Prior to its premiere, the team behind Star Trek: Discovery indicated to EW that the show would take some creative liberties — both in story format and content — that weren’t feasible for previous, network-TV-bound iterations of the franchise. With its serialized format, the CBS All Access sci-fi drama has already taken advantage of its platform in some ways. With Sunday’s fifth episode, “Choose Your Pain,” Discovery continued to loosen up, albeit in small ways.
Like last week’s “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” Sunday’s Discovery installment benefitted from the dense exposition that defined the first episodes of the series. Now that the show has introduced key players and themes, episodes can revolve around characters and smaller-scale stories.
In “Choose Your Pain,” Discovery‘s crew grappled once again with the ethical ramifications of using the tardigrade — a creature introduced properly last week — to power the ship’s cutting-edge spore drive. (Characters now seem to conveniently label the technology an “s-drive.”) A massively enlarged version of a versatile, Earth-native microorganism, the enormous tardigrade, bestowed with the nickname “Ripper,” taps into a “mycelial network” of fungal roots spanning across the universe — the scientific explanations on Discovery can get a little mealy-mouthed — allowing the Discovery to jump anywhere in space instantaneously. The catch? As becomes increasingly evident in “Choose Your Pain,” each jump exacts a heavy toll on Ripper.
The episode begins with examinations of the relationships between two primary Discovery characters and Ripper. First, we see a jarring nightmare sequence where Burnham stands by in the engineering bay, watching Ripper as it undergoes significant physical trauma during a jump. Subsequently, we observe a meeting between Lorca and some of his Starfleet superiors. Admiral Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brook), who in last week’s episode spurred the Discovery to begin using its s-drive technology in the Klingon conflict, urges Lorca to use the tardigrade sparingly. The Klingons may be onto the Federation’s secret weapon, she cautions, and besides, why tax Starfleet’s “prime asset”? Focus on obtaining more tardigrades in order to duplicate the technology, she instructs.
In private, Cornwell carries another stern message for Lorca. Having Burnham — Starfleet’s only convicted mutineer — aboard the Discovery harms morale. “Why give everyone another reason to judge you?” she asks. Lorca initially responds by citing a Starfleet regulation (139-82, for those keeping track at home) that allows captains to conscript civilians during wartime. But when pressed, he has a starker answer. “It’s my ship,” he says at the scene’s conclusion. “My way.”
The Discovery may be Lorca’s ship, but he doesn’t make it back to the vessel after his meeting with the Starfleet brass. (“Choose Your Pain” frustratingly fails to explain where this meeting was taking place and why it wasn’t occurring on Discovery.) His shuttle back to Discovery is intercepted by a Klingon battle cruiser; Klingons board, killing Lorca’s pilot companion and taking the captain himself hostage.
Back aboard Discovery, Lorca’s capture heightens tensions in multiple ways. Cornwell delivers the message to the bridge the capture appears to have been targeted — her theory that the Klingons have identified Discovery as the Federation’s secret weapon now seems prescient. Saru, now acting as captain, decides that the ship will need to take multiple jumps in quick succession to determine Lorca’s whereabouts. Burnham’s concerned. “The more you hurt someone, the less helpful they become,” she warns her former Shenzhou colleague. Considering their icy relationship since Burnham’s mutiny, Saru declines her advice and tells her to drop the issue.
Unsurprisingly, Burnham ignores the instructions. Earlier in the episode, she had enlisted Culber — the colorful doctor who debuted on last week’s episode — to ascertain the precise biological effects of s-drive jumps on Ripper’s brain. In engineering, the pair tells Stamets that they’ve concluded each jump causes the creature’s brain to deteriorate further. Stamets is cagey about exactly who’s responsible for the situation they now find themselves in — “You say portabella, I say portabello,” he quips when Burnham suggests it wasn’t her idea to use the tardigrade — but they arrive at a consensus that action is necessary.
Stamets and Burnham next discuss the tardigrade issue with Tilly. The chief engineer goes on an extended scientific soliloquy that essentially amounts to the following: The tardigrade can integrate foreign DNA (in this case, from the prototaxites stellaviatori mushroom) to travel the mycelial network, and Stamets and his colleagues need to determine a way to simulate a tardigrade’s DNA grafting in a creature that’s willing and understands the process. “You guys,” Tilly says in a moment definitely not suited for network television, “this is so f—ing cool.” She apologizes, but Stamets placates her: “No, cadet. It is f—ing cool.”
As Discovery’s officers continue their “f—ing cool” science experiment, Lorca’s situation has gone from bad to worse. Upon his transfer to a Klingon prison vessel, he meets Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson). Wilson’s character — Harry, for short — revives some of the old-fashioned zaniness that defined Star Trek iterations of yore. Mudd explains that, after purchasing a moon for his lover and falling behind on his payments, creditors chased him into Klingon territory and he was captured. “The only crime I’m guilty of is loving too much,” he laments to Lorca.
Wilson’s acting predictably stands out, but his character’s presence is refreshing in and of itself. After focusing on the two sides of a military conflict in previous episodes, Discovery‘s introduction of a more roguish presence in “Choose Your Pain” helps. Mudd isn’t quite so enjoyable for Lorca, though. Klingons enter the cell and brutally beat a third prisoner, Starfleet Lt. Ash Tyler, and Mudd shrugs it off. The Klingons order prisoners to “choose your pain,” he explains — to take a beating upon themselves or defer it to fellow prisoners — in order to prevent bonding. “You look conspicuously free of bruises,” Lorca retorts.
(Recap continues on page 2)