Star Trek Discovery Visits Vulcan in “Light and Shadow”

Even though the Nebula Award debate has dominated the past two days, there also was a new episode of Star Trek Discovery last night. And if you want to see my posts about previous episodes of Star Trek Discovery, go here.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut!

“Light and Shadow” starts where the previous episode, “A Sound of Thunder” left off, with Michael setting off for Vulcan to continue the search for Spock, while the Discovery is still in orbit around Saru’s homeworld Kaminar, just in case the Red Angel decides to drop by. Oh, and in case you’re wondering whether the fall-out of Saru and the Discovery violating the Prime Directive in a massive way by forcibly kickstarting the evolution of an entire race and likely thrusting them into a war with their former oppressors they’re not at all prepared for is at all addressed, the answer is “no”. Not even Saru seems to pay any mind to what is happening to his fellow Kelpians. It’s almost as if the previous episode never happened.

The Discovery does not find the Red Angel, but instead it finds a time rift. Or rather a time rift finds the Discovery and starts warping time, endangering the ship. Pike decides to investigate the rift by sending in a probe and – when the probe doesn’t come back – he decides to fly in himself in a shuttle together with Ash Tyler, who is now back aboard Discovery as a Section 31 liaison officer. Not that Pike really wants Ash around – he dislikes Section 31 and doesn’t trust Ash, not entirely without reason, because Ash did after Hugh Culber in a fit of Klingon rage all kill, even if he was literally not himself at the time.

Two crewmembers who don’t like each other get into a shuttle together to investigate a cosmic anomaly. What can possibly go wrong? The answer is everything, because “two characters at odds with each other are trapped in a shuttle in a dangerous situation” is a very classic Star Trek plot. And so the shuttle with Ash and Pike aboard gets sucked into the rift – largely due to the fact Pike and Ash can’t stop arguing about how to pilot the damned thing. Maybe Pike should just have let Ash fly – after all, it was established last season that whatever else Ash is, he’s certainly something of an ace pilot.

The entire plotline of Pike and Ash trapped together in a shuttle in a time rift only exists to get the two to talk through their issues. One could have locked the two up in a cabin aboard the Discovery together and have had the exact same result, though without the cool special effect of the Discovery‘s probe time-warped into some kind of monstruous tentacled thing that tries to destroy the shuttle and the Discovery (shades of Nomad and V’ger there).

Basically, Pike dislikes Ash, because he views him as a representative of Section 31. And Pike believes that Section 31 violates the Starfleet ideals he holds so dear. Luckily, Pike sat out season 1 of Star Trek Discovery with the Enterprise somewhere at the other end of the quadrant or he might have gotten his illusions about Starfleet and its vaunted ideals shattered much sooner.

Ash, meanwhile, seems to have taken a crash course in shitty internet arguments and accuses Pike of being racist towards him, because he’s Klingon. And besides, Pike is only pissed that he got to sit out the entire war with the Klingons and now wants to take out his frustrations on Ash, not to mention compensate for his feeling useless during the war by going on dangerous missions by himself rather than sending the nearest redshirt. Ash isn’t wrong, at least on the last bit, but it’s still a dickhead response. I very much want the Ash Tyler we got for a few episodes in season 1, before he turned into Voq and murdered Hugh Culber, back. Because I really liked that Ash Tyler. This latest reiteration of Ash, however, is just a jerk (though he has great hair and fabulous beard) and can just as well piss off back to Section 31 or L’Rell or wherever. Though it’s certainly interesting that Ash starts speaking Klingon in times of stress. Also, am I the only person who remembers, let alone cares about Ash’s Klingon secret baby? Because Ash sure as hell doesn’t.

Not that Star Trek hasn’t gotten a lot of mileage out of “two people who dislike each other are trapped together in a dangerous situation that may or may not involve a shuttle and come to a grudging respect for each other” over the years. Besides, Anson Mount (and I was sceptical, when Mount’s casting was announced, because he didn’t really covince me as non-speaking Black Bolt in Inhumans and an equally non-speaking assassin in Hawaii Five-Oh) and Shazad Latif do a fine job and and the conversation between Ash and Pike could have been really good, if it hadn’t been so rushed, because “Light and Shadow” has to divide its fairly short run-time between this plotline and Michael’s adventures back on Vulcan. I’m still not sure which of those two plots is “light” and which is “shadow”, by the way, though Camestros Felapton believes that the time rift plot is “light” and the Michael on Vulcan plot is “shadow”. But as it is, Pike and Ash trade a few barbs, before they are attacked by the probe turned techno-tentacle monster (honestly, what is it with transformed space probes in Star Trek?) and have work together to survive and of course bond over the shared danger. Not that I mind this at all, but the bonding does come a bit too abruptly. Ditching the Michael plot for one week (or stretching it out) and focussing on this one would have made for a better episode.

Meanwhile, the Discovery is trying hard to rescue Pike and Ash, but the temporal rift makes beaming them out impossible, as temporal rifts are want to do. So Stamets beams in (and as Zack Handlen points out in his review, how come that Stamets can be beamed in, but Ash and Pike cannot be beamed out?) and uses his tardigrade and magic mushroom drive derived mad navigation skills and unique sensitivity to temporal anomalies (first demonstrated in the fine time loop episode last season) to rescue them. And just in case you’re wondering how Stamets feels about rescuing the man/Klingon who was responsible for the death of his life partner (though Dr. Culber got better), well, you’ll be left wondering, because the episode doesn’t address this either. For that matter, if you’re wondering how Hugh Culber is coping with being killed, spending months trapped in the magic mushroom dimension and then being resurrected in a brand new body – well, keep wondering, because “Light and Shadow” sure as hell doesn’t let us know.

And so Ash and Pike are rescued in the nick of time before the time rift explodes (and if you’re wondering how this affects Kaminar and the poor Kelpians who already have enough crap to deal with without an exploding temporal anomaly in their orbit, well, keep wondering). However, the freaky time-warp morphed probe has infected the shuttle’s computer, which infects the Discovery‘s computer, fire walls apparently being unknown in the future, which in turn infects Lieutenant Airiam. Yes, right, the cybernetic member of the bridge crew who looks a little like a crashtest dummy. Not that I mind seeing Airiam getting more to do – she’s a potentially interesting character. But I have a strong suspicion where this particular plotline will be going (can you say Borg?) and I don’t like it at all. Airiam deserves better. Not to mention that The Orville just did their version of the Borg plot and did it really well, too.

Meanwhile, back on Vulcan, Michael shows up at her foster parents’ home in search of Spock (and I really like the interpretation of the classic Star Trek miniskirt Michael wears throughout the Vulcan scenes). Why she thinks he might be there is anybody’s guess, since it doesn’t really make sense for someone wanted for murder (long story) to hide in the first place anybody would look for him. However, this time Michael does get lucky, because Spock is indeed on Vulcan.

Yes, folks, we finally found Spock!

But don’t get your hopes up yet, because it’s complicated. Because while Sarek is telepathically scanning for Spock, Amanda has him hidden away in a shielded cave/shrine nearby. However, she worries that Sarek will hand Spock over to the oh-so-merciful Federation authorities, so she doesn’t tell him. But once Michael arrives, Amanda takes her to see Spock, because she’s at her wits’ end. For it turns out that Spock has a nervous breakdown and is completely catatonic muttering a seemingly random string of numbers over and over again. He even scribbles the numbers onto the walls along with drawings of the Red Angel. Michael spontaneously hugs her long lost brother, but he doesn’t even notice her.

However, Sarek has followed Amanda and Michael and walks in on them, which leads to an epic standoff in which Amanda tells Sarek that she is her own person and that he doesn’t get to tell her what to do. But in the end, Sarek persuades Michael and Amanda to hand Spock over to the Federation authorities, because Spock is clearly not well. And besides, if they are caught harbouring a fugitive and potential murderer, Michael may have to go back to prison, too, and Sarek won’t loose both his children in one day (oh, so now he cares. Also what about his third child, the still unseen and mentioned Sybok?).

Okay, so that last bit shows that Sarek does have more emotions than your average Vulcan and that he maybe does care for his kids, but he still seems to be gunning for that Darth Vader Parenthood Award with the desperation of a very sad and rabid puppy. Also, while I have never had any problems understanding why Sarek married Amanda, I honestly wonder why Amanda puts up with Sarek. Cause in her shoes, I would have grabbed the children and legged it back to Earth years ago. Though I finally understand why Spock never mentions any member of his family, unless they unexpectedly show up and he has no other choice. Because honestly, those people are fucked up.

So Michael and Sarek contact Section 31, because handing a catatonic family member over to Starfleet’s amoral black ops division (so black ops that they have black badges and always wear black) is obviously a great idea. Leland, i.e. the guy who occasionally stands next to Philippa Georgiou in the Section 31 scenes and apparently was friends with Pike back at the academy, assures Michael that Spock will be treated well and not harmed. But then Philippa Georgiou suddenly appears in her typical deus-ex-machine way (maybe I should start referring to her as Georgiou-ex-machina) and tells Michael that Leland plans to basically vivisect Spock’s brain (now that is a call back to an episode I never expected to see referenced ever again). Oh yes, and just in case Michael is still inclined to doubt Georgiou-ex-machina (who is after all a homicidal, Saru-eating tyrant from a parallel universe), Georgiou also reveals that Leland was involved in the death of Michael’s parents (huh? I though that was the Klingons).

Is she telling the truth? Who knows? On the one hand, Philippa Georgiou seems to be fond of Michael in any universe, on the other hand she also wants to oust Leland to gain control of Section 31 for herself. At any rate, she persuades Michael to grab Spock and run, which leads to a beautiful, if staged fight between Michael and Georgiou. Yes, “Light and Shadow” has a Michelle Yeoh fight scene, which is always worth watching. Though Leland should figure out that the escape was staged soon enough, if only because there is no universe in which Michelle Yeoh loses a fight to anybody.

The episode ends with Michael and a still catatonic Spock on the run once more. However, Michael finally figures out the significance of the numbers Spock is mumbling over and over again. Because it turns out that Spock has a dyslexia like learning disability (which made his childhood on Vulcan even more hell than usual) and has reversed the numbers. And once Michael enters the numbers, which turn out to be coordinates, in the proper order into the computer, out pops Talos IV – yes, the planet featured in the unaired pilot “The Cage” and the original series episode “The Menagerie” – you know, the one place in the universe you’re not supposed to visit on pain of death, courtesy of the Federation’s massively fucked up justice system. So much for Sarek’s worries that Michael will have to go back to prison, cause now she’s setting herself (and Spock, for that matter) up for execution.

I guess we should be excited about the return to Talos IV, especially since Pike, the Star Trek character most associated with that planet, will likely be along for the journey as well. However, I can’t muster that much excitement for a trip to Talos IV. For starters, I never found Talos IV all that interesting. The fact that landing there is punishable by death is literally the most interesting thing about that place, more interesting than the planet itself. Besides, the three episodes featuring the planet may be famous, but they aren’t all that good. I mean, the Talosians manipulate people and let them see illusions to lure them into their cosmic zoo. That’s an old SF chestnut and one that should never have gone beyond a single episode. Not to mention that the return to Talos IV seems like just another gratuitous reference to the original series, in a show that is already full of them. Besides, everything being connected to Spock and the Enterprise also makes Discovery feel claustrophobic. Yes, Discovery is a prequel, but must they remind us of that fact at every turn? Why not tell more stories that are uniquely Discovery stories (even if they involve magic mushroom weirdness) rather than rehashes of old episodes?

What is more, after all the teasing, the return of Spock feels anticlimactic, because the mumbling catatonic Spock is more plot device than person in this episode. I mean, Spock is literally a walking numbers station who only exists to deliver the next plot coupon. Both the character and actor Ethan Peck (grandson of Gregory) deserve better.

Once more, I make the episode sound worth than it actually was. Because in what is rapidly becoming a pattern with season 2 of Star Trek Discovery, this episode was perfectly enjoyable (and the cast is always a joy to watch), but then falls apart, once you start to think about it. It also continues Discovery’s infuriating habit, carried over from season 1, to forget entire plotlines for episodes on end or drop them altogether (what exactly became of the glowing blue energy beings that brainwashed Saru in season 1 or for that matter the prison shuttle pilot Camestros Felapton always wondered about?).

Still, I guess next episode we return to Talos IV once more, whether we (and Spock and Pike and everybody aboard the Discovery) want to or not.

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