I swear to Christ, I cannot cope with this emotional rollercoaster. With my expectations about as low as they could possibly be, I approached tonights Harry “Dickhead” Mudd episode fully prepared for yet more dreck.
Then it turned around and started charming the pants off me. I mean, I was genuinely enjoying it, I was even laughing, I was even invested in the story. I mean, what show is this all of a sudden? Did I fall through a portal into the Mirror Universe? Who are you people? What is this?
Because I’m an honest man, or at the very least terrified of being accused of hypocrisy, I will give this episode, ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’, a title rivaling ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry’ in terms of dumb verbosity, all the credit it is due. Which is quite a lot actually. I’ll break it down for you.
The Good Stuff
I was amazed by how compelling Mudd managed to be as a villain. After his ridiculously off-tone “You haven’t seen the last of meeeee!” in ‘Choose Your Pain’, I was fully anticipating a truly rubbish antagonist, but he was genuinely quite threatening and determined. He was suitably arrogant about the advantage he had over the crew, and he basked in his superiority.
Mudd’s recollection of repeatedly killing Lorca was glorious to behold. Particularly the moment he beamed him into space. That was so delightfully wicked. It was a particularly nice choice to show us Lorca’s demise from a distance, just as a blur on the view screen – no close ups, for none were needed.
As one of my friends pointed out, Lorca’s general distance in this episode was ideal. He was just there, as a captain, not really doing much, not being a total dickhole, just being a bit severe. And I did enjoy him being repeatedly berated by a dumpy bearded idiot (no idea why).
Stamets was on form this episode, so much so that I’m willing to refer to him by his actual name. His confused panic was perfectly portrayed by Anthony Rapp, as was his increasing serenity as he gradually regained a little control over the situation.
Turns out that Rapp’s character is actually named for Paul Stamets, a real-world mycologist. Nice. Fair play, I can respect that.
Burnham was also on form, and her confused adolescent response to meeting a good-looking boy is quite charming. I wish her secret had been a little juicier, though. I’ve never been in love, Burnham, but you don’t see me getting a character arc. I would have loved it if she’d just come out and said “I want to grab Saru by his ganglia and fuck him ’til next July” or something actually shocking.
Space whales are a stupid, tired idea and yet I still love them and would like to see more.
Tilly remained Tilly. Enough said.
The violence. This is the kind of violence that should be in Trek. It was dark, sure, and definitely a bit disturbing, but it was shrouded in special effects. There was no blood in this episode, nobody being sliced apart or screaming in agony for minutes at a time. It was harsh, but it wasn’t sadistic, and it wasn’t directed solely at women, and I can respect that.
“There are so many ways to blow up this ship, it’s almost a design flaw,” was beautiful, as was “Here, can you let me lead, please?” This episode had some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in Trek for a while.
We finally, finally, get some fucking context to this bloody war. And with a nicely efficient line, as I’ve already discussed. “Because of [Discovery], the tide has turned. Because of us, we are winning.” Fantastic! That tells an entire story! They were on the backfoot, now they’re gaining the upper hand. One line in the opening log entry, that’s all it took. that’s all it fucking took! Why did we have to wait for five fucking episodes?
I am pleased to see Burnham sans a Starfleet badge. It marks her out among the crew – she’s got duties, but she’s still disgraced. That’s a subtle, but meaningful touch.
And finally, the fact that the resolution to the crew’s predicament was non-violent really pleased me. Them having to think their way out of it, instead of shooting or punching their way out, is incredibly refreshing – particularly after the trend in Trek productions that was so perfectly exemplified by ‘Into Darkness’.
Indeed, the fact that the problem itself was intellectual, rather than physical, was more-or-less spot on, and was exactly what this show needed as a palette-cleanser after all of the torture and mutilation of previous episodes.
Basically, this was a great episode for about… thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds. For thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds, this was probably one of the top twenty episodes in all Trekdom. Hell, maybe top ten. I’m not even kidding.
And yet the writers still manage to take all of that quality, all of that smooth sailing, and dash it upon the rocks of mediocrity.
The Bad Stuff
That thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds of quality I mentioned just above? Here’s how I got there:
Two minutes and thirty seconds at the beginning covers the still-terrible opening sequence. I’ll take a quick diversion here to say that this is literally the worst opening sequence of Trek, and it’s the worst by a margin. I mean, I hated ‘Faith of the Heart’ as much as anyone, but it was at least optimistic and upbeat. ‘Discovery’s opening theme is a depressing, atonal mess.
And at least ‘Enterprise’ gave us a nice montage of the development of Earth’s warp-capable craft – ‘Discovery’ just shows us the slowly-rotating CGI models for various props and costumes. It’s like a fucking ‘Skyrim’ loading screen, for fuck’s sakes. It’s as though the creators embarrassed of the show, which in fairness, they should be, but still.
ANYWAY, two-and-a-half minutes gets us past the “previously on” and through the loading screen to Burnham’s personal log. I loved the fact that we’re back to log entries – they’re such nice bookends, and entirely capture the feeling of Star Trek.
Thirty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds after this point, though, it all goes to pieces, with just one line:
“You sent them to Stella…”
This is Stamets, concluding the explanation of the crew’s solution to Harry Mudd: they called his girlfriend on him. In a throw-back to ‘I, Mudd’ of The Original Series, but with a marginally less misogynistic tone, they reunite him with his girlfriend and her arms dealer father.
The reunion scene was painfully clichéd compared to the rest of the episode, but it was functional enough to get by. The real problem was its implications.
So, here’s what the crew know about Mudd at the point that they release him:
- He is perfectly willing to murder hundreds of people, and has literally done so dozens of times just in the last half hour. That’s the plot of the episode.
- He is complicit in the torture and abuse of prisoners, admittedly while a prisoner himself.
- He knows every operational detail about the Discovery, including how her experimental drive works, the secret to controlling it, and its limitations.
- He had full, unlimited access to all of Starfleet’s tactical and strategic data, from ship positions, supply routes and defense lines, based on the information that was openly on display in Lorca’s office.
- He has active connections with the Klingons, with a pre-existing deal to deliver Discovery to them, and likely has valuable information about the Klingon Empire, with a proven willingness to divulge information in exchange for his own safety.
- He is a total arsehole.
Knowing all of this, they choose to put him in the care of a known arms dealer who goes around in a black leather cape and a pimp cane, who makes a profit from selling weapons, who has promised to keep Mudd “out of Starfleet’s way”.
Okay, let’s unpick that.
So, they have the ability to summon, like, a thousand Starfleet ships, or even just one ship, or even no ships at all. I mean, the goodies’ whole plan was to rewire the computer so Mudd’s attempt to summon the Klingons wouldn’t work. And that’s what they did. So why didn’t they just make it so that his transmission was never sent, and instead lock him in the brig? I mean, they overpowered him anyway.
Seeing Mudd carried off on a Starfleet Prison shuttle would have been the perfect ending to this episode. Seeing him miserable and forlorn and facing a lifetime in prison would have made perfect sense. Not even a lifetime, even if they ignored the whole “attempted mass murder” thing and just locked him up for the duration of the war to prevent him sharing his knowledge with anyone else.
But the fact that they literally sent him on his way with not even a slap on the wrist is appalling. It’s just so, so stupid. It makes no sense and makes our protagonists come across as dribbling morons. Y’know, he’s not some misguided soul, here, he’s a for-profit would-be mass-murderer who literally went through with the cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of Starfleet officers potentially hundreds of times.
Not to mention that he was intending to sell Starfleet technology to their enemies. And even if he’s no longer able to do that, he can still sell all of their technical and strategic secrets. And he could do that with a fucking hand-held radio, or even a carrier pigeon. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to let someone as dangerous as that out of your hands?
And I know why they resolved it the way they did. The did it because the previously-established canon demanded it. Harry Mudd turns up in The (now-defunct anyway after all the production advancements) Original Series, therefore they obviously can’t violate that plotline, despite the fact that they seem willing to play entirely fast and loose with every other bit of established canon on the show, from the technology to the uniforms to the Klingons’ very appearance.
So, because of the commercial desire to use a recognisable name from the franchise, regardless of how little sense it makes, the writers’ hands were forced into this absurd ending that sabotages what otherwise would be an all-time great episode of Trek. And it really did ruin it for me – I finished the episode angry, despite having enjoyed myself for 87% of its run time.
WHY WON’T THEY KISS???
One final thing. We still get no kiss between Stamets and Culber, despite yet another perfect setup. No, we just get another platonic pat on the shoulder, a gesture as romantic as that between Kirk and Scotty in your average Original Series episode from the ’60s.
I mean, we get to see people being vaporised from the inside out and choking to death in space, and obviously I’m fine with that because it all happened to Lorca, but really? Still no gay kiss? I just want to see two dudes making out, that’s all. That’s all I want. And we even get to see multiple heterosexual couples making out in the background of this episode. Just no gays. Unless I’m misreading the situation and it’s actually the interracial aspect of the relationship of which the show’s creators are terrified.
Taking a broader view, Rapp is openly queer, as he has described himself, and Cruz is an active participant in the LGBT culture, and I can only imagine how these two actors must feel to be playing a loving homosexual couple that is denied any opportunity to express physical affection, either in public or in private. It just feels like a huge step backwards.