Anyone disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery’s grim/dark view of the future past will likely leave “Choose Your Pain” still disappointed. The episode continues the trend of stark conflicts, bad vibes, and interpersonal squabbling. Even the introduction of one of the original Star Trek’s most memorably campy creations fails to lighten the mood. And yet if you’re able to gets past the sometimes forced nature of the show’s emotional palette, this entry is a considerable improvement from last week. The dialogue is clunky, the lights are too low, and everyone seems to be running on three hours of sleep at best. Yet the structure is sound, and the efforts to develop members of the ensemble outside of Burnham and Lorca are promising. There’s still a ways to go, and this might never be the sort of hopeful, life-affirming Trek so many are missing. But it has promise, at least.

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Burnham actually takes something of a background seat this hour. The plot has Lorca getting kidnapped by Klingons and trapped on a prison ship, while Saru takes command on the Discovery and works to get his captain home. Burnham’s major concern is for the creature whose life she saved last week, the Tardigrade with the magic ability to navigate the spore drive. As suggested at the end of the previous episode, the animal suffers each time the drive is put into effect. Given that the Discovery has been busy hopping around the galaxy, the Tardigrade is in considerable pain, and Burnham is determined to find a solution to ease the beast’s suffering.

Like her need last week to prove “Ripper” wasn’t a monster after all, Burnham’s goals here demonstrate a respect for all living beings that should be a hallmark of the franchise. Thankfully, her worries are far better justified in “Pain.” The exact science of how the Tardigrade interacts with the spore drive is beyond me, and the struggle to deal with the creature’s pain is a plot that could’ve used a little more breathing room. It’s hard to be emotionally invested in a personality-free beast we barely see. Yet at least the core is sound, and continuing Burnham’s commitment to doing the right thing even when it makes the lives of those around her more complicated is a good character move.

Her goals come to a head when Saru takes command. He insists on using the drive to rescue Lorca whatever the cost, and Burnham’s refusal to back down drives him to ultimately confine her to quarters. (Which is why she’s less of a presence in the episode’s back half.) This isn’t perfect. Putting Burnham in a situation where she seems willing to sacrifice Lorca’s life for the sake of the Tardigrade doesn’t entirely make sense, and there’s an artificiality to the fight between her and Saru, making them both less people than ideological positions. It’s especially tricky considering how little we still know about Saru. But the script does make a good effort to justify his behavior, underlining his insecurity in the role of captain and even having him state flat out his resentment of Burnham for robbing him of the chance to learn leadership at Captain Georgiou’s side.

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There’s a lack of grace to much of the character work in the show so far; too often individuals simply state how they feel about things, without any of the nuance or hedging that makes for good drama. The performances carry most of it, but it’s still a distraction, and it makes every argument automatically strident, as there’s little setting between “chatting” and “ranting.” But given that the episode focuses its attention between the Discovery and Lorca, there’s enough screen time devoted to each plot thread to make this all feel, if not exactly elegant, then at least functional.

Lorca’s time on the unnamed Klingon prison ship is equally competent, if even less inspired. The introduction of Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson) is a potentially interesting bit of fan service; Mudd’s two appearances in the original Trek are both decent episodes, with the second, “I, Mudd,” being a standout of the series. Wilson’s version is significantly less flamboyant than Roger C. Carmel’s turn in the role, which isn’t exactly a surprise. Carmel’s play-it-to-the-rafters approach has its charms, but wouldn’t fit well in on modern television, especially not on a show as serious as this one.

Still, Wilson is at least allowed a sense of humor, which is a nice change of pace, and while the character doesn’t come across as much more than a garden variety scoundrel, he’s not bad at all. Lorca ultimately abandons him on the ship when he realizes Mudd has been betraying his fellow inmates (this Mudd takes the original’s scheming and self-regard to its natural, cynical conclusion), and while it’s always possible we never see the character again, his screamed vows of vengeance suggest otherwise. The downside being that, given that we know the character has a history with the series, it won’t be as much of a surprise if/when he returns.

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As for the rest of the captain’s time in captivity, it’s standard “guy in captivity” stuff. Lorca deals with being tortured as well as you’d expect, and the discovery that he’s responsible for blowing up the last ship under his command is useful character development, though not much of a surprise. (The USS Buran had been captured by Klingons, and Lorca destroyed it to save his crew from torture and a public death.) It was already evident from his first appearance that Lorca was the kind of officer that had to have a dark past, and to have that confirmed at least means we won’t have to wonder about the details anymore. He rescues a new character, Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) in his escape from the Klingons, which means yet another dude on the Discovery.

Really, the biggest problem with “Pain” is how relatively familiar so much of it is. DSC was billed as a new approach for the franchise, but if “new approach” is just “hey, remember Battlestar Galactica?” I’m not convinced it was worth the effort. The episode holds together well enough, and Saru and Burnham’s conversation near the end provides a fine grace note for their arc in the hour. The confirmation that Dr. Culber and Stamets are dating is good to have, though both characters remain under-realized. There’s still potential here, and at the very least, I’m relieved to see the show righting itself after such a shaky outing last week. But if this is as good as it gets, I’m not sure it was worth the effort in the long run.

Stray observations

  • I’ve been watching a lot of Toast Of London lately, and it was a delightful surprise to see Clem Fandango on Star Trek, albeit in a much more serious role. (Tyler plays Fandago on Toast.)

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  • The episode title comes from the Klingons’ practice of forcing prisoners to decide which one of their number is beaten. The execution of the idea is endemic of the show’s deepest flaw: It’s a potentially powerful concept that’s used in a largely perfunctory way, seeming mostly to be there just to make the audience think how dark everything is.
  • The spore drive storyline moves so damn fast that it plays more like an outline than an actual plot. In three scant episodes it’s gone from “experimental” to “practical but costly” to “practical but costly in a different way.” It would be nice to have some time for any of this to sink in. Also, while I’m not asking for a lecture, a clearer understanding of just how much faster and easier the drive is to use than regular warp would be useful.
  • “I barely have a job here. I’ve never been less busy.” —Burnham. That conversation with Tilly is one of the few times we get a glimpse of how Burnham is handling her current situation, and, as with so much, it’s a shame that there was no time to actually get a feel for what her day-to-day life on the Discovery is like.

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  • It’s slightly frustrating that after making so much about how the new series would have a more diverse cast, there are only two major female characters. Ah well, at least Tilly got to swear.
  • “You should have the privilege to see the universe the way she did.” —Burnham