Star Trek: Discovery S01E05 Recap: 'Choose Your Pain'

The most important part of this week's episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Choose Your Pain", and possibly of the show as a whole so far, comes within a soliloquy delivered by Rainn Wilson's Harry Mudd, making his debut on this episode and taking over for Roger C. Carmel from The Original Series. In what would turn out to be part of a ruse meant to feed information to his and Captain Lorca's Klingon captors, Mudd delivers a speech explaining to Lorca the true nature of the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. Mudd posits that the effervescent expansion of the Federation isn't viewed as keenly by outsiders as it is by those in Starfleet and those high up in the system. While they consider themselves to be peaceful and friendly, outsiders see them as dangerous, a frightening representation of an assimilated future. In fact, Mudd's specific word used to describe Starfleet is "arrogance."

That word, that description, couldn't be more astute in describing not only what Star Trek often winds up accidentally being, as well as, to be frank, some of its fan base, but also one of the key themes that this show seems to be tackling in a (so far) auspicious way. Star Trek has usually propounded a future in which humanity has ostensibly perfected itself. In their own words throughout five shows and about a dozen movies, they've advanced themselves beyond internal conflict, greed, and self-destructiveness. This is often viewed as a key tenet of Star Trek, establishing Gene Rodenberry's humanist vision of a positive and Utopian future. And in fact, Discovery's willingness to mess with this formula, to present flawed characters and a Federation at war has rubbed some fans the wrong way, the implication being that this somehow spits on the vision of its creator.

I've argued against this criticism tooth and nail. The way Discovery treats humanity is not only a little more realistic than the way Rodenberry did, it also meets the standards of storytelling in 2017, with even the most recent Star Trek that we've seen on TV before this show being drastically outdated. Rodenberry's vision and ideal isn't invalid, this is just somewhat different, taking an established idea, maintaining most of its core pillars, and in a sense turning it on its own head to question the very voracity of the thesis it's putting forward. Discovery's version of humanity has still done all the things that previous Starfleet captains have bragged about, it just suggests that parroting those ideals throughout the galaxy and insisting that those around them share in the same values is indeed, as Mudd puts it, arrogant.

For example, the main antagonists in this show, the Klingons, are a warmongering race who place their values in combat, victory and honour. Their culture wants to fight and views it as part of their perfect selves. To them, the Federation's values are foreign, and this is expressed very clearly in T'Kuvma's musings in the show's premiere. T'Kuvma warns against Stafleet's message of peace and is immediately proven right. There's a lot of subtext in presenting yourselves as the explorers when you're constantly adding to your Federation, encircling them and assimilating their culture. For a group like the Klingons, it may seem suffocating to have what you deem to be your individuality stripped of you. That's what leads to war. Not anything that Burnham tries to do. Her actions are, at best, questionable and in my opinion would have probably still led to war with the Klingons, but Sarek's point in giving her the details of the Vulcan encounter with the Klingons is that different people think differently, and that Federation groupthink might not be the best course of action for every situation. In fact it might be what leads them so frequently into confrontation.

Because if you think about it, as much as Rodenberry envisioned a peaceful future for humanity, they get into a lot of conflict. With other races like Klingons, Romulans, Borg, Cardassians, and many others with whom conflict is often the subject over the course of so many shows and movies; and even among each other, in people who have rejected Federation and Starfleet values and even on occasion where some may rightly or wrongly disagree with them. The point of this long-winded diatribe is simply that one of the unfortunate side effects of the vision that Star Trek fans hold so dearly is that it creates a vacuum in which we can't even discuss the merits of said vision. The very idea of humanity perfecting itself is banal when you think about it. How can anyone be perfect, and isn't suggesting that you have achieved it in and of itself a flaw?

Mudd himself is a bit of an asshole and, in this context, creating distractions in the form of pageantry in order to catch Lorca and his other fellow Stafleet co-prisoner off-guard so that they share information that his little scorpion buddy Stewart can then proceed to feed back to their captors, but he's an asshole with a point, and even a self-fulfilling prophecy, proving that humanity cannot claim to be perfect if people like him exist, and citing the reason for their existence to be how they reject the Federation's very definition of perfection.

So when someone says that Discovery isn't Star Trek because Starfleet officers shouldn't act the way the likes of Burnham or Saru or Stamets or Lorca do, I ask you why not? I also ponder if it's true that none of them across five shows ever did (because I can think of many examples of less than reputable Starfleet officers, one of which is even namedropped on this very episode). Burnham's actions may or may not have led to war. Her plan may or may not have been the right thing to do. Saru and the rest of the crew side-eyeing her may or may not be justified. The whole point is that this all presents depth to characters that previously had to find means other than flaws to be three-dimensional in other Star Trek shows. The reason why fans may have trouble accepting it is because it's clearly taking a while to fill in the edges with the story being presented as an arc. Elements of "Choose Your Pain" contextualize things said and done in the pilot, and that's a great strength for this show to have, even if it's harder to understand on a week-by-week basis.

"Choose Your Pain" makes the premiere episode of Discovery better in hindsight, and it also continues with some table setting as it introduces us to Mudd, who will, in his own words, factor into what happens next, as will the captain of the prison ship that Lorca comes across and winds up maiming. It solves the problem of the tortured mega-tardigrade, as Burnham and the gang wind up pushing it too far and eventually setting it free, but transferring the problem onto Stamets, who injects himself with tardigrade DNA in order to make a jump. It also gives us Saru as acting captain, and he eventually comes clean to Burnham about why he's been treating her the way he has since she came on the ship, and gives us a lot of time with Lorca on the Klingon prison ship.

This is easily the best episode of Discovery yet, and not only because of that one word uttered by a novelty character that led me to a diatribe none of you probably read. For many reasons, "Choose Your Pain" gets 9 space toothbrushes out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • Is the mirror image of Stamets a tease for the mirror universe episode?
  • Rainn Wilson is actually great as Harry Mudd, but the performer of the episode is hands down Doug Jones. His ability to make Saru emote in such subtle ways under all those prosthetics and CGI is insanely impressive.
  • Stamets' and the doctor's space toothbrushes are probably the best part of this episode, but I also liked how Saru looked up famous captains, allowing the show to name drop charactes like Robert April (from the Animated Series), Matthew Decker and Christopher Pike (from TOS) and Jonathan Archer (Enterprise).
  • The sassy computer when Saru creates a protocol to monitor his decision-making as acting captain: "Alternative solution: eliminate destructive element."
  • It took five episodes, but we finally got to hear a couple of f-bombs on this show. I'm sure the internet will love that.
  • "You haven't seen the last of Harcourt Fenton Mudd!"