Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can't have nice things…
Last week's emotional, action-packed "Perpetual Infinity" left us pumped for more of Season 2 of CBS All Access's Star Trek: Discovery. When the screen cut to black, Spock (Ethan Peck) had just convinced Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) that it is possible to change the fate of the Universe. Picking up there, this week's "Through the Valley of Shadows" requires the crew of the Discovery to face the implications of their past, present, and future.
However, through a haze of robed spiritual guides, vision quests, and some seriously strange time anomalies, the episode's message got lost. Even brilliant points of comedy and camaraderie could not pull the episode out of the hole it dug itself. Warning: below lies a spoiler pit of despair.
Twelve episodes in, the two words that most describe Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery are "mothers" and "fate." Multiple episodes throughout the season have focused on Burnham's multiple surrogate mothers, as well as her biological mother. "Through the Valley of Shadows" was no different. As a mother bonus, it also included L'Rell (Mary Chieffo) facing the consequences of her maternal choices, both for the Klingon Empire and her son. Mary Chieffo did an amazing job, as usual, portraying L'Rell as a powerful, ambitious woman who can simultaneously act to protect the interests of her child and of the people she leads. The moment she calls Tyler (Shazad Latif) out for not recognizing her ability to be both a mother and a leader was fantastic and cathartic for this working mom.
"Through the Valley of Shadows" has a more complicated relationship with fate. Over the course of the season-long Red Angel/Red Signal arc, Discovery has explored the question of fate. Red signals appear in space near locations where a group is in danger or an injustice is being done. Doctor Burnham (Sonja Sohn), as the Red Angel, has made hundreds of journeys through time trying to prevent Control from wiping out sentient life. All of these actions are undertaken with the goal of changing the future, changing fate. In the conclusion of "Perpetual Infinity," Spock laid out all of the reasons that the future is never certain. It seemed like Spock was speaking for Discovery itself, telling viewers that the actions (and episodes) to come could change everything.
Fast forward to this week where "Through the Valley of Shadows" – and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) specifically – hammer home the idea of a locked and tragic fate. Pike finally learns of the fate Dr. Burnham previously hinted at, and was justifiably horrified. In order to get a time crystal and give the Discovery a chance to save the Universe, Pike had to accept his fate. The whole sequence seems like the direct antithesis of what Star Trek is and who Pike is as a captain. The scene plays Pike as self-sacrificing and noble for taking the crystal despite the consequences. However, the scene left me unsatisfied. While Burnham is out risking her life to save the Universe – to change fate – Pike just turns over and accepts it.
Where is the noble fight in that?
Of course, the way Pike got to this particular decision could have contributed to the jarring unreality of the choice. After the red signal appears over the monastery on Boreth, Pike convinces Tyler and L'Rell that he should beam to the surface and take a time crystal. The crystal would allow them to send the sphere data to the future, and Pike doesn't have the familial connection to the planet that Tyler and L'Rell have. Pike doesn't talk about what he expects on the planet's surface, but it probably wasn't a time crystal Jedi vision quest.
Pike is led on a quest reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls by an albino Klingon in a Jedi robe who turns out to be Voq/Tyler and L'Rell's fully grown son Tenavik (Kenneth Mitchell). Yes, Discovery pulled an Angel and had the infant child come back in a fully adult form after only a matter of months. The explanation is that time moves strangely around the crystals (and, likely, babies are much harder to act with). In order to get to the time crystal, Pike must pass the pillars of past, present, and future – and a special crystal key must be used.
While the fantasy genre is great, watching Discovery shouldn't feel like a journey to Middle Earth…
Meanwhile, as Pike is accepting his fate, Burnham and Spock head out in a shuttle to confront theirs. Investigating a Section 31 ship that might be in trouble, they find floating frozen bodies and a ship in stasis. Apparently the siblings never saw any Earth horror movies, because they beam aboard the one survivor and bring him along for their search of the ship.
The survivor, Gant (Ali Momen), is an old friend of Michael's. Oh, and he is an evil Control cyborg intent on assimilating Burnham in order to gain control over the sphere's data. There is a kickass and creepy fight scene where Spock wins the day with physics, math, and magnets. In the end, Burnham and Spock begin to think that Control's obsession with Michael might mean that the evil AI is vulnerable somehow. If it wasn't worried about something, it wouldn't be trying so hard to end Michael.
While the awkward reunion between L'Rell and Tyler was riveting, and Burnham and Spock's side mission exciting, Jett Reno's (Tig Notaro) scenes were the best in the episode. Tig Notaro owned every shot she was in, delivering every cutting line like a verbal sniper. Allegedly in an effort to get Stamets' (Anthony Rapp) head back in the time crystal game, Reno visits Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and basically orders him to get his head out of his ass.
She describes her micromanaging wife in the most loving terms, the way a true spouse can both love someone and find them completely aggravating. And then she tells Hugh that she lost her wife in the Klingon War, and that he should embrace his second chance and "not screw it up." Only Notaro could make me want to cry and giggle at the same time.
Star Trek: Discovery's second season has been a series of hits and then misses. In certain shining moments, the show is exactly what we want it to be and nothing we expected it to be. Then, suddenly, it seems like the show starts to take itself a bit too seriously.
Good genre television knows that a certain amount of camp or cheesiness comes with the territory, and embraces it. Discovery can't seem to figure out what to do with its cheesiness. Sometimes, the timing and balance are perfect. However, other times the show tries to act like it is too good to be campy.
The result is a season that feels uneven, sort of like a book written by multiple different authors with very different writing styles. Adding the concept of fate, or predestination, to this tonal mish-mash leads to the confusion that was "Through the Valley of Shadows."
In the meantime, some remaining thoughts on "Through the Valley of Shadows"
● Jett Reno needs her own spin-off, stat.
● Where is Tilly (Mary Wiseman)? Seriously, I'm worried about the girl.
● Burnham takes the news of her kinda-boyfriend's secret alter-ego love child surprisingly well.
● The bridge crew's lunch table is total nerd-vana.
● Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner) wins the adoptive mom award for best ever handling of foster child's reunion with her birth mother.
● Whenever I saw Tenavik I just kept thinking about Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
Star Trek: Discovery returns next week with Season 2's penultimate episode on Thursday April 11th at 8:30 p.m. EDT on CBS All Access.