Friday, 3 November 2017

Don't Have the Time: S1 E7 Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

With the whisper of a time loop the collective Star Trek fanbase muttered in concern; Are they just rehacking Cause and Effect?

No, because the ladies and gents behind Discovery have a brain and know that reworking a classic from The Next Generation would be heresy at the least. We actually get a break from the war here (although it does warrant a mention or six) but on the whole this is a cracking bottle show that breaks a lot of Star Trek walls and keeps the show fresh to the core.

So while Lorca has been successfully dropping his lover into the clutches of the Klingons it seems a certain galactic conman has been working his magic. But more on that shortly because it’s party time on the Discovery with some serious classical music in play and drinks all round. Just as it looks like Burnham and Tyler might take their relationship to stage two, a call to the bridge has them rescuing a Gormagander space whale thing that is more of a Trojan Horse than anything. 

Spewing out a spaceman it comes to pass that the mystery man in the Andorian helmet is Harcourt Fenton Mudd seeking to unravel the secrets of the Discovery and flog it to the Klingons. Cleverly he’s learning more and more about the ship each time he visits it - because he’s stuck it into a 30 minute time loop and each cycle he gets a bit more information about the spore drive. 

In essence this is similar to Cause and Effect only in that the destruction of the Discovery marks the end of the loop although why it needs to blow up isn’t really explained since Mudd is able to reset the timer should he not achieve his goal to fully understand the secrets of the ship. In that 1992 episode no-one fully remembered each cycle and there were only echoes to help them work out what was going on.

Stamets is key to the whole ‘discovery’ element of the episode being the only crew member who retains memories from one loop to the next because of the tardigrade DNA which means he’s somehow not totally linked to this dimension. His character is becoming more and more central to the story with his personality diverting into some very new and varied avenues - it’s almost like he’s permanently stoned (magic mushrooms...?!) but it has added a welcome lighter element to his rather rigid attitude that we saw in Context is for Kings.

The lieutenant is our guide here giving clues and working out a solution to get the right people in the right place to save the Discovery and her crew before it’s (cliche) too late. Personally Stamets is a highlight of the show and his interactions with Burnham here are fantastic to watch as he both advances the story and makes Michael realise some of the other little bits that are going on around her.

Lorca’s darkness isn’t that heavily on show this week although we get another look around his mancave research lab/secret room but he actually has very little to do in this story after last week’s antics. Watch out again for the massive galactic map on his ready room wall and see how many familiar locations you can make out. Plus - where’s the Tribble gone?!

However, it’s Rainn Wilson AGAIN that owns this episode without question. His Mudd is still as good as it was last time and each loop is slightly different. There’s a cocky swagger to the later incursions as he has things so downpat to the point where he can avoid crew because he knows exactly where they will be and when. The sequence in which he recounts the 53 times he’s killed Lorca is very well directed with the highlights flashed before us - several shootings and a spacing. If you watch it through there are quite a few different ways that Mudd exterminated members of the crew and his line about the apparent design flaw in the Discovery which means that he can find new ways of blowing it up is inspired and certainly a rather hefty nod to every other time a hero starship has bitten the dust.

Indeed it is Mudd’s arrogant overconfidence that proves his unravelling here as Stamets with help from Tyler, Lorca and Burnham in multiple loops finally work out how to con the conman. The ending, if I’m honest is a little on the cheesy side but nods distinctly to I, Mudd for its reference material. Does it nod directly to The Original Series? Maybe but I don’t think this will be our last encounter on Discovery with Wilson’s rogue trader.

While Stamets continues to develop due to his link with the ship’s drive system, it almost seems that Saru is getting more and more sidelined with very little for him to do last week or this. His role here is minimal and purely down to stating computer data although you would suspect from next week’s preview that this imbalance is going to be substantially addressed. 

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is the cleverest script from Discovery to date and succeeds in providing a breather from the war but still continues an established element with Harcourt Fenton Mudd and starts to ramp up the intimacy between Burnham and Tyler. Is this a doomed relationship? I’m inclined to believe that there’s elements of betrayal and distrust set to invade this pairing but that might be biase from the supposed twist we all know about. 

Each of the loops is kept fresh and different because of the choice of differing camera angles, chopping around dialogue and having the uncertain element of Stamets popping up at unexpected times to change the direction after the Disco disco. For me that scene feels distinctly non-Trek while the plot is something you would easily expect to find on Voyager or The Next Generation. Indeed there’s a lot of fraternisation that we never saw on any of the previous shows - in fact this kind of below decks downtime was Barry even registered except for maybe Lower Decks but then that was an incredible tame game of poker. 

I still feel happier with Lethe as an episode over this one. While it is good and there’s just about everything bolted in here - romance, action, intrigue, twists, tech, aliens and more, Lethe was a more satisfying 50 minutes that expanded the mythology. Did we learn more about Mudd here? Well he was a more sinister character which we established in Choose Your Pain but there was very little else added for depth leaving Rainn to chew some scenery and play up at every opportunity. The yawn he gives on the last loop is so telling of his lethargy over the repeats and there’s even his line about being sick of gloating since it’s been going on for so long.  

Saying that this isn’t really linked into the main arc is perhaps a little bit incorrect because the suggestion does seem that Mudd has been allowed out for the express purpose of securing the Discovery. Previews for episode eight indicate that we will be seeing Cornwell in the hands of the Klingons and Would you believe that the warrior race would buy the starship off Mudd rather than just kill him and take it? The latter is more likely with him being played to get a result. 

As episodes go, it’s a good one with a good balance of light and dark moments which show that Discovery isn’t all doom, gloom, killings and Klingons. What I think we can say by this point is that this is the most solid first season of a Star Trek series since Kirk was in command.

Top quality or rewriting a classic? What's your opinion on episode seven?

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