This blogpost is focused on looking at how Choose Your Pain, the fifth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and the fourth here.
Sometimes Down is Up
For the third time in five episodes we begin by viewing things from an unusual perspective, in this case a dream sequence in the halls of Discovery. (The Vulcan Hello begins by moving through a star cluster and through T’Kuvma’s eye; The Butcher’s Knife begins inside a replicator.) Approaching the familiar from odd angles and re-examining what we thought we knew appears to be a key theme for the show.
For example, Discovery draws on Lower Decks, the TNG episode which followed junior officers rather than the senior crew. After three episodes on Discovery we know very little about Airiam, (the android or cyborg who seems to be Discovery’s second officer) and Culber refers in this episode to “the CMO” implying that he is not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Normally all of the senior crew would be introduced in the opening episode, and be the focus of the show.
Similarly, it’s unusual to get the viewpoint of a non-Starfleet Human who’s expressedly against the actions of Starfleet. From across the whole franchise I can only think of Harry Mudd, Carol and David Marcus, Joseph Sisko, and you could arguably include Michael Eddington and Mortimer Harren on that list. Breakthroughs in science and diplomacy often require a shift in perspective, such as Stamets’ observation that (in Star Trek science) physics and biology are fundamentally the same. Discovery appears to be encouraging the viewer to look at the familiar from a fresh angle.
There are Three Lights
When tortured Lorca is blinded by three lights. It’s probably a nod to the TNG episode Chain of Command, in which Picard is captured and shown four lights, with the instruction to believe that there are five. It’s an episode that has reached outside of Star Trek, becoming a popular meme. The episode has been cited as an iconic representation of the futility of torture, in an article written seventeen years after the episode was aired. In that episode Picard doesn’t have the information that his torturer wants, but when this becomes apparent breaking his will becomes Gul Madred’s aim in itself, rather than a means to an end, bringing out the darker side in the practitioner as well as victim.
Choose Your Pain doesn’t delve into this morality, but we may see consequences later in the series. We’re told that Ash Tyler, introduced in this episode, has been in the Klingon prison for seven months. Unless I’ve missed something I don’t think we know how Lorca’s eyes were damaged or how he was able to escape the destruction of his previous ship – perhaps he had been captured by the Klingons at the time?
As well as Picard, Julian Bashir spent more than a month in a Dominion prison, and O’Brien was implanted with twenty years worth of memories of time in prison. In O’Brien’s case the focus of an episode was how the experience traumatised him, but I don’t think that his experiences were revisited after the end of that episode. Discovery‘s serialised format could allow the show to delve deeper into the effects of trauma.
Choose Your Name
I’ve previously mentioned the similarity between ‘Context is For Kings’ and the name of the TOS episode in which Kodos appeared, and there’s a similar effect with this week’s title. When I saw the title I had expected either Sybok or a member of his faith to make an appearance – as the son of Sarek, it’s likely that Burnham would know him.
The Final Frontier is a not-particularly good film with a great idea at the centre – that our pain is what drives us forward, encourages us to make the world around us better. We learn, for instance, that McCoy has been tormented by euthanising his father shortly before a cure for his disease was found. In that film Sybok – Spock’s half-brother – leads a cult which somehow removes the pain people feel, leading them to fall in line behind Sybok, becoming too readily accepting of what they’re told. Lorca’s “You choose your own pain. Mine helps me remember.” is reminiscent of Kirk’s “I need my pain” when rejecting Sybok. It’s easy to argue that Discovery isn’t true to the spirit of Star Trek because of the darker tone, but it’s engaging with the same themes.
In the prison cell Harry Mudd makes an interesting critique of Starfleet’s philosophy. He attacks “Starfleet arrogance” and claims that Federation civilians are “sick and tired of getting caught in your crossfire”.
It’s an argument that has merit. 113 years after this speech, Starfleet will discover a stable wormhole to the other side of the galaxy… and right into Dominion space. The opportunity to explore is seized eagerly, but this leads to a war which involves the key Federation world of Betazed falling under Dominion occupation, and presumably millions of Federation lives being lost. Given the totalitarian nature of the Dominion a conflict with them would be inevitable, but perhaps it could have been better managed. Perhaps rather than boldly going where no-one has gone before, Starfleet should cautiously go, being mindful of potential consequences.
I prefer the potential that this storytelling approach has – with moral lessons learned through self-examination and humble introspection – to the more traditional Star Trek method of encountering less advanced cultures and sharing wisdom with them, which has heavy overtones of imperialism.
An io9 article has argued that the show has “lost its soul” because of Lorca’s decision to leave Mudd behind in the prison cell, going so far as to lock an open door. This was a bad choice by Lorca, morally and tactically. Morally, given that Starfleet serves the role of a military, Lorca has a duty to protect Federation citizens like Mudd, even if he dislikes them. Tactically, Mudd could be useful if taken back to the Federation, helping share information on Klingon prisons and prepare officers to withstand torture. Being left where he is, Mudd is a useful tool for the Klingons to spy on future prisoners. That doesn’t necessitate forgiving Mudd – he could be interrogated from inside a prison cell, if his collaboration amounts to treason.
My feeling is that Discovery is a classic TOS story, told from a different perspective. In TOS we see Dr Tristan Adams treat criminals by brainwashing them; Captain Ron Tracey moulds a primitive society into obeying him; and Dr Richard Daystrom is blinded by ambition to the destruction his M-5 computer is causing. We know that there will be Federation citizens in this era whose ambition causes them to lose their way morally. With Lorca we’ve got a closer view, rather than seeing the aftermath. Rather than being told that Humanity have grown, in Discovery we seem to be seeing the process in action. Inevitably, part of that period of growth will be ugly.
The Search for Voq (possible spoiler)
When we last saw Voq in the previous episode L’Rell offered to take him to the “matriarchs” on “the home of the Mokai” to “strategise on a grander scale”, but that he would have to give up “everything”. We hear in this episode that Discovery has been striking at Klingon targets for three weeks and there’s mention of the war being seven months old, so it’ll be somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks since the previous episode. (In Butcher’s Knife Voq mentioned that the Battle at the Binary Stars happened six months earlier, so Voq and L’Rell’s scenes are pretty much in sync with Discovery’s.)
I’ve tried to limit the contents of these blogposts to what’s shown on screen, but there’s a rumour that’s been mentioned on messageboards and Twitter that’s rooted in casting news. The name of the actor playing Voq was initially not announced, and very little is known about the actor who’s now been credited. This has led many fans to speculate that Voq is played by the same actor who plays Ash Tyler… and that Tyler actually is Voq, planning to infiltrate Discovery’s crew.
I can see two possible methods for Voq to become Tyler – he could be surgically “altered to look Human” as Arne Darvin will be, or he could have swapped bodies, as Dr Janice Lester will with Kirk. I’ve said previously that the Beacon of Kahless seems advanced enough to be ancient technology the Klingons have control of, which is a recurring Trek trope. If Tyler is Voq then Tyler’s rage-fueled attack on L’Rell suggests a mindswap, but with the minds of Voq and Tyler not as cleanly swapped as Lester and Kirk.
But I’ve heard a much more interesting theory via Heather Rae on Twitter – that Tyler is the victim of sexual abuse by L’Rell. Initial promotional interviews defined Tyler as a prisoner of war, which becomes irrelevant if Ash Tyler isn’t really Ash Tyler. Sexual abuse would explain why Tyler launched himself so furiously at L’Rell, and why he’s in relatively decent physical shape after seven months imprisonment. It didn’t occur to me on the initial viewing that Tyler could have been raped, which I think is a result of sexual assault being viewed as a male problem, rather than a balance of power problem. L’Rell’s dialogue with Lorca when he was being tortured suggests a sexualised edge to her experience as a torturer.
The use of rape as a weapon of war is rarely addressed in fiction. Star Trek has softly hinted at this – as Duncan Barrett points out, during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor they took “comfort women”, a real life euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery by an occupying army. Despite this Gul Dukat, the head of the Cardassian occupation who took Major Kira’s mother as one of his personal comfort women, is often positioned as a sympathetic character. This is despite the fact he oversaw systematic abuses far worse than Harvey Weinstein’s. It’d be incredibly bold for Star Trek to address this unpleasant issue, far bolder than I had dared dream Discovery would be. It’s not that I want Star Trek to be dark for the sake of being dark, but I’d love for the show to fully examine the potential darkness of the universe, and use that to show the wisdom of following the moral path. Classic Star Trek, but with the jagged edges on display.
Voq’s absence from the episode is notable, but maybe we’re meant to think that Voq is Tyler. Maybe information on the actor playing Voq is being withheld to mislead the audience. It’s hard to see the tactical benefit to Voq personally acting as a spy on Discovery. Assigning an underling to do so would make sense, but I can’t see the benefit in doing so himself. Taking the place of another powerful Klingon, however, would make sense, and would fit L’Rell’s enigmatic statement that Voq would need to give up “everything”. Think how great a twist it’d be if Kor, leader of Kol’s house, shows up in his original TOS appearance, only to be forced into a bodyswap with Voq.
The Moral Dilemma
While Lorca, Tyler and Mudd are imprisoned, the other plot focuses on the dilemma of how Discovery treats Ripper (referred to in this episode as “the creature” and “the tardigrade”). In the previous blog I mentioned the similarity between Ripper and the Horta in Devil in the Dark, with the key difference here being the lack of telepathic communication. Without a clear line of communication Ripper can’t consent to its use in the spore drive, or help devise a method that uses its abilities with less pain. It’s good to see that, even in the midst of a war, Burnham and Culber have a problem with the mistreatment of Ripper, even when the process seems sustainable. It’s the kind of moral dilemma Star Trek should engage with.
But Stamets’ decision to take part in what Burnham calls “rapid horizontial gene transfer”is unlikely to be a wise one. Saru indicates that this process counts as genetic engineering, a crime in the Federation. As a result of Earth’s Eugenics Wars of the 1990s and the rise of Khan Noonien Singh, genetic augmentation remains a Federation crime into the 24th century, with Richard Bashir serving a two-year prison sentence for arranging for his son to be augmented.
In the final scene Stamets is uncharacteristically calm and serene, and more than this, his reflection remains still in the mirror after he walks away. Given Stamets’ previous explanation that the spore drive is based on physics and biology being linked on the quantum level I’d guess that this is to do with quantum superpositioning, the idea that at the quantum level particles can be in two places at once. If true, this effect is likely to become more pronouced the more Stamets steers the spore drive.
Although we saw Stamets and Culber interact in the previous episode, this week was the first time we’ve seen them romantically engage with each other, and the first confirmation of homosexuality in the Federation of the prime timeline. The presence of gay characters in Star Trek shouldn’t be a big deal, but the absence of them is.
By my count there’s been 48 main cast members across the previous five franchises, but none of them shown to be gay or bisexual. Sulu, Kira and Ezri Dax have all had homosexual partners in parallel universes, but not in the main timeline. Andrew Robinson, who played DS9’s supporting character Garak, has said that he played the character as pansexual, but while there’s a definite flirtatious edge to his interactions with Bashir, Garak’s homosexual attractions are never confirmed in dialogue or by having him take a male lover.
Before their introductions there were rumours that VOY‘s Seven of Nine and ENT‘s Malcolm Reed would be gay, although neither were canonically confirmed. Until this week the closest to a significant character who’s textually gay or bisexual has been Jadzia Dax. In an episode when a Ferengi woman, Pel, poses as a man Dax approvingly notes that she’d “seen the way you look at him” before being shocked that Pel was a woman. More notably Jadzia rekindles a romance with a former wife from when she had a male body, against Trill social stigma. Even in her case, it’s not made clear that she would normally be open to dating the same sex.From 2015 to 2016 the number of Britons identifying as gay or bisexual rose from 1.7% to 2%, a rise dramatic enough to suggest a significant portion of them either came out of the closet or came to better understand themselves during that time, implying that we should expect the rate to increase as homosexuality becomes increasingly normalised. (At present we generally expect gay people to ‘come out’ as homosexual, which in itself is an example of how heterosexuality is treated as the default.)
There’s a well-known story that Whopi Goldberg was amazed and inspired by the appearance of Uhura – a black woman in a non-subservient role. Martin Luther King considered representation so important that he personally talked Nichelle Nicholls out of quitting the Star Trek cast. Homosexual representation on television has thankfully moved past that point, but it’s still good to overtly state that there’s a place for homosexuality in Star Trek’s utopian future.
* Saru mentions that the Discovery has a crew complement of 134 (presumably 136 when Lorca and Tyler are onboard, though he may be including “Ripper” among the 134). This compares to 430 on Kirk’s Enterprise, and 1014 on Picard’s Enterprise D.
* Saru’s choice of terminology – souls – is an interesting one, hinting at both Star Trek‘s naval roots and adds a spiritual dimension to Saru’s desire to protect his crew. Mudd, by contrast, says that “none of us have [a soul] any more”.
* Mudd says that his wife Stella is the motivation for him seeking a fortune skirting the edge of the law. Twelve years later his marriage will become so unhappy that he’d recreate her as an android purely to give him the power to shut her up, with the android behaving pretty much as a stereotypical shrew. Fleshing out an unseen character in this way is sweet…but ultimately also a little tragic.
* The version we see of Harry Mudd here is an interesting one. As a conman Mudd was always performing, so it’s difficult to get a solid grasp on him from his TOS appearances. (Tor have a great article on what Mudd says about personal narratives.) Meeting him at an earlier stage of his life, his spirit partially broken by a spell in prison, we meet a rawer, earthier version, but one who feels like the same person. His clothing is stylish but less flamboyant – he wears a number of rings and a textured jacket, but there’s less colour in his clothing, and a beard rather than a waxed moustache. There’s the same desire to charm, the same moral ambiguity, but this version of Harry Mudd hasn’t learned to put up a front as well as he eventually will do.
* Mudd borrowing money to buy a moon for his wife strongly suggests that capitalism still exists at this point of Federation history. This fits with the pre-existing mythos – in Mudd’s first appearance (the third episode of TOS) he refers to “rich lithium miners” on the isolated world of Rigel XII, who we see are Humans.
* Discovery has been more serialised than any previous incarnation of Star Trek. This can lead to the threads feeling like loose mini-stories which don’t connect with each other, but this was the tightest episode so far of the three onboard Discovery. The prison plot, science plot, and Saru’s struggle with command all interconnected nicely.
* Birth Movies Death have argued that Discovery feels like each character is the star of their own show rather than an ensemble. I can see the argument – there isn’t really the sense of warm camraderie between the crew that we’re used to, and that we had between Georgiou, Burnham and Saru in the opening two-parter. The bonding between Stamets, Burnham, and Tilly (and later Saru) over treatment of Ripper is a step in that direction.
* There’s been a bit of controversy over swearing in this episode. Tilly says that a discovery is “so fucking cool”, to which Stamets replies that “it is fucking cool”. I can see the case of parents worried about their children copying, or feeling that the swearing is indulgent and gratutious. But it serves a story purpose – in her excitement Tilly transgressed against social norms and apologised for it, then her superior responded by forgiving her. It was a good character bonding moment, similar to Kirk and Spock’s comic swearing in The Voyage Home.
* After the meeting at the beginning of the episode the audience has met seven command level officers, at least four of them Human, but at least one Vulcan. There’s always been a disproportionate number of Human Starfleet officers, probably rooted in the real world practicality of not dressing extras in complicated makeup. In The Undiscovered Country a Klingon refers to Starfleet as a “homo sapiens only club” and fans have, over the years, commented on Starfleet being a ‘Humans only club’.Discovery doesn’t have the same budget problems that TOS did, so maybe the show intends to establish, and then explore, a sort of soft segregation within the Federation. We know, for example, that in 2268 the Intrepid will be crewed entirely by Vulcans. One of Burnham’s fellow prisoners referred to “scumbag Andorians”, and T’Kuvma referred to the race as “dirty Andorians”, and this episode has revealed that there’s at least one Andorian on Discovery. It’d be interesting to examine some form of prejudice within the Federation, and how the self-image of themselves as a utopian society prevents self-reflection.
* It’s been established that Klingons have two sets of most internal organs. Lorca’s retort to L’Rell that “I don’t even have the right number of organs for you” was probably a joke, but seemingly a joke based on the conceit of Klingon men having two penises.
* When Saru asks the computer for a list of Starfleet’s most decorated captains the five we see at the top of the list are all names who’ve previously featured somewhere in the franchise, including two of Kirk’s predecessors as captain of the Enterprise. Discovery should have thrown a few new names in, to give the hint that there’s a lot more to Federation history that we’ve not seen.
* My initial reaction on seeing that the next episode is titled Lethe was that we would see an appearance by Letheans, a race of invasive telepaths who briefly appeared in two DS9 episodes. Given that I expected Kodos and Sybok to appear in previous episodes my instinct is probably wrong. As the Lethe is a river in Hades which in Greek mythology causes drinkers to lose their memories I think we can expect some version of this in the next episode, most likely focused on Stamets or Tyler.