Two more episodes of CBS All Access’ new series “Star Trek Discovery” have aired in the last two weeks; “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For the Lamb’s Cry” and “Choose Your Pain.”
Hard to pick ‘favorite episodes’ in this series since the series’ format is so deeply serialized (it’s like picking a favorite chapter of a novel) but of the two? I’d have to say that “Choose Your Pain” was much more satisfying for me personally. Even the return of original series’ comic-villain Harry Mudd (now played by “The Office”’s Rainn Wilson) worked far better than I expected (especially since I’ve never been a particular fan of that character). But more on that later.
First, I’m going to start with 1.4; “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For the Lamb’s Cry.”
******SPOILERS FOR “THE BUTCHER’S KNIFE…” FOLLOW ******
Following a failed battle stations drill, Captain Lorca ups the pressure on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to understand the tardigrade creature (recovered from the USS Glenn in the last episode) which is kept in a darkened cell behind a forcefield within Lorca’s ‘den of horrors’ (where he also keeps a Gorn skeleton and other ‘artifacts’). Lorca pairs Burnham with Security Chief Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma) to study the creature. Landry is killed when she makes a classic ‘redshirt’ move and prematurely turns off the forcefield containing the confused, photosensitive creature; which reacts… er, badly. The creature rips Landry all kinds of new ones, and Landry dies in sickbay (a shame too; the character and the actress were very compelling), under the watch of finally-seen Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz). Burnham, determined to understand the creature, deduces that it feeds on the same organic spores of the experimental ‘spore drive’ being used aboard Discovery (and the late USS Glenn), and that it can be used as a navigator for the drive itself (very similar to how the sandworms’ spice was used to fold space in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”). Only problem is that the drive hurts the tardigrade, and Burnham deeply empathizes with the creature. Meanwhile, in the wreckage of the “battle of the binary stars,” the surviving, now starving Klingons decide to commit ‘blasphemy’ and scavenge the adrift USS Shenzou for its intact drive system (they also eat the corpses of the Shenzou crew, including Capt. Georgiou…yikes). The Klingons, led by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) and the Albino Torchbearer, succeed in scavenging the drive and are free to continue the fight again in the name of their martyred K’Tuvma. Back aboard the Discovery, Lorca risks the spore drive yet again (gravely damaging the tardigrade in the process) as he jumps to a besieged mining colony on Corvan II and proceeds to open a can of whoop ass on Klingon marauders. After the Discovery’s victory, Burnham opens a box of personal effects from the late Capt. Georgiou. There is a moving holographic message from Georgiou to Burnham (reminiscent of Kirk’s ‘final’ message to Kirk and Spock in TOS’ “The Tholian Web) as well as the final parting gift of Georgiou’s centuries’ old telescope to her former first officer.
What I liked about “The Butcher’s Knife…” :
* The Tardigrade.
The idea that the ‘monster’ was merely misunderstood felt very classic Star Trek, and I appreciated that. In a series that was bordering on becoming “Battlestar Trek”, it was refreshing to see Burnham’s Starfleet instincts for understanding and preserving alien life really kicking in. Think of this episode as the middle act of TOS’ “Devil in the Dark.”
Still liking the new Klingons, though I wonder if the new makeup might be a slight hinderance to the actor’s expressions and emotions (?). At any rate, I do appreciate their new and very alien appearance. Also appreciated Kol being of the House of Kor; the original and first Klingon (played by John Colicos), seen in the 1967 TOS episode, “Errand Of Mercy.”
* Stamets is coming along.
Warming up to Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp). He’s still a mite arrogant, but not in an entirely off-putting way. The more I see of him, the more I like him
* The Discovery’s victory over the Klingons at Corvan II.
While it came at a tremendous (and nearly fatal) cost to the Tardigrade, the USS Discovery’s victory over marauding Klingons was a well-earned hoo-yah moment for the ship, its crew and yes, the audience.
* Georgiou’s message to Michael.
That final holographic message from the late Capt. Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to her former first officer Michael Burnham was beautifully done and moving as hell. It was the highlight of the episode for me. Always wonderful to see Yeoh back as Captain Philippa Georgiou, no matter how fleetingly.
My nits about “The Butcher’s Knife…” :
* The death of Commander Landry.
It was a waste of both a terrific actress (Battlestar Galactica veteran Rekha Sharma) and a compelling character (one of the few allies of the morally ambiguous Capt. Lorca). Her death felt a bit like a “Game of Thrones/Walking Dead” stunt, and a cheap manipulation. I have absolutely NO issues with killing off characters; as Stephen King says, “kill your darlings.” But this was too soon, and the emotion wasn’t as ‘earned’ as it could’ve been. Just a waste…
* The Klingons, for audience’s sake, should speak English among themselves now.
While I appreciate the alien appearance of the new Klingons (see: above), I’m not so fond of the continuing use of subtitles. Yes, it’s wonderful that they use the ‘real’ Klingon language, but I think it’s time the powers-that-be consider using the “Hunt For Red October” gimmick where the camera briefly focuses in on the mouths of a non-English speaking characters to ‘transition’ into English. I don’t mind reading subtitles (I watch a lot of foreign cinema) but come on now; Klingonese is made up, for goodness’ sake. We already buy humanoid aliens with heads, arms and legs in the same anatomical places as ours; it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that we, the audience, can ‘hear’ these aliens in English by now.
Moving onto “Choose Your Pain”….
****** SPOILERS FOR “CHOOSE YOUR PAIN” ******
With Lorca attending a meeting with Starfleet admiralty, an uncertain Lt. Saru is left in command. At the Starbase meeting, the admiralty want Lorca to use Discovery’s ‘spore drive’ sparingly until it can be safely mass-replicated (so as not to drain the resources of its only organic tardigrade ‘navigator’). Lorca reluctantly agrees, and returns to his ship via shuttlecraft. The shuttle is captured by the Klingons, who kill the shuttle’s pilot and take Lorca prisoner. Meanwhile, Michael Burnham finds allies in Discovery’s medical officer Culber and Lt. Stamets regarding the abusive (possibly deadly) usage of the tardigrade within the spore drive. Along with spore drive co-creator Lt. Stamets, they search for alternative ways to activate the drive without the tardigrade, and make their case to acting captain Saru; who overrules them in favor of using the spore drive to find the missing Captain Lorca. In Lorca’s cell, we meet TOS’ villain Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd (formerly played by Roger Carmel; now played by Rainn Wilson), who was captured by Klingons after allegedly drifting into their space by pursuing ‘creditors’ (apparently Mudd was late on payments after buying a moon to impress his new bride “Stella”). Mudd is bitter at Starfleet for starting the war that drags civilians such as himself into the fray. Also in the cell is a Starfleet officer, Lt. Ash Tyler (played by Shazad Latif), who seemingly is kept alive only because the Klingon L’Rell is perversely attracted to him. Every so often, Klingon guards enter their cell and ask the prisoners to “choose their pain”; forcing them to pick one of their own to get mercilessly beaten. Mudd, a conniving opportunist, never chooses himself for the pain since he is a ‘survivor’ and proud of it. Saru orders engineering to use the spore drive to enter Klingon space to rescue Lorca. Lorca is then interrogated by L’Rell using bright light (which is intensely painful for him, given his photosensitivity). Eventually Lorca and Tyler overpower and vaporize their Klingon guards and escape, leaving the selfish bastard Mudd behind (destined to return soon, no doubt). L’Rell is scarred in their escape attempt as well, when a blaster beam burns half of her face. Discovery recovers Lorca and Tyler in an escaping Klingon fighter ship (being pursued by several other ships). Discovery beams Lorca and Tyler aboard, and then flees Klingon space “like a ghost” with its spore drive; which successfully used Lt. Stamets as its navigator in place of the tardigrade. Saru later authorizes Burnham and Culber to ‘free’ the captive tardigrade back into space; where it warps away naturally, using the spores. Burnham later thanks Saru by offering him telescope left by their late captain Georgiou. And in the final scene, Lt. Stamets and his partner Culber are in their quarters, as Stamets is recovering from his being used as the organic component of the spore drive. As the two brush their teeth, Culber briefly analyzes Stamets with his med-scanner to make sure he’s okay. As Dr. Culber walks away, the music turns ominous; apparently sharing his consciousness with infinity has some serious side effects (?). To be continued…
What I liked about “Choose Your Pain”…
* Lorca is a true bad ass!
From his interrogation to his bold-as-brass-balls escape, Lorca really shines in this episode. And we learn (through an exchange with Harry Mudd) that Lorca’s photosensitivity is an injury resulting from the loss of his previous command, where he destroyed his ship AND his entire crew to avoid their capture (and torture-murder) at the hands of the Klingons. That was a brave revelation that made Lorca a bit more sympathetic.
And his two-fisted, gun-toting escape (with Tyler) kicked quite a bit of ass; as well as his never losing his cool around his Klingon captors. I also loved that he left the useless and irritating Mudd behind in his cell (!). That was fucking terrific. Speaking of which…
* Star Trek finally drops the F-bomb!
Leave it to ship’s awkward, wonderfully relatable (and adorable) Cadet Tilly to drop ST’s first f-bomb with her line about the spore drive being ‘fucking cool.’ Lt. Stamets adds another one, by reiterating her line. This was ST truly going ‘where it hadn’t gone before.’ The Star Trek movies never used that one (not even in the harder-edged Kelvinverse films). Best part was that it felt completely natural and organic to her character. Fuckin’ A, Tilly!
* Harry Mudd finally works.
I just want to say that I’ve NEVER been a fan of the Mudd character. Never liked either of his two appearances in TOS (“Mudd’s Women” “I, Mudd”) or his single appearance in The Animated Series (“Mudd’s Passion”; and yes, I count Animated Trek as legitimate Star Trek). His broad brand of comedy felt less Star Trek, and more like a colorful space pirate who wandered off the set of “Lost In Space.” I’ve also never appreciated how a ruthless ‘space pimp’ who sells off drug-addicted women is treated as just a ne’er-do-well, lovable scamp. Well excuse me all to hell, but I think Mudd was a irredeemable bastard, not a lovable rogue. For “Mudd’s Women” alone, he is forever on my s#!t list.
But…I’d like to say that Rainn Wilson’s slightly edgier (yikes, I do hate that word) version of the character truly works.
He’s not quite as extreme as Roger Carmel’s version of Mudd in TOS; he’s less ‘lovable rogue’ and more extreme ‘space libertarian’; the ultimate opportunist. He even gets in a few cutting remarks about Starfleet’s nasty habit of dragging innocent citizens of the Federation into their conflicts with alien races (an aspect of Starfleet’s ‘mission’ that we never consider in over 700 hours of Star Trek). I also appreciated the backstory of his courtship of Stella (whom we see in android form in TOS’ “I, Mudd”). I was also quietly impressed by Wilson’s ability to tone down the flamboyance but maintain adherence to the overall parameters of the character. Well done.
* We finally see a fully functional gay couple on Star Trek. Hallelujah!
It was nice to see that Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) is a warmer, more humanistic character than we’ve seen aboard the USS Discovery so far, but it was even nicer to see he and his partner Paul Stamets (not sure if they’re actually married or not) living together as a nice, ordinary domestic couple. Yes, there was that ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ scene in “Star Trek Beyond” with John Cho’s Sulu walking off with his husband and their daughter, but this was a bit more in-depth and personal.
And after years of ignoring its own LGBTQ fanbase, it’s good to see Star Trek finally, openly, unapologetically showing a gay professional couple living aboard the ship just as naturally & normally as the O’Brien family in “Deep Space Nine.” Better late than never, and kudos to the two characters brushing their teeth at the same time in front of the same mirror; that’s something even my wife and I don’t do together after 18 years of marriage! (Hehe…). I could say kudos, but in this case, it’s more like ‘about freaking time.’
* Freeing the tardigrade back into space.
That moment felt VERY Star Trek. Reminded me of a less-goofy version of TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint”’s resolution, or the ‘space ravioli’ of TNG’s “Galaxy Child” (an online friend of mine coined “space ravioli”; wish I could take credit for that bit of brilliance…). Despite its war arc and the new series more contemporary feel, it’s dawning on me that the show’s runners really do understand what Star Trek is at its core. That’s a good feeling. It’s as if the spirit of the older show has finally awoken within this new, contemporary body. I love Star Trek for what it is, and I don’t necessarily watch it for the same reasons that I watch and enjoy “Battlestar Galactica” or even “The Expanse.” I watch Star Trek for the eventual light, not continual darkness.
* The scene with Burnham & Saru in Burnham’s quarters.
The gift of Saru of their captain’s old telescope to “see the universe through her eyes” was writing perfection. Touching, moving and also reinforcing of my feeling that this series truly is Star Trek at its core.
* Better overall use of the ensemble cast.
It was also interesting that Burnham wasn’t the sole focus of this episode, and we got to see (and appreciate) the ensemble a bit more. For the record, I’m not a Burnham-hater; in fact, I love the idea of a flawed protagonist rising towards redemption, but I also want to see the other characters shine a bit more, and “Choose Your Pain” definitely allowed for that. Lorca, Saru, Stamets, Tilly, Culber and even the Klingon L’Ress all had their moments.
No serious nits either. This was, IMHO, as close to perfection as the show has yet come.
I think I enjoyed “Choose Your Pain” more than previous DSC episodes largely because it felt like a more complete package (in spite of the new show’s serialized format). Every now and then, even within a serialized show, it’s nice to have at least one chapter that stands out and tells a more complete mini-story.
Not to gush, but I’m really enjoying the evolution of this new, serialized Star Trek. I’m just hoping that I’m not sounding too much like Tilly and her “fucking cool” line; but as I said before in previous blogs, I do find her relatable.
It feels that a corner has been turned with “Choose Your Pain”; and Star Trek’s longstanding, native humanism is finally seeping through into its current war arc. From Culber’s empathy with Burnham’s dilemma to Saru’s agreeing to release the captured, withering tardigrade; such humanity is the very soul of Star Trek.
Star Trek is about human beings and our ethical/moral choices, not just exploring space in cool ships.
Here’s to the continuing journey…