Star Trek: Discovery 2.12 – “Through the Valley of Shadows”

Michael and Spock take a trip; Pike goes on a journey of his own.

This is not a standalone episode. It’s embedded right in the arc, entirely serialised.

Yet, somehow, the structure is so good, the storytelling so nicely balanced, that it feels like it could be watched and understood on its own. Short-term goals are introduced — the crew needs a time crystal; Michael wants to investigate a rogue Section 31 ship — and resolved before the end credits roll. And, along the way, the characters learn about themselves and each other.

It’s just really good.

The A plot: Michael versus Section 31

To be honest, I’m not sure whether Pike or Michael carries the A plot this week. Both storylines are important, interesting and integral to the story. Call it an A and an A Minus plot. But Michael’s the protagonist, so I’m giving her lead position.

I have some nitpicks about this storyline, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Michael’s slow-burning rage at Section 31 and Control is magnificent — but it also makes her easy to manipulate. Which Saru, fresh off his experience on Kaminar, knows, so he’s sending Spock along for a nice family road trip.

This brings us to my nitpick: it makes sense that Michael, who carries a lot of guilt about the fate of the Shenzhou, would overlook the extremely strong probability that Gant is a Control plant. But Spock should at least have taken her aside and gone, hey, sis, logic dictates this dude’s super shady.

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Not that “navigating a field of frozen bodies and then the AI-controlled ghost ship that killed them” isn’t a great source of tension. But what if we had MORE TENSION?

What’s worrying here is that Control isn’t just targeting Michael specifically, as a means to get the sphere data, but that it’s getting quite good at manipulation. Recognising Gant as a person she’d trust, and using that against her? Scary.

Is Control the Borg? (Redux)

Ugh, I don’t know!

I still think that Control’s motives and strategies aren’t terribly Borg-like, but then Gantrol’s voice changed as Control dropped the disguise, and it did sound like the Collective.

I don’t want to be that jerk who is so enamoured of her own theories and interpretations that she throws a tantrum when canon tells a different story, so I’m … opening myself to Borg-related possibilities.

And, if it is the Borg, I might even like it! I was very opposed to the “Lorca’s from the mirror universe” theory until I wasn’t — I even enjoyed the execution in the end. (Especially the bit where he was executed.)

The interstitial plot: Klingon business

I guess it’s really a C or D plot, but the Ash and L’Rell business serves mostly to trigger Michael’s actions, advance Pike’s plot, and to wrap up their own long, problematic arc.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the Ash-Voq/L’Rell storyline was an interesting idea that never got the execution its complexity needed.

In fact, I’m going to call it one of the victims of season 1’s rough pacing: the romance was a last-minute addition, inspired by Latif and Chieffo’s chemistry in episode 4 — and from there, we got the consent issues and the Ash-Voq-L’Rell-Michael love quadrangle. The season was too crowded to do justice to the extremely fraught concepts being raised, and season 2 has chosen — understandably — to move forward.

I’m disappointed, because I really did find this stuff interesting, and I think that raising consent issues but barely addressing them is not great, but I also understand.

And I’m glad that the storyline has been resolved at all; Star Trek has a history of simply dropping ideas which don’t work, and pretending they never happened. (I’m thinking of the hints at a B’Elanna/Chakotay relationship of early season 2 Voyager — being a Voyager fan means sometimes experiencing disproportionate gratitude when another Trek demonstrates even basic storytelling competence.)

Is this Mary Chieffo’s final appearance in Discovery? I hope not — I love her, and L’Rell. (If they want to keep bringing her back in other roles, I would be quite okay with that.) But the Klingon plot of season one has been resolved: the Empire is united, L’Rell’s position is stable — thanks to Georgiou — and she’s put Voq behind her. Their son is alive, safe, and is even a contented adult with a sense of belonging — something Voq, for one, never quite achieved. This is a good place to leave it, for now.

It helps that we get some great moments this week — Pike’s face when L’Rell and Ash start arguing in Klingon; them interrogating him about their son like amicably divorced parents at a teacher conference.

The weakest moment? For me, it was L’Rell’s line about Ash being in love with Michael. How does she even know? (That Michael and L’Rell have almost no relationship is one of the flaws undermining the season 1 finale, too.) And that is very much the least of the reasons why Ash can’t be with L’Rell.

It felt like something out of fic, where it’s an accepted trope that everyone is aware of, and emotionally engaged with, the author’s OTP. (“Accepted trope” in this case means “I am aware it’s a thing, but I hate it”.)

The strongest moment, coincidentally, also involved Michael — the scene where she learns about Ash’s SECRET BABY. (Sorry, had to do it.) I was afraid this reveal would involve unnecessary drama, and Michael being angry or hurt that she wasn’t given information to which she was not actually entitled.

Instead, her reaction is so graceful, mature and empathetic that I have a wee lump in my throat as I remember it. Back in season 1, she notes that one of the reasons she’s attracted to Ash is his kindness — but it goes both ways. And I’m glad they’re at a point where they can treat each other with kindness. They both need it.

The … other A plot: Pike

Pike’s vision of his future — severely disabled by a terrible training accident that left him with incurable radiation damage — is the bit that everyone’s talking about. (“Everyone” in this case being “the majority of the people I follow on social media, along with a significant proportion of Reddit users and a massive chunk of the hashtag on Twitter”.)

And why not? I, for one, cannot stop thinking about it.

My feelings are … complicated.

Point the first: I have hated this ending for Pike ever since I read a summary of “The Menagerie” as a child. I think I’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating: the depiction of disability in that two-parter was bad in 1966, and it’s worse in 2019.

TrekCore posted this on Sunday, and I nearly used it as the starting point for Yet Another Rant — but decided that Twitter wasn’t the place, and also I didn’t want TrekCore (who seem like good eggs) to feel like they were the target of my anger.

And I also don’t want to point fingers at the Discovery writing team, because I think they’re making a sincere effort to improve the story in some respects. (With one major fail, which I’ll get to.) But the ableism is built into the DNA of it; short of outright changing Pike’s canonical fate, there’s no fixing this.

My issue, in case you somehow managed to miss one of my rants, is that “The Menagerie” asks us to accept that the Federation can build a wheelchair controlled by telepathy, but Pike can still only communicate through simple beeps (one for yes, two for no, not even Morse code). And that, given these limitations, he is better off being kidnapped and left on Talos IV to live out his days with Vina, both enjoying their illusory able bodies.

(By contrast, Doctor Who‘s depiction of a wheelchair user around the same time — 1964 — was as a misanthropic resistance fighter who dies attempting to destroy a Dalek patrol. It’s another case of Disabled And Dead, but at least he gets to speak.)

The Kelvinverse leaned into the “disability means the end of all things” storyline also — apparently being a wheelchair user means Pike is unable to return to command of the Enterprise, and then he’s killed in the first act of Into Darkness.

I appreciate that Discovery is taking steps to make Pike’s fate less awful: building up his connection with Vina, and giving him this opportunity to choose that future.

But Discovery has also given us Airiam, and the assistive technology that enabled her to continue her life and career. And yes, maybe the whole Control thing means they’re pulling back on cybernetic augmentation, but unlike Airiam, Pike’s brain is intact — he wouldn’t need hackable artificial grey matter.

And then there’s Pike’s vision of his future face melting, which is just straight up othering body horror. It’s unnecessary, and completely undermines the attempts to redeem Pike’s fate.

Addendum

I wrote all this out on Tuesday, then sat bolt upright in the early hours of Wednesday morning, thinking, “Iron lungs!”

(I am not over-invested. I am not over-invested. I am not–)

And then, wouldn’t you know it, Disco’s props master tweeted, confirming that Pike’s chair is indeed a life support chair. Which I may have known at some point, but obviously forgot.

This actually changes some things. It’s easy for me, a person born in the ’80s, to forget the impact that polio had on recent generations. But at the time “The Menagerie” was made, iron lungs were still in use — they weren’t common, but they were part of the cultural landscape. (As of 2014, there were ten Americans still using them.)

Recontextualising Pike’s chair, not as a poorly designed futuristic wheelchair, but a mobile life support apparatus, does make it better. And even the conclusion feels like a metaphor for the ways people who used iron lungs lived full intellectual lives — here’s an interview with a woman who has chosen to stay in her iron lung, because she considers it preferable to the more modern alternatives, but maintains a life and friendships and education. (The article is rich with subtextual inspiration porn, but is nonetheless interesting.)

But it’s still quite bad in 2019, and the face melting truly doesn’t help.

Back to what I was saying…

Nevertheless. Without excusing any of the stuff I dislike, I adore the characterisation of Pike here: fearful, haunted, yet willing to do the right thing. He’s going to save those cadets, knowing that the outcome will be disfigurement and pain and — as he rather neutrally puts it — “a fate he didn’t expect”. But now he has this burden of anticipation that he can’t share.

I’ve liked Pike since I saw “The Cage” as a kid, but this is the first time I’ve been really engaged emotionally with his character. I’ve been missing the ambiguity of Lorca — Pike was too straightforward to really hook me in the way Lorca did. He has integrity down to his bones, which is exactly what the series has needed, but I like the push and pull of a character with secrets and conflicting needs.

Now? He’s still a decent, kind person, but he’s haunted by his own future. Tumblr user captainpikeachu — whom I recommend for both meta and Anson Mount-endorsed shitposting — has pointed out how even the lighting in his ready room is darker and colder after he sees the future. This is the complexity I’ve been waiting for!

A final note on ableism: in Tenavik, we finally have an albino character who’s not a fanatic, nor a homicidal monster. He’s just a man doing his (unusual) job. This is sadly rare in all media, not just Star Trek.

So … you win some, you lose some in the representation stakes. Which I guess brings me to–

The C plot: Jett, Hugh, Paul

On the one hand, Jett Reno had a wife, is confirmed as a queer woman.

On the other hand, her wife was killed in the war, adding to the very long list of Tragically Dead Queer Women In Media.

Like I said. You win some, you lose some. And the thing about tropes is that an individual example isn’t necessarily harmful, especially if it serves the story. Which I think, in this case, it does: it parallels Jett with Paul, enables her to empathise with him and connect with Hugh. But in the aggregate — and pop culture sure does have a lot of dead queer women — it’s … bad.

I don’t think that one aspect necessarily cancels out the other; I’m trying to be less black and white in my thinking. But it’s complicated.

These issues aside, this subplot consisted of two excellent scenes. First we get to see the crew hanging out as friends, which is lovely — although I’m not sure that Linus’s prosthetics can accommodate eating, and I also have questions about his ability to digest fries. But of course these nerds are into word games. This is exactly the sort of organic supporting character business that was missing from the first few episodes of season 2.

Jett’s scene with Hugh in sickbay was also great. Oddly, I didn’t have that “why does she even care about this?” reaction that I got with L’Rell commenting on Ash/Michael, or even Spock’s observations about Hugh and Paul a few weeks ago. Maybe I’m just deeply cynical, and persuaded that Jett is partially motivated by self-interest.

Mostly I’m a sucker for misadventures in wedding planning, so Jett and Hugh’s list of reasons their partners made it hard appealed to me on that very base level.

(We’ve never had any previous sign that Paul and Hugh are married — until further notice, I choose to believe that they were engaged, but planning foundered on the shoals of Paul’s micromanagement, and also Hugh died.)

I’ve seen criticism that Jett was basically telling Hugh to put his own needs aside and cater to Paul (so that she can work with him more easily) — and I can see it, but I don’t actually think that was her sole motivation. And I don’t think that’s what the show is telling us he should do — it’s not as if Hugh turned around and went straight to Paul. She was just giving him a fresh datapoint. And the opportunity to consider how he would feel if Paul was the one to die.

Other observations

  • Time is running out for my Tilly ‘n’ Spock interaction, dammit!
  • Also, Tilly was notably absent in this episode. Which … honestly, felt like a relief. I think she’s been a bit flanderised this season, and the writers need to pull back and remember that, yes, she’s nervous, brilliant and talks a lot, but she’s also wise and thoughtful.
  • It is confirmed — as if there was ever any doubt — that Spock has been on speaking terms with his mother for all the years of his estrangement from Sarek.
  • Amanda puts on her Virgin Mary outfit to talk to her kids because she has that whole Holy Mother thing happening.
  • Spock has his arm in a sling at the end — usually in Star Trek, we see broken bones healed instantly. But there’s usually something about resting it for a few days, and I can easily see Dr Pollard going, “I’ve met your sister, I know how ‘resting’ works in your family. It’s going in a sling.”
  • Hey, you know what we still haven’t heard about? The discarded apple core in Section 31 headquarters. Was that just a super-obscure red herring?
  • Is it weird that I don’t really care about the red bursts? The Angel has always been far more interesting. I’ll probably change my mind when we find out who is behind them. Right now, they feel like an anonymous force of nature.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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