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Burnham heads home for an awkward family reunion on Star Trek: Discovery

Illustration for article titled Burnham heads home for an awkward family reunion on Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: Michael Gibson (CBS)
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There’s a moment midway through “Light And Shadows” that typifies much of my problems with the show. Chief Engineer Stamets beams on board a shuttle in the middle of a time anomaly. He’s there to try and rescue Captain Pike and Ash Tyler with his advanced navigation skills—spore drives and tardigrades and what not. The trick is an odd one, considering that if it was possible to beam Stamets in, surely it would be possible to beam Pike and Tyler out; but let’s just assume the calculations were too tricky to save both of them, and let it go. No, what bothers me is when Stamets tells Pike he beamed on board “ten minutes from now.” It sounds clever, but it’s functionally meaningless. There’s no sense of him being ahead or behind of the two people on the shuttle, and the situation is resolved fairly readily without much more in the way of crazy time manipulation.


There’s no reason for the line to be there that I can see, other than someone thought it would be a good joke. And maybe I’m being too hard on it; maybe it is just a joke. But in context it reads like it’s supposed to have meaning, but that meaning proves entirely irrelevant. If the show was interested in doing time travel shenanigans (something it already did in the previous season, albeit to better effect), it could put in the effort to something actually interesting or unexpected. Instead, it just pretends it’s being smart and keeps moving.

“Light And Shadows” is less immediately frustrating than “Sound of Thunder.” Its two main plotlines have a narrower focus, and one of them—crew has to work together to save their own from certain doom—is such a familiar and comforting structure that it almost works in spite of itself. There aren’t many decisions here with the scope of last week’s stupidity, and that’s a relief. (Notice how Pike mentions the Discovery is going to stick around the planet, but solely to get more readings about the Red Angel signal? Almost as though no one involved in the writing thought it was worth addressing the fallout from the whole “let’s start a global war where one side is technologically advanced, and the other side has neat neck spine thingies” thing. Saru doesn’t even mention it.)

Oh, and we finally meet nu-Spock. Burnham gets super lucky on her trip to Vulcan: her step-brother is already home, hidden by his mother in a cave with rocks that block out telepathic vibes. Unfortunately, nu-Spock is in the middle of a kind of Vulcan nervous breakdown. All he can do is repeat the tenets of logic and a string of numbers to himself, over and over and over again. Amanda has kept him away from Sarek for fear that he’d turn him over to the Federation, and her fears are well-justified.

All of this is more or less fine. We get a brief glimpse into Amanda and Sarek’s relationship, which is always interesting, and meeting nu-Spock in the middle of a nervous breakdown ramps up the tension a little. Of course, it can’t be that tense, since Spock is one of the key figures in the entire franchise, and the threat of him losing his mind, or being a murderer, doesn’t hold a lot of weight. It’s part of the problem of doing a prequel like this and involving major characters from later shows. It’s possible to be curious how all of this will work out, but there’s no way to have a visceral connection to what’s supposedly the linchpin of the narrative. Spoiler alert: Spock will be fine.

Really, the emotional focus should be on Burnham. And the writers are trying, but the more time we spend trying to build up her connection to her step-brother, the emptier it all feels. It’s like the half-brother who showed up in Star Trek V, only worse because it’s spread out over multiple episodes. (Speaking of Sybok, I’m mildly shocked they haven’t brought him up yet.) Burnham never appeared in the original series, was never referenced in the movies, and, I’m willing to bet, didn’t come up in the books or comics or video games before now. Unless we’re building to a twist where she gets wiped from existence, it stretches disbelief to think that Spock had a step-sister who was never mentioned before now. Obviously the reason she wasn’t mentioned was that she hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s another problem with this sort of retcon: it starts off in debt before even a single episode has aired, and nothing we’ve seen so far has done anything to earn off that debt.


It doesn’t help that she seems more like a passive observer to events than someone with actual will and intention. Her biggest choice this week is the decision she made last week to go to Vulcan. For everything else, from Amanda showing her where Spock is hidden to Sarek turning him over to the authorities to going along with Georgiou’s plan to help Spock escape, she’s more or less just along for the ride. It’s not completely binary; she’s resourceful, and the (stupidly long) “fake” fight between her and Georgiou is a reminder that she can handle her own. She also figures out the (sigh) big twist in regards to Spock’s numbers, although the fact that Spock has to recite them backwards before she gets it robs the moment of some of its victory. But the simple fact is, Burnham just doesn’t feel like the center of any of these stories despite being the nominal lead of the show.

Back on the Discovery, it’s mostly just a reminder that the show does remember its legacy even if it doesn’t have any idea what to do with it. Time travel plots are a Trek staple, but this is maybe the least imaginative one we’ve seen yet. The only actual impact it has is on a probe that suddenly gains five hundred years and Doctor Octopus tentacles; in terms of actual storytelling, it’s just a lot of hastily cobbled together science mumbo-jumbo in service of another loud, theoretically exciting adventure. There’s an effort made to give this one some impact in the ongoing plotline, connecting the probe’s time travel to the Red Angel (at least tangentially) and showing Airiam getting some kind of weird signal at the end before the thing explodes. But given that Airiam is basically a cool make-up effect and not much else, it’s hard to worry about what happens to her.


It’s also hard to get thrilled about Pike and Tyler bonding. Tyler remains an impossible character, the sort of high concept figure who should’ve been a one-off but insists on sticking around; him yelling that Pike was making choices based on guilt for sitting out the Klingon War is one of the better jokes in the episode. Like, sure, if you squint, that could theoretically make sense, but the timing is bad, and Pike is way too chill and likeable to seem like someone in need of a wake-up call. Also, Tyler is working with Section 31, and Section 31 is bad, so it’s hard to trust him on anything.

There are more revelations which we’ll have to deal with next week. I’m not sure which is worse: that the head of Section 31 is somehow responsible for the death of Burnham’s parents, or that Spock’s mysterious coordinates lead him and Burnham to Talos IV—which, if you don’t remember, is the planet with the brain aliens who tried to trick Pike in the unaired pilot of the original series (an episode which was later repurposed into clips for the iconic-but-not-great two-parter “The Menagerie”). Both these twists serve to make the show’s universe feel a little smaller, the former because it’s a bizarre coincidence that once again reframes Burnham’s narrative importance entirely around her family, the latter because it takes the season’s already annoying indulgences in fan service and doubles the fuck down. There’s still a chance this could all work out for the best, but I’m not holding my breath.


Stray observations

  • How old is Tilly supposed to be? Like, if she was a Wesley Crusher-style girl genius, her behavior and the way she’s treated by the crew would make sense. But I was under the impression that she was in her twenties, which just makes the whole thing bizarre. She seems to have more confidence now, but that confidence is mostly just making her act like she’s drunk all the time.
  • “Everything sounds cooler when you put ‘time’ in front of it.” Okay, fine, that was a good Tilly line.
  • “We are always in a fight for the future.” If this show crosses over with The X-Files, so help me god…
  • I wonder if this is building towards the introduction of the Borg.