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Star Trek: Discovery – Choose Your Pain (Review)

Choose Your Pain is perhaps the most traditional episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date, at least in terms of basic structure.

One of the central tensions of Discovery has been trying to figure out exactly how much to modernise the standard Star Trek storytelling template, the basic model of storytelling that has been in play through Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. These shows were produced over an eighteen-year period running from the second half of the eighties through to the turn of the millennium. However, a lot has happened in the twelve years since These Are the Voyages…

Avenging angel Gabriel.

Quite simply, television has changed phenomenally over the past decade. A number of these changes are obvious even in the way that Discovery is produced. After all, Discovery is the first Star Trek show to premiere on a streaming service. However, Discovery also conforms to other expectations of contemporary television. Discovery is much more tightly serialised than The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Discovery is also the shortest season of Star Trek ever produced.

There is a sense that times are changing, and that Discovery is attempting to provide an early twenty-first century update to a thirty-year-old template. After all, no other Star Trek series opened its first season with a two-episode prologue before introducing its core setting and premise. No other Star Trek series feature as many extended sequences with characters speaking subtitled Klingon. No other Star Trek series has featured swear words like “piss”, “sh!t” or “f$@k.” These are all new frontiers for televised Star Trek.

An echo chamber.

At the same time, Discovery has proven itself remarkably conservative in other respects. Although the show is very clearly serialised, the production team have worked hard to ensure that each individual episode has its own plot with its own structure and its own agenda. Unlike other streaming dramas, the episodes of Discovery are clear and distinct from one another, each serving as a bullet point in the overall arc of the season. Similarly, Discovery has made a point to use standard Star Trek narratives imbued with standard Star Trek morals built in.

For all the noise being made in certain quarters of the internet that Discovery is not really a Star Trek series, Choose Your Pain is the most conservative and old-fashioned episode of the series to date. Choose Your Pain is an episode that could easily have worked as part of Deep Space Nine or Enterprise, preserving the structure and rhythm with only a few minor tweaks along the way. Ironically, the episode’s biggest issue is that it feels just a little bit too much like classic Star Trek.

Here’s Mudd in your eye.

One of the most distinct aspects of Discovery is the fact that its viewpoint character is not the commanding officer on the central starship. Kirk was the protagonist of Star Trek, even if William Shatner was anxious about Leonard Nimoy’s fan mail. Patrick Stewart was credited as “starring” in The Next Generation. Benjamin Sisko was not promoted to captain until The Adversary, but Avery Brooks was the series lead. The writers struggled to characterise Kathryn Janeway, but Kate Mulgrew anchored Voyager. Jonathan Archer was the central character on Enterprise.

With that in mind, it is something of a surprise that the commanding officers on Discovery exist on the sidelines. Michelle Yeoh was credited as “Special Guest Star” in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. Jason Isaacs is a lot more central to the story, but he is shunted off to the end of the credits with an “… and.” That is the sort of credit reserved for actors like Whoopi Goldberg on The Next Generation, important performers that are not at the centre of a given episode.

Lorca is not the centre of the universe.

Michael Burnham is the protagonist of Discovery, which marks a clear departure for the franchise. Discovery is the first Star Trek series to focus on a lead character who is not a commanding officer. Indeed, although Burnham does end up back in uniform by the start of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, it could reasonably be argued that Discovery is the first Star Trek series with a central character who is not technically a Starfleet officer. This is uncharted territory for the franchise.

To be fair, there is precedent. Lower Decks was a late episode of The Next Generation that dared to imagine what the series might look like from a perspective outside the senior staff. The ensemble on Deep Space Nine was so large that it was possible to build entire episodes around guest characters, with Sisko frequently at the periphery of stories. On Deep Space Nine, episodes like The Visitor, Valiant and Treachery, Faith and the Great River felt at a remove from the regular chain of command.

“Shouldn’t we agree safe words first?”

Indeed, Deep Space Nine would often allow itself to get lost within its own subcultures and its own pocket worlds. Episodes like The Nagus, Rules of Acquisition, Family Business, Bar Association, Ferengi Love Songs and Profit and Lace focused on the Ferengi. Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters and Once More Unto the Breach focused on the Klingons. Nevertheless, Sisko was very clearly the central protagonist on Deep Space Nine, the centre of the “chosen one” narrative that ran from Emissary to What You Leave Behind.

In contrast, Michael Burnham was introduced as the central protagonist in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. The audience was invited to follow Burnham as she investigates the mysterious Klingon beacon, occasionally flashing back to her childhood and even meeting her surrogate father figure. The audience witnessed a large portion of the battle from the brig, alongside Burnham. In Context is For Kings, the audience was introduced to the Discovery alongside Burnham; meeting Lorca, sneaking into the engine room, experience the power of the spores.

We have lift-off.

This approach was disorienting, and very unconventional for a Star Trek series. In fact, creator Bryan Fuller explicitly intended for the focus on Burnham to provide a new window into an established world:

“The story that is fascinating for me is we’ve seen six series now from captains’ points of view,” Fuller said. “To see a character from a different perspective on a starship who has a different dynamic relationship with the captain, with subordinates, felt like it would give us richer context to have different types of stories. It is ensemble, but we do have that main female protagonist.”

To a greater or lesser extent, it worked. In terms of pure plotting, Context is for Kings and The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry were boilerplate Star Trek. However, they felt relatively interesting because they were constructed from a new and distinct perspective.

Self sacrifice.

The biggest problem with Choose Your Pain is that it abandons this unique perspective to tell a fairly standard Star Trek story in a fairly conventional manner. Choose Your Pain is an episode of Star Trek that could easily have been adapted for one of the early series, which is deeply frustrating. Television has come a long way in the past decade; Choose Your Pain seems to have missed just about every major change in how modern television structures or constructs stories, in favour of telling an old-fashioned Star Trek story in an old-fashioned way.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Discovery has been the care that the production team have taken in structuring the individual episodes. Every episode of Discovery has been its own story with a clear beginning, middle and end; character beats and plot threads carry over, but each episode is about watching the characters react to a specific event. The only real exception is the two-part season premiere, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, which is its own almost-self-contained narrative.

“You know, you’d think these white dress uniforms would be impractical for surgeons during wartime, but…”

Context is for Kings is about Burnham joining the crew of the Discovery, investigating the accident on the Glenn, and discovering the particulars of the spore drive. The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is about the Discovery trying to protect a mining colony from Klingon attack, while Burnham deduces the purpose of the tardigrade. Choose Your Pain finds Lorca captured by the Klingons, as the crew tries to figure out a way to rescue him. Each of these story threads are resolved within the hour, even if they set up questions for later instalments to explore.

A lot of other prestige and streaming dramas would allow these plot points to linger, would take advantage of the opportunities of serialised storytelling to let these developments breath. Even in the context of nineties television, Worf and Garak spend more time in Dominion custody in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light than Lorca spends as a Klingon prisoner of war in Choose Your Pain. The abduction of the commander of a key military asset in the middle of a galactic war should be a huge event. There is a sense Discovery would be justified allocating a few episodes to it.

Say it, don’t hypo spray it.

However, Discovery is very much dedicated to the structure and the format of the episode of television. This is oddly reassuring in a way. A lot of contemporary streaming dramas struggle to properly construct satisfying episodes of television. As Alan Sepinwall has conceded:

When the material is interesting enough, and there’s enough story to comfortably stretch out over however many episodes and hours, this isn’t an issue. … But when the story’s not quite there, then those formless blobs intended as episodes become a real drag: necessary viewing to understand the overall plot, but not interesting viewing in the meantime, even as part of a day-long binge.

This isn’t a phenomenon limited to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu shows, though. More and more – particularly on cable, but now even on many broadcast shows – dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air. Serialization was once a dirty word in network television, where researchers used to claim that even a show’s most devoted fans watched one out of every four episodes on average, and where the president of entertainment at FOX had to lie to her bosses that “24” would have self-contained episodes in order to get a greenlight. Now that DVRs are commonplace, almost nobody airs reruns anymore, and the big aftermarket isn’t in syndicated repeats but selling shows to the streaming outlets, serialization is not only accepted, but in many cases preferred.

As such, in terms of episode structure and pacing, Discovery is much more conservative than other high-profile prestige series like The Handmaid’s Tale or Fargo. For better and for worse, the production team have not forgotten the art of structuring an episode that was honed in the era of Michael Piller.

Back in black alert.

Choose Your Pain is the most conventionally plotted episode of Discovery to this point in the season. Most notably, Michael Burnham takes a back seat for the first time in the run. It is the first time that Discovery has consciously allowed its protagonist to slip into the background, something that the teaser candidly acknowledges. “I barely have a job here,” Burnham confesses. “I’ve never been less busy.” While Burnham does still spur the plot of Choose Your Pain, the episode is structured in such a way as to minimise her agency and to allow the rest of the cast room to breath.

As such, Choose Your Pain is the first episode of Discovery that feels like the classic ensemble drama that defined The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. The episode marks the first time that the series really steps outside Michael Burnham to look at life on the ship from other perspectives. It is telling that Choose Your Pain is the episode that ends with the revelation of the relationship between Stamets and Culbur, despite the fact that the production team had been teasing their dynamic months before the premiere.

Brushing it off.

Choose Your Pain is designed to distribute its focus among the regular cast, so it is the first episode of Discovery to fall back on the familiar old-school “a-plot”, “b-plot”, “c-plot” structure, in which the script jumps between several narrative strands to explore each character’s perspective and behaviour. Because the first four episodes of Discovery were so tightly focused on Burnham, they tended to feel more focused and purposeful. Instead, Choose Your Pain is somewhat diffused, its attention split between various threads.

This is a Star Trek staple, for better and for worse. In In the Cards, the primary plot follows Nog and Jake through a chain of deals while the secondary plot focuses on the tense negotiations between the Dominion and Bajor. In Life Support, a harrowing and heartbreaking story about the death of a recurring character is juxtaposed with a tale about an awkward double date. The example closest to Choose Your Pain is probably The Chain of Command, Part I and The Chain of Command, Part II, in which Picard is captured and tortured while the Enterprise adjusts to life without him.

“Trust me, compared to the meeting that opens the episode, Klingon torture is practically relaxing.”

Of course, Discovery is still heavily serialised. There is a clear sense of narrative progression from one episode to the next. Although each episode of Discovery has its own plot, these individual plots serve as building blocks to something more. Although each episode ends with something similar to a return to the status quo, there is no clean reset in the style of The Next Generation or Voyager. Indeed, even as Choose Your Pain ends with Lorca returning to the Discovery, he also brings another member of the ensemble along with him. Things change and develop, stories move along.

In fact, part of what is so endearing about the narrative flow of Discovery is the relative speed at which these major plot points develop. The plot involving the Shenzhou was dealt with over the course of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. Even smaller character beats are established and delivered upon in rapid succession. Burnham received Georgiou’s telescope at the start of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, and decided to pass it along to Saru at the end of Choose Your Pain.

Scoping him out.

There is an endearing efficiency to the serialised storytelling on Discovery. The mystery involving the tardigrade was set-up, explored and paid off over Context is for Kings, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry and Choose Your Pain, allowing Discovery to restructure The Devil in the Dark as a three-act morality play spread across three episodes as a statement of purpose for the youngest Star Trek series. This is an intriguing approach to serialisation, one arguably very much in line with the storytelling on the final season of Enterprise.

Even five episodes into the first season, there is a sense that Discovery is not going to let its wheels spin, that it is not going to try the audience’s patience by teasing mysteries and riddles that it refuses to answer. Given that Discovery is the first Star Trek show to broadcast in the age of serialised television, this approach is commendable. The writing staff seem to understand that long-form storytelling is a balancing act, and that it is unfair to string the audience along forever. This is a welcome rejection of the modern model of television that tends to treat a show’s first season as the pilot.

It turns out that Saru’s abilities also help him identify serial killers; that is, things that kill serial drama.

Mike Symonds has argued that a lot of modern streaming television is built around stalling and delaying, suggesting that some of the more rewarding serialised television was actually written at the turn of the millennium:

There’s the great line from Joss Whedon (chief architect of some of the best 22-episode dramatic plotting ever) where he says, “Play your cards early. It forces you to come up with new cards.” And he’s spot on. So many seasons of Buffy had an endgame in mind, but there were so many twists, turns, and misdirections before you ever understood what that endgame was. Now, we give all the info up front and then just… wait. The cut-throat truth is that if you dragged plots like that in the earlier days people would tune out. But now there are so many ways to work around it in the binge model, whether it’s the visceral appeal of the show itself or the reliance on teasing things out, that we have people willing to sit through complete dramatic stagnation just because.

Discovery feels like it belongs in that particular wheelhouse, carefully balancing the demands of long-form narratives with a surprisingly traditional episodic structure.

“You… you couldn’t find any bagpipe music, then?”

The narrative focus in Choose Your Pain is split along several seams. Gabriel Lorca is captured by the Klingons, thrown into captivity with Harcourt Fenton Mudd and the mysterious Ash Tyler. Meanwhile, Saru finds himself in command of the Discovery during a crisis, something for which he is not prepared. Simultaneously, Stamets finds himself confronted by the fact that every jump the ship takes is harming the tardigrade. These three plot points all overlap and converge, but they each shed light on a different member of the ensemble.

The plot thread focusing on Stamets is probably the most satisfying, on a number of levels. Most superficially, it affirms that Stamets is very much an archetypal Star Trek protagonist, in that he ultimately decides that he cannot abide the suffering of a potentially sentient creature, and so takes a massive risk to protect it. Stamets jokingly suggests that he only did it because Culbur cared about the creature. “I also knew you’d leave me if I let anything else endanger that creature,” he quips. However, there is a sense that Stamets is capable of compassion, despite his stand-off-ish-ness.

“Those were some good mushrooms.”

(It is a plot thread that also feels very much like pay-off of a nice little character beat in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. Noticing the tardigrade’s connection to the fungus in the engine room, Stamets complained, “That hardly seems fair. I always wanted to converse with my mushrooms.” As such, his decision in Choose Your Pain affords him that opportunity. It goes without saying that all of this is tied back into the big “magic mushrooms” metaphor at the heart of Discovery, and the series’ fusion of technological and organic.)

However, the other subplots in Choose Your Pain are less satisfying. A lot of this is down to clunky writing. There are several points at which it feels like Choose Your Pain is still stuck (stylistically) in the mid-nineties, reflexively importing a lot of the clumsy storytelling conventions of classic Star Trek without any examination or reflection. There is an awkwardness to the scripting that is unforgivable in this age of prestige television, when television drama is understood as an art form rather than a disposable diversion.

“So… light week, then?”

There is a a lot of exposition in Choose Your Pain, a lot of points at which the narrative chooses to show rather than to tell. To be fair, the old adage “show, don’t tell” is something of a generalisation that doesn’t always apply to the Star Trek franchise. After all, there are all manner of things that the Star Trek franchise simply cannot show, whether for issues of time or budget, or even for narrative clarity. The Star Trek franchise has a long history of very bluntly telling rather than showing.

The issue is not so much that Discovery chooses to tell rather than show. The issue is that Discovery chooses to tell in the most clumsy manner possible. In plot terms, this is most obvious during the early briefing scenes between Lorca and Cornwell. The Klingon War has been raging for six months at this point, but Discovery has never quite managed to convey a sense of how the conflict is going and how it has affected Starfleet. Is Starfleet losing the war? Are the Klingons pressing an advantage? Are both sides at a stalemate?

“The other ships in the fleet will take up the slack?”
“There are other ships?”

When Deep Space Nine launched into the Dominion War, the series took a lot of time and effort to build its world. The Dominion were introduced three seasons before war finally broke out, the series consciously building towards armed conflict through a cold war that informed all manner of geopolitical manoeuvring. The hobbling of Romulus and Cardassia in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast and the breakdown of the Federation and Klingon alliance in The Way of the Warrior were just stepping stones towards an unavoidable war.

Even when the Dominion arrived in the Alpha Quadrant in By Inferno’s Light, the series spent a full half a season escalating towards all-out war. There was a sense that the Dominion was pushing for an armed conflict in episodes like Soldiers of the Empire and Blaze of Glory, that it was trying to isolate the Federation in In the Cards. By the time that war was formally declared in Call to Arms, it was clear that the Federation had been backed into a corner and that there was simply no other choice.

“Well, I hate to point ears, but this is kinda your fault.”

Even after war was declared, Deep Space Nine took care to lay out its board. The opening six episodes of the sixth season were keenly focused on the mechanics of the war effort; the plot to blow up the ketracel white facility in A Time to Stand, the ground war in Rocks and Shoals, the Klingon front in Sons and Daughters, the waiting in Behind the Lines, and the battle to retake Deep Space Nine and the wormhole in Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels. After that point, the front lines of the conflict shifted away from Deep Space Nine, but the rules had been established.

Even when Deep Space Nine wasn’t essential to the war effort, the series still made sure to provide the audience with a sense of how the war was going. Following the taking of Deep Space Nine, episodes like Statistical Probabilities and Far Beyond the Stars suggested that it was a war of attrition. When the Romulans entered the war in In the Pale Moonlight, episodes like The Reckoning and Tears of the Prophets suggested that the tide was turning. The Breen entering the conflict in The Changing Face of Evil represented another change.

“So, I was thinking. I really miss the Captain’s Log.”

In contrast, the Klingon War feels a lot more hazily defined. Discovery has yet to provide a sense of texture for the conflict. The Klingons on board the Glenn in Context is for Kings were a nice touch, but the Klingon attack on Corvan II in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry was more of a plot contrivance than part of a larger portrait of the war effort. How did the Klingons manage to attack a resource so far from the front lines? What other systems were at risk? Was this part of a concerted push forward, or an act of military desperation? The episode cares not.

Choose Your Pain opens with a really awkward exposition scene, in which Lorca attends a briefing of senior Starfleet officials and seems to tell them information that they should already know in a rather blunt manner. “In less than three weeks, the Discovery has prevented the destruction of the dilithium mines at Corvan II, broken the Klingon supply line at Benzar, and routed an attack through the Ophiucus system,” he boasts. These are somehow all events that took place off-screen and involving a single ship rather than the larger fleet.

Exposition is part of the franchise’s DNA.

The information dump is clumsy and awkward. It is also very shallow. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine tended to handle exposition through briefing room scenes featuring the senior staff, which made more sense than this strategy summit. Naturally, Picard or Sisko knew more about galactic politics than their subordinates, so the exposition made more sense than it does when Lorca offers a bullet point summary of missions that everybody in the room should already know about.

More than that, the exposition-driven briefing room sequences in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine also made a point to provide a larger context for the episode-specific plot points. When Sisko reveals the Romulan-Dominion non-aggression pact to the senior staff in Call to Arms, his subordinates put this in the context of the Dominion’s diplomatic “in-roads” into the Alpha Quadrant. When the Dominion take Betazed in In the Pale Moonlight, the staff run through a list of other systems that are within striking distance of the enemy.

“I’m feeling pretty sick about this.”

All of these help to create a sense of a universe that is bigger than any of the primary characters. Discovery is struggling to create that same sense of scale. When Deep Space Nine stared down the Dominion fleet in Call to Arms, the Federation and the Klingons launched a surprise attack on the Dominion shipyards. There is no real mention of what the rest of Starfleet is doing while Lorca is executing ambushes and surprise attacks behind enemy lines. Discovery struggles to conceive of the existence of a fleet outside of the eponymous ship.

It does not help that Cornwell is a transparent vehicle for exposition, stating things that the audience already knows in the bluntest possible manner. “There is concern at the highest levels of leadership about taxing our prime asset,” she advises Lorca. “We believe the enemy may have identified Discovery as our secret weapon. You are hereby ordered to rein in your use of the spore drive unless authorized by Starfleet. With respect to the war effort, the fleet will pick up the slack caused by your absence.”

Don’t Lorca any further.

Cornwell returns after the briefing to provide more direct one-on-one “as you already know…” exposition to Lorca. “This organisation’s only convicted mutineer is viewed by many, justifiably or not, as the cause of our conflict with the Klingons,” she states. “To see her avoiding justice does nothing for general morale.” Of course, this was a plot point in both Context is for Kings and The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, and comes up again in Choose Your Pain through Saru’s resentment of Burnham. It does not need more exposition.

To be fair, part of the problem is Cornwell herself. The character seems like the stock “Admiral of the Week” from the Berman era shows, lacking the personality that made Alynna Nechayev or Bill Ross stand out on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. In terms of Bryan Fuller’s oeuvre, Cornwell seems the character most likely to be played by Caroline Dhavernas. There are shades of Alana Bloom from Hannibal to Cornwell, particularly in the reveal that she is a doctor and her interest in Lorca’s psychological well-being. But she is still hazily defined.

Eye, eye, captain.

However, the issues with exposition are not merely confined to the plot. Choose Your Pain struggles a little bit with its character exposition. In particular, the episode is filled with sequences of characters talking at length about their backgrounds and motivations, from Mudd’s story of how he came to land in Klingon custody to the sorry tale of Lorca’s last command. Some of this exposition works rather well, even if it feels a little blunt. Rainn Wilson does great work with an extended monologue, while Jason Isaacs sells his character’s pathos. However, the exposition remains inelegant.

In particular, Commander Saru’s crisis of confidence is a potentially interesting character beat that is ruined in the execution through clumsy exposition. When Saru finds himself thrown into command during a crisis, he retreats to the ready room to plot a course of action. Through a conversation with the computer, Saru outlines his own insecurities and tries to figure out how best to assert himself. It is a familiar character beat, one that worked for Geordi in Arsenal of Freedom and for Data in Redemption, Part II. However, it falls flat in Choose Your Pain.

“So, casual pose or serious pose?”

There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that Saru does not have any character against which he might play his insecurities. Because everybody else in the episode is busy dealing with the tardigrade, Saru has neither a confidante nor an opponent. There is nobody to whom Saru can talk about his struggles, and there is nobody who directly challenges his command. Saru is obviously uncomfortable with Burnham, but she never directly attacks his authority. The result is that the drama feels a little flat.

More than that, the lack of any other characters in Saru’s plot thread means that the character is left bouncing off the computer. It is a little cute, but it also undercuts the arc. After all, the computer is hardly an engaging scene partner or a compelling screen presence. This means that Doug Jones and Saru have to do the heavy lifting in the scene itself, which doesn’t really work. In order to properly verbalise his insecurities and inner conflicts, Saru has to talk at length to the computer as if addressing his therapist.

The road to (Sa)ruin.

There is something endearingly goofy (and completely ridiculous) about Saru’s attempt to create a computer program to objectively measure leadership. However, Saru winds up over-elaborating. “There is an element aboard this ship that causes me to second-guess myself,” Saru explains at one point. “That cannot continue. I must remain clearheaded in pursuit of today’s mission.” This would be an awkward line to deliver to another person, but it feels absurd delivered to the twenty-third century equivalent of a digital assistant.

This cumbersome exposition carries over to Saru’s final scene with Burnham towards the end of the episode. Confronting Burnham in her quarters, Saru finally unburdens himself of years of resentment. “Are you really afraid of me?” Burnham challenges Saru early in the conversation. This seems like a fair question, given how anxiously his “threat ganglia” have reacted to her presence. However, what follows is not so much a conversation as an extended monologue that feels like something adapted directly from the writers’ bible for Discovery.

Prey for Stamets.

“I am not,” Saru admits. “I am angry at you. Angry because of how much you stole from me. I am deeply jealous that I never got the chance you had. To be Captain Georgiou’s first officer. You stood by her side and learned everything she had to teach. The anticipated scenario, you would move up and out. Captain your own starship. And I would take your place. I never got that chance. If I had, I would’ve been more prepared for today.” This makes sense as character motivation, but the execution is too broad and clumsy. It is a crude exposition dump.

To be fair, there are moments in Choose Your Pain were the very traditional and old-school Star Trek mechanics work quite well. Part of this is the character of Harry Mudd himself. Of course, Mudd is a rather transparent bit of fan service, like Sarek’s involvement in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. It is a character who shares the name and some characteristics with a recurring character from the original Star Trek series, who has seemingly been inserted into the narrative because fans will recognise the character from Mudd’s Women, I, Mudd and Mudd’s Passion.

Staying on point.

Harcourt Fenton Mudd is an interesting character, in large part because he is one of the very earliest elements of the Star Trek mythology. It could fairly be argued that, just in terms of concept and history, Mudd belongs in a Star Trek prequel. After all, the character predates the show itself. He can be traced back to some of Gene Roddenberry’s earliest story ideas for Star Trek, predating James T. Kirk and Christopher Pike:

The cargo ship captain is an old reprobate named Harry Mudd who has a colourful reputation in space for fly-by-night schemes, grandiose promotions, and suspected smuggling. And yet it is impossible not to like Mudd.

More than that, Mudd embodies a very unique character archetype within the Star Trek canon. Gene Roddenberry famously prohibited pulpy science-fiction stories built around space opera elements like “space pirates”, wanting Star Trek to be a more intellectual form of science-fiction. However, Mudd seems like a relic from those pulpy science-fiction tales (a “space smuggler”) who managed to sneak in under the radar.

Mudd has gone completely crackers.

It is impossible to imagine Harcourt Fenton Mudd in the context of the cleaner and more sterile universe of The Next Generation. Even in the context of the original Star Trek, Mudd arrived very early in the first season. Mudd predates concepts like Starfleet and the Federation, with Mudd’s Women establishing him as part of the show’s consciously “space western” aesthetic. With that in mind, it makes a certain amount of sense for Discovery to embrace a character like Mudd.

Of course, as with a lot of Discovery, it is very hard to square this iteration of the character with his earlier counterpart. Harry Mudd was always something of a cartoon character, even before his appearance in Mudd’s Passion. As such, there is a strange dissonance to introducing the character as a prisoner in a Klingon brig who cynically passes torture on to his cellmates and waxes lyrical about the flaws of the Federation. The character is interesting and compelling, and very much in keeping with the style and tone of Discovery, but it is hard to believe that it is the same Harry Mudd.

Then again, this isn’t really the same D7, I suppose.

Indeed, Mudd is not the episode’s only example of gratuitous (and distracting) fan service. When Saru asks the computer to list five examples of high-quality Starfleet leadership, the computer returns a list surprisingly quickly. According to the metrics, the five finest commanding officers in the history of Starfleet, to this point in continuity, are: Robert April, Jonathan Archer, Philippa Georgiou, Matt Decker, Christopher Pike. The audience has met all of these characters, making the universe seem smaller than it should, and winking at the audience.

There is a sense that Discovery needs to find a happy medium between this blatant fanservice and the sort of continuity blackout that defined the early years of The Next Generation, when the writing staff had to fight to get the word “Spock” into Sarek. It might have been better to go with the classic “two you know, one we made up” convention that defines Star Trek list-making. In fact, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry had a good example of that format with Lorca’s reference to “the Wright Brothers, Elon Musk, Zefram Cochrane.”

Alternative list:
Decker, Matt
Edison, Balthazar
Izar, Garth of
Merik, R.M.
Tracey, Ronald

To be fair to Rainn Wilson, the actor does great work. Wilson is very consciously and very clearly borrowing from the more interesting elements of Roger C. Carmel’s performance in bringing Harry Mudd to life:

I inherited a character that had been previously portrayed by another brilliant actor. I stole a lot of things that I loved from his performance, and then added a lot more of my own. It’s a testament to Roger C. Carmel, to what an interesting actor he was. You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s in an episode. So full of light. The new writers have added that he’s mischievous and deadly at the same time, and that’s a fun balance to watch.

It is a credit to Wilson that it is almost possible to imagine Carmel delivering cynical rebukes of the Federation, making Wilson’s performance feeling more like an elaboration than mere imitation.

The light at the end of the torture chamber.

Indeed, for all the cynicism of which fans accuse Discovery, this iteration of Harcourt Fenton Mudd is very much a Star Trek character. The character’s background and tone might have shifted a little bit, his philosophy might be more keenly in focus, but the character very clearly looks and talks like a Star Trek character. There is something very much larger than life about Mudd, something more consciously stylised in terms of dialogue, performance and costuming. It is entirely possible to imagine Rainn Wilson playing off William Shatner.

A lot of this is down to the script’s floral language. With the possible exceptions of Saru and (maybe) Stamets, the primary cast on Discovery tend to speak in a more naturalistic manner than most Star Trek regulars. Even though he is played by a British character actor, Lorca seems markedly less likely to spontaneously quote Shakespeare than any of his counterparts. In contrast, Harry Mudd speaks in monologues and metaphors. Wilson treats the character as something theatrical, relishing each syllable. The effect is something that feels like classic Star Trek.

“Wade into the quiet of the slipstream.”

Wilson acknowledged that this was part of the appeal in playing a character like Harry Mudd, also admiring the character’s position outside of Starfleet:

“Oh, it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s part Shakespeare. He has heightened language. It’s very much in the Star Trek universe. Also, to get to play a civilian is rare in Star Trek; there’s very few civilian roles. I really think they’re the most fun. Just think about it. There’s this whole universe in the Federation space that they’re buying things, and selling things, and trading things, and having cities, and falling in love. We need to see some of those characters sometimes.”

Indeed, the most compelling thing about Harry Mudd is that he suggests the existence of life outside of Starfleet or the Klingon Empire, which is important.

Harrying favour with the Klingons.

By and large, the Star Trek franchise has tended to suggest that the Federation is really the only game in town. The franchise has frequently explored the Star Trek universe from the perspective of Starfleet. The vast majority of series regulars are members of Starfleet. Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series to have regulars who weren’t either members of Starfleet or planning to become members of Starfleet. In fact, Jake Sisko’s decision not to join Starfleet in Shadowplay was a huge moment, because it suggested a life for human characters outside the military.

Indeed, this emphasis on life outside of Starfleet is particularly important for Deep Space Nine and Discovery, because these are both Star Trek series about war. It is important for war stories to provide a sense of context beyond the military experience, to explore the consequences of conflict and combat for those who have not devoted their lives to military service. Harry Mudd provides an potentially interesting window on the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons, as a civilian essentially caught in the crossfire.

“So… if Tilly and Stamets get to say f!$k, do I get to make a Klingon dick joke?”

Choose Your Pain allows Mudd to make his case against Starfleet, in the same terms that T’Kuvma made in The Vulcan Hello. Like T’Kuvma, Mudd is wary of whatever the galactic equivalent of globalisation might be. “This is all Starfleet has left me,” Mudd complains as he munches on a cracker. “I used to have a life, captain. A good one. A respectable business. That all got blown up, because of your goddamn war.” Lorca objects to Mudd’s criticism, in much the same way that Sisko would bristle at Quark’s condescension in Deep Space Nine. He states, “Starfleet didn’t start this war.”

Mudd is not convinced. “Of course you did,” he states. “The moment you decided to boldly go where no one had gone before. What do you think would happen when you bump into someone who didn’t want you in their front yard?” In many ways, Mudd is articulating what was largely left as subtext with the Dominion War. The Dominion War was a result of Federation expansionism, of the Alpha Quadrant powers reaching into the Gamma Quadrant and trying to stake a claim; building colonies and infrastructure, looking for natural resources and negotiating alliances.

Muddying the waters.

Mudd advocates for a sort of broad populism, for the little guy who has been left behind by the Federation’s neo-liberal expansion. “I’m not siding with anyone,” he insists. “But I sure as hell understand why the Klingons pushed back. Starfleet arrogance. Have you ever bothered to look out of your spaceships down at the little guys below? If you had, you’d realize that there’s a lot more of us down there than there are you up here. And we’re sick and tired of getting caught in your crossfire.”

It should be noted, of course, that Discovery has not endorsed this isolationist rhetoric. Although T’Kuvma and Mudd are allowed to make their cases, Discovery makes it very clear that these are not good people and that their isolationist rhetoric is self-serving nonsense. T’Kuvma sparks a war in order to unite the Klingon Empire. Mudd rationalises passing beatings on to innocent people for his own comfort. Both T’Kuvma and Mudd are horrible people who do not care about the harm that they inflict upon other people.

“I have been, and always shall be, your work colleague.”

(Similarly, Deep Space Nine was very careful to make it clear that the Dominion were unequivocally bad guys. The Dominion were a brutal and oppressive empire that genetically engineered slaves and were unwilling to accept the right of any political rival to exist. However, episodes like The Siege of AR-558 did allow Quark to make arguments about the Federation’s culpability in the conflict without endorsing them. Wars are complicated things, resulting from a variety of complicated factors. However, that does not mean that the Federation was never an existential threat to them.)

Indeed, the characterisation of Harry Mudd in Choose Your Pain feels very pointedly political. The production team working on Discovery have conceded that the series is quite explicitly rooted in contemporary American politics, in the push and pull between neo-liberalism and ethno-nationalism. With that in mind, it probably makes a great deal of sense that humanity’s primary proponent of isolationism and opponent of galactic globalisation should be a failed business man and con artist. (It helps that I, Mudd suggests that Harry Mudd has a misogynist streak.)

“Nothing naughty or inappropriate happens in my subplot.”

While Discovery is willing to criticise (and acknowledge the potential faults with) the Federation, the series never loses sight of the organisation’s virtues. It is very clear watching Choose Your Pain that Discovery believes in the utopian ideals of the Federation, in the belief that people are stronger together working towards common goals than they would ever be apart. (As a side note, the same is true of Deep Space Nine; for all that fans criticise Deep Space Nine as the most cynical of Star Trek series, it never loses sight of the optimism at the heart of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.)

Harry Mudd and the Klingons are established as diametrically opposed to the selfless Starfleet ideal. The Federation is about bringing people together, while the Klingon Empire is about keeping them apart. Even their prisons are designed to emphasise competition over cooperation. “They may look stupid, our Klingon hosts,” Mudd muses. “They’re anything but. They regularly give us the choice to choose our pain. We can accept the beating ourselves, or pass it on to our cellmates. It’s our captors’ way of keeping us from bonding.”

Burn(ham) her bridges.

The idea is to force individuals to priorities their own comfort and security ahead of the group. It goes without saying that this is antithetical to the idea of Starfleet and the Federation, which is built upon the principle that competent people working together can accomplish impossible things. As a prequel series, Discovery is built around the question of whether the Federation is still a viable ideal. Polling suggest that fewer and fewer people believe that the future will be better for future generations.

Indeed, the Federation is largely an extrapolation of the geopolitical order since the end of the Second World War, an order that increasingly finds itself subject to skepticism and attack. There is a sense that even the Star Trek franchise itself is no longer certain that its utopian future is even possible. Even beyond the nostalgic appeal of the familiar iconography, this uncertainty seems to suggest the pull of the prequel or the reboot to the Star Trek franchise. There are compelling questions to be asked about how mankind built their utopian future.

In like Mudd.

The final season of Enterprise suggested that utopian idealism could by a radical challenge to the established social order in The ForgeAwakening and Kir’Shara. The Federation itself was presented as a subversive idea in episodes like Babel One, United and The Aenar. Towards the end of that season, Enterprise it suggested various competing (and less utopian) futures for Earth in episodes like In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I, In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II, Demons and Terra Prime.

Even the JJ Abrams reboots seem genuinely uncertain about the sustainability of the franchise’s utopia. Star Trek Into Darkness wondered how the franchise might respond to the War on Terror. Star Trek Beyond questioned what happened to the soldiers that helped to build the Federation. Twenty-first century Star Trek has often struggled with the question of how the Federation could possibly exist, no longer able to take its existence for granted in the way that the original Star Trek or even The Next Generation had.

Still navigating by stars.

That anxiety simmers through into Discovery, with characters like Mudd and T’Kuvma presenting an existential challenge to the Federation. After Mudd outlines the point of the “choose your pain” game, Lorca notes, “You seem conspicuously free from bruises.” Mudd responds, “I’ve learned how to choose wisely.” Mudd is a coward and a liar. Mudd is a cheat and a con man. Mudd is selfish an unable to imagine a world outside his own experience. Much like Quark on Deep Space Nine, Mudd is perhaps closer to modern humanity than to the Federation ideal.

To be fair, Mudd is not the only person in the cell who falls short of that ideal. “Don’t judge,” Mudd admonishes Lorca. “You’re gonna wanna stick with me. I’m a survivor. Just like you.” Mudd reveals that Lorca effectively murdered his own crew, to protect them from Klingon torture. At the end of the episode, Lorca consigns Mudd to the same fate. It is a brutal and shocking choice. Even after Kruge murdered his son in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk made a token effort to safe the Klingon. After Nero attacked Earth in Star Trek, Kirk made a similar gesture.

“To be fair, that dick joke was totally worth it.”

Lorca is very clearly not an idealised Starfleet captain. He is a soldier, through and through. Indeed, Discovery has been quite conscious to stress that Lorca is not a man who belongs in the Star Trek universe, whether figuratively or literally. L’Rell muses on the irony of Lorca’s medical condition as a starship captain. “How strange space must look to you now, seen through those damaged eyes,” she reflects. “A cosmos full of agonizing light. Another creature might have slunk back into the darkness. But not you. You seek glory.”

Even the teaser makes it clear that Lorca is far from the ideal Starfleet officer. Cornwell seems to be genuinely worried about Lorca’s psychology. For his part, Lorca cannot resist the urge to raise even more red flags. “Are you uncomfortable with the power I’ve been given, Admiral?” Lorca taunts. Lorca very clearly has more in common with characters like Ronald Tracey or Garth of Izar than he does with Christopher Pike or James Tiberius Kirk. And that is an approach to a Star Trek captain, while also explaining why Jason Isaacs is not the series lead.

“One of these fellas ain’t who he says he is.”

It is no small irony that the most Starfleet of ideas comes from Ash Tyler. Tyler is the final series regular, played by actor Shazad Latif. It is also rather heavily suggested that Ash Tyler is not who he appears to be. As such, it is telling that it is Tyler rather than Lorca who masterminds the breakout by adhering to core Starfleet principles. First, Tyler selflessly takes the Klingon beating unto himself. Second, Tyler and Lorca work together to break out. “Getting out was always a two-man job,” Tyler reflects. Teamwork and collaboration. Tyler is more Starfleet than Lorca or Mudd.

Choose Your Pain quite heavily hints at the possibility that Ash Tyler might actually be Voq. After all, Voq was last seen at the end of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry rescued by L’Rell from the remains of the Shenzhou. He had been buried in “the grave of [his] enemy”, surrounded by nothing but Federation archives and resources. His final scene in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry found Voq reading the crew manifest of the Shenzhou. It seems likely he had access to similar databases on other ships.

On the other hand, L’Rell will probably be able to find a good plastic surgeon.

L’Rell promised that House Mokai had the means to help Voq win the war against the Federation. Earlier in that same episode, L’Rell had explained that House Mokai was built on deception and lies. When Lorca compliments her English in Choose Your Pain, L’Rell helpfully explains, “I’m descended from spies. Languages are useful, particularly when it comes to understanding those who seek to destroy the Klingon Empire.” When Voq asked at what cost House Mokai could assist him, L’Rell answered, “Everything.”

Given Voq’s battle cry of “remain Klingon!”, there would be something beautifully ironic about the character going undercover as a human. In The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, L’Rell pointed out that Voq had already compromised himself by consuming human flesh and trying to salvage Federation technology from the debris field. It seems like disguising himself as a human prisoner of war to infiltrate Discovery would be the perfect continuation of that character arc.

Giving it the hard cell.

All of this speculation is compounded by external details. Shazad Latif has been credited as a lead since The Vulcan Hello, despite the fact that Ash Tyler made his first appearance one third of the way through the season. Shazad Latif was first announced as playing a Klingon, who was described as “protégé of T’Kuvma.”  More than that, the role of Voq is credited to actor Javid Iqbal. Iqbal has no other credits to his name and has done no publicity for the series. These details all suggest a major twist.

Once again, it feels like Discovery is brushing up against the conventions of prestige television, of the changes in television storytelling since the end of Enterprise. These days, most high-profile television shows are expected to incorporate major twists and reversals. Much like sudden character deaths, these twists and reversals serve to hold the audience’s interest and keep them off-guard. They centre social media conversation around the show, and generate buzz. Discovery is at least hinting in that direction with this particular set-up.

This is very different from the way that Star Trek has traditionally approached big narrative twists. On Deep Space Nine, the writers would often make up their story as they were going rather than plot the arc in advance. The writers did not decide that Martok would be the changeling in Apocalypse Rising until they started writing the episode. Ronald D. Moore did not decided to kill off the character of Gowron in Tacking Into the Wind until Michael Piller gave him a note on his first draft. Alexander Siddig repeatedly complained about being blindsided by twists centred on Bashir.

As such, Discovery is attempting a very different kind of storytelling. These twists are a staple of twenty-first century genre television, dating back to Lost. Series like The Good Place and Westworld have popularised the idea of television puzzle boxes, suggesting that their narratives are riddles to be solved. However, this approach has its own risks and rewards. Most obviously, twists and reveals like this set up a competition between the audience and the series. However, the writing staff on Discovery is effectively competing against the entire internet.

“Shut the f$!k up Ash Tyler, with your made up name.”

As Alison Herman noted, the sheer volume and attention paid to a high-profile television show makes it very hard to conceal any secret in the medium- to long-term:

Westworld is part of an elite yet troubled class. They’ve captured the increasingly elusive zeitgeist, every Peak TV–era executive’s dream, and yet they’ve found it to be a mixed blessing. Often genre, always story-centric, shows like Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones, Westworld, and their shared ancestor Lost face enormous pressure, partially self-inflicted, to deliver jaw-dropping twists and stay one step ahead of an ever-savvier audience in order to pull them off. As Westworld’s shown, they can’t always. We’re currently living in a paradoxical TV moment: “Spoilers” are considered sacrosanct, and yet we do our damnedest to figure out what they are. We rush to do the Wikipedia Test — and then to check Reddit, and the recap, and the podcast. Preserving a pop culture property’s sanctity and plumbing its depths are just two different ways of showing how much you care.

So how are shows shouldering the burden of that scrutiny, provided they’re lucky enough to earn it? Is rabid sleuthing an entertaining appendix to a show, or a distraction from it? Are we loving our TV to death?

It is certainly debatable whether these twists help or hinder television storytelling. That has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Starbaseless speculation.

In some respects, a weekly television series is not structure to support such narrative convolution. It works in film because the entire audience watches a film from beginning to end without any interruption for conversation. While the audience is able to process everything on screen and keeps pace with the story, they are not corroborating their own research with one another. In theory, every film viewer gets to experience a story from beginning to end without a pause for thought or consultation. Reflection and dissection happens in hindsight, rather than in the middle.

In contrast, traditional television is structured in such a way as to afford viewers a whole week of theorising and speculating and collating. There are one hundred and sixty seven hours between every episode of Discovery. There are also a lot of fans devoting lots of those hours to turning each episode over in their head. The internet is basically a gigantic supercomputer with incredible processing power that seems perfectly designed to solve twists buried in random Star Trek episodes. In some ways, the twist would work better if Discovery were a traditional streaming series.

The tooth is out there.

After all, as Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy acknowledged, the issue is not so much individuals “solving” the twist as the spread of these solutions across social media:

It wasn’t like there were surprises that we’re trying to keep from the audience consciously; we were trying to lead a path of breadcrumbs. We anticipated that a small group of the audience might discover it, that that will be part of the game that we were playing with these die-hard fans. What we didn’t anticipate was that they would go to social media and talk about it and they would get circulated so that it hit a wider base of people who have an online presence and pick that up.

This is something that would not have happened at the peak of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, but is part of the media landscape in which Discovery exists.

“You know, I’ve recently had an opening on my senior staff for somebody unscrupulous and angry?”

As with the deaths of Georgiou in Battle at the Binary Stars and of Landry in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, there is a sense that this is a result of the tension that exists within Discovery: “what does Star Trek look like in 2017?” It often feels like Discovery is attempting to emulate the conventions of prestige television storytelling, clumsily blending them with an older Star Trek aesthetic. There is a awkwardness to how Discovery employs these tropes, as if the audience is watching Star Trek learn new tricks. For a fifty-year old franchise, that is thrilling.

After all, a twist is not merely the twist. A big narrative reveal is nice, but that reveal can only work in the context of the story being told. There is a difference in the way that Christopher Nolan bakes the twists into movies like Memento and The Prestige as compared to the work of M. Night Shyamalan on movies like The Sixth Sense or The Village. Audiences will forgive awkward reveals and clumsy twists if they work in service of a broader narrative.

Here comes the science.

Still, while Discovery struggles with the subplots focusing on Lorca and Saru, it works quite on the third subplot focusing on the remainder of the primary cast. While Saru doubts his leadership and Lorca deals with Klingon torture, the rest of the ensemble devote their attention to the tardigrade. It is a plot that hinges on the crew working together as a team, as a cohesive unit; Michael Burnham, Paul Stamets, Hugh Culbur, Sylvia Tilly. Each of these four characters works together in order to figure a safer and more human way to navigate the fungal network.

In some ways, this is a logical extension of Burnham’s plot in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. In that episode, Burnham worked with Saru, Stamets and Tilly to figure out the mystery of the tardigrade. However, each of these characters worked in isolation with Burnham, sharing a scene or two in which they employed their special abilities or their special access. Choose Your Pain finds multiple combinations of the cast sharing the same physical space to solve crucial pseudo-scientific problems.

Warped priorities.

It is worth noting that Discovery has largely abandoned the idea of the briefing room as an essential set. Lorca is not a father to his men in the same way as Picard or Archer. Unlike The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, Discovery has largely avoided scenes in which the senior staff sit down together to hash out their problems in a constructive and professional manner. However, the scenes in engineering in Choose Your Pain come very close to capturing that core Star Trek tone.

Of course, the pseudo-science is all nonsense. The sequence is filled to the brim with nonsensical technobabble, exposition that is pretty much meaningless. The characters work through a science-fiction problem to its logical conclusion, with each member of the team offering some insight or advice. This pure Star Trek, in the same way that the clunky banter on the Shenzhou bridge in The Vulcan Hello was pure Star Trek. Unlike the awkward exposition in the Lorca or Saru subplots, this exposition feels like it belongs.

Indeed, Cadet Tilly is so excited at this quintessential Star Trek moment that she blurts out, “You guys, this is so f$!king cool.” This is notable as the first time that the f-word has been employed in the Star Trek franchise. It goes without saying that this has been somewhat divisive. After all, the Star Trek fandom is nothing if not conservative. This sort of swearing is divisive. Much like the deaths of Georgiou and Landry, or even the two-part disconnected pilot, Tilly’s use of the swear word is seen as an example of Discovery awkwardly trying to emulate the conventions of prestige television.

To be entirely fair, swearing has a long history within the Star Trek franchise. Kirk famously used the word “hell” at the end of The City on the Edge of Forever, which was strong language for prime-time television in the sixties. While Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home built jokes around the crew’s inability to swear, in large part as their status as refugees from television, the movie featured the franchise’s first use of the word “sh!t.” Data would use it again in Star Trek: Generations. Picard would occasionally exclaim “merde” in episodes like The Last Outpost or Elementary, Dear Data.

Swear trek.

All of this is to say that the Star Trek franchise has repeatedly established that swear words exist into the twenty-fourth century, so the use of that language in the twenty-third century is not incongruous. More than that, the use of the swear word in Choose Your Pain is very careful. To quote Gabriel Lorca, context is king. The word “f$!k” is not used in the subplot where Lorca is being tortured and it is not used in the subplot where Saru is trying to assert his authority. Instead, the swear word is used in the context of a scientific breakthrough.

Indeed, Tilly immediately apologises for her language, realising that it is inappropriate. Stamets turns to her and hesitates a beat. After all, Stamets has been fairly effectively established to this point as something of a wet blanket. Instead of berating Tilly, Stamets smiles. “No, cadet. It is f$!king cool.” It is a beautiful little moment. Indeed, ironically enough given the controversy over the moment, it represents the first time that this ensemble truly feels like a Star Trek ensemble, doing weird pseudo-science together with gleeful joy. It’s a moment that could work with Data and Geordi.

Anthony Rapp acknowledged as much in his discussion of the scene:

“We were aware of it, and we embraced it, and we had a blast with it,” he said. “These people just put their brains to work in a really tough way and they had a breakthrough. And I imagine there’s scientists in their labs who might do that any time. We didn’t drop the f-bomb in Star Trek by telling something to go f$!k themselves. It’s like we did it by saying ‘this is f$!king cool.’”

While the f-word might be a trapping of prestige television, it is employed in a very Star Trek way.

Indeed, that short scene might be Discovery‘s most successful integration of the trappings of prestige television with more traditional Star Trek storytelling. Of course, despite the controversy prompted by the f-word or by Lorca’s decision to leave Mudd behind, Choose Your Pain is the most traditional episode of the first season to date. It is an episode that is built around the narrative template established by Michael Piller in the third season of The Next Generation and carried across the next fifteen years through Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

Discovery is still in the process of figuring out what Star Trek should look like in 2017, but the answer seems to be “a lot like Star Trek.”

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