Tough Mudder — Star Trek Discovery’s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

It’s always dangerous to riff on a popular story you’ve already done. You do a thing, it’s nifty, and you think, “We should do that again.” Deep Space Nine does “Necessary Evil” and it’s brilliant, so they try to do it again with “Things Past,” and it doesn’t quite come together as well. The Next Generation does “The Inner Light,” and it’s a massive hit, and several Trek shows take another shot at something “Inner Light”-ish and it can’t light a candle. “Cause and Effect” was a great TNG episode, a brilliant use of the five-act structure by Brannon Braga and elegantly directed by Jonathan Frakes. Braga himself riffed on it later on in TNG‘s “Timescape,” which wasn’t anywhere near as good, though it was still a perfectly good episode.

Discovery’s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a total riff on “Cause and Effect” (and also on Groundhog Day), and it’s not anywhere near as good. But it still works as an episode, mostly because the focus remains squarely on our main character.

One of the things I’m liking about Discovery is that it’s not about the captain and first officer. Lorca and Saru are important supporting characters, but the show is actually about Burnham. And while “Magic…” involves a threat to the entire ship—indeed, a threat to the entire Federation—the focus remains on Burnham.

We open and close with that old Trek standby, the log entry. The opening entry does what such logs have done since the first season of the original series, to wit, provide exposition. The war is going well, at least partly thanks to Discovery’s spore drive. Burnham herself is starting to slowly become part of the ship’s routine, with a station on the bridge and her friendship with Tilly developing.

The closing entry, though, is all about Burnham, and how far she’s come. It brings the episode full circle nicely, closing out one final loop.

In between, we find out that Harry Mudd got his hands on time-travel technology that allows him to re-live the same half-hour over and over again until he gets it right. Freed from consequence, he gets to do fun things like kill Lorca 50+ times (I must confess to finding the montage of Lorca murders to be embarrassingly entertaining), and learn more and more about the ship until he can take over the computer.

But there’s a wrinkle. The opening log entry also provides another piece of exposition that we really could’ve used last week: Stamets has truly taken the tardigrade’s place and he’s the one operating the spore drive. It’s resulted in a personality shift, as he’s much loopier and stranger (insert “he’s on shrooms!” joke here), but he also apparently exists outside the normal flow of time and space, which means he also remembers every single time loop (unlike everyone else, who re-sets).

It’s not that easy, though, as Stamets has a hard time convincing people of what he says at first, though he has an easier time with each loop as, like Mudd, he learns more each time. During one loop, he asks Burnham to tell him a secret by way of being able to convince her on the next go-round, which is how we find out that Burnham has never been in love.

The theme of love and affection and relationships are all throughout the episode, from Tilly’s drunken ramblings about the kinds of men she likes to Stamets telling the story of how he and Culber met to Tyler and Burnham dancing to the revelations about Mudd and Stella at the very end (more on that in a bit).

Stamets uses the attraction between Tyler and Burnham, because as chief of security, Tyler is the one who has the best chance of stopping Mudd in his tracks, but the rational-sounding Burnham is far more likely to convince him than a crazy-sounding Stamets, especially since Stamets isn’t Tyler’s type…

Eventually, Mudd gets what he wants: how to operate the spore drive. The missing piece through every loop has been Stamets himself, and the engineer is no longer willing to watch people die (he’s done it a lot at this point), so he reveals the secret to Mudd. At that point, they need to give Mudd a reason to reset the time loop one more time, so Burnham gives him something more valuable: her.

It’s a brilliant move. Burnham isn’t listed on the officer manifest, as she isn’t an officer anymore, so Mudd doesn’t realize that he has something way more valuable to the Klingons than the spore drive. He has T’Kuvma’s killer. The Klingons will pay a queen’s ransom for that—and then Burnham kills herself. It’s a ballsy move, and a risky one, as there’s no guarantee that Mudd won’t just cut his losses and settle for selling the spore drive.

However, she rightly bets that Mudd will always let greed win (something we’ve seen in every other appearance of Mudd), so he resets the loop one more time so he can sweeten the pot with Burnham as well as the spore drive.

The solution is very elegant. Mudd only took over critical systems, and they’re able to manipulate non-critical systems to learn things: scans of the gormagander (a space whale that’s nearly extinct—and I like that Saru and Burnham immediately move to save the creature when they discover it) that Mudd used to get on board, reading Mudd’s Wikipedia entry, and reprogramming the interface on the captain’s chair. Thus, while Mudd has computer control, he hasn’t summoned the Klingons to their coordinates, he’s summoned his wife Stella’s father’s yacht.

Last week, we got a revelation that put a 50-year-old character conflict into a new light. This time we get a retcon that makes a different 50-year-old character conflict way more palatable to a 2017 audience, as the revolting stereotype of the shrewish, hen-pecking wife really needed an update. Stella’s father is an arms dealer, and he’s not happy that Mudd made off with the dowry…

As with “Cause and Effect,” both script (by co-executive producers Aron Eli Colette and Jesse Alexander) and directing (by David M. Barrett) do a good job of abbreviating the scenes and shooting from different angles to keep things from getting repetitive. As with “Choose Your Pain,” Rainn Wilson’s Mudd is a delight. Wilson’s casual attitude toward the situation—due to knowing full well that there will never be consequences—and freewheeling self-centeredness helps keep the episode light. His presence makes the episode less like “Cause and Effect” and more like Groundhog Day (or, more particularly, Stargate SG-1‘s “Window of Opportunity“), which only helps matters. The show’s been very dark and gloomy in general, and a lighter episode is welcome, from the junior staff having a big-ass party to Mudd’s snark to Tilly’s drunken ramblings to Burnham and Tyler stumbling toward a relationship. (Apropos of nothing, it’s nice to finally have a Trek TV show that is willing to pay for the rights to music—prior characters’ interest in classical and jazz was as much motivated by the fact that such music is in the public domain as anything. Tyler and Burnham dancing to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” was just perfect.)

The performances are brilliant all around, not just Wilson, but also our main characters, particularly Anthony Rapp as the frustrated Stamets trying desperately to free his crewmates from a trap they don’t even know they’re in, and especially Sonequa Martin-Green, who continues to kill it as Burnham. Every ensemble lives or dies on the strength of its lead, and Martin-Green is up to the challenge, as she accomplishes so much with her facial expressions and vocal inflections.

What’s frustrating is how underused Doug Jones has been as Saru, but it looks like next week will do a bit to correct that, based on the previews. We can only hope…

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be the special guest at the Providence Literary Festival in Providence, Kentucky on Saturday the 4th of November. Come by and say hello!

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