Ah, the time loop episode. One of the oldest and most enjoyable staples of science-fiction storytelling, popularised in culture most by Groundhog Day (a film which has, essentially, become ‘verbed’). In tapping into this trope, Star Trek: Discovery embraces its Trek roots perhaps more than any other episode since, even with all the winks and nods to The Original Series and indeed beyond the show is chock full of. Indeed, this episode often most closely resembles The Next Generation’s ‘Cause and Effect’, which hung on the destruction of the Enterprise and a repeating set of circumstances the characters have to learn from and keep hold of, in order to correct what in that case was essentially a freak accident. In this case, it’s Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
It has to be said, Rainn Wilson has done a tremendous job bringing this Original Series character back to life and making him work for a show where he could have spectacularly failed. Discovery is starting to embrace a deeper level of light humour and humanity as the run continues, perhaps neatly paralleling the fact our protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is doing the same. The show began harder, colder, more of a darker, uphill struggle, but as Burnham begins to enjoy life on the Discovery, find her place amongst a new crew, the series by default is beginning to loosen a touch, free itself and recall even more old Trek in new clothes.
Hence why they get away with what is a rather silly storyline, all told, as Mudd manages to use ‘time crystals’ (which may seem straight out of Doctor Who, but its in many ways a call back to some elements of TOS, as you might imagine) to intentionally trap the Discovery in a time loop of his own making, attempting to learn the ship’s secrets to make a profit during these war-torn times. Even for an episode which flirts, at times, with being a touch knockabout, Mudd’s plan nonetheless connects back to the broader picture of the Klingon conflict playing in the background and gives the piece an extra layer of assumed threat, even if we never see the Klingons themselves.
The secret to why ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ (they do love their TOS style titles, don’t they?) works, though, is in the journey Burnham undertakes. There always needs to be a character who puts the pieces together in time loop stories; much like it was Data who ultimately provides the course correction in ‘Cause and Effect’, here its Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) who, thanks to his Tardigrade-infused weird mind bridging alternate timelines it seems (though fully expect this to make him a severe problem for the Discovery at some point), uses Burnham to help break the spell, and he does this in a very simple, illogical way: he gets her to make a connection.
Now to Burnham, of course, making a connection such as this to Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), seems a purely illogical way of resolving the situation, but herein lies the skill of the episode – it manages to make us engage with their potential romantic dynamic and further engender Burnham to us as a character, all while using the situation to resolve the narrative problem of the episode. That’s not easy, and nor is it done here lightly. By the conclusion, much as we’ve had plenty of humour with scenes such as Mudd killing Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) in a myriad amount of ways, plus a resolution straight out of 1967, we still feel like Burnham has gone on a journey.
If perhaps not quite the strongest episode yet, creatively, this week’s Discovery is by far my favourite. The show continues going from impulse to warp every week.
Star Trek Discovery airs on Netflix in the UK every Monday. Let us know what you think of the season.