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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 7: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

In Star Trek: Discovery episode seven, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” (I always appreciate alliteration), Harry Mudd, having escaped from the Klingons, is out for revenge on Captain Lorca.  So Mudd sneaks on board the Discovery, determined to learn the secret of the ship and sell it to the Klingons.  While one man might ordinarily have no hope of sneaking on board a starship, Mudd has access to a device that allows him to repeat the same 30 minutes over and over again, thus giving him opportunity after opportunity to achieve his goal (and also to repeatedly murder Captain Lorca and other members of the Discovery crew).  The Discovery’s only hope of stopping Mudd is Lt. Stamets, whose experimentation with the Spore Drive (which is a silly-sounding thing that everyone on Discovery says very seriously) have left him with an awareness of these alterations to the time-stream.

I was worried when I heard that Discovery was doing a time-travel episode so early in its run.  On the one hand, many of the very best Star Trek episodes (and movies) involve time travel, and this is a classic type of Star Trek story.  On the other hand, I felt that by the end of Enterprise, all of the post-Next Gen Star Trek spin-offs had dramatically overused time travel, to the point that it had started to become cliche and boring.  I wasn’t eager to see Discovery go back to that well.

However, my fears were thankfully not realized, as “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” was a compelling, fun episode (making that two strong Discovery episodes in a row, after last week’s “Lethe”).  This episode gave a different spin to the familiar type of Star Trek time-travel story.  (We’d seen a lot of “temporal anomalies” and that sort of thing, but this was a story of a villain purposefully manipulating time.  Voyager’s “Year of Hell” two-parter had a similar framework, but that story went in a different direction.  This episode was far more reminiscent of Next Gen’s “Cause and Effect,” but with Mudd as a more dangerous, immediate threat.)  Although this episode presented dramatic, life-or-death stakes for our heroes on the Discovery, I enjoyed how playful the episode was at times, leaving plenty of time for some humorous, enjoyable character interactions, and the entire episode was edited in a wonderfully propulsive, fast-paced style that gave this episode a very different feel than most previous Trek time travel tales.

The Harry Mudd we have met in these two Discovery episodes bares little to no resemblance to the somewhat humorous con-man character we knew from the Original Series.  (I was shocked to see Mudd depicted in this episode as a cold-blooded murderer, brutally slaughtering Discovery crew-members left and right.)  It’s one more continuity problem on a show overset by continuity problems.  But when I can (with difficulty) push that aside and consider this Mudd as an all-new character, I freely admit that Rainn Wilson’s performance as this all-new Harry Mudd is terrific.  Mr. Wilson gives Mudd an edge that makes him a true danger to the Discovery crew, while also giving him a twinkle in his eye that makes all of his scenes fun.  His playful interactions with the oh-so-serious Discovery crew are fun to watch, particularly when he’s making the computer call him “Captain Mudd” and strutting around the Discovery bridge.  I really like this Discovery recurring character.  He’s just an entirely different character from the Mudd we knew.

I enjoyed the time this episode spent exploring the Discovery crew, giving Stamets and Tilly some nice moments, and in particular building on the friendship-and-maybe-budding-romance between Burnham and Lt. Tyler.  I enjoyed the beginnings of that relationship in last week’s episode, and was pleased to see that thread developed further this week.  (The whole thing is undercut somewhat by my fear/suspicion that Lt. Tyler is actually the albino Klingon in disguise.  At the end of this season I am worried that this is going to turn out to be true, in which case I am going to have a LOT of questions about how that stiff Klingon was able to disguise himself as a human so effectively.  Or it is going to turn out not to be true, in which case I fear I will be retroactively critical of the awkward storytelling that made me suspect this, which prevented me from fully investing in Lt. Tyler’s story.)  But putting that aside (as with my concerns about the depiction of Mudd, this is somewhat difficult to do), I enjoyed the time this episode spent playfully investigating the gentle flirtation between these two.

What else did I like?

* Seeing a party on a starship that actually felt like a real party.

* Hearing the score quote Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme in a triumphant moment at the end of the episode.

* The visual effect of the space-whale was gorgeously realized, and I love the look of the Discovery’s expansive shuttle bay set.

* Lt. Stamets was riot in his humorous spin on the Guinan “I am outside the time-stream” role.

* Another great episode title!!  (This time quoting The Iliad!)

* I enjoyed getting to meet Stella Mudd (previously seen in android form on the Original Series) in the flesh!

* I loved Mudd’s Andorian-looking space-suit!  (Note that his helmet had room for antennae!)

* I love how Burnham tricks Mudd into that one final time-loop.

What didn’t I like?

* Well, speaking of Lt. Stamets, I continue to be mystified that no one on the crew seems to question his continuing to serve as the ship’s engine by being the only one who can connect with and operate the Spore Drive.  Surely he is putting himself at extraordinary risk??  Doesn’t his partner, Dr. Culber, notice that his personality has changed?  Everyone seems shockingly unworried about this.

* The episode opens with a monologue by Burnham describing how she has settled into a nice routine on the Discovery.  This was unsettling in light of last week’s cliffhanger, in which Captain Lorca basically abandoned Admiral Cornwell to torture and perhaps death at the hands of the Klingons.  Has everyone forgotten about her?  Also, Burnham comments that the Discovery is key to the Federation’s being able to start turning the tide against the Klingons.  Doesn’t that mean that the ship has been in near-constant conflict?  What we saw of life on the Discovery in this episode doesn’t make it feel like the ship is constantly jumping in and out of dangerous space battles.

* I lost the thread of the story a little bit in the final ten-ish minutes.  How exactly was Stamets able to get everyone on the Discovery aware of what was happening with Mudd and ready to confront him in just the first few moments of that final time loop?  It was almost as if the characters were retaining awareness between loops in those last few go-rounds (note how Burnham asks Tyler to lead, coming right out of the previous time-loop when Stamets had taught her to dance by insisting he lead — Burnham shouldn’t have remembered that).  One can surmise that Stamets was quickly filling everyone in on what had happened, but a consequence of the episode’s fast-paced nature (which I enjoyed!!) was that the show skipped over some of those important connective tissue bits.  (To take TNG’s “Cause and Effect” as an example, that episode very carefully depicted how information was passed between one time loop and the next repetition.)

* This week in “I think Captain Lorca is a terrible starship captain,” take a look at his disgust and disinterest in helping the injured space-whale — something actually mandated by starfleet regulations as both Burnham and Saru tell him.  How is this uncaring, anti-intellectual idiot a starship captain??  This is continuing to irritate me more and more from week to week — especially now that Lorca has abandoned Cornwell to torture and perhaps death in order to remain in the captain’s seat.  Disgusting.  (It’s a particular shame because Jason Isaacs is a terrific actor and he’s great on the show even as I think the depiction of his character is completely anti-Star Trek.)

* This is two weeks in a row in which Saru hasn’t had much to do.  I hope that changes soon.

* Just how the heck did Mudd get that advanced alien time-loop technology?  (Once again, if this show was set in the Trek future after Next Gen, I wouldn’t question this as much — but in this era a decade before the original series, this is ridiculous.)  Also:  just how the heck did Mudd really escape the Klingons?  (Was he let out?  Was he never truly a prisoner at all, instead part of the conn-game to get the spy Tyler on board the Discovery?)

* How is it that Stella and her father were so close to the Discovery that they were able to arrive two minutes after the call went out?  That seems extraordinarily unlikely.

Other thoughts:

* It’s nice continuing to see the injured redheaded Conn officer from the Shenzhou.  I wish the show would actually give her something to do.

* The female robot-looking bridge crew-member had a few lines today!  I’d love to learn more about who/what she is.

Well, I still had some criticisms, but this has been two stronger episodes of Discovery in a row.  Looking forward to next week.  We only have two more episodes before the show goes on hiatus for a while (aargh!!).

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments from this week’s episode:

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