There’s plenty to chew over in this week’s cold open but chew it well because you might choke on what follows in the rest of the episode.
Having been called in by Starfleet Command to be told off for doing exactly what he was ordered to do, Lorca finds his journey back to the Discovery interrupted by a Klingon raiding party. Meanwhile, Burnham begins to suspect the frequent use of the spore drive is actually harmful to ripper, the giant space tardigrade. As Saru assumes command to lead the mission to rescue Lorca, he finds himself questioning his own command ability when he encounters opposition from Burnham and others.
So far in “Star Trek: Discovery”, by shuttle seems to be the riskiest way to travel anywhere. Whether it’s microscopic subspace particles or Klingon raiding parties, we’ve yet to see a shuttle complete its journey. It’s not even clear why Lorca took the shuttle given he’s apparently been merrily gallivanting around the galaxy using the spore drive without a care in the world. Why not just spore-pop back to Starfleet, have a chat and then set off again? Because the episode needs to put Lorca in a shuttle to make the episode happen at all. Nothing in the narrative of “Choose Your Pain” is organic, except of course, for our poor tardigrade, Ripper, who we learn is feeling a little peaky.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, our first real glimpse of Lorca’s dealings with Starfleet Command reveals that he doesn’t play well with others and hints at the fact his reputation generally within the fleet is only marginally better than that of ‘convicted mutineer’ Michael Burnham (although at most she committed attempted mutiny). In any event, by being kidnapped in Episode 5 of his own show (and in only his third episode), Lorca surely now holds the record for the quickest abduction of a starship captain?
The episode then splits its remaining running time between the ethical dilemma on the Discovery and Lorca’s experiences as a captive on the Klingon vessel. On board Discovery, it looks like the “Equinox” comparison was decidedly on point. Clearly, the ongoing attempts to get the spore drive to function are going to be one of the main plot threads of the season and it seems that everything they try is going to come at a significant cost. There’s even a tantalising hint of the Mirror Universe right at the end.
There’s an interesting moment when Saru, in a moment of self-doubt, tries to compare himself to Starfleet’s most decorated Captains. The computer lists Robert April, Christopher Pike, Philippa Georgiou, Matt Decker and Jonathan Archer. As well as being the first live-action canonical mention of Robert April, the list underlines that you stand the best chance of being highly decorated if you’re in command of a ship called Enterprise. It’s also quite telling that despite his legendary reputation, Lorca doesn’t make the list.
And why is that? Well, it turns out that our dynamic and heroic captain lost his previous command within the first month of the Klingon War. How this squares with his reputation as a strategic and tactical genius will have to be sorted out in a future episode because all we find out in this one is that he was the only survivor of the USS Buran and that he destroyed the ship, killing his crew rather than let them be captured by the Klingons. He suggests this is because he knew the fate that awaited them as prisoners and did it to spare them. That’s kind of, sort of, nearly convincing right up until the point that he and fellow Starfleet prisoner Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif, the final addition to the main cast) escape from captivity because ‘escaping is a two man job’. If the two of them could manage it, surely the chance to survive and escape was worth the risk? The entire episode is full of Starfleet officers acting in extremely un-Starfleet ways and while we all appreciate a little rebel in our heroes, it would be nice to see them doing the right thing quicker. I can’t help but feel that Kirk or Picard and their respective crews would have had this episode wrapped up in half the time.
Also in the Klingon prison cell is one Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson), originally played with pantomime camp menace by Roger C Carmel in two episodes of the original series (“Mudd’s Women” and the far superior “I, Mudd” when you learn that his ‘beloved’ Stella was anything but). It’s yet another continuity shout-out for fans but increases the risk of the series tripping over its own continuity. Remember, according to the timeline, it’s currently December 2256 give or take a stardate or two. Spock is already serving onboard the USS Enterprise under Captain Pike, Scotty has been in Starfleet for twenty-five years already, McCoy for three. Kirk himself is just about to be assigned to the USS Farragut as a lieutenant and is mere months away from encountering a gaseous haemovore. Discovery is so proximate to these events that it’s going to become faintly ridiculous that there’s no mention of the ship or its exploits in the other series and we never see these major characters in Discovery. Mudd’s youthful self is just as selfish and devious as his older appearances but he’s darker and more hostile towards Starfleet here, a real bitterness on behalf of the ‘little guys’ who aren’t soaring around in starships. There’s enough in Wilson’s performance, though, that you can draw a reasonably straight line to Carmel’s performance, so once again, I’ll give them the benefit of the continuity doubt.
The name of this episode finds its way into dialogue again this week. A lot. And, as if to make up for last week, Lorca namechecks “Battle At The Binary Stars” just for kicks. The dialogue also adds another weapon to the Star Trek canon: in addition to phasers and photon torpedoes, the Discovery has been equipped with F-bombs. It’s a gratuitous, puerile moment that feels instantly embarrassing and inappropriate for a franchise which surprised its audience when Kirk said “bastards” for the first time.
The series is really starting to suffer from the imbalance between its ongoing arc which still isn’t particularly clear or consistent – there’s no progress on Voq’s situation after last week’s events – and the standalone plots. The revelations about Lorca’s past raise more questions than they answer but the questions are of the ‘do the writers really know what they’re doing?’ variety rather than character intrigue and the Klingons already feel tired and overused despite not appearing all that often. I’m guessing we’ll see the now-scarred Klingon interrogator again, though.
There’s a nice reveal of the nature of Stamets’ relationship with Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) which would have been a nice surprise had it not already been spoiled in the series’ desperation to virtue signal for early publicity. It’s also interesting that Stamets, noted irritable, arrogant dick is the most orthodox Starfleet character in this episode.
“Star Trek: Discovery” has delivered its first really poor episode. Any more like this and my rekindled interest in new “Star Trek” will curl up into an extreme state of cryptobiosis too.