Well, the latest episode of the CBS-All Access series Star Trek Discovery has become available for streaming, and this one went up that stream without a proverbial paddle. It had to happen sometime. It happens to all television series, sooner or later (especially with past Star Treks). “Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad” is the first genuine, all-around disappointment of the series so far. Disappointing for me, anyway (as this is my blog, from my perspective). Others may feel differently, I’m sure.
Now it’s not my intention to mercilessly trash this episode, because I like this series and I want it to succeed, so I’m not motivated to actively hate it. Just wanted to make that point clear. That said? This episode really went off the rails for me, for reasons that I’ll go into shortly.
First, the story:
****** SPOILERS AHEAD! RED ALERT! SHIELDS UP! ******
Michael Burnham attends a victory party aboard the Discovery (the ship’s spore drive is successfully turning the tide of the war). Burnham is not comfortable with parties (given her Vulcan upbringing), so a loosened, drunken Cadet Tilly acts as her wingman as Burnham nervously approaches Lt. Ash Tyler (whom she has a bit of a crush on). Just as the two begin awkward conversation, they are called to the bridge. En route, they run into a somewhat altered Lt. Stamets, whose new broadened perspective (via use of the tardigrade’s DNA) has opened up his formerly uptight personality considerably. Arriving on the bridge, the crew encounters a ‘space whale’ that is endangered and must be taken to a sanctuary area, per Starfleet regulations. They beam the spacefaring animal into a hangar bay where a space-suited Harry Mudd exits the creature’s maw and begins shooting his way to safety. Apparently he wants to sell the overly victorious starship to his former captors, the Klingons (who are suffering serious losses in their war with the Federation). In the turmoil, the Discovery is apparently destroyed… only to have time completely reset back to the earlier party sequence.
Long story short; Harry Mudd has a time-traveling device in his possession that allows him 30 minute windows in order to secure the ship. If he doesn’t succeed? He simply gathers intel for the next attempt and waits for the next window. When he succeeds? Mudd will sell the ship to the Klingons and return to the regular timestream At this point, Mudd has gained enough intel to lock the crew out of vital systems and gain command control of the ship’s computer, forcefields and transporters. However, Lt. Stamets (thanks to his tardigrade DNA and access to the spore drive) now has a perception beyond linear time, and is aware of Mudd’s plans; his memory, like Mudd’s, is not reset with each window. Thus Lt. Stamets sets about warning Burnham, and gains her trust. The episode soon boils down to Stamets and Burnham gaining enough recruits among the still-unaware crew to eventually foil Mudd’s plans. When enough of Discovery’s crew are up to speed, they eventually thwart Mudd (using their clandestine access to non-critical systems) and banish him to return to his possessive wife Stella (originally seen as an android doppelgänger in TOS’ “I, Mudd”), and her formidable arms dealer father.
Okay, now where to start?
Let’s begin (as I usually do) with things that I enjoyed about the episode:
* The victory ‘Disco party’ scene.
I was surprised that this scene got so much hate online when a scene of a drunken Tilly having fun with beer pongs was previewed ahead of the episode. Personally, I liked this scene. It was nice to see a starship crew let their hair down a bit. I also bear in mind that the crew of the starship “Disco” (as they call their ship) would likely play, what else? Disco music.
And why are all of the ‘parties’ we’ve seen aboard Federation starships (and Star Trek in general) such stuffy affairs? They usually play only “20th century” jazz or ancient classical music for entertainment; and the officers always wear their Sunday best.
Why wouldn’t another ship’s crew embrace a different style of partying? And bear in mind that this isn’t the crew of the Federation’s flagship; this is the crew of a science ship. They’re like a group of Caltech students who’ve been drafted into war. And as Burnham’s opening log informed us, this is a crew that’s done a LOT for the war effort; almost single handedly turning the tide of the war. It’s no wonder that they’d want to blow off a little steam in a more colorful way than 20th century jazz music, formal receptions and synthehol.
And the drunken Cadet Tilly was both fun and funny. Party-animal Tilly nearly ranked up there with the drunken Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in 21st century, post-World War 3 Earth in the 1996 movie, “First Contact.”
* The budding relationship between Ash and Burnham.
Well, the title of the show is Discovery, and what better way for crew members Burnham & Ash to discovery more about themselves than through romance? Other than the stable, ‘old married couple’-style relationship of Dr. Culber & Lt. Stamets, there is certainly room for another romance on the show. And Star Trek has a long, uneven, awkward history with depicting truly convincing romances, so here’s hoping that Disco’s crew helps to expel that curse once and for all. The two actors (Sonequa Martin-Green & Shazad Latif) certainly seem game enough to try. And even if Ash is a surgically altered Klingon spy (as I suspect; see my previous blog entry on E1.6, “Lethe”), it doesn’t mean that he can’t or won’t defect to the Federation (?)…
* Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp)… take a bow.
For not only saving the ship, but also struggling valiantly to save this particular episode. In his first appearance, he is still ‘high’ from his interactions with spacetime via the spore drive, and greets Burnham and Lt. Tyler with warm hugs and compliments (!). It reminds me of how the original USS Enterprise crew were similarly affected by another kind of ‘spores’ in the classic TOS episode, “This Side of Paradise.” Stamets’ awareness beyond linear time allows him to retain his memory following each of Mudd’s successive attempts to gain control of the ship. He eventually gains recruits, and (most critically) he teaches Burnham a thing or two about romance. Their brief ‘dance’ is a sweet moment, and it reinforces how far this character has come in only 4 episodes. I thought I was going to dislike his seemingly Sheldon Cooper-ish persona in his first episode. Now? I can’t imagine the show without him. Here’s hoping we get to know his continually underused partner, Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) at least as well someday.
Oh, and to all of those hating troglodytes who swore that openly gay characters wouldn’t work on Star Trek? Bite me.
Now onto the stuff that I really didn’t like about this episode:
* Wild inconsistencies with the character of Harry Mudd.
In his first Discovery appearance (“Choose Your Pain”), I was amazed at how the character (now played by Rainn Wilson) was kept relatively consistent with what we’d seen before in TOS. Now that’s all gone to hell. Other than being married to a considerably younger-looking Stella (not exactly the screaming, older shrew we see in “I, Mudd”), he is basically an all-new character.
Mudd (yes, bumbling Harry Mudd) can now erect personal forcefields at will, reset ship’s command computers, lock out transporters, and do just about everything that a Borg intruder could do in 24th century Star Trek…
So…what the hell?? This is the guy who stole a spaceship in “I, Mudd” and was cast adrift because he “couldn’t navigate.” But in Discovery he’s nothing short of a damn genius. Not to mention that he threatens to steal a Federation ship in a time of war and sell it to the enemy (even killing crew-members over and over again in resetting realities). Yet he gets off with basically a slap on the wrist. He’s cut loose into the waiting custody of his wife and father in law. In TOS, Mudd was something of a vaguely menacing, bumbling, Falstaff-sort of character. Now? He’s as dangerous as Khan Noonian Singh. I mean, wouldn’t there be a f–king APB on this guy everywhere within Federation space? Yet there is no mention of his attempted piracy of a Federation starship when we first see him in TOS’ “Mudd’s Women.”
Ugh… I swear I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape with continuity nits, but this is ridiculous.
I’m hoping that this is the LAST time we see the Harry Mudd character in Discovery. He has been unrecognizably retconned from a bumbling Falstaff into a truly dangerous adversary who should be shot on sight.
At the risk of retconning TOS yet again, I really wished he’d bitten the dust in this episode…
* The tired old recursive time-looping trope.
The time looping device has been used before in the 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” (and subsequent Star Trek episodes, including Voyager & Deep Space Nine). It’s also been featured most famously in the 1993 Bill Murray comedy classic “Groundhog Day” (a favorite in our household). As soon as we see the USS Discovery blow up in this episode, the jig is up. We know that the jeopardy won’t be ‘real’ for the rest of the episode, because time will eventually reset; and it does. Repeatedly. Dozens of times, in fact.
Some of it is used to clever effect, with poor Captain Lorca being the unwitting Bill Murray-“Phil Conners” character here, as he is killed in all kinds of different ways (including being beamed out into space in front of his bridge crew). Unlike “Groundhog Day”, the time looping isn’t used in particularly new or inventive ways, and by the end of the episode, the gag becomes more than a bit tedious. I was waiting for them to just get on with it. The jeopardy is moot; since we know the ship won’t be destroyed and that Mudd has to get away with it all somehow.
This is another reason I sometimes lament that this series is yet another prequel; familiar elements such as Mudd (and Sarek) have to be used very carefully, and with limited final outcomes.
* The resolution to this episode is just plain lousy.
The resolution of sending an indignant Mudd off with his wife and father-in-law is wholly unsatisfying.
Handing Mudd back to his wife and her dad was too similar to Kirk’s stranding of Mudd with 5,000 copies of an android version of Stella in TOS’ “I, Mudd.” Lorca is not Kirk; he wouldn’t deal with him in such a silly, Kirk-like way. Remember how he treated Mudd only two episodes earlier? He left him to rot in a Klingon prison. That’s the difference between Lorca and Kirk. In this episode, that difference seems to have been ignored.
Now Mudd is free to return in ten years and become the creepy, sexist space-pimping bastard we see in “Mudd’s Women.” For his actions in this episode, he should’ve been taken away in irons (or airlocked). I would’ve preferred to have at least seen Capt. Lorca giving his former ‘murderer’ Mudd a proper ass-kicking.
Another missed opportunity.
* A severe lack of Saru (Doug Jones).
Doug Jones’ Saru started off so strongly in the series, but in the last couple of episodes, he’s been reduced to little more than the guy who says, “Sensors read blah, blah, blah outside the ship.” Jones is far too talented (and endures far too much with his heavy prosthetic makeup) to be relegated to secondary character status. Here’s hoping this is a temporary aberration that is adjusted sooner than later. From the preview of the next episode, I think that this particular nit might be fixed soon.
* And once again, almost no Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz).
Dr. Culber had one semi-humorous bit early on, when he apologizes to Ash and Burnham for his partner’s somewhat loopy behavior following his interactions with the ship’s spore drive. Then the character pretty much disappears.
Since Culber’s introduction two episodes ago, this character (and actor Wilson Cruz) have been given far too little to do. Other than being Stamets’ long-suffering-but-patient partner, we know almost nothing about Dr. Culber so far. I would hope that the powers-that-be use this character and actor, and not waste them.
I don’t want this otherwise promising show to make the same mistake of TOS and become a trio of characters instead of a well-served ensemble (like Next Generation or better yet Deep Space Nine; DS9 had the best use of an entire ensemble cast in all of Star Trek to date).
The nearly-omnipotent resourcefulness of annoying guest-villain Harry Mudd (Mudd? Really?) combined with an already-tired science fiction trope (the recursive time loop) and a deeply unsatisfying resolution make this episode my first genuine disappointment with this series to date.
But I try to bear in mind that even the BEST of Star Trek series had its duds. TOS had “Omega Glory” “Spock’s Brain” and “And the Children Shall Lead.” TNG had “Code of Honor” “Shades of Gray” and “Night Terrors.” Even DS9 had “Move Along Home” and “The Muse.”
With such a talented group both in front of and behind the cameras, I have high hopes that we won’t see too many more like this from the crew of the Disco in the future.