the story: Burnham comes to the rescue of her father, Sarek.
what it's all about: The main takeaway from that brief summary of "Lethe" is that this is a Sarek episode, as much as it is a Burnham episode. It details their history together, how they became family. And it gives as complete portrait of Sarek as has ever been attempted in the franchise. Not bad for a character who has appeared in three series already (original series, Animated Series, and Next Generation) as well as five movies (The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek). Actually, I think as of Discovery he's the most represented character, easily, in all the whole franchise, a record that would be about impossible to beat.
(Riker, who has appeared whether as himself or transporter duplicate Thomas in Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, plus four movies, probably comes next closest, and then Worf, who was not only the only series regular of two series, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but appeared in five movies, including his ancestor in The Undiscovered Country, also played by Michael Dorn. Of course, the original series main characters appeared in two series, the first six movies, some of them the first seven movies, and then the last three, plus other appearances in Next Generation and Voyager, but mostly as a unit and in association with each other. Anyway...)
What "Lethe" does is finally explain why Sarek had a half-human son, a human wife, and as Discovery has revealed, an adopted human daughter (aside from the Vulcan son some fans want to pretend never existed), and what it meant for him in Vulcan society. Clearly the episode draws on the nationalist trend from present times (although Enterprise was also doing that a dozen years ago, but it was called xenophobia then), and that explains some of what happens to Sarek during it. But it's also about that fundamental aspect of his character that previously was only explored in his son Spock's turmoil. Star Trek first explained his marriage to Amanda Grayson because he "loved her." Which is heartwarming but doesn't really explain anything.
The word Lethe comes from a river in Greek mythology that existed in the Underworld (sometimes called Hades, because that's where Hades himself lived; it's equivalent to Christian Hell, where you go if you haven't attained Elysium, the realm of the heroic, chosen dead). This river has a remarkable property, though: it erases your memory. Far from a mercy, it's considered a torment, as souls become untethered and miserable, more so than they would have been remembering their lives, in the afterlife.
Burnham struggles in the episode to understand why Sarek's mind keeps bringing her back to a specific memory, of the day her fate was decided, whether she was going to join the Vulcan service, or Starfleet. She had always been led to believe it was the Vulcans who rejected her because of racism, but she learns that it was actually Sarek who decided, having had his hand forced. His fellow Vulcans (and yeah, it basically still is racism) say that his two exceptional children would both taint the perfect the perfect Vulcan record of never having anyone but a Vulcan in its service. Spock is half-Vulcan, and so he's half-human in their eyes. And of course, Burnham is human. Sarek chooses his son, which would certainly surprise Spock (and was perhaps information Picard was able to give him, much later), although of course we know Spock joins Starfleet, too.
Anyway, Sarek's decision, and all his life choices, and even his brilliance as a diplomat and negotiator, are explained by his ability to accept other races as his kinsmen. Other Vulcans aren't as capable. In Enterprise, the thought of xenophobic Vulcans seemed contradictory to the way they'd been presented before. And yet, was Spock really ever presented as warmly accepted by his people? Not that I recall, except maybe in Search for Spock, when he was reunited with his katra.
Ah. Speaking of katra. The Vulcan soul is the reason Burnham and Sarek have a unique link, and a unique way to mind-meld. That's also explained in "Lethe."
In fact, it's difficult to explain "Lethe" as anything but essential. It's the first one since the first three to really feel as if it's continuing the outlining of the premise, a truly necessary episode in a series that initially seemed perfectly serialized, like all favored TV shows in this era. And yet, in recent episodes, Discovery has become more episodic. "Lethe" itself is episodic. Other than being a deep character study, it's fairly standalone, except for the fact that we're clearly still following characters with a continuing story.
Speaking of which, Tilly gets some advancement. Lorca certainly receives some advancement. (Actually, he begins to look almost like a Starfleet version of Deep Space Nine's Kai Winn...) And Tyler receives some advancement. I actually like him a lot more, all the way around, in "Lethe" than his debut in "Choose Your Pain." He feels more natural. I can begin to understand, better, all those fans who never quite saw how Voyager's Starfleet misfits were misfits, since they never felt like Starfleet misfits (except B'Elanna, of course).
- franchise - Gets to the heart of a character, Sarek, who has appeared extensively in Star Trek.
- series - And imbeds his deeply into the heart of Discovery.
- character - Not just Sarek, but Burnham, Lorca, Tyler, and even Tilly.
- essential - It's the first great episodic entry of the series.
James Frain (Sarek)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)