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19 October 2017

Star Trek Discovery, Ep 5: Choose Your Pain

By // TV

In thinking about last week’s episode, I made the argument that the reason for the ‘grimdark’ tone of Discovery was to show our characters struggling to evolve from morally ambiguous, wartime characters into the hopeful utopians of The Original Series and happily this week’s episode, Choose Your Pain, re-affirms this by taking a key opportunity to separate the crew from Captain Lorca. The result is Lorca making the wrong call (which has caused minor outcry from Trek fans) and the crew struggling, but ultimately making the right call. We also get the return of a fan favorite from The Original Series, con man Harry Mudd (played in Discover by Rainn Wilson) and the introduction of a PTSD-afflicted Federation prisoner-of-war who may be more than he seems. The episode also finally puts more on Saru as he takes command of Discovery’s mission to rescue Lorca and decide the fate of Ripper, being increasingly damaged to navigate the teleportation drive. Both plots are engaging and advance the overall story nicely, leading to a solid episode of Trek.

Plus, there was cussin’! Trek dropped its first two f-bombs in this episode, which were…fine? Honestly, I was mostly just reminded of the South Park episode about how once everyone can say ‘shit’ on TV it stops being interesting. Did love that it was about science, though.

And finally, we get our first proper introduction to the promised relationship between Stamets and Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) and it’s exactly what I hoped it would be: a relationship. On a starship. That no one particularly cares or makes a big deal about, including the show. Their relationship is actually a tremendously big deal for the Trek-verse, bringing the first canonical gay couple into the TV timeline (Sulu’s orientation was shifted in the Kelvin timeline for Star Trek Beyond as an homage to actor and activist George Takei, but many – including Takei – objected to the change, preferring that new characters be introduced, rather than old ones altered). But the show know what’s it’s doing with these two, having them just enjoy a moment of domesticity not unlike those of roommates Burnham and Tilly, rather than exoiticising the couple. Just as Roddenberry did with Uhura, Sulu, and later Chekov as bridge officers in The Original Series, Discovery continues to present diversity as an accepted given of the future.

And there’s nothing grimdark about it.

Full spoilers follow.

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Much has been made of the return of Harry Mudd and as Rainn Wilson suggested during the press conferences leading into the show (he often served as panel moderator for the cast), in Choose Your Pain we get a slightly grittier Mudd (surprise! #grimdark) who is more fitting for the tone of a wartime period in Discovery. Wilson argued, when asked for feedback on the early scripts, that while Mudd needed to be recognizable as the same character, that the whimsical tone of his cons in The Original Series would be out-of-place in war time. The result, so far, is Mudd as a Klingon prisoner, a civilian trying to survive in a POW camp. It’s an interesting set-up and allows Mudd be as clever and conniving as ever, but in more dire circumstance. It also brings one of our few civilian points-of-view in the show (other than Burnham’s fellow prisoners in the third episode), as Mudd denounces the Federation as ignoring the needs of the ‘little people’ down planetside. Mudd’s argument, though not entirely legitimate as his business was a scam, holds water: the war against the Klingons comes from the Federation spreading out into the universe and an alien race’s aversion to be assimilated by them. Wilson gets to deliver an amazingly snarky version of the famous “to boldly go” line and echoes sentiments expressed recently by Idris Elba’s villain in Beyond: you push the frontier, sometimes the frontier pushes back.  Mudd presents a rather bleak view of space exploration (though knowing what we know about the Klingons eventually joining and thriving in the Federation, maybe less so) but while this may seem a pessimistic, post-modern (dare I say, grimdark?) take on the nature of Star Trek, it’s worth remembering that ideas like this are not new to the franchise: hell, the Prime Directive is violated almost every episode. Discovery points directly at it, but the question of whether the good outweighs the bad of diversity, exploration, and making contact with other cultures has been constant in Trek; with Trek’s thesis always being that diversity is strength – that we can learn from each other and better each other. Mudd doesn’t take this stance, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking him as a character with a valid moral centre: he is a career con man we first met when he tried to sell women to the Enterprise. But this, I suspect, is the point of Lorca: his skewed morality is there as a litmus test against which to check other characters. Kirk versus Mudd? Kirk comes out as in the right. Lorca versus Mudd? Mudd is right.

Which brings us to Lorca’s big decision, which has been taking a lot of heat online: after successfully orchestrating an escape, Lorca leaves Mudd – who has betrayed them by smuggling info to the Klingons and choosing other prisoners to take the beatings from the Klingons –to his fate. I read an article over on io9 whose headline declared that this episode and specifically this action were when “Discovery finally lost its soul,” which though an eye-catching headline, is ultimately a misleading one: the article posits that Lorca leaving Mudd to be tortured and killed without hesitation or remorse is inexcusable for Starfleet and for a captain. Agreed. But I think that’s the point: Lorca is the bad guy. He’s a fanatic, an Ahab, and mercy to one’s enemies doesn’t fit that model. The thing that is upsetting most Trek fans right now, it seems, is not being able to reconcile hatred of a captain with a Trek show. We’ve been conditioned to believe unfailingly in the heroics of our captains (though all have done some pretty morally ambiguous things, in their time), but we know from SO MANY GUEST STARS that Starfleet is rife with villains. We’ve just never had to live with one before.

This is what makes removing Lorca from the ship for an episode so important: we need to see what the Discovery looks like without his influence and the results are telling. Saru finally gets his command but is unsure of himself, as he later admits, he never had a mentor like Georgiou, so he begins by setting up a computer algorithm based on the greatest captains in Starfleet history (some nice Easter Eggs, there) to monitor his choices and cross-check them against other captains’ records. It’s an adorably logical way to try and gauge one’s success and fits what we’ve seen of Saru perfectly. Saru’s command is (of course) challenged by Burnham, who is really making an effort not to, on the issue of Ripper, who is suffering brain damage from the spore-drive. Here, Saru makes the wrong call: he demands that until Lorca is saved, the question of whether or not Ripper is sentient or being damaged is moot. By doing so, he consigns a sentient creature to slavery and death in the name of the cause, a very Lorca decision. Through some quick medical discoveries, Stamets and Burnham realize that a human could also navigate and willingly give consent to the process, but Saru demands immediate results, causing the ship to teleport but putting Ripper into a protective coma. After ordering the waking-up of Ripper at any cost, Saru manages to save Lorca and jump to safety; because Stamets defied him and acted as navigator himself, at great personal risk. Here’s the important thing: Burnham, Stamets, and the doctor were given a war-time order that was morally wrong and they couldn’t live with themselves if they followed it: as a result, they defied that order and made the moral choice: the result was Saru recognizing his error, apologizing, and asking Burnham to save Ripper’s life. In the course of this episode, we saw our crew evolve toward the Trek ideal (or standard, depending on your point-of-view) by not choosing Lorca’s way. With Lorca back in command, this will be put to the test, particularly if new character Ash Tyler, the POW Lorca saves and brings back with him, turns out to be a double agent (as his convenient story and introduction seem to suggest).

This episode also lays some AMAZING ‘crazy Star Trek premise’ groundwork, with the teaser at the end of the episode. While this could be a timeline that operates a little slower, my money is on the infamous Mirror Universe (home of the ‘evil Spock goatee’): with Discovery teleporting around a sub-dimension via the spores (possibly the most Trek sentence I’ve ever written), there is plenty of opportunity to break reality and in classic Trek fashion, that can lead to some great stories (and some pretty terrible ones…) Of particular interest: the Mirror Universe features a warlike Federation dedicated to Empire and domination…what does Lorca look like in a universe of ‘evil twins’? Is he good? Because that would give a lot of insight to our cast as to the Captain’s true nature. We’ll see; fingers crossed for an evil Saru goatee.

There’s one more major thing to address from this episode, however it’s a bit of a meta-spoiler (in that information from the process of making the show suggests it rather than the episode itself). I’m going to go into it below, but don’t want to spoil something for viewers that could otherwise be a well-plotted storyline, so if you’re enjoying the show and don’t want to have anything ruined, then thanks for the read and I’ll see ya next week.

However, if you don’t care about such things, read on…

Well Substantiated Spoiler Theory Follows After the Bump

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So, let’s talk about Ash Tyler…who is suspicious as hell and may well be Voq, our albino Klingon, in disguise. We’ve seen Klingon infiltrators made to look human before (in The Trouble with Tribbles, no less) and Tyler’s track in the episode certainly reads as a traitor (in a classic, ‘meet a spy in jail’ kinda way).

But here’s the biggest proof: the actor playing Voq is Shazad Latif…who also plays Ash Tyler. Since io9 brought this to my attention, the posting on IMDB has been taken down, but there was also word during the ‘troubled Dark Ages of Discovery development’ that Shazad Latif, originally cast as ‘Klingon Commander Kol’ was being recast as Lieutenant Ash Tyler. There’s now conjecture that this was all smoke and mirrors to hide the twist, similar to the kind of stunts pulled to hide Khan’s identity in Into Darkness (worst kept secret in the universe) or the obscuring of Marion Coltiard’s Tahlia al Ghul in Dark Knight Rises…to the degree that the actor cast as ‘Kol’ may not even be real (!) Extreme measures, but desperate, spoilery times call for desperate measures.

This all tracks with last week’s episode (which chronologically was a month or more ago), which saw Voq travel with L’Rell to House Mokai (house of lies and illusions!) and “give up everything.”

This plotline would definitely bring the Klingon guerilla war suggested by L’Rell and the Discovery main plot together quite nicely, keeping the main Klingons out while Voq attempts to steal the Federation’s best weapon. As an added bonus, if our main Klingon is speaking English now, we don’t have to put up with as much halting Klingon…which would be GREAT for all involved.

So, a promising plot and a huge twist…as long as one can forget the news of Latif’s recasting, which at the time was highlighted as bizarre and troubling production news. Turns out, it may have just been tactical news; time will tell.

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