I'm finding the serial nature of Discovery — particularly the past few weeks where the episodes are more chapter-like with incremental arc progress than they are episodic standalones — is starting to make the reviewing process somewhat more tedious as we reach the end of the season. There are only so many ways I can say I was moderately entertained by an hour of sci-fi action-adventure while shrugging at the big picture because it's deferred for yet another week.
But that's the MO of this series. Advance the plot in mechanically incremental but not especially substantively groundbreaking ways (because we still have two episodes after this one). Deliver some decent dialogue scenes. Reveal a somewhat significant character insight. Have a major action set-piece. End on a cliffhanger that teases us for next week. This, as I say nearly every time, is adequately diverting. But it's becoming considerably less interesting to write about as the season goes on. I've reached the point where I want to know what the destination is. The journey documenting Control's desire to take over the galaxy has probably gone on long enough — and an evil AI devoid of any plausible motivation for its plan to wipe out all life is not particularly compelling as villains go.
In the case of "Through the Valley of Shadows," we've also got L'Rell and the Klingons brought back into the mix. That seemed like a bad sign (after "Point of Light," this season has largely and wisely steered clear of the Klingons), but this episode handles it better than expected. The Klingons are still dour, humorless, and boring, but at least they aren't pointlessly antagonistic. (This might be the first episode of this series featuring Klingons but no Klingon-induced violence.) But something has got to be done with L'Rell's voice. I don't know what they've done to poor Mary Chieffo, but she perpetually sounds like she's been tasked with delivering a speech after having been given a mouthful of novocaine injections.
One of the mysterious red-burst signals has appeared over the Klingon colony of Boreth, which is coincidentally the place with the Klingon monastery where Tyler's and L'Rell's infant son was left orphaned to the monks in order to sidestep L'Rell's political problems. Neither Tyler nor L'Rell can be seen going to the surface to be seen anywhere near their son, because reasons. So Pike goes down with the mission to recover from the monastery one of their mysterious time crystals, which can be, I dunno, used to do something that will help us defeat Control? I probably missed the details. Bottom line: The plot needs one.
In the monastery, Pike meets an albino Klingon named Tenavik (Kenneth Mitchell, playing a character whose name is spelled like a prescription drug and whose makeup and costume design look like he stepped off the set of The Lord of the Rings). Tenavik is actually the son of Tyler and L'Rell, born mere months ago but already aged to an adult on Boreth because of his proximity to the time crystals. Tenavik tells Pike he must pay a price to remove a time crystal from the monastery. That price is one to be paid in the future; Pike sees a future vision in which he is badly injured as a result of a future catastrophe — the one that will leave him horribly disfigured and disabled as we know him from "The Menagerie." The way Pike experiences this vision is horrifyingly evocative.
It's simultaneously the most interesting and substantive thing about this episode and yet also a completely plot-imposed because-we-said-so pronouncement. Tenavik says taking the crystal will ensure Pike's vision will come true as a matter of destiny. But logically speaking, couldn't Pike merely change his fate by making different future choices (like not serving aboard a starship)? I guess the point is that he won't, because he chooses his duty and the mission above his own future well-being, now and presumably for all points in the future up to and including the moment he is injured. I like that this episode frames Pike's inevitable incapacitation as a fate he is willing to choose for the greater good. Anson Mount has been good all season and is good here as well, imbuing the captain with virtue and humanity.
The B-plot in which Burnham and Spock go after Leland's ship (which they find has had its entire crew jettisoned into space, save one survivor) is straightforward sci-fi action — competent but nothing worth writing home about. It gives this episode some hardware to play as a counterpoint to the other plot's mysticism. The fact that Control can use nanobots to assume anyone's identity is employed here to run a con on Burnham and Spock — one I'm unsure why is necessary. For some reason, Control wants to take over Burnham's identity. Because It's All About Burnham.
While this show always manages to milk a certain level of suspense from its action with pure technique, there's a reliance here on off-the-shelf tropes that feels hoary. Things like the killer who talks and gives the heroes time to act, when he should be doing more killing. Or the way the sound of Control's host body's voice suddenly takes on an electronic quality simply to up the menace. (There's no logical reason for him to stop sounding human just because the jig is up.) Or when Control has the needle just inches from Burnham's eye, before Spock comes in to save her at the last minute. Naturally, our heroes escape. Naturally, Control is not yet defeated. After all, we still have two episodes left. But the longer this goes on, the more it feels like stalling.
The cliffhanger has all of Section 31's ships — apparently now under Control's, um, control — closing in on Discovery's position to retrieve the sphere data once and for all. Things look grim. Well, grim enough to cut to black until next week.
Some other thoughts:
- I'm glad someone (oh, who are we kidding; it was Burnham) finally voiced the idea that destroying Discovery might be a way to destroy the sphere data and keep it out of Control's hands. Maybe they were just waiting for things to get really desperate before resorting to that plan.
- The repartee between Spock and Burnham has improved as the season has gone on. Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck have developed a rapport that's working better, and their dialogue, now that their deeper sibling troubles have been mostly resolved, has settled into a groove.
- Tyler. Still this cast's least valuable player. The fact the writers can't even find a way to have him properly engage in the plot that brings him back to his son is just kind of sad. (But at least that gives Pike center stage.)
- I really hope the red bursts are explained before this is all over, and they aren't simply a plot device used to move everyone from A to B to W.
- The conceit that Control's nanobot shot must be injected into the eyeball is given no rationale whatsoever. It's just one of those kewl sci-fi horror ideas for the sake of itself.
- The mysteriously MIA Jett Reno returns, with a better appearance here than her last outing. While I think Tig Notaro plays her too abrasively one-note with the snideness, we see a gradation of that personality when she visits Culber in sickbay and plays the "I loved someone too but didn't get a second chance because she died" card. Culber finds that's a hard card to argue against.
- There's still a vaguely episodic structure to all of Discovery's outings, in that there's some goal or task or setting that is unique among the serialized arc backdrop. But I'm finding the back half of the season has more of a sameness to it than the first half. Here's hoping these last two episodes pick up the slack and send us out with some notable intrigue.