The central theme of Choose Your Pain is how people approach the suffering of others in different ways depending on circumstance. For some it is unacceptable under any circumstances and for others it is distasteful be necessary.
Burnham is having guilt dreams due to the suffering of the tardigrade which is starting to show the effects of being invasively plugged into the Discovery’s propulsion system. Especially since Captain Lorca has been using the spore drive a lot to hit the Klingons hard since they cracked the navigation problem. Starfleet orders Lorca to stand down for a while in order to protect their greatest asset. They are worried the the Klingons have identified Discovery and want to make sure that the ship isn’t targeted, at least until they can replicate the drive on other ships and track down some more tardigrades. Lorca is more privately chewed out about recruiting Burnham as her escaping punishment is seen as bad for morale. Lorca brushes off these complaints and it is implied the he has been given more power than the average Captain. Lorca is then captured by the Klingons who would like a word with him about his ship and his cellmate is one Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
There is a lot to like about this episode but it is not without its problems. With Lorca gone Saru finds himself in the Captain’s chair and he is ordered to locate and rescue Lorca. Considering that the Klingons have taken Lorca to find out more about his top secret ship it doesn’t make much sense that Starfleet would send that top secret ship in order to rescue him. If you leave that aside it is interesting to see Saru’s approach to command. His desire to be seen as decisive leads him to be dismissive of advice from his officers and he is pretty single minded in his pursuit of his mission. Everything is subordinate to that including the well being of the tardigrade. Saru later expresses his anger with Burnham that her actions robbed him of getting to learn command from Captain Georgiou. If his actions in this episode are anything to go by then his anger is understandable as he has clearly learnt a lot from Lorca instead and even Saru recognises that may not be a good thing.
Lorca himself is not having a great time on board the Klingon prison ship and not just due to the torture, the company isn’t great either. Rainn Wilson is great as a younger and angrier Harry Mudd. Mudd represents the early space pioneers who, much like their Wild West equivalents, feel they have had their freedom curtailed by new authority. He blames Starfleet for the war just because it was inevitable that Starfleet were going to explore somewhere where they would be unwelcome. The Klingon system of “choose your pain” means you either take a beating our elect to give to your fellow captives. For Harry Mudd the suffering of others means that he is spared and he has no qualms about that. When Lorca escapes and abandons Mudd for spying on them Mudd swears revenge. I hope that this isn’t the last we see of him as I really enjoyed this take on the character.
Jason Isaacs gets something to sink his teeth into in this episode and he doesn’t disappoint. Mudd reveals a skeleton in his closet in that he was the only survivor from his last ship. Lorca reveals that he didn’t leave his crew to die, he destroyed the ship to spare them from Klingon torture. It that act that led to the damage to his eyes, a pain that Lorca has chosen as a reminder of what he did that day. I suspect that there might be more to the story than he’s letting on. Isaacs plays the scene with sadness and simmering anger, there is a darkness to Lorca that is always just under the surface and I suspect that it will break through before the season is over.
Lorca’s other cellmate is Ash Tyler played by Shazad Latif. Tyler says that he has been a captive since the battle of the binary stars, which is established to have taken place 7 month previously. When Lorca is suspicious as to how anyone could stand up to Klingon torture for that long Tyler says that the ship’s Captain has taken a liking to him. It is so rare to see a male survivor of sexual assault portrayed on screen that part of me hopes the theory doing the rounds that Tyler is actually a Klingon spy aren’t true. Having said that if you were planning to ingratiate someone with Lorca so that they gain his trust then this is the way to do it. Time will tell on that and I hope it isn’t revealed immediately either way.
Finally there is Burnham’s part of the plot with her trying to convince first Saru and then Stamets that the tardigrade is suffering and is, therefore, an unsustainable solution to the problems of the spore drive. It is nice to see her relationship with Tilly continue to develop as Burnham confides in her that she is being bothered by what’s happening to the tardigrade. It’s also nice to see that she is starting to gain the trust of some of the other crew. Dr Culber (who it seems isn’t actually the CMO as I said in the last review.) concurs with Burnham’s assessment of the tardigrade’s health and Stamets is not only willing to listen to her but puts himself at risk by experimenting with the alternative they come up with. It is good to see that there is bond forming and shared sense of what is the right thing to do amongst them even if their commanders don’t agree. The one jarring moment was the casual use of the F-bomb. I am no puritan and I do think that swearing can and has been used in Star Trek to great effect but this was too casual for my liking. It just felt tonally off to have someone say “This is so fucking cool” and it really stuck out. I know it was intended as a moment of levity and bonding between Tilly and Stamets but I think it was misjudged and poorly executed which is a pity as so much of it did work. Mistakes like that are not enough for me to condemn the episode overall though. They are pushing Star Trek into new places and not all of those places are necessarily going to be right. That doesn’t mean that they show shouldn’t try things occasionally to see if they are a good fit.
Then we have the ending which establishes the first canon same-sex relationship on Star Trek as it is revealed that Stamets and Culber are a couple. It was fun to rewatch the episode with that knowledge and see that they put it up there on screen if you know to look out for it. It is a really sweet scene which makes the final image of Stamets reflection staying in the mirror after they have both left even more creepy. It looks like Satmets’s act of self-sacrifice isn’t going come without consequences and I hope this is also allowed to slow burn for a few episodes now they have the storytelling format to do that with.
Star Trek: Discovery continues to entertain and engage even after hitting a few bumps. There are multiple plot-lines being threaded together which, hopefully, will all be allowed to breathe and develop. This is a Star Trek story being told in a new way and I hope that they can stick the landing.