A major piece of Star Trek lore is touched upon in the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, as Captain Christopher Pike sees a future vision of himself mute, burned, and confined to a chair, able to communicate only through a blinking light. For those not aware, Christopher being in this state formed the plot of ‘The Menagerie’: an episode of season one of Star Trek: The Original Series.
Here, Pike is on the holy planet, Boreth, to retrieve a time crystal, guarded by Klingon monks. Chief amongst them is the now fully grown son of Tyler and L’Rell, Tenavik – visual evidence that time moves somewhat differently there, as he was a baby in the earliest episodes of this run. The need for a time crystal is part of the whole season-long Red Angel/Control story arc that, we can assume, will continue to play out over the final two episodes.
In the B-plot, Michael and Spock investigate a Section 31 ship where all but one of the crew is dead. The sole survivor is possessed by Control, which attempts to take over Burnham too. This thread ends with Michael and Spock making it back to Discovery in time. It’s by far the less resonant of the two story strands.
This is likely because the reveal of Pike’s fate is so powerful to viewers of this show, as well as fans of the original series. It is disturbing to see Christopher come face-to-face with the horribly scarred, immobile man he will become. It is well-shot, and extremely well acted. Anson Mount doesn’t milk the moment, but lets the full impact of that moment show. He has been the most successful part of an uneven season.
Less successful is the actual plotting. This show is fond of asserting things out of nowhere, and then having to rush behind, later, with some half-baked explanation – such as the whole Michael and her mother having the same biometric signature/DNA. There is simply no reason given at this stage why Pike’s taking of the crystal would lock in his terrible fate. Some kind of credible reasoning may have led the audience to understand more the unwelcome decision he has to make, and why it has to be this way. Instead, it feels like a contrived no-win scenario, born in an over-earnest writers’ room (“what if he chooses his own fate guys?!”). It’s high on concept, but low on reasoning. For once, however, this isn’t a serious issue. The callbacks this season to previous Trek have been a mixed bag. Here, the imagery and acting – playing into the fact that the Sword of Damocles has been hanging over Pike from the start, his ultimate fate always leading here – is strong enough to make this very effective. His accident is still some time in the future, but we know now that any chance of some cheat to get around it is extremely unlikely. Pike will end up that tragic, burned husk of a man, with only Talos IV able to offer him the hope of a future, far down the line.
More important to the future of this show seemed to be some of the more minor touches. With ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’, finally, the crew of the USS Discovery showed us some natural, organic-feeling downtime. The were times in this episode where they really felt like a real team – comprised of real people. This bodes very well for season three. These things can take time, yet often seem to gel all at once. As we’ve often argued, whatever the flaws of Star Trek: Discovery, much of Star Trek‘s history is comprised of weak seasons one and two. More could have been done with minor characters to-date, but some of that lightness we see in the mess this week is just nice extra shading to Discovery’s world, and very welcome.
Star Trek: Discovery is not at all a bad show, and one that, if season one is anything to go by, will play far better when several episodes are watched in a row. It’s felt unusually bitty when taken an entry at a time. The writing has been a little up and down, but it must be remembered the show runners were replaced around halfway through the season. The lack of a consistent vision has been clear, as the show never seems sure quite how far it should lean into the franchise’s illustrious history.
It feels that there is much more to come from the show, both in terms of the Burnham character – still a little underdeveloped, and lead in name only for much of this run – and strengthening the idea of the crew as an ensemble. The better episodes of this season have kept it simple, eschewed silly bait-and-switch plot developments (save for that aforementioned extraordinary scene in this episode) that are designed to shock more than advance organic storytelling, and just told us a story. ‘New Eden’ was an outstanding example of a show finding its voice, while staying true to the wider property’s DNA. In whatever debrief the staff of this show undertake before launching into season three, it is to be hoped that they note this, see how some of the organic interplay in this twelfth episode worked so well, and orient future direction more to these – and Star Trek‘s – strengths.
As it is, ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ contains the best of the show’s character work, along with some of its worst instincts in story structuring. That scene though was exceptional, and a real season highlight.