Time has become of great importance to Star Trek: Discovery, as its second season races to a dramatic conclusion — and with it, questions of fate and destiny. Tonight’s episode brought those issues to the forefront...although whether it did so successfully depends on who among the Discovery crew you might ask.
“Through the Valley of Shadows” tests the thesis of whether or not fate is something you can make your own through two characters in particular: Captain Pike and Michael Burnham. Pike and Burnham serve as two spines of the contrasting halves of the narratives of the episode — Burnham, as she goes off on her own mission of chasing down Control in an attempt to excise her lingering grief over the surprising return and loss of her mother, and Pike, as he finds himself having to personally deal with the arrival of another red signal (and reckon with the idea of whatever actually caused the signals can’t be Gabrielle Burnham, now that her angel suit has lost its time-travel capabilities).
Compared to the last time Discovery attempted to split itself between two conflicting plotlines, this turns out to be a far more effective story, thanks to the tighter focus on two of the most important characters on the show this season, and the fact that their arcs are intertwined in the same question of what fate actually means to the two characters. But in examining the idea of predestined fate in Pike and Burnham, Discovery also finds itself once again above the pitfalls of its own position as a prequel series to the original Trek — and turns navigating those pitfalls into duelling stories of success and failure.
Let’s start with the one where it doesn’t quite work: Captain Pike’s, as he finds himself playing host to Chancellor L’Rell when a new signal appears above a Klingon world called Boreth. Boreth raises a lot of complications for L’Rell and Ash (or rather Voq, but let’s just keep on rolling with calling him Ash for clarity’s sake), because it’s the location of the monastery where the duo sent their young son for safekeeping earlier this season. It was a sacrifice made so L’Rell could maintain control of the Empire and keep the peace with the Federation — so any interest brought by the signal could expose that she didn’t really lose Ash and her son during the attempted coup back in episode three. But, of sudden and great convenience to the plot, the Boreth monastery just so happens to be home to a naturally-occurring resource of Time Crystals, and Captain Pike wants in, desperate to find some way to get an edge over Leland and Control.
Instead of risking the chance to expose L’Rell and Ash’s secret, Pike chooses to go down to Boreth and parlay with the monks in an attempt to get access to a Time Crystal himself. And while he gets to see the timey-wimey effect the crystals have on the planet, like rapidly growing trees (and the eventual revelation that his guide around the Monastery is none other than L’Rell and Ash’s son Tevanik, magically grown up from tiny Klingon Baby into wise old monk over a matter of months), he also has to make a pretty terrible choice... one that brings back the stark realisation that sometimes Discovery cannot help itself when it comes to playing with its connections to the original Trek.
Because while the monastery is more than willing to let Pike take a crystal, doing so has dire and personal ramifications for the Captain himself — the minute he touches a crystal, Tevanik warns, he locks himself into witnessing a glimpse of his own fate. A fate that, apparently, cannot be undone once he takes the crystal — and one that we as an audience know cannot be undone, because for us, it’s already happened. Yes: Star Trek: Discovery finally gets to have its Pike and eat it too, showing us — and Pike — the infamous accident that will transform the Captain of the Enterprise into the scarred man we met in “The Menagerie” back in 1966.
The event is a harrowing experience for Pike, and one that clearly has had a profound impact on him by the episode’s end. There’s great dramatic tragedy in seeing Pike make the noble choice — the Starfleet choice, perhaps — that permanently shackling himself to an unplanned destiny is worth gaining access to a way to potentially defeat Control and save the universe. But it’s an incredibly bleak one, a distressingly jaded one, to inflict on a character that we’ve been reminded throughout this season is the walking embodiment of Starfleet’s most hopeful and noble ideals. Pike now gets to spend the next 10 years of Star Trek history burdened with the fact that his career will end in painful, debilitating injury. To shatter that hopeful idealism by making Pike directly aware of the fate we the audience have been meta-textually aware of since the beginning, just for the cheap thrill of Discovery getting to say “look, we got to make the beep-boop machine in 2019, it’s like the one you remember!” and seemingly little else? It seems like a distressingly disappointing path to take Pike as a character down.
But it’s also a choice completely undermined by the fact that Michael’s journey in the other primary plot of the episode invites her to learn the exact opposite lesson about the control she has over her own fate. After Saru grants her permission to chase down a Section 31 ship that shows signs of having fallen under Control’s... well, control, while Discovery (and the sphere data it has left) avoids any potential interaction with the AI, Michael finds herself joined by her brother Spock on the away mission, much to her sisterly annoyance. And while the two bicker — mainly thanks to an emotionally wounded Michael not wanting to be analyzed by her brother, despite the fact she just went through a similar thing with him — over whether or not she can be the key to stopping the seemingly inevitable fate of Control’s victory, their mission teaches them that, actually, she very much is.
When the duo beam aboard the now-abandoned Section 31 vessel with a sole survivor of Control’s infection of the ship the rescued from open space, it turns out that the entire thing was a trap. Said sole survivor (actually a former Shenzhou bridge officer Michael knew, Kamran Gant, from the first two episodes of the show!) is none other than another infected drone of Control, who was using the ship as bait to draw Michael out and infect her, leading to a frenzied shootout where a bit of Spock’s ingenuity saves Michael from being cyber-zombified.
But it’s ultimately another way Spock helps that really revitalizes Michael’s perspective: he deduces that the whole reason Control lured her out is because, with Gabrielle Burnham seemingly out of the picture, she has become the one variable the A.I. can’t contend with. Her fate, as he reminded her at the end of the last episode as well, is not as written in stone as she thought, and because of that, there is still hope that she can find a way to save the timeline from being destroyed.
It’s a great coming together of Spock and Michael’s arc over these past few episodes, one where, just as she had sought to do for him, Spock takes the turn of rooting his sister in a moment of emotional and logical turmoil. But, when contrasted with Pike’s storyline elsewhere in “Through the Valley of Shadows,” what it has to say about fate and destiny with Michael just makes the decision to make our own foreknowledge of Pike’s future part of the text, and part of his character, all the more disappointing. In being reminded that even a seemingly pre-determined fate can be challenged, Michael is given a moment of hope in her time of mourning for her mother, while at the exact same time, Pike is robbed of that hope by being told that he’s shackled to a dire fate he cannot and will not escape. It’s a conflicted message for the episode to draw, a conflict that only comes about for the sake of a momentary nostalgic buzz of getting to see Pike’s “Menagerie” future rendered in the modern design world of Discovery.
Thankfully, Discovery’s inability to leave its nostalgia for Trek’s past alone when it comes to Captain Pike doesn’t really have a wider-reaching impact on where we’re heading in the endgame of this season (beyond the fact that, for now at least, the Discovery has access to a Time Crystal). The ultimate conclusion it comes to with Michael — through Spock’s own encouragement of her — is that she alone can decide her fate; how that impacts her as a person going forward will matter to Discovery through the end of this season and beyond.
The relationship between Spock and Michael as this season has progressed has become one of Discovery’s highlights, and now that we’re entering the final stretch, bringing it to the fore among the other messy threads of the Control storyline can only be very promising.
- The brief canteen scene with the bridge crew was a delight, because at least this time around it was just a sweet scene to build up those characters a bit more instead of mandatory heartstring-tugging to make you feel bad a character was about to get bumped off (am I still mad how Discovery tried to use Airiam for cheap emotional effect? You betcha!). Plus: look at those goddamn nerds playing word games with each other over lunch! I love it, it’s so sweet.
- Pike’s decision to scuttle the Discovery — which, c’mon, is not going to happen unless the show actually wants to give us a neat Discovery-B upgrade for season three — means that next week we’re seemingly going to get a bit of Enterprise action. And maybe more Number One! Her appearance earlier in the season was far too brief, so hopefully we get to spend a decent chunk of time with her.
- I may not particularly care for the Klingon plotline on Discovery all that much — neither does this season it seems, given that this is the first time since episode three the show’s kept up with it — but that brief glimpse of Discovery’s take on the D-7? Oh yes, please. Very nice.
- Oh hey, Kamran Gant! Very weird choice to bring back a character we barely got to see in Discovery’s first episodes just to be the latest section 31 victim of Control, but it did allow the show to briefly examine how Starfleet officers disillusioned by the Klingon war could very easily see the darker impulses of Section 31 as a viable alternative to Starfleet, which was great. I wish... god, I wish we were getting more of that and not an evil A.I. turning them all into proto-Borg. I really do.
- So if it’s not Gabrielle making the signals — and seemingly might never have been — who is it that’s trying to guide Michael in such a specific way? Speculate wildly in the comments section, but I have a feeling that evolving the entire Kelpien species just so Saru can be a little more gung ho in letting Michael run off on her own missions hints that it’s not exactly going to be as friendly a face as her mom.