“Nihilistic Squids are my new punk band”: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Each week, Sarah Jaffe — a new Star Trek fan who came to the franchise through Discovery — and Adam Kotsko — a long-time obsessive who has spent way too much time thinking about Star Trek — have been chatting about their impressions of the newest episode. Since we fell behind for a few weeks, this post covers “The Sound of Thunder,” “Light and Shadows,” and “If Memory Serves.” A full archive can be found here.]

AK: We have been remiss!

SJ: Too long! My fault, too much travel.
Anyway! I am full of feelings, unsurprisingly.
Revolutionary Saru!

AK: And they didn’t make the Ba’ul be advanced Kelpiens!

SJ: I really did think it was going there.

AK: I expected it, too, but in retrospect that would have been a terrible, self-undermining story.

SJ: Yes. Much better to have the dialectic of two species ;)

AK: The fact that the Kelpiens were a real threat back in the day was enough “balance,” I think.
Making Saru discover that he has become one of the hated oppressors would just be too much.

SJ: well and sort of indicate that there’s no way to NOT be oppressive.
also Saru having like little spikes to shoot out of his head was pretty awesome.

AK: I’m not sure that the conclusion of the episode fully made sense in any case.

SJ: The evolving of all of them spontaneously?

AK: Right. No idea why they wanted to do it, nor why Pike let them do it.
And the fact that they needed a deus ex machina from the Red Angel to fix it is a hint that it isn’t the most elegant storytelling

SJ: Quicker than explaining to everyone?

AK: So they wanted to reveal the Big Lie in an indisputable way?

SJ: I think so.

AK: I guess that makes sense.
Maybe they figure that they’re undoing illegitimate interference from another warp-capable species, the Ba’ul?
Anyway, the Prime Directive exists only to be constantly violated.

SJ: well they get around it basically by arguing they were oppressed, no?

AK: This really makes the late Regular Georgiou look pretty bad, since she initially went along with the treaty where the Ba’ul could keep oppressing the Kelpiens all they wanted.

SJ: well she was only a lieutenant then, maybe she did all she could in getting Saru off and figured it laid groundwork for later?
she was building a Kelpian vanguard ;)

AK: Speaking of outside help: I wonder if the squid thing that took over the probe in the next episode was the source of Ba’ul technology.
Because how does a nearly extinct species suddenly develop the technology needed to virtually obliterate and then completely transform the culture of their oppressor?

SJ: Hmmmmmm. Maybe we’ll find out the Red Angel had more to do with that
and then had to correct its mistake

AK: In the most recent episode, though, it’s the squid things that are wiping out all life in the galaxy.
So I think we’re dealing with two separate forces — the Nihilistic Squids and the Red Angel — who are struggling to undo each other’s time travel interference.

SJ: Nihilistic Squids are my new punk band.

AK: Fingers crossed that it becomes the official way to refer to them.

SJ: hahah
so then Burnham goes to Vulcan to have a family experience like Saru’s

AK: Yes. And I like how they took Spock “out of commission” so that he wouldn’t overshadow her as soon as he was introduced.

SJ: Yeah.
Although we did go full fanservice next episode BUT WHATEVER WE’LL LEAVE THAT FOR NOW

AK: Even in the most recent episode, he seems more like a sullen adolescent than the classic Spock.

SJ: So yeah Spock we got Spock finally yay or something
I’m much more interested in Burnham dealing with her family issues

AK: Yeah, and the dynamic with Amanda and Sarek, too.
How she completely mind-probe-blocks him

SJ: Yeah it’s interesting that she just doesn’t trust anyone with any Vulcan in them around this
Amanda I mean

AK: “I’ve played along with this long enough.”

SJ: I mean
It can’t have been easy to be in a relationship with him all those years!

AK: They seem happier in TOS, so maybe this whole incident prompts them to do some serious work on their marriage.
Though in TNG, when Sarek has Vulcan Alzheimer’s or something, his biggest regret is witholding affection from his human wives (he’s on his second by then, since Vulcans live so much longer than humans).

SJ: well good he should

AK: Apparently he had already processed that one time that he went along with a plan to commit genocide.

SJ: LOL maybe
I mean no one seems terribly bothered by that

AK: So I bet you were torn about the B-plot of that episode.

SJ: Honestly I was more interested in that!

AK: Your true love, paired with your arch nemesis.

SJ: I mean as you know IDC about Spock all that much
but the relationship between Tyler and Pike is the most interesting thing about Pike!

AK: Yes, we finally got some organic character development — he feels bad for not fighting in the war! He feels like an interloper, hence perhaps why he is such a weak leader and goes along with whatever the crew (i.e., Burnham) decides

SJ: Right.
And he doesn’t trust Tyler but he’s also kind of jealous of his relationship with the crew even as fucked up as it is
and particularly his relationship with Burnham

AK: Taking her as a stand-in for the whole crew, again.
I do kind of wonder how the time-splosion or whatever affected the planet….

SJ: I think we’ll have to figure that out as it goes
But this episode was also sort of a mirror of last season’s when Tyler and Burnham went to rescue Sarek
and that was when Burnham and Tyler bonded

AK: Oh, great observation on that parallel. I had not noticed that.
I think the action in the Tyler-Pike plot succeeded where the season premier failed — making an action sequence that actually promotes character development.

SJ: Yes!
The bit where Pike sees the time anomaly with him shooting Tyler and then later realizes that he’s actually saving him was great
Especially because it also gives you the little bit that he DOESN’T see the future tech in it.

AK: Yeah, I thought that was well done.

SJ: it plants so many little seeds… the future tech doesn’t show up, that things you see from the future might not be what you think

AK: The effects in that scene in general also struck a chord with me because they remind me of a similar scene from the pilot of the late, unlamented previous prequel, Enterprise.
… in which the major overarching plot was a “Temporal Cold War,” where various forces from the future were constantly meddling with events and then trying to undo each other’s meddling. It was confusing, to say the least.

hahahha excellent

AK: So basically, I think they’re reprising the Temporal Cold War with this Red Angel vs. Nihilistic Squid plot.
Confirming my theory that they are systematically trying to “redeem” all the most questionable parts of Trek lore (Mirror Universe, Section 31, etc.).
But to you, it makes sense as such and is at least somewhat interesting without that background, it sounds like.

SJ: I like the idea though.

AK: It’s an interesting variation on the “confronting a god-like character” theme.

SJ: confronting TWO god-like characters!
but yeah like I like that Tyler can’t really shake having been Voq

AK: Which brings us to Culber?

SJ: also I think he’s working through some of his issues from his bromance with Lorca.

AK: Yes, the Lorca thing is interesting — what must that tell him about himself? Is the part of him that can go along with Section 31 the same part that Lorca preyed on? Is he okay with that?

SJ: Right. And was that the Klingon part or something in “human” Tyler?

AK: Or does the Klingon part actually help him resist it or have distance from it?
Because he did not have conscious access to his Klingon half during the Lorca bromance

SJ: As he doesn’t now.
They “killed” Voq, remember?
Which gets drawn out more in the next ep with Culber but

AK: No, he has all of Voq’s memories, he can speak Klingon, etc.
The Tyler personality is in the driver’s seat, but Voq hasn’t simply been erased.

SJ: Well and they keep teasing that
So also the Stamets bit of this episode pleased me
another call-back to the all-time best Discovery episode, the time loop
and Stamets and Tilly’s relationship still so good
the time stuff gives him a reason for existing that goes beyond just the spore drive

AK: True!
But he can’t recapture the past.
This is kind of jumping ahead, but IS IT POSSIBLE that Tyler and Culber will ultimately hook up?

SJ: oh shit
OK wait though
One more thing!
What’s Mirror Giorgiou up to?
OK two things because robot lady got a plot

AK: Someone on the fan discussion suggested that she knows Burnham’s future from the files on the Defiant
So she’s trying to nudge her — either to change her future or force her to fulfill it

SJ: Hmmmm. Or maybe she just wants to get Leland out of the way so she can be in charge

AK: And Robot Head Person!
Pretty sure she sabotaged the spore drive

SJ: Oh definitely she did.
I actually find the suspicion of Tyler being a foreign plant while the actor a South Asian of Muslim heritage a really interesting play
possibly one of the only ways they deal with race interestingly, lol

AK: It strikes me that the last time they had a main character of similar demographics, he turned out to be replaced by a villainous double for a while.

SJ: really

AK: And he was a main contact with Section 31 (Bashir from DS9).

SJ: ahhhh
I remember because I also love that actor, lol

AK: My Esteemed Partner thought that his ethnicity also made him look more like a TOS Klingon.
She was the first person I know of to “call” that Tyler was a Klingon

SJ: Interesting!
So they still kinda think Tyler is a secret Muslim I mean Klingon

AK: Right, especially since the dominant faction of Klingons is a bunch of religious extremists.

SJ: But it’s actually…their advanced technology!
That is undermining them from within

AK: If they could just shoehorn in a metaphor for oil…
Now I’m bracing for the next Klingon episode…

SJ: ha
but right it’s actually the tech infiltrating their android crew member
or robot I guess since she doesn’t even look human

AK: In any case, though, I think the fact that Robot Head Person finally gets a plot now that she’s being taken over is classic Star Trek — whenever they introduce a new concept or technology, it’s always going wrong.

Maybe Detmer’s eye thing will make her susceptible as well, so she’ll get to do something other than vaguely glower.

SJ: According to IMDB her name is Airiam

AK: I like the proper Latin feminine ending

SJ: You would know!
I do not. But yeah I like also that it’s a character we haven’t really dealt with much that whoops you really should’ve paid attention to her!

AK: Reportedly in the tie-in comics, Mirror Airiam became Terran Empress

SJ: iiiiiiinteresting
so yeah there’s that at the end of episode 7 and then more in episode 8
we get more Tyler/Pike plot development (you know I made little sad noises when Pike asked about his feelings for Burnham)
“I was in love with her, she wasn’t entirely indifferent to me”

AK: ha
And the whole Culber thing

SJ: this episode was so much!
so many of my feelings
and I really like that they went hard on that end for people like me who don’t actually gaf about TOS fanservice
also so I guess this is all supposed to take place in between the pilot of TOS and the rest of the series with Kirk in charge?

AK: Right.
The original pilot happened before anything on Discovery
It’s actually one of the better episodes of TOS

SJ: I have actually seen it! Just a while ago.

AK: I feel like the “big reveal” of how Burnham hurt Spock’s feelings was a let down.
They’re trying to thread this needle where she has to be decisive for his development, but in such a way that it makes total sense he would never mention her — and it just cannot work.
It does fit with her character, though — she always wants to take radical, unilateral action because she thinks she can single-handedly fix everything

SJ: Right. Also it’s very adolescent.

AK: The dynamic between them was very convincing on that level.
And a good way of making Spock not yet be THE Spock.

SJ: Right.
There’s something about family that does tend to bring us back to childhood

AK: I think you tend to revert to what your relationship was with a person
It’s different if they’re an ongoing part of your life and you develop a new adult rapport
But they have not.

SJ: True.
So the Angel….do we think Spock IS the angel?
future self?

AK: Pretty sure it’s meant to read as female

SJ: whatever gender is fluid

AK: And the image did fade into Burnham when he was recounting the mind-meld.
Could also be Airiam?

SJ: Or Burnham? yeah
feel like they’d have to do more to make us invested in Airiam before making her…that

AK: There was a time meddler known to fans as Future Guy in Enterprise, and the leading theory was that it was actually Captain Archer from the future.
So having it be Burnham would be a tribute to that terrible, terrible idea

SJ: what if it’s Amanda :D
she didn’t really die she faked her own death, ditched Sarek, went to the future, and became a superhero

Or it’s Seven of Nine or some random thing like that.
Now that I think of it, Seven was recruited by the Temporal Agency….
Okay, I’m laying down a marker — it’s Seven of Nine. If that turns out to be true, I’ll be a genius!

SJ: Ha. And if not no one will remember.
But yeah. So Burnham “mutinies” again but this time with the permission of not one but two captains
Mirror Giorgiou–echoing of course her first mutiny–and Pike.

AK: Pike’s willingness to go along with the mutiny could be an echo of Lorca
Burnham being the Red Angel would allow her to “mutiny” against the future itself, continuing the pattern where everything she does is also a meta-commentary on the prequel problem.

SJ: There are so many
Pike as good daddy to Lorca’s bad but replicates some of the flaws. Then again they were things that we originally liked about Lorca before we realized he was up to something

AK: Pike is really serving as a surrogate father to the whole Sarek family.
Sarek just sucks as a father.

SJ: ahhahaha

AK: Maybe he’ll hook up with Amanda for good measure

and then she becomes the Red Angel!
but yeah
so Burnham runs off with Spock
then Pike brings her back on board making the entire Discovery fugitives

AK: At least we have some plot thread consolidation
And we know Pike turns out to be an honored hero, so this all needs to be resolved in a way that vindicates them.

SJ: Of course.

AK: But still leaves Section 31 in business so it can have a spin-off show.

SJ: And yeah I mean it was fanservicey but it was also actually pretty good?
I mean this episode hit a lot of emotional notes and managed to not be TOO schmaltzy
except for the bit with Pike and what’s her name from Talos

AK: And that’s just trying to recapture the pilot.
They make him old-timey when they want to emphasize that.

SJ: heh

AK: I kind of can’t believe how well they’re pulling this off, now that they got past the early-season missteps.

SJ: but the whole Culber line is just gutwrenchingly sad.
poor Stamets!

AK: There was no way they were going to make everything go “back to normal.”

SJ: it’s also a really good turn on what is normally in genre shows just like “oh, so and so is back from the dead”
it reminds me of Buffy when she comes back

AK: I was thinking the same thing.
I loved nihilist Buffy

SJ: callbacks to MY formative TV haha
Buffy and My So-Called Life!

AK: They’re being pretty heavy-handed with his clothes. He used to dress all in white, now all in black.
Even if the hook-up is a step too far, I could see him joining Tyler in Section 31

SJ: ooooooh
I mean that moment after the fight where Tyler’s like “who do you think you’re talking to” just got me in the guts
Poor Tyler. Poor Culber.

AK: What about Saru’s role in that?

SJ: Ooooooh it was interesting huh?
More New Saru character building in a subtle way

AK: Or character-ruining?

SJ: I don’t think so!
Where before he would have been fearful and clung to the rules, this time he paid attention to what they needed and let them play it out
It’s also an interesting signal re: masculinity
the character as we’ve said before has never read as particularly straight
as he gets less fearful he gets more “masculine” but still emotionally perceptive

AK: Interesting.
And Pike, the leader of men, just kind of says, “Yeah, whatever, okay.”

SJ: well as you said he tends to concede to the crew
but also I think it worked! Culber had to prove to himself that Tyler wasn’t just going to snap on him again

AK: And he has expressed bafflement at every aspect of this situation — with justification!
That’s true.
Interesting that you connected more with the masculinity dynamics than I did.

SJ: I spend a lot of time trying to figure out men ;)

AK: I mainly just try to avoid them

SJ: Ha!
Heterosexuality is a curse like that
But I think it was an interesting scene between three men who have complicated relationships to masculinity

AK: Definitely.

SJ: the gay man grappling with his return from the grave and his disconnect from his partner; the internally-Klingon guy who has always been the most emotionally expressive character on the show and played the sort of feminized role in his romantic relationships (note the “I was in love with her, she wasn’t entirely indifferent to me”); and the Kelpian who’s “evolving” into a different “man” by losing his fear and having new cool fight gadgets in his head instead of threat ganglia

AK: If Saru’s head-darts don’t play a decisive role in the season finale, I will demand a refund on my streaming subscription.
Well, you’ve done it again — you’re convinced me that a scene I initially found bizarre was actually emotionally rich.
And yet again, Discovery “responds to interpretation” better than any previous Trek by far.

SJ: Heh.
I thought it was great. There’s so many layers to it. And callbacks, too–to Burnham getting jumped in the cafeteria, to Tilly going to sit with Tyler after he’d been de-Voq’d

AK: Burnham having to kill that guy in the Mirror turbolift

SJ: yes
and Tyler killing people vs Tyler trying here just to subdue Culber without hurting him no matter how he’s attacked.

AK: TyVoq killed him so gratuitously, too. He wasn’t remotely a threat.

SJ: Right.
And so yeah. And also Culber testing himself–“I don’t know who I am anymore”

AK: Yes, it seemed so foreign to the character.

SJ: Exactly.

AK: I’ve heard speculation that they intended to bring back Mirror Culber but then opted for Georgiou to keep Michelle Yeoh on the show.
If so, they’ve found a way to recapture the idea in spirit without needlessly multiplying the number of MU natives running around

SJ: yeah, exactly.
and more poignant in a way
you wouldn’t expect Mirror Culber to have the same relationship with Stamets but here it is that much harder to admit that he just can’t step back into the relationship like nothing happened

AK: True.

SJ: So. Yes. I love it.
I want to see more!
I do not care that much about Spock still, sorry/
I did love the beard crack.

AK: Ha, yes
Is that her first joke?

SJ: I think she’s made one before.

AK: Perhaps the season finale will have him finally shave
Becoming the Spock we know and love through his crucial interaction with Burnham, which he has been sworn to total secrecy about.