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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ visits an old friend in ‘Saints of Imperfection’

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Star Trek: Discovery/CBS All Access

‘Discovery’ continues its winning streak with the dramatic return of several fan-favorite characters.

This recap includes spoilers. For previous recaps, click here.

When Captain Pike opens a shipwide announcement with an impromptu speech about honor and bravery, do you think it inspires courage or just a frisson of panic? I like to imagine random crewmembers exchanging “oh, shit” looks in the mess hall because those speeches are always a prologue to mortal peril. To quote the captain himself, this week’s “deeply insane plan” involved crashing into the parallel dimension of the mycelial network, hoping to rescue Tilly before alien fungus digests the ship.

Last week: We finally got a magic mushrooms episode of Star Trek: Discovery

Following last week’s Saru-centric dramaDiscovery shifted focus for an ensemble story involving Philippa Georgiou, Ash Tyler, and the long-awaited return of Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). With Tyler joining Georgiou in Section 31 (Starfleet’s elite squad of morally ambiguous goths), they made an unexpected appearance during Discovery’s search for Spock. When Pike finally catches Spock’s ship, we’re surprised to see a petite and high-heeled boot step out onto the gangplank. Apparently, Section 31 was tracking Spock as well, but Georgiou found nothing but an empty ship.

georgiou section 31 Star Trek: DIscovery/CBS All Access

Pike’s interplay with Section 31 emphasized his role as a kind of Captain America figure: wholesome and moral, but not actually naive. While he’s a friendly guy with a straightforward outlook (“Call me provincial, but I prefer people whose truth I can take at face value.”), that doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Within minutes of meeting Georgiou (who is, in fact, Georgiou’s evil counterpart from the Mirror Universe), he sensed that something was off. And although he greets her commanding officer Leland with cheerful familiarity, he’s rightfully suspicious of Section 31.

Into the Upside Down

Once again, Spock’s storyline went on the backburner while a more urgent issue took hold. Tilly ended the last episode inside a fungus cocoon, leaving us to wonder if she’s been digested or transformed or what. “Saints of Imperfection” reveals that she was actually transported into the mycelial network—a neon-infused version of the Upside Down from Stranger Things. Kidnapped by May as a last-ditch cry for help, the cocoon reconstituted Tilly’s body in a realm of glowing fungus creatures.

saints of imperfection Star Trek: DIscovery/CBS All Access

Discovery’s spore drive brought pollution into May’s habitat, and apparently, that pollution manifested in the form of a parasitic monster. As a Starfleet officer (and as May’s friend—although it’s a damn weird friendship), it’s Tilly’s duty to help out. Of course, none of her shipmates know this is happening. After figuring out where Tilly is, Stamets concocts a harebrained scheme to drop the ship halfway into the mycelial network, giving them an hour to rescue her before everyone gets eaten by fungus.

What happened next was a decidedly un-twisty plot twist, although that isn’t really a criticism. Discovery’s cast and crew repeatedly promised that Hugh Culber would return, responding to objections about his untimely demise—a death that played into a wider trend for killing off queer characters. Stamets already saw him in a couple of spore-related hallucinations, and now we know he’s been inside the mycelial network this whole time.

Unwashed, unshaven, and understandably miserable, Culber is the monster that May wants Tilly to kill. It turns out that he and the fungal ecosystem have been attacking each other like antibodies fighting a disease. The mycelial network sees Culber as a dangerous interloper, while Culber (somehow) defended himself by infecting his own surroundings. The whole conflict was unintentional—an ongoing theme this season—and once Michael and Stamets find Tilly and Culber, it’s time to bring him home.

Hugh Culber returns

This reunion was a long time coming, and despite all the assurances about Culber’s comeback, I was still worried they’d bring him back just to say goodbye. As the minutes tick down to Discovery’s destruction, Culber realizes he can’t pass through the barrier to his home universe. It’s a fairytale kind of horror, with Stamets facing the possibility of abandoning his lost love all over again. Fortunately, they figure out they can use May’s cocoon as a transporter, allowing a naked and uninjured Culber to emerge, fetus-like, on the floor of Discovery’s engineering deck.

hugh culber season 2 Star Trek: DIscovery/CBS All Access

During their brief scenes together in season 1, Culber and Stamets were not, dare I say it, especially interesting. They’re a cute couple and I enjoyed the contrast between Stamets’ mean public persona and his private affection for his boyfriend, but their relationship was basically a background detail until Culber’s death. It was a groundbreaking move for Star Trek to include queer lead characters, yet in some ways, their screentime was less compelling than the censor-dodging subtext of earlier characters like Deep Space 9’s Jadzia Dax.

Thanks to the controversial Bury Your Gays trope, Culber’s death cast a pall over his and Stamets’ role. We waited half a season for the other shoe to drop, and “Saints of Imperfection” delivered a memorably touching reunion. Anthony Rapp really knocked it out the park this week, coupling professional determination with tense little details like his wounded glance at Tyler on the bridge, and finally the raw physicality of his embrace with Culber.

Honestly, the episode should have ended there. The final scene jolts us away from a sincere emotional moment so Admiral Cornwell can deliver some workmanlike exposition about Spock’s ship emitting tachyon radiation. Sure, Spock’s quest might involve time travel, but whatever. The show is determined to keep reminding us about Spock, but since his entire story takes place through updates from other characters, it’s hard to get invested when he’s taking screentime away from the main crew.

Final thoughts

  • There wasn’t much reason for Georgiou to be in this episode, but really? Who cares. Michelle Yeoh arrives on the scene with the distilled aura of that “Surprise, bitch!” meme, and it’s delicious. Sizzling with chemistry whenever she squares up to Michael, she’s having fun tossing catty one-liners and rolling her eyes at goody-two-shoes like Pike.
  • May and Tilly’s passionate farewell felt rushed, but I’m still here for it. Like the protomolecule creatures in The Expanse, May is an alien lifeform who adopted superficially human traits to communicate with humans. After piggybacking in Tilly’s brain, they’ve forged a weird but seemingly genuine bond, fueled by Tilly’s transparent desire for friendship and connection.
  • Captain Pike’s rigid hair got so messed up this week. A vital detail!

For previous Star Trek: Discovery recaps, click here.

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.