STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Review: 2.12 “Through The Valley Of Shadows”

Possibly the most insane episode of this show yet. But there's plenty of competition.

Well, that was a wild hour of Star Trek.

Last week, Section 31 Captain Leland got taken over by nanobots bent on destroying all sentient life. The crew of Discovery managed to get some information out of the Red Angel, who also turned out to be Burnham’s mother (so...Burnham, I suppose). And then, she vanished back into her time vortex - possibly never to be seen again, but who am I kidding?

Michael’s stepmother Amanda offers her condolences at the top of this episode, at Spock’s insistence, but there’s scant time for emotions. Another signal appears over Boreth, the sacred Klingon planet that will later become the birthplace of a clone of Kahless the Unforgettable, and Captain Pike’s bent on pursuing it. 

His insistence only grows when he’s told by Chancellor L’Rell that the ancient monastery on the planet is full of - sigh - time crystals. Discovery has inserted these time crystals deep into Klingon culture, it seems, and the results are a mixture of fascinating and silly. Fascinating, because of the implications of the crystals’ power; silly, because it’s “time crystals” and really edges hard into “magic” territory. That the monastery is a place where the past, present, and future commingle is interesting, and sets the stage for a terrific Klingon adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but as Pike (joined by L’Rell’s son, now all growed-up) ventures further into its bowels, everything grows extremely over-the-top in a way that would’ve played better had it been given more time to develop. Klingons have had mystical elements to their culture before, but this time-crystal business goes a bit further.

How much further? Let the crystal keeper give you a hint: “The present is a veil between anticipation and horror. Lift the veil, and madness may follow.” Great line, foreshadowing a great sequence.

When Captain Pike touches one of those crystals, Discovery suddenly goes where it’s been hinting it would go - and gives us something I never thought it would be able to successfully depict. Pike flashes forward to the training exercise that, in this show’s future, soaks his body with delta radiation - and then flashes further forward to get a glimpse of his ultimate fate. The Original Series’ Pike ended up in a wheelchair-like contraption that, for the 1960s, must have seemed futuristic, but today plays a little bit silly. I thought it wouldn’t work in Discovery, but they did it. They goddamned did it. 

Playing into Pike’s dread of a future he (somewhat amusingly) “did not foresee” for himself, the show borrows the visual language of horror, miraculously creating a genuinely terrifying vision for the good Captain. The life-support machine wheeling out into that darkened corridor is super chilling, the digital makeup effects are horrifying, and Anson Mount sells his reaction incredibly well. Emerging from his vision, he’s told that he can take the crystal, but it’ll seal that future for him - and like the stalwart officer he is, he does. Discovery’s engineers subsequently get to work on the crystal to make it useful somehow, but the focus is nearly all on Pike. Hot diggity-damn.

There is a little emphasis on wrapping up the story of Voq, Ash, L’Rell, and their son (now a large adult). Ash confesses the existence of his son to Michael, with surprising ease, somehow making me realise for the first time how much they’re both children of two worlds. L’Rell accepts that her love was for Voq, and Ash is in love with Michael, but they remain connected by their son, which is a pretty touching moment of understanding in a show that often defaults to conflict. And it all wraps up with Pike informing them of their son’s status, and name - and after having fretted that they never got to name him, L’Rell nods: “that is a good name.” Like most storylines on this show, I wish this set of relationships had been given more time to be thoroughly investigated, but the Cliff’s Notes version we’ve got isn’t too bad either.

Those time crystals have to be put to use at some point, and they’ll eventually be used against this episode’s other big bad: the increasingly rampant Section 31 computer system Control. Michael and Spock take a shuttle over to Captain Leland’s ship, only to find a sea of bodies surrounding it, ejected from the ship when Control took it over. That there’s only a single survivor should have sounded some alarm bells, but the Grayson kids take him in anyway. He informs them they have to go to the ship to fix things, and they dutifully follow. Big mistake, you two.

Spock and Michael set about a plan about which I had immediate questions - questions that were quickly answered. Forgive me, but trying to use a computer system against an AI that has taken complete control of that computer system seems like folly. Spock asks the computer to scan for traces of Control - but how can he possibly trust what it says? The whole plan - luring Control into a kind of digital trap - is super dumb, but luckily the writers seem to agree, as the ship detects what they’re doing and takes them hostage at warp speed.

It’s here that Control reveals itself in the form of the ship’s sole survivor - first via a speech about how Control could prevent wars, then by segueing into a full-on villain monologue, complete with robot voice. The system has aspirations of becoming the purest form of sentience - hence its desire to exterminate all other sentient life - and wants to “reconstruct” Michael to infiltrate Discovery and get the data that will grant it that status. But that won’t happen without a fight - specifically, a frenetic, strobe-lit fight that, like many of the hand-to-hand combat sequences in this show, isn’t that great (one terrific line about nerve endings aside).

Once Michael gets her hands on her phaser and shoots a Death Becomes Her-style hole in the middle of her enemy, shit gets really wild. A cloud of nanobots pours out of the hole and advances towards her like the impregnation ghost from Game of Thrones, and no matter how hard she fires her phasers, it just keeps remoulding and advancing. Only Spock magnetising the floor manages to stop it, because for some reason Control built its nanites out of magnetic metals. The sequence borrows again from the visual language of horror, and it’s some wacky-ass shit. I'm not sure I liked it, in all its cartoonishness. I certainly had a good time shouting "what the fuck" at it, though.

There’s another, very small plotline alongside all of this - one that sees the welcome return of Tig Notaro as engineer Jet Reno. Confronting Stamets in the mess hall with a jaw-dropping dump of exposition, she suggests he focus up on his work more, since the return of his former husband has affected him so deeply. That scene is extraordinarily clunky, but it’s made up for by Jet’s second scene, speaking to Culber in sickbay. Acting as an intermediary between the two men, she demands that they work out their issues - after all, it’s affecting Stamets’ work. Bonding with Culber over their respective same-sex spouses’ wedding-arrangement obsessions, Jet actually generates a nice balance of humour, heart, and pathos by the end of the scene. I instantly bought her love for her now-deceased wife, and all it took was a moment of sincerity from a usually-glib character. This storyline, though underdeveloped as everything is, has become a surprisingly unique relationship tale, and I hope it follows through.

Tell you what definitely follows through: Control. Having identified Michael as the biggest threat to its agenda, it sends a fleet of Section 31 vessels to attack Discovery and extract the data it’s carrying. Hopelessly outgunned, the Discovery crew’s only option seems to be evacuation and self-destruction - which Pike sets into motion as the episode ends. We’ll see the ramifications of that next week, which looks to head back to the Enterprise; based on the single relevant shot in the next-week tease, it looks like the production designers have struck a fine balance between The Original Series’ and Discovery’s visual styles. Better than the Abrams films did, for sure.

Stray observations:

  • Regarding Leland's fate, I don’t think we’ve seen a body, which means there’s almost definitely a reveal coming. The nanotech effects and “reconstruction” this week made me shy away from my earlier Borg hypothesis, but there’s definitely still room for that to happen with Leland.
  • “Choke on that. Ha ha ha! Humans.”
  • Some really smooth direction this week. Good transitions, some really emotive camera moves, and some terrific VFX work.
  • Ash and L’Rell slip into Klingon at one point, which - given the presence of a universal translator - should technically be impossible to do.
  • I’m sorry, Ash and L’Rell, but your kid turned out to be John Travolta in Battlefield Earth.
  • “He came back from the dead and his name rhymes with poo” is, I assume, the first utterance of the word “poo” in Star Trek canon. Happy to be corrected here.

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