Monday, October 30, 2017

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - A Time Loop Creates Chaos on the Ship in 'Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 1.07 "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad"

As the U.S.S. Discovery crew attempts to let loose at a party, an unwelcome visitor comes aboard bringing about a problematic and twisted sequence of events.

Star Trek: Discovery was billed as the most serialized Star Trek show yet. And yes, that has been the case with the season so far. And yet, the creative team also understands that there needs to be a hook in each individual episode to keep the audience entertained. It can't just be a monotonous slog where the events of one episode just bleed into the next. Only a select few writers can make that storytelling approach work. But Discovery has had some episodic highlights that provide the show with a sense of differentiation each week. But now, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" is the most self-contained episode of the season so far. There's no mention of whether or not a rescue mission has been done to retrieve Cornwell from the Klingons. There is no mention of her whatsoever. Michael opens the hour with some narration about how the Discovery has become Starfleet's secret weapon in this war. It has turned the tides against the Klingons. That's useful information to have. But it doesn't exactly tell the audience anything new about the current situation. The war is still largely the same. It is this thing that is happening far away in this galaxy with most of the moments of action happening offscreen. Instead, this episode gets its hook from a time loop plot. Now, I really enjoy a good time loop story. They can be so much fun while allowing the creative team to really go to some outrageous places with the characters because it will never truly stick in the end. And yes, this hour does have more fun than the episodes up to this point. It's a solid execution of the concept that is familiar of the tricks of this plot device. But there are some weird moments as well that keep it from being a classic example of how to tell this type of story.

First off, it's very much appreciated that it only takes until the second replay for Stamets to figure out what's going on. He's the only character who is aware that this time loop is happening. Harry Mudd has stormed the Discovery to try to learn its secrets and sell them to the Klingons. It's a very serious and intense main story. One that ends in destruction several times. Mudd is aware that this is happening. He's the one who created it in order to learn all of the ins and outs of this ship. It's an effective tool that he has used before in order to have a successful career as a conman. He promised Lorca and Tyler that they would regret leaving him behind in that Klingon prison. And now, he is already coming to exact that revenge. It's revenge that could destroy this ship and everyone on it. He believes they are powerless to stop him. But they aren't because Stamets is immune to the time loop. Because of the spore drive, he exists in a place outside of the normal time stream. That seems like important information to have moving forward. It shows that there is more side effects to him being used in the spore drive than him just suddenly having a personality. Plus, the show is being very broad with Stamets now having a personality. It should perhaps dial that back a little bit. But getting back to the main story, it's successful that Stamets is able to realize this quickly after it happens and know the importance he has in stopping Mudd.

All of this gives the illusion that this will be Stamets' chance to shine on this show. He's already had his heroic and defining moment by stepping into the spore drive to navigate the ship during its jumps. But now, he has to be the hero again because he's the only one aware of what's going on with Mudd. Instead, the show pivots to a story about Michael and Tyler liking each other. They are now being positioned as the grand love story for the season. That's not inherently bad either. It was teased in their interactions in last week's episode. It is now just a part of the actual plot. They like each other but Michael is confused by what these human emotions actually mean. It's a little lackluster how the middle of this episode basically just devotes its time to Michael learning how to dance and communicate with Tyler so that she and Stamets can learn more about Mudd. It's all a little too complicated and forceful for that particular coupling. Of course, Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif do share some excellent chemistry. This is a pairing that has the potential to work. It's just odd that the success of this story hinges around that. Stamets can only convince Michael that he is telling the truth by sharing her biggest secret of never being in love. That's a somewhat predictable and not all that exciting secret. Meanwhile, Michael proves to Tyler that she knows more about his time together with Mudd to prove that she's telling the truth. That's pretty amusing and entertaining as well.

Of course, a hallmark of these types of episodes is in showing the repetition of events. Some are played very seriously while others are for comedic effect. There isn't really a learning curve to the events of this episode. Stamets figures it out early on. Michael and Tyler get confirmation that the other does like each other. They share a kiss that won't ultimately mean anything for them because the timeline is quickly reset. But there is a fantastic montage of Mudd just killing Captain Lorca. That's where his true animosity lies. That's basically the only importance that Lorca has in this episode. It's fun to see this montage of death. It's amusing while plays with the formula in an exciting way. It's Mudd being able to live out his fantasy of killing Lorca without the actual repercussions of such action. It gives him what he wants. As such, it's then believable that after so many times he is then willing to negotiate in the end once the crew lays their trap for Mudd to reset things himself and force all of this into happening for the final time. His pride has already been taken care of. So now, his greed and desire for a hefty profit can take over and dictate his actions for the resolution of this story.

And yes, the resolution does start off in a very enticing and commanding way. Michael understands her own value in being solid to the Klingons. She knows that she needs to reset things one more time despite Mudd having learned everything he came here for. He understands the importance of the spore drive and how Stamets is needed to operate it. Then, Michael comes in boasting of her own importance to the Klingons only to kill herself. It's a smart strategy that bets boldly on Mudd's selfish nature for more money to reset the timeline and bring everyone back to life. It's a thrilling way to force his hand in a way that is true to the characters. What happens next is perhaps a little too comedic and silly. It occurs on the perception that everyone on the crew is willing to accept the truth about Mudd before he is able to call the Klingons and capture Michael and Stamets. He still wants to be boastful to Lorca that he has bested him and taken over control of the ship. But then, he gets his comeuppance because he didn't take over controls of the minor systems. That's where the crew is able to make their move to learn how to best take him down. It all just seems very matter-of-fact in a way where it seems impossible that they could have figured all of this out in the time frame. It's a case where more repetition could have been better for the overall story. And then, it ends in the comedic place of Mudd being reunited with his fiancé, Stella, after claiming he lost her in this war. He apparently was running away from her because of the bounty her father had on his head. It's a somewhat ridiculous story. The biggest punishment the Discovery can think to do to him is to hand him over to the people he is running away from. But it feels too easy of a solution that goes for a cheap laugh. It's still inspiring to see this team work so well together and grow to trust one another. It's just a case where the concept shines despite some weaknesses in the various story details.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" was written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander and directed by David M. Barrett.
  • Of course, Stamets remembers all of the time loops and is able to tell Michael and Tyler about their dance and kiss. So, they at least have some awareness that it happened and their feelings are real. They just have no memory of it. It's a way to ensure that things are less awkward in the future while still allowing for a complicated twist to their relationship.
  • Stamets makes a passing comment about losing his touch to reality because he has lived through this experience so many times. That's an important thing to say to increase the severity of the situation. But it ultimately has no effect on the actual story. He does manage to remember everything and tell the others about what happened in the various other time loops.
  • Mudd discovers that Lorca has a weapon in his office that breaks down a being to the molecular level while making sure its the most painful death imaginable. That's the death Michael chooses to take when she kills herself. So is this something the audience should be aware of moving forward? Or is it just good for an episodic focus?
  • It's weird to see the crew of the ship just having a regular party as if there isn't a war being fought somewhere else with them needing to spring into action at a moment's notice. It's strange and different while giving the episode a nice entry point for all of this ridiculousness. It's a good foundation to return to at the start of each time loop.
  • Of course, it's a little perplexing while Tilly is so awkward most of the time to the majority of the crew only to be great at parties throughout this episode. It creates a situation where Michael truly is alone and an outcast during this situation. Tilly having fun ensures that things are awkward and tense for Michael as she tries to figure out her feelings for Tyler.