“Saints of Imperfection”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 5 – Debuted Thursday, February 14th
Written by Kirsten Beyer
Directed by David Barrett
In one of the stronger entries of the improved second season, “Saints of Imperfection” turns a rescue mission into a spooky, thrilling exploration of character and science. The season’s main arc gets mostly put on hold, giving the episode time to answer some important questions that have lingered since the first season. While sometimes lacking subtlety, Kirsten Beyer’s script deftly weaves the main plot with various subplots, delivering a cohesive story that feels more whole than most Discovery episodes. Strong performances from Mary Wiseman, Anthony Rapp and a guest star or two carry the episode emotionally, while Anson Mount’s Captain Pike steps up for the action, paced well by director David Barrett. “Saints of Imperfection” feels like a solid closing of the first act of this second season, opening the door to really dive into the big mystery and themes introduced in these first five episodes.
The episode picks up after the cliffhanger of “An Obol for Charon,” with Michael Burnham in agony over the uncertainty of Tilly’s fate after Tilly disappeared inside the cocoon created by May, the spore creature from the mycelial network. Michael’s voice-over reminds us of the season’s theme by saying, “I want to have faith, but in its absence, only duty remains.”
It doesn’t take long to snap her into action as the search for Spock kicks into high gear with the USS Discovery in hot pursuit of the shuttle he stole from Starbase 5. Even after Pike reaches out with a personal plea to his former science officer, the shuttle is not stopping, and conveniently there is always a nebula around to hide in and pull off the old blind-the-sensors-by-igniting-the-gas routine.
After Pike does some cowboy diplomacy with a photon torpedo, the shuttle is captured, but if you thought that was the end of Discovery’s long Spock tease, the writers also have a wormhole to sell you. “Captain” Phillipa Georgiou surprises the crew, emerging from the shuttle, and the only person who doesn’t seem to want to drop her guard—or her phaser—is the woman responsible for bringing the former Terran Emperor into this universe.
In another case of Star Trek’s often small galaxy, it turns out that Pike and Georgiou knew each other at the Academy, where he was impressed with her ability to drink heavily and stick to procedures. It’s clear he is no fan of her new, more cavalier approach, nor of the explanation that she is on a classified mission for Section 31. Burnham is even less happy to hear Georgiou is now a secret agent tasked to “hunt down” her brother Spock.
The galaxy gets even smaller when Leland holocalls in and we learn Pike knows him, too. They may be old pals, but things escalate fast as the head of Section 31 starts throwing veiled threats around. Leland’s sales pitch “We do what we do, so you can do what you do” lands with a thud, but Pike agrees to release Georgiou. This is Alan Van Sprang’s first real acting challenge and he rises to the occasion, going toe-to-toe with Anson Mount, who is also in top form in this episode.
It was also revealed that Pike is not in the loop on the whole Mirror Universe thing, so he thinks this Georgiou is the real and now “retired” Captain Georgiou. Which means, pretty much everyone on board this ship is keeping a pretty big secret from their captain, although it is also clear he knows there is something else going on and Burnham asks for his trust for the time being, implying she might violate orders and spill the Terran beans.
While Georgiou is free to go, the Discovery is assigned a new Section 31 liaison, who turns out to be Tyler, formerly the Klingon Voq, who happened to murder Dr. Culber in season one. Strangely, the people who seem to have the biggest problem with this are newbies Pike and his security chief Nhan, who is watching Tyler like Robert De Niro staring down a Focker. Michael twists herself as she simplifies the complicated season one moral quandary, saying “Voq murdered an officer, Ash Tyler is a good man.”
For his part, Tyler says he has Burnham’s back and will protect Spock from Emperor Georgiou, vowing he will never go back to Qo’noS, which is probably best as the Chancellor just bluffed the High Council with his fake severed head. He even tries to sell her on his new home, saying “everyone at 31 thinks of it as a place where they make sense,” like it’s a covert Cheers, where everyone knows your code-name.
While Burnham is having a nice reconnection with Tyler, her reunion with Georgiou is icy. With each appearance, Michelle Yeoh’s portrayal of the exiled Emperor slips closer and closer to Evil Queen territory, right down to her snacking on an apple. There is also an all too obvious serpent in the Garden of Eden vibe here with the mention of Section 31 as a “snake pit” and Yeoh literally hissing. For an episode with so many characters asking for each other’s trust, the writers should trust the audience to pick up on their allegories without being hit over the head with them.
While Pike and Burnham have been dealing with the new ominous organization weaseling its way onto the ship, Stamets has been busy using old-school science to work out Tilly is not dead. He hatches a “very bold, deeply insane” plan to track her down in the mycelial network by using the GPS on the organic transporter cocoon May left behind. To rescue her all they have to do is partially spore jump the USS Discovery into the mycelial network, or, to run it through the PikeFolksyAnalogizer, “use this ship as a doorstop.”
And to ramp up the tension, they are given a one-hour window before the network totally dissolves the ship. But this is Sylvia Tilly and the ship just wouldn’t be the same without that brilliantly adorkable Ensign, so with a bit of nice speechifying from Pike, they wedge themselves into the Upside Down — sorry, the mycelial network. Everyone on board except for Stamets and Burnham heads to the starboard safe side of the ship.
As for Tilly, she is having a meltdown as she finds herself kidnapped into the mycelial network, fighting off JahSepp fireflies trying to decompose her. She defiantly refuses to listen to May who finally reveals her plan, saying her “former paradise” has been corrupted by its own serpent. For some reason, she needs Tilly to help save them from this “monster” before it kills them all.
Tilly’s Stockholm Syndrome kicks in fast as she jumps on board #TeamMushroom to save the network. She and May start roaming the ship, heavily armed and in search of prey. Mary Wiseman fails wonderfully with her Clint Eastwood moment when she warns the shadowy figure that’s approaching her: “I’m holding a Type 3 phaser rifle and it is more powerful and generally larger than the Type 1 or Type 2, which is why I guess they call it a 3.”
Reunited with Stamets and Burnham, the quartet continues the monster hunt as May expositions all about how this fearsome creature is indescribable. The direction, cinematography and production design skillfully transform the USS Discovery into a terrifying dissolving hellscape, helped along by ominous music and terrifying sound design which include the wails of the monster. In a twist you may have seen coming, this monster turns out to be Dr. Hugh Culber, who looks pretty disheveled but not too bad for someone who is supposed to be dead.
Here is where things get really weird, but isn’t that always the case when Star Trek resurrects someone? This Dr. Hugh Culber is “real” and has been reconstituted by the network, based on his energy which flowed into the network through Stamets who was still partially connected to it in his semi-fugue state when he held Culber as he was dying in season one’s “The Wolf Inside.” Got it?
Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz remind us what amazing chemistry they have when Stamets touchingly draws Culber out of his shell as he cowers in their quarters. Using memories of their life together as a lifeline, Stamets drags his partner back to reality, telling him, “I knew everything about you in that moment.” None of this matters to May, who just wants this Culber-creature dead to stop him from poisoning them. But the Discovery team flips the script, dropping the truth bomb on May that to Culber, the JahSepp are the monsters, and he has only been protecting himself with the inedible tree bark because, as the detritivores of the spore network, they seemed compelled to try and decompose him.
While all these stranger things are happening in one half the USS Discovery, Pike and the bridge crew are struggling to keep the rest of the ship from being sucked in and turned into mycelial goo. Consoles explode, actors flail around, bridge banter includes fretting over hull integrity… it’s all wonderful Star Trek fun. As things go from bad to worse, Pike doesn’t even have time to contemplate what he is hearing about the resurrection of Culber. More than any episode of the season, at least since the season opener, Anson Mount seems fully in command of this ship, as he finally has some real captaining to do.
Just when things seem bleakest and they run out of time, the mysterious Section 31 ship reveals it has been there observing the whole time—but it takes a plea from Tyler to get them to offer up some help. Pike is suitably pissed. He doesn’t like Tyler, he doesn’t like Captain Leland, it is not cool that this ship has been sitting around watching them slowly slip into the soup, but he will take any help he can get, which arrives in the form of some cool tractor pod things. Section 31 gets all the best toys, some of which are a next generation ahead of their time. Georgiou even lends a hand on board the Section 31 ship, buying the Disco some more time with a few tricks of her own. This all adds up to some of the best bridge action and visual effects on the series to date.
Back on the port side of the ship, we get another heartbreaking scene as they try to take Culber through to the safety of the reaction chamber but his mycelial-constructed body can’t cross over. We just got him back but this healer readies himself to protect the network and let it absorb him, giving us two weeks in a row when a major character on this show resigned himself to death. But before you reach for the tissues, Tilly comes through with some science, pointing out they can mushroom-beam him using the cocoon and that will turn him back into a real boy.
The price to be paid here is cutting off the only link between May’s and Tilly’s worlds, leading to more hugging and crying. Tilly has really been drinking the mycelial Kool-Aid as these two are now total besties. The tension that has been building up all episode abates as Culber emerges from the cocoon, super naked, like a lovable slimy Terminator. Space boos reunited.
Round And Round
With the rescue of Tilly (plus a Culber bonus) a success, the main story and emotional arc of the episode are complete, but there is still a bit of a coda happening over on the Section 31 ship, with another return. Admiral Katrina Cornwell appears out of nowhere to chide Leland and Pike for not getting along. Much more hardened—even with her having condoned genocide to wrap up season one—the admiral puts everyone back on task to the season long arc of that whole seven bursts and Red Angel thing. Remember that? There was a poster and everything.
Turns out after the USS Discovery left the scene of the signal in the first episode of the season, some other Starfleet ship—and apparently one with better sensors and/or a more competent crew—discovered levels of tachyon radiation. Tachyons are familiar to Trek fans and open up a lot of possibilities, including time travel. So, it’s time to get back to the on again off again search for Spock and exploring this mystery, or as Cornwell says: “come on fellas, cut the manlier-than-thou bullshit.” Katrina has gone cold as ice in the post-war era and the boys wither and bury their space hatchets.
After another quick call with Georgiou, and another quick cry with Tilly, Burnham returns to voice-over mode to remind us of the theme of this season. After witnessing what some would consider the miraculous, she wavers in her rigid Vulcan point of view, now open to possibilities. Gathered with her new family on the bridge of a starship headed into the unknown, her message is one all of us Trek fans may be feeling about this episode, this season and this expanding franchise: “If there is a greater hand leading us into an uncertain future. I can only hope it guides us well.”
Truth and consequences
Culber returning is something we knew would happen literally since the day his character was killed off. So concerned over being accused of using the “bury your gays” trope, the usually secretive producers revealed on After Trek, and in many subsequent interviews and appearances, that Culber was not dead and Cruz would be back. It’s good they didn’t rush it, dropping in some visions and a flashback to hold over fans until this episode, and the method he was resurrected with was deeply entwined into something key to this show—and Stamets—the mycelial network.
Importantly, the show didn’t create a new loophole which negated death itself. I doubt anyone will wonder why they don’t use this method again. It is also promising that Anthony Rapp has stated that this resurrection “has to have consequences,” and hopefully the consequences go beyond May losing her connection to regular space. Culber has just gone through a very traumatic experience, and it should be something that he carries with him. Also, having his murderer on board should lead to something more than just awkward looks. Culber should simply not be the same. This could take the form of some interesting sci-fi stuff and/or acknowledge what nine months in a nightmare would do to someone.
Discovery has a mixed record when it comes to consequences for these characters. Of course, much of the first season obsessed over Burnham’s redemption arc for her mutiny in season one, but other cases of character consequences seem to have been dropped or forgotten. In just this episode we see Admiral Cornwell, who arguably is guilty of attempting a war crime (along with Sarek and other high ups in the Federation), but she seems to have landed on her feet. Saru went through a radical transformation in the previous episode but seems mostly fine now, and everyone seemed pretty cool with his insubordination on Pahvo last season.
And then there is the issue of death itself. One of the stated goals of Discovery was to play with the big boys like Game of Thrones and be willing to go there when it came to killing off characters, which it did in a big way in the two-part pilot. However, since then, the show has been tame when it has come to casualties, never even making the war with the Klingons feel like it had consequences. And when they do get around to killing off a character, too often the show either pulls a fake out where they don’t die or when they kill them off, or they ensure the audience hates them like Lorca and Landry in season one and Connolly in the season two opener.
Discovery should not be afraid to take more risks, to truly depict the danger inherent in exploring the final frontier. They should trust the audience and be willing to live in the grey areas with their characters. These are not only lessons from peak TV but Trek history itself.
Welcome to Section 31, brought to you by the fine people at Starfleet
Our review of the third episode of the season—which introduced the Section 31 storyline—noted that it was unclear exactly what Section 31 was within Discovery. This episode cleared up all ambiguities. Not only do Section 31 agents walk around with badges that everyone recognizes, but it is clearly stated that the organization is part of Starfleet Intellig ence and part of the chain of command, taking orders from Starfleet admirals. Cornwell describes Section 31 as “a critical intelligence division.” This is a not-so-secret secret organization, and very different than the extremely covert one introduced in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which may have claimed to work in the shadows on behalf of Federation interests but was entirely a rogue operation unaccountable to anyone.
So, this is a violation of canon and another example of Discovery twisting a piece of Trek history, right? Well, not so fast. Speaking to Digital Spy and other media outlets at the TCA event a couple of weeks ago, showrunner Alex Kurtzman said the conflicting portrayals of Section 31 isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Kurtzman states:
If you know Section 31, you know that by the time Deep Space Nine comes around they’ve gone underground and they are this mysterious organization—but there’s nothing official about it. In the promos [for season 2] that you’ve seen so far, Section 31 has a badge. There’s a ship and all these different things, so the question is: how do they get from here to there? What happened in that window of time between those two pivot points in Section 31’s evolution?
It looks like they are giving Section 31 as an organization its own arc. At some point they go from a known part of Starfleet Intelligence to something known to only a handful, and run outside of Starfleet. But what about Enterprise you say? Well, that is a good question and something hopefully we can ask episode writer and “keeper of the canon” Kirsten Beyer about. I suspect it could be noted that Enterprise takes place before the establishment of the Federation. Also, while Enterprise depicted Section 31 as a very secret organization, it was never clearly stated that it was not part of Starfleet Intelligence. In fact, Section 31 agent Malcolm Reed (who was a by-the-book Starfleet officer) referred to his handler, Harris, as “sir” and told Captain Archer his obligation to Section 31 was greater than his obligation to the ship.
For now, like so many characters implored each other in “Saints of Imperfection,” the producers want us to trust them and their motives when it comes to Section 31, or as Georgiou said to Michael in the episode, “have a little faith.”
Patience of the saints
“Saints of Imperfection” continued the trend seen in the first four episodes of the second season, both in terms of general improvements to the show as well as addressing issues left over from the first season. While finding some moments for levity, the episode brought in a horror element, which has always been part of Trek from its very first episode aired (TOS “The Man Trap”).
Even though previous episodes this season have downplayed the mycelial network or even joked about it, this episode leans in. Kirsten Beyer deserves credit for remembering that the spore drive was a core part of the USS Discovery. There are still some open questions, but “Saints of Imperfection” added a lot to the lore that has been the heart of Discovery. As she is considered one of the bigger Trekkies in the writers’ room, Beyer knows how to pepper things with just enough references and a few deep Trek cuts without turning to the ham-fisted fan service that has plagued the show. However, she still relies too much on voice-over and exposition when she could be showing and not just saying. The audience should also be respected enough to pick up on the themes and allegories without using metaphorical spotlights.
The return of Wilson Cruz has been long anticipated and brings back another core element of this show: the relationship between his Dr. Culber and Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets, with both actors bringing back all the feels. The episode also featured a strong performance from Mary Wiseman, whose Tilly continues to grow and is finally toning it down a bit. Michelle Yeoh usually elevates episodes she is in, however, her turn as agent Georgiou is now entering the realm of cartoonish.
Turning what was essentially a bottle show on the USS Discovery (and the Section 31 ship) into a compelling and creepy adventure, director David Barrett (who also helmed the fun season one episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”) was able to seamlessly weave all the story elements happening around the ships together, making this episode feel the most whole of any season two outing since the premiere. This effort was helped by top-notch work by the production design, music, editing, and visual effects.
The first act of this season now feels complete. “Saints of Imperfection” has hopefully set the final pieces into place for the main arc of the season to return to the fore.
Random thoughts, connections, easter eggs, and more
- The episode title plays off a quote from director Guillermo del Toro: “Monsters are patron saints of imperfection.”
- The episode featured an inordinate number of “walk and talk” and other scenes set in corridors, showcasing the newly elongated corridor set.
- Pike says last time he saw Leland was dealing with alligators on Cestus III, the planet that will be attacked by the lizard-like Gorn in TOS “Arena.”
- Stamets’ mention of Lavoisier refers to 18th-century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier who is considered the father of modern chemistry; his “Lavoisier’s Law” states “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”
- Adding on to a number of things he has said in previous episodes, Pike’s mention of attending church with his cousin and his “path” seems to cement his position as a person of faith, which is one of the themes for the season.
- Burnham and Stamets refer to “twisted” bodies found on the USS Glenn, which was the sister ship to the USS Discovery seen in the third episode of the series, that had a catastrophic accident during a spore drive test, killing the crew.
- With the “intruder” Dr. Culber removed from the mycelial network, the threat to the JahSepp may have been abated. It’s not entirely clear how much damage if any the Discovery is doing to the network when it jumps, but there is no indication that they will stop using it in the short term. This brings back the longer-term issue of explaining why the technology didn’t survive into the TOS-era and beyond.
- Stamets recalls visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Culber to see paintings by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Perhaps his most prominent work at the Met is “Easter Monday” which is described as depicting the “simultaneous processes of creation and destruction, a perpetual state of both realization and erasure that finds some analogy in the continuous growth and decay of nature,” not unlike how this episode describes the mycelial network.
- To intimidate Leland, Georgiou threatens to expose a secret from a mission he conducted on Deneva, an inhabited planet affiliated with the Federation which first appeared in TOS “Operation Annihilate.” In the IDW 2018 Star Trek: Discovery Annual (which Kirsten Beyer co-wrote), Deneva was where Stamets first worked on his mycelial network theories and where he first met Dr. Hugh Culber.
- The “class 5” torpedo launched by the Discovery was more of the round missile shape like the spatial torpedoes used by the NX-01 before the introduction to the more eyeglass case style photonic and later photon torpedoes.
- The USS Discovery hull is described as being made from tritanium, which is also used in Starfleet ships in the 22nd through to the 24th centuries.
- The reference to article 14 of the Starfleet Charter has previously been established to be where Section 31 gets its authority to take extreme measures in times of extraordinary threat.
- The Section 31 ship has some kind of active camouflage system, possibly using the same technology as the Romulan ‘Flea’ drone ship from Enterprise.
- While Pike ordered the holographic communication system removed from the USS Enterprise in the previous episode, the system remains in place on the USS Discovery.
- Both Leland and Georgiou appeared as holograms from the Section 31 ship before people on USS Discovery even entered their rooms to activate their displays, possibly indicating Section 31 can remotely trigger the systems (which is why you need to put tape over your camera and emitters people!).
- Section 31’s black badges also work as communicators, which is tech doesn’t become standard for regular Starfleet until the 24th century.
- How Admiral Cornwell ended up on the Section 31 ship is a mystery. Was she always there? Did she arrive on another ship? In season one, Cornwell had her own cruiser, but we have yet to see this elusive ship. People beaming in from—or out to—unknown and unseen places is a recurring thing on Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.