Star Trek: Discovery has edged closer and closer to that Star Trek magic over its first half-dozen episodes - the tardigrade saga definitely had touches of it - but until this week, it hasn’t had any full-on Trekfeel episodes yet. Luckily, though, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” not only bears an extremely Original Series-sounding title - it’s the first episode of Discovery that genuinely feels like Star Trek. I really dug it, and that just further complicates my opinion of the show overall.
The episode has a lot of moving parts, but it centres around the dastardly (extra-dastardly, in Discovery) Harry Mudd attempting to steal the ship to sell to the Klingons - playing out as kind of a flip-flopped heist movie, with the Discovery crew trying to prevent the heist. The added sci-fi wrinkle is that Mudd has a device that creates a half-hour time loop, granting him effectively unlimited attempts at his thievery - which also, more incidentally, involves alien weaponry, force fields, computer hacking, and a space whale. Lt Stamets is the only crew member aware of the loop, thanks to his communing with multidimensional spores, but we navigate the story via Michael Burnham. That’s interesting; usually we see time-loop stories from the perspective of the person figuring it all out.
So, Mudd’s back, as we knew he'd be. Discovery’s take on the character still isn’t the guy from The Original Series - he is a decade younger, to be fair - but he’s a decent-enough character in his own right, particularly as played by Rainn Wilson. Swanning around the ship, quipping about his diabolical supremacy, and travelling through time, he acts more like an angry "Q" than anyone else here, but I'll be damned if it's not watchable as heck. The montage of his Lorca assassinations - though not quite reaching the heights of silliness it should have - concludes with Mudd sitting in the captain’s chair, watching Lorca asphyxiate in space, and eating a burger, and I’m not going to complain about that. Seeing his plan change with each time-loop and each piece of gained information is fascinating as well, though I’m sad he didn’t learn the name of “random communications officer man.” As far as time-loop stories go, this one’s pretty good at switching up its variables.
The real standout character this week, though, is Lt Stamets. Anthony Rapp is in the news right now for offscreen reasons, obviously, but onscreen, his character really started to click this week. Stamets’ spore-drive adventures have altered his personality somewhat, but in a sense they appear to have just made him into a bigger version of himself. With that extra scale of performance, Stamets feels textured in a way most of the other characters don’t, and most of that is purely down to Rapp's interpretation of the character. Rapp grants Stamets - who could easily have been be played as a simple set of neuroses - a real sense of heart, humour, and humanity, tying the episode’s numerous plot threads together nicely. There’s still likely a twist to come regarding Stamets and his interdimensional spore buddies, possibly involving the Mirror Universe, but I’m enjoying the character for now.
Unfortunately, not every plot thread works quite that well. The burgeoning romance between Burnham and Tyler (totally not a Klingon, folks) plays more plot-driven than character-driven; other than Shazad Latif’s good looks, it’s hard to see why Burnham finds herself falling for this guy and not anyone else in her literal entire life. Their chemistry feels forced, no matter how much Al Green is on the soundtrack, or how many seconds they hold their kiss. I absolutely identified with Burnham’s plight as an outsider at a party (having recently found myself in that exact situation), thanks to the considerable time spent setting up her alien background, but I’m not seeing her attraction to Tyler. We’re told about it, frequently, but it’s just not there on screen. Burnham and Tyler seem about as into each other as Mudd and Stella, and that’s supposed to be a doomed romance.
How’s Discovery doing overall, now? The pacing between episodes still feels off, with personal logs catching us up on things we missed rather than setting up what we’re about to see. Most of the characters are still broad strokes, defined by one or two characteristics, rather than being informed by backstory or having visibly nuanced personalities. But hopefully this week’s episode is a sign of things to come. Obviously, its premise was very Star Trek, what with time loops and space piracy and so on, but its resolution is what sold it to me. The Discovery crew won the day not through combat or even technobabble, but through research and relationships and the exposure of lies. Having Mudd sent away to live with his betrothed - about whom he’d spun an elaborate series of fictions - feels very much like an Original Series ending. It even has Starfleet officers half-smirking to each other over their cleverness.
More of this, please, Star Trek: Discovery. High-concept stories with unexpected, character-driven resolutions, that let the actors shine - and that progress the overall story arc while still feeling whole and self-contained. That’s what we want. It’s what I want, anyway.