In 50 Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From the Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, a oral history of Star Trek, Star Trek: Enterprise co-creator and executive producer Brannon Braga discussed a major problem for the latter Star Trek series he was involved in: repetition. New writers would come to his office and pitch what they believed to be a great new story ideas. Braga, as the showrunner, would look at them with dismay and reveal a 1991 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation already used the idea. It’s a huge problem for any long-running show, but for Star Trek, the problem gets multiplied by 50+ years of stories in various mediums, five hour-long television shows and one animated series.
Star Trek: Discovery‘s answer to the problem seems to be this: disregard the problem entirely as even an old pitch can still reveal something new about the characters.
This week’s episode and its time-slip narrative conceit will be familiar to Star Trek fans from a TNG episode called “Cause and Effect.” In it, the Enterprise encounters an anomaly in space. As they approach it, a century-old Starfleet cruiser emerges and crashes into them. Despite all their training, the Enterprise explodes. But after a commercial break, time resets to roughly 18 hours before the crisis as Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) begins to suspect that she has experienced all of this before. The crew eventually figures out a way to send a message into the next loop and break the cycle. There’s one last surprise in the episode that I will not spoil for you, but I think you can see just how much Discovery‘s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” takes its cues from “Cause and Effect.”
Oh, and in case you were wondering, “Cause and Effect” was written by Brannon Braga.
Nevertheless, Discovery rushed headlong into the same plot — with a few specifics changed — and managed to deliver a good episode because the high concept was very much in services of advancing Burnham as a character and laying the groundwork for her relationship with Tyler. It also managed to reuse a very old joke about Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and give it a fresh angle. And considering how Burnham’s log pressed hard on the topics of routine and repetition, the choice of this plot must have been very deliberate.
And come to think of it, the choice to restart the time loops in the middle of acts suggests someone took a long, close look at “Cause and Effect.”
But I don’t think the comparison mares the episode. Consider: would any other situation give Burnham the license to reveal she’s never been in love? Would Stamets have ever told her how he and Dr. Culber fell for each other? Where other Star Trek shows were very much about resolving the big crisis of the week, Discovery uses its Star Trek trappings to offer us more reasons to care about its cast.
Which is a good thing as I’ve never really cared about Burnham as a character until now. Where Stamets and Tilly made instant impressions, she was always so removed. Yeah, I know I’ve written a couple thousand words about her at this point, but most of that regarded her as an idea; the Starfleet officer held accountable. But tonight, in part because of the romantic subplot, her initial concern for the space whale and the her personal log, she’s finally recognizable as a human being. I imagine a lot of Star Trek fans will recognize her sense of isolation. And yes, there is room to complain about using the log to literally tell the viewer about her discomfort as opposed to showing it, but it’s clear that Burnham, as a person, needs to vocalize these things to herself. Also, as someone who has a hard time with loud parties, I utterly relate to the dread expressed in her personal log.
In fact, it’s a shame the show didn’t establish her personal log earlier. It would’ve been interesting to see her confiding in this piece of technology aboard the Shenzhou, were she was closed off from her fellow officers, and slowly learning to trust those parts of herself with Tilly or Tyler. Or, after this week, Stamets.
Meanwhile, I love mind-boosted Stamets. I mean, I always loved him (even when I hated him initially), but there’s something magical about his hippy-ish expansion of consciousness. In a way, he got the thing he always wanted and I think his changed outlook comes from that satisfaction as much as it comes from experiencing a cosmic nirvana every time he becomes the spore drive navigator.
Heh. It just occurred to me that he’s sort of Spacing Guild Navigator from Dune. The similarity cannot be an accident, either.
That said, he’s still a pain in the ass, but Star Trek needs a character like that. And without him, the ship would’ve fallen into Mudd’s hands. For his part, Wilson followed up on his initial performance wonderfully. Mudd’s odious theatricality is such an important component and Wilson is truly great at it. Also, it’s great that he was controlling the time loop instead of being its victim. Besides tweaking the TNG plot, it gave Stamets an immediately intuitive goal. Well, intuitive once everyone was involved and understood the situation. And yeah, it’s more of a villainous act than the Mudd of the Original Series might make, but combining his thirst for vengeance with his need to pay off his debts is very much the character.
Also, the joke about his bride Stella will echo back to the Star Trek episode “I, Mudd” in which Kirk and his crew meet her.
While too much Mudd is a bad thing, I hope we see Wilson’s version of the character one more time this year. He’s a good antagonist for the Discovery crew and further illustrates how the show’s use of repetition comes from a place of confidence.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays on CBS All Access.