Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Star Trek: Discovery on a Cautious Upswing?

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Episode 5: “Choose Your Pain”

Content Warning: this review discusses sexual assault, as mentioned on the show.

The episode opens with Burnham waking from a nightmare where she is both the Tardigrade in the navigational machinery and the scientist operating it. Burnham later confers with Dr. Culber. She shares her concerns for Ripper’s well-being and the effect the spore drive is having on it. Dr. Culber agrees to run diagnostic tests.

Elsewhere, Captain Lorca gives a report on the Discovery’s recent successes. While the admiralty board is impressed, they are concerned about losing the Discovery as their secret weapon before they can outfit more vessels with the spore drive and locate more tardigrades to run them. Discovery is ordered to stand down and limit the drive use to Starfleet-authorized missions.

In a more private meeting, Admiral Katrina expresses her concerns about Burnham. Most of the Federation sees her post on Discovery as Burnham avoiding justice. Lorca reminds Katrina that the admiralty gave him permission to fight as he saw fit. Katrina asks him if he really wants to give people something else to judge him for.

On his way back to Discovery, Lorca’s shuttle is captured by Klingons. Lorca and the shuttle pilot resist. L’Rell and her crew murder the pilot and take Lorca hostage.

Admiral Katrina informs First Officer Saru and the Discovery of Lorca’s capture. It is possible the Klingons abducted Lorca to gain information on the spore-drive warp system. Saru snaps into immediate action, ordering the bridge crew to gather information and create potential trajectories the Klingon vessel could have taken. Burnham appears on the bridge, looking for Lorca. When Saru orders Stamets to prepare for multiple jumps, Burnham reveals her concerns for Ripper. Saru dismisses these, telling her the Tardigrade is not up for discussion until after Lorca is rescued. Burnham accepts this.

Onboard the Klingon prison vessel, Lorca is awakened by Harcourt “Harry” Fenton Mudd, a con artist and smuggler. Lorca also sees another Starfleet member, barely conscious in a corner. The Klingons arrive suddenly and ask Mudd to “choose his pain.” Mudd points to the man in the corner. The Klingons beat the man savagely and then drag his unconscious body out. Mudd explains the Klingons prevent captives from forming bonds by forcing them to choose between cellmates for beatings and torture. Lorca is horrified that Mudd continually chooses the other man. Mudd tells him not to be; he’s a survivor, just like Lorca.

Burnham and Culber discuss his findings with Stamets. Ripper is being injured by constant use of the spore drive. Burnham suggests finding a workaround that doesn’t necessitate Ripper’s abuse. Stamets says he never wanted to use a living creature in the first place, and that Ripper had been Burnham’s idea. He agrees they need a solution.

On the prison vessel, the other Starfleet member is brought back to the cell. He shares a bit of food he saves with Lorca. Lorca refuses it, but the man insists, saying he will not lose another captain. The man introduces himself as Lieutenant Ash Tyler and explains how he was captured at the Battle of the Binaries; he has been held by Klingons for seven months. Lorca doesn’t believe him, and Ash admits the captain, L’Rell, has “taken a liking to him.” Lorca grills Ash on what he knows about the Klingon prison ship so he can successfully escape and hail the Discovery. Suddenly an insect scurries between them, taking their bit of food and bringing it to Mudd. It’s his pet, Stuart.

Lorca scolds Mudd for stealing from the only allies he has. Mudd isn’t bothered. He blames Starfleet for his current situation, and explains that not everyone likes the Federation meddling in the affairs of the universe. It comes with consequences the Federation prefers to ignore. Klingons arrive and drag Lorca away.

Back on the Discovery, Stamets, Burnham, and Tilly work on a solution for the spore drive and Ripper. Stamets explains how the mushrooms connect to the mycelium network of space, and Burnham links Ripper to that system through how it communicates with the spores and incorporates foreign DNA into its genomes, allowing it to navigate and travel. Tilly suggests they create a virtual Ripper, but Stamets already tried that. He knows the system needs a living subject, but wants to find a willing, compatible host to replace Ripper.

In her torture chamber, L’Rell questions Lorca. She reveals she knows it was Lorca at Corvan 2, with his ship appearing and reappearing, undetectable like a ghost. Lorca realizes she is parroting back his own words from his conversation with Ash in the prison cell. When she asks him to reveal the Discovery’s secret, he refuses and then mocks her for using Ash sexually. L’Rell, knowing about his photosensitivity, tortures Lorca with light.

Saru checks in with his crew, who have narrowed the paths of the Klingon prison vessel to three. He prepares for the jump, but the crew informs him Stamets has taken the spore drive off line. Saru goes down to investigate and interrupts the three as they search for a comparable species. Stamets explains what they are doing, based on Burnham’s discoveries. Burnham tries to explain how far they have gotten in finding a replacement for Ripper, showing Saru a hypospray with DNA and replicator catalysts. It would allow a human to take Ripper’s place, but since human experimentation is forbidden, she pleads with Saru for more time to find a different replacement. Saru refuses this. He orders Stamets to bring the drive back online and confines Burnham to quarters.

The Klingons bring Lorca back to his cell, where he immediately turns on Mudd. He removes a recording device from Stuart and destroys it; Mudd has been spying for the Klingons, feeding them information from every new prisoner in the cell. Mudd then tries to turn Ash on Lorca by revealing what he knows about Lorca’s dark past–in his previous command, Lorca was the only survivor of his destroyed ship, having refused to go down with his dying crew. Lorca corrects him: he blew up his crew, to save them from capture, torture and death on the Klingon homeworld.

Saru issues the black alert and Discovery jumps to the coordinates of the Klingon prison vessel. It is successful, but Ripper shuts down, protecting itself from further harm by going into cryptobiosis—a state of near death. Culber tries to explain to Saru how the creature cannot be revived, as the state is a response to extreme trauma and adverse conditions. As Saru orders the Discovery to run silent behind the Klingon vessel, he orders Stamets and Culber to wake the Tardigrade and force it to comply. Culber refuses, but Stamets agrees.

The Klingons return to Lorca, Mudd, and Ash. They order Lorca to choose his pain. Ash volunteers. Lorca chooses Ash. The Klingons begin to beat Ash, but Ash and Lorca reveal it as a ruse. They resist, Lorca managing to steal the blaster from their Klingon captors. They kill both Klingons and escape, leaving Mudd in the cell, vowing revenge. Lorca and Ash make their way through the Klingon vessel, killing as they go. Ash’s injuries get the better of him and he insists Lorca leave him behind. Lorca promises to come back for him once he finds a ship. L’Rell finds Ash and in a fit of rage, Ash attacks her. He manages to overpower her, but she eventually throws him off, just in time for Lorca to shot her in the face. She lives, but is left screaming as the two men flee.

Lorca and Ash commandeer a Klingon bird-of-prey fighter, and are chased off the ship by four others. The Discovery notices them, and Saru realizes that the lead vessel is Captain Lorca. He hails it, and Lorca responds. Discovery beams the two men aboard. Lorca and Saru order the Discovery to jump. The Discovery escapes, but when Saru hails Stamets to congratulate him, he gets no response. His life signs are in distress.

In the lab, Saru learns that Stamets injected himself with Ripper’s DNA and inserted himself into the machine. He is badly injured, but survives.

Saru visits Burnham in her quarters. He reports the success of the mission. When she asks him if he truly fears her, Saru admits he doesn’t. Instead he is angry and jealous of the future she robbed him from—one where he would be trained by Captain Georgiou just as she had been, after Burnham left the First Officer position for her own command. Burnham tells Saru he did well in his mission, that Georgiou would have thought he had done well. She then gives Saru the telescope Georgiou left her. Saru leaves with the telescope, but not before giving here a new task: save the Tardigrade’s life.

Burnham and Tilly decide to save Ripper by letting it free. Surrounded by spores, they release Ripper into space. Ripper heals and then disappears into mycelium highway.

In their quarters, Culber continues to monitor Stamets’ life. Stamets insists he is fine, and admits that part of the reason he inserted himself into the navigational device was to protect Culber. Culber tells him not to do anything so stupid and reckless again. They head to bed, but as he turns away from the mirror, Stamets reflection stays. It continues to smile, and then turns away.

Episode Impressions

In what universe—except this one, apparently—can a human break a Klingon’s neck with their bare hands? A human subjected to (in Ash’s case) months of torture?

For that matter, how did Ash manage to get enough strength to beat L’Rell to the ground when he wasn’t able to run the rest of the corridor length with Lorca? And how can Lorca even see, if his photosensitivity is so bad he needs lights turned down after treating his eyes, and he was subjected to light torture by L’Rell for Swho knows how long?

And what the hell are you doing with the Klingons here, Discovery?

To be fair, the Klingon segments in this episode are much better than in previous ones. “Choose Your Pain” seems to have learned from the confusing mess that was episode 4 and limited its scope. The three story threads—Saru’s captaincy, Burnham and Stamets’ efforts to save Ripper, and Lorca’s imprisonment—weave into each other in an episode more reminiscent of the “captain captured” episodes of previous Star Trek series. The Klingons, therefore, feel more developed, even any actual development is limited. They’re still just convenient enemies, retconned to near oblivion for the sake of an easy escape for our tried-and-true Captain Lorca and his new starry-eyed crew-member.

The double-fist punch was a nice touch, though.

“Choose Your Pain’s” Klingon segments do give us some more time with L’Rell—which quickly becomes infuriating since she’s left on the floor bleeding and screaming instead of tearing the puny humans apart–and introduce two more characters: Harry Mudd and Lt. Ash Tyler. Of the two, I admit to being more interested in Mudd, played by Rainn Wilson (a familiar face if you watch The Office); Mudd was an occasional, amusing thorn in the Enterprise’s side in TOS, and a personal favorite of mine, if only because I loved watching Kirk give him the run around time and time again.

Seeing Mudd as a much less lovable scoundrel was fascinating. Wilson brought an intriguing cruelty to Mudd, and his insistence that he and Lorca are the same—survivors, the ends always justifying the means—could point to further clashes where Mudd shoves Lorca’s own ideology back in his face.

Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is another new crew-member for the Discovery, a surviving member of the USS Yeager. I’m not sure how I feel about the none-too-subtle implications that L’Rell raped him repeatedly for seven months (except to feel tired of the “sexual assault as character development” trope) but Tyler working through what will have to be very serious PTSD could, and hopefully will, add some new dynamics to the ship and make his interactions with other characters more engaging. I’m particularly interested in seeing how he grows with Lorca as his captain. Both are the last surviving members of their fallen vessels and I wonder how long Tyler look at Lorca with respect and admiration once he sees the lengths to which Lorca is willing go.

Or maybe Lorca’s exposure to Mudd will make him reconsider whether ends always justify means. But I’m not holding out for that.

Tyler meeting Burnham, the infamous mutineer, is at least bound to be interesting.

The insistence of Burnham, Culber, Stamets, and Tilly on saving Ripper also felt a bit more like the Star Trek I grew up with, and it being at odds with Saru’s overarching mission provided the familiar give-and-take of a struggle between the greater good and personal morals. Stamets’ decision to get into the navigational device—and NOT die, good job Discovery you get a star—was actually surprising, and I had a moment of sincere relief when Stamets opened his eyes and gasped out “did it work?”

It’s something Bones would have done. It was sacrifice that had at once personal and larger meaning. I represents Stamets’ hope that the Discovery will once again be the ship he signed up for: a science vessel, where lifeforms are studied and not hurt.

Of course, with Ripper gone, now there’s only Stamets and if the device wasn’t good for Ripper, it can’t be good for him. I’m pretty sure Saru didn’t want Burnham to let the Tardigrade go when he told her to save it.

Discovery ends with a cliffhanger. The reflection scene was creepy, without being overdone. Short and sweet, it leaves the audience with the vague disquiet and skin-crawling feeling that comes with well-done horror. It’s unclear if the smiling Stamets reflection is pointing toward a possible “mirror universe”  or, more likely, the long-reaching consequences of Stamets’ recklessness. I’m hoping for the latter; Stamets injected himself with alien DNA–an alien distantly related to a terrestrial microorganism, but still an alien, and one they only just discovered is sentient. There have to be consequences, they have to be dire, and the suggestion that they will be is a good sign as Discovery moves forward.

Just please…don’t kill the gays.

Images Courtesy of CBS

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