Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1 Episode 5
“Choose Your Pain”
The crew has to pull together to rescue Captain Lorca after he’s captured by the Klingons in the latest Star Trek: Discovery.
Having the Captain be captured by an enemy is a staple of any Star Trek series. The reasons for continually returning to this well of storytelling are obvious. For one thing it serves as a trial by fire for the rest of the crew. The first officer has to assume command, gain the confidence of the rest of the crew and make difficult decisions that they must be willing to stand by.
Normally, the first officer is seasoned and experienced so assuming command isn’t really an issue for them. Spock was always very comfortable in the centre chair as was Riker. Chakotay and Kira took it in their stride as well. That’s why it’s refreshing to see Saru so reluctant to take on that level of responsibility. This is something we’ve seen before in Star Trek but normally with characters who aren’t expecting to have to take charge. In the case of Saru he is the first officer so he is obligated to take command since that’s part of what his job dictates.
Saru’s approach to this situation is an interesting one. Outwardly he appears confident but in private he’s terrified. He doubts his ability to be an effective commander and arranges for the computer to conduct a performance review relative to Starfleet’s most effective commanders. This scene allows for a nice piece of fan service as the list of ideal candidates includes Robert April –first Captain of Kirk’s Enterprise-, Jonathan Archer –Captain of the NX class Enterprise from the show Star Trek: Enterprise-, Matthew Decker –Captain of the ill-fated U.S.S. Constellation in the classic episode “The Doomsday Machine” and Christopher Pike –the Captain of Kirk’s Enterprise before he took command-. Listing these names is a little on the nose though the fan service is appreciated and it does inform Saru’s character arc for the episode.
Rescuing Captain Lorca is Saru’s number one priority and he thinks that making morally questionable decisions is the best way to do that. He orders that the Tardigrade be used despite the ordeal of being used as a navigational computer for the Spore Drive clearly causing a great deal of pain and suffering. He ignores the advice of the crew and decides that using the creature is the necessary course of action. As Captain it’s definitely his prerogative to disregard the advice of the crew though his reason for doing so seems to be more to do with asserting authority rather than actual common sense. It makes sense when you consider a lack of experience and confidence as a motivating factor and it shows the lack of control Saru has.
The background mechanics of this situation don’t quite match up. Saru was obviously made first officer for a reason and it is well established in Star Trek canon that officers undergo extensive training. It’s conceivable that Saru has never taken command in a crisis before though he should at least have his training to fall back on. It doesn’t make sense that he would immediately leap to ignoring advice regarding the well-being of a sentient creature. Saru has been established as compassionate so it is counter to everything we know about the character.
Doug Jones really rises to the challenge in this episode and does a great job playing Saru as completely overwhelmed by his situation. The scene he shares with Michael is particularly good as it draws on her previous situation as a first officer. She tries to appeal to Saru’s more compassionate nature while telling him that she understands how he feels as she has been in his situation and understands how difficult it is to keep cool in a crisis. Michael also knows that it’s important to not let that compromise integrity or principles even though the crisis might be overwhelming. Saru bites back at her and talks about how dangerous he thinks she is. His threat ganglia reacts whenever she appears so that tells him that she isn’t to be trusted.
It isn’t explicitly explored but it seems that the threat ganglia is specifically keyed to what Saru considers a threat rather than reacting to actual danger. This is a contradiction from last week when his threat ganglia doesn’t react to the Tardigrade even though at that point he thought it was a threat. The usage of this as a plot device is so far inconsistent though it works here on a character development level. Once Saru comes to realise that his violent reaction to Michael’s presence is unfair his threat ganglia stops reacting to her indicating that he’s beginning to trust her one again. Their conversation towards the end of the episode shows that some humility has been achieved with the admission that his extreme reaction to Michael is based on jealousy. As far as he was concerned Michael was due to move onto a command of her own which means that he would get to be first officer under Captain Georgiou. Michael’s mutiny and Georgiou’s death has robbed him of that opportunity and he resents her for that as he really wanted to learn leadership from her because of how much he respected her. His acceptance of Michael’s presence is given a gestural representation in the form of Saru letting her decide what to do with the Tardigrade. This conversation represents a step forward in their relationship and I like how Michael doesn’t expect to be forgiven for her behaviour.
Michael’s connection to the Tardigrade is part of the DNA of the episode though she takes more of a back seat than she has before now. She represents the side of the argument that it’s wrong to use a sentient being without its consent especially that use is very dangerous for it. Michael sees it as morally wrong and tries to get this across to Saru to limited success. Lieutenant Stamets, Cadet Tilly and Dr. Hugh Colber are on the same page which leads Stamets and Colber to repeat the same message in the hope that Saru will listen.
Naturally he doesn’t which means that they have to put their heads together and find another solution. This becomes more urgent when the Tardigrade becomes incapacitated following a jump into Klingon space. After some technobabble and the first -and second- F-Bomb in Star Trek history a solution is found involving copying the ability of the Tardigrade to a human host.
The most bizarre choice comes when Stamets gives himself the ability. The Tardigrade has been connected to Michael since its introduction; she is the one to show concern and be the voice that defends it from mistreatment. It would have made sense for her to be the one to take on its role as she is the one who understands it so should be the one to assume its burden. It’s strange that the writers didn’t see it as Stamets taking this on doesn’t fit based on what was being built up.
There’s a rushed quality to the plotting involving the Spore Drive. The Tardigrade was introduced in the third episode, studied last week and now we’re at the point where it cannot be used but the ability persists in Stamets. This progression feels unearned and could definitely have taken place over more episodes.
The importance of the drive is underpinned by the meeting that Lorca attends with his friend, Admiral Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brooks). Lorca has led several successful missions against the Klingons thanks to the Spore Drive gifting him the element of surprise. Starfleet really wants the drive to be installed in as many ships as possible and has everyone actively looking for more Tardigrades. As this is happening the Discovery is being benched to lessen the reputation it has as Starfleet’s secret weapon. Lorca isn’t happy about this because he feels that he and his crew are doing great work for the War effort. Being sidelined is a personal insult as far as he’s concerned and he’d rather not have to do it.
I’m bothered by this scene for a variety of reasons. Up until this point I personally hadn’t seen anything in this show that fundamentally betrays Star Trek canon as we know it but this episode is unforgivable in this regard. Before now it appeared that the Discovery was a top secret technology test bed that was completely off the books. I suspected that the Spore Drive would be deemed a failure because of the exploitation of innocent creatures to make it work. It’s also possible that the Tardigrade is the last of its kind so it could easily be killed as a result of the experiments causing Starfleet to close the book on it and deny all knowledge. This could still happen though the fact that it is common knowledge to the point that everyone is on the lookout for more Tardigrades to interface with the mass produced drives makes that less likely.
Even worse is the fact that Starfleet is endorsing the exploitation of innocent creatures for the purposes of navigating their Starships. It goes against everything Starfleet stands for and the fact that this is a Wartime situation isn’t a reasonable explanation. I could accept that some members of the Admiralty would find that acceptable but there should have been someone in the room who would counter that. Perhaps even Lorca himself could have shown a compassionate side to him by detailing the obvious disadvantages. This fundamental betrayal of Star Trek idealism isn’t easily forgiven.
Lorca’s capture is something that both works and doesn’t. The major issue I have with it is how it happened in the first place. A Klingon ship warps in and abducts him while he is on a shuttle in Federation space. The Klingons should not be able to sneak in and out unnoticed without a cloaking device, especially when much of the conflict in this episode exists because the Discovery can’t simply enter Klingon space without being detected. It’s a lazy and manufactured way for Lorca to be tortured.
The Klingon prison introduces someone familiar to Star Trek fans. It turns out that renowned nuisance Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson) is among the prison population. This name drop is pure fan service but it isn’t much more than that. Rainn Wilson is a fine actor and his performance as Mudd is great to watch but there’s little to connect him to the original character other than his name and some of his mannerisms. I understand the desire for fan service in a show like this but to my mind it has to make some kind of sense. If someone like Harry Mudd is introduced then there should be a decent reason for that other than just using the name. Rainn Wilson could have been playing a newly created character and there would have been absolutely no difference.
Mudd does allow for partial exploration of a different perspective on the Star Trek universe. He represents the civilian side of life in the Federation where Starfleet’s actions aren’t agreed with. There’s also the suggestion that Starfleet does little to protect ordinary citizens and leaves them caught up in affairs that they have no interest in. It shows that Starfleet and the Federation have their flaws and that not everyone is happy with the utopian society.
How Lorca conducts himself in prison says a lot about him as a person. He is very sharp in the way he reads people and the situation such as when he notices that Mudd is lacking the bruises of the other prisoners or when he reasons that there must be more to Ash Tyler’s (Shazad Latif) 7 month survival than simply being tough enough to endure it. This is consistent with what we know of Lorca so far and shows exactly who he’s an effective Wartime Captain.
A significant chunk of his backstory is revealed when it becomes known that he destroyed his previous command in order to save his crew from captivity and torture at the hands of the Klingons. He sees it as a merciful act and makes no apologies for it though is clearly deeply affected by it. How he managed to be the only survivor of the event is still unknown but the fact that Lorca is a survivor is further insight into his character. Jason Isaacs continues to conduct himself wonderfully in these scenes, adding a measure of humanity to Lorca’s hardened edge.
Lt. Ash Tyler seems a good character so far. It’s clear that he and Lorca share similarities and have both been changed by their experience of fighting a War. So far they have an interesting dynamic that I look forward to seeing explored in the coming episodes.
The Klingons themselves are used well in this episode. I like the idea of them forcing their prisoners to participate in their favourite game show; “Choose Your Pain!” which involves prisoners deciding amongst themselves who receives a savage beating. It allows the Klingons to inflict both psychological and physical torture at the same time and keeps the prisoners living in fear. Mudd keeps himself from harm by offering up other prisoners and relaying information back to his captors showing that the Klingons are capable of being sneaky.
Lorca and Tyler’s escape was very clumsily handled especially considering how competent the Klingons appeared before that point. It all felt too easy and hugely tacked on to allow the episode to reach a speedy resolution. Rushed plotting seems to be a systemic issue in this show.
An uneven episode that handled the captivity of Lorca well along with some of the characterisation on Discovery but fails on some fundamental levels. Saru lacking confidence when in command is one of the failures as someone so incapable would never have risen to that position in the first place. I understand the attempt to make it a “trial by fire” situation but he came across as more naive and incompetent than anything else with a manufactured yet interesting conflict with Michael. The Tardigrade part of the story felt very rushed and the solution to the problem of needing more of them was completely unearned. I also have issues with Starfleet being willing to exploit an innocent creature.
The appearance of Harry Mudd is pure fan service but not in a good way. There is no reason to have this character in the show other than to name drop a character that fans may have heard of. He could have been a newly created character and there would have been no difference. Rainn Wilson does a fine job playing the role and the character is established as resourceful. The captivity plot acts as a way to introduce a new character as well as deliver further insight into Lorca who gets more interesting the more I learn.
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