- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND THE SAME OLD TIME SPAN AGAIN AND AGAIN …
Let’s do the time loop again!
OK, it’s not the time warp, and Dr. Frank n Furter is nowhere to be seen, but it is a staple of science fiction storytelling and happily, Star Trek: Discovery, in only its seventh episodic outing, absolutely nailed it.
In the perfect blend of arc and self-contained episode, bringing it more into line with likes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which expertly and often did the same blend of continuity and one-off over seven glorious seasons, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of Captain Lorca’s (Jason Isaacs) Klingon-despatching crew, got their Groundhog Day on.
Reliving the same thirty seconds over and over again – best count according to Memory Alpha is 56 times, making the whole experience a 28 hour ordeal (if you’re Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp), lark (if you’re Harcourt Fenton Mudd, played by Rainn Wilson, the man behind it all) or a non-event (pretty much all of the rest of the crew until near the end) – a select group of people had to race against time to save the Federation’s war-winning weapon from falling into the hands of the enemy.
Yes, using a time crystal, that look like a steroid-assisted Fit Bit on his wrist, Mudd sought to discover the secrets of the Spore Drive, the better to broker a deal with the Klingons, pocket a whole heap of cash and get far away from his “beloved Stella” (Katherine Barrell), who it turned out was not so beloved after all.
But as is the way with these things, someone twigged that things were chronologically awry – that would one Mr Stamets who, courtesy of being plugged into the Spore Drive and existing outside of normal space/time (and getting giddily punch drunk at the same time much to his partner, Dr Hugh Culber’s (Wilson Cruz) amusement), saw stuff no one else did.
Lucky for the crew of the Discovery!
What saved “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” from being just another time loop episode where the same events replay ad infinitum until one person works out what’s going on, convinces another it’s really happening and so on ’til the spell is broken, was some expert writing and nicely-nuanced acting, particularly courtesy of Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp and Rainn Wilson.
Wilson, in particular gave us a Mudd, who was portrayed in the original series by Roger C. Carmel, who was both devilishly larkable, and brutally serious, a man who happily quipped about the number of times he’d killed Lorca, who he was angry with for leaving him behind in a Klingon prison (see “Choose Your Pain”) and yet despatched Discovery crew members with the same cold passion you might bring to squashing cockroaches under foot.
Giddily cavorting around the ship, enamoured with nothing but his own cruelly selfish ends – you could call him a playful psychopath, all fun and nightmare rolled into one nasty package – he toyed with any attempt to get a handle on the situation by changing how and when and where he killed Lorca, where he met the crew for the first time and what he was seeking to do.
Partly that was influenced by the fact that he was trying everything he could to crack the secret of the Spore Drive before the 30 minutes was up and Discovery exploded once again, but it was also, I suspect, to keep Stamets, Burnham and the dreamy Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) on their toes, from guessing what he was up to.
He didn’t know they twigged of course until near the end but he must have suspected someone would eventually so he could switching and changing and mixing it up, keeping everyone trying to guess how in the cosmos they could possibly stop him.
Stop him they do, and in a most amusing and Star Trekky of ways, but the getting there is a hoot in an episode that references the ongoing war – at a party that kicks “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” off, with music by Al Green and the Bee Gees among others (“Staying Alive” featured; get it? Get it? Of course you do) they drink in honour of the 10,000 dead so far, while acknowledging that the death toll would’ve been way higher without the Discovery – and does some neat character development along the way.
Principally that involves the sweetly simmering romance of Burnham and Tyler.
Burnham god bless her, who tells Stamets that she’s never in love so he has a way to convince they’ve talked about the time loop before thus cutting down on valuable convincing time (30 minutes really isn’t that long people!), has no idea that she’s been kinda sorta unofficially dating Tyler who likes, I mean really likes her.
During the multiple renditions of the time loop (which featured a space whale called a Gormagander; yes really), none of which really repeated each too much with the perspective changing all the time, Burnham, tutored by Stamets who gave the backstory to his and Culber’s romance which involved rudeness and honesty to Michael’s surprise, learnt to dance, talk to (well sort of; her small talk remains, and she admits this, AWFUL) and yes kiss the debonair Lt Tyler.
Granted they spend most of their time trying to stop Mudd and save the ship, which is as it should be, but along the way, the fires of romance were stoked, which was very “awwwww”-inducing but also highly amusing as Vulcan-raised Burnham grappled with the messiness of human love.
They didn’t end up as a couple by the end of it but they are well on their way, giving the Star Trek: Discovery writers plenty of narrative ammunition in the episodes to come.
“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” was, quite possibly, the best episode of the franchise’s newest iteration to date, seamlessly moving the arc story along while delivering a neat, one-off storytelling bundle of fun and tension and good old-fashioned romance.
Drawing its title no doubt from Arthur C. Clarke’s iconic observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (one of his three basic laws), “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is proof positive that not only are the show’s producers and writers absolutely and definitely finding their feet, they are well-placed and thoroughly adept at delivering the Trek we love while pushing the boundaries out in darker and grittier ways which, when you think about it, is exactly what the franchise has always been about.
- Behold another episode, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”, awaits us with more sparkly blue alien life forms and Saru getting high on life …