Previously, on “Star Trek: Discovery”: Holy shit, do you think Lorca knew the rendezvous was a trap and saw it as a way to avoid being relieved of command? Is Ash Tyler a Klingon imposter? One so sophisticated that he’s fooled every conceivable process, procedure and device on the ship? And what’s the deal with spore-happy Stamets? Anyway, this season is meant to be all about the Klingon war so what’s up with Voq? And now the continuation… …or not.
It’s party time on the Discovery. P-A-R-T-Y? Well, Y not when there’s a war on and a missing admiral to recover? Apparently, there are plenty of parties like a Discovery party, because Discovery parties do stop, round about the time Burnham and Tyler are summoned to the bridge. Once there, they learn that sensors have picked up a Gormagander – a space whale – which regulations require them to beam onboard and transfer to a biological preserve. Only this space whale is carrying its very own Jonah, who’s about to inflict his curse on Lorca and the crew. Here’s Mudd in your eye!
It’s deeply ironic that the previous episode was called “Lethe” because almost everything which happened in it is forgotten about in this one, even the dangling cliff-hanger of Admiral Cornwell’s capture by the Klingons although its implied, in the considerable time which has apparently passed, the tide of the war has turned in the Federation’s favour, so maybe Cornwell’s presence was holding Starfleet strategy back and Lorca is a hero for arranging her removal. Hooray, I guess? With “Magic To Make The Sanest Man go Mad”, “Star Trek: Discovery” gets about as Trek-y as it’s possible to get although, in its attempt to prove its Trekworthiness, the series crunches the narrative gears horribly shifting from heavily serialised storytelling to McGuffin of the week and reveals a real problem with its obsessive need to promote a specific lead character.
The time loop story is a Trek staple, with nearly every series playing around with the idea but the one which primarily inspired this story is probably “Cause And Effect”, the TNG tale which saw the Enterprise-D repeatedly destroyed due to a collision with a time travelling USS Bozeman caught in a naturally occurring temporal rift. This time around it’s Mudd, somehow escaped from the Klingon prison ship, who’s using some hand-waved mysterious alien technology to loop time so he can incrementally learn how to take over the Discovery, with the intent of selling its secrets to the Klingons. What Mudd doesn’t realise is that due to his genetic enhancements and spore exposure, Stamets exists outside the normal space-time continuum and is therefore fully aware of each of the loops.
And therein lies the problem with “Star Trek: Discovery” and its need to put Michael Burnham at the heart of everything. It doesn’t make sense for this story. “Star Trek” has always been an ensemble show more than a lead character show and “Discovery” is constantly bucking against that. Kirk, Spock and McCoy were usually the main characters of the original series but most of the bridge crew got their chance to shine or episodes in which they were the centre of the plot. The Next Generation redoubled this approach, ensuring that although Picard was the Captain, every member of the cast got their time in the spotlight, so often we had Worf episodes, Data episodes, Troi episodes and so on. Doctor Crusher even got an episode where she jumped in the sack with her dead granny’s ghost boyfriend, because the writers knew the series wasn’t just about one member of the crew (and they were running really low on ideas in the final season). Regardless of their rank on the ship or their character history, Trek gave each of its characters ‘point of view’ episodes to explore them and their relationships with the rest of the crew further. Because “Discovery” wants to put Burnham front and centre all the time, it distorts the storytelling and diminishes the viewing experience.
In this episode, for example, we end up with a lot of the things being explained to Burnham by Stamets instead of getting to experience them with Stamets, as viewers. This narrative workaround is made even more obvious and heavy-handed by having the episode bookmarked by Burnham’s personal log entries which might as well have ended with ‘and the moral of this week’s adventures was…’ given the utter lack of subtlety with which its expressed. Forcing the story to accommodate Burnham’s starring role also means other characters are shortchanged or simply bulldozered out of the way. Saru’s ‘threat sense’ utterly fails to detect the approach of death despite it approaching multiple times, he absolutely should have been central to this episode, sensing something was wrong and giving Stamets an ally in convincing the others. The extra time spent having to convince Burnham so it can become her story could have been used to flesh out some of the minor bridge characters, who seem like they might have interesting stories to tell and don’t get me started on Tilly being reduced to a boy-hungry sorority pledge.
There’s an odd tone to the episode, too. It tries to go for a lighter feel than we’ve been used to so far but it’s punctuated by moments of bloodthirsty violence that’s at odds with its frothier ambitions. Some of the cast have trouble shrugging off their earnestness although Anthony Rapp and Jason Isaacs manage to have some genuine fun. The meet-cute rom-com shenanigans in the second act are entertaining enough but they rob the episode of the drama and momentum of Mudd’s scheme and, if the Ash Tyler rumours turn out to be true, will become the most gaslighty moment of Trek that I can recall. The eventual resolution to the time loop feels a bit glib – especially as we don’t really get to see the crew figure out how to save themselves, they just suddenly do and, given everything he’s done, Mudd seems to get off very lightly, adding to the already questionable track record of Federation justice in this series. There are moments in Rainn Wilson’s performance when you can genuinely see a through-line to the bluff, low cunning of the conman Kirk will tangle with twice but again, there’s the dark edge and vindictiveness that undermines it. Given he’s a known Klingon collaborator and technical mass murderer, it’s odd that Starfleet records don’t require Kirk to arrest him on sight. Unless it’s wrapped up in why Discovery is never mentioned in any later Treks: maybe Stamets isn’t the one who’s switched universes? Maybe he’s the only one who didn’t.
Tonal problems and Burnham obsession aside, this is still a good episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” and, when it’s not tripping over its own post-modern feet, the most authentically “Star Trek” the series has managed so far. But seriously, did none of the scans or the transporter detect there was an entire spaceship plus pilot inside that poor space whale?