So, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is definitely my favorite episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date. It’s a time loop episode, which is one of my favorite genres of sci-fi television stories, and it’s, for the most part, really well done. It’s often hand-wavy about science and logic, but that’s been the Star Trek way since forever and isn’t really a negative to my mind. There’s some interesting character work going on, especially for Lieutenant Stamets, who we’ve seen little of since he injected himself with the tardigrade DNA. It also brings back Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, which is rather earlier than I expected but welcome nonetheless. ALSO, there is a space whale. It’s not a perfect hour, by any stretch, but it’s pretty good, and it’s a pleasantly standalone episode that I could see rewatching on its own in the future.
The episode opens with a party that’s notable in Trek history for actually feeling like a party that real young people might go to and enjoy. There’s drinking and dancing and people making out, and it’s nice to get another look at life on the Discovery when there’s not a crisis going on. Of course, right as Tyler is about to ask Burnham to dance, a crisis starts, and it starts with an endangered space whale that needs a lift to, I guess, a space whale sanctuary of some kind. The space whale turns out to be Harry Mudd’s way onto the Discovery, and he comes out, phaser blazing, to take over the ship, find out its secrets, and sell them to the Klingons. He’s only got thirty minutes to accomplish this, but Mudd’s got a time crystal that lets him murder Lorca and destroy the ship time and time again to perfect his strategy. Also, for funsies. Fortunately, through cleverness and teamwork, the Discovery crew foils Mudd’s plans. And they get to talk about their feelings, to boot.
It ticks a lot of classic Trek boxes—time loop, Mudd, weird space creature, feelings, friendship—and these overlap quite a lot with all my personal boxes that are ticked by this episode—time loop, weird space creatures, feelings, friendship, smooching, Rainn Wilson. For Trekkie reasons and personal reasons, I basically uncritically love about the first 85% or so of the episode, but that first 85% is also a smartly constructed, well-executed and highly entertaining bit of television. For most of the hour, it manages to strike a great balance between hijinks, romance, science and the darkness that’s characteristic of this Trek iteration. Certainly, it’s a much better balance than existed in the previous several episodes, and it makes it that much more disappointing when it fails, pretty spectacularly, to stick its landing. I just don’t know what the Discovery writers—and costumers and directors and anyone else involved in the end of this episode—were thinking by tacking on such a tonally dissonant mess at the end of an otherwise excellent hour, but that’s a thing that has happened.
In a lot of ways, this is a Stamets episode. Due to his combining his DNA with that of the giant space tardigrade, he’s now outside the normal spacetime continuum, so he’s the only member of the Discovery’s crew to realize what’s going on. After last week’s brief glimpse of the new, post-tardigrade Stamets, it was nice to get a better idea of how he’s doing these days and how much he’s changed. Here, we find a kinder, gentler Stamets, capable of and willing to give Burnham dancing lessons and relationship advice, but most of Stamets’ time this week is spent trying to convince Burnham and Tyler to help stop Mudd and save the ship. Anthony Rapp does a fantastic job of portraying a coherent character arc for Stamets, and it’s Stamets’ reactions to the experience of being trapped in Mudd’s time loop that are the most interesting thing about the episode. His journey through feelings of anxiety, frustration, resignation, fatalism, and desperation to put a stop to it are compelling and heartfelt.
The stress and trauma of experiencing the ship being destroyed time and time again is conveyed to the viewer largely through confident editing as we see short snippets of many instances of the time loop in the first three quarters of the episode. It’s not always entirely clear how Stamets is supposed to have learned all the information we’re meant to believe he’s learned from each loop, but the episode is fast-paced and fantastically-premised enough in the first place that it’s not hard to suspend disbelief. Rapp’s skillful portrayal of Stamets’ arc is mirrored by Harry Mudd’s arc, in which Mudd starts the hour gleefully murdering Lorca over and over again, only to become fatigued by the experience in the end. By the time Mudd stops the time loop, he’s entirely lost interest in killing Lorca and is simply anxious to get his promised pay-out from the Klingons, and this is what allows Stamets, Burnham and Tyler to trick him into ending the time loop at all. Thinking that he’s captured the ship and Michael Burnham, Mudd cheerfully transmits their coordinates to, theoretically, some waiting Klingons, only to find out that the ship that is coming to meet them contains his wife, Stella, and her arms-dealing father.
And this is where things get bad.
Listen. There’s definitely something a little off, just overall, with the way Harry Mudd is written on this show. I’ve written before about similar characters in other shows, usually white, almost always men, who we’re supposed to understand as Lovable Rogues. They’re crude, sexist, sometimes racist, generally self-serving, often craven and greedy, but they somehow manage to have all these negative qualities in a way that we can be convinced is charming. So, we like these characters, rather in spite of ourselves. The thing is, in order for these characters to maintain their lovableness, their transgressive behaviors can’t be too transgressive. Stealing stuff (especially from the rich and powerful), getting in fights, treating romantic partners poorly, being generally unreliable, that sort of thing works. Gleefully murdering hundreds of people dozens of times over as part of your plan, motivated by revenge and spite and not a little bit of a greed, to sell out the Federation to a brutal adversary is a more than a little outside the “Lovable” Rogue wheelhouse. The cruelty and sadism of Mudd’s actions in this episode are genuinely dark and horrifying, far beyond anything that should be accepted as the sort of whacky hijinks that make Lovable Rogues beloved.
To be fair, Mudd’s actions take a toll on him. However, whereas it’s obvious that Stamets’ desperation to bring the time loop to an end comes from a place of caring for others and not wanting to see any more suffering or experience more pain, Harry Mudd’s fatigue seems more connected to boredom and actual physical exhaustion after well over 24 hours without sleep while he ran and reran the scenario of taking over the Discovery. Mudd doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed of his actions; he’s simply achieved maximum catharsis through murder, and he’s now impatient to be done so he can get his payday and, presumably, hit the sack. It’s also not clear, in the final time loop, how much damage Mudd has actually done on the Discovery. In previous versions of the loop, he killed multiple people on his way to the bridge, but even if he didn’t physically harm anyone this last time through the time loop, Stamets exists as a witness to Mudd’s litany of crimes in earlier iterations of the event. Mudd has proven himself to be unprincipled and dangerous, and by the episode’s end he’s still in possession of sensitive information, even if his ability to monetize that information is greatly reduced.
So, you’d think that Harry Mudd, once his plan was foiled, would be arrested and imprisoned pending trial for whatever crimes he’s committed, even if all they can get him on is “conspiracy to commit.” You would be incorrect in thinking that, however. Instead of facing any kind of actual punishment or legal consequences, Mudd finds himself tricked into ending the device he used to create the time loop and escorted to the transporter room, where he’s not greeting Klingon guests like he expects, but is instead faced with his wife, the mythical Stella, and her father, a wealthy arms dealer. I hate this.
So, apparently, in the Original Series, Harry Mudd’s wife, Stella Grimes, was a famously nagging harpy of a woman, with the punchline of one Harry Mudd episode, in which he’d made a Stella fembot (as part of a whole scheme of selling fembots), being the creation of hundreds of robot Stellas who can all harangue him at once. That’s obviously a damaging (and sadly pernicious) misogynistic stereotype, and it would be a disaster to replicate uncritically in 2017. Still, the ending of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is little more than a variation on that theme. The only problem is that Discovery’s Stella isn’t a middle-aged harridan, ready to hound her wayward husband; she’s young (like, young enough to be Rainn Wilson’s daughter young, and looks younger), and she seems to have genuine affection for Mudd. I just… don’t know what they were going for here.
Discovery!Stella, as I said, is younger than her husband by quite a bit, younger enough that it’s hard not to suspect that Mudd has preyed upon her youth and ignorance in order to finagle his way into an advantageous marriage. This perception isn’t helped by the confused portrayal of Stella as both somewhat aggressively overbearing and rather stupid, while her father, Baron Grimes, is portrayed as patronizingly indulgent of his daughter’s foibles. It’s like the people in charge of coming up with this stuff kind of understood that it’s not 1967 anymore, so they tried to soften the trope of the Nagging Wife in several ways and to create Stella as a sympathetic and humorous character. This is apparent in her dialogue, though there isn’t much of it, but also in the costuming of Stella and her father. They’re both in get-ups that could have come straight from the Original Series, Stella in bright synthetic fabric and her father in some kind of pleather old-timey mobster number. Compared to the show’s other excellent costumes, these are retro in all the wrong ways, and contribute to the complete tonal dissonance of this ending when set against the rest of the episode.
For an otherwise strong episode to end on such a strange, regressive note, especially when it’s so at odds with the tone of the rest of the hour, is a huge disappointment. I loved the time loop; I loved Stamets; I loved Burnham’s burgeoning romance with Tyler; I loved the party and Tilly and the space whale; but I hate, with a passion, that Harry Mudd’s “punishment” for all the many crimes he committed in this episode is still, in the year of our Lord 2017, having to return to the mildly unpleasant wife he jilted.
- I loved Stamets’ story about how he met his partner. That story, coupled with the sensible advice he gives Burnham, helps to put this new, softer side of Stamets that we’re seeing post-tardigrade in a context where we can see that this sensitivity in him isn’t entirely new or unprecedented and helps to diffuse some of the sense of body-snatching I had watching Stamets in the last episode.
- I’m starting to reconsider my early perception of Cadet Tilly as neuroatypical. It seems weird that her allergies and mild snoring would keep her from having a roommate before Burnham arrived, but the issue of Tilly being neuroatypical hasn’t been addressed since, and she’s seemed to behave fairly typically in the intervening episodes. Which doesn’t rule out neuroatypicality, but I’m not going to give this show credit for representation if I have to imagine it all in my head.
- Tilly seems fun at parties. Also, I like her friendship with Burnham better when they are just young women being friends. Because of Burnham’s background as a mutineer, she’s a somewhat inappropriate mentor or professional role model for Tilly, which is a concern, but it also bothered me to see a black woman character, herself so in need of love and guidance, being made to mentor a white woman. I’d much rather see them have a more equitable relationship and, as in this episode, see more of what Tilly brings to the table as a friend and confidant to Burnham.
- What emotion was Lorca supposed to be expressing as he turned the ship over to Mudd? Seriously? This moment felt like it could be character development; perhaps we’re meant to understand from this that Lorca’s learned from past mistakes and doesn’t want to repeat them. Certainly, in the moment, before it’s revealed that the Discovery crew has executed a plan to foil Mudd, Lorca’s sentiment seems real enough. But we’ve also seen as recently as last week that Lorca has a manipulative and calculating side to him that hasn’t been trained out by Starfleet. His submission to Mudd is feigned, after all, so it’s also possible that Lorca just has a fantastic poker face.
- I like Burnham and Tyler together. Very cute.