In “Choose Your Pain,” Star Trek: Discovery showcases the skills of its cast in an episode filled with conflict, collaboration, and moral uncertainty. The story reveals more about the Discovery characters we’ve already met, brings back someone from Star Trek’s future/past, and introduces a new recruit for the crew. “Choose Your Pain” not only serves to help us understand the characters better but also takes a shot at explaining the complicated organic drive to the audience once again.
Everything old is new again
The writers do a nice job of integrating aspects of the Star Trek universe into “Choose Your Pain,” but lest old-school Trekkies start to develop hope that Discovery will feel like the rest of the franchise, they include some shock-value expletives in the dialogue. Star Trek: Discovery also doesn’t have the episodic feel of the other Star Trek series, instead placing a heavier focus on overall story arc. Like many modern television dramas, it might be difficult to jump into Discovery in the middle of a season, but the overarching narrative does provide a sense of purpose and urgency to the series.
Discovery brings back Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson), a character who appeared in two episodes of the original series, as a prisoner on the Klingon ship, and provides some other fun character references. When Saru wants to know what makes a good captain, he asks the computer to list the most celebrated Star Fleet captains, alive or dead. The list includes:
- Robert April, captain of the USS Enterprise from 2245 to 2250, who appears as a Commodore in the original series episode “The Counter-Clock Incident.”
- Jonathan Archer, well known as the Captain of the Enterprise NX-01 to fans of Star Trek: Enterprise.
- Matthew Decker, who was rescued by Captain Kirk in the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine.”
- Philippa Georgiou, the captain Burnham betrayed in the first two episodes of Discovery.
- Christopher Pike, who succeeded April as captain of the Enterprise where he worked alongside science officer Spock. He has appeared in the original series, the animated series, and in the alternate reality Star Trek.
Bringing in characters we already know such as Sarek and Harry Mudd,and making references to familiar people or known events positions Discovery within the Star Trek canon and is terrific fan service.
Sonequa Martin-Green continues her outstanding performance as protagonist Michael Burnham, but “Choose Your Pain” shifts into a full-cast performance more typical of the Star Trek franchise. Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) continues to be fun to watch as a smart but insecure cadet who hopes to make a best friend in Burnham. When Burnham expresses the discomfort she’s experiencing as she sorts through her feelings about the tardigrade, Tilly responds, “Really? I love feeling feelings.”
Burnham’s relationship with Commander Saru (Doug Jones), on the other hand, is much more complicated. They have respect for each other, but Saru sees Burnham as dangerous. By the end of “Choose Your Pain,” Saru admits he’s not afraid of Burnham, but angry about losing the opportunity to learn from Captain Georgiou as her first officer. When he mentions how that experience would have prepared him better for this day’s events, Burnham tells Saru, “You did well. Very well. She would have thought so too.”
Despite having killed off several significant characters played by people of color in the first few episodes, Star Trek: Discovery continues to introduce a diverse cast, keeping true to Gene Roddenberry’s progressive vision of the future. “Choose Your Pain” reflects this ethos with characters from a variety of backgrounds and an African-American woman as the protagonist, but also by establishing the first openly gay characters in the Star Trek television series.
Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) is destined to join the crew of the Discovery after his escape alongside Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). Tyler has attributed his survival over the past seven months to the Klingon captain taking a liking to him. Yet, the captain is L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), who was last seen on the wrecked Shenzhou no more than a month ago. There might be something more to this story.
Lorca’s capture reveals more about his history when Mudd describes the destruction of the captain’s former ship. the USS Buran. Lorca admits that he decided to destroy his ship himself rather than let his crew be subjected to the cruelty of Klingon imprisonment, reinforcing the ambiguity of Lorca’s moral status as a character. As Lorca and Tyler escape, Lorca admits he leaves his eyes untreated because of what happened with the Buran: “We choose our own pain. Mine helps me remember.”
We get a chance to know a little more about Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), and by extension, Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp). One of the strengths of Star Trek: Discovery is that the complexity of characters isn’t revealed through pages of exposition, but through their interaction.
There was a hint there was something more to their relationship when Dr. Culber was treating Stamets in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry.” The doctor angrily responded to Stamets devaluing the importance of his own frontal lobe because it only controls emotions. Both actors brought enough depth to their performances together so that by the time we saw them brushing their teeth we weren’t surprised to learn they were a couple. The actors, with help of the series directors, do a terrific job in revealing characters’ layers through non-verbal approaches that serve to accentuate the concise dialogue.
Here is how it works
Exposition may not be how we get to know characters in Discovery, but it’s certainly used to help the audience understand the science. We may be familiar with warp drives, replicators, and transporter technology, but an organic jump drive is something that warrants a bit more explanation, especially considering it’s the season story arc. Tilly, Burnham, and Stamets go over the basic process as they try to come up with a way to run the drive without torturing the tardigrade, providing the audience an overview of the spore drive technology in an obvious but entertaining manner.
Harry Mudd’s narrative on “Choose Your Pain” illuminates why others in the galaxy, such as the Klingons, might resent the Federation. They choose to “boldly go where no one has gone before” without considering if they’re wanted. Mudd blames Starfleet for the war: “We’re sick and tired of getting caught in your crossfire.” Lorca confirms his ambiguous moral status when he leaves Mudd behind in the cell. Maybe the Federation are the bad guys, after all.
We try to look beyond plot contrivances such as the Klingon prison ships having no cameras or listening devices built into their cells, leaving them to rely on intel from other prisoners. It’s the coincidental timing in which the captain escapes just after his ship arrives that takes a little more suspension of disbelief, but auspicious timing is fairly typical of other Star Trek series as well.
Stamets chooses the pain of the spore drive over that of subjecting the tardigrade to additional suffering. When Saru orders Burnham to save the tardigrade’s life, she frees it, noting, “This creature has traveled to the far ends of the universe. My hope is that what makes it most happy is to be free.” Yeah, we get it—she identifies with the misunderstood and imprisoned tardigrade. Like Burnham, we’re relieved it’s free and we don’t have to watch it suffer any longer.
Choose Your Pain Review
In “Choose Your Pain” we learned more about the Discovery crew. This was also the first time in Discovery we felt fully engaged with the Klingon storyline. We’d like to think it’s because it felt more like a traditional Star Trek episode, but we suspect it might be because we’re too lazy to read subtitles. We enjoyed watching every single character in this episode, including Harry Mudd, which is something we rarely feel about any episode of Star Trek. Despite some dark twists and turns, “Choose Your Pain” ends on a happy note—ethical dilemma solved and escape/rescue successful. Of course, there’s still the mystery of Stamets’ mirror image not being aligned with his body. Star Trek: Discovery continues to surprise us and gives us some fascinating Star Trek moments.
Choose Your Pain Quotes:
Harry Mudd: “Don’t judge. You’re going to want to stick with me. I’m a survivor. Just like you.”
Michael Burnham: “Captain Saru, I understand you are upset. You’re in command. It’s a time of crisis. And your culture trains you to be on the heightened lookout for enemies. But I assure you, I’m not one of them.”
Saru: “How dare you treat me like one of your xenoanthropology subjects. You’re not an enemy, Burnham. You are a proven predator. And I know this not only because my instincts tell me you are, but because your actions show me that you are. Saving this tardigrade will neither bring back nor change the fact that this is exactly the kind of behavior that killed Captain Georgiou.”
Paul Stamets: “All right, let’s start with our mushroom—Prototaxities stellaviotori—a species made up of exotic material found not only in normal space but in a discrete subspace domain known as the Mycelial network. Its fungal roots, aka mycelium, spread across the universe, fanning out into infinity to create a matrix that services as our intergalactic freeway system.”
Michael Burnham: “Enter the tardigrade, whose unique genetic makeup allows it to navigate through the network because of its symbiotic relationship with the mycelilum’s spores. Like its microscopic cousins on Earth, it is able to incorporate foreign DNA into its own genome via horizontal gene transfer. When Ripper borrows DNA from the mycelium, he’s granted an all-access travel pass.”
Sylvia Tilly: “Once Lieutenant Stamets conveys the coordinates of a selected destination directly into Ripper … he knows exactly where to go. The tardigrade’s DNA is already sequenced into the computer.”
Paul Stamets: “Stop worrying. Stop doctoring.”
Hugh Culber: “Well, one tends to worry when they’re doomed to love a brilliant but reckless maniac who’s willing to risk his life for glory.”