This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 Episode 10
Putting a mysterious traveler in an opaque space suit and making us guess who is inside is a classic science fiction trick. Before Discovery gave us the mysterious “Red Angel,” Doctor Who punked everyone in 2011 with “The Impossible Astronaut.” Before that, in 1996, Babylon 5 had a mysterious space-suited time traveler called “The One.” And, let’s not forget that Marty McFly pretty much invented being a Red Angel when he donned a radiation suit and impersonated “Darth Vader From the Planet Vulcan” in the original Back to the Future in 1985!
In fact, if we’d wanted to know the identity of Discovery’s Red Angel, we probably should have been thinking about Back to the Future and not Star Trek lore. Because now that we know who the Red Angel is, Star Trek: Discovery has turned a confusing time travel story into an emotional one about a family. Which is totally brilliant.
The big news in “The Red Angel,” is the episode lies to the viewer for nearly the entire thing. Right before the opening credits, Tilly reveals that some data buried deep in Airiam’s cyberbrain proves that the bioneural signature of the Red Angel is the same as Michael Burnham. Then the episode proceeds at warp speed to figure out a way to get Burnham to meet “herself” and demand some answers for all this time travel stuff. Along the way, we learn that Burnham’s real parents weren’t innocently killed by Klingons as we were previously led to believe, but instead, were Section 31 agents, working for Leland twenty years prior, presumably when he had a full head of hair. Right here, we get our first clue that the Red Angel probably isn’t Michael at all, but instead, likely someone who developed the time travel tech to begin with: Her parents!
Rewatching the episode, you’ll actually be shocked by how well the twist is foreshadowed. Leland reveals Burnham’s mom invented the time travel tech, and the bioneural mumbo-jumbo scanning as Burnham also points perfectly to the Angel being one of her parents. So, in the final scene of the episode, when Burnham shockingly gasps “mom!” the viewer is gasping right along with her. (Burnham’s mom is played by actress Sonja Sohn, famous for The Wire, by the way.)
Because this episode was so tightly written, this twist feels authentic and thoroughly earned. Discovery has been planting very small hints that everything about Burnham’s parents weren’t exactly what we believed, and just like a latter-era Lemony Snicket book, we suddenly have a lot more information about them then we’d ever had before. (There are actually a ton of parallels between Star Trek: Discovery and A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I’ll spare you, dear reader.)
The point is, that with this twist, the show has made the time travel stuff mean somethingbeyond just being a confusing sci-fi plot device. This fact, is arguably why Back to the Future is considered to be the best time travel story ever: It’s actually not really about time travel. That first film is about seeing your family through a new lens, thanks to time travel. Obviously, in 1985 it was hip to make a young teenage kid the time traveler, but in 2019, there’s something tender and intelligent about making this time traveler the mother of the main character of the show.
In its finest moments, Star Trek has always been great at tugging at our heartstrings. In fact, this episode even visually references Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the most emotional moment in Trek history. The funeral of Airiam is supposed to remind us of Spock’s funeral in The Wrath, but not just because it’s a nerdy callback. Instead, Discovery is saying something else about the function of family in Trek. Throughout Discovery, the notion that Starfleet becomes a surrogate family for people like Saru and Burnham is made clear over and over again. And yet, these characters have all been having to deal with their real family members, too. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain Kirk gesticulates with a coffee spiked with whiskey and says “Other people have families. Not us, Bones.” But, now, in a sense, Discovery is proving Kirk wrong. Starfleet can still be Michael Burnham’s family, but that doesn’t mean her mother isn’t still her mother.
Revealing that the Red Angel is Michael Burnham’s mother is not only the most emotionally affecting decision Discovery’s writers have ever made, it’s also the most mature twist the show has dropped yet. With “The Red Angel,” Discovery is treating its plot twists as moments for the characters to change and grow. This isn’t a gimmick about a character from an alternate dimension, or someone secretly being a Klingon spy. In fact, it’s a twist that’s barely about time travel. The Red Angel story suddenly has emotional weight and meaning. Or, as Marty McFly might say, things just got heavy.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 only has four episodes left, all of which air on CBS-All Access on Thursday nights at 8:30 pm eastern time.