Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.06: Lethe

This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and the fifth here).


Science, Magic and Spirituality

Arthur C. Clarke famously claimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The genres of science fiction and fantasy overlap a great deal in practice, with the ‘science’ in scifi being so advanced and unexplained that it may as well be magic. Star Trek has generally been more solidly scientific than Star Wars or Doctor Who, but there are beings like Q and the Squire of Gothos who are so highly evolved that they effectively play the same role the gods did in Greek mythology. On a smaller scale, an important part of series 6 of DS9 is the concept of ‘self-replicating mines’, which realistically would need to draw an enormous amount of energy from the vacuum of space in order to replace themselves. The scientific accuracy in any work of science fiction will be limited by the writers’ scientific knowledge and imagination, and the audience’s ability to understand. The story is more important than getting the jargon right, and that will mean some compromise.

Probably the most magical aspect of Star Trek mythos is the katra – the Vulcan idea of the soul. In The Wrath of Khan Spock incapacitates McCoy and instructs him to “remember” before entering Engineering to perform an operation which he knows will irradiate his body. After Spock ‘dies’ and his body is jettisoned, Kirk and crew learn that Spock’s katra is inside McCoy, prompting them to steal a ship to search for Spock’s body, and reunite it with his soul.

This potentially raises some interesting questions – what happens if Spock had survived the process, but had become separated from McCoy? Does this mean what’s probably the most iconic speech in the franchise (“The needs of the many” and “I have been and always shall be, your friend”) was delivered not by Spock, but by an empty husk, an echo of who he is? The location of Spock’s katra is either a plotpoint that we shouldn’t think about too much (like the self-replicating mines) or an interesting philosophical question.

Battle at the Binary Stars offers what I think is the most satisfying answer to this question. Sarek tells Michael Burnham that a ‘fragment’ of his katra remains with her after melding years earlier. This would seem to mean that all the people who Spock mind-melded with – Dr Van Gelder; the Horta mother; the artificial lifeform V’Ger; all retain an aspect of Spock years or decades after their encounter. It’s an idea which would seem to fit with continuity. Tuvok will mind-meld with Lon Suder in order to try and understand his motiveless murder, and takes on board part of Suder’s psychosis. Similarly, Jean-Luc Picard will mind-meld with Sarek shortly before his death, and Spock shortly after that, in order to communicate to Spock how strongly his father loved him. It also suggests that after placing his katra inside of McCoy, a fragment remained inside of Spock’s body, able to offer a heartfelt expression of friendship to Kirk.

Star Trek II Kirk and Spock
Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait. / Screencap from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Family Feud

At this point in Star Trek history, Sarek and Spock are 8 years into an 18-year feud caused by Spock’s decision to join Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. If Sarek prevented Burnham taking a place in order to clear the way for Spock, then Spock’s decision means that Sarek’s shameful choice was for nothing. Last week’s encounter with Mudd added pathos and grounding to a TOS character, this week’s revelation has done the same for Spock and Sarek.


I said last week that the decision to have only one of the seven command-level officers we’ve seen so far be non-Human hints at a ‘soft segregation’ between races within the Federation. This goes further in Lethe, in which Sarek’s assistant refers to the Federation as a “failed experiment” and we learn that in 2249 there has been no non-Vulcans in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, 88 years after the formation of the Federation. While there are Vulcans such as Spock and Admiral Terral in Starfleet, it suggests that both the VEG and Starfleet roughly retain the character they had a century earlier.

To take the European Union as a real world parallel to the Federation, the United Kingdom is currently in the process of seeking independence, while there are strong movements to break Catalonia and Scotland away from Spain and the UK respectively. The reasons for these movements are varied and complex, but they show that a decision by the majority to come together is not the endpoint of integration. The practicalities of finding common ground while retaining cultural uniqueness is a major challenge. Think how much greater the challenge will be when the nations are made up of biologically and culturally distinct races.

I can distinctly remember the first clip I saw of ENT, which saw Captain Archer and his chief engineer Tucker discussing Vulcans with a strong sense of dislike. It was an interesting idea, but I think badly handled on the whole, with Archer and Tucker coming across as paranoid and T’Pol as petty. Playing up the pridefulness of the Vulcans is a good dramatic idea, and shows why Vulcans will come to value the friendship of Humans, generally shown as looser and more instinctive people. 

Shame and Superiority

In the 4th century the Vulcans were an angry and emotional people, who nearly wiping themselves out in a nuclear war before Surak’s teachings of logic and restraint took hold. But in the 23rd century Vulcans still seem to feel a sense of shame at their emotional and animalistic side. For example, the Vulcans go through a ‘pon farr’ blood fever every seven years, when lust takes over them and drives them wild. They then have a choice to mate or die, similar to female ferrets in real life.

But Spock, serving on a ship where he is the only Vulcan, tells no-one of the problems this will present. Not even the captain and ship’s doctor, despite them being his two closest friends, and it being thoroughly logical to give them a chance to prepare in advance. Not only will Spock not tell his colleagues, but Human doctors don’t have a working knowledge of pon farr, despite two centuries of contact between the races. This suggests an intense sense of pride at having done so much to control their wilder impulses, and shame at their wilder side.

Sigmund Freud suggested the idea of ‘narcissism of small differences’ – that the things we hate most in others are the things we hate in ourselves. The Vulcans are surrounded by races who are more emotional and impulsive than they are. As well as Humans and Klingons there are the Andorians, a warrior race who Vulcan was at war with in the 2150s, and Tellarites, a passionate people who routinely open diplomacy with insults. In the context of all these indulgently emotional races, it makes sense for sections of Vulcan society to feel a sense of superiority in having done so much to restrain what virtually no other race has done.

In Lethe we see two strands of racism in Vulcan society – the violent racism of the suicide bomber and the institutional racism of the VEG Director. As the highest scoring student in her class Burnham was qualified to join Vulcan Expeditionary Group, and Amanda initially assumes Sarek is joking when he delivers the bad news. The director’s decision to allow one of Sarek’s children to join suggests a sense of cruelty on his part (and perhaps a desire to compromise the man who would challenge their traditions). If one of hundreds or thousands can be non-Vulcan, why not two? The Vulcans present themselves as logical, but going back to the franchise’s first visit to the planet they have always been a race with deep shame and pride. The violent racism of the ‘logic extremists’ is a natural outgrowth of that social trend. Whether directly inspired or acting in parallel, a Vulcan Isolationist Movement will survive into 2370.

Real world white nationalism, rooted in the supposed cultural superiority of the white man makes little sense. Western Judeo-Christian societies are rooted in Hindu-Arabic numbering. Jesus Christ – almost certainly the most influential philosopher when measured by his impact on the western world – lived in the Middle East, while the Roman Empire was ruled by several Africans. ‘White culture’ is stronger for the impact of brown and black people.The Vulcan sense of superiority makes more sense than white nationalism – they had nuclear technology in the 4th century and space travel in the 9th century BC. Add in the physical as well as cultural differences, with Vulcans generally being physically stronger and able to endure more than their Human counterparts, and it makes sense that there’d be a faction of Vulcans who believe that working together with Humans meaning lowering their standards.

Star Trek TNG S7E05 Gambit II Tallera
Tallera, a Vulcan disguised as a Romulan, as part of a plot to get a weapon to aid the Vulcan Isolationist Movement.  / Screencap from Star Trek TNG S7E05 Gambit II


All Of This Has Happened Before

The plot of Lethe brought to mind two previous Star Trek episodes. In Flashback Tuvok takes Janeway into his memories, going back in time and reliving his experience of serving under Captain Sulu, in order to make sense of a traumatic suppressed memory which was beginning to have a debilitating impact on him. And in Dark Page Deanna Troi has to go into her mother’s mind, in order to make sense of a suppressed memory from Deanna’s childhood.

Given the size of the franchise – Lethe is the 735th episode or film of Star Trek to be released – there will be some repetition of story types. The important consideration is how the repeated storytelling techniques are used. Flashback, for instance, is a fun bit of nostalgia but the ‘trauma’ tells us nothing new about Tuvok. Sarek’s secret adds depth and texture to Vulcan society, and the backstories of Sarek, Burnham and Spock. And the story is rooted by being echoed in the other plot, in a less fantastical sense. Like Sarek, Lorca is trying to keep a secret from someone he’s known most of his life, a shameful secret that he needs to deal with for his own mental health.

Booze is medicine

Admiral Cornwell stops by to visit Lorca, with a formal discussion quickly turning into a drinking session. Despite the presence of ship’s counsellors as main cast members in two of the first five incarnations of Star Trek, there’s a long tradition of alcohol being used as an informal counselling tool. McCoy used a cocktail called ‘Finnegan’s Folly’ to get Kirk to open up about his neuroses, and he kept Saurian brandy in sickbay. Bashir and O’Brien have had drinking sessions to help them open up, as have Scotty and Picard. Guinan, bartender on the Enterprise-D, often acted as a confidant for crewmembers. Cornwell and Lorca’s drinking is part of a tradition of the duties as a fellow officer melting into concern for a friend.


Gabriel’s Trauma

I wrote last week that I hoped Discovery would show the effects of trauma after prolonged interrogation, in a way the more episodic forerunners didn’t do with Picard, O’Brien and Bashir, thinking more of Ash Tyler. Now we’ve learned that Lorca sleeps with a phaser under his pillow – probably more for the comfort it brings than a rational fear of Klingons breaking into the ship and his room faster than he can reach into a drawer. We also see, in the final shot of the episode, that he walks with a phaser tucked into his waistband even when on the ship.

In a sense he is consciously pushing himself beyond his ideal limits, in the same way he does with Stamets. But he’s doing so in a way that’s reckless and irresponsible. A Vice article has argued that Discovery “seems to be telling a story of redemption set during a time of war. These are characters that must claw their way back from the brink to prove they’re worthy of the ideals of the society they’re trying to protect.”

Star Trek has allowed it’s central captains to go dark before. Sisko fabricated evidence in order to convince the Romulans to join the Federation-Klingon war against the Dominion,and Janeway struck a deal with the Borg in return for passage through their space. Given the conventions of television at the time each DS9 and VOY were unlikely to have those characters stray too far from the moral path for long. (Or at least the shows would be unlikely to look too unfavourably on their actions. Janeway’s actions are arguably the most destructive in Federation history, allowing the Borg to rebound from a position of weakness to continue slaughtering and assimilating races. But this was a point of view only represented in-universe by a villain.) It remains to be seen whether Lorca can find his way back to the light, or if he will fall more fully, as Ronald Tracey
and Garth will do in the next decade.
The final scene is ambigious – it serves Lorca’s self-interest to have Admiral Cornwell in Klingon captivity rather than rush to her rescue so she can give the order to remove him from command. But on the other hand he’s following her guidance in being more cautious with the Discovery, and holding back from risking Starfleet’s prime asset. Personally I think that the latter is more of a motivating factor for Lorca than the former, but what makes Lorca so compelling (and so dangerous) is that it’s hard to be certain.
Tyler’s identity
Lorca comments that Tyler “fights like a Klingon”, which. given the ambiguity around the character, is either foreshadowing or a misdirect. I still think it’s more likely to be a misdirect, but Tyler’s lack of obvious trauma counts against this. Maybe, like Lorca, he’s just covering his trauma, in order to allow him to remain on duty. The two times we’ve seen him in a social setting he was eating alone, perhaps consciously trying to keep other people at a distance.
The actor who plays Voq. / @RealJavidIqbal on Twitter.

Father Figures

In Lethe Sarek and Lorca are positioned as father figures – Sarek most literally, as Burnham had lived as part of his family. Tyler seems eager to win Lorca’s approval but not overstep the mark. Both show gratitude to Lorca for his show of faith in them, with Lorca’s gut instinct philosophy contrasting to Sarek’s emotionally repressed approach.  Sarek is so cold that he responds to Burnham calling him ‘father’ by stating that technically they’re not related…despite their years-long relationship.
Daddy issues are a recurring theme in Star Trek. Sarek and Spock have a strained relationship, while Wesley Crusher often seems to see Picard as a surrogate father, being a family friend before Wesley’s father died at a young age. When the Enterprise takes on a young man named Charlie Evans, McCoy advises Kirk to act as a father figure to him.

Tom Paris considers himself a failure in his father’s eyes, and in the Kelvin timeline it’s Pike’s tough love that encourages Kirk to get his life back on track. Ben and Jake Sisko’s is probably the healthiest father-son relationship in Star Trek, but there’s still an episode dealing with Jake’s reluctance to tell his father that he doesn’t want to join Starfleet, out of fear of disappointing him.

What’s In a Name?
I’ve tried to avoid discussing the Tyler theory, as it’s rooted in casting news rather than anything in-universe, but there’s an interesting theory that fits into the latter category.
My instinct on seeing the episode titled Lethe was that it would be a reference to Letheans, a race of invasive telepaths. Others have speculated it would be a reference to Lethe, a minor character in the TOS episode Dagger of the Mind. On viewing the episode it seems to refer more to the Greek mythological river Lethe – a river running through Hades which allows those who drink from it to forget their past. In a metaphorical sense that’s what both Sarek and Lorca are doing in this episode – Sarek tries to hide a shameful memory from Burnham, and Lorca tries to pretend his trauma doesn’t exist, to allow him to remain in command.
Inverse have made the argument that Lethe may have appeared in the episode… as Admiral Cornwell. Lethe has her memories wiped by an experimental ‘neural neutraliser’, a horrific psychological treatment which reduces traumatised patients into virtual automatons. Cornwell’s history is as a psychologist, which Lethe will work as ten years into the future.
In the episode which introduced Klingons, Errand of Mercy, they had a device referred to as a ‘mind sifter’ and ‘mind ripper’. It’s used as a tool to gather information, but when used on it’s highest setting it leaves the victim, in Kor’s words, “more vegetable than human”. The title of the next episode, for what it’s worth, is Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.
Lethe and Cornwell via @Trekfan4747
Could these be the same woman? / Via @Trekfan4747 on Twitter
Devious Klingons

Pretending to seek peace in order to capture an important prisoner seems to contrast with the idea that Klingons are honorable warriors, but it depends on how the ideas of honourable and dishonourable behaviour are socially constructed. In 2366 Chancellor Gowron and Duras will conspire to hide the evidence of Duras’ father collaborating with Romulans, in order to prevent a fractious civil war, and in 2375Ezri Dax will comment that the Klingon Empire is in “deep denial about itself” and have failed to live up to the standards of honour that they profess for centuries. It may be that Kol and his allies see this behaviour as no more dishonourable than setting a trap for an opponent during a game of Risk or Chess.

Smaller Observations
*Shortly after the episode aired, Discovery writer Ted Sullivan took to Twitter to pre-emptively defend the show from accusations of being anachronistic by having holographic training as early as 2256. In the real world holograms have been used to bring Tupac and Roy Orbisonback to the stage after death, but there’s a long way from that to the Emergency Medical Hologram. It makes sense that two thirds of the way through that journey the technology will be advanced enough for it to be used for an advanced version of target practice. Though presumably the hand-to-hand fistfighting programmes that Worf  and Jadzia Dax use won’t be practical yet. In The Animated Series one of the ‘recreation rooms’ on the Enterprise has technology very similar to the Holodeck by 2270.
* Discovery’s food synthesizers make food hidden behind doors as in the TOS era, rather than vaporising in open view, as in the replicators of the TNG era.
* Burnham’s reference to a “Constitution-class ship, like the Enterprise”, suggesting that even in the pre-Kirk days this was a famous ship that she assumed Tilly would recognise. If both Robert April and Christopher Pike are considered legendary captains then this makes sense.
2017-10-28 Mythos 1.06

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