[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 2 Episode 8, “If Memory Serves.”]
The latest episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” begins with a choice that for “Trek” fans might be considered mindblowing: a “previously on ‘Star Trek'” sequence using footage that is 55 years old, and featuring long-deceased people playing roles now ceded to new actors.
Yes, to set up the events leading up to “If Memory Serves,” “Discovery” chose to use a minute of clips from “Star Trek: The Original Series” featuring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy as Lieutenant Spock, during their first encounter with the mind-bending aliens of Talos IV. The sequence then leads into the episode proper, with these same characters now played by Anson Mount and Ethan Peck as they re-encounter these strange and mysterious beings — as well as the human-looking Vina (originally played by Susan Oliver, now played by Melissa George), with whom Pike made a connection during his first trip to that planet.
Within official “Trek” canon, the TOS episode “The Menagerie” (from which the “previously on” footage was drawn) occupies a complicated place, as it repurposed the unaired 1964 pilot “The Cage” (from which nearly everyone except Nimoy was recast) to tell a story of the Enterprise’s early days, before Kirk took on the role of captain.
But now, things are even more complicated. It’s rare to the point of unprecedented for a franchise which has undergone such a degree of recasting to use original footage (using original actors) as opposed to reshooting the scenes with a new cast. (Though the resemblance between Hunter and Mount is strong enough to make it work at the moment of transition, from old to new.) But it also is just another indicator of how in its second season, “Discovery” is trying to figure out how to represent a bold modern take on “Trek” — while hewing closer than ever to the franchise’s roots, realigning it with the show’s core legacy.
“If Memory Serves” is focused largely on Pike and Spock separately revisiting their first experiences on Talos IV, under very different circumstances — Spock, a fugitive from the law in the middle of a nervous breakdown, travels there with adopted sister Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) in the hope that the Talosians will be able to help him make sense of the memories that have driven him nearly insane. (An emotional catharsis between brother and sister proves key to Spock regaining his sanity.) Meanwhile, Pike and the Discovery travel to Talos IV in an effort to reunite, while Pike once again sees visions of Vina, the woman he left behind.
All the while, Section 31 is on their heels, but thanks in part to Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) undermining the efforts of Captain Leland (Alan van Sprang), the episode ends with Spock and Burnham reunited with the Discovery, and the ship itself on the run.
A Starfleet crew essentially mutinying against the Federation isn’t necessarily very true to core “Trek” principles (though it did happen more than once across all the various franchises). But Discovery’s reason for rebellion is one that speaks to what’s been going on all season long — trying to solve the mystery of the Red Angel, which, it’s become clear, is almost serving a meta-purpose within the show’s narrative.
Thanks to its timeframe (set several years before the beginning of the Original Series) “Discovery” has always been made with the knowledge that due to its overlapping with established canon, there was plenty of opportunity for conflicts with that established canon. However, it’s now known that the Red Angel, whose appearances have driven much of the season’s mysteries, is a time-traveling human from the future, who is trying to alter the events of this period of time to prevent a multi-planetary apocalypse.
It also provides an opportunity for the writers of “Discovery” to pull a trick similar to when director J.J. Abrams launched the film reboot, which early on created a separate timeline from the Prime universe that meant his young Kirk and Spock could have their own adventures, which might or might not overlap with pre-established canon.
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Current “Discovery” showrunner Alex Kurtzman co-wrote the 2009 film and follow-up “Into Darkness,” and at a press event last summer, he hinted that aligning the show with pre-established canon would be a major goal of Season 2. The Red Angel appears to be a very literal tool for exactly that, creating what will either be a totally new timeline, or reorienting the current timeline to match with what came before — something that will certainly be resolved before the end of the season. (Six episodes left!)
While the show continues trying to sort out its timeline issues, though, “If Memory Serves” continues another quest: Reassociating the show with the values commonly associated with “Star Trek.” The episode contains the inevitable confrontation between the recently resurrected Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Tyler (Shazad Latif), with the two coming to blows over that whole pesky thing where Tyler killed Culber last season while under the control of his Klingon personality.
The confrontation was perhaps long-overdue, but it led to an important moment: Pike confronting Saru about the fact that he didn’t stop the fight from happening, and that going forward, “we will not be settling our differences with violence, but with the uniform code of conduct.”
It’s not the first time that a “Discovery” character has had to step up and say “this isn’t Starfleet” in the midst of chaos — it was a major part of the Season 1 finale. But while it sometimes is clunky, it’s always gratifying to remember that even while this show tries new things, it’s working to remember its past.
“Star Trek: Discovery” streams new episodes Thursdays at 8:30 PM ET on CBS All Access.