Star Trek: Discovery – “Choose Your Pain” tries to have everything at least two ways

After the clinical, impersonal sterility of last week’s bleakly dull episode, “Choose Your Pain” is a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the great potential this show possesses. The grimdark elements are still firmly and problematically in place, but at the core of “Choose Your Pain” is a glimmer of unironic optimism that is wholly Star Trek and that has been largely absent from the series so far. At five episodes into a 15-episode season, Discovery is, rather frustratingly, still establishing its identity, but it felt much surer of itself this week than last. Though it’s not entirely without problems, it’s an altogether better-constructed episode with a more compelling and complete story than either of the last two episodes, and it certainly works to help regain some of the momentum lost since the two-part premiere.

**Spoilers below.**

The episode begins with a meeting between Captain Lorca and his bosses at Starfleet, who are taking the Discovery out of action for the time being. Though we haven’t seen but the one major mission so far, apparently the ship has already made a name for itself, jumping all over the place to engage the Klingons and defend Federation space, and the higher-ups are concerned that the Klingons might try to capture the ship or figure out its technology. Lorca isn’t happy about having to take this step back from active duty, but there’s no hint of what he might do next because before, he even makes it back to the ship from his meeting, his shuttle is captured by Klingons and he’s promptly tossed into Klingon prison where he meets blatant fan service character Harry Mudd (a great use of Rainn Wilson’s talents) and Lieutenant Ash Tyler, a Starfleet officer captured at the Battle of the Binary Stars who has survived for eight months being raped by the Klingon woman who commands the ship. It’s a weird, excessively dark set-up, and much of what happens on the Klingon ship after Lorca’s arrival is nonsensical.

Harry Mudd is played with less disreputable rakish charm and more genuine pathos and anger at what he perceives as Starfleet’s elitism and lack of care for the common people, and this is a genuinely interesting idea that doesn’t go anywhere. We get some backstory for Lorca, who, it turns out, was famously (or famously enough that Mudd recognized his name) the single survivor when the ship he previously commanded was lost early in the war. The twist here is that Lorca destroyed the ship and its crew himself, to prevent them from being captured and tortured by Klingons, which makes it very weird later in the episode when Lorca bonds with Lieutenant Tyler and the two of them leave Mudd behind while they fight their way off the Klingon ship. Lorca knows exactly what fate he’s leaving Mudd to, and it’s hard to see Lorca or Tyler as sympathetic characters when they are willing to do something so unconscionable for petty revenge.

My frustration with this storyline is exacerbated by the fact that this unlikely escape happens too easily; not only are Lorca and Tyler able to overpower their guards with a simple ruse, but they are able to commandeer a small, two-person fighting ship with such minimal trouble that it happens entirely offscreen. By the time they are found by the Discovery, however, they’ve got four or five more small fighters chasing them, which means that there are personnel to fill them and that those personnel were able to launch their ships quickly enough that they are right on top of Lorca and Tyler. This points to a relatively large crew on the main Klingon ship, but they only encountered their two guards, a couple other Klingons in the hallways, and the Klingon captain herself. It’s a level of silly, hand-waving whiz-bang storytelling that depends on its audience failing to think even the least bit critically about the basic mechanics of how the story is supposed to unfold, and I hate it.

Meanwhile, on the Discovery, we get a more Saru-focused storyline. In Lorca’s absence, Saru is acting captain, and the Discovery is the only ship with the capabilities needed to locate and rescue Lorca once he’s captured, so the burden of managing this task is on Saru’s shoulders. It’s a time for Saru, potentially, to shine in a leadership position, but he’s suffering from a lack of confidence and comparing himself to other successful captains as he tries to ascertain whether he’s doing a good job. Complicating matters for Saru is Burnham’s report that the spore drive is depleting their tardigrade navigator to such a degree that it may jeopardize their continued ability to travel. Saru won’t hear of suspending use of the spore drive, however, even when Burnham’s theory about the tardigrade is supported by Lieutenant Stamets and Dr. Colber. Burnham is banished to her quarters, perennially doomed to Cassandra status, which effectively cuts her out of the story for much of the episode’s second half, during which time the ship’s final jump using the tardigrade practically kills the poor creature. Even that (with the added likelihood that the tardigrade is sentient, to boot) isn’t enough to sway Saru away from wringing every last drop of life from the creature if they need to in order to accomplish their mission.

Frankly, it’s not a great look for the first officer, for all that it’s a humanizing and compelling story, and once again Burnham is proven correct by the end of the episode, even as she’s castigated in the narrative for her high-handed methods. It’s deeply frustrating to watch her be right, over and over again, but also being constrained by a hierarchical system that punishes her for stepping out of line. It was tolerable enough when she was in trouble for mutiny; that’s a major offense, and her actions had severe consequences. But it’s starting to feel like Burnham is right about something new every week, only to have her every action and motive distrusted and second-guessed and criticized. Saru confining her to quarters this week was especially upsetting as it meant that Burnham wasn’t able to help implement her own solutions to their problem; Stamets takes the risk of injecting himself with tardigrade DNA so he can navigate the ship. Sure, he’ll almost certainly have to deal with consequences at some point for violating Earth’s anti-eugenics laws, but he also gets much of the credit for saving the day.

Burnham, on the other hand, gets to clean up the mess, of both the tardigrade, who has gone into a deep hibernation, and of Saru’s feelings—it turns out he’s angry and jealous and resentful towards Burnham for robbing him of his chance to study under Captain Georgiou. I’m very interested in the ways in which Burnham’s story is about how she chafes in the strictly hierarchical structures of Starfleet, and I think there is plenty of potentially useful commentary that could be made on the Starfleet ideal and the Trek vision of the future in general, but I’m not entirely confident that this show has the capability of examining those things in the way they deserve. There are glimmers of insight every now and then, and there’s interesting set-up for these big ideas—for example, Saru’s clear disdain for Lorca, which takes on a new depth of meaning when set against his obvious love and respect for Georgiou—but there’s not much payoff so far. Still, the Star Trek optimism shines through in spite of itself, in moments like the Burnham’s revival of the tardigrade or in her ability to bury the hatchet with Saru.

My major takeaway from this episode is that the people behind this show still aren’t certain what they want the show to be. At times, it’s as if they envision it as the unholy love child of Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica, but at others it’s Star Trek through and through. I’m just not sure if all those different stylistic and philosophical parts are ever going to make a coherent story.

Miscellany:

  • I want to know more about Harry Mudd’s little scorpion friend.
  • Lorca’s vision problems are seeded at the beginning of the episode, there’s a reminder when he’s captured and drops the injector he uses for his medicine, and the Klingon captain tortures him by shining bright lights in his face, but there’s no actual payoff? The bright light torture is obviously uncomfortable, but it doesn’t even do any serious temporary damage that would hinder Lorca’s escape or force him to make a decision about getting proper medical care for his condition.
  • Cadet Tilly: “I love feeling feelings!” (I loved the scene with Tilly and Burnham having lunch together, which is exactly the sort of slice-of-life stuff I’ve been missing so far on this show.)
  • Also Cadet Tilly: “That’s so fucking cool!” (On the one hand, I appreciate the sentiment; on the other hand, it’s very weird to hear the f-bomb on Star Trek, which in my day was a family show.)
  • The final scene with Stamets and Colber was nice, both confirming the characters’ relationship and providing more of the domesticity I love in Trek and that provides reasons to care about the characters.
  • So… Burnham and Tilly are the only major female characters at this point, but I guess good job for not killing off any more women of color this week?
  • Speaking of two ways, looks like we’re getting some Mirror Universe funtimes soon!

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