Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad
Show: Star Trek: Discovery
Air Date: October 30, 2017
In easily my favourite episode thus far, a vengeful Harry Mudd returned in the belly of a giant space-whale to torment the crewmen of the Discovery. He’s still pissed off about Captain Lorca and Lieutenant Tyler leaving him to fester on that Klingon prison ship, and he’s here to make them sorry; first, by killing them over and over again, and then by selling their ship to his rubbery-faced overlords for a quick buck.
Killing them… over and over again?
Oh, yeah. So, Mudd has happened upon a “time crystal”, which is the time-loop device from Groundhog Day given a Trek-y makeover. He can reset the same 30-minute period again and again, with none of the crewmembers aware of their deaths or the restarts, and use each half-hour to investigate the ship and attempt to figure out how the spore drive works. Unfortunately for him, Stamets, after his genetic merger with the trans-dimensional tardigrade, exists outside the current timeline; he’s fully aware of each temporal loop, as at least one character must be for a gimmick like this to work, but the fact it’s Stamets in-the-know gives this episode of Star Trek: Discovery not just a great, character-focused edge, but also a poignant prescience given recent revelations in dear old Hollywood.
Just the other day, Anthony Rapp, who plays Stamets, accused Kevin Spacey of attempting to sexually assault him when he was a 14-year-old actor on Broadway. This led to Spacey, in typical Hollywood fashion, using the allegations as a platform to come out as a gay man, thus distracting the world with his heartwarming tale of bravery, and not letting them focus too long on the fact that he is the latest in a long line of men who have been recently accused of sexual predation. Currently, the entertainment industry seems like an extensive network of privileged enablers; it always has been, of course, but never before has that fact seemed so overwhelming and obvious.
In light of all this, it’s difficult not to consider “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, in which Rapp spends almost the entire episode trying to convince his peers of the truth, as a fortuitously-timed condemnation of abuse and the culture that allows it to exist unchecked.
Is that the only reason Stamets works so well here?
Not at all. Truth is, Rapp has never been better on the show than he is in this episode; his face is astonishingly expressive, and he contorts it to show off wry humour, frustration, fondness, sorrow and understanding. His immunity to Mudd’s device is a smart way of continuing narrative elements introduced in previous episodes without shunting the main plot too far forwards. This is, essentially, a standalone episode. We don’t hear anything about Admiral Cornwell’s capture, and we don’t see the Klingons at all. But previous events and relationships are built upon and expanded, and new ones are introduced, ready to be fleshed-out in subsequent episodes.
Thanks to her burgeoning relationship with Tyler, Burnham is continuing the process of loosening up that she began at the end of last week’s episode when it turned out that Sarek was a total prick. We get a convenient excuse as to why, despite several years of service aboard a Federation vessel, Burham is still, emotionally-speaking, much more Vulcan than human. And Stamets quickly recognises that by forcing her to admit and confront her feelings, he’s also gaining her trust. He asks her to tell him something she’s never told anyone else so that, during the next time-loop, he can expedite filling her in on the details. Turns out she’s never loved anyone.
There’s a beautiful scene in which Stamets and Burnham slow-dance in a hallway, to prepare for a later dance Burnham will share with Tyler while she tries to convince him of their situation. Stamets offers the story of how he met Dr. Culber: At a café, he told him to stop humming and go away; Culber sat next to him instead. “And he’s been there ever since.” Burnham is understandably confused about how a lifelong partnership can be built on a moment of hostility. “Because I told him how I really felt,” Stamets says. “And he did the same. And we liked that about each other.”
You liked that about this episode?
I did. It was deeply committed to interrogating feelings, investigating possibilities, and fostering understanding and honesty and respect among the members of Discovery’s crew. Even if it’s only in fiction, you cannot escape the significance of a man being forced to admit a painful and difficult truth, and being met with belief, support and help.
What didn’t work in Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad?
Despite making for a great individual episode, you have to wonder where Discovery plans to voyage in the long-term after it so willingly shelved the major plot and character development that occurred at the end of the previous episode. Holding that kind of thing in stasis might allow for these little narrative deviations, but it’s not a sustainable approach to telling a big, long story that is designed to be advanced each week.
That, and there’s an incredibly heavy-handed bit of dialogue in which Burnham explains that Mudd’s space-whale Trojan horse is an endangered species because it spends so much time frolicking in the stars that it forgets to have a life and reproduce. I wonder what that could be an allegory for. Even in its best episodes, Star Trek: Discovery does have a habit of telling us things it should be showing us, and doing it in a way that isn’t half as clever as it thinks.
Should we keep watching?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t know how many episodes of this style we’re going to get, and how damaging to the broader story it might be if we get several, but as a standalone mini-adventure this was a fantastic episode and, for the first time, I’m really happy that I was able to see it.
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