"Choose Your Pain" is an intriguing, entertaining, confusing, and frustrating hour that's proving Discovery to be, at times, a maddeningly murky narrative engine that can work well moment to moment. This series operates in a very gray area. I'm not talking about gray morality (although there's plenty of that for sure); I'm talking about gray narrative clarity. I'm doing my best to keep up with the characters' motivations, but the vagueness and choppiness of the plot are not helping. Watching this show can be like walking on ground that shifts beneath your feet.
Is this show merely trying to keep me off guard, or is it kind of a mess? Characters' actions can seem wildly inconsistent, perhaps because I previously read them wrong, or perhaps because the writing was done haphazardly by committee. Time will tell — unless, of course, it doesn't. My comments from last week apply again here: I'm not sure if this series is just sloppy, or if they're strategically hiding things so they can reveal more later. Maybe both. But that makes for a sometimes strange viewing experience.
Certainly this outing's individual structure is sound, taking a fairly episodic notion (Lorca's capture and eventual escape from a Klingon torture/prison ship) and following it from beginning to end as a stand-alone action/adventure. Meanwhile, it would seem the mini-arc involving the tardigrade is resolved in a fairly responsibly Trekkian fashion that acts in the interest of preserving alien life while fleshing out the supporting characters as they embark on scientific research.
Following Lorca's kidnapping (which, of course, is contrived; why would he need to conduct a meeting with the Starfleet brass in person, and why would he take a shuttle so vulnerable to Klingon capture?), Burnham concludes the tardigrade is being harmed with each successive jump using the spore drive, so she recommends to Saru they stop using it. (This happens after Starfleet has already asked Lorca to stop using the spore drive in order to maintain a lower profile in the war effort, but the rest of the Discovery crew does not know this.) But Saru — whom you would think would be the first to listen to Burnham's line of reasoning about not harming another lifeform based on his presumed moral code — instead tells Burnham to drop the matter until the captain is rescued. I can see the military argument, but this seems odd when the previous episodes seemed to put Saru in a position of moral authority as Lorca's ideological opposite. But now, in the interests of the mission at hand, Saru says use of the tardigrade-powered drive should continue. It's ... kind of strange.
And too bad, because otherwise, the interactions between Saru and Burnham as he undertakes his first command — amid a great deal of personal uncertainty — make for solid and interesting character-building scenes. Saru's uncertainty as a commander leads him in one scene to consult the computer for examples of past Starfleet captains who exceled in the role (and, naturally we get some familiar names on that list). We've seen the "first command" storyline many times before (even as recently as The Orville's "Command Performance") but this mostly works, despite Saru's initially confusing starting point, in large part because of Doug Jones' consistently intriguing performance.
Meanwhile, I like Stamets more every week. The guy is arrogant, cocky, and abrasive, but he's great, and he exhibits a genuine curiosity when presented with a challenge. The sci-fi plot here does right by this group of characters working to solve a problem that seeks to further explore the experimental technology in a way that doesn't exploit the tardigrade.
But where does Starfleet stand in all this? Don't they bear any responsibility here? At the outset they say they want to replicate the Discovery's technology and even hope to find more tardigrades to exploit (though they certainly don't use that word). How does this square with any previous version of Starfleet we've seen, including the "we come in peace" one in "The Vulcan Hello"? Has the war effort already taken this much of a toll on its moral bearings that they're turning a blind eye to the fact that the tardigrade is essentially slave labor? Maybe they just see these creatures as 23rd-century horses and don't yet know they are possibly sentient and feeling pain. The bigger problem is that the issue isn't much explored at all; it just kind of sits there in the background as noise, not facing any scrutiny, as if everyone forgot to ask the questions.
The spore drive still feels more magical and goofy than a lot of Trek science, with all the snowflake VFX and the network of infinite connections that span the universe, or whatever. But I'm not too hung up on it as long as they aren't technobabbling me to death.
I did like the way this plot resolved itself, with Stamets ultimately figuring out how to hook himself into the drive in place of the dormant tardigrade (something that has ominous possible consequences), as well as Saru's order to Burnham to set the creature free (but not in so many words) before Lorca returns — in what is Saru taking his own personal stand for the moral good when he knows Lorca clearly would go against it. Unclear is how much of this will have consequences next week and who will face them. Will Lorca have a significant conversation with Saru about this choice (in what would be their first significant conversation of the series)? Will Lorca confront Burnham for her role in setting the tardigrade free? Or will this just disappear into the narrative ether after a three-week time jump, never to be referenced again?
Aboard the Klingon ship, we get a serviceable prisoner-torture-escape plot. We finally meet the last remaining regular-credited character on this series, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet officer who was captured when his ship was destroyed and who has spent the seven months since then in captivity. Allegedly. Also aboard this ship is L'Rell, which is interesting because the last time we saw her she was adrift on the Shenzhou with Voq. This is again where the narrative, in being murky and coy and probably deceptive, comes off as clumsy. Where's Voq? How did L'Rell end up here? L'Rell tortures Lorca by shining bright lights into his damaged eyes, but the scene ends just as soon as the torture begins and we're given no idea what, if anything, Lorca tells L'Rell under duress.
Also, Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) is one of Lorca's cellmates, and it turns out he's feeding information to the Klingons. I'm not sure why Mudd specifically was chosen to be the character to be repurposed from TOS, but the role and performance are decent enough as an isolated plot device also featuring some colorful dialogue that expresses a point of view that blames the Federation for the war.
Naturally, this all ends with a prison break and escape, and we get some reasonable action scenes. But the writing on this show really needs to be tighter and cleaner, clearer and more disciplined. "Choose Your Pain," for all the things it does effectively — and there are a number of them — feels like it's glossing over entire conversations. Context is for kings, but apparently we're all court jesters.
Some other brief thoughts:
- The relationship between Stamets and Culber is confirmed on screen here, even if it was revealed seemingly forever ago in various promotional statements. I thought this was perfectly executed in its low-key, matter-of-fact way: Just two guys brushing their teeth, completely devoid of exposition, making clear in retrospect the reason for all their previous snark in earlier scenes.
- The final moment where Stamets walks away from his reflection in the mirror and the reflection remains was a great touch indicating the side effects of connecting to the spore drive bio-technology. Very effectively eerie and yet simple in its execution; it's something that would be at home on Fringe and indicates an element of sci-fi horror that is relatively fresh in the Trek universe.
- Lorca had a previous command at the beginning of the war, and he blew up his own ship and crew rather than allowing them to fall prisoner to the Klingons for torture and public exhibition. He doesn't fix his eye injury in part to remind him of that choice. But why didn't he go down with his ship? Escaping alone seems awfully cowardly for a man of Lorca's ilk, and especially a captain. Does Starfleet know this? More questions needing answers...
- Lorca leaving Mudd behind to rot as a Klingon prisoner is a harsh move, even considering Mudd's betrayal. Definitely not very Starfleet. Again, I'm not sure how much of this is typical in Starfleet (I'm guessing not much) versus how much is just Lorca being the rogue asshole he is.
- All the torturous screams in the background aboard the Klingon vessel are a bit much. Yeah, it's an unpleasant place. We get it.
- The Klingon shuttle design is bizarre. I'm not a fan of the baroqueness of everything Klingon on this series, from the Klingons themselves to their ships to their clothes.
- L'Rell apparently used Tyler as a sex slave. Allegedly. Because we need more reasons to make the Klingons horrible.
- "This is so fucking cool!" says the oft-awkward Tilly about various science-y revelations. The f-bombs come across here as "because we can" rather than "because we should."
- Despite the producers' promise to the contrary, it's becoming harder to fathom how this series can fit the established Trek continuity in a way that makes sense. Not only are they going to have to plausibly bury the spore drive technology, which we see here Starfleet wants to adapt on a mass scale, but they're going to have to figure out how to Make Starfleet Sane Again after this war has unbalanced the moral compass. It's not impossible, but it remains to be seen how much the producers actually plan to make this fit.