and then fuck off forever. Now we’ve got this constant, poorly defined thing hanging around to fill in wherever plot spackle is needed.
Really, though, the worst thing about all of this is how easily Culber’s return just sort of blends into the background that is Every Other Damn Thing In This Episode. It’s probably the emotional highpoint, but we spent so much time racing from crisis to crisis that nothing lands. This is less a specific story than it is a collection of bits of other stories glued together to be as exciting as possible. The result is a show where, to steal a line from The Incredibles, everything feels special but nothing actually is. And it’s immensely frustrating because it’s far being precisely bad. There were moments in tonight’s episode that worked quite nicely. I even laughed at a Tilly joke. But the constant wasted potential gets old.
- Section 31 has been tasked with tracking down Spock because of his connection with the red light bursts, and also because of the whole murder thing. That makes a certain degree of sense, but it would be nice if we had a sense of anyone else working on this problem, and not just “characters we needed an excuse to put in a room together.”
- “Words define who we are.” Dear god, it’s like someone read my old Next Gen recaps and decided “random portentous sentences” were a good way to open a TV show.
- Where the hell is Jet? Look, I understand Tig Notaro didn’t sign on for every episode this season, but given how pivotal she was during the plotline last week that introduced this week’s Tilly crisis, it’s super weird that she’s not around.
- “It is more powerful and generally larger and more powerful than the type 1 or type 2, which I guess is why the call it a type 3.” -Tilly (I think awkward-but-confident-and-vaguely-Joss-Whedon-y Tilly works better than super-cringey Tilly.)
- The fake out at the end, where it initially appears that Culber can’t actually come back to the real world, would’ve worked better if the episode had spend more time rebuilding his and Stamets connection, instead of just rely on the old “give a monologue about a date we had” trick.
- Tyler’s going to stick around on the Discovery. It’s like no one’s reading my letters.