Star Trek: Discovery: Season 1 – Episode 5 ‘Choose Your Pain’ REVIEW

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Michael is having trouble sleeping – not because of staging a mutiny and being culpable in starting the war, that is what it is – but because using good old Ripper to run the mushroom drive is bothering her. Maybe it’s the way it involves plunging spikes into the poor beast’s flanks, maybe it’s the way Ripper screams and thrashes about when they fire it up, who can say?

Meanwhile, Lorca has problems of his own. After a string of successes, the admiral is telling him to back off, worried that having one ship be blinking in and out of the mushroom dimension all the time might make the Klingons think ‘hey, there’s something up with that ship’. However, the admiral stops short of making him turn in his badge and gun – in fact, based on their more intimate post-conversation conversation, they seem to be old pals and going by Trek’s track record quite probably used to be lovers.

Lorca’s day immediately gets worse when, on the shuttle back to Discovery, he’s abruptly kidnapped by Klingons. This, if you don’t mind my saying, is how you do a pre-credits cold open properly. The stakes and the relevant parties have been set up beyond any shadow of a doubt, now the rest of the episode just has to deal with it.

With Lorca absent, Saru has to step up to the plate, although his frills immediately sense danger. Michael comes to him with her concerns about Ripper, but to reiterate, Lorca’s missing, so he has some slightly bigger concerns right now. Concerns like ‘how do I stack up against famous Starfleet captains?’

That’s not a joke. While rescuing Lorca is on the agenda, Saru also has the ship computer put together an algorithm to test his most captainly qualities against some of the big names – our old friend Georgiou, Pike from the TOS pilot, and of course one Jonathan Archer, chronologically the first Starfleet captain to ever have a wildly inappropriate crush on their first officer (but by no means the last).

Lorca is also having trouble adjusting to his new circumstances – a grimy prison ship, where the Klingons make cellmates decide which one of them’s going to get kicked in, hence ‘choose your pain’. He’s banged up with another Starfleet officer, Ash (who’s been sparing the beatings, with L’Rell preserving him for her own amusement), and a civilian, Harry Mudd. An older Mudd turned up in the original series as a lovable rascal, being the one to unleash a hellstorm of tribbles on Kirk’s Enterprise. Here he’s taking it all in his stride.

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The Klingons are, of course, wondering exactly ‘hey, what’s up with that ship’ and intend to torture the information out of Lorca. L’Rell’s well-informed enough that she forgoes any beatings or unpleasant sharp objects, and just plays on his light-sensitivity by clamping his eyes open, Clockwork Orange-style, and letting the bulbs do the rest.

Despite them hitting his weak point, he doesn’t break – and more impressively, keeps it together enough to notice L’Rell was asking about something he mentioned in the cell. The obvious choice for a collaborateur is Mudd, who doesn’t even really bother to deny it. Lorca and Ash agree that he can take the next beating, but when the time comes Ash volunteers instead.

As their jailers begin the beating, they leap into action – pulling off a neatly synchronised neck snap, and then leaving Mudd locked up, from where he cries that we haven’t seen the last of him. And given the only tribble we’ve seen so far is on Lorca’s desk, it’s quite possible we haven’t. Ash takes violent revenge on L’Rell, and Lorca does her face a bit of a nasty, then they make for the escape pods.

Back on Discovery, Saru is finding, to his disgust, that Michael still isn’t taking orders in her stride – she, Tilly, and Stametz are trying to work out a way of travelling in the mushroom dimension without having to gore Ripper every time, such as sticking Ripper’s DNA into a human host. Their discussion involves a critical mass of Treknobabble – which seems to be what Tilly signed up for in the first place, declaring it as she does ‘fucking awesome!’

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The press have made a lot of this, as Star Trek’s first use of the word ‘fuck’ – not to be confused with Star Trek’s first fuck, since Kirk banged his way across the cosmos, starting with his science officer and accelerating from there. Still, despite Kirk’s wandering penis, the show was always ostensibly family-friendly, and this is certainly a leap. Though it must be said that coming out of Tilly’s mouth it seems oddly quaint, like that The Day Today skit about the first soap opera to feature profanity (‘Ta-ra, y’shitter!’)

Saru takes them after the Klingon prison ship through the mushroom dimension, having ordered them to plug Ripper back in – but, once the leap is completed, Ripper starts leaking water from every available orifice and curls up into the foetal position. Which sort of feels like further evidence in the long list of ways in which Michael is The Right Person Who Was Right.

(Just to be clear, this isn’t to accuse Michael of being a Mary Sue or overly perfect character. The mutiny alone disproves that. Certainly she’s an attractive, physically capable genius Who Is Right, but then most protagonists are – most Star Trek protagonists definitely are.)

To Saru’s credit, he vindicates himself shortly afterwards. There are several smaller craft coming their way from the prison ship, but Saru notices that far from coming in to attack Discovery, they seem to be chasing the lead craft – and works out what we at home already know, that their captain’s on that one. They beam Lorca and his pal aboard, but aren’t out of the woods yet – doing so draws the attention of the Klingons.

Saru orders a mushroom-jump out of there, but with Ripper well and truly out of commission, all seems hopeless. But then, what do you know, they make the jump after all. Once out of danger, they go down to the engine room to find Stametz, collapsed and bleeding in the mushroom chamber, having shot himself full of Ripper’s DNA.

Fortunately, he survives this – to the immense surprise of Saru, who seems to have absolutely no idea how to take a hu-mon pulse. He and his boyfriend Culber, the Chief Medical Officer, have quite a heartfelt debrief afterwards, which is only slightly marred by the fact that while it’s happening, they’re using space-toothbrushes that look a bit like sex toys. Still, it’s not like Kirk and Spock were any less gratuitous. This is basically the confirmation Stametz and Culber are together, but again, as with Kirk and Spock, people haven’t been shy about guessing.

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As for Saru, he decides to scrap the program that weighs him against past captains, and confesses to Michael that ultimately he’s been both angry and resentful of her – his hope had been that she’d get her own command and he would become Georgiou’s first officer. Instead he ended up with Lorca on the SS Animal Testing. Which seems like it might just be more of Michael being The Person Who Was Right – especially when she says he made a good acting captain – but then she gives him Georgiou’s telescope, reasoning he has more right to it.

Speaking of animal testing, Michael and Tilly decide to deal with the Ripper issue once and for all by setting him free. Once out of the airlock, he immediately uncurls in relief – the opposite of what you’d expect in the vacuum of space, really – and zips off through the mushroom dimension as a beam of light. Michael and Tilly watch, fairly certain this one was the right decision.

So far, Star Trek: Discovery has been pretty strongly arc-driven, and while that’s still in full effect this week has also been a lot closer to the more episodic setups most people think of when they think of Trek. And, again like the older series, in this one we had the captain getting about and doing stuff, rather than just being Michael’s superior as he has been previously. Both Kirk and Picard were at various points captured and tortured, so it’s got fine precedent – it’d just be a shame if this has to come at the expense of Michael and the rest of the gang.


The Trek essentials

‘to explore strange new worlds’: Sadly, still not much of this going on, unless you count Trek showing a gay couple without a flimsy pretense that they’re just really, really good friends who just happen to hold hands and go to dinner together and probably French-kiss.

‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’: I’m certainly looking forward to the Ripper spin-off series, anyway.

‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’: Mudd says these exact words to throw the Starfleet ethos back in Lorca’s face – with reference to exactly what it’s gotten them (war) and what it’s got him in particular (taken prisoner).