Episode Title: “Choose Your Pain”
Air Date: October 16, 2017
Following last week’s shenanigans, the Starfleet bigwigs contacted Captain Lorca to suggest that enthusiastically goosestepping through Klingon space using a revolutionary alien-powered warp drive might not be an entirely good idea. Lo and behold, Lorca was swiftly captured by a Klingon boarding party led by L’Rell, and transferred to a prison ship where he was stuffed in a manky cell with a swarthy Starfleet Lieutenant, Tyler (Shazad Latif), and an eccentric conman, Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson), who as I understand it is a reimagining of a character that dates all the way back to The Original Series.
Meanwhile, the Discovery’s triple-threat engineering tag-team of Burnham, Stamets and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) were against the clock as they tried to decipher a means of using their top-secret spore drive without accidentally killing the Tardigrade; a task made all the more pressing by the fact that a panicky Acting Captain Saru would likely order another jump as soon as he found Lorca’s coordinates – whether the creature would survive the effort or not.
Eventually Lorca and Tyler punched their way to freedom, and Stamets injected himself with the giant tick’s magic mushroom DNA, thus circumventing the tricky moral quandary of whether it’s worth almost torturing a sentient creature to death every time the Discovery needs to teleport somewhere new. To celebrate, Burnham released the creature into space.
How was it?
I continue to enjoy this show, almost in spite of itself, and “Choose Your Pain” was a good, solid episode for someone like me, who as we’ve already established has no real knowledge of or affection for Star Trek, and is approaching Discovery entirely on its own merits. The episode sidelined Burnham’s relentless glowering in favour of developing some of the other characters, and while they still haven’t managed to coalesce into a proper ensemble, it was a welcome change of pace and focus all the same.
Having said that, Discovery still has a wealth of problems. The most egregious is that the plot continues to define the characters rather than vice versa, and it seems that all of the show’s smart ideas for plot points and characterisation need to be sandwiched between at least one logical inconsistency and contrivance. In that sense, “Choose Your Pain” was a wobbly, wavering episode that confused and confounded just as much as it surprised and thrilled, but two things are undeniable at this point: 1) that the show is good more often than it isn’t, and 2) that it’s starting to establish its own tone and identity whether, as a Star Trek fan, you like it or not.
So what worked?
We got some welcome backstory for Captain Lorca, and a better understanding of why he seemingly lacks much of a moral compass and is so willing to have Burnham, Starfleet’s only mutineer, aboard his ship. It’s revealed that he blew up the entire crew of his previous command rather than see them fall into Klingon hands and suffer the inevitable degradation and torture that surely would have followed. He remains one of the show’s best and most enigmatic characters, so cracking a window into his worldview was smart housekeeping if we’re to buy his inevitable heel turn later in the season.
Most of Lorca’s stay aboard the Klingon ship, at least until his eventual contrived escape, was littered with intriguing stuff that really deserves more exploration as the season progresses. Wilson’s Mudd was enjoyably sly as a Klingon informant, whose pet space-spider is fitted with a listening device, but what he really brought to the episode was an oppositional political ideology. He’s critical of Starfleet’s arrogance and understanding of the Klingon’s aggression; viewpoints that haven’t really been considered since the start of the season. It’ll be interesting to see what is done with him going forwards, and likewise how the show addresses the non-too-subtle implication that Tyler was sexually abused by L’Rell for the duration of his captivity – dark, salty territory for Star Trek to navigate, the consequences of which will need to be carefully examined if it’s to feel like a worthwhile voyage.
Oh, and the Klingons have cool guns that turn people into green mist.
There were a handful of cool touches aboard the Discovery, too. Saru being suddenly thrust into power gave him a lot to do, and not all of it made sense, but it allowed for a couple of great character moments where he anxiously cross-referenced his performance against an Easter Egg-filled list of past captains. Tilly got to drop what I’m fairly sure is the first F-bomb in the show’s history, and we got to see more of the understated relationship between Stamets and the ship’s doctor, Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz).
That last one is important. It’s rare to see a spaceship’s bathroom, for one thing, and rarer still to see one occupied by two gay men brushing their teeth in snazzy matching pyjamas. Stamets’ noble self-sacrifice might have been predictable, but the show’s willingness to kill off major characters thus far lent it a surge of drama, and it allowed for an intriguing ending. It might have been bold to kill Stamets off, but it’s bolder to have him experience the consequences of messing with interstellar fungus. When he turned away from that mirror, his reflection lingered after him, smirking.
So what didn’t work?
Almost all of the show’s more positive aspects come with a caveat. For all the good stuff that happened aboard the prison ship, Lorca getting there required him to be caught with his pants down in a lonely shuttle that it didn’t make much sense for him to be in, and his eventual ad-hoc escape was fraught with nonsense. Aren’t the Klingons supposed to be a fearsome warrior race? They lose every fight they get involved in. And the shuttle bay is right next to the holding cells? I’m not buying that. Things worked out so well that the whole sequence came off as remarkably contrived, as though Tyler had been sitting on his plan for seven months just waiting for the cameras to show up. And the dark, intriguing idea from which the episode gets its title, that the Klingons force their prisoners to decide who among them gets tortured next, is just interesting enough to be frustrating when it doesn’t get explored or resolved.
Discovery has a habit of undermining its better character and story moments by not properly considering the context around them. Lorca revealing how he saved his former crew from the horrors of Klingon captivity would have been more impactful had he not revealed it while in Klingon captivity. Likewise, the moral dilemma surrounding the Tardigrade’s treatment isn’t much of a dilemma – the thing’s sentient, they’ve hooked it up to a machine against its will, and they’re torturing it to death. No fewer than two Starfleet captains think this is perfectly okay, despite the fact it runs completely contrary to the purposes and values of Starfleet as established in this very story. It isn’t that respect for all living beings should be a hallmark of the show – again, I don’t care about tradition – but not keeping the characterisation consistent gives all the conflicts among the crewmembers a sense of artificiality. Nobody seems to behave in ways that you imagine they would given the scant information that you have about them. It’s all in service of the plot, and sometimes even that doesn’t make much sense.
These are mostly nitpicks…
Yeah, they are. For all the show’s lack of grace and elegance – too many characters simply state how they feel, rather than being nuanced – in broad terms it holds together well enough. The basic formula of a moral or scientific issue set against a ticking-clock backdrop is a good, solid foundation for episodic storytelling, and now that we’ve bedded in the core cast there’s plenty of room for interesting developments going forwards.
Should we keep watching?
If you were already disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery’s faintly grim and cynical view of the future, “Choose Your Pain” is unlikely to change that, but anyone who was on-board before hasn’t been given a reason to disembark just yet.
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