Four episodes in (I’m lumping the two “prologue” episodes together), Star Trek: Discovery is, improbably, settling into an odd-even pattern of good episodes to bad ones, just like the movies. This week’s episode acts almost as a refutation of last week’s horrible entry, telling two stories - of a sad space bug and a kidnapped-captain - that echo some of the best and worst of Star Trek.
The A-plot of “Choose Your Pain” revolves around Captain Lorca, beginning the episode at a meeting (inexplicably in-person) in which he’s finally chewed out by Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) for his overreach. It’s great to finally see someone of rank calling Lorca out for his arrogance, even if it is only a case of - more or less - making the rest of the fleet look bad. Lorca has been painting a target on Discovery’s hull with his highly successful use of its new spore drive, a fact proven unquestionably when he’s promptly kidnapped on his way back to the ship.
Upon kidnapping, Lorca proves himself a skilled prisoner, cagily feeling out both his captors and fellow captives. He doesn’t get much out of the Klingons, whose tactics mostly consist of beating up prisoners (admittedly, while also psychologically dividing them), delivering cliched interrogation speeches (in English, finally, though they’ve straight-up learned it rather than use a translator), and shining lights into Lorca’s damaged eyes (we only see three, much to Next Generation fans’ dismay). The Klingons may look stupid, as one of Lorca’s new cellmates states in a hilariously accurate, probably unintentional meta-line, but...okay, they also kind of act stupid too.
Lorca’s two cellmates are a curious pair, and both will no doubt have sizeable character arcs to come. Rainn Wilson appears as Harry Mudd - predictably, a younger, darker, edgier version of the jollier character seen in The Original Series. Wilson plays Mudd’s manipulative con-artistry for chills rather than for comedy, setting his cellmates up for beatings and stealing food while offering a basic-level argument against Starfleet. He’s an interesting character, if not the one we’re familiar with: a canny survivor looking out only for himself, in stark contrast to the Federation (though less of a contrast in this show compared to others). He’ll be back, too: IMDB lists him as appearing in five episodes, and Lorca’s abandonment of him suggests he’ll have a (sigh) revenge arc to come.
Prisoner of war Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif, so wonderful in Toast of London, credited as a series regular here) is a different story. We don’t get to see much of him in this episode, but his entire introduction is based around setting him up as a sidekick for Lorca. His rescue by Lorca in that ridiculous-looking peacocky Klingon raider will create no small amount of personal loyalty - the kind of which Lorca is no doubt fondest, and the kind most likely to create friction on board Discovery. Intriguing.
As for Lorca himself, he gets a bit more backstory this week. Turns out he only became captain of Discovery after miraculously surviving, alone, the destruction of his previous vessel - a vessel which he blew up to prevent his crew becoming Klingon prisoners of war. ("Not on my watch," says Lorca. Sigh.) That’s a grimmer backstory than I would even have expected this show to come out with, matched by the revelation that Lorca consciously refuses to get his eyes fixed so that he’ll remember that fateful decision. As if you’d forget something like that!
Lorca’s abduction drives the B-plot to take place, but the B-plot is where the good stuff is. Back aboard Discovery, Burnham’s starting to empathise with the giant tardigrade being used as the spore drive’s navigation system. Firstly, that means Burnham’s feeling emotions now, which is a fine development, but more interesting in the immediate term is the story about scientific ethics being told in this episode. The crew needs the spore drive to rescue Lorca, but the tardigrade is being slowly and very visibly killed with its every use; cue a clash between Burnham and acting captain Saru over the ethics of what they’re doing. It even comes to a resolution where they release the tardigrade back out into space to join the (scientifically dodgy, but at this point, fuck it) subspace mycelium network. Star Trek!
Not only is an episode based around vivisection an unexpected turn for the show to take, it’s driven by character, which is nice to see this early on. Saru, thrust into acting captaincy, has a nice arc based around self-doubt and overcompensation that sees him making unethical decisions for the sake of the mission, before ultimately realising his folly. (I also hadn’t noticed he had hooves before; neat. Neater than the distracting shots where we see Doug Jones’ human mouth under the makeup, anyway.) Burnham comes to the tardigrade’s defense only in the wake of her new posting dredging up her suppressed human emotions; more and more, this seems to be a show about Burnham discovering empathy. There’s even some development of Star Trek’s first gay couple, Dr Culber and Lt Stamets, wherein Stamets somewhat recklessly uses himself as a DNA surrogate for the tardigrade, against his partner’s wishes.
That biological process has its own side effects, though. It’s unclear exactly what’s going on in the final moments of “Choose Your Pain,” where Stamets’ reflection grins and twitches as the real Stamets walks away from the mirror. Is that just artistic license to show Stamets’ psyche has somehow been altered by the experiment, or is there some kind of parallel mycelial dimension thing going on? Whatever it is, it ain’t great news for Stamets or the crew.
Discovery’s uneven start has really driven home the biggest narrative difference between it and the other shows in the franchise. As a serialised show that develops over a season, rather than in discrete episodic hours, Discovery and its characters didn’t arrive fully-formed in the way that the other shows did. We only just had a series regular appear for the first time in episode 5, for example. As a result, the actors don’t quite feel comfortable in their characters yet, and more importantly, the show’s themes haven’t crystallised. There are elements in here that give me hope that Discovery will indeed be a show about discovery: discovering empathy, discovering new horizons, discovering alternatives to war. We’re just unused to seeing Star Trek with this kind of structure. At least, that’s the life preserver I’m clinging to.
What do you think? Is the show going somewhere? Are the characters and relationships starting to coalesce? Did that F-bomb feel weird to you too? Do you miss that Star Trek feeling of optimism that shone forth oh-so-briefly in this ep? I’m warming towards the show, but damn, I started out so cold on it, we’re still only at lukewarm.