Feb 8, 2019
Star Trek: Discovery “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”
Previously on Star Trek: Discovery: The USS Discovery has a super-secret spore drive that gives it the edge over the Klingons, and a crucial element of the spore drive is Lt. Stamets injecting himself with “tardigrade DNA” and strapping himself into the engine to make it work. Captain Lorca was briefly captured by the Klingons to get info about the spore drive, and was locked in a cell with Lt. Ash Tyler and a younger Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd, played by Rainn Wilson. Lorca and Tyler broke out of their cell, but Mudd turned out to be less than trustworthy and was left behind.
This episode begins, for the first time since the pilot, with a log entry from Burnham. And it’s just now hitting me that this is the only Trek series that doesn’t start off with a captain’s log entry on a regular basis. And you know what? I don’t miss it. Log entries always felt like a nostalgic holdover from the days of TOS, when the special effects budget was severely restricted and the viewer had to rely on Kirk’s exposition to fill in the blanks. But on the later Trek shows, it always felt like more of a storytelling crutch, and the very definition of “tell, don’t show”, and here comes another example in the form of the log entry we’re about to get.
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To a montage of Burnham going about her day, she talks in voiceover about adjusting to life on the Discovery and her new bridge post as Science Specialist. She says she’s made friends, or rather, “one, at least” (Tilly). She says that thanks to Discovery and its super-secret spore drive, the Federation is now winning the war against the Klingons. Also, she mentions that being exposed to the tardigrade DNA has changed Stamets’ personality, and the guy is acting even goofier than ever, and for some reason, no one is alarmed by this.
And finally, she talks about how “intriguing” she finds Lt. Ash Tyler, and how he’s full of “dignity and kindness”. Shippers, starts your engines.
However, she still feels isolated from the crew, and tonight she’s going to face “one of my greatest challenges so far”… specifically, a party. She enters a rec room where crewmembers are dancing, drinking, and even playing beer pong, all to the sounds of Wyclef Jean’s “We Trying to Stay Alive”. Because even in the 23rd Century, we’re gonna party like it’s 1997. Tilly is here, letting her long, luxurious ginger locks flow, and she even ducks away from a guy trying to make out with her.
Tilly comes up to Burnham, and points out that Tyler is at the party. Tilly mentions how Burnham and Tyler have been out on “two dates”, but Burnham insists those were just work-related encounters. A clearly drunk Tilly says Burnham needs to go for it, and show him she’s interested. Tilly also implies she’s not into Tyler because while she used to be into “soldiers”, she’s in more of a “musician phase” now. Do I have the guy for you!
Suddenly, Tyler’s up on stage making a toast to all the people who gave up their lives so that the crew of the Discovery can still fight on, and he pays tribute to the “10,000 souls” who will never be forgotten. Tilly reacts with, “My soldier thing is back!”
Tyler comes over and Tilly not-so-subtly excuses herself so he and Burnham can be alone. But before they can talk much, they’re both called to the bridge. On the way there, they literally run into Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber, sending whatever they’re carrying (from the looks of it, a tub of CD jewel cases?) flying all over the corridor. Stamets isn’t bothered, and in fact he’s ecstatic about this encounter, because it proves that life is “gloriously unpredictable” and he even gives Burnham a hug and just acts generally nuts.
After revealing he now has a “cybernetic augment” on his arm that allows him to more easily interface with the spore drive, he turns to Tyler and Burnham and asks, “What’s the deal with you two?” This is their cue to continue on to the bridge. You know, the place they were called to like ten minutes ago. Because surely there’s no rush.
On the bridge, the ship is on yellow alert, but it turns out the incoming object is actually an organism. Specifically, it’s a “gormagander”, which is basically a “space whale” that lives in the airless vacuum. And Star Trek has asked us to buy lots of even wilder concepts than this, but I can’t imagine how a creature like this would have even evolved in the first place.
Burnham immediately justifies her new station on the bridge by spouting a whole lot of science facts about the gormagander. Then she notes that it’s in ill health, and as an endangered species, the Discovery is obligated to transport it to a “xenologic facility”.
Cut to a shuttle bay, where they beam the gormagander aboard, and weirdly, they just teleport the thing right into the shuttle bay and don’t even bother to even put so much as a containment field around it.
The stupidity of this decision becomes clear when the creature opens its… mouth?—At least, I hope it’s not a different orifice—and out pops an intruder with a rabbit-like helmet and a phaser who immediately vaporizes a bunch of people. Burnham reports the intruder to bridge, and Lorca quickly seals off corridors to trap the intruder.
They have him onscreen, and he pulls off his helmet to reveal he’s Harry Mudd. He’s pissed off about being left to rot in a Klingon prison, away from his dear “Stella”, and now he’s going to figure out what’s so special about the Discovery so he can sell it to the Klingons. He tells Lorca, “Also, I’m gonna kill you as many times as possible,” which sounds like a joke, but is actually a pretty accurate summary of what we’re about to see.
Mudd then pushes a button that somehow causes hull breaches all throughout the ship, and then the Discovery explodes, killing everyone on board.
Cut to the Discovery, intact once again. The sounds of Wyclef Jean are heard as Burnham shows up to that same party, and Tyler gives that same speech, and yes, we have travelled back in time. So I was 100% correct in my guess from the previous recap and this is indeed a near remake of the Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” where the Enterprise-D is destroyed over and over until they find a way out of the time loop and meet Captain Kelsey Grammer.
And the whole “time loop” thing is a pretty common narrative device in sci-fi, in everything from Groundhog Day to Edge of Tomorrow to this month’s release Happy Death Day; In fact, I’d say it’s a bit overplayed at this point, and not helping is how Discovery is even reusing the idea from “Cause and Effect” of the ship being destroyed as a way to trigger each new time loop. And with all the Trek veterans on the staff of this show, they had to have been well aware of the similarities.
But in this particular iteration of the time loop, Burnham and Tyler don’t collide with Stamets and Culber. Instead, Stamets comes running up to tell them they’ve all lived through this before, and the tardigrade DNA in his system has made him the Guinan of this episode, and he’s aware that the timeline is repeating. They all think he’s just nuts, and Culber even starts to drag him away, so he yells out, “It all starts with a gormagander!”
On the bridge, they again detect the gormagander, which immediately raises Burnham and Tyler’s suspicions. When Saru says they need to bring it aboard, the two both advise against it. Lorca overrules them, but they both go down to the shuttle bay, and this time Tyler is ready with his weapon.
However, Burnham only detects the residual effects of a transporter beam. There’s suddenly a Black Alert, and on the bridge, we learn Lorca didn’t order one, and the computer isn’t responding to his commands.
Tyler and Burnham head to Engineering, where they find Harry Mudd has transported himself here, and he’s trying to get the spore drive to work. He’s done something that’s causing a “critical drive overload”, and he’s even taken control of the ship’s computer and put up a force field around himself so they can’t stop him. We then get an exchange that I’m pretty sure the writers patted themselves on the back for.
Burnham: You are mad.
Mudd: No. I’m Mudd.
Just then, Stamets pops up behind Mudd and shoots him. Unfortunately, he has no way to stop the inevitable critical overload. But he’s not terribly concerned about the imminent demise of everyone on the ship, because he knows they’ve gone through this several times already. He says, “I’ll see you again soon,” and the ship explodes again.
And then it’s back to the party, and Wyclef Jean again, and Tyler and Burnham meet up again, but things play out slightly differently this time. This time, just before they get called to the bridge, Tyler asks her to dance. So I guess there’s some sort of butterfly effect-style entropy happening here where events don’t necessarily play out exactly the same way each time. Or, maybe it’s just lazy writing.
This time, Stamets crashes the party, looking for Burnham, but she’s already gone. He finally tracks her down in the corridor, and explains the whole situation, and how they’re caught in a “temporal loop”. Burnham initially thinks he’s just crazy, until he starts reciting all the next words she speaks, verbatim.
Meanwhile, Lorca gets an urgent call to go to Sickbay, but it turns out to be a ruse from Mudd, who’s again taken over the ship’s computer. He marches Lorca through a corridor at gunpoint, but Lorca says there’s no way he’s going to help Mudd figure out how the spore drive works.
So Mudd tells him, “There really are so many ways to blow up the ship. It’s almost a design flaw.” It’s funny because it’s true. He then activates the ship’s self-destruct sequence. Okay, so if Mudd has full control of the ship to the extent he can singlehandedly order it to self-destruct, why can’t he just ask the computer how to get the spore drive running? Surely the computer must have some record of Stamets hooking himself up to the thing.
Cut to Stamets explaining the episode’s plot to Burnham: Mudd has technology that allows him to repeat the same 30 minutes over and over, and he’s using it to figure out how to get the spore drive running so he can sell it to the Klingons. He needs Burnham to talk to Tyler, to find out what Tyler knows about Mudd, since they shared a cell on that Klingon prison vessel.
He then casually notes that the current time loop is almost up, and he wants Burnham to tell him a secret that no one else knows, so he can repeat it to her in the next loop and make her instantly know she can trust him. She whispers something in his ear that we don’t hear, and Stamets simply replies, “I’m sorry.”
Cut to Lorca letting Mudd into his previously established secret room where he keeps all his deadly weapons, and Mudd marvels at all the “wonderful toys” here. Mudd then asks, “Do you know how many times I’ve had the pleasure of taking your life, Lorca?” And we get a montage of all the ways Mudd has killed Lorca in previous iterations of the time loop, one of which includes teleporting Lorca from the bridge out into space. And for some reason, Mudd is eating a ham sandwich at the time.
After the montage, Mudd reveals he’s killed Lorca 53 times so far, “and it never gets old!” He then shoots and kills Lorca again, right before the ship blows up and the time loop ends and we return to the sounds of Wyclef at the party.
Stamets enters the party, and immediately tells Burnham the secret she revealed in the previous loop: “You’ve never been in love!” That… that was it? Regardless, he explains the situation yet again, and this time, Burnham immediately believes him. He wants her to ask Tyler for information about Mudd, and he knows Tyler will do it because “he likes you.”
But then Tyler comes over, and instead of simply telling him what’s going on, she stands there with a dumb look on her face. Yes, it would seem she’s allowing her ship to face certain destruction because she got tongue-tied in front of her crush.
So later on, Stamets decides there’s only one thing to do: with total annihilation just a few minutes away, he wants to teach Burnham how to dance. He explains that in the next time loop, when Tyler asks to dance, Burnham can say yes and get the info about Mudd while they’re dancing. And this is about as ridiculous as it sounds. What’s stopping her from just walking up to him on the bridge and telling him everything that’s happening and getting the info about Mudd?
As they dance, Burnham wonders how to “connect” with people, and Stamets tells the story of how he fell in love with “Hugh”, presumably Dr. Culber, and it involved him being brutally honest which impressed Culber. Burnham eagerly says she’s “good at honesty,” which is one way to put it.
The ship blows up again, and then it’s back to the party. This time, Burnham pulls Tyler onto the dance floor as they slow dance to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”, which earns a wink from Tilly.
Burnham abruptly brings up Harry Mudd and how he’s got the ship caught in a time loop. Tyler thinks this is a joke at first, and then wonders why Stamets didn’t come to him directly. Burnham says, “Because I like you. And he thinks you like me too.” Tyler decides that if they really are in a time loop, “this won’t matter”, and kisses her. Sure, why not? It’s not like time is of the essence here or anything.
They’re called to the bridge again, but Burnham says to ignore the order. Instead, she wants to know about Mudd, and Tyler says he “used to brag about robbing a Betazoid bank” that had extensive security. Tyler thinks Mudd probably would have been able to pull off that job, if he’d had an infinite number of attempts.
They finally figure out Mudd is now in possession of a “time crystal” that was perfected by a “four-dimensional race”. Did this four-dimensional race also give him that magic button that instantly destroyed the ship the first time he came aboard?
Cut to Mudd walking onto the bridge as the computer addresses him as “Captain Mudd”. He has Lorca transported to the brig, and reveals a weapon he got from Lorca’s “man cave”. Ugh. Is “man cave” really still going to be an expression in the 23rd Century? Because I’m already kind of sick of it in 2017.
He holds up a purple marble that he says is “weaponized dark matter” that can rip a person apart at the subatomic level. Before he can use it on some random officer, Tyler and Burnham and Stamets storm the bridge and fire at Mudd, but he already has a force field around himself, somehow. He then throws the purple marble at Tyler, causing Ash to ironically dissolve into ash.
Mudd pulls out another purple marble and threatens to use it on someone else, so Stamets finally comes forward and admits he’s the key to getting the spore drive to work. Mudd then beams Stamets and himself to Engineering.
Burnham runs down to the shuttle bay to check out the space whale, and despite Mudd seizing control of the ship, she’s still able to call Tilly to join her. And it seems what Burnham is most concerned about is that if Mudd gets the spore drive working, he won’t bother to reset the timeline, meaning that Ash Tyler will stay dead. They determine that Mudd has an entire spacecraft hidden inside the gormagander, which contains a huge time crystal, though this never becomes important. Burnham says she has to find a way to make Mudd restart the loop again.
Mudd is in Lorca’s ready room making his own captain’s log when Burnham enters and tells him there’s something much more valuable than the spore drive on this ship: herself. Burnham says she killed their messiah T’Kuvma, and so the Klingons will surely pay much more for her than the spore drive. Well, the Klingons on this show seem to be dumb enough to pass on something that would give them an overwhelming technological edge in the war, so I can believe this.
Once the computer verifies that Burnham is who she says she is, she reaches out and grabs a purple marble… and swallows it. A purple glow travels down her esophagus before she gets disintegrated. Mudd falls for this scheme, and dutifully resets the time loop just as the ship explodes again. Though, I’m not sure why the ship is getting blown up this time around, but whatever.
And so, we get yet another replaying of the events, but this time it’s wordless and accompanied by a symphonic score. Burnham approaches Tyler at the party, and then Tyler is on the bridge doing something to the captain’s chair, and then Mudd is in the corridors overriding security protocols.
Mudd gets to the bridge, but now everyone is ready for him. Lorca offers Mudd a deal: he’ll turn over Burnham and Stamets and the ship, in exchange for Mudd sparing the lives of the rest of the crew. Mudd thinks this is just an elaborate con job, but Lorca sincerely swears he only wants to avoid a repeat of what happened on his last ship, the USS Buran.
And so, Mudd allows the time loop to expire, and then takes Burnham and Stamets down to the transporter room. Along the way, Burnham and Stamets reveal that they know all about Mudd’s precious Stella, and her father “Barron Grimes”, who’s an arms dealer. It turns out Mudd has actually been hiding out from Stella, because he ripped off her father, who then put out a bounty on his head.
Mudd reminds them that the Klingons are on their way, but Burnham says he didn’t actually send their coordinates to the Klingons. Due to Tyler’s tampering with the captain’s chair, he actually sent those coordinates to Barron Grimes.
They force him into the transporter room, where Stella and Barron Grimes beam in, and this suddenly turns from a remake of a TNG episode into a bad recreation of a comedy ending of a TOS episode, where Stella is thrilled to see Mudd again, and Mudd is obviously not.
Her father steps forward, saying everything is all good, because now Mudd can make an “honest woman” out of his daughter. And it takes real skill to write an ending that would’ve felt old-fashioned and out of place even back in 1966. Mudd now has no choice but to marry Stella, and Stamets beams them out, and Grimes’ ship pulls away. So, this is the ultimate fate of the guy who brutally murdered members of the Discovery’s crew several times over? An unhappy marriage to a controlling wife, and he’s free to go?
The TOS fanfare plays as Burnham and Tyler meet up in the corridor. They have an awkward conversation about what they did in previous timelines, according to Stamets, including dancing as well as kissing. Burnham is having “complicated” feelings again, but Tyler is just sorry they missed out on their “first kiss”.
We wrap up the way we began, with another personal log from Burnham that really says nothing of any importance, while she makes eyes at Tyler on the bridge. The end.
This was an obvious “bottle episode” and mostly feels like a TNG episode filtered through the sensibilities of the Discovery writers. It doesn’t really advance any major plotlines, other than the Burnham/Tyler relationship, but that’s fine. I’m perfectly fine with episodes that don’t feed into any big serialized narratives and exist as standalone stories.
The problem is we’ve seen this story so many times before, in the Star Trek franchise and elsewhere, and this episode fails to make it feel in any way fresh. To be honest, I couldn’t even really follow the ultimate resolution with Stella and Barron Grimes because I was so bored by that point. Unfortunately, for me, it’s another serviceable episode, and with only two more episodes left before the winter break, I’m not optimistic they’re going to pull off anything amazing here.
Next week: It looks like the Discovery finds a planet full of magic spores, which infect Saru. Also, we’re probably going to see what became of the Klingon’s new POW Admiral Cornwall, who was completely forgotten in this episode. There’s also a clip of Lorca talking about taking the time to “grieve” for someone, suggesting an imminent death.