Is the Final Frontier a good thing? The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery seems poised to ask that question but isn’t ready to answer it.
Sunday’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery offers another concrete link to the original series that lies 10 years in this show’s future. Rainn Wilson debuts as a younger version of one of the Enterprise’s recurring nemeses: Harry Mudd. But the circumstances of Mudd’s return to the Star Trek universe underscore just how far apart the grim militarism of Discovery is from the idealistic exploration of Captain Kirk and company. But, “Choose Your Pain” does at least hint at how that gap will eventually be bridged.
Spoilers are ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Episode 5, “Choose Your Pain.”
Mudd’s function within this story is to indict Starfleet for getting everyone into these messes in the first place. By his reckoning, it was the height of hubris for Starfleet to declare space “the final frontier” and go off exploring a cosmos already inhabited by countless other races, all while flying about in starships that leave them aloof and removed from all the little people down below.
One can certainly debate the merits of his argument. Mudd is a conman and a master manipulator – he’s the epitome of a heel, and the key to effective heel logic is to take something that’s mostly true and twist it in the most self-serving way. And the thematic construction here could be better: Mudd’s arguments would probably be more compelling, even unnerving if he were making them to any Star Trek regular other than Gabriel Lorca, as we’ve never seen a captain who is less interested in Starfleet’s creed of peaceful exploration than him.
But Mudd’s argument points to how fraught that word “frontier” is. It’s something baked into Star Trek ever since creator Gene Roddenberry famously described the show as “Wagon Train to the stars.” But is that a good thing? Much like the American West was only a frontier to those who had not already lived there for countless generations, space is only a frontier if one accepts the Federation’s right to expand as absolute.
That the expansion is peaceful or scientific or non-territorial doesn’t make that principle any less non-negotiable in the eyes of your typical Starfleet officer. As Mudd argues, it’s inevitable others will disagree with that arrogance, and it’s hard to consider even the bellicose Klingons entirely to blame.
Besides, “Choose Your Pain” makes clear this is not a time when Starfleet is entirely noble. The story of acting Captain Saru is a case in point. Even as multiple senior officers – we might as well consider Michael Burnham one of them at this point – raise serious ethical concerns about continuing to use the tardigrade as the spore drive’s navigator, Saru overrides them, prioritizing the recovery of Lorca over the luxury of moral dilemmas.
There’s a Latin saying, later used as the title for the single most pretentiously named Deep Space Nine episode: “Inter arma enim silent leges,” or “in times of war, the law falls silent.” That’s the operating philosophy of “Choose Your Pain” and a lot of Discovery in general. Saru never entirely dismisses the possibility of the tardigrade’s sentience or Starfleet’s responsibilities to such a creature. He simply says he will accept the consequences of being wrong later, once the present crisis is resolved.
This is all proving Mudd’s point, even if he would likely never see the tardigrade as a being worthy of the same dignity he feels has been stolen from him – again, if heel logic were actually consistent, it wouldn’t be heel logic. So what then of the moments that cut against this, when Burnham and the Discovery crew renounce their claims to space and step back from the final frontier?
Stamets’s ultimate decision to inject himself with the tardigrade serum – itself also a rejection of Starfleet’s core principles, though at least here he only hurts himself – could represent a discovery of a sense of duty and optimism. But “Choose Your Pain” doesn’t necessarily endorse that Starfleet-friendly reading. As he says to his partner, Dr. Cubler, in the closing scene, he did it to keep his loved one safe as much as anything else.
In any event, Stamets’s story illustrates the basic point suggested by a title like “Choose Your Pain”: The world of Discovery is one where suffering is inevitable, and the only real question is whether one will accept that agony for oneself or pass it off to somebody else. Saru and Stamets make different choices in that regard, and one could reasonably argue Lorca’s decision to blow up his previous crew to save them from Klingon capture in either direction.
Michael Burnham’s efforts to protect the tardigrade come closest to illustrating the true principles of Starfleet, and perhaps that’s why she spends so much of this episode on the sidelines. She doesn’t make a lot of big speeches about what Starfleet ought to represent — Discovery hasn’t really given us those since Captain Georgiou died – but she lives them more clearly than any of her comrades, for all her past mistakes. The tardigrade’s eventual release and disappearance into the cosmos is a reminder of the kind of frontier Starfleet once set out to discover, one Burnham saw at the binary stars before everything fell apart.
“Choose Your Pain” suggests Discovery is headed somewhere with all this grimness, albeit slowly. As in previous episodes, the show treats Star Trek’s ideals something not merely to be declared but rather to be earned. Burnham’s character is further along in that regard, but the others are starting to understand this, slowly. The war with the Klingons is the ultimate testing ground. If the original series really is just a decade away, then perhaps Discovery just run on the old maxim that it’s always darkest just before the dawn.
Star Trek: Discovery airs on CBS All Access on Sundays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Inverse reviews Star Trek: Discovery below.