At the center of the very Trekkian time-loop plot of "Magic That Can Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" is an intimate character story about pesky human emotions and what they mean to a character who was raised the Vulcan way. Michael Burnham has never been in love, and she has never admitted this fact to anyone — which is particularly notable in that she feels she needs to keep it a secret at all, as if it's something that brings her embarrassment or shame.
That's an intriguing personal wrinkle to a character with a Vulcan facade who struggles with inner emotional questions. (Indeed, I have often wondered in general how Vulcans process the feelings of "love" alongside their logical imperatives and their general — although not absolute — claim to eschew emotions. Clearly it falls somewhere on a range, but how does that work?) That these character beats play directly into the plot — where time is repeating Groundhog Day-style and our heroes must figure out a way to escape — is commendable.
If it sounds like this plot is a rehash of TNG's "Cause and Effect," that's only partly true. "Magic" has enough of its own identity — while borrowing the basic premise of "Cause and Effect" — that it can stand on its own two feet. And while "Magic" isn't the instant classic "Cause and Effect" was, it's a solid and compulsively watchable all-around outing, and might be the best, most focused episode of Discovery so far.
The time loop here isn't a random anomaly but rather is being played out deliberately by Harry Mudd, who is using a time manipulation device to repeat 30 minutes on a loop so he can (1) take revenge on Lorca for leaving him on the Klingon ship (which he has since escaped) and (2) enrich himself by learning about the Discovery's unique spore drive so he can capture the ship and sell it to the Klingons. (Rainn Wilson does a good job creating a menacing villain who employs some sadistic humor, but the character as written doesn't track with the more benign con man of TOS. Maybe he's just really mad at Lorca, and maybe his beloved Stella will tame him of his homicidal tendencies in the 10 years between now and "Mudd's Women" — but this does raise the question of why the writers felt the need to invoke previous continuity only to apparently contradict it.)
The other key piece here is Stamets, whose exposure to the spore drive has not only changed his personality into a guy who seems like he's always slightly high but has also allowed some part of his mind to exist outside of time the same way Mudd's device has, which means he remembers everything that has happened in all the previous time loops. So this is essentially Groundhog Half-Hour with two opposing Bill Murrays. (Actually, a better plot analogue might be Edge of Tomorrow, where our heroes must learn how to defeat the enemy using information from previous loops.) Stamets must figure out how to stop Mudd before Mudd figures out the secret to the spore drive and breaks everyone out of the time loop. Anthony Rapp is great here, playing Stamets with a borderline-unhinged urgency that feels like at any point it could fly off the rails.
This story also differs from "Cause and Effect" by having the characters immediately run down different avenues. Whereas "Cause and Effect" spent more time setting up the problem, "Magic" spends most of its time trying to work out the solution. Stamets knows what's going on, and must convince others. Burnham turns out to be the right target because of her mix of Vulcan logic and the personal secret she reveals to him which he can use as a shortcut to avoid having to spend time explaining himself to her.
Burnham's secret is really the heart of the story. Michael is something of a social outsider. Because of her rank on the Shenzhou, she didn't spend much time befriending that crew or having personal relationships, and we see here that things like parties and dating are almost alien to her. She doesn't have much appreciation for small talk. She doesn't know how to process the feelings she might be developing for Tyler, and that makes their small talk all the more awkward. (Best friend Tilly, on the outskirts of the dance floor, meanwhile makes unsubtle go-for-it gestures.)
There's a point in one of the loops where Michael uses their apparent mutual attraction as a way to recruit Ash into the effort to stop Mudd's plot; to do so she must make a relationship "move" she probably wouldn't otherwise be able to (and, indeed, in the previous time loop she fails spectacularly and needs a redo) even though a part of her wants to. It's a move that's also the logically appropriate tool to incite action. This is actually very well constructed if you look at what's happening at all levels of plot and character.
As with many stories that explore intricate timeline plots, there are some issues that creep into "Magic." For example: Why couldn't Stamets figure out a way to keep Mudd off the ship or capture him the moment he came aboard? How did Mudd so easily seize control of all the computer systems on Starfleet's top weapon? When Burnham reveals her identity to Mudd as an allegedly even better prize for the Klingons, how is she so certain he'll take her up on the offer to reset the timeline that she kills herself? (She stares at Mudd with a look of defiance that seems far too calculated for someone supposedly being painfully disintegrated. Sure, it might be a clever plan, but does that mean you can actually go through with killing yourself and it doesn't hurt and you're not afraid?)
These holes and a lack of breaking any new ground keep "Magic" from being a great installment. That being said, this episode has a terrific momentum that moves relentlessly forward (it's fun watching Stamets desperately and increasingly wearily try to explain things he's explained dozens of time already), and it also knows how to slow down for the character beats, like the nice scene where Stamets talks about relationships and gives Burnham a dance lesson.
On the whole this works as a reasonably well executed plot, as well as a character study for Burnham. And we have the entire crew working a common problem as a functional team. The pieces feel like they come together here, even if there are some jagged edges.
Some other brief thoughts:
- I was hoping Discovery would have a mix of serialized and stand-alone elements, and this is the most purely stand-alone episode yet. Good to see they haven't abandoned these sort of isolated high-concept outings that are Trek's long-standing bread and butter.
- There's some macabre humor to be mined in watching Mudd kill Lorca over and over in various ways ("It never gets old"), including beaming him into space while eating a burger.
- I have no good explanation for the title of this episode. Take your pick of what the magic is and who is going mad: Time-travel/Mudd? Time-travel/Stamets? Love/Burnham? (Burnham isn't a man, so that's probably not it. Though I'm probably being too literal here.)
- Letting Mudd go, even assuming his father-in-law keeps him on a tight leash, seems awfully magnanimous for Lorca (not to mention potentially dangerous, given Mudd's knowledge of the spore drive), especially considering how Lorca left him to rot in prison just a few weeks ago. I know there were technically no murders since the timeline was reset, but that doesn't really negate the criminal intent.
- Short of Tyler being a reprogrammed sleeper agent who doesn't even know what he is (like Boomer in the first season of Battlestar Galactica), I see no way the Voq/Tyler conspiracy theory can possibly work. And yet we have other hints like the comment about him being so well-adjusted for someone who was tortured for seven months by the Klingons.
- My CBS All Access (Android app edition) stream rating for Sunday night: — Considerably better than last week's abomination, but I still had a dozen or so stutters lasting up to a full second, and a moment where the stream dropped out of HD and became low-quality for at least a full minute. (If I ever get a stream as good as a cable broadcast, I will give it four stars.)