I never got that into comic books as a kid. It took ’90s indie comics like Eightball and Hate for me to work my way back to superheroes. The comics of my youth were simplistic, and one of the clumsiest storytelling tropes was the opening splash page, in which various X-Men and -Women stand in a line and bluntly explain their names and powers. Yes, it catches up the readers, but it’s not exactly what you’d call character development.
Discovery has taken a lot of crap for not being The Next Next Generation, but one of the biggest things I’ve enjoyed about it is that lack of an opening splash page. In the first half-hour of the first episode of TNG, we learn all we need to know about the characters and their relationships — Picard has a thing for Crusher but won’t follow through because he was friends with her dead husband. Data strives to be more human, and Geordi’s fascinated enough by him to strike up a friendship. Seven years later, those relationships hadn’t budged an inch.
And that’s not a terrible thing. Part of the fun of TNG was watching these set-in-stone iconic characters explore strange new worlds, and experience small moments of growth (which would often be forgotten by next week’s episode). But a big part of the discovery in Discovery is getting to see the characters and their relationships develop from nothing. Saru’s open contempt for Michael Burnham becoming grudging respect. Michael’s annoyance at Tilly turning to friendship.
So it’s an odd choice that “Magic To Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” foregoes the usual cold open to start with Burnham, in voiceover, recapping our story so far. She’s settling into life on Discovery, which is the most important ship in the fleet because of the spore drive. We even get an anvil for the burgeoning Michael-Ash relationship. It’s a scene that makes sense for a network show that’s picking up new viewers who need to be caught up. It’s a strange one for a show that actually difficult not to watch in order.
But it segues into a party scene that, again, sets this show starkly apart from its predecessors. Rather than the classical music and stiff formality of an Enterprise-D party, Disco lives up to its name, with bodies moving on the dance floor to a hip-hop track that samples “Stayin’ Alive.” Trek has always handwaved-away the 24th century’s fascination with late 20th-century music, so provided you buy into Discovery‘s crew having essentially the same party you went to last weekend, it’s a fun scene, with drunk Tilly (“I’m in a musician phase right now!”) clumsily trying to wingman for Michael, and push her towards smoldering ex-POW Ash Tyler.
Before they can talk, our new subspace-crossed lovers are summoned to the bridge, bumping into Stamets on the way. Dr. Culver has given him an implant to better connect with the spore drive, but it’s left him loopy, which has Culver concerned both as his doctor and his boyfriend. Burnham gets to the bridge in time to find the ship has encountered a sick organism that can survive in open space. Michael wants to protect endangered animal, Lorca could care less but approves. But no sooner do they beam the animal aboard than a masked figure emerges from its mouth, shooting first and not asking questions. Harry Mudd, out for revenge, determined to sell the ship to the Klingons, understanding that Disco is special, but not why. After making a villain monologue, he blows up the ship, killing everyone on board.
And then we’re back at the party. Yes, it’s a Groundhog Day episode. With a twist—the crew of the Discovery is stuck in a loop, but Mudd isn’t. With each iteration, he’s learning more about the ship, in the hopes of understanding the spore drive and selling it to the Klingons. And he’s changing his tactics each time. Which means with every loop, the threat to the ship is different. The crew starts every loop in the dark, except for one person: Stamets. His implant separates him enough from the timeline that he remembers every loop, and has to try again and again to convince Burnham, Tyler, and Lorca of their situation, and figure out a way to stop Mudd.
That the crew eventually does should be a surprise to no one, but the heart of the episode isn’t the (somewhat anti-climactic) climax, it’s the character moments: Stamets taking the time to talk to Michael about being in love, (“love isn’t logical”), in the hopes that in the next loop she could open up to Ash and get him to help. Michael and Ash dancing to Al Green (seriously, does humanity stop recording new music around 2020?), each willing to open up knowing the reset button is only a few minutes away.
Lucky for us viewers, we don’t have a TNG-style reset button. Instead of having a cast of characters and their relationships handed to us, we get to watch those relationships grow, little by little. Like Michael Burnham herself, Discovery is moving past a chaotic beginning and settling in for the long journey ahead.
Thanks for joining The Avocado‘s reviews of Star Trek: Discovery‘s first season, already in progress. While the show hits CBS All Access at 8:30 EST, I can’t usually watch it until my kids are in bed. So I’ll try and have a review up around 11, but I’ll put up an early thread at 8:30 so you all can discuss the show as it airs. See you next week!