If you've been sitting around waiting for Discovery to find a balance between classic Trek storytelling and its commitment to serialised storytelling with a single main character, than "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" is the best we've got so far.
All images: CBS
I will admit up front that I love a time loop episode. They're always good fodder for both comedy and drama, and even the most obvious and standard of jokes are usually fun enough if you care about the characters. That and the fact that I've been pretty clear on my affection for Stamets as a character meant that this episode was pretty much tailored for me. There were some pretty clear problems, still, but I overall enjoyed this episode way more than any other we've had thus far. I didn't even mind the hilariously on point personal log of Burnham's, where she just spoke the message of the episode out loud - even that bad bit of storytelling is a classic bit of Trek.
"Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" starts at some indeterminate time (I'm sure someone knows, but I've never been good at translating stardates to normal Earth time) after the last episode. Burnham and the Discovery have settled into a routine, with her in the official role as "specialist" offered to her by Lorca in last week's episode.
The tide of the war has turned in favour of the Federation, due to the work of the Discovery. Stamets' brand new DNA and navigational skills have made him act out in all sorts of extreme ways. He's very chipper and friendly these days. Burnham's log also hints that's she grown attracted to Tyler, which is just... going to be a disaster in a bad way when whatever's waiting to be revealed is revealed.
One hundred per cent no sarcasm: This is pretty close to my experience of how nerds party
The loop starts with a party - in which we find out that the future parties pretty much like the present, right down to one of the 400 variations of beer pong I bore witness to in university - which means that they get to set up the loop with a music cue from Wyclef Jean's "We Trying to Stay Alive". It's thematically a funny song title for this story and a less desperate reference than the Elon Musk one was a few weeks ago, but still, this stuff always ages poorly on Star Trek.
Anyway, after Tyler takes the time during this party to talk about everyone who died, I guess, he and Burnham are summoned to the bridge. They knock into Stamets on the way there, and we, uh, get a first-hand glimpse at just how the spore drive is altering Stamets:
On the bridge, the ship has run into another classic sci-fi trope: The space whale. This one, called a "jormungandr" (presumably after the Norse myth), is endangered and Starfleet regulations require that they bring it on board. That's when Harry Mudd shows up.
He escaped the Klingons, is quite rightfully pissed at Lorca for leaving him behind, and has decided to figure out the Discovery's secret and sell it to the Klingons in revenge. He has the ability to reset time, so he's looped 30 minutes of the Discovery, spending the loops figuring out how to hack the ship's systems, how to avoid security, and various parts of the spore drive. The only thing he's missing is, basically, Stamets.
At the same time, Stamets is Mudd's biggest problem. His time in the spore drive and with the magic tardigrade DNA means he lives outside the loop and remembers them happening. And his frustration with reliving the same 30 minutes over and over again has helped him regain some of his usual surliness. (One point I'm deeply curious about, which this episode only hints at, is how Stamets' boyfriend is coping with Stamets' clearly very exhausting personality swings. This has to be a strain.)
Stamets is coming to Burnham and Tyler to tell them about the loop, saying it all begins with the jormungandr. More importantly, he's decided Burnham is the key to stopping this because Tyler spent the most time locked up with Mudd and presumably has some knowledge they can use. At one point, Burnham says that Stamets told her that he tried just talking to Tyler, but Tyler wouldn't open up. But Burnham and Tyler like, like each other, so she can help him.
And this is where the structure of Discovery harms even this, its best episode. A more logical point of view character for this episode is Stamets, since he's the one who remembers the loops. We should see him fail to connect with Tyler, but instead we're told he doesn't. And not even by him, but by Burnham, because she's the lead, rather than this show being an ensemble that can easily move around points of view.
Similarly, Lorca, as the person Mudd hates most and the person who, up until now, has had the closest connection to Tyler, is the most obvious person for Stamets to try to talk to about what's going on. But this is Burnham's show, so it's Burnham who has to have a personal connection to everything. And so a love story that has not had enough time to develop has to be spelled out in words in this episode. It's a clumsy way to use Burnham's newfound emotions to screw her when Tyler is revealed to be a spy. I hate that, of all the clichés we're going with, we're going with the Spy Who Loved Me. Ugh. Gross. Not even the montage of Mudd killing Lorca makes me feel better.
OK, that's a lie. The stupid face Jason Isaacs commits to here is a treasure.
Anyway, Burnham's crappy socialising spells doom for Tyler opening up until Stamets - yes, Stamets - talks her through emotions. Him talking about how he met Culber is legitimately lovely and beautiful. Stamets and Saru are in a constant battle to be my favourite.
So Burnham figures out that Mudd has a time crystal device on his arm and a larger crystal in his ship, which is in the space whale. (Honestly, Mudd knowing that Starfleet regulations require bringing it aboard is some high-quality planning.) But Mudd kills Tyler, so Stamets, worn down by seeing everyone die and being the only person who remembers it, turns himself over to Mudd. Burnham wants him to reset time so she can save the ship and get Tyler undead, so she reveals who she is and how much the Klingons would pay for her and then commits suicide. Mudd resets the timeline, the crew works together to get around Mudd's commandeering of the ship, and instead of the Klingons showing up, it's Mudd's Stella - whom he never really loved as much as he did her dowry - and her arms-dealing, furious father who shows up.
This helps explain how Stella will turn from loving Mudd in Discovery:
To this being Mudd's prevailing image of her by the original series:
None of that explains how those two actresses are supposed to be only 10 to 12 years apart in age, however.
This kind of pulpy sci-fi plot, with an added theme about love and emotions, is right in the strike zone of Discovery. Do I think it might have been better if Burnham hadn't been the focus? Yes. There is a lot of talking instead of showing because Burnham has to be told everything instead of experiencing it herself. I also have no idea how Stamets knew what Burnham was planning in the penultimate loop, since he wasn't around for any of it and he's the only one who could have remembered.
But it was fun, it was overall unobjectionable, and we now have a new game called "Pick your favourite Stamets line":
- As days go, this is a weird one.
- (distracting Tilly) I just spotted the hottest guy over there and he's in a band.
- If I have to explain this again, I'm going to throw myself out an airlock.
- Dance with me. For science.
- (dancing with Burnham) Can you let me lead, please?
I'm going with "I just spotted the hottest guy over there and he's in a band." Anthony Rapp nailed the delivery on that one.
- Of all the loop variations, Lorca's "I don't give a damn. I still don't give a damn" about the jormungandr was a stand-out.
- Mudd's line "There are really so many ways to blow up this ship it's like a design flaw" was a bit of lampshade hanging on the premise that I enjoyed.
- "I've never been in love" is a weird secret to tell someone so that you'll believe them after you forget a conversation. I would have gone with something more like "I hated my foster brother's pet sehlat and was glad when it died" or something. Something more specific and less likely to be taken as a weird insult when it's blurted at me in the next loop.