In the seventh episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, FUCK YEAH. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Let this stand as evidence that you can create a story that absolutely leans into a set of tropes while also subverting them. More than anything else, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is so fun, and it feels like the kind of script where you can tell the writers wanted to have the time of their LIVES. I got the sense that it was very aware of how time loop episodes work, even those we’ve seen on Trek before. There are familiar components here, of course. Stamets acts as the character who is aware that the loops are occurring, but I thought it was a fascinating choice to not have him be the focal point of the story. Usually, the protagonist is the “aware” one. But that choice allows the writers to veer “Magic” in a direction that is remarkably emotional, especially as it related to Michael Burnham.
From the beginning, Burnham’s narration sets the tone for what we are going to experience. Discovery is deeply rooted in her journey as she acclimates herself to life on a starship again. For the record, as I watch more of this show, I understand the decision to make the opening what it was. It’s made it so much easier to give Burnham a serialized plot that builds from her origins. Here, Burnham accepts that she’s found a place onboard the Discovery. But is it the place? Is it exactly where she needs to be? Her personal log sets the stakes: How is Burnham supposed to deal with the isolation she feels even though she’s technically not alone at all? Which, I might add, is a DEEPLY relatable idea. I FEEL YOU, MICHAEL BURNHAM.
From that point, we follow Burnham through a social situation that fills her with anxiety. (ALSO Me.) That party—indeed, the best depicted party I’ve ever seen on a Trek show, y’all—highlights that even though she may have a place as a Specialist on the ship, she still exists entirely apart from these people because of her upbringing and experiences. Then, we get the first of two major character subversions: the most outwardly socially awkward character is the one who is best at giving advice to Burnham. This was established in a previous episode, yes, but in this, we see Tilly’s growth, too! She’s letting loose at the party in a way that had to be scary, and yet she’s trying. She’s doing it!!! I loved getting to see her come out of her shell in that sense, and I think it was immensely helpful for Burnham to have her giving her advice and pushing her into an uncomfortable space.
Plus, that’s what really made “Magic” such a special episode for me. It was absolutely entertaining watching the crew grapple with the reality of Mudd’s time loops, and I did enjoy how it was resolved. But I cared about the story because it was all about Burnham trying to deal with her complicated feelings and her sense of self. There’s a very basic attraction to Lt. Tyler, but how does she go about acting on it? This stuff certainly wasn’t taught to her on Vulcan, but it’s also a relatable thing for a lot of us, too. Most of us aren’t taught these things either! Not only that, but plenty of people struggle with social cues or understanding all the unwritten, unspoken rules of social interaction. Who makes the first move? How do you know if the attraction or interest you feel for someone else is mutual? In this specific context, Burnham is also coping with the fact that she’s not an officer. Fraternization was discouraged when she was Georgiou’s first officer, but now? She doesn’t have that restriction. So… what’s the protocol? What the FUCK do you do?
The writers devise a fascinating way for Burnham to begin to interrogate these very questions, and one of them involves multiple subversions of expectations. It was smart not to run us through every loop, and in fact, I expected the second one to be the ACTUAL second loop. But it wasn’t! At that point, Stamets had already been through multiple iterations with Mudd, which also gave this episode a much, much faster pace. We got to the awareness round—where the main characters are “aware” they’re in a loop—way sooner than is usually the case in stories like this. That is how the story led to the main emotional conflict: Stamets could not get Lt. Tyler to talk to him for any significant length of time in any of the loops. But you know who might get him to open up?
Burnham. Who he clearly likes.
Thus, Stamets has to walk Burnham through the experience. How does she get Tyler to open up? How does she open up herself? What blew my mind about that scene is that we have a queer character openly talking about their relationship as the standard. Stamets uses his experience with Dr. Culber to help Burnham understand how attraction might work. In their case, it was honesty that helped Culber and Stamets fall for one another. I love how this is presented without any friction or othering. It is not absurd for a queer person to offer romantic advice to someone who is (by all appearances and at this point in the show) straight. I know that the concept of “normalcy” is fraught, and honestly, I don’t find myself using it much anymore. But this felt like a fantastic way the show did worldbuilding around queer relationships. If it feels matter-of-fact, then it is matter-of-fact in this fictional universe, you know?
None of you should be surprised how much I love that relationship.
Anyway, Stamets’s role in this episode is even reflected in the eventual conclusion! Love, attraction, and lust are confusing concepts for someone raised as a Vulcan, and ultimately, Stamets was doing his best to demonstrate that it is nigh impossible to apply any logic to love, since it is highly, highly emotional. And then, after tricking Harry Mudd in the most beautiful way possible, Burnham gets to witness the illogicality of love firsthand. Because despite that Mudd completely screwed over Stella, when she is faced with Mudd’s return, she accepts him. Why?
Because of love.
Does it make sense? Not to most people who were in the transporter room, including Stella’s father and Stamets, both of who have wonderfully hilarious reactions in the scene. But sometimes, love doesn’t make sense to an outsider. Burnham is used to rigidity, and what Mudd unleashed on the Discovery was essentially chaos incarnate. How did she fare in a world with no rules, where time erased itself and repeated, rendering life pointless? With the help of Tilly and Stamets, I believe Burnham performed beautifully. She took risks. SHE KISSED LT. TYLER. She led with her emotions, and she trusted her instincts. And maybe that’s the key to Burnham feeling less alone on this ship: She becomes better at knowing herself.
The video for “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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