A cursory glance around some Star Trek pages on social media will quickly yield multiple examples of the [incorrect] fan theory that Star Trek: Discovery is set the Kelvin Timeline – the alternate history created by the events of the 2009 JJ Abrams film. These opinions vary in genesis, but are based usually on either the deviation in visual style from the 60s series, or just general confusion as to whether the events of the film play into the show, or not. Whilst not an accurate hypothesis, ‘Light and Shadows’ will only exacerbate confusion; as in tone and style this is the most nu-Trek episode we’ve seen this season.
The A-plot this week deals with Michael returning to Vulcan in search of Spock. Encountering him at the homestead, she finds her brother’s mind broken, with a confused, distant and rambling Enterprise Science Officer reciting a mixture of numbers and a children’s story the two of them enjoyed as youngsters.
The B-plot details Pike and Ash taking a shuttle to investigate a temporal anomaly, that is affecting time on the ship, with future echoes appearing Red Dwarf-style. In a well-worn Star Trek trope, the two men start off mismatched, and distrusting each other’s motives for being there (Pike unable to trust Ash, both as a Section 31 operative, and as formerly Voq; and Ash believing Pike to be taking unnecessary risks as an over-compensation for the Enterprise sitting out the Klingon war), as they make their way through the threats of the anomaly, they learn to work together, and to accept a certain validity in each other’s initial fears.
Stylistically, the two plot strands at the heart of the episode complement each other very well. The Spock / Burnham stuff is – in the early running – quiet, tender and thoughtful (in both strands the director, Marta Cunningham, focuses on small details – looks, hand touches, etc.); with the concern of Michael, Amanda and Sarek playing as very authentic. While the B-plot is the all-action Abrams homage; with characters shouting urgently at each other, and shot after shot saturated with lens flare. Both of these facets are very Kelvin Timeline. Whilst this is no surprise, given the show runner is Alex Kurtzman, writer of the two Abrams films: it is surprising how quickly his influence has shown up on screen, after the departure of previous execs, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts.
The A-plot is by far the more successful strand. This is to be expected, to a degree; as it has taken nearly half a season to get to Spock, the tease going on a little too long, in truth. The first section on Vulcan, whilst evoking memories of Tuvok’s broken mental state in the Star Trek: Voyager closer ‘Endgame’, does at least attempt to expand on the Michael Burnham character, with plenty of flashbacks to childhood, and the pained love for her brother being depicted well by Sonequa Martin-Green. So far this season, Michael has felt like the lead character in name only. Whilst she is only a partial focus to this episode, any work to build on the anaemic characterisation to-date is welcome.
Once this strand moves off-planet to deliver Spock to Section 31, the nuance of family dynamics is inevitably lost, and the show’s penchant for simultaneously teasing future attractions, whilst overly homaging legacy trek begins to overwhelm. When the Section 31 show was announced recently, we didn’t think it would be running inside Discovery! Seriously, both plot strands have the group’s operatives at the centre, and this is simply too much.
The two teases of this story – the first that Leland is responsible, somehow, for the death of Burnham’s parents; the second that the numbers Spock is reciting represent the coordinates of Talos IV – land to varying levels of success. With Leland, anything that expands the Burnham backstory would be welcome, and it sets up a future storyline intriguingly. More negatively, the writing in the reveal scene is terrible: Georgiou pretty much telling Leland what he already knows. It’s very Star Wars prequels (“Remember when you told me about your mother, and the sand people?”).
It would be unfair to judge the Talos IV reveal until future weeks, when we learn where this is going. The reveal itself was, however, groan-worthy to a long time fan; as Talos IV is the location of the very first [pilot] episode, ‘The Cage’ – later repurposed in ‘The Menagerie’. It might prove to be unfounded as a fear, but this runs the risk of continuing down the path of Disco as fan service: the very thing a prequel must never be. Time will tell.
The B-plot is fine. Once again, the mycelial network is being trotted out weekly: this is starting to smack of lazy writing. The action does whip along nicely, however, and any time spent with Pike is welcome. Less successful is the continual presence of Ash. At this point the character is beginning to feel a little played out. Certainly there are other crew members we could have spent the time getting to know. The lens flare is also a little distracting, but it’s all perfectly well done.
‘Light and Shadows’ benefits enormously from the Yin and Yang nature of its two plot strands. This makes for a very well-paced episode that ends up being a little more than the sum of its parts. The parts themselves are fine, but represent both a show in transition from one show running regime to another; and a Star Trek incarnation that still seems unsure whether it wants to live in the present, or the past.