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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Perpetual Infinity” and “Through the Valley of Shadows”

We’re heading into the home stretch of Star Trek: Discovery season two.  I’m finding things to enjoy in every episode, but the show is far shakier than I’d hoped (and that the stronger episodes at the start of the season had led me to anticipate).

Episode 10: “Perpetual Infinity” — after two episodes I was not that into, things picked up significantly in this installment, which I enjoyed quite a lot.  (For the most part.  As usual, there are some storytelling decisions that make me crazy.)

The heart of this episode, Burnham’s emotional reunion with the mother she thought long-dead, and the story of what happened to Dr. Gabrielle Burnham in the intervening years, is very strong.  While the device of Burnham’s watching her mother’s logs stretched credulity a bit (both that the logs captured all of this critical information and that Burnham would have the time to sit and watch all these hours of logs while a race-against-the-clock crisis was unfolding), emotionally the scenes worked.  I loved the opening flashback of Michael Burnham’s memories of her last happy moments with her parents, and I enjoyed the structure of following Gabrielle’s life in the series of flashbacks interspersed into the episode.  Guest star Sonja Sohn (Kima from The Wire!!!) was fantastic.  The strength and believability of her performance is a huge component of this episode working.  The other component is Sonequa Martin-Green, who is absolutely spectacular in every moment of this episode.  Ms. Martin-Green has, from the beginning, been one of the best aspects of this show.  She is amazingly talented, and while the show has veered perilously close into soap opera territory with the number of reasons they’ve given Michael Burnham to cry this season, I was gripped by the visceral emotion Ms. Martin-Green brought to every moment in this episode, particularly the scenes she shared with her mom.

I was happy that we get a satisfactory answer to why Gabrielle, who was in possession of a time-travel suit, couldn’t have done more to actually affect positive change to the time-line.  I’d been wondering this for weeks, and the answer (that after been shunted a millennia into the future, Gabrielle couldn’t spent more than a few moments in the past before being snapped back to that future time) is reasonably satisfactory.  (There ARE still plenty of problems with this time-travel story; see below.)

Spock is finally acting like Spock, and I found myself enjoying Ethan Peck’s performance more than ever.  This Spock is smart, calm, and kind, the way Spock should be.  Spock had several great moments with Burnham this week, but the best was the their terrific final scene together, in which Spock quietly re-sets the three-dimensional chess board.  I loved that, and I loved the final moment of Burnham that ended the episode.  (“The board is yours.”)

While the idea of Control’s infecting Leland is silly, I thought the Control-infected-Leland was a genuinely threatening, scary villain.  I like that he seemed to be ahead of our heroes at almost every point.  I have been complaining vociferously about Mirror Georgiou all season, and while her turn into altruism continues to feel totally out of character, I do like that this character is being depicted in a more three-dimensional way than the all-evil version we’d seen earlier.  Her emotion for Burnham seems real, and I loved the small arc of her turn against Leland in this episode — and their hand-to-hand fight was fantastic.

Speaking of characters who’d been annoying me all season long who I actually found tolerable this week: Ash Tyler!  Wow, I actually found Ash to be sort of bad-ass in his unflappable response to Georgiou’s contacting him on an encrypted channel and suggesting they turn on Leland.  Can this character actually be turned into someone I don’t hate?  Let’s see…  (I’m not sure how he survived his fight with Control/Leland — there was an awful lot of blood pouring out of his stomach after Leland stabbed him!!  But I suspect he survived.)

What doesn’t work?  Mostly it boils down to what I have described before as a continuing narrative laziness, in which the Discovery writers seem unwilling to be bothered to take the time and attention that is needed to make these fantastic sci-fi stories actually work.  If you’re going to tell a time travel story, you have to take the time (ha) to really figure everything out and make sure everything works.  But the revelations of this episode led to many, many problems and unanswered questions.  How did Gabrielle survive, alone in all the universe, after getting zapped to the future?  What did she eat?  How did she visit Earth and all the other planets she went to?  (Her time travel suit can move her through time, but one needs a starship to move through space.)  How did she learn that the A.I. Control was responsible for the destruction of the universe?  How did she know so much about young Burnham and Spock’s lives, to the extent that she knew that, for instance, the exact moment that Burnham was being menaced by a wild animal on Vulcan?  How did she know that Burnham was in danger at the end of last week’s episode (and, if she knew that part, why didn’t she know that it was a trap)?

Also, while I emotionally like the idea that what Spock saw as his weaknesses (his dual heritage, his dyslexia) were proven to be his strengths, I don’t at all actually understand why Spock’s was the only mind that could handle the future visions that Gabrielle showed him.  That doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

Finally, I am concerned that the Control-infected Leland bares an uncomfortable similarity to a Borg.  He’s infected by nanites; the computer-bits poking through his face at times visually resemble the look of Borg implants, and he says, at one point, “struggle is useless” (which sounds an awful lot like “resistance is futile”).  If this is just an attempt at fan-pleasing homage, fine.  But if Discovery is about to reveal that the Borg began as a human-created A.I. infecting a human being, I am going to be very, very, very upset.

Other thoughts:

* Considering this show has tried to make me care about a Burnham-Tyler relationship that I find mostly annoying, I was shocked there were no scenes at the end of this episode about Burnham’s being at all concerned about — or even aware of — Tyler’s being grievously wounded by Control/Leland.

* The final moments of real-Leland, before he gets injected by nanites, were horrific (in the best possible way) — a very surprising moment of horror, unusual for Trek!  I also loved the effects shot of Control’s nanites streaming into his body.

* Another example of the narrative laziness that drives me up a wall: the scene in which we see that Tyler is having a conversation with Leland about betraying Discovery on a PUBLIC console on one of the ship’s corridors!  (We see that it’s a public space when the camera pulls back and we see a shot of the wheelchair-bound crewman zipping by.)  Whaaaat??  Come on, guys, that scene should have been set in a private space like, I dunno, how about Tyler’s quarters??

* I’m a little bummed that Saru and Pike and the other Discovery characters have faded back into the background for the past few episodes.  I hope they are all given more to do before the end of the season.  (And why, despite all the pre-season hullabaloo about her, have we only gotten one measly, mostly-pointless scene of Rebecca Romijn’s Number One (eating a hamburger) this whole season???  I’d thought she’d be a MUCH bigger part of this year’s story.)

* It’s interesting to see Dr. Culber back in uniform and acting totally normally.  I’m happy to see this character readjusting, but this feels like a huge leap from where we’d seen Culber last.

* I loved the moment in which Spock quoted Hamlet — and Burnham’s reaction was also great!

Episode 11: “Through the Valley of Shadows” — Ugh.  Discovery continually frustrates me because it just can’t seem to get into a groove.  The previous episode had a lot of problems, but the core of the character drama between Burnham and her mother was terrific.  I was hoping this next episode would build on that, but instead we get more dumb Klingon stuff and a fairly pointless side-trip for Burnham and Spock.

I can’t believe how Discovery has taken Star Trek’s greatest alien race, the Klingons, and destroyed them so thoroughly to the point that I wince whenever a Klingon is on-screen on this show.  I still can’t get over how terrible every Klingon character looks (L’Rell is a wonderful alien design, but this is NOT a Klingon!!), but things went from terrible to, well, even more terrible when we went down to Boreth.  At the start of the episode, I dared to hope.  There’s a beautiful shot of L’Rell’s flagship alongside Discovery and — wonder of wonders! — it actually looked like a Klingon ship, the first time we’ve EVER seen a Klingon ship on Discovery that looks even remotely like what a Klingon ship should look like.  I loved the look of Boreth from space, and the exterior shots of the monastery were cool.  But then we got the head monk, looking like Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II… and we got the absurd ret-con that the Boreth monastery actually hides an abundance of time crystals.  Aaargh!!

Where do I even begin?  This “time crystal” bullshit feels like complete anti-Trek.  For the past 50 years of this franchise, all (or at least most) of the crazy made-up Trek “science” has been based in some sort of actual scientific fact, even if it’s stretched to a ridiculous extreme (as it occasionally was by some of the less-talented writers).  But this “time crystal” silliness is pure fantasy.  The idea that the Klingons have had control of these magic rocks that allow for time travel is crazy.  You’re telling me Klingon warriors would never have used the power of these crystals to conquer their enemies?  You’re telling me that Worf, we we know visited Boreth many times (and spent months there between the destruction of the Enterprise-D and his arrival on Deep Space Nine, according to dialogue in “The Way of the Warrior”) never noticed these time crystals?  You’re telling me that, despite so many past Star Trek episodes, across different series, consistently depicting that time travel and temporal distortions can be picked up on starship sensors (the Enterprise detected the waves emanating from the planet of the Guardian of Forever back in the Original Series, as just one example, and the 24th century-set Trek shows repeatedly referred to “tachyons”), that the Discovery, or any other alien ship passing nearby over the years, wouldn’t have noticed anything weird happening on Boreth?  Come on.

How exactly has L’Rell and Voq’s tiny baby grown into an old man in a matter of months?  If everyone on the planet ages that fast, the monks would all be dead inside of a year!  They show a tree grow from a seed in instants… but why aren’t Pike or any of the people in the corridor affected in that moment?  None of that makes any sense.  Nor do I understand why Tenavek (L’Rell and Voq’s grown albino Klingon son) even lets Pike — a human, Starfleet captain — into the chamber of the time crystals, nor why he actually lets Pike take a crystal away.  Pike showed bravery by facing a horrible future, but why would this Klingon care, and why would he trust anyone to take a crystal away from the monastery?  (I thought the whole idea of the ret-con of Boreth was that the existence of the crystals was a tightly-kept secret?)  And why add the fake drama of Tenavek telling Pike that his terrible future can possibly be avoided, but not if he takes the crystal?  How would Pike’s future be avoided if he didn’t take the crystal?  That doesn’t seem possible.  None of this makes any sense to me.

Also — didn’t we, um, see Tyler murdered (or, at least, grievously wounded) by Leland/Control at the end of last week’s episode?  How is he totally hunky-dory this week, with not a single mention of what happened?

The only thing that works is the flash-forward to the tragedy in which Pike is crippled by radiation, as alluded to in the Original Series episode “The Menagerie.”  That is a shocking moment, viscerally gripping.  As is the follow-up moment in which Pike confronts his future self, mutilated and trapped in a chair.  These were beautifully created sequences, with lovely connections to the Original Series.  And yet, even in these few moments of the episode that work, I am sort of bummed that Discovery is missing out on opportunities to expand what we know of the character of Christopher Pike, and instead keeps returning to the few things we already knew about him (that he had an adventure on Talos, and that he’d eventually get crippled by radiation poisoning).  I also hate the idea that Pike lives the rest of his life knowing that is his future.

Burnham and Spock’s side-trip to track a Section 31 ship isn’t much better.  We get some gorgeous visual effects shots, a surprising return of Burnham’s Shenzhou cremate Kamran Gant, and it turns into an exciting, tense encounter when Spock and Burnham find themselves in combat with the Control-controlled (that is weird to write) Gant.  But I don’t like that the whole point of this story is to show, yet again, how Burnham is the most important person in the universe.  And I just don’t buy that Spock and Burnham could make it off that Control-controlled section 31 ship alive.  There are a hundred ways that Control could have used it’s complete control over the ship to disable and defeat Spock and Burnham.  (Heck, why not gas them, since they insisted on walking around WITHOUT their spacesuit helmets on the entire time??)  Why waste time with the ruse pretending to be Gant?  Why does Spock trust, for one single second, the computer readouts on a ship that THEY KNOW IS BEING CONTROLLED BY THE A.I. CONTROL??  And while the shots of Control/Gant turning all T-1000 (rebuilding itself when Burnham blasts phaser holes through its chest, and eventually turning into a stream of liquid metal, um, I mean a swarm of nanites) looked cool and were exciting, this all felt very derivative to me.

But even in a bad episode, there are still moments that I enjoyed:

* Though I didn’t like the context, I will say as I did above that I loved the glimpse into the tragedy that ends Pike’s Starfleet career.  It was very cool and emotionally affecting to see that brought to life.

* It was nice to see Amanda again (though weird that the show is ignoring the huge Amanda-Sarek fight that was happening when we last saw them).

* Tig Notaro’s Jet Reno returns, thankfully!  Ms. Notaro’s character continues to be, possibly, the best character on the show, interesting and funny and complex.  I love that they establish that Jet is a lesbian.

* I liked the scene in the Discovery mess hall, seeing everyone eating together and happy.  After several appearances earlier in the season, I was starting to wonder where the Saurian, Linus, was, so I was happy to see him back here.  (Though I hope they stop treating his character as a joke and actually start fleshing him out.)

* Finally, someone (Burnham) makes the logical suggestion that, if they want to destroy the Sphere data and they can’t remove it from the Discovery’s computers (as established in the previous episode), then they should consider destroying Discovery.  Nice cliffhanger…!

Here are the links to my reviews of Star Trek: Discovery season two so far:

Episode 1 “Brother” & Episode 2 “New Eden”

Episode 3 “Point of Light” & Episode 4 “An Obol for Charon”

Episode 5 “Saints of Imperfection”

Episode 6 “The Sound of Thunder”

Episode 7 “Light and Shadows” & Episode 8 “If Memory Serves”

Episode 9 “Project Daedalus” & Episode 10 “The Red Angel”

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