When Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is captured by the Klingons, Commander Saru (Doug Jones) commands the USS Discovery in a rescue attempt. Using the Tardigrade’s space-jumping powers is critical to the mission – but Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is convinced that with every jump the creature is moving closer to death.
Now that we are five episodes into the series, it is becoming easier to predict how Star Trek: Discovery is going to play out on an episode-by-episode basis. “Choose Your Pain” appears to be the series in a nutshell: a dark aesthetic and emotional tone, comparatively graphic violence and coarse language for Star Trek, morally compromised characters and a cavalier attitude to the franchise continuity into which the series’ creators deliberately boxed themselves. It is enjoyable in fits and starts, but is – much like the series overall – a red-hot mess of highly variable quality.
Somewhere nestled into the core of the episode is a very Star Trek concept: the alien Tardigrade used to power the Discovery’s weird spore-powered engine is wracked with pain every time it is exploited, and Burnham is growing rapidly convinced that it is a sentient creature. Releasing it from captivity and finding another method of powering the drive is a very traditional sort of Star Trek storyline. Also on familiar ground is Captain Lorca’s experience on the Klingon spaceship; pretty much every space captain in the franchise has done their ‘space prison’ episode, so in a way it’s nice to see Lorca get his out of the way early.
On the Klingon ship he meets a human trader named Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and a Starfleet officer named Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Tyler feels relatively inoffensive and by-the-numbers at this stage. Mudd of course is a famous guest character from the original Star Trek, played in two live-action episodes by Roger C. Carmel. He was played for laughs back in the 1960s; here he is an embittered Klingon collaborator with a decidedly unpleasant sense about him. Like the rest of the series, he’s been dragged down into the grim pit of the Federation-Klingon war.
That, to me, is one of Discovery’s key problems. There is always going to be a debate about whether Star Trek is a setting or a genre. I find myself leaning towards the latter. You can find grim and unpleasant science fiction elsewhere, but Star Trek was established and went along merrily for decades as pretty much the epitome of Utopian fiction. There was conflict, but the characters were good-hearted. There were difficult choices from time to time, but the various Starfleet officers ultimately wound up making the right decisions. Discovery features a former mutineer for a protagonist, working for a captain who murdered his entire former crew rather than have them be captured by the Klingons, whose first officer deliberately orders the torture of a sentient creature to complete a mission. Klingon crack human skulls beneath their boots. People get stabbed. The Discovery’s security chief got graphically mauled to death. ‘This fucking rocks,’ explains Ensign Tilly in this week’s episode.
I don’t think it rocks. To be honest, I don’t really think it’s Star Trek. There is visible talent involved in making the series. Much of the design work is great, and the actors are all giving one hundred per cent, but it is all in service of what seems more and more to be a fundamentally wrong-headed vision of what Star Trek is supposed to be.