Star Trek: Discovery recap: 'Choose Your Pain'
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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.
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As Lorca begins to bond with Tyler — who the Klingons captured during the Battle at the Binary Stars depicted in Discovery‘s premiere — Mudd sows tension. When Tyler offers Lorca a meager scrap of food, Mudd’s scorpion-like pet, Stuart, intercepts the nourishment and retrieves it for Mudd. (“Stuart has boundary issues,” Mudd jokes.) Then Mudd begins to indict the Federation’s stated objective of boldly going where no one has before. “What did you think would happen when you bumped into someone who didn’t want you in their front yard?” he asks, citing “Starfleet arrogance.”
“Have you ever bothered to look out of your spaceships down at the little guys below?” Mudd continues. “If you had, you’d realize 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.” The chunk of dialogue hints at Mudd’s allegiances — after Lorca is tortured by the Klingon captain, he realizes Mudd has used Stuart to spy for the Federation adversaries — but compels for larger reasons. It’s a useful window into the collateral victims of war, and also serves as a larger allegory about imperialism’s ills.
Mudd keeps up his efforts to drive a wedge between Tyler and Lorca, explaining to Tyler — and viewers — that Lorca lacks “decency” because he detonated his previous ship, the U.S.S. Buran, when it was ambushed by Klingons, and was the only survivor. Lorca counters by noting that he’d have rather blown it up than allow his crew to undergo death by torture as Klingon prisoners.
Mudd’s efforts ultimately backfire. When Klingon prison guards return and extend the “choose your pain” choice, Lorca chooses Tyler, who pretends to pass out and then helps the captured captain incapacitate the guards. “Getting out of here was always a two-man job,” Tyler tells Mudd, “I just waited until I found the right man.” Lorca and Tyler then escape as Mudd screams that they’ve haven’t seen the last of him.
Back aboard Discovery, Saru discovers that Burnham has continued to search for solutions to the tardigrade quandary, despite his instructions. He doesn’t react positively when Burnham shows him a hypospray she and the team have devised that contains tardigrade DNA and would enable a gene transfer to allow humans to act as surrogate tardigrades. “Eugenics experiments are forbidden,” Saru reminds her. Burnham pleads with Saru that she’s “not an enemy,” and Saru fires back: She’s not an enemy, but a “proven predator” who is behaving in the same manner that led to Georgiou’s death. The acting captain orders the spore drive back online and confines Burnham to quarters.
Her message has resonated with other Discovery officers, though. The ship takes another jump — and the tardigrade promptly shrivels, entering what Culber describes to Saru as a state of “extreme cryptobiosis.” Saru instructs Culber to rehydrate the creature, but Culber explains it isn’t that easy and, noting that Ripper might be sentient, says he “will not be party to murder.” Stamets says he’ll comply, though that commitment doesn’t exactly come to fruition.
Saru and the Discovery find a formation of five Klingon raiders flying through space. Using his ingrained prey instincts, Saru determines one of them is fleeing the other four; Lorca and Tyler are helming the vessel and the Discovery beams them out, then jumps away. But it’s not the tardigrade that facilitates the exit — it’s Stamets, who has taken Burnham’s hypospray and used himself as a surrogate. He’s unconscious and appears severely wounded, but quickly returns to life.
The falling action of the episode provides fascinating endpoints for two sets of characters. Saru visits Burnham in her quarters and rationalizes his disdainful behavior by saying he’s been angry and deeply jealous that he wasn’t able to serve as first officer under Georgiou. As a peace offering, Burnham gives Saru the telescope Georgiou left her in the previous episode; in turn, Saru instructs Burnham to “go save [Ripper’s] life.” Burnham follows the order and, along with Tilly, releases the tardigrade into space.
Meanwhile, viewers discover something about Stamets’ personal life. Ahead of Discovery‘s debut, news broke that Stamets would be the first openly gay character in a Star Trek iteration. The episode concludes in his personal quarters — along with Culber, the ship’s doctor. “One tends to worry when they’re doomed to love a brilliant but reckless maniac who’s willing to risk his life for glory,” Culber tells Stamets, as he treats his companion’s wounds from the s-drive jump earlier in the episode. Stamets, however, is still starry-eyed from the experience, describing it as “unspeakably beautiful” to finally witness the mycelia networks he’s devoted his life’s research to. “You may not care about you,” Culber notes, “but I do.”