The latest Star Trek: Discovery has dropped, and it’s a doozy. The entire episode foreshadows future Trek or character destinies, and is impossible to discuss at any length without spoilers, so without further ado…
****SPOILER WARNINGS TO MAXIMUM!!*****
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) is brooding over the loss of her quantum-leaping mother for a second time (see: “Perpetual Infinity”). The deadly Section 31-created nightmare “Control” is still on the prowl, clandestinely infecting other S31 ships and threatening the galaxy at large. The brooding Michael who, as usual, thinks it’s all her fault somehow (this continual self-blame is getting a wee bit tiresome, to be honest) receives a generic pep-talk from her adoptive mother Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner, Skyping it in), and it turns into a family affair as Spock (Ethan Peck) interrupts the subspace chat with news for Burnham; another signal has been detected, this time over the Klingon holy planet of Borath (originally seen in TNG’s “Rightful Heir”).
Making a rare spore jump into Klingon space, the Discovery is met by a new D-7 class Klingon ship (a spectacular callback to the designs seen in original Star Trek and the movies), which makes rendezvous with Discovery. Tyler (Shazad Latif) steals a moment with Burnham, whom he still loves, and tells her that he and the Klingon chancellor L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) have a baby living in secret on Borath. The baby is an albino, as was Tyler when he was the Klingon Voq. The baby was conceived before Voq’s humanoid transformation into Ash Tyler. Michael is glad Tyler could open up to her and unburden himself.
The regal Chancellor L’Rell comes aboard the Discovery, and Pike learns a few things. The monastery on Borath also produces and protects rare Klingon ‘time crystals’, one of which was stolen in the construction of the original ‘time suit’ (the Red Angel, aka Burnham’s time-jumping mom). Pike volunteers to beam down to Borath to negotiate for one of the crystals, which might help Discovery retrieve Michael’s mother and shed some light on their current dilemma. Tyler wants to go, but both L’Rell and Pike realize that since he is ‘dead’ to the Klingon people, seeing him alive would undo the fragile peace within the Klingon Empire (shades of Worf’s ‘discommendation’ in TNG, but more literal).
Realizing she won’t be needed for the Borath mission, Michael convinces acting captain Saru (Doug Jones) to allow her to take a shuttle and continue to track clues to the Control-possessed Leland… strictly a reconnaissance mission. Permission is easily granted, much to Burnham’s surprise. Saru also grants Spock permission to join her, and the two are off. She and Spock find bodies and debris floating around a Section 31 ship. The bodies are former S31 crewmen…victims of Control, which apparently rid the ship of its human infestation. Among the flotsam and jetsam, Michael & Spock find a S31 survivor named Gant (Ali Momen), a familiar face to Burnham, as he was the former tactical officer aboard the USS Shenzhou (her ill-fated starship seen in “Battle at the Binary Stars”). With Gant’s help, the trio board the S31 vessel for answers.
On the surface of Borath, an impassioned Pike makes his case to get possession of a time crystal. He says he won’t leave without one. The albino guardian, named Tenavik (Kenneth Mitchell), allows the determined human captain access to the crystals.
As they walk, Pike sees rapidly sprouting plant-life near where the crystals are kept. Tenavik explains that time works differently for those who guard the crystals. In fact, Tenavik is revealed to be the child of L’Rell and Tyler/Voq…his accelerated growth a result of his work with the time crystals. Pike is allowed access to the crystals, but at a cost; if he removes one, his destiny will be fixed and immutable… a destiny he faces in a horrifying crystal-induced vision.
Pike sees himself on a future training mission, in a collapsing engine room of an unknown ship full of cadets. The captain is trapped, as he heroically seals himself in to protect the cadets, while his face is burned by delta rays (see: TOS’ “The Menagerie”). Pike later sees himself as a horribly burned, mutilated husk of himself; living his life locked in a protective wheelchair apparatus through which he can only ‘speak’ in binary yes or no.
The mortified Pike sees this grim future, but for the sake of all sentient life in the galaxy, he takes the crystal anyway…knowing that his destiny is locked upon doing so. He returns to the ship with the crystal, his tragic fate sealed. He will tell no one.
In the Discovery mess hall, we see Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and engineer Jet Reno (Tig Notaro) dining and joking with their fellow shipmates; a rare unguarded moment of levity (with rare, brief spotlights on Detmer, Owo and Linus) that soon turns melancholy for Stamets as his resurrected lover Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) enters. Reno can’t believe that Culber and Stamets haven’t gotten back together yet. The visibly upset Stamets leaves, using the excuse that he needs to study the newly acquired Klingon time crystal.
Later, Reno feigns an excuse to go to sickbay with a hangnail (a TOS callback to “The Menagerie” where McCoy is called away because he guesses “somebody probably discovered a hangnail“) and plays ship’s counselor to the affable Culber, convincing the good doctor that he is wasting this precious ‘second chance’ by not running back into Paul’s arms, as she wishes she could do with her own late wife. This scene is precisely why I was so glad to hear of Tig Notaro joining the cast, and the scene is one of my favorites in the episode, as she and Culber chat about weddings and reception playlists. It’s a charming moment that uses the actors at hand to their best advantage. If anyone is qualified to step into the daunting shoes of Whoopi Goldberg’s advice-dispensing bartender Guinan, it’s the dryly humorous and world-weary Tig Notaro’s Jet Reno. She and Wilson Cruz have delightful chemistry, too (as she does with Anthony Rapp). More moments like this, please!
Aboard the S31 ship, Spock, Burnham and Gant restore power to some of the ship’s systems. Burnham quickly realizes that Gant is the current living embodiment of the deadly Control, and she is soon engaged in a life-or-death fight with him (it) while Spock is in another part of the ship. During the battle, Burnham fires multiple phaser blasts at Gant, and the nanobot-infested officer is reduced to a swirling tentacle of tiny bots, which Spock traps in place by magnetizing the hull, thus stopping the deadly Slinky. Control could be spread throughout Section 31, easily striking at any time. With this new information, the two surviving siblings return to Discovery.
Back aboard Discovery, Pike meets with L’Rell and Tyler, telling them he has acquired a time crystal, but it was paid with a price that only he can know. He also tell the two parents that he met their ‘son’, the now adult Tenavik. L’Rell is shocked to hear that her son is now fully grown, but is relieved that he is otherwise well. She tells Tyler and Pike that Tenavik is “a good name.” L’Rell will return to the Klingon seat of power, Tyler will remain aboard Discovery. The Federation has its time crystal for study and application. All is well on that front…
But the episode ends with yet another crisis brewing… a fleet of S31 ships are massing, presumably under the guidance of Control. The AI will stop at nothing to gain the rest of the Sphere data still in Discovery’s computers (Control-Leland left with around half of it). Pike sends a coded message to his ‘other’ ship (the famed USS Enterprise), and per Burnham’s recommendation, makes preliminary preparations to self-destruct the Discovery to prevent Control from gaining the rest of the Sphere data and becoming even more powerful…
This was easily my favorite episode since “If Memory Serves”, and some of that is because it reaffirms why this series is a prequel to TOS Star Trek (despite its clearly more advanced setting and technology), with callbacks to Pike’s fate as seen in “The Menagerie.”
–We get to see the actual cadet training mission aboard the “old class-J starship” that caused his horrific mutilation. Pike’s breakdown at his future state is understandable, and his heroism is reaffirmed when he takes the time crystal anyway, knowing full well what it means to his own future. It adds to the poignancy of the bitter man we see in “The Menagerie”… a man who could’ve prevented his fate, but at too high a price. Christopher Pike is classic heroism incarnate.
–I also loved Tig Notaro’s Jet Reno running interference between the two feuding lovers, Stamets and Culber, telling them to get back together and use this second chance they’ve been given… a second chance she will never have with her late wife. Despite the tragic backstory of Reno’s late spouse, she’s never maudlin about it; keeping her sardonicism firmly intact. The mess hall and sickbay scenes could’ve easily ended up on the cutting room floor, as they had no bearing on the immediate story (something this series tends to do a lot), but for once I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m damn glad they didn’t cut them. Those little moments with Reno, Culber and Stamets humanized Reno tremendously.
–Burnham and Spock fighting the Control-infested Gant aboard the S31 ship was a nice bit of action business for the actors, and it kept the clock kicking on the main mission of stopping the AI Control from killing off all sentient life in the galaxy. Burnham is once again the ‘action hero’ of the piece, and that’s fine. Sonequa Martin Green handles the action very well, and her brother Spock makes for a nice straight man to her increasing emotionalism. The technobabble got a teensy bit heavy in these scenes, but I got a kick out of Spock’s magnetizing the hull plating to stop the “Abyss”-like tentacle of nanobots (a trick similar to one used in the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly” part 2 to defeat an attacking Gorn).
–It seems Federation medicine takes a helluva leap backward asometime after the events of Discovery. In a few years, Pike is reduced to a mute husk in a wheelchair, while the equally (or possibly worse) injured Commander Airiam was fully bionically rebuilt, able to speak, and able to live the remainder of her life fully ambulatory.
That said, the vision of Pike in the chair fits much better with the TOS events seen in “The Menagerie” so this bit of anachronistic future medical tech is (somewhat) forgiven. The scene of him breaking down as his future self gasps aloud is simply too powerful to nitpick.
–I’m not exactly comfortable with the concept of the “time crystals” (you think Worf might’ve mentioned them in “Rightful Heir”). The Klingons I remember would be using these crystals to rewrite the s#!t out of history, probably preventing the Federation from ever forming in the first place. Not to mention that ‘time crystals’ sounds a bit too ‘red matter’ for my taste; a generic name for something that is, in essence, as much as fantasy-contrivance as a Jedi’s lightsaber. However, I’m also willing to overlook all of that, as the crystals played a solid role in this story. Not only did they provide a convenient excuse for Tenavik to be played by an adult actor (the returning Kenneth Mitchell, playing yet a third Klingon character), but the guardians of the crystals also provided a means for Pike to see his own future, acting much like DS9’s Bajoran orbs, or TOS’ Guardian of Forever. In a way, the “guardians of the time crystals” reminded me of the late Harlan Ellison’s original “guardians of Forever” in his earlier (unfilmed) drafts of “City on the Edge of Forever”, where the guardians of Forever were elderly humanoid immortals who guarded time itself, not a sentient mechanical portal. I almost wonder if Ellison would sue writers Be Yeon Kim and Erika Lippholt if he were alive today…?
–Much was predicated on the return of L’Rell (the regal Mary Chieffo), but she was reduced to only a couple of scenes aboard Discovery. Would’ve been nice to see “Mother” beam down to Borath with Pike and actually meeting her son Tenavik, but this is a minor nit. Chieffo continues to do nice things with the role, and it’s amazing to see how she, like Doug Jones’ Saru, is able to project such a strong performance through all of that makeup. I guess this nit turned into a positive?
MVP of “Through the Valley of Shadows.”
Hands down, actor Anson Mount’s Christopher Pike owns the hell out of this episode. Pike haggles with Klingons and doesn’t back down. Later he learns of his own tragic future, yet has no qualms about taking the crystal and doing the right thing, knowing that it seals his fate forever. Never alluding to the horror he privately witnessed on Borath, he returns to the ship and gets on with business. This guy rocks. I’m going to blubber like a baby when he’s off the show…
Summing it up.
Atmospherically directed by Douglas Aarniokoski (the Borath scenes had an epic Star Wars feel to them), “Through the Valley of Shadows” is a stronger entry than I’ve seen of late. As with “If Memory Serves” (my personal favorite of the season so far), it smartly uses the series’ prequel format to offer well-done fan service moments (the callbacks to “The Menagerie”) while keeping a mindful eye on the current story and mission. We also get some nice character bits that were not part of the main story per se, but which greatly added to the feeling of the crew as a family. This is one of the reasons why I stick with the series; the potential for a great series is always there, and occasionally we’re allowed to see that potential realized.