Love was in the air on the starship Discovery this week. And trippy spores. And a whole lot of weird science. Oh, and some potentially major problems ahead for both Captain Pike and Michael Burnham. So you know, same old same old for Star Trek: Discovery!
We like to think of Star Trek as a bastion of good and proper science fiction — with certain sections of fans sneering that it isn’t like those silly franchises with laser swords and magic, but instead noble attempts to root its fantastical technologies in real-world sciences.
But while Star Trek is often that, and has in turn inspired technological and scientific advances in our own world, it’s also a series that has just as equally often asked us to invoke Clarke’s third law and accept things that are so fantastical and weird that it’s just beyond our current 21st century brains.
But it’s also how you get moments of beauty and emotion that transcend scientific query, and how Star Trek asks us to accept the sciences of our heart as well as the ones of our minds. It often asks us to accept something that, on the surface, seems a little more fiction that it is science, for the emotion of it all.
“Saints of Imperfection” saw plenty of weird science in its quest to rescue Tilly from her capture by Mycelial May during last week’s episode and, in a spectacularly fortuitous bit of schedule timing, it asked us to accept its weirdness for the sake of love.
And it’s several kinds of love, not just the usual Valentines-Day-approved kind.
The weird science of “Saints of Imperfection” is, initially, for the sake of the bond between the Discovery’s crew and the missing Tilly, as neither Stamets nor Burnham can accept that whatever May did to the young Ensign involved killing her.
After realising that the pod May covered Tilly in is actually an organic version of their own transporter tech — meaning Tilly is alive in the network somewhere — they hatch a plan to use the Discovery’s jump drive and ram their own way in.
It’s there that “Saints” weird science gets particularly audacious because said plan involves basically recreating the disaster that befell the USS Glenn, the Discovery’s sister ship, back in season one. You know, the one where the Glenn got stuck mid-spore-jump and all hands got blended into the hull?
All this is thrown at the audience with a dazzling sense of speed, and you almost have to accept it just by the sheer pace the episode flies by at you, but the reason we’re given to accept it is, once again, familial love — as Pike expresses when he’s about to give the go-ahead to spore-shunt Discovery so Michael and Stamets can hop on over into the network and rescue Tilly, Starfleet is a family that does not leave anyone behind (except when they do, which is bad!).
The weirdness is not helped by the fact that, throughout this, we also start picking up the thread from Tilly’s perspective, as May finally reveals the real reason she’s gone through all this to get her there in the first place.
A monster that showed up when the Discovery was doing its spore-jumps has been slowly destroying her species, using the toxin of a tree within the network deadly to May’s spore-kind to carve a path through their home.
May wants the monster killed, something Tilly only begrudgingly accepts if it means May will send her back to Discovery once the monster is dealt with — something complicated by the Discovery’s hull suddenly poking half-way through the network and the two re-uniting with Stamets and Burnham.
But once again, that idea of love and bonds comes into play — even if it’s putting the Discovery in increasing danger the longer it stays stuck in the network, spores literally eating away at the hull, they can’t deny the bond May and Tilly have forged together (albeit unwillingly at first).
And so the rescue mission quickly becomes a monster-hunting mission. Except, not really, because this is where “Saints of Imperfection” gets to the breaking point of its weird science: The monster isn’t really a monster. It’s Doctor Culber.
And it’s actual, proper Doctor Culber, not a fake out. This despite the fact that his body was left on the floor of Discovery’s sickbay when Ash/Voq snapped his neck in a fit of Klingon rage last season.
Because, somehow, Stamets managed to transport part of Culber’s being into the Mycelial Network when he was still connected to it and hallucinating parts of the “forest” he’d seen in there.
Culber’s lifeless body might have remained, but his being, his essence, was transported just like Tilly’s was in the May-pod. Which was already weird enough and at least in that instance Tilly’s body also transferred in the process. Culber’s transition over to the network is much more ephemeral.
It’s... a lot. In an episode that is already doing a whole dang lot of spore-science weirdness, throwing in the pseudoscience of how Culber can come back from his controversial death in season one is going to be another divisive moment for a lot of people.
But once again, “Saints of Imperfection” asks you to accept it for the sake of love itself.
Stamets’ reunion with his departed partner is excellently delivered by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz. As Stamets tearfully recounts one of the couple’s first dates to prove to an incredibly disoriented Culber that it really is him and that they can be together again, it’s hard not to just ignore all the mushroomy spore weirdness going on and just desperately want that to be the case.
It’s in their love that May comes to accept that Culber wasn’t a monster actively targeting her race, but a lost soul in the network just trying to protect himself from the spores’ natural instinct to break down and repurpose the matter they come across.
It’s in their love that, when it initially seems that because his body was left behind in the real world that Culber can’t return with the rest of the team, May and Tilly agree to sacrifice their own bond with each other, so that the May-pod (and the traces of human DNA it was re-purposed out of) can serve as the matter to give Culber’s essence form again.
Like I said, it’s going to be a divisive moment amongst fans who prefer their Trek a little less emotional and a little more sciencey. But if we can accept all the goofy and weird and wonderful things Star Trek has done in the past, we can surely take the step to accept one more bit of out-there narrative loophole-ery for love, can’t we?
That’s the kind of hopeful optimism that Trek has been built on for over half a century: The dream of a better future where we are bound together, accepted by each other, and flying out into the stars as one species, bound by a love of both broadening our horizons and a love for our fellow humans, regardless of nation, class, race, gender or sexuality.
Star Trek’s been as much as about that brand of hope as it has been occasionally out there pseudoscience from the get-go.
But all this hope came out of a compromise that the Discovery crew might end up regretting very soon — in the form of not just becoming aware of the dark side of Starfleet with the arrival of Section 31, but now having been officially ordered to work with them after Leland and Georgiou’s ship shows up to stop Discovery from falling all the way into the network, and carry on their own investigation into Spock.
On a personal level, this has the biggest impact on Burnham and Pike of course, who now have to work with former friends (and in Burnham’s case, a complicated... frenemy, in Mirror Georgiou) and find that their values have diverged in some pretty major ways.
But it also means having to confront head on the ethical quagmire that gave Section 31 its existence in the first place.
Given Pike’s own noted belief in the mission of Starfleet as an idealistic identity, and literally everything Michael went through last season, accepting that they fought so hard and lost so much in the war with the Klingons to stay true to Starfleet while an entire branch of it runs around doing the dirtiest of dirty work is going to be pretty hard for them.
It might take more than the power of spore-love to accept that, but considering this has simmered in the underbelly of Discovery’s tone and drama since the start, I can’t wait for the show to really start dragging it out into the open.
Oh boy, Section 31 has the communicator badges already in the 23rd century? That’s gonna ruffle a few continuity fan’s feathers.
While I liked the sheer expression of bafflement Pike had when he saw Ash use the combadge, Discovery’s gonna be getting into some uncertain ground if it starts introducing advanced tech we saw in later Star Trek shows under the excuse of “Section 31, we do what we want”.
Although it established the threat that touching the Mycelial Network could lead to a gruesome death like those seen on the USS Glenn back in season one early on, I really appreciate that this episode didn’t scale up the threat the Discovery faced by showing us some poor redshirt (bronzeshirt?) getting gruesomely ripped apart.
I feel as though that might have been something we’d have seen in season one Discovery, with its love of gritty violence and Klingon boobs to show off how “adult” it can be, but I appreciate that it was not necessary to show off here. Primarily because I really didn’t want any of the bridge crew to bite it just as we’re getting to know them!
After last season indelicately skirted around the “Bury Your Gays” trope with the arc it put Doctor Culber on — maybe still not the best storyline to do with your franchise’s first on-screen gay couple! — I really hope that now we’ve gone through all the struggle and weird mushroom science to get him back, him and Stamets can just be happy for a bit.
But considering a lot of this season so far seems as though it's setting up instances that getting what you want might come at a cost down the line, I can’t help but shake the feeling the consequence of bringing him back might raise its head later.