Star Trek: Discovery 2.07 – “Light and Shadows”

The Vulcan family drama is turned up to eleven; also there is a space squid.

In the TNG two-parter “Unification”, an elderly Sarek, at the very end of his life, reminisces about Spock’s childhood, and, in particular, his habit of disappearing into the mountains of Vulcan for days at a time.

It’s a wonderful scene, but when screencaps came up on my Tumblr dash last week, I found myself thinking of Discovery, and how, with the entire galaxy out searching for Spock, it apparently did not occur to Sarek to check the mountains.

But that’s okay, Amanda’s taking care of business.

It’s not clear whether she found Spock somewhere in space, or was just the only person with enough common sense to visit the place he always went to hide. But that’s fine, what’s important is that she’s not only got him stashed away in a shrine where he’s hidden from Sarek’s soul-seeking meditation (a concept straight out of decades of Kirk/Spock fic, by the way), but she’s planning to use her diplomatic immunity to keep him from Section 31 and the rest of the Federation authorities.

Remember when Michael thought Amanda was the sensible one? Remember when we thought Amanda was the sensible one?

She who is his wife

Back in January, in my post about “Brother”, I wrote:

I think that Amanda worked wonderfully well as an archetype in the 1960s — the proud mother, the society wife to a brilliant but irritable public figure — but a lot of elements built into the very DNA of the Sarek-Amanda marriage have dated badly.

I’ve always liked Amanda as a character — she is entirely delightful in “Journey to Babel”, the episode which introduces Spock’s parents — but there was a lot of what I’ll call “sexy sexism” in the original depiction of her marriage.

You know those racist early 20th century tropes about Hot Foreigners Who Don’t Respect Women, Except For One White Woman Who Changes His Ways But Also Really Loves Being Treated A Bit Badly? Think The Sheik and similar movies of the early silent era — Rudolph Valentino played that type a lot.

In science fiction, the trope evolved into Sexy Sexist Aliens, and, flying in the face of all possible logic, became part of Vulcan lore. It’s how you get concepts like “Amok Time”, where Spock’s betrothed can’t just end the relationship, she has to manipulate the situation to cause a fight to the death. And, in “Journey to Babel”, there’s nonsense like Sarek declaring that “a Vulcan wife must walk a step behind her husband”, and scenes where he’s generally ordering her about.

(What’s notable about this type of sexy sexism is that it has historically been very popular with women, and indeed, “Journey to Babel” was written by Dorothy “D.C” Fontana. And even a grumpy feminist like me can see the appeal … sort of. I guess. In theory. I don’t know if it’s still a common trope in the romance genre, but it turns up a lot in fan fiction — mostly, but not always, divorced from its racist origins.)

Fontana, in creating Amanda, was wondering, “And what kind of a woman was she to marry a Vulcan, go to Vulcan, live like a Vulcan, raise a half-Vulcan son? What was that all about?” (Source)

But the answers that worked in 1967 are less satisfying in 2019. Questions which would have been unthinkable in the ’60s — like, why does she stay with Sarek and let him raise her children as Vulcans? — are difficult to avoid.

This isn’t a bad thing; it makes her a more complicated and interesting character. And it’s wonderful that Discovery is finally addressing some of the issues which have been evident from the start: that most of the sacrifices in this marriage have been Amanda’s, along with the burden of childrearing.

(And Sarek will keep adopting children.)

I’m not entirely surprised by Amanda’s ruthless streak, or her willingness to misuse Sarek’s power to protect Spock.

What did surprise me is that she and Georgiou are being explicitly set up as parallels and foils. I’ve had a lot of feelings about Michael’s two mothers, and their differences and similarities, but I didn’t expect it to be overt. This is like Christmas, but only for people who like to geek out about depictions of motherhood in science fiction!

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Discovery really loves its semi-canon deep cuts — I recently learned (thanks, Tumblr!) that the link between Spock, Amanda and Alice in Wonderland dates back to the animated series.

Here we learn that Amanda introduced Spock to Carroll to give him strategies to overcome a learning disability, which might be regarded as dyslexia and dyscalculia in humans. Because Vulcans are the worst, his teachers at the Vulcan Learning Centre had just written it off as a human flaw — it was, after all, inherited from his mother.

At first, I was like, “Really? Learning disabilities still exist in the 23rd century?”

Then I saw how many viewers — adults and children — were excited to see themselves reflected in Star Trek, and in a character as iconic and significant as Spock himself. And I realised, well, of course learning disabilities still exist. And even if you could wave a doodad and fix it on the spot, is it wise to perform that kind of manipulation on a child’s brain? Is it safe?

Sometimes, the best solution is not necessarily the high tech one. Which, ironically, is an argument I’ve had a couple of times on Reddit, in regard to the wheelchair-using extra we’ve seen a couple of times on Discovery — sure, he could have a fancy hoverchair, but if something goes wrong with it, or if, say, a space thingo wiped out power to all devices on the ship, he’d be stuck.

And then I remembered that Star Trek does have one other character who had severe learning disabilities as a child — Julian Bashir. And he was “fixed” through radical and illegal genetic manipulations which nearly ended his entire career when they came to light.

So, yes, learning disabilities are still a thing, and the best approach is still tailored education. Which Spock has to get from his mother, because Prejudice.

Alice is an interesting choice, though! Because, for all that it’s a nonsense story, it was written by a mathematician, and it is highly logical. It just follows the logic of dreams, not Surak. And both Spock and Michael needed that reminder that logic comes in many flavours, it’s not the pure, objective constant that Vulcans make it out to be.

(Disclaimer: I have read Alice exactly once in my life, and didn’t love it, but my BFF is a big fan, and used to collect different editions, so I’ve picked up a lot by osmosis.)

“My mother was a teacher; my father, an ambassador.”

So says Spock in “This Side of Paradise”. Almost the first thing we ever learn about his mother, beyond being able to infer her existence, is that she’s an educator.

I had forgotten that this was actual television canon — AOS fandom has developed fanon about the Amanda of that universe being a linguist, because … I dunno, a mere teacher wouldn’t be good enough for Sarek?

But Discovery gives us a nod to her professional background: she’s not just a mother concerned that her son’s teachers are failing him, she’s a qualified teacher ensuring that her son’s special needs are met.

Sarek just has a lot of feelings, okay?

The tragedy of Sarek is that he deeply loves his family, and is entirely unequipped to demonstrate it. He and Spock never achieve a meeting of the minds — literally. At the time of Sarek’s death, he is once again estranged from his son.

Which makes his confession — “I cannot lose both of my children, not counting Sybok for copyright reasons, in one day” — all the more shocking. He’s having a whole emotion! He’s having several!

In fact, at first I thought James Frain overplayed it, but I was persuaded — in chatting to Anika on our podcast — that this was a deliberate choice: Sarek’s emotions are sincere, but he’s letting his mask slip deliberately. Manipulatively, even.

Which is a nice bit of bastardry, but also heartbreaking, because that is what it takes?

(My heart only broke a little, though, because this is a guy who brings home random orphans but is otherwise so disengaged from actual parenting that his son is an adult before Sarek learns about his learning disability.)

(To reiterate: I love him. But from a safe distance.)

The other tragedy of Sarek, apparently, is his inexplicable trust in Section 31.

I mean. Sure, they’re currently a legitimate branch of Starfleet Intelligence. And sure, the dodgiest thing they’ve done is hire Emperor Georgiou, and Sarek himself was the one who adopted her whole “have you considered just wiping the Klingons out?” approach with regard to ending the war.

And sure, they’re working with the Federation Taskforce To Investigate The Red Bursts, which Sarek himself is part of.

But, as a person who knows just how dodgy Section 31 will be in 120 years’ time, I feel like putting any faith in Section 31 was a mistake.

Or … was it?

One morally ambiguous black ops agent always lies; the other morally ambiguous black ops agent … okay, sometimes tells the truth. Maybe.

Captain Leland is not a good dude. His very first words to Georgiou, in the bonus scene from season 1, are asking for a lapdance. He is smarmy, sexist, ruthless, and less attractive than he thinks he is.

Nevertheless … was he really lying to Michael? Did he truly intend to wipe Spock’s mind? The son of the Vulcan ambassador, a senior part of Operation: Red October? Was he really going to report back to Admiral Cornwell going, “Um, yeah, we got Spock, and his intel, but we, uhhh, broke … him?”

I mean, maybe. Pass it off as a terrible accident, no one’s the wiser.

But what does he gain? And does he really think there wouldn’t be consequences?

Or did Georgiou lie to Michael?

I can certainly see Leland being willing to risk Spock if it means getting better intelligence faster.

But I can just as easily see Georgiou seeing her chance to earn a fraction more trust from Michael. Philippa has seen how far Michael will go to protect her brother (“Now there’s a woman I recognise”), and if Michael feels indebted to her, well, that’s another chink in Michael’s armour.

I think what Philippa wants right now is the same thing Lorca wanted last year — to groom Michael into becoming more like her counterpart. And she stands a better chance than Lorca did, because she has Michael’s history with the original Captain Georgiou on her side, and Michael’s hope that Philippa can become something better than what she is.

I don’t think she’ll succeed, mind you — but I think Philippa needs to accept that her daughter is truly gone before she can really dedicate herself to life in her new universe.

I think Philippa’s other motivation is chaos — I only belatedly spotted the Eve/apple/snakes symbolism a couple of weeks back because I was distracted by the myth of Eris, the Greek goddess of strife and discord, and the golden apple. Which isn’t that good a match for Philippa’s situation, unless she plans to make Pike, Leland and Ash fight over who is the prettiest (answer: Ash), but she strikes me as someone who will happily throw rocks in a pond just to watch the ripples.

To quote a less evil interstellar emperor: “Let’s see what happens.”

And what happens when a liar tells the truth?

Is Leland really responsible for the death of Michael’s parents? He certainly doesn’t react to Georgiou’s knowledge like a man being set up by a lie.

I’m a bit hmmm at the decision to link Leland to Michael’s past like this — if every story is connected to Michael in some way, it makes the universe feel that little bit smaller, plus it means I’ll have to scroll past even more whinging about Mary Sues.

But setting that aside, I could buy that Leland had advance knowledge of the Klingon attack on the outpost where Michael lived, and had to choose between protecting a source of intel versus saving Federation lives. An agonising choice fraught with moral consequences? At Section 31, they call that Tuesday.

I predicted a couple of weeks back that Leland won’t live past episode 8. I’m now somewhat inclined to say his death will come (at Georgiou’s hands) in episode 9, but the circumstances seem rather muddier now.

I mean. In my head. I got a reputation among my friends last year for being really good at predicting Discovery’s twists, but really, I just make wild guesses and sometimes get lucky.

(If Leland dies in episode 8, please pretend I never hedged that bet. If he lives beyond episode 10, let us never speak of this again.)

The time-travelling squid-probe is a Pike/Tyler shipper

If you had told me back in January that I would really enjoy the relationship between Pike and Tyler, I’d have laughed in your face. But I do!

I really like parallels, you see, and I love how the clash between Pike and Tyler is as much about their similarities as Pike’s philosophical objections to Tyler’s … whole deal.

They’re both idealists, desperate to serve, but Pike’s ideals are bound up in principle and the Starfleet community, whereas Tyler tends to serve individuals — first T’Kuvma and his legacy, then Lorca, Michael, L’Rell. And now he’s adrift, bound up in an organisation which he must know is going to let him down.

I think, when he accuses Pike of throwing himself into danger, courting death to compensate for not being part of the war, he’s mostly right. Well, there’s no “I think” about it, Pike says as much. But I’m not sure how much Pike was consciously seeking a heroic death — but that’s a super Klingon concept, eh?

Now that they’ve put their animosity behind them — and who would have predicted that sending two characters who are at odds into danger together would have helped them overcome their conflict?  Groundbreaking! — I think Pike could be good for Ash.

Voq was an extremist, but not a leader; Ash currently has neither beliefs nor … well, he’s not good at decisions, you know? He seems to have more confidence as a Section 31 agent, but one thing about Pike this season — he’s brought out the best in his crew. Hopefully, now he has found common ground with Ash, he can do the same for him.

Other observations

  • Hugh Culber was notable for his absence this week. Is he okay? I WORRY, ALL RIGHT?
  • It’s okay, he’s in the trailer for episode 8, flipping a table at Ash. Which … fair.
  • Admiral Cornwell’s name came up a lot — it’s almost like living in my head! But it seems increasingly likely that she really, absolutely, actually was aboard the USS Operation Washtub. I guess.
  • Has Airiam been hacked by the squid-probe from the future? Let’s hope! Goals, amiright?
  • But seriously, although I don’t have much to say about it, I’m rather pleased that this is turning into a time travel story. And I’m keen to learn more about Airiam.
  • TALOS IV! I’m SO HYPED for the next episode, but also moderating my expectations, because there is a less than zero chance of my dream (Chris “No one gets left behind” Pike rethinks his decision in “The Cage” to leave Vina behind because she is old, ugly and disabled, and also we learn that the whole ableist mess of “The Menagerie” was a dream of Spock’s caused by too-spicy plomeek soup) coming true.
  • I love “The Cage”, but I don’t respect it.

Ditmar nominations are still open

I feel awkward asking people to nominate me, but I would rather like to win a Ditmar one day, so I’m just powering on through. I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer and also the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism and Review for my Trek posts of 2018 — that’s covering the second half of Disco’s season one, and my Voyager posts.

If you are a natural person in fandom (I do not believe that Airiam, for example, would qualify), and … you know, think I deserve a nom … you can do so here.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

2 thoughts on “Star Trek: Discovery 2.07 – “Light and Shadows””

  1. “And even if you could wave a doodad and fix it on the spot, is it wise to perform that kind of manipulation on a child’s brain? Is it safe?”

    I was about to say, before I got to the end of that paragraph, “that depends, is your name Richard or Amsha Bashir?”

    1. I was thinking more along the lines of adjusting neurons than rewriting the whole genetic code, but still — people say SAREK is the worst dad, when Richard Bashir exists!

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