Star Trek: Discovery Episode 5 Review: Choose Your Pain

Discovery introduces its own version of Harry Mudd and gives us more information about the mysterious Lorca.

This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.

Star Trek: Discovery Episode 5

If you want to measure someone’s interest in Star Trek: Discovery, “Choose Your Pain” is a good place to start. For me, this was the least successful episode yet, taking us away from a starship and crew we’ve just begun to meet in favor of a Klingon prison storyline. However, as someone who has genuinely enjoyed Discovery so far, there was still enough here to keep me interested, from Harry Mudd’s waxing poetic about the little people to Stamets’ sacrifice for Ripper.

If you’ve yet to enjoy any of the five episodes of Discovery that have aired thus far this season, it may be time to consider the possibility that this show is not for you.

“Choose Your Pain” picks up where the previous episode left off, with Burnham attempting to advocate for Ripper, the Giant Space Tardigrade with the ability to pilot Discovery using their state-of-the-art spore drive. It’s a technology that, thus far, only Discovery has been able to successfully use, and it’s given the Federation an edge in the war with the Klingons.

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While Lorca is ecstatic to contribute to the war effort, Burnham has concerns about Ripper’s increasingly sluggish state. He cries out in pain whenever the spore drive is activated. When she raises her concerns, first to Lorca and then to Acting Captain Saru, both of them dismiss them as less important than the problem at hand. In other words: the ends justify the means. It’s better not to ask the tough questions. As I’ve written before, this show is about the fight for the Federation’s soul.

There’s a better version of this episode that doubles down on the ethical dilemma Ripper presents. After all, the spore drive is saving lives. Unfortunately, “Choose Your Pain” decided to split its focus. While I would have liked to stay on the ship and get to know these crew members better, instead, the episode also threw in a Captain Lorca plot that was abrupt in its presentation (Lorca is suddenly on a random shuttle that is intercepted by a Klingon Bird-of-Prey) and thematically discordant with what was going on back on the ship.

Lorca’s subplot (which was really more of the “A” plot) did give us a chance to meet this show’s version of Harry Mudd, a character that goes all the way back to The Original Series. Rainn Wilson was spot-on in his portrayal of a slimy, yet charismatic and clever con man who pretends to take Lorca under his wing, but is really smuggling information to the Klingons who are torturing his fellow prisoners. Mudd’s declaration that the Federation cares not for the little people was one of the most interesting points of the entire episode, but one already played out in the promotional material of the show and one I would have liked to see discussed further, especially given the use of Ripper happening elsewhere in the episode.

Less successful was the introduction of Lt. Ash Tyler, a new regular on the show. Tyler is a dashing, but, as of yet, uninteresting character. Perhaps he is a spy for the Klingons, as Lorca first suspected? As of right now, he is just another eager Federation lieutenant who made breaking out of the cell he had been held in for months look easy. 

The concept of “choosing your pain,” i.e. choosing which of your cellmates will be tortured, is a good narrative device, but one that was underutilized. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters stuck in this Klingon cell for there to hold much dramatic tension. This would have been a good opportunity to nuance the Klingon culture in this show, but, instead, we only see nameless Klingon torturers and a female Klingon who is obsessed with Tyler, continuing a pattern of man-crazy female Klingon characters on this show.

We did a learn a bit more about Lorca during his time in Klingon jail. He confides in both Tyler and Mudd that his last ship wasn’t just destroyed; he was the one who destroyed. He thought his crew would rather die than end up as Klingon prisoners (which is a hell of a unilateral decision to make, and one that is pretty ballsy to admit and stand behind while you, yourself, are currently in Klingon jail and have hope). 

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Lorca’s backstory reminds me a bit of Captain Matt Decker’s from TOS‘ “The Doomsday Machine.” In that episode, Kirk and the Enterprise meet a character who has lost his entire crew after trying to save them. He has gone mad with the reality of the situation, eventually taking control of the Enterprise and ordering its crew on a suicide mission to attack the planet-destroyer that killed his crew.

Could Discovery be doing something similar, albeit more subtle with Lorca’s character? Did what happened to his crew turn him into the military-minded captain we know today? This episode included too much of a focus on Lorca for my liking (I wanted to get inside of Burnham’s head a bit more), but I continue to be fascinated with what role Lorca will play in the larger arc of this season’s story. All signs point to him becoming an eventual antagonist who needs to be taken down to preserve the integrity of Federation’s larger mission, but perhaps his character will surprise us all.

A character who surprised me in a negative way this episode was Saru. Thus far, he has been a favorite of mine, but I found his decision-making once he became Acting Captain in Lorca’s absense to be out-of-character from the moral, centered person we have seen before. When Burnham, Stamets, and Culber all bring concerns about the effect of the spore drive on Ripper, he dismisses it as unimportant compared to the task of retrieving the captain.

Rather than tying this motivation solely to the captain’s well-being, which might have been a bit more sympathetic (though still troubling), it is tied to Saru’s intense desire to prove himself in the role. While Saru eventually ties that back to his regret over nevering having Georgiou as a direct role model in the same way Burnham did, it is still a self-serving choice he makes — something I couldn’t see Georgiou making, despite Burnham’s insistence otherwise.

Ultimately, “Choose Your Pain” had too many example of the plot dictating the character, rather than the other way around. Thus far, I have found Discovery‘s characterization to be slow-moving, but solide. “Choose Your Pain” was the first episode I, unfortunately, felt otherwise.

While I was left underwhelmed by Saru and even Burnham’s (lack of) character development here, this was a great episode for Stamets, who chooses to try to pilot the spore drive himself rather than put Ripper through it again. It proves that Stamets is someone who, while driven by scientific results, has a strict code of effects. It also proved how much his understated relationship with Culber means to him. When asked why he did, Stamets told Culber that he thought he would break up with him, if he ignored Ripper’s pain to use the spore drive one more time. Yeah, I ship it.

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Unfortunately, this ship is about to get complicated. While Culber has yet to find any negative side effects to Stamets’ time as part of the spore drive, the episode ends with Stamets’ reflection in the mirror taking on a life of its own. Could this be Discovery‘s slightly skewed version of the mirror universe or is there something else at work here?

Again, I wish “Choose Your Pain” had eschewed the jail break stuff to focus more completely on what was happening on Discovery. The true heart of this show, of every Star Trek shows, lies with the story of a ship (or space station) and the chosen family who lives there. Discovery has yet to fully establish that vibe.

Additional thoughts.

I can’t believe Burnham gave away Georgiou’s telescope so quickly! Like, I know Saru misses her too and Burnham feels guilty about everything that went down, but Georgiou wanted Burnham to have it. She needs it as a reminder of the kind of person she can be. The kind of person that Georgiou believed in.

Cadet Tilly’s “This is f–king awesome” exclamation during the brainstorming session about Ripper and the spore drive is exactly what I want this show to be. Nerds geeking out about their space exploration and the wonders of the universe.

I feel like Saru didn’t mean Burnham should free Ripper when he told her to make him well again, but, hey, bold move.

The scene of Stamets and Culber brushing their teeth together was one of the first domestic moments (other than the adorable, hilarious Burnham/Tilly scenes) that we’ve seen on this show. I’d like to see more. I want to get a lived-in feeling from this starship. I also wouldn’t mind learning more about the relationships between the people who live there — not just romantically, but in all ways.

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2.5 out of 5