The Good: Basic ethical dilemma, Saru's character, Most of the performances
The Bad: "Flashy" aspects fall flat, Poor continuity with the franchise, Redefining Harry Mudd works poorly.
The Basics: Star Trek: Discovery returns Harry Mudd to the franchise in "Choose Your Pain," which might be the best episode of the season so far, but it is still almost entirely unwatchable.
One of the inherent issues with creating a prequel to a work that has been analyzed and built upon is that there is the danger of creating something that is either derivative or illustrates a complete lack of understanding of the original source material. When the casting announcements were leaked last summer for Star Trek: Discovery, one of the two notable characters who were slated to appear in the show was Harry Mudd, this time played by Rainn Wilson. The use of Harry Mudd is not the worst choice for a character from Star Trek to appear in a prequel series, but the moment the first promos dropped for "Choose Your Pain" - the first episode with Harry Mudd in it - it was hard not to cringe.
For those unfamiliar with him, Harcourt Fenton Mudd III was a con man who appeared in two episodes of the original Star Trek. He was the last refuge of the privateers - old-style humans who were concerned with profit above all else. Harry Mudd was a buffoon whose planned "big score" was to make money marrying off women to desperate miners before they ran out of a drug that made the women look beautiful. It's a pretty low-level con and the con man was something of an idiot who was always in over his head.
"Choose Your Pain" follows on the events of "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not For The Lamb's Cry" (reviewed here!), which saw the spore displacement drive used effectively when Michael Burnham figured out that the alien life form recovered from the U.S.S. Glenn was essentially a navigator. The U.S.S. Discovery was then able to rescue a dilithium processing facility from destruction.
Michael Burnham has a nightmare about the new spore drive and she turns to Dr. Culber for aid in keeping the navigator healthy. Captain Lorca has a meeting where the Discovery is ordered to participate in fewer military incursions against the Klingons while the rest of the fleet develops the spore drive and finds navigators for their ships. Lorca is captured in a shuttlecraft by a Klingon ship. While Saru adapts to being in command of the Discovery in order to locate and rescue Lorca, Burnham crusades on behalf of the Tardigrade.
Lorca awakens in a Klingon cell with the civilian Harry Mudd. When a Klingon enters the cell and offers Mudd a choice, Mudd chooses another person in the cell and that person is beaten to death. Burnham and Culber convince Stamets that using the Tardigrade is unethical, but Saru is willing to take the responsibility and he orders another jump. Lorca and Tyler, another captive, manage to escape the Klingon cell, while the Discovery works to find Lorca while the Tardigrade is in hibernation.
The only real joy in "Choose Your Pain" comes from Saru's scenes. In addition to allowing for a moment of geek out for fans of Star Trek when all of the best StarFleet Captains are listed, Saru is presented in a way that makes him appear to be a well-developed character. Saru feels jealousy for Burnham's place in their former Captain's life, but he clearly wants to succeed as First Officer. Saru has a sense of ethics that he is trying to balance with his sense of duty and that conflict is well-developed in "Choose Your Pain."
Alas, Saru is essentially the b-plot in "Choose Your Pain." In the a-plot, Lorca is fleshed out as a Captain who destroyed his own ship so its crew could not be captured by the Klingons and the bigger gimmick in the episode than Harry Mudd's return is the fact that StarFleet officers say "fuck" twice in ten seconds. Wow, edgy. "Choose Your Pain" features "fuck" and people getting beaten to death and it's like the writers and director Lee Rose are hoping viewers won't question how a starving human who just had the piss beaten out of him can snap the neck of a Klingon.
"Choose Your Pain" makes a pretty explicit reference to the rest of the Star Trek franchise by including key names of prior characters. The episode lacks any consistent sense of ethics to indicate that the show and its characters are tied to those venerable Captains. While Captain Kirk once left Harry Mudd stranded, Mudd was not in mortal danger when he did. The spectacle of Klingon weapons that puff the victims out of existence and dramatic escapes overcome the moments of theme wherein characters actually take moral stances.
The performances in "Choose Your Pain" are fine, but only Doug Jones truly presents a character with real emotional complexity. Anthony Rapp is fine as Stamets, but he telegraphs the big moments for the character and his lines are revealing enough to leave seasoned viewers unsurprised by his character's actions. It is unclear whether actress Mary Wiseman is terrible or the material she is being given is horrible, but Cadet Tilly continues to be presented in a way that makes her feel entirely out of place on the Discovery, as well as in the Star Trek universe. Tilly is socially awkward and incredibly immature and one suspects that the writer's room for Star Trek: Discovery was tossing around having an autistic character or wanted to create their own Sheldon Cooper. Either way, Tilly does not measure up and in "Choose Your Pain," she is distractingly incongruent with the rest of the crew.
Ultimately, "Choose Your Pain" lives down to the fears one might have for Star Trek: Discovery. The most successful aspects of the episode involve a character unique to this series grappling with a compelling ethical dilemma in a way that is not easily solved. But much of the rest of the episode features the flash and the bang and bears the uncomfortable feeling that a number of creative people are playing in someone else's sandbox without anything substantive to contribute.
For other episodes with Harry Mudd, please visit my reviews of:
Check out how this episode stacks up against other Star Trek episode, movie, and seasons by visiting my Star Trek Review Index Page for a listing from best to worst!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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