Discovery has finally done it. They’ve managed to make their first ‘I want to revisit this multiple times’-episode.
Okay, that doesn’t sound as grandiose as saying they made their first classic, but here’s the thing: an episode, a movie, a book, they can be utterly brilliant and yet I might not want to revisit it. “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” meanwhile is just 45 minutes of high concept fun and character bouncing off each other.
Let’s go to the obvious complaint people will have: this has been in Trek episodes before. Time loop that one of the crew remembers and then they slowly have to piece together what’s going on. Yes. It’s also never been done quite right. A time loop story can only work with great direction and enough material to substitute for already seen bits and pieces from previous loops. I love my Star Trek, but good pacing has never been a strong suit of it. Previous shows, when doing this concept, have always suffered under the talk-heavy nature of something like TNG or Voyager, grinding the pacing to a hold. This episode with the long title (I know, Ctrl+V…) plays it more like a chess game between Mudd and the crew, while in TNG’s example of “Cause and Effect” it’s a natural(ish) occurrence they need to tech-tech their way out of. This is much better.
Rewatching TOS from the beginning, I cannot believe how much I ignored Harry Mudd. Outside of Khan he’s the only enemy to face Kirk more than once, and for the love of Spock, he’s such a delight here in this reimagined, younger and more ruthless form. The fact that nobody died in this, at least permanently, and his large ham personality makes his presence such a delight. He’s essentially playing a game by reloading the save file. Giving the crew a person to play off of instead of technobabble makes the conclusion of sending Harry off with Stella so much more satisfying.
Come to think of it, this is almost more of a spiritual sequel to Stargate SG-1’s time loop episode “Window of Opportunity”, because of its character-based approach. DS9 and TOS were the only other Trek shows to pull of an ensemble that I would gladly watch doing anything and Discovery now joins this exclusive club. Much like TOS, DS9, or shows like SG-1 and Farscape, character is at the heart of Discovery and it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched this for only seven episodes. The characters are so much at each with each other, the actors bouncing off each other, even the recurring extras and bridge bunnies have personality to the point of being recognizable and memorable. Burnham, Tyler, Stamets, Tilly, the report they all have with each other, the situations we see in the episode, especially with Burnham and Tyler’s blossoming relationship, it pays off. You care about what happens, and you don’t mind you’ve seen a time loop episode, because development has been made.
This is the benefit of the one-off episode in a more serialized show. You have the benefit of telling a contained story while using previously established relationships, characters, situations, to advance the story. And while previous episodes have, thanks to the serialization element, been wonderful to watch as a continued story, the approach is not appealing for rewatching them. This is the first one that I want to revisit, like I said at the beginning. It’s not an all-time classic, I think I want to wait until the season is over and I’ve had time to think on it some more, but the boundless energy, the good character moments, the slick direction, the outright fun that is Harry Mudd, it all came together for an episode that I would show people to introduce them to Star Trek. There aren’t many of those, but this one knows how to sell a series. Fuck the idea that the show is too dark. Without darkness we wouldn’t know what light is, without sadness there would be no joy. And this episode was just that: joy.