Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary. Essentially if a gun appears in the first act of a play, then by the third act it will be fired. Lorca’s eyes are the gun in this episode of Star Trek: Discovery. As soon as we, the audience, are reminded that his eyes are damaged in the first few scenes of the story, you can be sure that his visual infirmity is going to be used against him once he has been taken prisoner by the Klingons. It is obvious and sloppy storytelling in an episode that is both brilliant and frustrating at the same time.
‘Choose Your Pain’ is split into two plot threads, Captain Lorca’s (Jason Isaacs) capture by Klingons and the Discovery’s attempt to rescue him while using the Spore Drive. There is an obvious conflict between these two plots. Lorca needs to be rescued, since he knows so much about the Spore Drive and Starfleet does not want that information to fall into Klingon hands. Discovery needs the Spore Drive in order to jump into enemy space fast and Ripper, the Tardigrade, is the only creature that can navigate by using the spores, but using the drive is slowly killing it. It is almost as if the writers set this up to cause conflict and the tension feels particularly forced in this episode.
But there is an advantage to Lorca being taken prisoner – it means we get more insight into his back story. He is the only survivor of the USS Buran and apparently destroyed the ship and all the crew to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. It does seem odd that a Captain would not go down with his ship and Lorca is obviously ashamed of the fact.
This is a lovely little nod to The Original Series, Lorca’s story being similar to that of Captain Matt Decker’s from the episode “The Doomsday Machine.” Lorca does not trust anyone, he even throws away the hand of friendship from Admiral Cornwell, but in the Klingon prison ship he starts to appear vulnerable for the first time and not without empathy; he winces with concern as Klingons beat fellow officers.
In this episode there are also some promising hints of character development in the surrounding crew and characters. Saru’s (Doug Jones) insecurity as a leader is explored, when he has to take command in Lorca’s absence. Saru’s desire to be a good captain leads him to make some genuine mistakes and to act out of character when insisting on continuing to use the Tardigrade to navigate the Spore Drive even after the animal has essentially shut down.
His argument with Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is genuinely painful to watch as both colleagues, who have the potential to be real friends, get increasingly contentious with each other, revealing the hurt and grief they both feel at the loss of Captain Georgiou. Their reconciliation at the end of the episode is a lovely scene and brings a neat close to the arc of their conflict.
Burnham herself is uncertain, although mostly in how to deal with her own emotions, which is a nice reference to her repressed and logical upbringing on Vulcan. She is heeding Georgiou’s advice in her holo-message from last week’s episode and trying to protect those around her, which in this instance is the Tardigrade. You only wish the writers had spent more time on the creature so we could really connect with it emotionally, but Ripper’s story has always been more about Burnham than the creature itself. She is going to do the right thing even if it is the difficult thing to do and even if it complicates the lives of those around her.
In essence, Burnham represents the true soul of what the Federation becomes in later Star Trek series. All the scenes so far point to Lorca becoming an eventual antagonist who needs to be removed to preserve the integrity of the Federation’s core mission and values and we are willing to bet a dozen Tribbles that Burnham will be the one to do it.
Elsewhere in the episode we learn Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) can swear while being adorably excited about science, Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz) are boyfriends and wear nifty matching pyjamas and all three characters prove to be more empathetic and likeable. This is what will make Discovery a truly great show – the writers creating characters that we will eventually be fully emotionally invested in.
As well as returning characters, we are introduced to two new characters. Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson) who was last seen in The Original Series and imprisoned Starfleet officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Mudd is definitely the more compelling of the two. This is a darker and more bitter Mudd, although no less devious than his 60’s version. His declaration that the Federation doesn’t care about ‘little people’ was one of the most interesting points of the entire episode. He throws back the famous ‘To Boldly Go’ line at Lorca with a sneer while addressing an issue that has always previously been overlooked in the Star Trek franchise – namely, how do people who don’t want to belong to Starfleet, who may not even want to travel into space, feel about the Federation and its exploratory mission?
‘Choose Your Pain’ does have some flaws. The pacing of the plot is very fast, we never get a breather or the chance to delve deeper into the character’s motivations, feelings and history. We get glimpses into the inner lives of the characters, but it feels like the viewer has to follow a few lines of dialogue to gather a sense of who the people on Discovery are and the episode leaves us hungry for more. The different themes within the episode are also never fully developed enough. ‘Choosing your own pain’ is an interesting idea and a potential moral dilemma for Lorca, but it is never really explored.
The weaknesses of Lorca, Burnham and Saru are exhibited in various scenes but could have been explored more fully over the course of several slower paced episodes rather than all being squashed into a single hour. The one theme that is continually being well explored throughout the show is what makes a good starship captain. Saru’s research into the list of decorated starship captains is a nice nod to Star Trek canon and the series is constantly asking us to assess what makes a good leader and which characters exhibit these qualities. Discovery is a ship full of competitive and ambitious people, who realistically are the types of personalities that Starfleet would attract, but the show asks us to question personal ambition and to compare it to the notion self-sacrifice.
There are some unsolved questions at the end of the episode. What does an Andorian tonsillectomy look like? Lorca taunts the female Klingon Captain about her desire for human men revealing that humans don’t possess the right amount of organs for a Klingon, does this mean Klingons possess reproductive organs we don’t? Why does the prison Klingon food look like Ryvita? Are we ever going to find out why Lieutenant Keyla Detmer has an ocular implant?
But the biggest question of the episode is reserved for the excellent and genuinely creepy ending. As Stamets finishes brushing his teeth and follows Culber into their bedroom, his reflection remains in the mirror. Is this the mirror universe? Or just a horrific side effect of injecting alien DNA into your body? Either way, it seems that Discovery may be heading down a dark path, we just hope it can slow down and take its time on the journey.
Star Trek: Discovery airs on Netflix in the UK on Mondays. Let us know what you think of the season!