At last, here’s the Discovery episode I’ve been waiting for all fall — something that feels exciting and compelling and goes a long way toward addressing many of my bigger questions about this series. (“Answering” might be too strong a word, as certain aspects remain open-ended and new questions are raised.) This is easily Discovery‘s best episode so far. It moves the plot forward significantly and resolves some notable points, and then presents a twist that hints at all kinds of possibilities (depending on how far they pursue the idea) — even though where we actually go from here remains to be seen.
The title for "Cupid’s Dagger" tells you a good deal of what you need to know about this episode. It’s in a long tradition of farcical comedies about people falling in love for reasons outside of their control, leading to broad silliness and embarrassment. Usually the question for a show like this is: Did I laugh or did I cringe? Maybe both?
Indeed, I saw this plot just earlier this year with Grimm‘s "Blind Love," which was a fun example of good-natured silliness as a humorous detour. It made me laugh, especially when a character fell in love with himself and sang into a mirror. That was a good twist. On the other hand, the cringe example that always immediately springs to mind is DS9‘s "Fascination," which was just an awful collision of characters rushing to the front of the line to embarrass themselves.
The biggest problem with Discovery is that too much of the larger narrative feels like a messy, contrived improvisation that suffers from the fact that entire scenes — possibly entire subplots — appear to be missing. Consider this episode, which benefits from some pretty decent character work for Saru — but also features a subplot involving the Klingons that is so fragmented and filled with inexplicable character actions that it sometimes borders on incoherence. Even the title — "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum," which translates to "If you want peace, prepare for war" — doesn’t really make sense given what’s actually happening in the episode. (The war has already been underway for months, so why are the writers being both pretentious and inaccurate?)
It seems fitting that the first script credited to Voyager alums Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis involves a Shuttle Crash [TM]. It’s a shuttle crash that, from the looks of it, should’ve left everyone aboard, with the possible exception of Isaac, quite dead. The tail end of the shuttle even breaks off, like the plane in Lost. This leaves our crash survivors separated from each other.
Specifically, this leaves Dr. Claire Finn separated from her two young sons (we learn here that she’s a single mother by choice), who are protected by Isaac, who must play the role of Dad to the two kids, Marcus and Ty (BJ Tanner and Kai Di’Nilo Wener), who — let’s be honest — are pretty damn annoying. (Yes, kids can be annoying. I know this. I have two of them. That doesn’t make it easier to watch annoying kids on TV.)
At the center of the very Trekkian time-loop plot of “Magic That Can Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is an intimate character story about pesky human emotions and what they mean to a character who was raised the Vulcan way. Michael Burnham has never been in love, and she has never admitted this fact to anyone — which is particularly notable in that she feels she needs to keep it a secret at all, as if it’s something that brings her embarrassment or shame.
That’s an intriguing personal wrinkle to a character with a Vulcan facade who struggles with inner emotional questions. (Indeed, I have often wondered in general how Vulcans process the feelings of “love” alongside their logical imperatives and their general — although not absolute — claim to eschew emotions. Clearly it falls somewhere on a range, but how does that work?) That these character beats play directly into the plot — where time is repeating Groundhog Day-style and our heroes must figure out a way to escape — is commendable.