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 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?)
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.
Gabriel Lorca is like the Schrödinger’s Captain of Star Trek. Either he’s a well-intended military man who bends the rules for the greater good and has gone a little crazy because of traumatic events — or he’s an amoral self-server willing to sell you out and do who-knows-what-else to save his own ass. You can read the clues of "Lethe" both ways and come to either conclusion. The series seems agnostic on the character so far because it wants to shroud his motivations in mystery and play the long game.
Again, this can be frustrating. I don’t have to root for the guy to necessarily get something out of watching him. But I feel like I should at least know I have enough information to make some sort of moral judgment about his actions. But the series is vague and doesn’t seem to believe there’s merit in having the truth be in the details; instead, the mysteries are in the fog.
“Choose Your Pain” is an intriguing, entertaining, confusing, and frustrating hour that’s proving Discovery to be, at times, a maddeningly murky narrative engine that can work well moment to moment. This series operates in a very gray area. I’m not talking about gray morality (although there’s plenty of that for sure); I’m talking about gray narrative clarity. I’m doing my best to keep up with the characters’ motivations, but the vagueness and choppiness of the plot are not helping. Watching this show can be like walking on ground that shifts beneath your feet.
Is this show merely trying to keep me off guard, or is it kind of a mess? Characters’ actions can seem wildly inconsistent, perhaps because I previously read them wrong, or perhaps because the writing was done haphazardly by committee. Time will tell — unless, of course, it doesn’t. My comments from last week apply again here: I’m not sure if this series is just sloppy, or if they’re strategically hiding things so they can reveal more later. Maybe both. But that makes for a sometimes strange viewing experience.