Star Trek Discovery continues to push the boundaries of the franchise with its darkest episode yet. Choose Your Pain is true to its title with torture, sexual assault, and even an F-bomb - the first the franchise has ever seen! While that all might seem like a bit much to handle in less than an hour, it’s balanced perfectly, never giving us too much, while maintaining the importance of each development. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, I suggest you go away now and watch it because there are spoilers to follow.
After the success of the DASH drive in episode 4 you might expect to find the Discovery whizzing all over the galaxy beating back the Klingons at every turn, but instead the beginning of episode 5 sees Lorca being ordered to take a back seat in the war, lest the Klingons capture or destroy Discovery before its transport technology can be replicated on other Starfleet ships. As you can expect this doesn’t go down well with Lorca who is anxious to end the war there and then, single-handedly, which gives us a chance to see how the unconventional Captain interacts with his superiors instead of his crew. There isn’t a vast amount of difference to be honest - he is who he is - but there’s clearly some history between him and Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) and I’m intrigued to know what it is.
Just when you think you might be about to find out more about his past, Lorca promptly gets captured by a Klingon ship captained by L’Rell (Voq’s right-hand). There’s no explanation as to how she knew where and when he’d be vulnerable and given how easily they snatch him after his meeting with Starfleet High Command it feels like we needed one. Lorca isn’t alone in captivity and we’re quickly introduced to Harcourt Fenton ‘Harry’ Mudd (Rainn Wilson) and Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Hardcore Trekkies will recognise Mudd - who is a con artist and a bit of a rogue - as the character has appeared in the Original Series a number of times, played by Roger C. Carmel. Here he appears to be no different as he recounts to Lorca a wild and romantic tale of how he came to be a captive of the Klingons, and Wilson does a good job of making this character come alive and reminding us that this is a Star Trek show after all.
As for the other captive, Starfleet’s Tyler, this is one to keep your eye on. Shazad Latif has been billed a main cast member in the credits, despite the fact this is the first time we’re seeing him, so there’s little doubt he’ll be a key player in events to come. That’s fine by me as I really enjoyed Latif’s performance as an officer who’s suffered brutally at the hands of his captors, but suddenly remembers who he is when presented with a Captain to follow. He clings to Lorca not as his savior, but as a leader who has given him renewed purpose and the scene in which he reveals that the only reason he’s survived this long is because L’Rell has taken a “liking” to him is both understated and haunting.
Meanwhile, back on the Discovery, Saru is left reeling from Lorca’s capture which makes him acting Captain for longer than he anticipated. He must try to find and rescue his Captain as well as deal with Burnham who continues to undermine him at every turn. Burnham’s main focus of the episode is the Tardigrade (AKA Ripper) who she insists can no longer be used to navigate the DASH drive. Saru, who - let’s be honest - has a lot on his plate, orders her to keep her opinions to herself until they at least have the Captain back as without the DASH drive they’re unlikely to ever find him. Obviously, she doesn’t do that and instead recruits Stamets and Tilly into coming up with an alternative to using Ripper. Here comes the science bit as the trio breakdown how the DASH drive works in more detail than we’ve seen before and even if you understood it all the first time around, it’s a welcome refresher. As they realise that Ripper can communicate with the spores because of shared DNA, and that all they need to do is find a species with a similar connection who can willingly give their consent to participate in the transport process, Tilly’s exclamation that “this is so fucking cool” says it all. Yes, it’s very un-Trek and does take you out of the episode a bit, but if you’re anything like me, that’s exactly what you were thinking and it was nice to hear the characters agree. Science is fucking cool.
Their geeky joy is short lived once Saru discovers what they’ve been up to and tears Burnham a new one. Their relationship is a complex one and you get the impression that Burnham brings out the worst in Saru as she reminds him of how inadequate and jealous he felt during their time together on the Shenzhou. Burnham doesn’t make it easy on him and continues to prove that she’s incapable of following orders she disagrees with - not a desirable quality in a Starfleet officer - and the mutiny which started it all looks more and more like a common theme. This still jars with me slightly as the one thing you can say with confidence about Starfleet officers is that they follow orders. Burnham’s inability to do this once could be explained away, but the fact that she keeps doing it time and time again is becoming a tricky plot point for the show. How did she even become a First Officer if she can’t follow orders? The whole thing comes to head with Saru ordering Stamets to get the DASH drive, complete with the Tardigrade, ready to go despite the crew’s protests.
As Lorca gets to know his cell mates we discover where the name of the episode comes from. The Klingons often give their captives the opportunity to ‘choose their pain’ letting them take a beating themselves or allocate it to a fellow prisoner. Needless to say, it’s designed to stop the prisoners from forming bonds and Mudd remains uneasily bruise-free. Mudd says he’s “learnt to choose well,” but you get the impression that it’s more than just that, everything about his charming veneer screams that you can’t trust this man. This is an assumption which proves true when Lorca reveals just how cunning he is. The Captain dropped tidbits of information around both Mudd and Tyler to see if either would get back to the Klingons, and he discovers during his first interrogation that Mudd has been feeding them information about his fellow prisoners.
The skill with which he roots out Mudd’s true colours is an enjoyable contrast to the straight-forward Captain we’ve seen up until this point, proving that he’s more than just a fighter. And the character development which was hinted at earlier in the episode finally comes to fruition as Mudd reveals Lorca’s dark past - that he purposefully blew up his former ship and crew killing them all rather than letting them fall into Klingon hands. It’s an uncomfortable revelation about a character which was already a bit dangerous and while it’s clear that Lorca’s believes it was the right thing to do… that’s almost just a scary. This guy really does have his own moral code and he’s going to stick to it no matter what.
Lorca and Tyler’s escape (and abandonment of the traitor Mudd) injects some much needed action into the episode, but it’s all a little too staged. It’s clear when he yells that “You haven't seen the last of Harcourt Fenton Mudd!” that we haven’t, and he’ll no doubt reappear later in the season to make Lorca regret leaving him behind. The same is true of L’Rell who is merely disfigured during their escape - why would Lorca or Tyler not kill her? She’s incapacitated at the time and is responsible for their torture. Plus, one less Klingon is surely a bonus, right? They leave her alive because the story needs her to be alive and while this is forgivable it’s all a bit too obvious as you watch them flee.
With the Klingons hot on their trail, Discovery shows up just in time to pluck Lorca and Tyler from danger which begs the question, did Stamets use the Tardigrade to navigate the DASH drive even though he knew it would probably kill it? Well, no, clearly not - that much is obvious when Saru asks him if the creature is ready and Stamets replies vaguely that they “are able to jump”. It’s revealed that Stamets injected himself with some of the Tardigrade’s DNA to allow him to communicate with the DASH drive revealing he’s not quite the uncaring character we perhaps thought him previously. No way can this not have consequences which are revealed in true cliff-hanger style at the end of the episode. While Stamets is reassuring his boyfriend, Discovery’s Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) - whoop for another Star Trek milestone! - that he’s fine, his reflection remains in the bathroom room long than he does… This is clearly the introduction of the Mirror Universe storyline we’ve been waiting for. Evil Stamets, here we come!
As a whole this is another strong episode for Star Trek Discovery. The introduction of the new characters is skilfully done, feeding the audience interesting backstories without bogging the episode down too much. Trekkies will no doubt enjoy the addition of Mudd who is more of a traditional Star Trek troublemaker along the lines of Q, and for those who are relishing the new, darker-look Trek, there’s still plenty to keep them entertained here. The story and characters move along and it’s pleasant to see that the whole season won’t revolve around the morality of using the Tardigrade who is set free by the end of the episode. The only real issue is the character of Burnham who refuses to develop much past the first couple of episodes and, given that she’s the main character, this is going to be a problem as the series continues. If she continues to be immovable and do little but cause the Discovery problems, everything else which is great about this show will soon fall down around her.