In the fifth episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, the crew must test their own ethics while attempting to save their captain. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of medical experimentation, consent, and torture, as well as brief mention of sexual assault
I know I already said that I was in for the long haul, but this episode? Oh, the way so very many plots are woven together to create a compelling narrative about ethics, pragmatism, and war… I’M IN. This was a tremendous episode that managed to combine high suspense with some remarkably emotional character work, and I’m so, so happy right now. LET’S DISCUSS.
I think splitting up my thoughts by character is going to work best here, so let’s start with Burnham, who has such an incredible arc in this episode. After her suspicions at the end of the previous episode, the writers have her explore her complicated feelings towards the tardigrade creature. She believes that the spore drive jumps are harming the creature, and that belief is quickly backed up by observation. So, even if the spore drive is saving other living creatures, is it ethical to continue to make the tardigrade suffer? Because really, that’s what this amounts to: No one can ask the tardigrade for consent! In fact, it’s clear that the “negative” reaction we saw in the third episode was entirely and utterly based on it just trying to defend itself. It just wanted mushrooms! And a symbiotic relationship with the mycelial network!!! Leave them alone and let them explore space in peace!!!
Unfortunately, this entire realization is at odds with the main mission of the story, and it places Burnham in a terrible place. In order to do what she believes is right, she must defy her captatin. WHICH IS WHAT SET THIS WHOLE NIGHTMARE INTO EXISTENCE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Even worse, her defiance is directed at Captain Saru, who has his own emotional arc in this episode that’s rooted in the same mutiny that changed Burnham’s life. Well, eventually she gets to that point. Initially, she has to convince two other crew members first, since Saru shuts down her concerns because the rescue of Lorca takes precedence.
More on Saru as captain in a moment. I loved getting to see Burnham interact with Dr. Culber and Stamets, as well as the development of her friendship with Tilly. This is not a situation where Burnham is making fast friends. Again, she’s working against her own reputation at all times, and it’s only Tilly who finds it easy to make friends with Burnham. (I see that as a neat parallel, though. Both characters see themselves as outcasts for different reasons.) Yet I also see Burnham building rapport. She does with Dr. Culber, who she wins over through perseverance and hard work, and I got the sense that he respected her for doing what was right AND backing up that with science. I even think Stamets began to perceive Burnham differently, too! It’s a lot more subtle, but he goes from irritation and disinterest in her to quietly respecting what she brought to him. I noticed, for example, that in the second half of this episode, there wasn’t the same hostility that is in the first half. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I think we’re witnessing some progress between them.
The same goes for Burnham, though. I actually believe that all three of her interactions with Saru—which, by they way, were among the best moments in this entire episode—show that she is doing her best to understand why Saru feels the way he does about her. Her approaches here are all within Starfleet regulations, and instead of the open defiance she showed during the Battle at the Binary Stars, she realizes she has stepped out of line and obeys the command to stay in her quarters. (Granted, she does try to plead her case.) Isn’t that a sign of growth on her part? She knows what got her into this situation before, and she’s actively trying not to repeat herself, while also advocating for what’s right. It’s complicated as hell!
Also, while it’s still on my mind: I am so pleased at the utter joy during that scene where the first f-bomb is uttered onscreen. I’m pretty sure we’ve never had a character drop a “fuck” before!!! AND TILLY’S MOMENT IS GRAND. FOLLOWED BY STAMETS USING IT, TOO. Let these characters say “fuck”!!!!!!
It’s also hard to analyze Burnham’s characterization and choices without talking about who she is in direct conflict with. I’m also deeply appreciative of the layered story and portrayal that we’re given in Saru, who is Captain of the Discovery for the entire episode. I loved SO MUCH that throughout “Choose Your Pain,” we’re shown that Saru is tracking his performance. I thought that he was just worried about filling the shoes left behind by Lorca, perhaps as a precaution if Lorca didn’t return. He would be the first Kelpien captain of a starship, and maybe he wanted to boost his confidence. I don’t know, that’s basically what was going through my mind as I watched this? I also had a theory that he was just concerned that Burnham was going to pull the same shit she did back on the Shenzhou, which would explain why he was so harsh with her and with the others.
And then, at the very end, everything is given a new context when he confesses to Burnham why he acted as he did. OH MY GOD, MY HEART. Because seriously, it’s so much more devastating to know that Saru is jealous of Burnham. Why? Because she got to be Number One under Georgiou. This thing he always wanted was taken away from him when Georgiou was killed. So of course he would try to be a perfect captain in this circumstance! He’s trying to prove himself to Georgiou, isn’t he? Or at least hold himself up to that standard, a standard he never got to meet in real life. And then he’s got the person who derailed that dream of his, trying to guide him in the right direction. Who wouldn’t feel complicated or negative things about that?
I don’t know if this episode will mark a change in Saru’s perception of Burnham, too. Hell, it’s entirely possible that the other characters will continue to see her as The Mutineer for awhile, too. But this honestly felt like the beginning of something new between these characters. Even if it isn’t? I was deeply appreciative of getting to understand Saru more.
I made this comment in the video for “Choose Your Pain,” but the irony of Lorca—who is a character deeply committed to doing whatever the fuck he wants in order to get whatever the fuck he wants—being put in a cell with HARRY MUDD is not lost on me. It’s like the writers were like, “Hey, who in original canon would be a perfect mirror for Lorca?” And here he is, the scheming chaos agent that is Harry Mudd. Without slipping into caricature or absurdity, Rainn Wilson portrays this iconic Original Series character with the same sort of slimy self-centered view as the original. Like, that first monologue he gives? That’s how I was able to remember a character I haven’t seen onscreen in YEARS. (Also, bonus points to Jason Isaacs for his portrayal in that scene, too. Watch it again. There’s a moment where Lorca looks panicked because he didn’t realize asking a simple question would unleash THAT.)
But this episode also hints at a MAJOR part of Lorca’s backstory, and I desperately need more. So this dude escaped his previous ship during the Battle at the Binary Stars, only to blow it up so that the Klingons wouldn’t get to the crew??? HELP??? LIKE… was Lorca always like he is now, or did something like that change him?
I am still… I don’t know. Ambivalent about the Klingons? There is so much depth and complication to literally every other character onscreen, and there’s almost none of that in the Klingons. Voq has some complication to him. (Where did he go? I’m pretty sure that was L’Rell is in this episode, but we don’t see Voq, so is he in another location? Wherever the Matriarchs are?) Maybe L’Rell will eventually? But otherwise, the Klingons are taken to an even further extreme than they were in the Original Series. What little we’ve seen of them has painted them as purists and extremists who just like… war and torture? Wow, they really like torture. Like, isn’t there a line where either Ash Tyler or Lorca outright says it is in their nature?
It’s hard to be all that invested in their storylines because of that, since they seem constructed for a very specific purpose I still can’t see. Why write the Klingons even more conservatively than they used to appear, which was already stifling at times? So, what I found more interesting here was the interactions between Mudd, Lorca, and Tyler. (HELLO SHAZAD LATIF, I WAS WONDERING WHERE YOU WERE.) Seeing the three of them try to determine how to survive a heinous system? Much more compelling to me, but especially once we got a sense of what had happened to these three characters during the war. Mudd survived by basically being an informant, which means that… wow. How many people died because of Mudd’s complicity with the Klingons? Tyler, on the other hand… whew. So, I’m a little confused about his confession, which is that L’Rell had “taken an interest” in him. First of all, that’s absolutely sexual assault at the bare minimum; there is no way Tyler could ever consent to that because he’s a prisoner of war. Secondly, I actually don’t understand how that operates in terms of this whole Klingon supremacy thing? Aren’t Klingons utterly repulsed by humans? At the same time, an act like this is always about power, so it’s entirely possible that’s why L’Rell would do something like this. It’s not about sexual gratification, but an oppressive, violent assertion of power.
Anyway, thankful Tyler is rescued by Lorca after a HELLISH seven months onboard that Klingon ship, and I assume this means that Tyler will become part of the crew? I say that because I’m also thinking of the conversation that Lorca had with Admiral Cornwell at the start of “Choose Your Pain.” Lorca is operating within Starfleet with an almost unlimited amount of power and discretion, though there are limits to what he’s allowed to do. (Like the Discovery being told to lay low because they’re attracting too much attention.) So, what might Lorca see in Tyler? Tyler handled himself incredibly well during the escape from the Klingons, and he’s also proven himself as a survivor. I’m sure that Lorca will want to use that. But how?
Stamets and Culber
THE SHEER JOY. THE ABSOLUTE INFECTIOUS ECSTASY I FELT. I love that I had that moment during one of the early arguments between Stamets and Dr. Culber where I wondered if they had a history, AND THEN IT GOT CONFIRMED IN A GLORIOUSLY DOMESTIC SCENE WHERE I FOUND OUT THEY’RE FULLY IN A RELATIONSHIP. Oh my god, y’all. After five shows where non-straight sexualities were either ignored, hinted at, or confirmed and then largely ignored in any longterm sense, WE HAVE TWO QUEER CREWMATES WHO ARE IN THE MAIN CAST AND IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH ONE ANOTHER. I can’t? And both actors are queer????????????????????? Can you tell how excited I am????? I just… oh my god, they literally argued like a married couple in both of these episodes. MY LIFE IS RUINED IN THE BEST WAY.
That’s all. I just needed to yell about it.
The video for “Choose Your Pain” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
Mark Links Stuff
– My third novel (and middle grade debut) THE INSIDERS has been announced! Check out the cover reveal and pre-order links here.
– If you’d like to stay up-to-date on all announcements regarding my books, sign up for my newsletter! DO IT.