Aug 2, 2021
Star Trek: Discovery "Choose Your Pain"
Previously on Star Trek: Discovery: Michael Burnham, allegedly the first mutineer in Starfleet history, was invited by Captain Lorca to join the crew of the USS Discovery, the only starship outfitted with a super-spore-powered drive allowing the ship to instantly transport anywhere in the galaxy. Burnham was able to determine that Ripper, a deadly creature that’s basically a giant-sized tardigrade, was the missing element that would get the spore drive to work, and the Discovery was able to use its advanced propulsion system to get the jump on the Klingons. Meanwhile, First Officer Saru, formerly Burnham’s subordinate on the Shenzhou, saw her as someone to fear. On the Klingon side of things, Voq’s right hand woman L’Rell decided it was time to start strategizing. And finally, Burnham was the recipient of the late Captain Georgiou’s telescope.
Well, we’ve got a lot to cover here, including Harry Mudd, Starfleet gigolos, echoes of the worst-ever episode of Voyager, and Star Trek’s first ever F-bomb. Followed closely by its second ever F-bomb. No, for real. Let’s get to it!
We start with shots of an empty ship and Burnham alone in Engineering and looking at the spore drive chamber, but instead of Ripper in the chamber, she sees herself in there. Burnham at the console flips a switch and Burnham in the chamber starts screaming in pain, and also Burnham at the console starts screaming in pain, and then… she wakes up. A dream sequence cold open? How refreshingly original. At least they didn’t have her sit bolt upright in bed screaming NOOOOOOOOO! Luckily, she didn’t wake Ensign Tilly, who’s peacefully snoring away in the bunk across the room.
Burnham goes to see Dr. Culber, a member of the ship’s medical staff who contrary to my previous assumption is not actually the Chief Medical Officer. She tells him that every time the Discovery makes a spore-powered jump, it’s harming Ripper. Though at first, it seems like Burnham is more concerned for the creature’s well-being than the fact that Starfleet’s indispensable secret weapon against the Klingons is on the verge of failing.
On a Starbase somewhere, Captain Lorca is meeting with a group of admirals and briefing them on how the Discovery has been kicking Klingon ass, not only at Corvan II, but also at Benzar (a planet previously mentioned on TNG and Deep Space Nine) as well as the Ophiuchus system (previously mentioned in the TOS episode “Mudd’s Women”, which as we’re about to see is no coincidence). Admiral Cornwell says they need to get the spore drive installed on other starships, but there’s one slight hitch: they only have the one tardigrade, Ripper, and they haven’t been able to locate any others. She also says Discovery needs to “dial back” their attacks, lest the Klingons start to catch on to the secret tech that Starfleet now possesses.
In Discovery’s mess hall, Tilly sits with Burnham, who kind of brushes off Tilly’s attempts to have a conversation. So Tilly sarcastically says that Burnham must have “made tons of friends by now”, I guess to remind Burnham that Tilly is her only friend on the ship, but this exchange just comes off as mean. Burnham admits to being stressed out about the tardigrade, and she doesn’t like feeling this way. Tilly replies, “Really? I love feeling feelings!” Wow, this whole conversation is just awful. Tilly had so much promise in her first appearance, but every episode she’s been in since then has been a drastic step down.
Cut to Lorca still on the Starbase, using some sort of EpiPen-like device on his eyes, to remind us of the battle injury he previously sustained that causes him to be sensitive to light, which will of course be important later. Admiral Cornwell enters and the two assume a friendly tone, but she takes issue with him allowing Starfleet’s first-ever mutineer to serve on his vessel, but he says he’s within his rights as a starship captain in a time of war to enlist anyone he wants. She asks why, and he simply says, “It’s my ship. My way.”
Lorca is then heading back to Discovery in a shuttlecraft, when a ginormous Klingon ship warps into view and locks its tractor beam on them. Klingons board the shuttle and Lorca and the pilot put up a fight, but eventually they kill the pilot and take Lorca hostage. And, oh no, they left his Eyeball EpiPen behind!
Cut to Admiral Cornwell on holographic communicator to the Discovery, breaking the news to Saru, who’s now acting captain. She thinks Captain Lorca was specifically abducted because the Klingons found out about the Discovery’s spore drive, and he needs to be rescued before the Klingons torture the intel out of him. Then Saru’s threat ganglia come out again as Burnham arrives on the bridge. They’re soon in the ready room and Burnham warns him that Ripper is being harmed with every jump they do. But Saru brushes all this talk aside, saying they need the spore drive fully functional, because it’s the only way to save the captain.
Once she’s gone, Saru asks the computer to pull up a list of “Starfleet’s most decorated captains”, so that he, apparently, can find out how he might stack up against them. Hmm, a look back at Starfleet history can only mean one thing: Are you ready for some major Trekkie fanwank? Of course you are!
Yes, these are the “most decorated captains” in Starfleet history, and first there’s Robert April, who I think is being acknowledged in live-action canon for the first time ever. When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to the network, the captain’s name was Robert April, and April later appeared in an episode of the animated series as the first captain of the Enterprise NCC-1701, so I assume the same is true here.
Next we have… oh, go fuck yourselves. Jonathan Archer? I can’t even comprehend how Star Trek’s writers would want to keep reminding us of that douchebag’s existence, let alone try to make us believe he was some sort of legendary figure.
Next we have Matthew Decker; he and his five o’ clock shadow are best known as the commander of the USS Constellation, which will later be destroyed prior to the TOS episode “The Doomsday Machine”.
Next is Philippa Georgiou, who I’m sure you’re all familiar with. And rounding out the list is Christopher Pike, the captain of the Enterprise prior to Kirk, as seen in the TOS episode “The Menagerie” (and maybe a movie or two). So how lazy is it that we’ve heard of all of the people on this list? I mean, come on, at least throw in a Captain Joe Random or a Vulcan name to surprise us a little and add to the lore.
Saru wants the computer to monitor his performance compared to these captains, because of an “element” aboard the ship that makes him “second-guess” himself, referring to Burnham. It’s a weird scene and really contributes nothing to the episode other than the namedropping.
Cut to Lorca in a Klingon prison cell, being woken up by another prisoner, who’s not only this week’s special guest star Rainn Wilson, but he’s also playing Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd, the swindler, con man, liar, and rogue seen on a couple of TOS episodes. Mudd, originally played by Roger C. Carmel, first appeared in “Mudd’s Women”, and then returned in “I, Mudd”, and then again in the animated episode “Mudd’s Passion”, and as I’m sure I’ve said before, I can’t fathom why of all the TOS guest stars, Mudd was the only one to appear in more than one live-action episode. I don’t know who was yearning for a return appearance by Harvey Mudd in 1967, and I sure don’t know who’s yearning for another in 2017.
But hey, he’s fine. Rainn Wilson is sufficiently Mudd-like that I don’t see any huge disconnect with his (chronologically) later appearances in this franchise. Lorca wonders why Mudd is on a Klingon prison vessel, and so Mudd launches into a long spiel about how he bought a moon to impress his girlfriend Stella (who later becomes the nagging wife we see in robot form in “I, Mudd”). But then his “creditors” came after him and chased him into Klingon territory and that’s how he was captured.
Then Lorca notices another Starfleet officer cowering in the corner of their cell. A couple of Klingons come in and one says, “Choose your pain,” and Mudd points to the Starfleet guy on his knees. The Klingons proceed to beat the crap out of the guy, and even stomp on his head, and then they drag his lifeless body out of the cell.
The strangest part is how Lorca just stands there and watches it happen. Granted, another Klingon is pointing a weapon at his head, but I can 100% guarantee you Kirk would have jumped in to try to save a fellow officer, being held at gunpoint or not.
Mudd explains the “choose your pain” thing, saying the Klingons routinely force the prisoners to decide if they want to receive a beating or pass it on to another guy. Lorca notes that Mudd is conspicuously free of bruises, and Mudd says it’s because he chooses “wisely”.
In Engineering, Burnham and Dr. Culber bring their concerns about the tardigrade to Lt. Stamets. Burnham reiterates that doing the jumps might be killing the creature, and Stamets says that using the tardigrade was Burnham’s idea in the first place, and he never wanted to use a living creature in their propulsion system. Burnham says she didn’t want to either, so Stamets replies—and this is a verbatim quote, people—“You say Portabella, I saw Portobello!” I… I just… what? Obviously this is how a mushroom-obsessed guy like Stamets would say “you say tomato, I say tomahto”, but… what? I really have no clue how some of this dialogue survived the first draft of the script. You know what? Let’s call the whole episode off.
Oh, but there’s more. Burnham’s lips start moving around and Stamets says, “What are you doing with your mouth?” To which Burnham replies, “I am swallowing the urge to set the record straight!” About what? Stamets seems to be correct as far as I can tell.
Back on the Klingon prison vessel, Lorca is wandering around his cell and he comes upon another Starfleet prisoner, who I guess was hiding behind the radiator the whole time or something. And I shall be calling this guy Lt. Boytoy for reasons that will become clear soon enough. Lt. Boytoy sees Lorca and goes, “Shit, you’re a captain?” And if you think that fulfills this episode’s quota for swearing, ho boy… just you wait.
He offers Lorca some kind of cracker and reveals that he was serving aboard the USS Yeager when he was captured. Lorca asks if he was at the “Battle of the Binaries” and Boytoy is surprised to learn they actually gave that battle a name, because he’s been held captive by the Klingons ever since.
Lorca wonders how he’s stayed alive for seven months, and Boytoy says that “the captain of this ship… she’s taken a liking to me.” Yes, it would seem Lt. Boytoy is being kept alive in exchange for sexual favors. And now you know the reason for the name.
Then it turns out Harvey Mudd has a CGI insect “pet” that grabs the cracker and brings it to Mudd. He says he doesn’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadents, because he blames Starfleet for his current predicament, and he claims he was an honest businessman until the war broke out. He’s bitter because Starfleet decided to “boldly go where no one had gone before” (it’s like they’re astronauts, on some sort of… star trek!), and now regular folks like Mudd are getting caught in the “crossfire” between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
The Klingons return and don’t ask about choosing any pain this time, and simply grab Lorca by the throat and drag him away.
Back on the Discovery, Stamets and Burnham and Tully try to come up with alternatives to using the tardigrade to power their propulsion system. They talk about how the spores not only exist in normal space, but also in the “subspace domain” known as the “mycelial network”, which has “roots” that spread out all across the universe to form an “intergalactic freeway system”. And with this, the explanation for the spore drive only gets sillier, but I suppose it’s not any worse than anything we saw on Voyager, specifically the notion that going Warp 10 means you occupy all places at once and that turns you into a salamander.
Then they spout technobabble at each other, pretty obviously explaining things that all three of them already know. Eventually, they decide they need to find another species they can inject with tardigrade DNA to take the place of Ripper.
And then, pretty much out of nowhere, Tilly blurts out, “You guys, this is so fucking cool!”
No, this is not an embellishment on my part. She actually yells out that this technobabble discussion is “so fucking cool.” She apologizes for the outburst, but then Stamets replies, “No, Cadet. It is fucking cool.” What is, I mean… am I really hearing this? Is this real life?
After all the times I’ve said “fuck” in recaps (including this one), I really have no problem with the word being used on this show, but if you’re going to use it on Star Trek for the first time, for fuck’s sake, make it mean something! Here we have characters dropping F bombs and it has nothing to do with anything. I mean, at the bare minimum, they could have had Lorca getting tortured by the Klingons for info and responding to one of their queries with “Fuck you!” or some variation thereof. Which wouldn’t have been that great, but it would have been orders of magnitude better than this. Dammit, this could have been a really memorable moment for the franchise and they… well, they fucked it up.
Speaking of Lorca getting tortured, he’s strapped into a chair and being interrogated by the Klingon captain, who turns out to be L’Rell. I wonder if Voq knows about her human sidepiece? It seems she’s well aware that his ship is the one that’s been able to attack the Klingons and disappear without a trace, and she wants to know how. Lorca just taunts her for starting up a sexual liaison with Lt. Boytoy, adding, “We don’t even have the right number of organs for ya!” What… what does that even mean? Do Klingons have two dicks?
And then Lorca even calls her “hard up”. In response, she pries his eyes open Ludovico style, and blasts them full of light to cause maximum pain.
On the bridge of the Discovery, Saru is getting a report about Lorca’s possible location, and on a screen, we see a map of Klingon territory that includes the prison planet Rura Penthe (seen in Star Trek VI, as well as a few episodes), the Morska system (also mentioned in VI), the Mempa system (mentioned on TNG), and even Deep Space K-7, the setting of “The Trouble with Tribbles”. He gives the order to jump there now, but then gets word that the spore drive has been shut down.
Down in Engineering, they’re trying to find a species that’s a match for the tardigrade, but Saru orders them to get the tardigrade back in the chamber so they can rescue the captain. Burnham suggests injecting a human with the tardigrade DNA, explaining that the whole propulsion system is fungus-based, and homo sapiens still shares a lot of DNA with mushrooms, so it should work. And as far as I can tell, humans sharing a lot of DNA with mushrooms is entirely accurate, and yet it still comes off as painfully stupid.
Saru says they can’t do that, because “eugenics experiments are forbidden!” He then loses it, telling Burnham she’s a “proven predator” and dumb ideas like this are what got Captain Georgiou killed. He orders Stamets to get the ship ready to jump and also orders Burnham confined to quarters.
On the Klingon ship, Lorca is returned to his cell post-torture (though not really looking the worse for wear), and he’s figured out that Mudd’s insect “pet” is carrying a device that’s transmitting everything they say to the Klingons. And in fact, Lorca was deliberately doling out “conversational nuggets” in his cell to see who he could trust, and he now knows that Mudd has been ratting him out to the Klingons this whole time.
Mudd responds by bringing up the previous ship that Lorca commanded. Somehow, Mudd knows all about the USS Buran, which was boarded by Klingons, and Lorca was the only survivor.
Lorca confesses that the only reason his entire crew died is that “I blew them up”, meaning that he… holy shit… actually killed all of them, just so they wouldn’t have to suffer the pain and torture of being taken captive by Klingons. You know, I’m all for ethically conflicted captains (Deep Space Nine’s “In the Pale Moonlight” is one of my favorite episodes), but this is a perfect case of taking the anti-hero trope and running to the extremes with it. So I’d say that so far, Star Trek: Discovery is a lot like five poorly written “In the Pale Moonlight”s in a row.
Back on the Discovery, Saru calls for another Black Alert, and Ripper gets beamed into the spore chamber. The ship jumps into Klingon space, and that’s when Ripper decides to literally shrivel up and die. The tardigrade shrinks and water pours out of him, and Dr. Culber says they may not be able to revive the creature. He thinks that Ripper might in fact be a sentient species and refuses to be a party to its suffering. So Saru addresses Stamets instead, who says he’ll do whatever it takes to get the spore drive up and running again, and Culber looks horrified.
Back on the Klingon prison ship, it’s “Choose Your Pain” time again, and Lt. Boytoy volunteers to be the one who gets beaten. But Boytoy and Lorca quickly turn the tables and fight back, grabbing the Klingons’ weapons and making a break for it. Mudd speaks for many of us when he says, “Where the hell did that come from?”
Lorca and Boytoy break out of the cell but force Mudd to stay behind, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last we see of him. Primarily because he takes the opportunity to yell, “You haven’t seen the last of Harcourt Fenton Mudd!” C’mon, guys, was that line really necessary? It’s pretty obvious that Mudd’s only purpose here is to set up future appearances.
Lorca and Boytoy stalk through the corridors of the Klingon ship, vaporizing any Klingon they come across. But then Boytoy endures some sort of injury, so he tells Lorca to go on without him. Lorca promises to come back for him, and continues on.
A moment later, L’Rell suddenly appears in the corridor, asking, “Did you really think you could leave me? After all we’ve been through?” Hell hath no fury like a Klingoness scorned, it seems. They have a big fight scene that lasts until Lorca reappears to shoot L’Rell, which somehow doesn’t kill her, but only leaves what I assume will be disfiguring burns on one side of her face. Surely this won’t come back to haunt anybody later on.
Cut to Lorca and Boytoy on a not very Klingon-looking shuttle as they escape from the prison vessel. On the Discovery, Saru sees the shuttle being chased by other Klingon ships, and is able to draw upon the predator/prey nature of his species to intuit that the captain is on the ship that’s being pursued. He has them beamed aboard moments before the shuttle is destroyed.
Saru then orders Stamets to make another jump, and the ship is soon out of Klingon territory. Then someone on the bridge notices that Stamets’ vital signs are “in distress”, so Saru runs down there, and to no one’s surprise, Stamets injected himself with the tardigrade DNA to use himself to make the spore drive work. Saru thinks he’s dead, but Stamets awakens with a gasp and starts giggling like a mad man.
Burnham gets a visit from Saru in her quarters. Saru says he’s not actually afraid of her, but rather angry, because Burnham was able to serve under Georgiou for so long and get all that sweet inside knowledge about being a great captain, which is an opportunity Saru will never get. In response, Burnham takes out Georgiou’s telescope and hands it over to him. It’s possible we just saw her regift the thing, because really, who needs this big piece of junk taking up valuable space in your quarters?
Saru then lets Burnham out of her quarters to go save the life of the tardigrade. She goes back down to Engineering and sprinkles some spores over the creature like fairy dust, and then Tully presses a button that releases the thing into space. The tardigrade returns to life, and perceives what must be the galactic mycelial network all around it, and goes transporting away.
There’s a brief scene of Saru telling the computer to stop measuring his performance to see if he lives up to the likes of Captain Archer (snicker), because he feels like he’s in control now.
Cut to Stamets and Culber who, as implied in the previous episode, are indeed a gay couple, though not actually Trek’s first gay couple, because who could forget Sulu’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him partner from Star Trek Beyond? They’re brushing their teeth together (using some odd, bristle-less brushes), and Stamets talks about how the tardigrade DNA allowed him to see the entire universe, and it was incredible. Culber leaves (conspicuously not giving Stamets a goodnight kiss) and Stamets stares at himself in the mirror for a while.
He turns and walks away from the mirror… and his reflection somehow continues to stand there. Which can only be seen as the truly baffling result of getting exposed to tardigrade DNA and seeing the entire universe, which somehow makes another version of him exist in mirror-space.
This was better than last week’s episode, but still pretty flawed. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this show, but if I had to guess, I think it’s going for an ensemble of morally compromised anti-heroes, much like other cult shows of recent years, including The Sopranos and Dexter and Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But there’s a fine line to walk here, in that main characters can’t be shown as so morally bankrupt that they’re unredeemable, which is a line that they’ve maybe already crossed when it comes to Lorca.
And while I’m glad the show is taking risks and not allowing Discovery to be a ship full of hunky-dory best buds who never argue with each other like Voyager or Enterprise or even The Next Generation most of the time, they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction, which is probably why a lot of devoted Trek fans are turned off to the show. And the often clumsy writing is not helping; that “Portobello/Portabella” line is something that would make me cringe if I heard it on a low-rent CW superhero show; it hardly befits a show that’s supposedly a broadcast TV network’s attempt to save itself by shifting to streaming content. And the less said about this show’s use of the F bomb, the better. But I still think all the elements are here for a pretty good TV series, and it’s not too late for Discovery to pull off a course correction.