Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1 Episode 7
“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”
Star Trek: Discovery dusts off the repeating time loop plot forcing the crew to find a way to save the ship and restore time to its normal linear progression.
Time loops are the sort of high concept storytelling that will turn up in pretty much any sci-fi or fantasy TV series sooner or later. I suspect the reason for that is that they can be really fun if done well. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” is a particularly good example and there have been others that I have enjoyed on other shows over the years.
The episode opens with something that will be familiar to many Star Trek fans -myself included-; being at a party and feeling like the night will never end. Only in Michael’s case it’s actually literal since time keeps resetting. It’s a good scene that focuses on characters in a really unique way. It could be argued that previous iterations of Star Trek were a bit stuffy in how they approach the crew spending their free time. Data’s violin concerts and the like were fairly commonplace in Star Trek: The Next Generation so it’s refreshing to see part of the ship turned into a nightclub and the crew letting their hair down. I also take some personal pleasure in finally seeing a Disco aboard the U.S.S. Discovery and hearing music from the likes of the Bee Gees and Al Green feels somehow unique.
Michael feels very uncomfortable in this situation because she has always struggled forging meaningful connections with other Humans. It’s a side effect of her Vulcan upbringing and it means that she spends the party standing in a corner looking awkward. I’ve personally been there more times than I care to admit so I can completely see where she’s coming from but the intention here is to show how distanced Michael is from those she serves with. The episode does miss out on the chance to show the crew feeling apprehensive about Michael considering her status as a mutineer. This is something that hasn’t really been covered and definitely should be considering there are survivors from the Shenzhou aboard the Discovery. This would have been the perfect opportunity to do this as well.
There are exceptions to Michael’s isolation such as Tilly who engages in idle gossip about her relationship with Ash Tyler. Michael insists that there is nothing between them but the rumour mill is running at maximum warp and enquiring minds want to know if there’s a romantic connection of some kind. It’s a good scene as it’s very much a human interaction that we haven’t seen very much of in Star Trek. Lower ranks on a Starship would definitely engage in these sorts of conversations and socialise with one another. Things like this turn the U.S.S. Discovery into a community rather than a setting that happens to contain people. This is the first episode where I have felt that the ship has an identity at least as far as the lower ranked members of the crew are concerned.
Tilly seems to have changed from the socially awkward mousey character that existed a few episodes ago into a social butterfly completely at home in this situation and dialled into the ship wide gossip. I can’t decide whether her character has been rewritten or if it’s a reaction to drinking a lot of alcohol but that will be answered by her behaviour in later episodes.
The danger kicks in once Discovery beams aboard a space whale that acts as a Trojan Horse containing Harry Mudd who gets straight to work killing the crew. He announces his intentions fairly quickly and definitely holds a grudge against Lorca for leaving him to suffer in the Klingon prison. His plan is to figure out how the Spore Drive works and sell it to the Klingons who promise to pay him handsomely for delivering their enemy’s secret weapon. He does this by setting up a 30 odd minute time loop that will continue to reset until he learns what he needs to know.
A with his last appearance I have an issue with Harry Mudd being the character used here because very little about him is consistent with his portrayal in The Original Series. He appeared twice there and was definitely an antagonist though each time he was in over his head and ended up needing the Enterprise crew to bail him out of the mess he had gotten them all into. This version is ruthless, fiercely intelligent and equipped with technology that can easily circumvent the security protocols on a top of the line Federation Starship. This would make more sense if he was a newly created character because that means the writers could do whatever they wanted with him. Harry Mudd is a previously seen character who has an established personality that isn’t really replicated here other than mannerisms. Using the character comes across as empty fan service that most likely won’t land with many long term fans. For those approaching this series with no knowledge of what came before it won’t matter so I wonder why Rainn Wilson isn’t simply playing a new character.
Despite my misgivings about who he’s supposed to be I really enjoy Rainn Wilson’s performance. There’s a gleeful approach to his attack on the Discovery and the smarmy overconfidence is really fun to watch. Having him be in control of the time loop was a nice touch as it’s part of the plot that he has infinite attempts to get it right. The boredom he eventually experiences was a good idea as well and I found it really amusing that he eventually admitted he was tired of gloating.
It’s a shame that more wasn’t made of Mudd’s vendetta against Lorca but the montage of Lorca being killed over and over again was hilarious in the same way that seeing Tom Cruise repeatedly killed in Edge of Tomorrow was hilarious. Anyone who doesn’t like Captain Lorca need look no further than this episode for some catharsis.
On the subject of Lorca, he was good value in this episode as always. His approach to Michael’s desire to beam the creature aboard was hilarious while also indicative of his command style. He has no objections to taking some time to preserve a rare spare faring life form but he has no interest in the minutiae of that happening. In another iteration of the loop he reiterates how little he cares when Ash asks to handle security. He’s not a traditional Starfleet Captain in the sense that exploration and science excite him but he also understands Starfleet’s core values and mission so leaves that in the capable hands of people who do care which I would say is reasonable as far as attitudes go.
The time loop concept is handled fairly well. It’s featured enough to be a clear narrative device but not overused to the point of tedium. Having Stamets be aware of the loop pretty much right away and able to easily explain it to Michael means that the plot can get moving very quickly and there’s a lack of repetitive scenes of characters repeating the information.
Each reset that we see is distinct in how the character dynamics are developed as well. The core of it is Michael’s fledgling relationship with Ash Tyler which progresses to some degree in each version of the 30 odd minute time frame. Stamets is able to help Michael see Human interaction in a different way than she is used to and encouraged to push aside logic. It culminates in her telling Ash that she likes him and they even share a kiss at one point. Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance is as good as it always is but the relationship progression feels somewhat juvenile which makes sense from Michael’s perspective but less so where Ash is concerned. So far Ash has been characterised as someone who blends into any social situation and is found impressive by pretty much everyone he meets. It’s fair to assume that he’s something of a ladies man as well so his reaction to Michael’s apparent feelings for him feels disjointed. The best way to put it is that the growth of their relationship feels very “high school” in its execution.
Of course most of it is erased but at least Stamets remembers and fills everyone in on what was experienced within the various versions of the small time period. Ash and Michael know that they danced and that they kissed so there is an awareness on both sides that something is developing between them but it now has to wait for the right moment to happen naturally. It’s an interesting prospect having two characters know that there is a spark between them but aren’t trying to force it to manifest when unnaturally. It prevents the show from dancing around the connection as well.
I’m really enjoying the shift in Stamets as a character. When he was first introduced he was impatient and abrasive but his mind has been opened by the part he plays in making the Spore Drive work. As such he is filled with a sense of wonderment and optimism which is jarring for those he knows but also makes for an interesting change of pace in the performance in Anthony Rapp. It’s not clear whether he is changing into something that will present a problem for the crew or not but there will clearly be something done with the changes he is experiencing.
The episode was weakest in the resolution. It basically involved tricking Mudd into believing he had won and luring him into a trap. It involved a lot of explanation and hand waving to make it work which it doesn’t. Mudd’s motivation seems to stem from losing his wife Stella (Katherine Barrell) who isn’t lost at all. her father Baron Grimes (Peter MacNeill) actually has offered a reward for Mudd so it’s all resolved by giving them a call and arranging for them to take Mudd off their hands while promising that he stays out of Starfleet’s way which obviously doesn’t happen based on my future knowledge. It’s a clumsy resolution, very confusing in its execution and isn’t consistent with this version of Harry Mudd. It does allow the episode to end and the Discovery to go on its merry way but it really didn’t work for me.
A well put together episode that manages to take a well worn sci-fi trope and not make if feel repetitive or stale. The time loop was used economically with Stamets aware of it almost immediately to cut down on the repetition of scenes before someone figures out what’s happening. Using this to develop the connection between Michael and Ash was a good decision and having the characters end the episode aware of their attraction but still waiting for it to develop naturally was an interesting way of avoiding dancing around the issue.
Harry Mudd -in name only- was a good villain for the episode even if there were some leaps of logic required to accept his ability to hack the secure systems on a Federation Starship and his general ability to thwart the crew. Rainn Wilson was good value throughout and his presence helped to carry the episode. It’s a shame his vendetta against Lorca wasn’t used to greater effect though the montage of him being killed repeatedly was hilarious. The resolution was somewhat weak as it took a lot of explaining and even more hand waving to make work.
- good use of an old sci-fi trope
- the development of the Michael/Ash relationship
- a refreshing Star Trek social situation
- the “killing Lorca” montage
- Rainn Wilson’s fun and appropriately menacing performance
- still no valid reason for Harry Mudd to be featured on the show
- leaps of logic to make the plot work
- a clumsy resolution
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